One-Hour Flash – End of the Line

Hey, folks, here’s another bit of flash fiction from my vault of almosts, not quites, and something’s missings. Like a lot of these flash pieces, this one came about in a one-hour flash fiction writing exercise. Sometimes those exercises result in publishable fiction and sometimes they result in, well, something else. This is one of the latter. As usual, this is essentially a first draft.

Here’s “End of the Line.”


End of the Line

Arnold awoke to the rumble and vibration of a moving train. He opened his eyes and found himself face-down on cracked filthy boards that smelled of rot and old blood—sour and coppery. Above him the wind howled, and he rolled over onto his back to see that he was lying in an open-topped rail car. The car was walled with bare boards—newer than those that made up the floor—nailed together to form a kind of fence or pen. It was desperately cold, and he could see the ghostly white shapes of snow-topped trees flash by overhead as the train sped along.

He had no memory of how he’d gotten here. He had gone to bed last night, safe in his apartment. He remembered closing his eyes, looking up at the ceiling in his room as sleep stole over him. Then he’d awoken here.

He sat up slowly, his limbs heavy and aching in the cold. He vision swam and a spike of exquisite pain lanced through his skull. He moaned and rocked forward onto his knees, trying not to vomit, trying not to pass out.

“Sorry about that, friend.”

The sudden realization he was not alone cut through Arnold’s pain like a white-hot knife. He pushed himself away from the floor and onto his backside and scanned the rail car from end to end. It was little more than a bare box some twenty feet long by ten feet wide. The moon overhead offered some illumination, but thick shadows pooled in every corner—they could be hiding anything.

The shadows farthest from Arnold shifted, and their tenebrous mass took on a man-like shape. It slithered forward, and Arnold caught a glimpse of black cloth and the suggestion of a face, round and pale like the moon above. He couldn’t see much else; the shadows seem to gather protectively around the figure, obscuring all but a vague outline.

“I had to tap you on the head to keep you quiet,” the shadow man said. His voice was barely a whisper, but it reached Arnold’s ears unobstructed by the shrieking wind or the noise from the moving train.

“I don’t—,” Arnold croaked, his mouth was bone dry and his tongue felt like it was made of cotton batting. He tried again. “Where am I?”

“On your way,” the thing in the shadows said. Arnold heard a smile in its voice, or maybe he saw a flash of teeth—long, yellow, and sharp—in the flickering moonlight.

The answer meant nothing to Arnold, but it filled him with such horror he could scarcely breathe. He moved away from the voice, until his back brushed up against the far wall of the rail car. “Why?” he whispered.

Again the shadow man smiled, but this time he saw—with certainty—a pair of eyes, lantern-like above that ghastly grin. “He keeps me very busy,” it said and laughed—the sound sent tiny spiders of terror down Arnold’s back. It was like hearing breaking glass or splintering wood, a fractured, unnatural sound. “He is hungry, always hungry. I bring him the choicest morsels, the most delectable sweets, and that keeps him quiet.”

“I don’t understand,” Arnold moaned. “I was asleep in my apartment. How can I be here?”

“I know you don’t understand,” the shadow man said. “You don’t need to. I came for you because you have certain qualities he will enjoy, certain qualities that will keep him quiescent for a few more weeks and save many from his hunger.”

“Please don’t kill me,” Arnold moaned, terror robbing him of hope and dignity.

“I won’t kill you,” the shadow man said. “Not I. But why should you care? You have nothing; you are loved by nothing. I snatched you from your bed because your life is barely worth living. You are hopeless and pointless, Arnold Graves. He will give you purpose so those who deserve life can keep it a little longer.”

“But I don’t want to die!” Arnold howled. “I don’t—“

The shadows surged forward. A hand shot from the darkness and grasped Arnold by the throat, cutting off his scream with a choked gurgle. The shadow man lifted him bodily from the ground, turned him about, and slammed him into the wall of the rail car. He could see over the top of the barricade, where a black engine belched smoke into the night as it hurdled down rusting tracks through a nameless forest.

“End of the line, Arnold,” the shadow man whispered, his breath cold in Arnold’s ear. “Can you see him where the tracks end?”

