Inktober 2019 – Ash

Bronson seemed shocked to find himself where he was. It was not, after all, where he went to sleep. He was still confined, of course. I might have pulled him out of prison, but I was not letting him free. I stayed back in the shadows for a while, listening to him rattle the bars, stifling my own laughter when he screeched as the cage shifted and he realized how far off the ground it sat. I didn’t think he noticed the cables securing it at the top. He wasn’t in any danger.

Not of falling, at least.

Five minutes seemed enough of an overture. Bronson was starting to run out of juice anyway, as he either started to think about his current situation or just didn’t have the stamina to keep screaming. I lit a candle and stepped out where he could see me easily. Another laugh needed suppressing, although I could hardly disguise my smirk at the way hope and fear chased one another across his face.

“Hey,” he called down. “Where am I?”

“You’re in a cage, Mr. Bronson.” More fear in his eyes, and much less hope. Excellent. The very tone I was looking for in the opening movement of this little composition. “Shall I elaborate?”

A single slow nod, and I could almost smell his thought. Keep her talking. Stall for time. Good luck with that. “Your cage is in a dairy barn which has not been used for about fifteen years. It’s not too far from town, but it’s a lot farther than your voice will carry. I promise.”

He drew a breath, as if he would prove me wrong, as if he hadn’t spent almost five minutes making as much noise as he was able before I revealed myself. I watched, holding the candle up by my face so he could see how unconcerned I was. How amused I was.

I wondered if any of the rage was showing behind it.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

I should have made up a bingo card of things I expected him to say. Two for two, so far.

“Because of what you did to me, Mr. Bronson.” I gave that a moment. The glare of the candle by my face made it a little hard to see him, but I kept it there, letting him have a good look as his expression wrinkled with the effort of searching memory. “I don’t think you know who I am.”

“No. No! I never did anything to you. Why don’t you let me go?”

“After going to so much effort to bring you back to San Guillermo?” I lowered the candle, because I wanted to see his face properly when that realization dawned. The start of the second movement came as his eyes grew wide.

“Hey…” He came right up to the bars. They’re widely spaced, and I wondered if he would try to get between them. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see that or not. It might have been fun to watch him wriggle between the steel uprights, head firmly stuck, but he’d also be distracted when the finale arrived.

He didn’t even try. He just looked down at me, and said, “Look, no one was hurt…”

“That’s what I heard. That’s what they thought. We had to look pretty hard to find somewhere so far off the beaten track that wasn’t already full of nazis or preppers.” He shook his head a little, and backed away. Good. I didn’t want him to misunderstand anything.

“I’m not… the judge said I…”

“Spare me the diminished capacity line, Mr. Bronson. You seem to have a fine grip on the concept of consequences, to judge from how you’re sweating up there.” I walked around his cage, a wide arc which took me toward the barn’s main door. A little table stood there. It had been a fortuitous discovery, because the moment I saw it, I knew it was going to be an important element in this part of the performance. I stood behind it, setting the candle down on one corner. He watched me, mesmerized.

“You will spend the rest of your life in that cage, Mr. Bronson, unless you can give a convincing reason why you shouldn’t.” I held up my hand, shaking my head, and he didn’t finish the first word of whatever he was about to say.

“You don’t have to convince me. You have to convince my husband,” and as I said it, I set medium-sized jam jar down on the table. It had no label, and the dusty grey contents were easily visible in the candle-light, even from where Bronson was. “And our children.” Two more jars, smaller, one on either side of the first.

“Go ahead. Make your case.”

While I didn’t know the specifics he’d come out with, I had a sense of how the end of the second movement would run. The sheet music often has largo or andante up in the corner. It’s the dull part, the bit where the audience can nod off. But I did him the courtesy paying attention, because part of me was honestly curious.

What I found most interesting was that he actually spoke to the jars. Pointless, of course. They were just props. When I got back to the house I couldn’t tell any of my family from the beds they slept in or the roof that had failed to shelter them. It had been a dry season.

Less interesting was the litany of excuses. Failures of society. Frustration at rejection by the fire department, despite his obvious potential. No mention of an abusive parent. No suggestion of the kind of cognitive impairment that would really lift the blame from him. Eventually, I raised my hands to stop him.

“Let me consult with the tribunal.” Like the jars, this was mere theatre. Where my family had gone, my powers cannot reach. It was just the way I wanted to kick off the finale.

“I suppose you’d like out of there,” I said, and Bronson nodded enthusiastically.

“Stand by the door, then.” I really couldn’t help smiling at this part. He did a full turn, then reversed, yanking at the bars on each of the four sides of the cage. Then, bless him for being thorough, he reached up to tug and push against the roof. He even stared at the grill under his feet.

“Oh, that’s right. There is no door.” He gaped at me. “Do you know how I got you in?”

A shake of his head. He was slack-jawed, confusion starting to crowd out the terror that was filling him. That was fine. Terror could take a short rest.

“Magic. My family lived at the back end of nowhere so I could do magic without people getting in the way.” He wasn’t believing me. His confusion was marbled with amusement, and that amusement was coloured by the idea that he was at the mercy of a lunatic. Bronson did not have much of a poker face. “So when you were asleep, I made you into a mist, and passed you right through the walls of Folsom and all the way back here to San Guillermo and into that cage.”

Terror was coming back from its break. His eyes were on swivels, looking for the way out that wasn’t there. He touched one of the support cables, ran his fingers over it, dismissed it as unhelpful.

“So,” I went on, as if I hadn’t noticed, “would you like to see how I got you in? How I could get you out?”

That got his attention. He still didn’t believe me, clearly, but I suppose he thought humouring me might help. I picked the candle up from the table, raised it until it was right before my face.

“Watch carefully,” I said, making the flame dance with the passage of the words. Then I brought it closer, pursed my lips like I was about to blow it out.

Then I blew, very gently, and the flame of the candle laid over, stretched out and drew the candle behind it, until the whole thing was just the idea of a candle stretching from where I stood, filtering between the slats of the great cube of shipping pallets I had collected and built up until it was as tall as me. The cloud that once was a candle found its way to directly below Bronson at the height of the packed dirt floor, and then it was a candle again.

It was also dark in the barn again. Not as dark as it had been because a little light was seeping out between the pallets. It was getting brighter. The finale was well and truly underway, allegro, soon to be vivace.

“It’s very dry wood, Mr. Bronson,” I said. “You won’t have to worry about suffocating from the smoke.” He let out a weird little yap as I turned my back on him, and I could hear him frantically bounding from one side of the cage to another. I was pretty sure the cables would hold, to keep the cage where it was once the platform under it collapsed. It likely wouldn’t matter, one way or another.

By the time I had driven down to the little secondary highway, the light from inside the barn was noticeable. I glanced to the right, saw people at the gas station on the edge of San Guillermo. Satisfied that someone would raise the alarm before things got out of hand, I turned left.

It was only then I realized that I had left the jars behind. I shrugged. Only props. If they did, by chance, contain any trace of my husband or my children, if that trace somehow mingled with a similar residue of their killer, it didn’t matter. The essential parts of them and him were bound for entirely different places.

“Inktober 2019 – Ash” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

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Dirck

Fountain pen fancier and repairer, intermittent intellectual, underfunded anarcho-dandyist, and self-admitted writer of fiction, who's given to frequently wishing everything he wrote of a nonfictional sort was being read aloud by Stephen Fry, and everything else by either Vincent Price or Christopher Lee.

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