A short story by AD Bane
Sam was excited. The Burning had come at last.
The Burning came every year in the middle of summer, the first day of August. It was an unusual day and Sam met it each year with all the enthusiasm pent up from winter and spring. Where others might celebrate Christmas or Easter or even New Years, in the field Sam and those others who lived nearby would celebrate the day when the Fire came.
Sam was luckier than most: the home he’d inherited from his family overlooked the long strip of green field where the elders had once built the lawn. Now he lived in that home with his only brother, Charlie, and every year on July 30th they could look out from their porch as people came from all over the countryside to gather on the lawn inside the white picket fence. As many as two hundred people from all the homes nearby, young people, youths mostly, and some children. There they’d greet their friends and neighbours in expectation of the Fire that came every year.
The Fire itself wasn’t on the lawn. Beyond the end of the field, past the picket fence so recently white-washed the elders had ringed the pit in stones where the Fire came, and every year that was where the flames arose, beyond the fence.
Sam went to bed the night before the Burning with great expectation, and for a long time he couldn’t sleep, his mind was racing with the excitement. It seemed he’d only just shut his eyes when the sun was opening them again as it streamed through his window and he sat up in a hurry and a grin because it was the Burning at last: the Fire would come.
The Burning lasted from the moment the sun came up until well after it’d gone down in the evening, and so by the time Sam had gotten dressed, washed and taken his breakfast out onto the porch, the celebrations in the field were well-underway. He watched as the crowd of those who’d come for the Burning was erupted in excitement; he watched as they gathered at the fire and danced; he watched as the green of the grass faded to red and then brown under the hundred feet that moved over it. He’d like to be down there now but there was work in the house that needed doing, and the celebration was only just beginning. There was a lot more to come, and he wouldn’t miss anything.
So he cleaned his dishes and he made his bed. He cleaned his teeth and combed his hair. He put on his best clothes. And then he swept the floor, because oftentimes before when the Burning came to a close at midnight those who’d come from far would go around to the homes of others to wish them all the best for the year to come. It was a ritual near as old as the lawn and the fire, and Sam didn’t wish to miss it because he hadn’t taken the time to sweep the floor.
It was mid-morning when he’d finished his chores. He sat by the hearth finishing the coffee he’d made at breakfast when Charlie came up the walk. “Sam,” he called. “Are you coming down?”
Charlie had been at the lawn since dawn’s first light. He was older than Sam and was always so enthusiastic for The Burning.
“Yea, I’m coming,” Sam answered. It wasn’t that he wasn’t excited for The Burning; he’d been swimming inside with expectation from the moment he’d laid down to sleep. But Sam was a responsible person. He’d had to be ever since their parents had been put out. And it wasn’t that Charlie wasn’t responsible, but he didn’t always stop to think through his responsibility first. Might be Charlie was older, but Sam had always known he was the adult in the absence of the parents.
The lawn was just erupting when they stepped outside, and Sam could hear the cheers and cries as they walked down the path to the field. He kicked the dust and watched it rise in puffs from the ground; it had been a dry summer and many were hoping the Burning would bring rain.
The field was a long and narrow strip like a runway. Some said it’d once belonged to the Hemmings a long time ago, but when the Fire came they’d donated it; now it either belonged to everyone or no one, and every July the ardently green grass was cut and the fence painted. Paths were worn into the field from the east to the west where many people came and walked the length of it, little tracks that came from all directions and joined in the middle until they reached the white-washed fence.
One such path led down from Sam and Charlie’s house, and they followed it now.
“Terry Greenwood and Kyla Derrick are already out,” said Charlie as they went. “Myles was chosen, and so were Lacy and Danny.”
Sam grimaced. It was all a part of the Burning, but he hated it when his own friends went out, and especially so soon. Even it was those who were little better than strangers, like Terry and Kyla, it was still hard to hear.
“I hope I’m chosen his year,” said Charlie when they were partway across the length of the field. “I really wanted to be chosen last year. Dolly says I’ve a really good chance this year, now that I’m twenty-one. I’m one of the oldest now.”
“If you’re chosen,” answered Sam, “Mom and Dad will be proud.”
Thinking of Mom and Dad was always hard for Sam. Dad had been chosen himself many years ago, and he’d always wanted that for Sam and Charlie; but they also had to think realistically: not everyone was chosen.