Arnold tried to close his eyes, but long fingers reached over the top of his head and pried them open . . . and he saw what was waiting. It rose up from the forest, trees splintering in its wake, blocking out the moon and the stars with its enormity. The wind howled louder, and Arnold heard its voice carried in the screaming torrent. He felt its hunger, felt its mind, immense and alien, reaching out to gather his soul as its vast claws reached out to gather his flesh.

The shadow man released him. Arnold had time for one long, lingering scream before the dark and the cold swallowed him whole.


Okay, so this is another one I actually like, and I think it’s effectively creepy in places. The problem with it is my main character is just kind of blah. He doesn’t have much personality or anything, and he’s really there just so the monsters can do bad shit to him. If I were to expand this story, he’s the first thing I’d focus on, especially the part about his life being pointless and all that. That’s something the reader needs to see, to experience, rather than have a shadow monster mention it off-hand.

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

One-Hour Flash – The God in the Lake

Time to share another bit of flash fiction that didn’t quite make the grade. I haven’t done one of these in a while, so just as a reminder, this is a story that I wrote in one hour as part of a flash fiction writing exercise. I’ve done a lot of those over the years, and many of the stories have gone on to publication. Many others have, uh, not. This is one of those. This is basically the story I wrote in an hour back in April of 2014, and though I’ve tinkered a bit here and there, it’s still pretty first draft-y.

Anyway, here’s “The God in the Lake.”


The God in the Lake

“There lies the death of gods.” Alexios drew his sword and pointed the short length of honed bronze at the lake. His blue eyes gleamed cold.

“Don’t do this, Alexios,” Hesiod said. “It won’t bring her back.” He had counselled his friend for days since they discovered the lake and that what lay within it was more than the fevered obsession of a broken man.

Alexios lowered his sword but did not return it to its scabbard. Hesiod saw the old hurt crash into him, the grief that had torn his world apart. But grief had not killed Alexios. It had done worse; it had eaten his soul and breathed hatred into the space left behind.

“I know,” Alexios said. “I’ve accepted that.”

“Then why are we here?” Hesiod gestured at the crystalline surface of the water, looming, white-capped Olympus behind it. The lake had taken ten years to find, and Hesiod had thought it no more than a myth, a place that could not exist. He’d kept the dream of the lake alive in Alexios because it was better than watching him drink himself to death or spend his life and blood on another senseless war. Now they stood before it, the doom it held a terrifying reality.

Alexios’ eyes burned with something equal parts joy and rage. “I want them to feel what I feel. I want the mighty gods of Olympus to suffer as I have suffered, and that!”—he turned and stabbed his blade at the lake — “is the only thing that can hurt them.”

He took the horn from his belt. Finding it had been as difficult as finding the lake. It was carved from something black that was not antler, wood, or stone. The symbols etched onto its surface were a tangle of angles and spikes. They were not writing–something far older than that.

“You followed me for so long, my friend,” Alexios said, his mouth trembling. There were tears in his eyes. “Will you not stand beside me while I blow this horn? Will you not join me in bringing justice to Althea?”

Althea had been Alexios’ wife, but Hesiod had loved her as well. Watching her die, wasting away, the physicians helpless to ease her pain, had been as torturous for him as it had to Alexios. He, too, had prayed to Hera, to Zeus, to any god that would listen, begging them to heal Althea or let her die swiftly. They had done neither. “There is no justice in this,” he said.

“Vengeance then,” Alexios replied.

“You may gain vengeance, but all the world will suffer for it.”

She was the world to me.” His eyes flashed, and his face twisted into something nearly as monstrous as the creature he sought to wake. “I will take the world from them.”

Alexios’ wasn’t paying close attention to him now. Hesiod could take two steps, draw his own sword, and drive the blade into his friend’s back. He could save the world from this madness. But for what? Althea would still be gone. For ten years he had been a surrogate to Alexios’ pain, nurturing it while his friend focused on reaching the lake. That pain had grown to maturity now, and it replaced everything Hesiod had been or could be. If he killed Alexios, he would be alone. He would be nothing.

