Short Stories by Rick Jankowski

Speculative and Sensitive Fiction



The Sound of Midnight Fire is a prequel to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's masterpiece. 

It's a tale of the last writer in the world as he struggles to complete the last novel before the book burnings begin.

It was published as The Deadline in the Jan., 2004, edition of Peridot Books.

The editor called it brilliant and readers have called it haunting. 

I commissioned an artist, Pisceanart, to draw the opening book burning scene.  He created a black and white comic book style page, which I feel perfectly captures the feel and tone of the story. I hope you like it too!

Click here to see the comic page in full size.


 





The Sound of Midnight Fire


Thousands of black and white leaves curled and charred. A solitary leaf escaped the flames, fluttered in the breeze and rose toward the darkening sky. A hand moved, a trigger clicked, a jet of orange howled. Engulfed, the leaf burned brightly for a moment, then plummeted to the street, a small, blackened clump.

A young boy with matchstick legs broke from a crowd that had gathered for the spectacle. He hopped off a curb, scurried toward the clump, and poked it with a pale finger. The clump disintegrated.

"Get away from there," a voice boomed.

The boy’s eyes widened. A man in a glistening, black beetle helmet waved him away. The boy bolted from the street and hid behind a slim man with dark hair and sad eyes. The man in the beetle helmet raised his flamethrower and finished his job.

The slim man, Raynard, turned his sad eyes toward the sky. Smoky tendrils from hundreds of bonfires throughout the city spiraled upward.

The smell of kerosene and burning words filled the air.

Raynard bent to one knee and whispered. "When adults play with fire, Desmond, no one is safe. Best you head home, buddy."

Desmond nodded shyly, then scurried across green lawns, past grey houses and disappeared into the smoke.

Raynard shuffled up a sidewalk and into his house. He closed his front door and stood with his back against it for a long time. In the living room, floor to ceiling telescreens flashed scene after smoky scene from every corner of the city. A perfectly modulated electronic voice emanated from speakers throughout the house.

"Twelve hours to deadline," it said. "Twelve hours."

Raynard ran his fingers through his hair and padded to his kitchen. His wife, Margaret, stood on a chair, the backs of her slim ankles and shapely calves faced him. She rummaged noisily through a cabinet over the refrigerator.

"I knew there were some up here," she said. She brushed blond and silver hair from her eyes and stepped off the chair, several spiral-bound books in hand. She plopped them onto a plastic kitchen table.

He picked one up. Lines around his eyes deepened. "Not your cookbooks?" he said.

Around him, the electronic voice persisted, "Twelve hours to deadline. Burn them all. Let there be no doubt."

Margaret bit her lower lip. Her teeth left impressions.

"My cookbooks, too," she said.

He wrapped his arms around her.

#

Raynard sat at a makeshift desk in a closet off the main hall.

"Six hours to deadline," the speakers reminded.

He scribbled furiously with a blue pen on large, torn sheets of brown paper. His writing was small and cramped. He had much to say – and little time in which to say it. In spite of that, his lips tilted slightly upward. He had torn the paper from disposal bags distributed by the firemen. Special bags that burned at the same temperature at which books burned. He couldn’t trust hand-held devices, or his computer, which linked to every other computer in the country, but, he could trust paper – even their paper - as long as he stayed away from the wall screens that talked – and watched. He turned a page, rubbed a callous that had developed on his middle finger, groped for a word. Not writer’s block, he thought. Not now. I’m so close. He slid open a small drawer and extracted a dictionary.

Outside, security sensors on his front door clicked and hummed. Micro-circuitry detected an identity chip implanted in the wrist of every adult and matched its electronic pattern against an internal database.

"Fire Marshal Vertag at the front door," the security system announced.

Raynard slipped the dictionary into a pocket. He neatly straightened the brown pages and flipped them so no writing was visible. He padded to a stack of fire bags next to the front door. From both knees, he lifted the stack and neatly tucked the pages underneath. Best place to hide a tree is in the forest, he thought.

"Fire Marshal Vertag," the system insisted.

Raynard tugged open the front door.

Silver hair, black jacket, red salamander on his chest.

