I wrote this story for the Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge. The goal was to write 1000 words on the Rise of the Phoenix. I went a little over word count, but sometimes that’s what the story requires. For fans of my Faelands books, this story also serves as a hint of things to come in that world.
Come Dance in My Flames
Nix kept her head down as she walked toward the bus. Sheets of flaming red hair formed a protective barrier around her face, hiding the bruises. Her tights itched under her long denim skirt. Glancing around, she saw several teachers watching the line of students shuffling through the diesel exhaust. She would just have to live with the itch. It wasn’t worth another call to her father if she got caught touching herself.
Nix hated tights. She hated heavy wool sweaters and denim. Even in January, the heavy fabrics made her sweat. She had asked her father, once, to buy her lighter clothes. Shorts and t-shirts, like the Catholic and Lutheran kids wore. Nobody mentioned those bruises either.
She held her breath as she climbed onto the bus, listening to the jubilant Friday afternoon chatter of her classmates. As she slid into a vacant seat near the back, she hunched over, hiding her hands as she pulled a bright red lighter out of her backpack.
At first she just held the smooth plastic contraband. It felt cool in her sweaty hands. As the bus lurched forward, she glanced around. No one noticed her. She flicked the lighter. A tiny blue and orange flame erupted, just for a moment. For the first time all day, Nix smiled.
She could make it through the weekend.
* * *
Nix pocketed her lighter as the bus stopped. The house had been built by her great-grandfather at the height of the gilded age, and was surrounded by nearly an acre of perfectly mowed lawn. He had spared no expense in reminding their small Iowa town who their wealthiest citizen was. Three stories of brick loomed overhead as though threatening to crush you as you walked up to the door. Nix glanced up. The white lace curtains – originally purchased by her grandmother, and meticulously cleaned every six months – fluttered shut in her father’s corner study.
She glanced back at the bus, but it had already begun lumbering down the street. Not that it would have done her any good to get back on. Dad had already seen her, and the bus driver wouldn’t have believed her if she told him she was supposed to go to a friend’s house. She set her shoulders and walked up to the front door, wondering what had brought her father home so early.
The foyer was dark as Nix came inside. It always took her eyes forever to adjust to the dim shadows of the house after the bright sunlight outside. She could just make out her father’s tall, imposing figure. He was no longer muscular, but you got the impression that he could still break you in half if he tried. Nix set her backpack down near the umbrella stand.
“Hi Dad. You’re home early.” She hoped her voice sounded light, normal.
“Yes. Pastor Edwards brought me some troubling news concerning you this afternoon.” He cleared his throat. “Come into my study, Phoenix.”
Nix’s stomach clenched. Her thoughts raced back over the last few days, wondering what transgression she had been accused of this time. Obediently, she followed her father down the hallway to his study.
Pastor Edwards was a thin man. His skin sagged as though it was just too much work to try and stick to his clean-shaven face. His greasy hair was thin, and always seemed to need cut, but Nix supposed a Pastor wasn’t supposed to spend too much time thinking about his appearance.
“Good afternoon, Pastor Edwards.” Nix recited the greeting she had been taught from the moment she could speak.
“Good afternoon, Phoenix.” Pastor Edwards smiled at her, and Nix’s skin crawled.
“Pastor Edwards tells me you have been quite busy recently, Phoenix,” Dad began, as he closed the study door. “You have been lighting fires again.”
He wasn’t asking, so there was no use in denying it. Nix hadn’t actually lit anything on fire except an old math assignment, and she had put it out before it could spread.
“You have broken the 6th Commandment.”
Nix recited them silently. 6th? Adultery? She opened her mouth to speak, but the flare of his nostrils told her to keep silent.
“You have dressed immodestly, disobeyed your father, and invited the attention of your male classmates. One of them even saw you touching yourself under your skirt!”
Nix closed her eyes. It wasn’t worth trying to explain. Her father never seemed to notice the heat.
