Black Petals Issue #103, Spring, 2023

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Editor's Page
BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
All the Sky Is Waiting to Be Told: Fiction by Daniel I. Clark
Fire Sale: Fiction by Christopher Pate
Kregah: Fiction by Ron Capshaw
The Beauty of Machinery: Fiction by Hayden Seay
The Cold Sore: Fiction by Chris McGuinness
The Lake: Fiction by Harper Hargis
The Price: Fiction by Josh Hanson
The Tailbone Is Connected to the Hipbone: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Thorn Tree: Fiction by Lawrence Buentello
They: Fiction by Tony Ayers
Work Experience: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Burns: 3 Connected Drabbles by Hillary Lyon
Grandma Medusa: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
I'm So Sorry, Computer: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Invasive: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Jumper: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Personal Things: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Good Doctor: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Another Tomato Invasion, Again: Poem by I. N. Shimabuku
Curse of the Crazies: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Ghosted: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Meteor Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Halo Around the Sun: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Maker's Image: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Specimen: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Blood-stained Jupiter: Poem by Meg Smith
Cat Science: Poem by Meg Smith
Mortician's Powder: Poem by Meg Smith
The Pinups of the Afterlife: Poem by Meg Smith
Dark Gate Park: Poem by Meg Smith
A turntable fabricates hope during the apocalypse in 3 parts: Poem by Dennis Bagwell
Reverend Mother Munchausen: Poem by Sophia Wiseman-Rose
Whispers of Winter: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin
A Man Is Nothing Without His Wife: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin

Christopher Pate: Fire Sale

103_bp_firesale_bholtzman.jpg
Art by Bernice Holtzman 2023

Fire Sale

by Christopher Pate

 

Ernesto killed the engine and leaned forward to scan the back of the rundown mall through the van’s grimy windshield and side windows as accelerant sloshed quietly in the back of the van. The parking lot and loading bay appeared empty and quiet under the few working orange sodium lights.

Ernesto felt edgy. Being keyed up before a job wasn't unusual, but things felt different somehow this time. Something he couldn't quite put a finger on set alarm bells softly jangling. He scratched the back of his neck, his lean frame tense and nerves tingling. He made no move to exit the van as his dark eyes flicked anxiously from one shadow to the next.

“We gonna do this or wha’?” Came the too loud words. “I’m starvin’. C’mon, Ernesto, ain’t nobody around just like we figured.”

Ernesto's eyes cut to Tommy Villa hunched over in the passenger seat. A big lunk, more often used to send blunt messages via scarred fists and battered boots than anything requiring an ounce of finesse, he was the help Ernesto was stuck with for this job. Lucky him.

Ernesto exited the van without responding and moved to open the rear doors. Tommy followed in his rolling gait.

Both men wore gray coveralls with the name of a local construction company stenciled across their backs. They unloaded buckets filled with equipment, and each slung a heavy canvas bag over their shoulders. Closing the van, they hefted their loads and strode toward the loading bay.

“Hey, Ernesto, why don’t yous just douse da place in gasoline ‘n toss a match?” Tommy grunted as he labored under the weight of the buckets and canvas bag. “I mean, seems quicker. In and out, right? Job done.”

“Why don’t you give your mouth a rest and save your breath, huh? For a big guy, you sure get winded easy.” Ernesto opened the door at the loading bay with a key. Tommy was muscle and an extra set of hands; that was all. Ernesto, on the other hand, was the one under the gun to make this job look good. If it appeared to be arson, the insurance investigators would start digging, and until they finished, there would be no payment, if ever, and the bosses wanted a payout for this dump. ASAP.

Ernesto set down his load near the store's entry to the rest of the mall. The whole thing was a rotting relic of last century's galleria craze. Last century, Ernesto snorted as he thought to himself. Last millennium more like. Hard to believe this place was fifty years old.

The store was even more of a dump inside - most of the merchandise had long been removed, stolen, or trashed. Empty display cases and old clothes racks were shoved together in tumbled, unstable-looking piles. Spray paint tags adorned the walls in overlapping, competing art and gang signs. Stinking piles of clothing and trash lay in heaped testament to the homeless who sometimes sheltered here. None seemed present now.