The lawn was erupting once more as they were nearing the gate in the white picket fence: someone had just been chosen. But by the time Sam and Charlie were on the lawn it was already over.
Amanda Hocking, though some years younger, was one of Sam’s friends, and she met them at the gate. “It was Billy Handle was chosen,” she said. “I was hoping he’d be chosen this year. The youngest so far, too.” Billy Handle was only fifteen years old.
“Who else?” asked Sam as they worked their way through the crowd to the gazebo.
“Dyle was chosen with Billy,” said Amanda, “and Rice and Emily were chosen before them.”
“How long?” asked Sam, meaning the interval. Every year the interval between choosings was different, sometimes more frequent, sometimes less; but they always paid careful attention to it so as to know when next the Fire would choose.
“Thirteen and a half minutes,” said Amanda.
“Shorter than last year.”
“And the year before,” said Doran who’d just stepped up to the railing of the gazebo next to Sam. “Some are saying it’s getting shorter and shorter.”
“More choosings?” asked Amanda. “What does that mean?”
Doran shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Charlie said, “Three years ago it was only twelve minutes, wasn’t it?”
“You’re right,” Sam agreed. “I seem to remember that.”
“I don’t remember that far back,” said Amanda who was only twelve years old. “But I remember last year and the one before. The Burning was so much fun! I’ve hoped each year to be chosen. It must be so exciting, to know the Fire has chosen you out of everyone.”
“It is,” said Len, who was standing nearby. He was seventeen and had been chosen the year before. He still had the scars of scratches on his arms from his choosing. “It’s terribly exciting and scary both at once. But hearing the Fire speak to you is worth it all, and knowing that you’re doing what it wants.”
Gabriel Smith was standing next to Len, and she asked, “Does it actually speak, Len? I mean, can you really hear words?”
Len nodded. “Speaks just like I’m speaking now. The flames lick up and touch your hand, and you hear in your head it saying your name and asking you if you want to be chosen. Then it’s like everything sort of wigs out and—”
Dacey Landers’ voice from the podium at the rear of the lawn interrupted him. “Six minutes to the next choosing!” she cried.
“You remember when Evan Brown was chosen?” asked Amanda then when the resultant cheer had died down. “He broke through the fence. When they washed the lawn they couldn’t get the blood out of the grass. The stain was still there a week later.”
“I know – I saw it,” Charlie agreed. “Edwin finally cut the grass back to the root so it could grow in new.”
Sam was looking out across at the choosing ground beyond the white-washed fence where the flames were climbing up through the fresh wood. “Wasn’t someone planning on laying sod out to the fire this year?” he asked. “—or that’s what I heard.”
Charlie and Amanda frowned, unsure; but Len said, “Can’t. Against the rules.”
Why was that? Sam wondered to himself.
“Dacey’s gonna speak again,” said Charlie. “Must be nearly time.”
Dacey Landers had mounted the steps to the stand again, and she stood at the podium, her bright-gold hair radiant in the nooning sun. Her own excitement was evident in her face. “Everyone ready?” she cried loud enough to be heard above the commotion on the lawn. “One minute to choosing!”
“Common,” said Amanda, tugging at Sam’s arm. “Let’s get closer to the gate so we can get through.”
They moved through the crowd, which was thick at the gate now, shoving and elbowing to get by, but the others closed in around them.
“Thirty seconds!” called Dacey, her voice cracking with excitement. “Choosing in thirty seconds!”
“Closer!” yelled Amanda, pushing forward. She was smaller, and she vanished ahead of Sam between Bill Anders and Samuel Perks. He tried to follow her but the crowd was too tight.
Ahead of him Sam could see the flames of the fire growing higher and higher, climbing until everyone could see it. It licked in the air in golden tongues, and the shouts of those watching was deafening because they all knew that the time had come. “It’s here!” they shouted. “The Fire has come to choose!” Those closest to the gate opened it and rushed toward the firepit, shoving each other in their haste to be the first, trampling anyone smaller than themselves. And to Sam’s surprise he found himself now nearly to the gate, then through it, and he was running as hard as he could to get to the fire. Amanda was next to him, keeping pace even over the dirt and gravel, and Charlie was ahead of them both, nearly to the fire, which was leaping higher still. Then the heat of the flames was on Sam’s face, and he started the same dance he’d done every year and seen everyone else do, as well. He leaped, he swooned, he cried. He waved his arms, he caught the flames in his hands and released them into the sky like a bird from a nest. “Fire fall!” he cried with the others in one voice. “Fire fall and choose me!” He felt the heat on his face, on his arms, on his hands. He watched the flames to see if they would choose him. He listened for the voice. But he heard only the yells of the others, crying out to be chosen.
