"And So It Begins." Flash fiction stories of up to 500 words that begin with a first sentence we provide. The first sentence for issue one is "I had never seen a tree on fire before." (First place - three way tie)

My Flaming

By Heather McDonald

I had never seen a tree on fire before. Thank God for the blazing vision as Daryl throttled me against a boulder in the middle of the goddamn Nantahala River. Praise Jesus. Hallelujah. Salvation at last. My last moment of earth would be with Daryl and a flaming 30-foot hemlock. This could be a sign of God, a symbol of his power to dazzle me into redemption. A reason to give my last few seconds to Christ, live in the light, and bask in all His goodness as my windpipe closed and my tongue swelled into my mouth. God is good, indeed. If I could have breathed I would have closed my eyes and sang Our God is an awesome God. If Daryl hadn’t pinned me against the granite with his bird legs, I would have swayed.

Smoke twisted and curled above Daryl’s head. He coughed and spit on my chin. The fire unnerved him. With his hands occupied, he probably felt guilty for not praying about it. He tightened his grip.

I heard my tongue smack and my jacket slip against Daryl’s fatigues. The river gurgled and thrashed. The hemlock needles exploded in the heat. Above this, I heard my mother. If I just stopped solving my own problems. If I just accepted God’s love. That scholarly liberal Christian-loathing brainwashing in Chapel Hill—just leave it be. If I would pray, just pray, just talk to God. Talk to Him like she and Daryl had that Wednesday night after altar call at Heaven’s Gate Hall of God, then everything would be fine. Just fine.

River water dropped from Daryl’s nose onto my cheek. His breath smelled like rain on asphalt. I wished Mom knew her prayer buddy and surrogate son in Christ could sport a boner even in freezing water.

I clutched Daryl’s collar but my fingers felt nothing. The river’s current tugged at my boots. Just as white spots bounced about my eyelids, Daryl loosened his grip. He looked into the blaze, his mouth open and neck clenched.

Pray Daryl, pray. Pray Daryl, pray. Mom loved that he prayed. Prayed in his Monte Carlo before dates. Prayed in line at the K&W Cafeteria with the servers and their ice cream scoops of mashed potatoes. He spoke in tongues during exorcisms. He preached at Heaven’s Gate every Sunday and Wednesday. He even played in the praise band.

I wondered if he beat the tambourine against his palm or his hip.

Daryl’s loose hands warmed my neck. I dropped my head back against the rock to see the tree myself. Red branches reached into a blank sky. Pine needles curled along charred fingers of wood. Maybe Daryl saw a sign like the burning bush. Maybe he thought of the flames flickering above the apostles’ heads. Or imagined Christ on a fiery cross. Maybe he saw the angel sitting on a smoldering branch, smoking a cigarette, the one who waved and winked. The one who wanted to send me home.