Some of the earliest stories you can find on this blog that I too often ignore these days are flash fiction challenges, many — most — of them issued by Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. I loved doing the challenges, deciphering the smart prompts in my own way. When he stopped doing them, I was okay with it because the man is a successful writer and he has things to do. That being said, I’m so glad he offered up a new flash fiction this last Friday. Enjoy my offering, which went over the word limit by 199 words. Thank you for reading.
I had nearly forgotten about the picture, had come so terribly close to letting it slip away from my memory forever. Weeks would go by before the amber-red flames would dance and roil in my mind’s eye once again.
It had made its way to near the bottom of the guestroom closet. There the thing sat, shut away in a lonely mausoleum of yellowing papers, piles of withering children’s art we couldn’t bear to part with, crumbling receipts, insurance forms, tax documents, instructions to a stereo that had long since been given away. Board games stacked lopsided. We stopped playing them after Maureen was diagnosed. She said the games only made her sad.
Adelaide’s big swimming trophy was thrown in there. Has to be more than twenty years old, now. Banner year, though. And we never did have many of those.
There was an old blanket Maureen bought at a flea market in New Mexico. It had become a bed for Dex, the old black lab Maureen loved more than me. There were some small, broken pieces of old pottery from a summer camp of Skylar’s. Charlie’s yearbooks were stacked lopsided in a corner.
It was never a secret, the awful picture in the dark, rotting frame. Maureen told me to put it away almost as soon as I brought it back from Peru, that and a trunk of stuff from the old man.
Skylar saw it once when I pulled everything out of the closet looking for something important.
“What is it?” she said in a voice I didn’t recognize. Skylar is my rebel, my big mouth. She sang nearly every word she spoke. Skylar was never quiet, always sure-footed. I didn’t recognize her voice when she spoke, quiet, withdrawn at the sight of the image in the frame.
“Nothing,” I said, throwing it back in the bottom of the closet, all too eager to cover it with life’s detritus once more.
Skylar was never one to let anything go unexplained. But that day, she turned and walked out of the room without a sound.
She was the first of mine to settle down. Portland, with a chiropractor. Nice guy, best I can tell. Four kids of their own. I’ve met two.
Did the picture drive everyone in my life away? Skylar in Portland. Adelaide in New York, busy as you’d expect a stock broker to be. My son, Charles, living in London, I think, these last several years. Did its power somehow kill Maureen? I cannot bring myself to believe it.
But I also cannot pretend that the picture is not special, remarkable. You need only lay eyes on it, be in its presence for a brief moment to understand this truth. It is made from some ancient heartbreak, some old fracture in the world, if it is even of this world. It holds a power, a humbling power over all who know it. And so while it perhaps drove away all who ever loved me, I never seriously entertained throwing it away.
The old man was on a rotting green cot, his face swollen nearly beyond recognition. The Peruvians of the small river town would not even go into his tent.
The boat had dropped me by at a rickety dock, and I ran past the fishermen, trying not to sound panicked, but yelling nonetheless – Donde esta el! I mucked up the riverbank beyond the huts, beyond the mothers in the high-grass field, beyond the children kicking a ball down the dirt street, into the hacking, dense green jungle.
A man with a white shirt and sad eyes pointed to the tent, which looked like it was about to fall down.
The old man only managed my name when I first ducked into the tent, followed by a cough that didn’t stop until he passed out. His skin was yellow – sign of a failing liver. Blood would seep from his nose, his eyes, and when he did wake, he seemed delirious, as though a spell had come over him, as though he’d been cursed.
I slept sitting up, in the corner of the tent, for a half dozen days. When I got hungry, I would venture out and the kind villagers would give me a bowl of fish stew and a Cusquena. Without a word, they would nod as I finished my meal, and I would go back into the tent, already stinking of death.
On the fourth night, I woke from a deep sleep to the feeling of being watched. It was the old man. His face looked awful – yellow, puffy and sickly, the wounds oozing pus where he had scratched them, his body was bloated and heaving with every labored breath.
“Take it,” he said, the words struggling to emerge from his puffy lips. “It has… such power.” He smiled as best he could and closed his eyes, seemingly lost in a reverie.
“Take what?” I said, leaning forward. “Take what? What has power?” I tried to move a tin cup of water to his lips but he waved me away.
“Don’t worry,” he said, looking back at me. “I will show you how to use it. I will show you, without… without…” and after a gasp and a sigh, he fell back into a deep, motionless sleep.
I watched him for a very long time, laying there, sleeping, dying.
Did he mean the picture, the one I would find under his bed after he died? The one that I could almost hear burning, even as I held it in my own hands? The picture of hell-born flames that, when seen with the right kind of eyes, moves on its own? Maureen never saw the flames move. Neither did the kids. But I did. I saw the flames burn, the wildfire burn. I saw them, watched their amber bodies move against the brush and the trees, forever burning them, forever burning it all down.
On the morning of the sixth day, he was gone. I brought his body home to America, and the funeral was held in Boston, his home. The important artifacts went to the museum, of course. I kept the picture.
At first, I thought of it all the time, there in the bottom of the closet. It taunted me, called to me.
“Damn thing looks cursed,” said Maureen. “Get rid of it.”
Then, after time, there would be days, even weeks I’d go without thinking of it, without thinking what it might mean. I wondered what its power was, what the old man was going to show me. Unknowable power is a concept we are not particularly adept at giving up on.
Now they’re all gone. Charlie, Skylar, and Adelaide. Maureen. I was never one for friends. So I sit alone in the house now. I have thought about the picture, there in the bottom of the closet, for seven days straight. Tomorrow, I think I will go and dig it out. I want to see the flames again, see that they still move as I stare. I want to watch the flames, mimic their sparking glory. I want to dance in the light and the heat of their unknowable magic.