Twenty or more mannequins huddled together in a tight bunch near the door, some still draped in dust-caked clothing that might have been fashionable fifteen years ago. Ernesto studied them closely, wanting to make sure a junkie or bum wasn't hiding among the assembled dummies.

One, a blonde-wigged female model, seemed to make eye contact with Ernesto with a steady stare. The mannequin's eyes were vivid green in the wash of their flashlights. It seemed to watch him as he moved. Ernesto found himself unnerved by that gaze.

Tommy's high-pitched cackle broke the spell.

“Lookit, Ernesto! Ain't this some shit?" The hulking man held a moldy sign picked up from the floor, shaking off the fallen grit and ceiling tiles. Faded red letters emblazoned the poster board, 'Fire Sale — Everything Must Go.'

Tommy cackled again and flung the sign to whirl away. It slithered across the scarred tile floor to knock against the foot of the green-eyed mannequin in a puff of dust and cobwebs. The store dummy wobbled slightly, but the green stare remained locked on Ernesto.

"Just do like I told you," Ernesto growled as he tore his gaze away, nodded toward the long-frozen escalator, and pulled a can of accelerant from a bucket.

"Spread the stuff thin along the base of the walls on the second floor. Don't get sloppy. Get going." Ernesto moved toward one of the ground floor walls. The ground floor was the key. Get it right, and the blaze would spread and quickly become unstoppable. Tommy's work on the second floor was just insurance.

The small, wiry man paused to look over his shoulder, feeling that tingle at the back of his neck again as he knelt by the wall before applying the gelled concoction with a paintbrush. The green-eyed mannequin was somehow still in his line of sight, its gaze evident even in the low gloom. He blinked and averted his eyes. The thing was creepy.

This whole place was weird, he grumbled to himself, but it didn't matter. It would be gone after tonight and everything inside too.

#

The work was tedious, but Ernesto was a man who paid attention to the details. It was one of the reasons they called on him for jobs like this. Jobs that had to be done right or there would be consequences. The type of people he worked for always found someone to pay when things went south. So, he did as ordered quickly and efficiently and took care of all the little details.

Ernesto stood, groaning as he straightened and stretched muscles kinked from all the kneeling and bending over. The department store was barn-like in its near-empty, dilapidated state. A couple of hours had already slipped by. It was getting close to midnight.

He turned, opened his mouth to shout out to Tommy, and stumbled back with a startled gasp, dropping the goop-laden brush. The green-eyed mannequin loomed out of the dusty darkness, almost within arm's reach.

“Shit." Ernesto bent to pick up the brush and stepped closer to examine the figurine. His flashlight still lay on the floor, facing the wall, casting indirect light. The store dummy's shadow and his own stretched long and cadaverously thin along the cluttered floor.

The mannequin showed its wear and tear. An age-brittled honey-blonde wig formed a stiff halo about its perpetually smiling face. A face riddled with hairline cracks, grime, and old, greasy fingerprints smearing its features like drunkenly applied makeup. Those startlingly green eyes were almost luminescent in the murk.

It couldn't be the one he saw earlier, Ernesto thought. He was on the opposite end of the building. Yet, if it wasn't, it must be a carbon copy. It seemed so much like that other one. Ernesto stepped closer, head tilting as he examined the figurine more closely.

“Hey, I ain’t interruptin’ yous two, am I?” Tommy sniggered as he clumped up behind the mannequin.

“She’s sure got a purty mouth.” The thick-necked, thick-headed lunk grabbed the mannequin by the back of its neck and shoved its head at his crotch. Tommy made loud grunting noises as he humped its face.

“You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” Ernesto turned away in disgust, collecting the near-empty accelerant container and brush. “C’mon, let’s finish up.”

“Thanks, baby.” Tommy released the store dummy, and it fell to the floor with an echoing whunk. He chortled and blew a sloppy kiss to the mannequin as it seemed to stare after the retreating pair.

Ernesto squatted by the canvas bags, flashlight cradled between chin and neck as he snapped together parts for the fuse he devised for jobs like this.

