Aphelion Issue 232, Volume 22
September 2018
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Fire Brother

by Susan Anwin




The Debil klub gathered for another Oiskog, the week long spring ceremony of marriage, fertility and renewal, in the library as usual. They sat waiting for Tim to pull the names from the jar. It was the usual drill, until the priest read out the next name.

"Jack."

He didn't seem to have heard, engrossed in poking the iridescent bubble between his claws, but a subdued wave of murmur swept over the Klub. Jack was usually not one to cast his name into the jar, so this was probably a practical joke someone pulled on him. Tim studied the scrap of paper in his hand. It didn't look like Jack's scrawl either. This was getting interesting. He pulled another slip from the jar, and nearly dropped it when he saw the name on it. "Darla...?"

You could almost hear a record scratch.

The Princess paled several shades, then jutted her chin out and nodded bravely. She seemed small in the center of attention and, in Tim's opinion never more beautiful. Jack kept playing in blissful ignorance, his hair a flaming puddle around his head.

"Jack?" Tim asked slightly sharper than necessary.

His brother Hamed poked him in the ribs.

"Huh...?"

The priest let out a weary sigh. "Will you take the Princess as your Oiskog bride?"

"Which one?"

Tim pinched the bridge of his nose, then forced restraint on himself. "The Princess Darla. She'd already agreed."

Jack's sudden grin was an unpleasant sight to behold. "Ya, sure."


*****



The rest of the Oiskog couldn't compare in awkwardness to that one pairing. They sat together at the klub dinner, Darla trying to look dignified, Jack alternating between chuckling to himself and sporting that irritating smirk of his, the rest of the Klub trying not to stare at them.

"My... my lord... will you dance the Opening Dance with me...?" the Princess breathed, half her bashful sigh muffled by that famed golden fall of hair.

Jack was jolted out of another round of smirking. "'My lord', she says, 'my lord'," he guffawed.

"So will you, then?"

"What, me dance? For real?"

"Oh... nevermind," Darla whispered. This was going to be a long week, she could already tell.


Monday



Woke up to the kicks and shoves of Hamed at around noon.

"Brother get up, damnit. It's the first day of your Oiskog, and by the gods I hope you prepared with something. I won't have you embarrass me again."

There's brotherly love for you. "Uh, yeah sure I did. Prepare something, I mean." Of course I haven't, and he probably knows it. Actually I have no idea how I got home last night. It's all a little hazy.

"Just once in your lifetime try to live up to the task, will you?" but his voice has that resigned, all-hope-is-lost tone to it. He's known me for too long. He's my twin, although he's as fair as I am black. Only the red hair is the same.

Actually I have no idea what the task is for day 1.

"Uh, bro...? Do you happen to know what the task is for today?"

He stands, shaking his head. "You can't be serious."

I shrug, giving him a conciliatory grin. It's not working.

"You have to show her your world, should have already left three hours ago."

"Oh. Gotta hurry then, eh?" I scramble out of bed, not bothering to change clothes from last night or do something with my hair, so it just stands up in every which way around my head. I find one mirror-bedecked boot, but not the other. Damit! Slipper on the other foot then.

I stand scratching my arse, considering. I'm actually pretty hungry...

There's a knock on the door. "Jack? You're in Oiskog, remember?" It's the Rev Tim. I guess he's pretty pissed that of all the people it's me taking his girl out for a ride.

I take a stack of papers, some dry wood and envelop myself around them, wash it down with some kerosene as I move to open the door. Tim's jaw tightens when he sees me. Hamed makes apologetic noises behind me.

"Try to bring her back in one piece, will you?" Loverboy warns me through clenched teeth. He's all frowns and dark glances since yesterday.

"Do ma best, Timbo, do ma best."

His face darkens. He hates to be called that.

The others have already left, it's only Darla and crew waiting at the bottom of the steps, crew shooting me all sorts of nasty looks, like a couple hours is the end of the world! Darla doesn't look at me. The atmosphere feels chilly somehow.

I clap my hands, sending a shower of sparks towards the ceiling. "So. Ready for some fun, y'all?"

