Welcome back to Week 2 of Writer In Motion! This week, participating writers self-edit the first draft posted last week. Next week, we’ll work with critique partners to hone the story further before working with editors in Week 4.
One of the goals this week for me was to cut words until the story met the 1k word limit. I was also hoping that my edits would help me understand exactly what it is trying to say or do. I succeeded in one of these goals, cutting the piece from 1076 words to 985 words. Most of what I ended up doing was line-level edits for efficiency. I also took out a couple of lines that didn’t quite belong. But the story is still doing exactly what it was doing last week, which is ???? Expressing my existential angst as a Californian living through yet another apocalyptic fire season, I suppose. Talking about the way trauma hangs around under the surface, perhaps.
Apropos of that, my favorite part of this story right now is the reference to “holdover fires,” sometimes called “zombie fires,” which can burn underground through winter and then resurrect when conditions allow it, months after the original event. Part of me wants to dive down a research rabbit hole and learn all about “extreme fire behavior” and spontaneous combustion to add more weird fire facts to this piece. But I’m not sure that’s right for it. I think it wants to stay a little ethereal, a little smoky, a little hard to grasp.
We’ll see what my CPs think next week, I guess!
My new draft is posted below, but before you read that, check out some of my fellow writers’ takes on the prompt! One of my favorite things about this project is seeing how one single inspiration can lead to such a wide variety of stories.
- I especially love it when authors show their process inline, as Amber Roberts does while writing of secrets and hiding parts of oneself: Her mind was granite, but their words were the rain.
- Maya Dajani plays with Janus words with conflicting meanings in her sci-fi flash piece “The Stardust in Our Souls.“
- Keir Alekseii shared her writing process on live video while drafting an emotional contemporary fantasy piece about grief and memory with flashes of voicey humor in “Half-Past Chai (Too Thoughtful for a Haunting)” (and read her self-edit here.)
- Megan Van Dyke’s contemporary horror story about a woman returning home after her mother’s death examines grief as well, from a very different angle.
- Adria Bailton’s haunting, atmospheric piece centers on a narrator who lives “In the Country of Shadow.“
- S.M. Roffey gives us a second world fantasy story of a survivor who seeks answers and finds her destiny in “Ravlenna’s Fire.“
- Anthony Eden shares his process, including notes on where he wants to fill in his story further, in his spooky devil-at-the-crossroads story “Meliorism.”
- Linda Scott offers a delightful, funny, banter-filled piece about two supernatural beings arguing over human foibles (and party games) in “Against Humanity.”
- Cheyanne Monkman shares a piece inspired by personal experience in this quietly beautiful reflection on OCD grounding methods.
- Mel Grebing declares themselves a WIM rebel against the word count limit with a gorgeous time-bending, gender-shifting science fiction short, “Smoke and the Universe.“
- Erika Rose shares her struggle to find writing time and energy after a tough week, and explores the prompt with a story about a grieving woman accused of being “Fog-Touched.“
- M. E. Crosby has a unique take on shapeshifters in her contemporary fantasy piece Sulphur and Smoke (read her second draft here).
(If I missed you here, it’s because I missed your story! Please drop me a link in the comments below!)
Here’s what I have this week. It didn’t change too much from last week, and I’m trying not to see that as a failure.
Fire Season (Draft 2)
He comes at dusk, the shadow man.
He hovers in the corner of my vision, dissolving when I look straight at him, looming when I look away. Sometimes he is indistinct, smudged at his edges like smoke, only the suggestion of a man’s shape and a man’s height. Other times, he seems almost solid. If I turn just far enough, if I squint just right, he might even have a face I could know.
When I do finally turn, he dissipates. He’s nothing more than a trick of the light, an artifact of my brain’s attempt to make sense out of the random and the meaningless.
But there is one day, when the air scratches and chokes, when the sky outside lowers dark and angry as a week-old bruise. And because it’s twilight all day, he doesn’t go away.