“Wha’ is that stuff anyhow?” Tommy had found a dented aluminum ball bat and, being Tommy when he was bored, methodically began to smash display case glass, one shattering blow after the other.

“Just ordinary stuff you’d find in the wall of any place like this. Most will burn or melt, and no one will think twice when they find it.” Ernesto chewed his lip in concentration as he worked. “Now, shaddup and let me work.”

“Yous as grumpy as they all say,” Tommy grunted as he whirled the bat like a major league slugger. A mannequin's head flew and bounced along the floor with hollow clunks before rolling to a stop.

“What the hell?" Ernesto jerked his head up in time to see the lump of muscle taking aim at another figurine.

Whack! Another head clattered across the floor to pitch up against a precariously leaning display case. The case tottered, held for a moment, and then hit the floor with a resounding crash that boomed throughout the abandoned store.

“Goddammit, Tommy!” Ernesto rose, features darkening in anger. “This is supposed to be quick and quiet. Knock it off!”

“Okay, chief!” Tommy winked as he took another swing at a mannequin. Ernesto blinked. It had honey-blonde hair and intense green eyes.

“No!” He screamed at Tommy. The big man jerked in surprise, his aim off as his head snapped wide-eyed toward Ernesto. The bat struck the dummy above the hip with a loud thunk, and the figurine canted hard to the side, Quasimodo-ish. Its golden wig fell to the floor.

The green eyes remained on Ernesto.

“Jesus Christ, Tommy! Why don’t you just step outside and blow a fuckin’ air horn?” Ernesto stomped up to the bigger man staring daggers.

“You screw up this job, and the bosses will make sure you’re sucking face with the fishes before tomorrow is done. Count on it, moron.” Ernesto yanked the bat out of Tommy’s hands and let it fall to the floor with a pinging bounce.

The lumpish thug looked sheepish and resentful at the same time. Ernesto knew Tommy could take him apart without breaking a sweat, but the job wouldn't get done if he did, and Tommy's fate would be grim.

“Okay, okay, Ernesto. Just havin’ a little fun, ya know? Don’t get worked up.” Tommy stuffed his meaty hands into his coverall pockets, eyes downcast.

“Don’t be a putz.” Ernesto poked a finger into the other man’s chest.

“Now wait here and don’t do anything stupid. Hold it. No. Don’t do anything at all ‘cause you don’t do nothin’ but stupid. Got me?" Ernesto bent and clicked a few more things into place on the device he'd been fiddling with, then snapped a battery into a slot. A tiny light flared red. He set the contraption down by the wall in a faintly glimmering strip of smeared accelerant.

“I’m going upstairs to check your work.” Ernesto didn’t look to see if the lugnut understood. He tramped up the escalator, flashlight guiding his steps.

It took Ernesto longer than anticipated. As he feared, Tommy hadn't been very thorough. Not much work was needed on the second floor, but a few critical spots done right would significantly increase the fire's momentum, and the place would be fully engulfed before the first fire truck pulled out of its station.

He dropped the dripping brush when he heard Tommy’s agonized bellow.

Ernesto bolted toward the escalator landing, leaned over the railing, and shouted into the darkness below.

“Tommy! What the hell’s going on? Tommy!” He spun toward the escalator, and something struck him hard across the back of the head.

He fell down the escalator, heard bones snap, and felt the metal teeth of each step bite into flesh as he tumbled. He hit the first floor in a broken, bloody heap.

Ernesto forced his eyes open and tried to turn his head. Hot, agonized spikes lanced through his neck. He knew he should be feeling more pain, though. He remembered bones breaking in sickening, sodden pops, but he felt nothing. Nothing below his neck.

“No…uhhh…god, no.” He gasped and blinked gummy eyelids, but it was pitch black.

Then, a light flashed in chaotic strobes at the top of the escalator. A white light that stammered and stuttered, throwing long, jagged shadows. Ernesto dimly realized that he must have dropped his flashlight up there, damaging it, and it now flashed randomly.

Something moved up there.

“Tommy?" Ernesto's voice rasped weakly. His tongue felt thick, and he had difficulty swallowing. "Tommy, is that you?"