Darla's nod is barely visible. I head out the main door, not checking if they are following.


*****



Some folk are loitering out on the verandah. "Ohh, there is the happy groom," Peter exclaims. Only surly looks from the others. "I bet you can't make her gift you a strand of her hair by the end of the day."

He wants to make a bet; not a good idea. I'm not one to resist a challenge.

"So, what if I win?"

Peter laughs. "Not gonna happen, not in a thousand years."

"Yeah, but what if I do?"

He considers. "I'll clean the Jaxibus for you."

Haha, now that is going to be a bitch. "Hold my beer," I say and saunter down the stairs.

I get the car ready, a Trabant I got from one of the worlds I travelled in. It looks as if swine had been at it; I can see the ground through the holes on the floor. For that matter Hamed says sometimes I look like I was half chewed by pigs, so birds of a feather. I swipe most of the junk off the seats and air it out a bit. The missus really can't complain, me being all gentlemanly and stuff.

The Jaxibus is standing a bit further in among the trees, painted with swirling patterns and neon colors, bedecked with garlands of silk flowers, ribbons, Christmas lights and shiny knickknacks. A curtain of glittering threads hangs above the windshield and the side windows. A similar curtain runs around the bottom, nearly sweeping the ground. Inside is the same whirlwind of colors, images and shapes. All the chairs have a different hue cover with a different pattern on it. All of that was a necessary precaution in case it's owner came looking for it. I haven't cleaned her since I got her; can't wait to see Peter get down to work on the old biddy. Must warn him to leave the decoes alone.


*****



The missus' eyes go round when she sees the vehicle.

"Jack, do you have the license to drive this... thing?" Loverboy asks.

I nod eagerly. "I don't go around driving without a license." This priest and his questions!

Missus gets in, trying to come in contact with as little of the seat as possible.

The iron gates open, with a wall of fire stretching between them. Barely hearing the squeak from the passenger seat I step on the gas. Show her my world, they said. Alrighty then.

I let go of the wheel and laugh as we cross over to a fiery plain under low hanging, polluted clouds. Darla screams. Poisonous soot drizzles from the sky and flashes of lightning whip the tortured ground. We zip across the scorched landscape, kicking up a spray of sharp gravel, sometimes barely missing the glowing fissures in the ground. Weird shapes and lights move above the clouds and we'd better keep a low profile lest they notice us, but the fire is raging in my veins so I don't give a fig about precaution and speed on heedless, hooting happily, startling critters crouched in the cracks and hollows of the rocks. We jump over some of the smaller crevices, jolting heavily on the other side. I'm surprised the clunker takes it so well, by rights it should have fallen apart at the first jump. Judging from the noises it makes it shouldn't be too long now.

The terrain changes abruptly and we are driving in a tunnel of darkness. It is getting gradually lighter as we approach a shimmering, waving horizontal lake at the back wall and passing through it end up on a stormy sea.

My merry mood is blown away instantly. I hate the caprices of this place sometimes. I floor the gas, hoping we'd cross this phase that much sooner. It never works, but it doesn't hurt to try.

We race between sinking vessels, collapsing in on themselves.

"Jack," Darla breaths, "what are those things?"

Black marks crisscross the planks; where water touches them they seem to melt, whole sections of them detach with a froth fizzing at the edges, eating itself into the material. Caskets and chests shower into the water. Just then we notice white threads spread on the water surface, sticking to the wood like gooey spiderweb threads.

"My sympathies to those planks," I murmur as I chase the Trabi up and down the crest of waves.

"Not the people?"

"People?" She is right; there are people running up and down the deck, holding on to whatever they can, screaming in despair, fully aware of the horrible doom that awaits them in the water.

There are some... things in the sea, big opaline creatures like giant jellyfish expanding and contracting themselves, pulling those threads for hundreds of meters behind them. The people who jumped or fell into the water tangle in the threads. They twitch for a short while then became still, blood bursting forth from every cavity, skin melting and blackening, their outlines dissolving. Darla turns away and hides her face in her hands.

"Yeah. Probably not the best time to take a bath."

We are both relieved when the scenery changes again.

