ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS
WORK IN PROGRESS
For the first time putting my short stories up here for everyone to read.
BURNING DOWN THE BARN
By Gretchen Rix
The collapsed barn still smoldered and smoked from the blaze Jane had set at two in the afternoon during the worst of the summer heat. Even now as the day ended, small explosions continued to set her nerves on edge. They sounded exactly like firecrackers going off. Not a single wall had survived her inferno. Nothing was left but ashes.
For a second, Jane wondered how a fire could smell rancid, but of course it was all that grocery store meat she’d burned up in the fire. She’d expected it to have a barbecue aroma, but figured the meat had gone bad sometime during the week it had been stored in Old Man McGregor’s single-story excuse for a barn.
She tasted smoke on her lips and in her mouth. The falling ashes were leaving an oily residue on her skin that felt slimy to the touch. It took a conscious effort on her part to control her gag reflex. She didn’t want to leave that kind of evidence behind. Her vomit. She wanted them to think she was a bad ‘un.
Jane ran to the barn, for it would always be a barn in her mind no matter what state it was in. It held many memories for her. With her sturdy shoes she cleared a space on the ground and began to write her name in the ashes. She had to hold her nose. That made her totter, and smeared the results, but at least this was one barn burning that wouldn’t be blamed on the Snopes kid.
Wrong story. Wrong decade, indeed, wrong century.
The discrepancy shot Jane right out of the Deep South of her carefully plotted epiphany experience and right back to the source of all her problems, which wasn’t Abner Snopes or even Ben Quick, but the fire itself.
This Jane drowsed in the protective cocoon of a deep sleep capsule aboard the interstellar space ship Hemingway.
It had been her only option. Nothing else would have got her off the planet New Brisbane before the bad guys caught up to her. The problem that had woken Jane from her chemically-induced coma was smoke. She smelled smoke. It seemed to fill her lungs like the sleep-inducing drug was supposed to fill her veins instead of blood. For a moment she had the taste of ash at the back of her tongue, or was it dark, black, smoky tea?
She coughed herself awake. Couldn’t get the weight off her chest while lying flat. Panicked and began thrashing. Her limbs were too heavy. Waterlogged. Then she stared wide-eyed into chaos.
What she took for small explosions caused by a barn fire were clearly weapons fire outside the cradle. The Hemingway was under attack! She had to get up. The top of her capsule slowly retreated, but not quickly enough for her. She abruptly sat up, forcing her torso out of the too-small space, her head filled with confusion. The mechanism working the top cover from over the frame squealed in protest, its final shriek almost at scream level.
Until she coughed up a blob of phlegm the violet color of the chemical inhibitor, Jane thought she was back in the barn, setting it afire. Smoke filled her lungs. With a shudder she spat out the rest of the chemical residue caught on her teeth. Her legs were still stuck in the capsule.
For a second she thrashed uncontrollably. By now she could see the smoke. It curled, gray and sinister, from under the door leading away from the nexus of the ship, sending its tentative and deadly fingers towards the sleepers. Panic cleared her head of all uncertainty.
After a minute of trying to inch her way out, Jane kicked the top out of her capsule and leapt away from it, almost twisting her ankle. The sharp, head-clearing spike of pain brought her fully awake. She sprawled to the floor, evidently unnoticed by both crew and machine. No alarms rang out.
Why were none of the others awake?
Jane quickly made the rounds, injured ankle forgotten until she stepped just the wrong way. Checked twice to be sure. She was the only one in the cradle. When she’d joined the Hemingway, she’d been in a group of ten new hires.
They were supposed to wake up decades into the future, although privately Jane figured it was more like hundreds of years into the future and the company was just afraid to tell them so.
Her “sleeping attire” was minimally appropriate for running around in the oxygenated and gravity-supplied parts of the ship. It was a form-fitting coverall of soft blue cotton with padding in and around the pelvis area. Jane hadn’t even been assigned quarters. Probably didn’t have a real uniform, either. Jane contemplated her bare feet. She’d have to be careful where and how she stepped.
