Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Four)

If there’s another choice but to face what’s ahead, Zara can’t think of it. Then again, she’s here because of the dream, which probably means there was never another option realistically open to her. She’s debated free will and predestination before – once or twice with Ben, staring up at the stars at two in the morning, and she really doesn’t want to bring that up but here she is, thinking about him, no matter what she thinks of him. Deep-and-meaningfuls are all well and good, but what it always seems to come down to is taking the next step and the next after that.

“Free will sucks,” she says, as she pushes open the door to the upper deck.

A cloudy sky

Image by from Pixabay

The lighthouse’s great glass lamp is a mass of glass shards and plastic debris. The lamp’s metal framework is intact but twisted, now a child’s sketch of its original shape, and the smooth concave reflective plate is riddled with punctures and distended out of shape. The hemispheric cupola that previously sat atop the lantern room like a stone cap has disappeared, exposing the destroyed lamp to the night sky.

The stone remains of the cupola have shattered, but not scattered like the softer pieces of the lamp. Zara isn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t this.

The broken fragments, most of them no larger than her fist, have reformed into a crude statue, a mosaic of shards and rubble. It’s human-shaped, more or less. It stands three heads taller than her, and a fingerless hand is raised overhead like a snake preparing to strike.

The head has four faces. Each one appears lovingly rendered, as smooth and fine-detailed as the rest of the monolith is rough-hewn and crumbling.

Two of the faces she can’t place immediately, until she remembers the cars haphazardly abandoned in the parking lot this morning. The black BMW with the personalized plates – YRHOME – belongs to Bryan Gibbs-Watson, a seemingly ubiquitous mid-thirties real estate agent whose perfect teeth and blonde waves are plastered on practically every “For Sale” sign from Cutter’s Inlet to Rockwater. The hard-worn Land Cruiser has stopped by Zara’s van a few times in the past month, disgorging a hard-worn goat farmer who introduces himself as Bill and orders a single small mocha.

Faces three and four are, of course, Helen and Ben. And Zara wonders why it is only now, as she sees them side by side for the first time, that the family resemblance becomes obvious.

All four faces speak at once, with a voice like a landslide crashing into the surf.

“This. Should. Be. You.”

* * *

The first time they spoke, Ben’s voice was raw with smoke and emotion.

It was nearly dawn when the fire brigade called time on the emergency and the police forensic team took command of the hostel’s ashes. Zara had stood most of the night behind the barricade of a single strip of yellow tape, wrapped in a blanket, not speaking to the other onlookers, just watching as the flames and smoke were slowly brought back to ashes and steam.

The chatter of fresh and old ghosts around her was so steady, so embracing, she didn’t hear his human voice at first. When the empty heads turned to look away from the tragic remains, she followed their gaze to the young policeman with smudges of ash on his face.

“Excuse me,” he said, but it came out more like a cough. “Zara Corman? My name is Constable Dallas. I need to go over your statement with you, if that’s okay.”

She had lied, of course.

The official version of events would eventually settle on an electrical fault. Old building, bad wiring. An overloaded power board charging too many phones and tablets at once. Sparks inside a dusty, dry wall cavity. Flames take hold before sleepers awake to smoke.

Three dead, seven injured. Tragic. Avoidable.

Nothing in the official record about an imp with fire in its eyes and murderous intent. Nothing about the dreams that drew Zara to break her wandering at a cheap hostel in a small coastal town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing about the grief-worn pleas of the dead only Zara could hear, desperate cries to avert what they knew would come. A tragedy only Zara could prevent, they hoped, though Zara knew better. She couldn’t stop what they had shown her would happen – the blinding smoke, the cries of pain and panic, the crashing of timbers and rumble of hellish flame. All Zara could do was make sure it never happened again, by luring the little fire demon into a circle of pink salt with an improvised song and a well-chewed paste of coriander, fennel and walnut on her breath.

The monster was gone. The horror remained.

Zara stuck to her earlier story, that she had woken up to the smell of smoke, had gone from room to room, banging on doors and shouting. That much had been true, and though she had been too late for some on the top floor, she’d undoubtedly saved lives. There was no reason to raise the parts of her story she skipped over, where she chased and was chased in turn by a small burning man through smoky darkness, hacking her lungs out to hold a steady tune and hold a demon’s attention. She kept it simple.

Ben had not been fooled.

He’d taken her statement with a weary resignation, in mutual acknowledgment of their shared shock and exhaustion. He’d checked details, confirmed times, the sequence of events, the few names she recalled of her fellow hostel patrons. In the end he had nodded, put away his notebook, and escorted her to the minibus waiting to take the uninjured survivors to an evacuation center in the church hall down the road.