We are driving through some kind of stone hall, looks like the great hall of a medieval fortress. A circle of people scatter in every direction, as we barge in. Intricate patterns are drawn on the floor and on the ceiling. Something is floating in the air between them; it looks like a grid, woven of a glowing red thread of light. It flutters in the air independently of the night breeze coming in through the windows. It seems the folk was just about evoke some underworld monstrosity, when we crashed the party. Could be it was me, although I have my doubts judging from the looks on their faces.

As we get near, the grid blurs and some stuff begins to poke through, some kind of tentacles the color of raw flesh squirming in meaty sheaves. It is dotted with red bulges filled with gore; they burst on the Trabi's windshield.

"Sorry guys," I holler out to the people, screaming in outrage.

Darla makes gagging sounds next to me. "Jack, that's disgusting!"

She has a point; it also makes it rather hard to see outside. It doesn't smell the best either. I turn on the wipers, but if anything they just spread out the goo even more.

Switch; we are driving across the sky. The windshield is thankfully clean. There's a city below us, the chimneys belch colorful smoke to the sky that swells into a constantly changing cloud. It forms letters as we pass; 'Happy 15,237th anniversary!'

"Oh. Thanks."

Back on the scorched terrain, I whistle. "What a ride, eh?"

There's no reply from the passenger seat. I think about checking on the missus, when a leviathan rises from a crack straight ahead and I floor the brake. I watch in awe as that marvelous beast lumbers away.

"Now, that is somethin'." Still no answer and I finally get to look at Darla. She is lying in the seat unconscious (I hope), her hair spilled down on her shoulder and on the back of the seat. Now is my chance! True, she is not offering it willingly, strictly speaking, but she is not protesting either, is she? It's just a wee strand of hair, she won't even notice. Now I gotta be careful not to set her on fire – all that flammable keratin around. We should have doused her in fire retardant beforehand, but it's too late now. I'd love to see the Jaxibus clean for once.

Gotta be real careful, lower my body temp... all that concentration might get me to burst in flames...

"Shit! Shit, shit, shit, fuck!" See, that's the problem with having razorblades for nails. Ok, so I might have cut off a lil' more than just a wee strand of hair. Well, maybe she won't notice. Chances are she will, though. It's just hair anyway, grows back in no time, right?

Now I notice the rest she is left with is peacefully smouldering. Fuck! I look around, but there is nothing at hand for the purpose, so I pull her skirt on her head patting, trying to put out the flames. She comes round noisily. I jam the hair into the glove compartment before she has time to untangle herself from the skirt.

"Jack, what are you doing?" I swear I never heard her screech like that. I sit there marveling that she is able to emit such noises. Who knew!

I try to look innocent which is no easy feat with my mug. "Me? Nothing. There came this flaming, uh... pterodactyl and it attacked us, so I had to put out the flames."

"Attacked me but not you?"

"Could tell you were the foreigner, the sly bastard."

"I don't see a scorch mark on the car," she snaps.

"Went for the flesh, not the plastic," I shrug my shoulder. "Sorry."

She turns away, smooths down her skirt, trying to look at least half decent. I don't know what's all the hassle about, with so many underskirts on I haven't seen any of the nasty bits.

She reaches up, feeling around for her hair, probably wondering why her head feels suddenly so light. Oh boy, here we go.

"My hair... what happened to my hair?"

Before waiting for my reply she bursts into tears. All that water leaking from her head gets me all philosophical. If you hurled one of these water-people at me with enough force, would they burst like a water balloon? Could they burst like a water balloon? It's not a happy thought, so I abandon it.

"Relax, it'll grow back before you know it."

"Do you have any idea how long that takes?" she snaps at me between two sobs.

"Until then I can lend you some of mine...?"

To that she replies only with a disgusted glance. I guess she's not one for red hair.


*****



The shock of the Debils couldn't be bigger.

"Where is your hair?" Darla's ladies gasp.

"Jack says a flaming pterodactyl came and stole it," she replies on a wooden tone.

"Um, that's so not what I said... " but apparently noone's interested in my version of the events.