Hesiod sank to the sand before his friend. “Then do it. Wake Cottus. Maybe the death of the world will suck the venom from your soul.” And the emptiness from mine.

Alexios raised the horn to his lips, drew in a deep breath, and blew. A sound like the dying screams of a thousand men rushed out in a low, blatting roar. It shook Hesiod’s teeth and raised the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. He heard the knell of doom.

The lake’s surface boiled and writhed, and a great black shadow appeared beneath the churning foam. Alexios stumbled backward, his sword falling to the sand, and sat next to Hesiod.

“We will watch their doom,” Alexios said, his lips drawn in a mad smile. “We will die knowing she is avenged.”

The hecatoncheir broke the surface of the lake, a roiling mass of hands and heads. It blotted out the sun, the sky, and the towering mountain behind it, a monster not even the titans of old could overthrow. It would destroy the gods, but the destruction would not end there.

Hesiod heard Alexios speaking beside him. He thought his friend was praying, but Alexios simply spoke to the gods. He told them he had unleashed their doom.

The shadow of Cottus engulfed them, and Hesiod closed his eyes and covered his ears. He saw Althea’s face, her long black hair, and her soft brown eyes. He had loved her, even though she had chosen Alexios. He held on to that love and hoped it would follow him into Hades.


I rarely have a clear concept in mind when I write these one-hour flash stories. Generally, I see the prompt, and I go with the first thing that pops into my head. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With this one, I had a very clear idea. I wanted to write a story that mixed Greek mythology with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The hecatoncheires are certainly fitting for that kind of treatment (even if I did take some liberties with their myth), but the story just never came together. The backstory of Hesiod and Alexios needs more fleshing out as does their quest to find Cottus, and that’s a tale that needs more than a 1,000 words to tell. Still, I dig the concept, and like most of these failed experiments, there might be something worth returning to at some point.

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

“Do Me A Favor” & Other Free Flash Fiction

It’s great when you find a publisher who’s willing to publish your work. It’s even better when you find a publisher who’s willing to publish your work more than once. Today marks my fourth story with The Arcanist, an excellent publisher of speculative flash fiction. The story is called “Do Me A Favor,” and it’s a quirky little horror/black humor mashup. You can check out the story below, along with three other stories I’ve published with The Arcanist. 

So, uh, do me a favor and read these stories. 😉

“Do Me a Favor” – Published 8/3/18

“The Food Bank” – Published 4/6/18

“Reunion” – Published 12/1/17 

“Cowtown” – Published 8/4/17


I hope you enjoyed “Do Me a Favor” and maybe a few other stories I published with The Arcanist. If you’re a writer of speculative flash fiction, give The Arcanist a look. They pay pro rates, and they’re just generally great to work with. Submission guidelines right here.

A Week of Writing: 7/2/18 to 7/8/18

Happy Monday. Here’s a week of writing wins and woes.

Words to Write By

Another quote from King, and one that’s especially important to me since I tend to write a lot of horror.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

– Stephen King

It seems simple, but if we just look at horror movies as an example, so many fail at this basic concept. If you don’t care about the people in the story, you won’t care when horrible things happen to them. I love writing about monsters, but I sometimes have to look at them like the dessert course after I finish my character vegetables. I’m not always successful, of course, and a few stray bits of broccoli have, on occasion, been fed to the literary pooch under the table.

The Novel

Got through a couple more chapters last week. More heavy revision as I catch up the manuscript from the changes I made in chapter one. There’ll be more of that this week, as chapters five through ten need revision to conform to a slightly altered plot. But I feel good about what’s happening, and the book is taking shape.

Short Stories

Finished one new story this week called “She Has a Way with Things That Grow.” Yeah, that’s a long, clunky title, I know, and it’ll likely shorten up to something a bit less wordy. It started as flash, but I think it’ll end up somewhere around 3,000 words.

A good week for submissions in some regards and terrible for others.

  • Submissions Sent: 0
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Publications: 1

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t send a single submission last week. I’m not too broken up about it, though, since I’m still on track for my goal of 100 submissions for the year. Plus, I got two acceptances and a publication last week, so that’s pretty awesome. More submissions will go out this week.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week, both of the “here’s what I’ve been up to” variety. Last week was a good week for new followers, though. So if you recently started following the blog, thank you!

