Last week I opened my email to a Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig’s blog terribleminds. The prompt says to take a song that really moves you, and write a flash fiction piece based on a few lyrics from that song. How did Mr. Wendig know that I think in song? Challenge accepted.
Now, this blog is just freshly hatched. (This is only the second post.) I can’t just drop this flash fiction here without a little context. So, please bear the introduction.
“Ghost Towns” by Radical Face makes me feel like I’m hiking by myself, thinking and breathing deep. What Radical Face song doesn’t, am I right? If you care to read all the lyrics, I’ll link them here. The song speaks to having new adventures and living for the present. When we left the religion of our upbringing we had a shift in purpose. Instead of living for the afterlife, we strive to savor this life for all it’s worth. We become less bogged down in questioning our worthiness and just live.
There are times, however, when we ache to believe again. It’s emotionally easier. Relationships aren’t strained. We knew our place in the world then. “But all this time, I been chasin’ down a lie. And I know it for what it is. But it beats the alternatives. So I’ll take the lie.” The adage, ignorance is bliss, feels so relevant now it throbs. We know we can’t go back. We will never see the church in the same way. We are left to salvage our good name when everyone knows we have rejected untouchable beliefs. We take on the name of X. “There’s no comin’ home with a name like mine.”
I adapted the following short from my novel, a dystopian genre fiction which still largely exists inside my cranium. (It will emerge glorious one day– I’m working on it!) Because a good flash fiction should need no backstory, here you go. I hope you enjoy.
Fire in Every Footstep
To the tune of “Ghost Towns” by Radical Face.
‘Cause all my life is wrapped up in today
No past or future here
If I find my name’s no good
I just fall out of line
But I miss you…
My bones are aching for the sun to rise—shoulders and hips on the verge of exploding after a night on the sandstone. It doesn’t matter if you are twenty-five or sixty-five; sleeping on the ground is horrible. After another twenty minutes of tumbling around in the tent I look at my watch again: 4:42am. Screw it. I’m getting up.
After a quick squat next to the tent I shuffle around camp to pass the time. Silence fills the space between cricket chirps and a frog duet. The air is cold, and I inhale it slowly, dreading the day’s hike ahead. On the exhale my spine slumps into an arc, pulling my head up to face the sky. The stars are unbelievable, glittering across a black zeroscape.
It’s funny. I am insignificant in this universe—yet strangely aware of it. Physical powers that form mountains out of molecules don’t give a damn about me, yet here I am—a tiny spec of old star dust gawking at the grandeur of it all.
As morning starts to fade in, I’m glad my sore bones got me up in time to watch the sun rise. Thank you, concrete bed. Tender mercies.
Dawn illuminates the landscape around camp, and I am again in reverence. After all these years this place still feels like another planet. The sandstone glows orange as the sun’s light angles deeper into the canyon. I feel small once more, but this time against the spires of red-rock that circle like powerful patriarchs. Rust and black desert varnish color the wind-carved steeples and canyon walls that loom over me.
I face the warm sun and close my eyes, overwhelmed with bright light and a mixture of emotions. I try to focus on the inside of my eyelids to gain composure. A bird’s song helps guide my thoughts from grief to purpose. The bottle containing her ashes sits next to my pack. I am still getting used to being alone. I wish she were here. It’s not the same hike without her.
Olive died six months ago from life-long complications of bacterial meningitis. Thousands of people living in The Sanctuary contracted the bacteria. She was one of the lucky ones to get treatment in time, but the infection left her with debilitating nerve pain, migraines, and early memory loss. Her symptoms were sometimes negligible, but they got worse with age. The last time we were here together was four years ago. The pain was too much for her after that.
Yes, we escaped The Sanctuary, and fostered a life of freedom and love. But the disease contracted inside its walls would forever remind us of our damaged roots.
I brew some coffee and fuel up with a gritty protein bar. The plan today is to make it to Druid Arch, a strenuous two-and-a-half miles. I’ll follow the wash another mile or so before I hit the base of the last climb. Spring-runoff from the top of the plateau used to mean a lot of wading, but the creek bed has been dry for years. I’d be lucky to see mud today.
I have been backpacking in the Needles District of The Canyonlands National Park almost every spring since I was twenty-six years old. Tucked away in the Colorado Plateau, the place has become a ritualistic voyage. My father brought us here for the first time, eager to share its beauty. The landscape is dramatic, full of contrasts. Mesas and sheer Wingate cliffs shoot straight up from the desert terrain like sky risers. Between each overwhelming formation the land is all but barren. A vivid blue sky and coral-colored terrain clash at the horizon. The desert night is as cold as the day is hot. And running through all this drought induced environment is the wide and wondering Colorado River.
It’s almost seven o’clock. Time to get moving.
I busy myself with breaking camp, then readjust my pack. The tent, mat, and sleeping bag are secure. The food and water bags are balanced on my frame as best as I could get them. I have nearly twenty pounds of water left to carry. Finally, I pick up the mason-jar urn, wrap it in cloth, and tuck it in a sling that rests across my shoulder. Her spirit burns like a fire in my chest. This time, the journey is for her. This is my last hike with Olive.
My muscles are glad to be fluid again. Besides some bruises on my hips from wearing my pack, this old body feels pretty good. My boots step onto river stones mixed with sand, making a gritty “clink-clink” with each step. The air is coming into my lungs faster now, cleansing my mind and my blood.
I stop for water and a breather before the last ascent. It’s already getting hot. One last steep climb to go. My emotions match the ups and downs as I clamber over baking boulders. Knees bursting with pain, backing aching, I keep moving.
The Arch is just beyond the horizon. The top of the sandstone temple peaks into view. The sun is burning my face. It’s so bright. Come on, old woman, I tell myself. Almost there.
I imagine Olive sitting in the cut-out of the arch, welcoming me to the end. Physically and emotionally beat, I collapse to my knees at the top. The heat and pain, the view, missing Olive—it’s all too much. I sob.
Pulling the urn out of the sling, I think I’m finally ready for this. I walk to the edge of the canyon rim that cliffs at the base of the arch. Stratified spires of rust and cream-colored sandstone form a maze in front of me: The Needles. I unscrew the lid and scoop out as much of her carbon as I can with my shaking hand. With one last deep breath I launch those ashes sky high. Tiny bits of Olive-dust sparkle in the desert sunlight and float away. She is gone.