Tim is pale with rage. "That's the one thing I asked you to do," he hisses, "to bring her back in one piece."

"That I did," I get all defensive, "I mean, all limbs are attached and stuff?"


*****



Peter's face lengthens, as I present him the hair when I catch him alone. Darla burst out of the car slightly smoking when we got back, so I had time to retrieve the golden tresses from the glove compartment.

"I win," I tell him just to drive the point home, "have fun with the old biddy."


*****



"Tomorrow you'll visit her world," Hamed reminds me in the evening. "Try to get your shit together just this one time?"

Gods, you'd think you could expect just a crumb of loyalty from your own twin? The only brother you left alive?


Tuesday



I slept in again, although I swear I even put the alarm on, it's just that I slammed it down and kept on sleeping. Well, I was out till late doing... fuck knows what (there was a lot of booze involved, that's the only thing I'm sure of), so what do these people expect?

Anyway, constantly hounded by my dear brother I manage to scrape myself out of bed and put on a semi-civilized look, which by the nature of my default looks is no small feat.

They wait in the hall, all of them rather morose, not at all in the spirit of Oiskog methinks. Darla hid her closely cropped hair under a bonnet (I think that boyish look is rather cute, an interesting change, but I know better than to air that opinion), her eyes narrow as she sees me. Guess I still don't look civilized enough for her, but the gods know I tried my best.


*****



So there we sit in the Kensington palace, me next to Darla, all her high-bred kin around the table if you can call it that, it's more a landing strip for a commercial plane.

"So, how is the Oiskog going so far?" Daddy dearest tries to break the ice.

"Oh, it's lovely," the missus tries to be her usual chirpy self, but it sounds a little fake with her sitting with that bonnet on.

"My angel, why don't you take that bonnet off?" Mommy asks.

Darla can't help shooting me a look. "Um... it's uh... the trend this year."

Me, I'm too busy trying to look civilized to add anything constructive to the conversation. I know the more I focus on not combusting spontaneously the more an accident is prone to happen and the knowledge that nothing is fireproofed here is not helping any. If I could just form a fireball to play with, to distract my attention would make it easier, but of course it's a no go here. The silverware melts like wax in my left hand. I put it down quickly and inconspicuously, I hope.

"So, Jack." It's Daddy again, "what exactly do you do in life?"

"Heh, not much. I mean, look at me. Not many employers would take me on."

The awkward silence is broken by the arrival of the first dish. And what do they bring for appetizers? Soup. Soup, for fuck's sake! I make an annoyed little move and half the table is ablaze in front of me. The dignified guests scatter with a panicked scream. That's just my luck. Aeons out of my plane and I still don't have this thing under control. What would my old man say? Probably nothing; he's too insane for any kind of fatherly admonition.

Next thing I know servants are coming running, with water jugs in hand. Very bad idea. I'm seriously triggered.


*****



After that wing of the Kensington palace burned down, understandably Darla broke off the Oiskog.

When we get back, the Rev just stands, his face a weird shade of grey. Hamed gapes like a landed carp. Kay (one of the missus' many adoring doormats) marches up to me, his outstretched, accusing finger trembling ever so slightly. "You... you..."

"Yeah, me. Wasn't my fault though. If those servants..."

"You... cut off the Princess' hair for a bet!"

Oh, that. "What? Who says so?"

As it turns out, it was one of the people loitering on the verandah with Peter on day 1. Gotta find the bastard and make him pay for snitching on me. As for now Darla stands, her eyes round and white in her sooty face as she turns to me. "You what?"

Erm... well, yeah. That's how my Oiskog ended after only two days. But at least the Jaxibus is clean?



THE END


2017 Susan Anwin

Bio: Susan was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, Her flash-fiction Talk of Armadale trees was featured in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012, and her short stories Fog-People, Eddie's lousy Saturday, You'll die as fish, People of the Green Cloud, Dragonfly-man, Daddy is Driving the Car, Soul for Sale, Dark Sister and The Man Who Broke Time were published by Aphelion in 2016 and 2017. She's been featured on the cover of Aphelion in March and July 2017.

Website: Susan Anwin

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.