For the Flame and Ash Short Story and Poetry Contest. Approx. 1500 words. Summary: There must be balance, always.
Flame is riding the bus when the man across the aisle looks up from his magazine and begins to stare at her. She ignores him. She is trying to decide where to start with this city; so far, she's seen half a hundred places, open doorway hearths leading to rooms with windows painted shut. She smiles, imagining smoke filling those rooms, glass breaking onto the sidewalk below. White towels waving, I'm here. The buildings pass, their brick and stone growing more colorful with graffiti, crumbling more with neglect. The man leans over a bit.
"Where is your mother?" he whispers. "Little girl. Where is your mother?"
She sighs. His tone is not that of a concerned adult. It's something else. Something greasy slick with excitement, nerves. Enticements. His voice is almost a tangible thing, an oily hand on her face. She frowns. It is because of people like him that this city must be annihilated. The apartments, the stores, the offices: they are all full of people like him. Of course, if it were not for people like him, she would not exist. She never contemplates this; it has been her long, very long, experience that the world is packed with people who need a good igniting. Before man picked up the stick that became a torch, he picked up the club that murdered his brother. Her job will never end.
She opens her mouth to speak, but it is Ash who talks.
"My sister is my mother. We forget our father, who is not in heaven."
sorry?" Confused, he stares at the little girl with saffron hair and flushed cheeks. But he has not given up, not when the apple dangles in front of him, shiny and sweet. "I'm Mr. Ott. Why don't you come here, sit on my lap. I'll help find your mommy." He pats his leg. Rubs his thigh in a circle.
Ash starts to speak again, but Flame hushes her. "And why don't you fall into a blazing pit, to be consumed forever and ever, your flesh reforming only to be burned away again, the stalactites of your dripping fat eaten over and over by Anubis."
The man jerks back, eyes wide. Flame glows, a sheen upon her pale skin. Fires banked in recent times swirl anew in the grates of her eyes. By her temple, the flesh bubbles slightly. Ash tries to intervene, but Flame is far too stoked to listen to her sister.
"The next child you touch, may your penis turn to gold. May your palms feel the sting of the holly, its spines slicing them again and again, so that your blood drips constantly and you may never touch another thing without the pain, the eternal pain--"
He jumps up, bewildered and very scared by this child. His magazine falls to the floor, unnoticed. Grabbing the line, he yanks. The bus driver looks up in her mirror, startled.
"Off! I'd like to get off!"
"And so you will get it!" hisses Flame as he passes. "Your body twisting on the spit like an old goat, bucking again and again, begging for release! But only so that the teeth of the lion--"
The man fairly runs down the aisle, tripping and shoving past seats. As he stumbles, panting, onto the sidewalk, Flame decides that this is as good a place as any to start. She gets up, not bothering to straighten the gray rags she wears. They flutter from her in patches.
Really? murmurs Ash. Sometimes, you are so dramatic.
"If it were not for my drama, your subtlety would not be needed. Point and counterpoint, sister." She sways down the aisle, warming to her subject. "Together, we are the poetry of destruction. We are the eloquence of a charred history, the dream of mankind. Its future, its--"
Enough. Let's get off this bus. I feel sick.
Flame knows her sister always feel sick before the day of reckoning, but there is nothing she can do. The bus lurches forward, and she clutches a seatback before making her way up the aisle again. The bus driver glances up in her mirror, nearly slams on the brakes in surprise when she sees the toddler determinedly coming towards her. She pulls to the curb again, twisting in her chair. She'd thought the bus was empty. Who would leave a child on the bus?
The child is now at the front, standing before her with a grim smile, waiting for the doors to wheeze open.
"Honey," she says. "Honey, where is your momma?" The driver half-stands, scanning the rows of seats for a woman, maybe a woman lying down. Wouldn't be the first time she'd had junkies on the bus. She sees it on the news, too. Parents gone, kids wandering the street in diapers. And she always thinks, They should just give that baby to me. I'd take care of it.
"Somebody needs to take care of you," she says aloud. But Flame heard all of it. She notes the genuine caring in the woman's soul, a soul so large it could encompass twenty little children with its love. Sixty. A thousand. Such clarity of being, clean and warm, a brilliant white light to the putrefaction of Mr. Ott.
Point and counterpoint, sister.
She stares at the woman. Somebody needs to take care of you. When she opens her mouth this time, she half expects Ash to talk over her. But Ash lets her speak, settling back, quiet in her mind.
"There is somewhere you've always wanted to go. Far away from here. You're going to drive there now. Take this bus and drive."
The woman blinks. "But this bus--"
"I said, drive. As if the devil himself was licking at your heels. And you don't stop until you get there. Do you understand?"
The woman, eyes glassy, nods. She's aware that it's become rather hot, that she'd like to open her window. She's scared, too, but she doesn't know why. Or of what. It's a creeping feeling at her back, one that she'd like to go away. One that she'd like to run from.
A small, pale finger gently draws across the top of her hand. The mark flares and fades. She will never be cold again. She will dream sometimes of a little girl with red hair and eyes the color of flickering stars, dying in the night. She will be safe. For a while. Maybe all her life.
When she blinks, the bus is empty. As it should be. She puts it in gear and pulls away from the curb, picking up speed, a destination growing bright in her mind. She drives; the bus roars.
Flame watches until the bus is out of sight before turning her keen eyes on the magnificent edifice before them. A run-down hotel, metal grate sagging to one side of the arched doorway. The Portofino, say the letters etched into the cement. The Charles 24/7, says the unlit sign hanging from above. Free Cable.
Anubis doesn't eat the fat of the damned, says Ash conversationally.
"Anubis is a lazy dog who lies about doing nothing." Flame snorts. Walking inside, the inhabitants are oblivious to her. A sign taped to the bulletproof glass atop the desk says Hourly Rates. The man behind the glass stares at his paper, scratches himself. Another man sits atop bags stuffed full, swatting at flies that aren't there. No one notices the small, barefoot child moving into a stairwell.
She begins the long walk to the top. The stairwell is filled with the stench of urine, the reek of sweat, the scent of a downtrodden humanity, come to this place by their own volition. She tells herself. She tells herself that fire is cleansing, that she flays this blight from the earth like the holy sword of Ibrahim.
She doesn't look at the steps, the walls covered in filth. She climbs automatically. She sees a bus running into a red sunset, glinting golden along a stretch of highway.
She wonders about human souls, their capacity: enough for one well, two goddesses of destruction? Perhaps. Perhaps if the goddess was very tiny, and took up very little room.
It's a strange thing to contemplate. Her experience has only been the measurement of a soul's capacity to do harm, its own selfishness, a soul's eagerness for its own death. Her eyes spot these like a single candle in the dark that sends a flickering pool of hate over everything around them. Enough of these candles in one space become a bonfire to her eyes, calling her to make their burning a reality.
But what of the souls that burn with a different light? What of those?
There is no time to ponder that. She has reached the top, the door opening with a squeal. Alone, she stares out at the city. So much kindling. This is what she exists for. This is what she was made to do.
The spirit of the goddess surges, crackles with lust.
"Yes, Anubis is a lazy dog. But we, sister, have work to do."
And despite herself, Ash shivers and lets loose a tumbling sigh. Her time is near.
But now, it is Flame's time. And down below, the streets begin to shine. A river of gold. Everything is gilded, and for a few minutes, the people look around them in wonder. And give thanks.
And then the city begins to burn.