When the fires came the ones who could fled to the water. They stood waist deep in the black muckish pond as the flames consumed the wooden shops and houses, cars, power lines, trees, Carl Wilson’s prize roses, computers, books, pianos, desks, priceless paintings, the week’s trash, chairs, tables, and beds. Goldfish boiled in their bowls, mastiffs died at the ends of cruel chains, and Jennifer Anderson’s five-hundred-page manuscript, her life’s work, was nothing more than paper ash dancing on the fire’s updraft. Jackson Carmichael told anyone who would listen about some folks somewhere who were cooked alive in a pond in a town in a fire just like this. Most of the others kept to their own, huddled, speaking in low, frightened tones, and glancing at their neighbors, uncertain of who was there, of who was left. Challis Thomas stood alone off to the side, on the shallow edge of the pond that lay opposite the park and the town square, naked, singing softly to the baby she held in her arms. Now and then she bent to wet herself and her child, and when she stood again, her glistening dark skin flashed with the flames that surrounded them. The others kept their distance, but many stole glances of disapproval, pity, desire, and recognition. The fire raged long into the night, and the people endured, bodies aching, lungs raw, children crying. And when the town became a constellation of blinking, hissing red and gold embers in the dark night, they knew who among them would not return. First light showed them what they feared was true. The town was gone. They huddled still, afraid to leave the safety of the pond until, one last time, Challis Thomas eased herself and her child into the water then emerged, stepped onto the barren land, and walked away from that dead place.
Flash Fiction by Ralph Wahlstrom
Published in Spring 2017