Always Fighting Fire

Entry by: writerXZXHYJNHXL

16th March 2018
The fire had been burning now for 5 months, 14 days, 22 hours, and roughly 12 minutes. The residents of Little Haverley had stopped counting over a month ago, but Amy had a tally that she kept on a notebook hung beside her front door. It was easy for her to keep track; the fire was the first thing she saw when she stepped out of her house. Under duress, she would admit that the minutes were a guess, but she was pretty sure about the rest. She had been in the house when the fire started, waiting for a tray of cupcakes to finish baking. The fire was not there when they went into the oven, but by the time she pulled them out an orange glow was shining through her kitchen window.

The fire engines arrived a few minutes later, pulling up at the end of her driveway and blocking her view. They had stayed there for most of that day, and the next day, and the next. Amy had almost scratched the paint of her car trying to reverse past them to get to work on Monday morning. Returning that evening, the engines had not moved, but the mood was much calmer on the street. A lingering smoky smell hung in the air, but the fire seemed to be under control, and a light breeze had blown away a lot of the ash that had settled like soft snow on the road. A small group of firefighters were huddled by the truck, talking amongst themselves in low voices and glancing back every so often to the persistent flames.

A week later, nothing had changed. Every morning, Amy would carefully manoeuvre past the fire trucks and return later in the day to find the fire still burning, and the firefighters scratching their heads as they stared at it, more disgruntled with every day that passed.

Eventually, the engines left, and did not come back. Not long after that, Amy received a note from the council through her letterbox assuring her that something would definitely be done about the fire. They just didn’t know what yet. Since then, she had grown accustomed to the orange glow that suffused her kitchen at all hours, and the soft background crackle that she could hear when the night was still and quiet.

In the fifth week, with no firefighters around to stop her from getting too close, Amy went out to judge the fire for herself. Her first thought was that it was disappointingly small. She had seen bigger bonfires on the 5th of November. This one was no taller than the bungalow next door, and she could walk around it in thirty paces. It didn’t feel much like a proper fire either. There was no searing heat emanating from it to keep observers back at a sensible distance. There were no billowing clouds of smoke. There were flames, a gentle warmth, an oaky scent in the air, and that was it.

The only other person who knew exactly how long the fire had been burning was Christina Lee, who posted an update to her Twitter feed with a picture of the flames and the words ‘Still on fire’ at nine o'clock every morning. Sometimes, just as Amy was leaving for work, she would spot Christina taking the picture, always from the same spot. If she took a few moments to watch, she would see Christina poke around at her phone for a few minutes to upload her photo, and then put it back in her trouser pocket. Then she would scrape her hair up into a scraggly bun and set to work.

From her car, an old Mini that was held together in places with nothing more than duct tape, Christina would pull a backpack and a notebook. After a cursory glance at the contents of the last entry in the pad, she would pull a box of chalk from the front pocket of the bag, and Christina would set to work circling the fire, crouched low to scratch her chalk circle into the ground. Then she would proceed to fill it with symbols and scribbled words, consulting her notebook every few steps. Amy had watched this ritual every Saturday morning while she prepared her breakfast smoothie at the kitchen window. She hadn’t mustered the courage yet to go outside and ask Christina what she was doing.

Today, Christina was taking more care than usual. It always took several hours for her to complete the circle to her satisfaction, but this morning she was inspecting every inch like it was newspaper print. Amy almost expected her to pull a magnifying glass out of her backpack and kneel down until the tip of her nose was scraping the tarmac. By the time Amy’s berries were blended and poured into a tall glass, Christina had managed to make it another shuffling step around the edge of the fire. Amy drank the smoothie down in four large gulps, tried not to choke on the seeds dotted through the creamy purple milk, and went to find her running kit.

When she returned from her run, Christina had managed to make it a little further around the circle. Unusually, she was also smiling. Amy was used to seeing a whole range of unhappy facial expressions on the other woman’s face, but she had rarely seen her crack out any kind of grin. She showered, dressed, and come back downstairs with a towel draped over her shoulders to find that Christina had made significant progress. Amy did not know what had happened after those first few steps, but suddenly the other woman was nearly three quarters of the way round the circle, the notebook discarded back at the halfway mark. Amy had several chores that she had been putting off for weeks, but she found herself leaning up against the kitchen sink, eyes fixed to Christina’s hunched figure.

At full circle, Christina straightened, put her hands to her hips, and then threw them up in the air with a gleeful laugh that Amy could hear even through the window pane. The source of Christina’s sudden delight was a mystery. Nothing appeared to have changed. The flames still licked the air to their usual height, throwing off scattered sparks, no smoke, no sign of growing, no sign of dying. Amy pushed away from the sink and went to her front door. Her notebook was unmarked today, but she paused before adding the latest line. Instead, she pulled open the door and walked down to the end of her drive.

Christina did not seem to notice her approach. She was crouching again, her hands pressed down on the floor at two points on her chalk circle. She was murmuring under her breath, words that had the cadence of speech but were no language Amy recognised. As she spoke, the wind began to whip up, gentle at first and then to a thundering gale that sent Amy’s door slamming shut and rattled the street lamps where they stood. Amy’s hair whipped around her face, obscuring her view of Christina for barely a second. Before she could push it away, she heard a hooting cackle of a laugh, and the wind stopped. It did not blow away, or die down slowly. It had been howling, and then Amy’s hair was limp again, and the street lamps had stopped shaking. She could hear Christina’s exhausted breaths stark in the still air.

When Amy looked up, the fire was gone. She stared at the spot where it had been, and looked over her shoulder, wondering if she had perhaps managed to get herself turned around in the wind. But behind her was her house, as she expected, and in front of her was nothing. No smouldering embers, no smoke trails. Only Christina, and her smudged chalk circle.

“You did it,” Amy said, staring at the place where seconds before there had been dancing flames. “How did you do it?”

“A little patience, dear, that’s all.” Christina wiped a hand across her face, smudging a white trail of chalk dust onto her cheek in the process. Amy drew closer, and stopped at the edge of the circle. The symbols that Christina had sketched out looked like a hybrid of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Norse runes, as if she had seen glimpses of both and had merged them together just to see what would happen. The symbol closest to Amy’s feet was a cartoonish bird, with several lines crossing its stomach and a dot of an eye in the middle of its head. Beside it was a loosely outlined flame atop a candle stick, and another abstract rune that Amy noticed looked distinctly like a pair of cat’s ears. Where the fire had been was just a scorched circle of grass.

“What if it rains?” Amy said. “And the chalk gets washed away?”

“That won’t be a problem. The fire’s out now, it can’t just start on its own” Christina said. She reached out with the point of her shoe and scrubbed at the circle of chalk until a thin sliver of tarmac began to show between the white edges. A loud crack split the air, sending Amy stumbling back in surprise. In the middle of the scorched grass, flames shot high into the sky. When they settled again, the fire was back, burning steadily as if it had never been gone.

They both stared at it in silence for several long seconds. Then Christina stooped to gather up her bag and threw it into the backseat of her car, where it hit the upholstery and bounced off onto the floor.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Amy sighed, went back inside, and scratched another pencil mark onto her tally. 5 months, 15 days, 13 minutes, and still on fire.