Prose Fridays: Conflagration

By John Winn

Flames lick the walls as Anya makes a hasty escape down the stairs of the abandoned department store. She can feel the heat searing her back, pushing her onward with increasing urgency. Not that she needs any reminder to get out. Struggling to breathe as she stumbles down the stairs, her lungs fill with smoke as the room climbs to hot house temperatures.

She remembers waking up to her junkie boyfriend cooking dope on the Bunsen burner in the corner, dime bags lying on the makeshift dinner table. It’s the best they could do after being evicted from their apartment in the dark one Saturday night.  She started out slinging her boyfriend’s product to yuppies on the other side of the tracks, selling death to sorority girls and ravers alike.  The powder was odorless and tasteless, but she knew better.  In any case it wasn’t her problem if they died or OD’d–as long as she got paid.

Why Anya put up with it she’d never know.  But she liked the high.  The days seemed to fly when she snorted the stuff, and when her boo was in a bad mood or a fit she could escape into her own little world.  He was the cooker, and who wouldn’t want free junk?  But the constant moving, the opprobrium, the looking over her shoulder in case the cops came took their toll sometimes.

Stepping over discarded needles, Anya watched the yuppies and college students below as she stared out the third story window, lighting a cigarette to distract herself from the hunger. She listened to her boyfriend’s footfalls as he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Maybe if she was lucky they’d head to the pancake place for flapjacks and coffee.

She always liked strawberry banana. Only later would she recall flicking the cigarette, setting off a chain reaction that led to her running for dear life…

There’s a loud boom as Anya snaps back into the present, landing on the second floor. The floor shakes under her feet as she struggles to keep her head. The acrid smoke tastes like metal on her tongue. Her head pounds as she rushes toward the front door. Within a few minutes the fire engines would be rushing to this corner of Sixth and Main. A part of her wants to run back and rescue her lover, but all she knows is she needs to get the hell out of there.

Glancing over her shoulder one last time, she whispers a prayer for her boyfriend before walking out the door. Sirens blare as she heads in the opposite direction, her eyes searching madly for the nearest pay phone. Choking back tears, she dials her parent’s house and prays she doesn’t get an answering machine. But what could she say?

An hour later her dad picks her up at the Methodist church downtown. Neither venture to talk as the SUV hurtles down the highway towards her parent’s house in the suburbs. Already the conflagration is receding in her mind as pop songs blare over the radio. She collapses on the couch, the sound of her lover’s screams haunting her dreams. When the paper arrived the next day, she caught a glimpse of the inferno on the front page–flames leaped from the window.

The official cause of death is accidental, but she knows the truth.  She excuses herself from the dining room table, running as she covers her mouth.

–30–

Prose Fridays: A Tragedy and A Farce, by John Winn

Struggling to balance himself on the large oil drum, Seagull Number One shakes his head at the stretch of tar-colored sea around him. Boats come and go as men and women watch from a safe distance. Yet Seagull Number One doesn’t spy a trace of fowl in the sky, not even his own kind. Beasts with strange wings hover cautiously over the muck, every one oblivious to the pair teetering perilously below.

“Humans.” He mutters as he glances away. “Can’t leave well enough alone.”

Seagull Number Two looks on, a dense look evident in her eyes.

“I don’t see what the problem is. It’s probably just a bunch of whales.”

Seagull Number One glares at her.

“Those aren’t whales, honey.”

“They look like them to me.”

“Since when did whales gather around some like that?” Seagull Number One gestures toward the black slick miles away from shore.

“I don’t know. First time for everything, I guess.”

“I don’t know if your mama dropped you as an egg,” Seagull Number One nods toward the flotilla of boats bobbing on the water, “but those shiny things out in the water aren’t whales.”

A look of confusion lingers in Seagull Number Two’s eyes.

“What do you call those things, then?”

“I think the humans use them to get their food or something. But this is the largest gathering of them I’ve seen in a while. Something’s not right, is all I have to say.”

The wind picks up, ruffling their feathers. A mix of salt and chemicals invade their nostrils, causing them to blanch. Seagull Number Two glances around nervously.

“I don’t like it here. Let’s go back home.”

“There’s no home to go back to.” Seagull Number One counsels her. “Everybody’s either dead or gone. Mom. Dad. Your uncle.”

He’s all too aware of the death toll.  It’s been hard not to notice since the tar balls invaded inland. The sad warbling as seagulls lay covered in muck, struggling desperately to survive as they die a slow, painful death is hard for any of them to ignore. Rumors circulate of balls of black goo further inland, birds helpless in the face of the awful slick.  Seagull Number One can already count on his webbed feet the number of friends who have perished and fled, and now his children are at risk as well.

The thought is horrifying.

“What about the kids?” Seagull Number Two asks. “Are they safe?”

“The nest is too far away.” Her partner puts on a brave face. “They’ll be fine.”

A plastic six ring floats toward them, bobbing on the ocean waves, dirty and dark. The pair looks on in horror.

“No escape, is there?” Seagull Number One injects a bit of levity into an already traumatic day.

Seagull Number Two teeters perilously on the drum, inches from going overboard. She struggles to maintain control, balancing herself on a single leg. She gazes into the murky depths below, wondering if she’ll be the slick’s latest victim, too. Her thoughts race anxiously. But mostly she thinks about the kids back in the marsh, waiting anxiously for their parents to come back and feed them.

The feeling is bittersweet.

“Do you think they’ll think about us when we’re gone?” Her voice wavers.

“You mean the kids?”

Seagull Number Two nods.

“We can only hope.”

Yet even as she holds on for her life, there is only so much one bird can do. Her leg is growing tired under the strain. Seagull Number Two tries not to think about her impending doom. She thinks of the partner she loves, and the children she’ll never see survive to adulthood.

“You know I love you, right?” She asks.

“Always and forever.”  Seagull Number One looks out into the horizon. “Always and forever.”

A splash of water catches him off guard as a piercing squawk shakes him back into reality. He glances at his beloved, bobbing in the water, slick covering her all over. He dives for her in a bid of rescue, but already it is too late. She coughs violently before going limp, her lifeless body bobbing in the water. Seagull Number One’s last thoughts before blacking out are of their first meeting, several moons before.

###

 A harsh light blinds his eyes as Seagull Number One comes too on a cold slab. He squawks in an angry tone at the gloved hands scrubbing him down, but he’s in no position to resist. Fatigue washes over him as his rescuers douse him with detergent, working anxiously to clean him of the black tar covering his small body.

“It’s okay.” The handler coos. “You’re safe now, alright? Nothing’s going to hurt you.”

“There was another one nearby on the surf.” Her assistant replies. “A female”

There are sighs all around.

“There’s hundreds more like him out there, you know.” The handler murmurs.

“Yeah, we can barely keep up as it is.”

“It’s a real shame what happened, if you ask me.  There’s not enough money that can be paid to make up for what was done. ”

“A tragedy and a farce…” The assistant shakes her head ruefully.