It’s fire season. It’s always fire season now, and the burn scar crackles inside me as it burns everything to ash.
I stare straight ahead, and my voice scrapes hoarse and harsh in my throat. “What do you want? Why are you here?”
He doesn’t answer, and after awhile he fades back into the wall. I never see his face.
He doesn’t do anything except linger. He doesn’t seem to mean me any harm. So I let him stay.
Maybe he’s lonely too.
There was a time when things were different, before fire season came to stay. Time we didn’t live like this, in the shadow of our own destruction.
The memories fade into smoke when I grasp at them, and my hands close on empty air. Before the fire, there were eyes blue as the sky once was, a voice that went through me like a thunderclap, a laugh that chased away the shadows that lay heavy within.
But all of that was burned away. The fire took so many things, and not all of them were mine.
Fire doesn’t give back what it takes, and yet he’s still here.
We coexist, my shadow and I. It’s not as though we can touch each other.
He comes every day now, lingering in the dim orange day and the thick gray night that follows.
Maybe he’s come for me. I’m the only one whose life the fire didn’t take. It passed over me like an angel of death and took everything else.
Fires are like that sometimes. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. It’s random, the way my brain ascribes meaning to shapes, to the tall dark figure leaning against the wall.
There’s a polite air about him these days, as if he is waiting for something.
Maybe he’s waiting for me.
When he comes for me at last, it doesn’t hurt like it should. It’s warm like a benediction.
He leans over me. He’s still made of smoke, dissipating at the edges. But when he wraps me in his arms and presses me to his chest, I breathe him in.
“You saved me that day. I remember now.”
He had eyes like a sky that no longer exists, and a laugh that dissolved me. He had soot on his face and his hard-muscled arms, soot under his fingernails. And after he guided me out of the blaze, he turned around and walked back in.
A fireman, or a man of the fire? But now he’s nothing but smoke.
“Why did you save me, back then?”
“It was my job. I saved what I could.”
He doesn’t answer. The flame licks at me like an old friend, and finally I can see his face. In the flickering light, his eyes glow restless as the inferno around us. “Are you a demon?” I breathe, likely my last, more smoke than oxygen. “Or an angel?”
His laugh crackles and sighs like the fire, dissolving the rest of my resistance. “A distinction without a difference, dear heart.”
His arms tighten around me, and I let him take me.
She goes easily in the end. They mostly do when it’s their time at last.
Once the fire touches you, it never truly lets go. Its embers glow inside you, waiting for tinder. It’s the way a blaze sometimes goes to ground, smouldering in isolated hollows or deep within the blackened trunks of dead trees. Holdover fires get down in the roots of things and burn unseen, until fire season comes again and brings them back to life.
She flares up like a candle, fierce and beautiful, until there’s nothing left of her. Nothing but smoke and ashes, and the smile that dawns on her face when she understands what I’ve come for.
She feels no pain. I can give her that, at least.
When they find her, they’ll look for a spark, a stray cigarette, a frayed wire. They’ll whisper the words spontaneous combustion, but eventually explain it away, their human minds searching for meaning. Maybe they’ll note the irony that she survived the firestorm of the century only to go up in sudden flame peacefully at home, leaving everything else intact while she crumbles into ash.
Outside the little apartment, smoke curls in the air. It shapes itself for a moment into the figure of a woman, graceful as the first time I met her, walking untouched in the eye of a pyrocyclone.
Then the wind kicks up, arid and hot, driving relentless down the slopes of the mountains and rattling the dead grass together like bones. Her form disperses before it, bleeds into the already smoky air, and blows away. Not gone but so diffuse as to be indistinguishable. A distinction without a difference.
I let it take me too, scudding over the scarred fields. I’m done here, but my work goes on without respite. Lives big and little still go up in smoke, a thousand hot spots in a world dry as tinder.
It is fire season, after all.