The rancid meat stink from her burning barn template swirled under the door space with the reality of the smoke. Jane sneezed three times in succession, only at the end of it realizing she wanted to be heard, and removing her hand from her lower face. There had to be someone close by.
They didn’t present themselves.
There were at least five ways out of this compartment. Jane started at the main door first. The one with the smoke coming through.
Jane almost pressed her hand flat to it, only at the last moment withdrawing everything but her fingertips. They sizzled from the briefest of contact, like real bacon. Jane reeled away from the door with her fingers in her mouth.
The next thing she knew, she was writing her name in the snow with her boot-shod feet.
The cold left her breathless, jabbing as it did straight at her heart. Jane heard herself struggling to inhale. Felt the stitch in her side expand into waves of pain before managing to slow-breathe it out of existence.
All the while alternating between swiping cursive into the frozen mush and stomping the printed letters deep into the packed snow every other letter. Writing her name into the snow.
She didn’t seem to be herself, but a young girl. And the little girl was determined to ignore unpleasant stimuli, even the agonizing ache in her legs.
Looking at her handiwork, Jane clearly made out the name Jalisa Snopes. She pursed her lips in grudging admiration. The name stood out clearly, but neither the little girl nor the weird name belonged to Jane Heppleton. And neither did the experience. This must be another of the dreams she’d bought herself for the long sleep.
The ruins of a burned barn slumped in a clearing she saw out of the corner of her eye. Only part of the frame survived intact. She became instantly wary, sniffing the air for smoke.
There wasn’t any. Only the stink of an unwashed body she immediately recognized as her own. It was as if she’d been wearing the same clothes for months at a time without changing. Her mouth curled in distaste. The rancid meat smell she’d dealt with in the aftermath of the barn burning had nothing on her own rank smell. Jane Heppleton stink won, hands down.
Something else strange.
Nothing about her feelings, and none of her thoughts were that of the little girl she was supposed to be. Jane as a child would have reveled in smelling so rank, in living in the same clothes forever and a day. With another quick look at the burned out barn, Jane figured she knew what was going on. She waited for everything to change back. Or to morph into another experience. And she waited.
But it didn’t happen. She was forced to play the part of Jalisa Snopes and write her name in the snow time and time again, until the ground was finally covered with it, and the adult Jane trapped inside felt like she’d danced in the red shoes of that ugly fairytale until her feet wore off.
Her feet burned. Her legs burned. Her mouth exhaled smoke as if she burned from the inside out. Jane felt a fear so strong she doubled up, choking on it.
And then it changed. The next thing she knew, she was screaming.
Abruptly it changed once more. She heard fireworks.
There was the familiar boom of the explosion, then the crackling of the disintegrating casings. Fireworks exploded in the night sky over her head like an ever expanding umbrella of bright color. Hot ash rained down on her face until she took the precaution to move farther off the bridge. To get out of range. It had been stupid to climb up there right under them to begin with. The barge they were being shot from was right alongside.
Jane raised a finger to poke at a hot space that had formed on her face. Quickly replaced it with a finger damp with spit to cool it off. Shrugged off the realization that she’d earned a scar. She had plenty of scars already. One more wouldn’t hurt, except it did. Just a moment before, she’d been screaming. Had it been because of this tiny burn?
As fireworks continued to dance in the night sky above her, Jane remembered being trapped inside the burning barn. For a second her rational mind exerted its control and she stepped away from the fireworks that were in this new “dream” of hers.
An experience that left her fighting for her life inside a burning barn didn’t seem like something she’d have chosen for herself. Had the company counselor inserted one of what she called her healthy mind experiences? Didn’t seem too healthy to Jane. And as that thought faded, Jane puzzled over a company having a company counselor.
Then the current experience reasserted itself. Fireworks dazzled her into awe, raising goosebumps on her arms. Jane felt her neck begin to stiffen. She’d been cradling it with her two hands behind her head for too long. The display should be almost over by now, though. She didn’t want to move. She was happy here, alone among a small group of locals. Even with ash raining down on her face.