“You are no longer a child, Phoenix. It is my responsibility to be sure you will make a good wife, and I never shirk my responsibilities.”
Nix glanced between her father and the Pastor. She remembered the other girls from Church who had been led into her father’s study with Pastor Edwards. Dad always came out saying they would make good wives. They hadn’t been much older than her.
“Dad!” Nix looked at his expressionless face. She turned to the other man and pleaded for mercy. “Pastor Edwards, I didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody looks at me at school. I swear!”
The Pastor simply smiled. “Oh, but they do, Phoenix. You know they do.”
“Lying is a sin, Phoenix.” Her father reminded her. “Do not lie to Pastor Edwards, or you’ll go to hell just like your mother.”
“I’m not lying!” Nix yelled. “I…”
Her father’s fist silenced her protests.
* * *
Pastor Edwards stood up, putting a hand between Nix and her father.
“Brother Peterson,” he spoke in a soothing voice, “do not let the child spark your temper. I will go and pray with her, and she will see her sins.”
Nix took a step backward.
“You are right, Pastor.” Her dad nodded. “Perhaps you can pray the impurity out of her.”
Pastor Edwards took Nix’s hand in his own and led her toward the door of the study.
Nix shook her head and pulled her hand away. “No!” She gasped. Her skin was on fire.
“Repent, Phoenix, that you might avoid your mother’s fate.”
“What did you do to Mom?” Nix asked the question that had bothered her for so many years. One day her mother had been there, the next she was gone and all that was left was the sweet scent of smoke.
Pastor Edwards grabbed her arms and moved her toward the study door. He was strong for such a small man.
“Your mother is in hell! Obey the Pastor, or you will join her. Nix struggled to free her arms as her Dad opened the study door.
Nix could feel the panic rising in her stomach. Pastor Edwards forced her down the center hallway toward her bedroom. She broke free and shoved him against a wall, but he was too quick for her. He picked her up and carried her the last few feet, slamming the door behind him. As he set her down, he paused for a brief second, staring behind her. Nix knew she only had one shot, and she took it. Her fist flew out into the man’s delicate jawbone. She felt the sharp impact and hoped it would be enough to buy her time.
“Let me show you a better way, Nix.” A woman’s voice echoed in the small room.
Nix spun around. “Mom?”
The woman nodded. “It’s time to go home.” Her bright green eyes shined with happiness.
“Demon!” Pastor Edwards hissed.
“If that’s what you want to call me,” the older woman advanced, smiling. “I could certainly make you believe you were in Hell.”
Nix watched, fascinated, as the Pastor cringed away from her mother’s outstretched hand. “He knows my skin will burn him,” her mother explained. “Just like yours will, if you want it to.”
Nix looked down at her hands, red with heat. She touched the wooden windowsill, and tiny wisps of smoke began to curl up from between her fingers. She felt something like joy. Nix looked at her mother, standing over the cowering Pastor.
“Sometimes, the best way to deal with an infestation is to burn the nest.” She smiled and held out a hand to her daughter. “Are you ready to go home?”
Nix didn’t know where home was, but it had never been this cold brick house with its shadows. She nodded. Her mother crossed the room and caressed her hair.
“Let your fire out, my Love.” She smiled.
Nix felt the warmth rising. Her hair felt like flames caressing her face, and the comforting scent of smoke filled her lungs. Her mother’s hair was flaming too, her eyes wild. She held out her hands to Nix.
“Come, dance in my fire, Daughter!” Nix laughed as her mother twirled her around the bedroom, around the terrified Pastor, across the bed that he would not rape her in. The ancient curtains burst into flames that licked the ceiling, and Nix was finally happy.
“Come home with me!” her mother called, as the flames consumed them both. They danced on the hot drafts and the smoke that led them out of the world of brick and dirt and into the Faelands, where clans of Phoenixes made their home.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed Come Dance in my Flames! Feel free to share this story with your friends – and check out the other stories I have available. Gotta have something to read this weekend, right?