The light pulsed starkly, outlining a figure that stood near the escalator's second-floor landing. Then the light snapped off and again plunged Ernesto's world into deep darkness.

It came on again. A figure leaned sickeningly to the right a few steps down the escalator.

Off. Blackness.

On. The figure, bald and lithely built, stood a few steps lower, its form canted grotesquely to the left now.

Off.

On. The crooked, shadowy form perched a few steps from the bottom.

Off.

On. The dim silhouette tilted stomach-churningly to one side, arms out, hands extended clawlike at the escalator's base.

Off.

On. It hovered over Ernesto with bright green eyes visible even in the shadows.

He groaned and passed out.

#

Ernesto woke, coughing up blood. He spat the thick, coppery fluid and gasped. He blinked, but he saw nothing. It was black as a cave. He was standing upright, though, and he raised one hand to feel around, or tried to. His hand refused to move.

“Goddammit.” His voice shook, and his head throbbed excruciatingly.

“Get your shit together, Ernesto." He closed his eyes or thought he did in the dense blackness and concentrated on moving his legs. Nothing. He felt no movement—no sensation at all from the neck down. A low moan fell from his lips as he turned his head first one way and then the other.

A dull red light throbbed off to his left. It was low, almost floor-level, and its small bulb cast almost zero illumination.

“Tommy?" His words came out thickly, and a rattle gurgled in his chest. He gagged up more blood and then coughed to clear his throat.

“Tommy, are you there?”

A small whuff made him look back toward the red light. Blue flames streaked along the lines of accelerant painstakingly laid out along the floor. They spread very fast.

“Oh fuck." Ernesto struggled and tried to move, to tumble and roll across the floor, but his limbs might as well have been unanswering stone, thick and inert.

“Goddammit, Tommy! Where are you?" He looked around wildly as the flames began to lick up the walls. The blue flames streaked along the floor faster than a man could run. Red-tinged spittle flew from his lips as he whipped his head, peering into the flame-spawned shadows.

Ernesto saw Tommy in the growing light. The big man lay sprawled on one of the battered display cases with a mannequin's arm shoved deep down his throat, making his thick neck bulge hideously. The mannequin's extended hand was turned toward Ernesto as if frozen amid a friendly wave.

“Christ. Oh, Jesus Christ. What the fuck?" He could feel the heat now as the fire spread furiously. The store's interior incandesced in blinding yellows and oranges. Ernesto felt his short locks curling in the heat and smelled burnt hair.

Then he saw her standing beside him as the flames surged. The mannequin. The one with the green eyes. She had her blonde wig back. She still slumped brokenly to one side, but he saw as he looked down she had one arm hooked about his as if they were lovers out for a casual beach stroll.

Something exploded near the loading bay, and a wave of searing heat roared through the cavernous interior. Flaming ceiling tiles rained down.

Ernesto realized he was propped up on a few cloth racks, draped across their metal arms as if he were on display. He was dressed in spring pastels, shorts, and a polo shirt, but the clothing was streaked with dark red blotches. Craning his neck, he saw a jagged, blood-smeared bone projecting from his leg, and his right hand was bent so far its back touched his wrist and forearm.

Matching pastels adorned the mannequin. Ernesto giggled as he thought they made quite the couple. Flames began to lick up his legs and those of the mannequin as he hung there, unable to move more than his head.

Another explosion shook the building, and metal screamed as part of the roof sagged.

The rush of skin-blackening heat lifted a poster from the floor, and it fluttered by Ernesto. He blinked as he took in the little details right to the last.

Fire Sale — Everything Must Go!

He began to laugh, spewing dark blood as the fire raced up his body.

The flames and smoke obscured his vision, but he looked at the mannequin in his last moment of clarity. Her clothes and hair blazed merrily, but he clearly saw one bright green eye closed now in a flirty wink as the other stared into his watering eyes.

Ernesto’s maniacal laughter competed with the fire’s roar until the fire allowed him to laugh no longer.

 

Christopher Pate was born in a small rural Ohio farming town and currently lives with his wife, daughter, and dog in coastal Virginia. He was short-listed in The Write Practice's Spring 2022 Writing Contest and has previously been published at Short Fiction Break.

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