Vertag.

The fire marshal snapped his fingers. A crewcut with tree-trunk legs brushed past, carting bundles of fire bags. He dropped them next to Raynard’s smaller stack. They tilted and Raynard’s stack toppled. Bags skidded across the floor.

Raynard spied blue letters peeking from beneath the corner of a bag. His eyelid twitched. Be calm, be calm, be calm, he thought.

Vertag scowled at Crewcut. "Clumsy fool," he said. He tilted his head toward the scattered bags. "Pick them up," he commanded.

Crewcut’s scalp reddened. He bent to begin his task and his hand slid toward the bag covering Raynard’s secret.

Raynard’s mind shrieked. Move! Do something! Quickly he slipped his hand into a pocket and extracted the dictionary. He waved it under Vertag’s nose.

"Don’t worry about the bags," he said, surprised at the serenity in his voice. "Look what I almost forgot."

Vertag turned his gaze from the bags. Crewcut stopped, stood, leaned close.

Vertag plucked the book from Raynard’s hand and strode to the center of the living room. On the surrounding walls, digital flame, fueled by centuries of thought, flickered orange, then yellow, then white. The fire marshal slowly shook his head.

"Not like you to miss anything," he said. "But, you can be forgiven. You’ve distributed more fire bags than any other block captain – don’t know what you do with all of them - and the law really doesn’t go into effect for a few hours."

He reached into his pocket and extracted a silver lighter. Holding the dictionary aloft, he lit it. Flames crawled along an edge, grew strong.

"Finally," he said, "the arguing is over, the politicians have agreed, the war of words is done."

He swept an arm toward the telescreens.

"Technology and sports," he said. "What more do we need. What good is dark ink on white paper? Hold that paper, those words to the light, and all you have…" he brought the book close to his lips and blew out the flames, "… is smoke."

He handed the charred remains to Raynard. "Dispose of it," he said. "then deliver these bags to every man, woman and child in the neighborhood. Make sure they find every book, every pamphlet, every scrap of paper with writing on it - and burn them before midnight. Make sure they know that anyone caught with books tomorrow…"

He paused, raised an eyebrow.

"… could suffer a similar fate."

Raynard nodded.

Vertag took Raynard’s hand in his and ran a finger over the callous.

"Odd injury," he said. "Noticed it when you handed me the dictionary. Better take care of it. Funny how little things like that can destroy a man."

One side of Vertag’s lips ticked slightly upward. He motioned for Crewcut and they marched from the house. Raynard slowly closed the door behind them. His temples throbbed. He bent, methodically straightened the fire bags - and retrieved the hidden pages.

A shadow fell across the hallway.

Margaret. One hand covered her mouth.

"Oh, god, Ray," she said, "they know."

He slipped an arm around her shoulder and gently led her to the writing closet – and out of view of the telescreens.

Nose to nose in the small space, he whispered, "They suspect, but they don’t know – not for sure."

Margaret’s eyes widened. "It’s a dangerous game you’re playing."

He took her hands in his. "It’s not a game," he replied. "Writing is my life."

"I meant working with them, pretending to be one of them."

Raynard looked down. "Anything – as long as my writing survives."

"Is it really so important?"

He pulled her close. He placed a hand gently on the small of her back. She buried her head against his chest.

"Oh, Maggie, with each tick of the clock they grab more control. They peer into our homes, monitor our computers, listen to our conversations, all in the name of Security. And, we let them – because we’re afraid – of terror, of others, of ourselves. But, our dreams are still our own – and I choose to dream – I choose to write."

She looked up at him, "I love you," she said, "but I’m scared."

"We’ll get you packed and out of here. I have to distribute these bags – then re-work the opening paragraph. I’ll follow as soon as I’m done."

#

Margaret placed a briefcase and an overnight bag into the front seat of their car. Raynard kissed her and she drove away. He watched her skirt the bonfires and turn the corner.

Down the block, obscured by smoke and shadows, Crewcut watched and waited.

#

Raynard splashed water on his face, rubbed vigorously.

"Two hours to deadline."