Two days later, he had taken a table next to her at the café-bakery where she was eating a fresh croissant and burned latte and had asked her what really happened. And she saw that he knew what he was really asking, and so she told him. They’d been all but inseparable since that moment.

And now Zara knew it had all been a lie.

* * *

Zara is terrified, but that’s nothing new. She’s been here before, staring down horrors face to face. (“Faces?” she thinks, a little deliriously). The trick, she knows, is not to show it. She masks herself with an expression somewhere between indifference and contempt as she eyeballs the graven image of Helen Burns. Helen’s face grimaces and contorts, shifting like disturbed gravel.

“Good morning, Helen. Trying something new with your makeup today?” She tells herself she’s just trying to bluster through her fear, but she can’t deny the righteous fury taking hold in her chest.

“Wanted. You. Here.” The rubble statue lumbers forward a single step. Little avalanches of grit tumble from its joints. A churning wind whips the debris away, howling and whistling through hollows and grooves in its impossible architecture. Its footfall opens cracks on the observation deck’s concrete surface. A warning grumble of strained stone vibrates up from below in response.

It’s hard to read the change in the Helen-face’s expression in the pre-dawn gloom. It could be agonized, enraged or deranged, if not all three. Zara’s been successful in the past at provoking the recently dead, using their anger to break their delusions like a judo throw through a plate glass window. She looks at the size of the four-faced statue’s fists and wonders how far she can push it.

“So you said, Helen, so you said.” She wants to run. She’d love to fling herself down the three-flight spiral and out into the car park, but she doesn’t like the idea of being anywhere below the massive stone effigy when it tries to negotiate stairs. If it brings the walls or roof down with it, she’ll have nowhere to go. Zara takes a cautious backward step to see whether it will follow. She backs past the stairway doors, circling one two three steps away around the ruined deck’s circumference. The statue seems content to permit the retreat.

“Nowhere. To. Go.”

Zara shrugs. “That’s a matter of perspective, Helen.” She spares a glance back over her shoulder, past the tangled knot of white-painted steel cables, all that remains of the guard rails. Her back is to the ocean, but it’s too dark to see the waves. She only hears them crash against the rocks the lighthouse stands upon. She could never jump far enough to reach clear water. There’s nothing for it but to talk this out.

“I’ve never cared much for destinations. Speaking of which, where did you think you were going with all of this?”

“The. Sea. The. Sky.”

Zara nods. “You thought you could bind something to you – what, an air spirit? A sylph, something like that?”

The statue doesn’t answer, but its rocky grumble might be a note of affirmation. Or impatience.

“And what was I supposed to be? Obviously not a virgin sacrifice, unless your boy Ben greatly mistook his part in the scheme.”

“You. Are. Touched. Sensed. Your. Power.”

She gets the idea, even if the details are a mystery. She’s never had the kind of formal training to pick apart the mechanics of rituals. Making it all up as she goes along is easier and takes the edge off the terror, though there are times when having the option to fall back on muscle memory and preparation might be nice too. “You were going to siphon off my power to prime your magical pump, is that it?”

Now the statue shifts in place, turning the Ben-face towards Zara. “You. Made. Good. Bait.”

“Gross,” she replies. “We’re done, by the way.”

The air shifts, still whipping and hooting through crevices in the debris. One second, it’s a bone-chilling cold and the next it’s a puff of warmth on her neck and cheeks. She hasn’t run across an air spirit before, but her recent experiences have motivated her to scour town libraries up and down the coast to study up. She’s no expert, but she’s read enough folklore and mythology to be getting on with. The sylph, or whatever the local name for it might be, is watching them.

“And what about the rest of your little coven, Helen? A cop, realtor and a farmer? Were you flogging them some sort of spirit-binding timeshare scheme?”

“Brother. Nephew. Grandson.” The shoulders shift again, grinding like a misaligned millstone as each one faces her in turn.

“Ah, a family affair.”

I’ve been off work for a couple of weeks, which is my way of explaining how I totally missed that yesterday was (a) Friday and (b) the last day of the month. My instinct is to apologise, but let’s face it, this won’t be the last time I’m late on a self-imposed deadline.

If this is your first brush with this story, Parts One, Two and Three may fill in some much-needed context. I don’t imagine it makes the slightest lick of sense on its own.

The next part of this story should be the final installment and I’ll post it as soon as it’s done. I have a few options for the next story but I haven’t decided which one I’ll go with yet. 

I do plan to continue this monthly (in theory) story posting project, which is going some way towards rebuilding my writing habits. The writing has been very slow for reasons I’ll go into when the dust settles, but on the plus side I am going through a phase of being reasonably serious about practicing my guitar and bass playing, so at least one thing is moving forward.

This entry was posted in Friday flash fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.