7/3/18: A Week of Writing: 6/25/10 to 7/1/18

The usual weekly writing update.

7/6/18: Submission Statement: June 2018

My submission endeavors for the month of June.

Goals

As usual, keep working on the first read-through/revision of the novel, and get more short stories revised or finished and out the door.

Story Spotlight

This week’s story spotlight marks a dirty dozen publications with The Molotov Cocktail. They recently published my story “Two Legs,” which you can read for free by clicking the link below.

“Two Legs”

Bonus Kitten Round

Yeah, I know it’s not exactly writing related, but we adopted this little fuzzball last week. His name is Fidget, and I look forward to many years of shooing him off my keyboard as I attempt to write stores, novels, and blog posts.


That was my week. How was yours?

Free Flash – Where They Belong

Something a little different for you today. Below is a piece of flash fiction called “Where They Belong.” I sold it to DarkFuse Magazine a few years ago, and since the rights to the story have returned to me and it’s no longer available to read online, I thought I’d post it here. I’ll add it to my list of free-to-read stores on the blog too

Anyway, I’ve always liked this one. I hope you do too.


Where They Belong

by Aeryn Rudel

Daddy always says to put things where they belong. Toys have to go back in the chest. Milk has to go back in the fridge. Dead people have to go in the ground.

The gun is heavy, and I have to carry it with both hands. I had to figure out how to work it, how to make the round part pop out so I could put in the bullets. Before all the bad things happened, Daddy said I was too little to shoot. He said it would knock me down. I hope I am big enough now.

I carry the gun into the family room where Mommy is lying in front of the TV. I don’t want to look at her because I might cry again. I can’t cry. I need to be a big boy so I can help Daddy. There is blood all over the carpet, and there are pieces of Mommy missing, the pieces Daddy ate. I walk past her into the kitchen without looking.

Anna is on the floor in the kitchen. She was so little that she couldn’t even run when Daddy grabbed her. It doesn’t bother me to look at her, though. I’m sad, but I didn’t love Anna the same way I loved Mommy.

The basement door is next to the fridge, and it is open a little. I can hear Daddy in the basement. It sounds like he is moving things, heavy things, throwing them. I push open the door and look down the stairs. I don’t like the dark, and I switch on the light. I have to stand on my tippy toes to do it. I’m scared Daddy might come up the stairs when the light goes on, but he doesn’t. He is still moving around down there, making loud noises. It sounds like he is crying or breathing hard.

I walk down the stairs. I try to be very quiet because I don’t want Daddy to hear me yet. At the bottom, Daddy is trying to grab Sylvester, our cat, but he is way back under the water heater and Daddy can’t reach him.

“Daddy,” I yell.

Daddy turns around. He looks sick. His skin is gray, and his eyes are yellow. There is blood on his face and on his shirt. I know that blood is not his, and it makes my stomach hurt. He opens his mouth and yells or growls, like a monster. He doesn’t say any words. I don’t think he can say words anymore. I move up the stairs backwards.

“Come on, Daddy. Come out of the basement. Come be with Mommy.”

Daddy follows me up the stairs and into the kitchen. I back up against the counter and hold out the gun with both hands. I aim it at Daddy. He walks toward me. His mouth is open and black stuff runs out of it. He reaches for me.

I pull the trigger. The gun jumps in my hand and makes the loudest sound I have ever heard. The bullet hits Daddy in the head and makes a big hole. Blood and yellow stuff, like oatmeal, splashes the wall behind him, and he stops walking. He stands there looking at me, but I don’t think he sees me anymore. Then he falls down and stops moving.

I think it’s okay to cry now.

#

It was easy to pick up Anna, but Mommy and Daddy were too heavy to move. I tried, but I couldn’t get them outside. I got blood on my new shirt. It was one of my shirts for second grade. Mommy would be so mad if she knew, even though there’s probably no school anymore.

