Fire Season (Writer in Motion 2021: Final Draft)

Is it that time already? I don’t remember last year’s Writer in Motion going this fast.

This week, we received an edit pass on our story drafts from a professional editor. As is my way, I read over the notes I received and then put away the draft to let it rest. Then time got away from me, and before I knew it, the week was half-over! But giving the edits a chance to settle really does help.

Here are the first two pages from my edit notes:

A screenshot of pages with editing markup (not legible) and comments

And here are the changes I made:

A screenshot of two pages with editing markup

I think I took most of my editor’s suggestions, other than a couple of places where I exercised the writer’s right of stet, otherwise known as “I meant to do that!”

Most of the changes were clarifying. As with my CP pass, it was plain from my editor’s feedback that I still hadn’t quite gotten the relationship between the two characters defined on the page in a way that satisfied the reader. With these changes, I tried to bring my idea of that relationship into focus a little bit more without losing the dreamy tone I was going for, or sacrificing the hint of meta-ness that pleased me, a tension between the random and meaningful, the defined and the indistinct. Is he a stranger who saved her from death and then from a life that lost its meaning, or the lover whom she lost? A distinction without a difference, perhaps.

Here’s my final draft.

Fire Season

He comes at dusk, the shadow man.

He hovers at the margins of my vision, dissolving when I look straight at him, looming when I look away. Sometimes he’s indistinct, smudged at his edges like smoke, only the suggestion of a man’s shape and height. Other times, he’s almost solid. If I could turn just far enough and squint just right, he might even have a face I know.

When I do finally turn, he dissipates again. 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.

We coexist, my shadow and I. It’s not as though we can touch each other.

But then comes a day when the air scratches and chokes, when the sky outside lowers as dark and angry as a week-old bruise. And because the twilight doesn’t end, he doesn’t go away. He seems closer now, more substantial, but I still can’t see his face.

It’s fire season. It’s always fire season now, and the burn scar aches inside me. It scorches everything to ash.

I stare straight ahead. “What do you want?”  My voice rasps hoarse and harsh past the cinders in my throat. “Why are you here?”

He doesn’t answer. After a while he fades back into the wall. But the next day, when dusk slips in, he’s there again. Lingering.

Maybe he’s lonely, like me.

***

There was a time when things were different, before fire season came to stay. There was a time we didn’t live like this, wrapped in the shadow of our own destruction.

He had eyes blue as the vanished sky back then, and a voice that soothed like summer rain, a lightning laugh that chased away the shadows. But those memories burn away into smoke when I grasp at them, and my hands close on empty air.

The fire took so many things, and not all of them were mine.

That day, the inferno passed over me like an angel of death but took everything else. That day, smoke turned daylight to dusk and I learned the nature of fire. I’m the sole survivor, but 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.

Fire doesn’t give back what it takes. And yet he’s still here.

He comes more often now, lingering in the dim orange daylight and the thick gray night that follows. He has a polite air about him, as if he is waiting for something.

Maybe he’s waiting for me.

This time, when I turn my head, he doesn’t fade away.

***

When he touches 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.”

“Yes.”

He had eyes like a midsummer sky and a laugh that dissolved me. He had soot on his face and his hard-muscled arms, soot under his fingernails in the evenings when the gloves came off. And after he guided me out of the blaze that day, he turned around and walked back in.

It had already taken him, you see.

“You left me!” I strike out at him then, but my fists hit nothing but air. “Why save me and not yourself?”

“It was my job. I had to save what I could.”

“And now?”

“Same answer.” The flame licks at me like an old friend, and finally my fireman shows 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, his whispered words gentle in my ear.

***

I wanted to come for you before, dear heart. I promise I did.

I saved you then, but once the fire touches you, it never truly lets go. Its embers glow inside you, waiting for tinder. It’s the same way that a blaze sometimes goes to ground, smoldering 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.

You flare up like a candle, fierce and beautiful, until there’s nothing left of you. Nothing but smoke and ashes, and the smile that dawns on your face when you understand what I’ve come for.

You go easily in the end, and you feel no pain. I can give you that, at least.

When they find you, 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 minds searching for meaning. Maybe they’ll note the irony that you survived the firestorm of the century only to go up in sudden flame peacefully at home, leaving everything else intact while you crumble into ash.

Outside the little apartment, smoke curls in the air. It shapes itself for a moment into the figure of a woman walking graceful as you walked that day, 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 like bones. Your form disperses before it, bleeds into the smoke-laden air, and blows away. Not gone but so diffuse as to be indistinguishable. A distinction without a difference.

I rise on the wind and follow you, 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.

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