The huge boom of the final exploding package drew Jane up onto her toes as if she also would explode in a dazzle of white, red, and green lights high in the sky. It had been shot from the boat just alongside the bridge underneath her. The smoke that dropped down on her sent her into a coughing jag.
She felt the smoke invade her eyes, her nose, and then her mouth, sending its tendrils inside her like some sort of alien monster finding its first penetration into her body. Coughs racked her body. She couldn’t breathe.
There were at least five ways out of this compartment. Obviously, the main door wasn’t one of them anymore. Jane looked once again at her blistered fingers. Realized that the explosions she heard were just that, ship’s equipment reacting to the fire. There was no one boarding the ship. No pirates at the airlock. No barbarians at the gate. Jane’s spaceship was on fire.
She wasn’t in the ship’s corridor outside of her sleeping capsule looking for a way to escape, either. She was still in the cocoon.
Reality hit her with the force of a tsunami wave.
As if the gravity were turned off down here, Jane pivoted away from the door and bounced weightlessly all the way back to the heart of the compartment. Around a spoked wheel of medical equipment there flowered ten fingers that were deep-sleep capsules. Jane raced around and around with the speed of a ghost. All ten sleepers were occupied. Including her own.
Jane looked down on herself. Couldn’t see herself breathe, though, of course, it was the machinery that did the breathing for them at this point so that didn’t mean anything. So how could she smell smoke?
To Abner Snopes. As a child. Flicking matches into a pile of hay near the pigpen on his parents’ place. Watching it burn.
Jane standing over him, mesmerized by the beauty of the flame. Swaying with each wave of heat as the flame rose up all yellow and red with a blanket of smoke trailing up into the sky.
Then when it fell back, gathering itself for another, greater leap, Jane falling back with it and through the image of the little boy. Who wasn’t really there.
Despite the Snopes boy’s impressive record of barns burned, Jane had been responsible for all of them. She liked seeing the eye of the flame. Enjoyed the first dazzling pain of the first burn.
And he’d been the easiest character for her to inhabit. Easier than Jalisa. Even easier than herself watching fireworks on the bridge. Because with the boy it was totally private. Just Abner Snopes and Jane Heppleton.
Had she set all those fires herself? Or was her subconscious reacting to outside stimuli? Jane didn’t know.
Worse yet, was it Snopes who was a figment of Jane’s imagination? Or was she a figment of his? A monster contained in one of his personalities who didn’t exist at all on her own?
For the moment she was content to watch the flames dance through the eyes of the boy. She didn’t think he ever knew she was there at his back. Not this time. Not any of the other times. But it had always been Jane Heppleton who’d struck the first match.
Then it changed again.
To the fireworks. To the spaceship. To the barn burning. To the little girl in the snow. To Abner Snopes and the writer who created him. Back to Jane’s misnamed spaceship. And then back and back and back again.
As the changes engaged faster and faster, eventually becoming a constant blur, Jane understood she was experiencing her own death.
The barn burning incident, the runaway teenager taking berth on the interstellar space ship, the little girl marking her name into the snow, the woman watching a fireworks show.
All these were nothing more than her brain desperately trying one thing after another to get her out of trouble. Seemed like it was never going to give up, either. Jane had no idea which of the scenarios was the true one. She might be a microbe flushing down the drain of a hotel sink as far as she knew.
That made her laugh. Jane Heppleton as a microbe! She was probably nothing more than a waitress in a roadside café who’d been unlucky enough to be using the bathroom when the grease fire exploded and everyone else ran out to safety.
She felt no pain, only panic. A profound sadness. Regrets by the thousands.
Jane wondered if the jumps from one experience to the other would go on and on forever. They happened so fast now that one had begun to invade the other.
The astronaut stomped her name in the snow while the little girl watched the fireworks and the barn burned down without anyone witnessing it.
Copyright 2016 Gretchen Rix
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