Mortal Fire (Chapter 1)

Mortal Fire
Truth is what we make it; we believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see; but when reality is thrust upon us,
we are faced with the ultimate dilemma: to acknowledge it
– or to run.

Chapter 1
It must have happened only minutes before.

The startled birds still circling above the tree from which they had risen were the only witnesses to the last moments of the woman’s life. The impact tore the door from her car and from the twisted remains her eyes stared sightless, lifeless. Shredded shards of metal pierced the airbag – now a pale deflated bladder onto which her slow blood dripped.

A single uniformed officer bent over and picked up a small card from the edge of a wheel rut already filling with water. He flicked it on his finger dislodging muddy drops from its plastic surface. He looked up at the sound of the engine and raised his hand.

“Hey, Frank…” My cab driver called to the officer from his rolled down window as he slowed just yards from the scene “What’s up?”

The policeman ambled towards us. “Hi Al,” he greeted him. “She must’ve skidded on all this mud here abouts. Reckon she was using her cell at the time. Lost control.”

He toed a shiny black mobile, its blue-lit face more alive than she would ever be. The cab driver grunted morosely.

“Darn technological revolution. Where’s she from?”

The officer flipped the card again, then wiped his thumb over the stubborn mud-smeared surface, straining at the tiny print.

“San Diego. She’s a long way from home.”

He stared at the photo then at the dead woman, canting his head to get a better look. “Sure is a shame, hey, Al? Bit of a looker too. What a waste.”

“Huh, she’s from away! Wouldn’t you know it; darn foreigner wouldn’t be used to our roads.” Al sniffed, prepared to hawk out of the window, thought better of it. His eyes slid towards mine in the rear-view mirror. “Not that I got anything ‘gainst foreigners, you know?”

“San Diego, Al, not San Salvador.”

“Yeah – might as well be – she ain’t a Mainer anyhow.”

A second car drew up behind the police vehicle, reflecting brief sun and blinding me momentarily as the driver’s door opened. Squinting, Frank looked over his shoulder and, seemingly satisfied this newcomer was no random rubbernecker, nodded to the stranger once, then resumed his conversation.
“Where’re you off to?”

Al shifted the gear and the car’s engine made ready-to-go noises. I urged him silently to leave; the image of the mutilated wreckage lingered, sickened. A figure now bent into the shadowed interior; the wreck slid a fraction.

“I’m taking this lady to Howard’s Lake. I’d better be goin’; I’ve got another fare to pick up at eleven.”

The officer let out a low whistle.

“That college place, huh?” He leaned down and shaded his eyes against the light, peering into the back of the cab where I sat. He acknowledged me then looked back at his friend.  “You take care on them roads, Al; the bridge is almost under water this side of town. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ”Don’t want to end up like her.” He gave me another curious glance as if I had grown two heads in the intervening seconds since he last looked, and patted the roof of the cab.

Distracted by movement, my focus shifted. In the shroud of the car, the man carefully rested the body of the woman against her seat; gently – almost reverently – folding the fabric of her torn skirt over her legs and closing her eyes. As if he cared; as if she mattered. The car suddenly shifted, jerked, metal razoring his bare arm. Before I could react, the man pulled his arm free, shot a look in our direction, and turned his back. But it wasn’t the expression on his face as he turned away, nor the almost casual disregard as he covered his arm with his jacket, but my sudden shock of recognition as the sun struck his hair that left me speechless.

As the cab pulled away, leaving the officer to collect the scattered contents of the woman’s life, I wondered in a passing thought at the deceptions conjured from a distant past and liberated by an exhausted mind.