I found the shovel in the garage. Digging was hard, and it took me a long time to make a hole in the backyard because I had to dig through the grass. I put Anna in the hole, and then I felt bad she had to be in there by herself. I got Mommy’s purse and Daddy’s watch and the picture we took at Disneyland with all of us in it. I put them in the hole with Anna. Then I put the dirt in. I tried not to put it on Anna’s face at first, but I had to, and it made me feel a little better when I couldn’t see her anymore.

When I finished, I went into the front yard. I can see the city, and there is a lot of smoke. Yesterday, or maybe it was the day before, I heard sirens, but now I don’t hear anything but the wind. I wonder if other people will come to get me. I wonder if there are any other people.

I go back into the backyard and lie down on top of the dirt where the hole was. I whisper, “Goodbye, Mommy. Goodbye, Daddy. Goodbye, Anna.”

Daddy, Mommy, and Anna are where they belong now. I hope they go to heaven. I hope I go there too. I hope it is soon.

END

Originally published by DarkFuse Magazine, June 2016


Like a lot of my published flash fiction, this one started life as a one-hour flash fiction writing exercise. I think I got the story mostly right in that single hour, but it did take me a while to get the voice where I wanted it. It’s always challenging to write from a child’s POV (for me anyway), but I got some excellent advice from critique partners who actually have children. This story also holds the distinction of being one of my few one-and-done submissions. It was accepted and published by the first market I sent it to. That doesn’t happen a lot. 🙂

One Hour Flash – Road to Ruin

Time for another installment of one-hour flash. For those new to these posts, these are 1,000-word stories I jammed out in an hour for a writing exercise. I go on to publish a lot of these, but the the ones that aren’t quite up to snuff for publication make excellent blog fodder.

Today’s story is a little horror tale called “Road to Ruin.”


Road to Ruin

“You ever been down this way?” Howard asked and tapped the battered metal sign with his war hammer. It hung from a sagging chain link fence and read “Road Closed.” Beyond, crumbling asphalt peeked through the overgrown weeds and stretched into the distance.

“Nope,” Raphael said. He was familiar with Paradise, officially known as Plague Sector Eight, but he’d only been hunting it a few years. The abandoned, walled city was five-hundred square miles of decaying houses and buildings, weed-choked roads, and hiding places for shamblers. “But we’re close to our quota, so it might be worth a look.”

They’d bagged two shamblers in a nearby shopping mall, but they needed one more to complete their contract. Then they could book it to the west gate, get out, and get paid. Three shamblers meant nine thousand bucks. That would keep them out of the plague sectors for a good month.

Howard nodded. “Pistols or close combat weapons?” He’d been a licensed headhunter only a three weeks, but the former beat cop had a hunter’s instincts, and his size and strength were definite assets when it came to busting shambler skulls.

“Close combat.” Raphael took his flanged mace from his belt. The medieval weapon presented an odd juxtaposition against his modern body armor and other equipment, but the ancient hand weapons were best suited for the work.

They stepped over the barricade and moved down the road, passing the rusted hulks of cars, and the skeletal remains of small houses, their roofs sunken, empty doors and windows promising darkness and death. They didn’t speak as they walked in the fading sunlight. Howard would occasionally point at one of the ruined houses, and Raphael would shake his head. Bigger was the unspoken reply. Houses were death traps, and most headhunters avoided them. Larger buildings, with room to move and swing a weapon were safer.

They walked another mile and a building appeared at the end of the road, a squat cinder-block rectangle more like a fortress than any civilian structure.

“What is that?” Howard asked, keeping his voice low.

“Looks like a barracks.” Raphael was a former Army Ranger, and he knew a military building when he saw one.

“Paradise have any military presence before the outbreak,” Howard asked.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“What’s your call?”

Raphael studied the building. If it was a barracks, there would be plenty of room inside and not many places for shamblers to hide. The door to the building was a metal slab; mostly rust beneath peeling green paint. It looked sturdy, and they might have to force it open, which meant noise and potentially waking the dead within.

Raphael looked up at the sky and grimaced. They had maybe an hour of sunlight, enough time to make a quick kill. He didn’t want to spend the night in the plague sector.

“Let’s go,” Raphael said, making his decision. “I’ll take point.”