“The choosing!” someone yelled. “The choosing!”
“Who’s been chosen?” asked someone else.
“It’s Ed! Go Ed!”
Sam looked across the fire. Edward Brim had fallen to his knees, clutching his face in his hands. Was he laughing or crying? Sam couldn’t tell.
“Who’s the other?” someone else yelled. “Who is it?”
Sam looked around to see who else had been chosen. Amanda looked back at him: not her. David and Rich looked back, too: not them. But Charlie was standing frozen, his eyes wide and staring into the flames, his hand outstretched. The fire was licking at his fingers. His lips curled.
“It’s Charlie!” someone yelled. “It’s Charlie! Go Charlie!”
Ed was getting up now, his eyes bright, his hands clenched, and Sam looked around, wondering who Ed would choose to put out. The others started backing away from him. Ed reached into the fire just as others had before him, and when he drew his hand out again he was holding a firestone that burned bright. He turned in a flourish and his eyes fell on Amanda. No, not Amanda! Sam thought. Not her. But Ed rushed at her, smiling, the stone in his hand. She screamed and tried to get away, just as others had before her for years and years. She ran for the white-washed fence and the crowd parted before her. Sam wanted to run to her, to help her. He couldn’t imagine what he’d do; he couldn’t hurt the Chosen. He just had to do something. He couldn’t watch it, he couldn’t watch her be put out. He tried to move but his feet wouldn’t respond to the pleas of his mind. He tried to yell but his throat was dry. And all he could do was watch as Ed closed the distance, the stone in hand. It struck the back of her head and she fell to her face.
Sam felt sick, weak. He wanted to vomit. He’d seen others put out before. He’d seen the grass turned slick and red with the blood. He’d seen the stains on the fence and the gazebo where they’d been killed, their faces crushed by the firestones. It’d been people he’d known, people he thought were his friends. But never Amanda. Never her.
Sam looked up to where Amanda lay just an arms-reach from the fence. Ed was standing over her, blood on his arms and his hands from swinging the stone. He looked tired, drained, but others were crowding around him, cheering. No one saw Chloe kneeling by her sister’s caved head. No one saw her tears mixing with Amanda’s blood.
“Decide, Charlie!” someone was yelling now. “Ed chose, now you choose!”
Sam looked back at Charlie. The same light that had burned in Ed’s eyes was in Charlie’s now, and he watched as Charlie reached into the fire. And Sam knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who it was Charlie had chosen.
He didn’t look back to see if Charlie was following him; he didn’t have to. He could dimly hear the others yelling, cheering, “Go Charlie!” The fence came up in front of him. It was low-enough that he could get over, and he didn’t even pause. The crowd parted before him and he crossed the lawn. He wasn’t thinking, he was only doing. The stand was in front of him, and he leapt up on it. He had to get away.
But as Sam crossed the platform he felt something warm in his hands, and when he looked down they were bright red. At first he couldn’t decide what it was that had made them so red and warm. And slick, too. He stopped running and ran his hands together. The red smeared over his fingers. A drop fell on the back of his fingers. Sam looked up, and as he saw the clear blue and the white of the clouds floating by he also saw more clearly than he ever had before. His hand touched his scalp where the stone had hit him and the blood was now matting his hair. He could feel it running down his neck, and when he tipped his head forward a trickle came down his brow and into his eye. Why me? he thought. But that was just it, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted the Fire. They just didn’t understand the blood. Everyone wanted to be Chosen.
Sam turned back toward the crowd. Friends. People he’d known all his life. People chosen by the fire, some to live, some to die. They’d all accepted their fate. And as Charlie leapt to the platform, stone in hand, Sam knew that the strange fire would devour them all.
This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author. © 2013 ADBane.com