By The Fire [Flash Fiction]
Hi everyone. Quick and simple blog post today: it’s been exactly two months since Sun Bleached Winter came out, so I thought I’d treat you all to a piece of flash fiction from a while back called By The Fire, which is set in the same world as Winter, from the point of view of one of its secondary characters.
This piece was originally published in Linguistic Erosion in June of last year, but it’s never been reprinted in any other magazines or any of my short story collections, so here it is (completely for free, I might add) in its (reasonably brief) entirety. If you read and enjoyed Sun Bleached Winter, this piece will give you a little bit of insight about the character Jessica Riley and, if you haven’t read it, it still makes a pretty good taster of the kind of bleakness you can expect in the novel.
By The Fire
It’s been a hard day. I throw my rucksack to the ground in relief and take a seat next to the fire. A particularly large rat is roasting in the flames, but it’s still a ways from being done, so I reach for the yellowed paperback laying on top of my sleeping bag and begin perusing it in the flickering light.
“That book again?”
Across the campfire, Rowan looks at me curiously, taking a break from watching our dinner cook.
“Seriously Jess, what’s with it? You’ve read it at least twenty times by now,” he says, pulling his coat tighter around himself to block out the freezing cold of the night.
“Do you see anything else to do around here?” I reply coolly, glaring at him and then returning to my book. “I don’t think cinemas or amusement parks make very good business these days, do they?”
“Whatever,” Rowan says in exasperation, going back to watching the rat revolve on its spit, slowly browning. “I don’t even know how you can feel like reading a book when we have all this real life stuff to deal with, let alone the same one over and over.”
Suddenly, he’s back to contemplating the fire. That’s how he spends most nights, though it’s not like I can blame him. The fire is probably the most interesting thing to stare at, I’ve figured: everything else around us is gray, empty and dead, and it’s been like that for quite some time. The end of all things has already come and gone; Rowan and I are just waiting out the inevitable.
He notices me watching him and he shoots me a look as if to dare to me to ask what’s on his mind. I don’t take the bait.
I ignore him and continue reading my book. It’s hard to get into it since its pages are so well tread, but I try my best to zone out and relax. Tonight, it’s not working. I swear loudly and toss the book aside.
“Thanks a lot, Rowan,” I say. “You’ve ruined it for me.”
He looks up briefly, smiling lightly.
“My pleasure,” he says, before poking the rat carefully with the edge of his rifle. “Let’s eat!”
He cuts the rat into tiny pieces and we attempt to make a meal out of it. We devour it in two quick mouthfuls. It’s not very satisfying fare; I don’t even taste it as it goes down, I just register the fact that the bones are crunchy before it’s over and I’m only slightly less hungry than I was before.
“How was that?” Rowan says kindly after we’re done. “Better than nothing, right?”
“Better than nothing. But…”
“But you’re still not full, right Jessie?”
I give him a forlorn look.
“I just wish we had a bit more to eat, sometimes,” I reply, staring at the small pile of bones beside my knee.
“Well, hopefully we’ll find something more substantial tomorrow,” he says. “You should get used to not eating much. Unless you want to make like the people out there, that is. Then you’d get a little more to eat, but…”
He trails off, pointing at the rolled up sleeping bag beside me. It’s a spare. It used to belong to our friend, James, but he’s gone now, killed by one of the monsters that lurk beyond the light of the campfire.
“Never,” I say through gritted teeth. “I’ll never resort to that.”
He gives me a sad look, then turns to blow up the air mattress that is our bed for the night.
“Then try to keep a happy face about things. That New City place can’t be too far away now.”
New City. It’s a place he heard about on the radio, spending one of these nights by the fire endlessly switching through channels of static, hoping that something would come through.
“Ha, you think that place even exists?” I ask. “Look around us” — I gesture at the bleak emptiness, tracing the snowy horizon, just barely visible in the firelight with my finger — “bet you whoever made that broadcast is long dead.”
He laughs coldly and raps me on the back with his knuckle, flashing me a grim smile.
“Well, look at it this way, Jessie: we’ll find out soon enough, and if it isn’t there after all, I doubt we’ll be still alive for long enough to care anyway.”
With that, he throws himself down onto the mattress and stares up into the starless sky.
“We’ll see,” I mutter back. “We’ll see.”
Feeling dejected, I pick up my book and return to the page I left off. I need to forget. It’s been a very hard day.