Howard nodded and they advanced. They reached the door, and it was held shut by a rusting padlock. Raphael considered his options, then turned to Howard. “See if you can break this thing. One blow.”

At 6’10” and 270 pounds, Howard was a mountainous human being and absurdly strong. He hefted his footman’s war hammer, a four-foot length of ash topped with a spiked head, and brought the weapon whistling down on the padlock. It shattered with a hollow clang and fell to the ground in two pieces.

Raphael pushed the door open, revealing darkness and an appalling animal stench. He recoiled and an unearthly howl rose from the inside of the barracks. His blood went cold. The sound had not come from an animal, and it sure as fuck wasn’t a sound any human could make.

“Shamblers don’t make noise,” Howard said, voicing what Raphael was thinking.

“Run,” Raphael managed to say just before the barracks door burst open and a dark shape came hurtling from the blackness.

Raphael threw himself to the ground and whatever it was passed overhead. He heard the meat and metal sound of Howard’s hammer making contact and then screaming.

Raphael rolled over and pulled his Sig P226, forgetting the mace. This was no time for stealth. Something lithe and bestial crouched on top of Howard. It had knocked him to the ground and raked at his belly like an animal. Howard screamed and tried to push the thing away.

Raphael rose to his feet and brought his pistol up. He pulled the trigger twice, and the gun’s discharge was shockingly loud. The bullets tore into the creature’s body but had little effect other than to draw its attention. Its head snapped around, a head that had maybe once been human, and sulfurous yellow eyes locked on Raphael.

He took a bead on the thing’s head, and then another gunshot sounded, this one deeper and more commanding. A geyser of blood jetted from the top of the creature’s head, and it rolled limply off Howard. The former police officer had managed to get to his Ruger Super Redhawk and there wasn’t much living or dead that could survive a .44 slug at point-blank.

Raphael hurried over to Howard who tried to get up. Loops of intestine hung from the man’s savaged belly, and Raphael pushed him back down. “Don’t; stay put.”

“Raph,” Howard said, blood running down his chin. “I’m fucked.”

Another piercing howl rose from the interior of the barracks, and Raphael shook his head and held his pistol up for Howard to see.

Howard nodded. “Do it. I don’t want to come back.”

Raphael took his friend’s hand, put the barrel of his Sig against Howard’s temple, and pulled the trigger. The gun went off, Howard jerked, then lay still.

A shape appeared in the barracks doorway.

Raphael ran.


So I kind of cheated with this one. Not that I took more than an hour to write it or that it didn’t fit the prompt. It’s just this story is based on a larger idea I’ve had for a while. I’d even outlined a novel on the basic concept and written the first couple of chapters before I back-burnered it for another project (the novel I’m working on now). These characters aren’t in the outline and the location is different, but it’s the same basic setting. Anyway, this is a vignette rather than a full story, but it might be worth fleshing out into something more substantial. (I know; I always say that, but I mean it this time!)

Want to read more of my one-hour scribbles? Check out these posts.

One-Hour Flash – Fuel for the Fire

Time to dust off another also-ran from the one-hour flash files. As usual, this is a story written in one hour based on a photo prompt for a contest/exercise. The time stamp on Word says I wrote this one in September of 2013. What you see below is more or less what I came up with in an hour five years ago, though I did clean it up a tad.

Today’s story is called “Fuel for the Fire.”


Fuel for the Fire

Pixabay

Ashton had seen his share of forest fires, but he and the ten other volunteer firefighters from Chico, California had never seen anything like this. They had come prepared to meet the blaze on the edge of the Plumas National Forest with the same skill and devotion they’d brought to every job, but this fire did not fit the bill.

The flames were bright green, and they gave off no detectable heat. The trees and undergrowth within the inferno still burned, however, and smoke roiled up into the night sky. Weirder still, the fire didn’t appear to be spreading. Ashton had never see a fire do that; usually it devoured every burnable thing in its path, quick and unpredictable. This fire seemed content to burn only the thirty or so acres of Trees on the edge of Plumas. Hell, you could even see exactly where it stopped. The trees and bushes were green and wet with dew right up to the edge of those crazy green flames and everything beyond was a burning ruin.

“What the fuck is that?” Daniels said. “Why is it green?”

Ashton pushed up the visor on his helmet and took a couple steps forward. “I don’t know. Copper makes a green flame, but there’s nothing like that in the ground around here.”

“I don’t care if it’s pink with polka dots,” Captain Mike wells said from behind Ashton. He was the ranking man at the Chico station. “You still got a job to do.”

“Yeah, but Mike, this ain’t fuckin’ normal,” Daniels said. He was the youngest guy on the squad and had a knack for pissing off the captain, usually by using his first name instead of his rank. “We gotta call someone. We—“

“I said get to work!” The captain stood six and half feet tall, and his voice carried like a drill sergeant when he wanted it to. “That fire is close enough to town we need to stop it right fucking now. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Daniels moved up to stand next to Ashton. “Fuckin’ prick,” he said under his breath. “This could be some kind of alien shit, and all Captain Hard-Ass wants to do is put it out so he can get back to his Maker’s Mark.”

“Alien shit or not, the captain’s gonna kick both our asses if we don’t hop to,” Ashton said. “Come on.”

They approached the fire and Ashton saw the flames were getting higher. They still weren’t spreading, but they appeared to be reaching upward. He had his axe in hand as did Daniels. It was standard procedure to fight a wildfire with both direct and indirect methods. Ashton and Daniels were in charge of the indirect; they would create control lines around the blaze, areas with no combustible material. That means clearing brush and even chopping down trees if it came to it. Behind them, the rest of Chico’s small fire team worked on the direct method, a chemical quenching agent sprayed through hoses to smother the fire.

They were near the boundary of the burned and unburned, and Ashton still felt no heat. Normally, this close, you’d be roasting in your suit, marinating in your own sweat. This fire was cool as could be.

“Look at the smoke, man,” Daniels said, staring up, his axe dangling in his hands.

Ashton looked up and for the first time he was afraid. The smoke should be streaming up in a single huge plume. That’s what smoke did. The smoke coming off this fire went up in dozens of individual streamers of gossamer black, and they didn’t go straight up. They whirled around, darting and surging against the wind.

“That’s not right . . .” Ashton trailed off because he was close enough to really see into the depths of the green conflagration. The trees and other things weren’t really burning; they were withering, as if the fire just sucked the life out of them.

“We need to go,” Ashton said, slowly backpedaling. “Right now.”

Daniels had his iPhone out and as was taking pictures of the weird smoke. “Why?” he said. “I want to put this on Instagram—“

One of the smoke streamers darted out of the sky, and cold nails of horror raked Ashton’s insides. The streamer gained shape and solidity as it came down, and then it enveloping Daniels. He screamed and dropped his iPhone, batting at the writhing black smoke with his axe.

Daniels turned, and Ashton saw his face, saw the skin blacken and sink in on itself, exposing the pale white bone beneath. Daniels toppled over and a tendril of fire leaped from the main blaze and covered him, extending the wild fire’s boundary by about five feet.

More smoke streamers came out of the black sky, and Ashton ran. He had always been fast, but he still expected one of those smoke things to catch him and suck the life from his body. His desperate sprint carried him past other members of the crew, and they simply stared at him as he ran by. He didn’t have time to warn them.

He passed Captain Wells and finally glanced back. The captain opened his mouth to yell something at Ashton, but one of the streamers came slashing down out of the night and wrapped around him in a cloak of inky black. He captain screamed, hoarse and guttural, and Ashton saw other men taken by the smoke behind him.

Ashton turned and put his head down, focused all his energy on running, getting away. But he saw the blaze surge forward, a looming verdigris wall, to cover the men entangled in smoke.

The fire grew.


Unlike the most of the other stories in this series, I did actually send this one out for submission a few times. The feedback I received from one publication was spot on. Basically, this isn’t a full story. It reads like the beginning of a story, possibly the middle, or as one bit of feedback suggested, an excerpt from a novel. I do like the idea here, and at some point I may turn it into something longer with a beginning and an ending. Until then, it’s a vignette with a bad case of premise-itis. 🙂

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.