God, he thought. Help me. Two hours to finish – and deliver. How am I going to make it? The Publisher will wait until the deadline - and no longer. The Publisher was careful. He had disassembled and hidden his printing equipment long ago, but had promised he would never stop. Weeks, months, a year from now, Raynard’s book would appear in purses, behind bushes, under stairs. Quietly, in secret places, readers would crack the binding and turn the pages of one last story.

Raynard hurried back to his closet. As he passed his living room, movement on the telescreens caught his eye.

In high resolution, an animated, red salamander scurried across the bottom of an otherwise black screen. Mid-screen, the salamander stopped, faced the audience and faded from view. The screen brightened. A wild haired, pockmarked, teen-aged boy sat on an unmade bed in the middle of a filthy, clothes strewn room. He glanced around furtively, then dropped to all fours and retrieved something from beneath his bed.

A book.

Another.

And, another.

The camera moved closer.

Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman.

Civil Disobedience by Henry Thoreau

The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels

The boy paged through the books and laughed maniacally. He retrieved a black box from beneath his bed and shoved it and the books into a backpack.

The scene changed. Raynard narrowed his eyes.

The boy stood next to a car. He dropped to all fours, slipped the black box from his backpack, and attached it to the underside of the car. He stood and quickly walked away.

A moment later, a handsome young man opened the door of the car, strapped a blond, pink-ribboned girl into a car seat, kissed her on the forehead and started the engine.

Raynard flinched as his living room - and living rooms across the country - filled with the sounds of an explosion. Flames and smoke poured from the windows of the car.

The animated salamander scurried across the bottom of the screen. It stopped, faced the audience, and grew. Its features elongated, flowed, changed into those of a man.

Silver hair, black jacket - Fire Marshal Vertag.

His voice filled the living room. Filled all living rooms.

"Save a Life. Burn your books – Tonight!"

Raynard’s face grew numb. He lowered his head and returned to his writing.

#

"One hour to deadline onehourtodeadline onehourtodeadline."

Raynard slammed his hand on his desk. He ripped the first page of his manuscript in half. Again and again and again. Damn, he thought. Still garbage. If I don’t get the beginning right, the whole book is worthless. He placed both hands on his desk and inhaled deeply. He exhaled and took out a fresh sheet of paper. One last try.

The security system blared.

"Unknown visitor at the front door. Unknown visitor."

He bit his lip. Not now, he thought. Go away.

He heard it before the speakers sounded again. A rapid pounding. The sound grew harder, insistent, desperate.

Hastily stacking the pages of his book, he hurried to open the front door. A wave of sound engulfed him. Shrieks, screams, sirens, running feet – and, a small, quivering voice.

"Help, please help."

Desmond.

His face pale and blackened by soot, he staggered into the house. Behind him, the sky was black and orange and the night tasted of ash.

"My house," he said, "burnt. Everything burnt."

Raynard bent to one knee, took Desmond’s face in his hands.

"Your parents?" asked Raynard.

"Don’t know," said Desmond.

"I don’t understand," said Raynard, "The law isn’t in effect yet, why would the Firemen…?

"Not the Firemen – the neighbors. We had books, they said we were dangerous."

Across the street, Raynard saw a flaming bottle arch high into the night. It crashed upon a roof, spilling its deadly contents. Blazing tendrils crawled down the roof, along the soffit and onto the wooden windows and doorframes, quickly outlining the house in orange and red. Someone in the house screamed. In the street, a mob cheered and looked for other targets.

"We can’t stay here," he said. He gathered the pages of his book and stuffed them into a folder. Taking Desmond by the hand, he rushed into the street.

Down the block, Crewcut lifted a silver device to his lips and said, "Raynard." A red dot appeared on a liquid crystal screen. Crewcut smiled – and tracked the man with the sad eyes.

Arm wrapped around Desmond, Raynard pushed his way through the lost and frightened faces clogging the streets. Bonfires, fueled by Hemingway, Poe, Burroughs, and Orwell reached toward the heavens. The wind stiffened, the flames roared, and thousands of paper fireflies swirled and soared. Several burning scraps landed on Raynard, searing his back and arms.

He didn’t notice.

He pushed and shoved until he and Desmond – and his folder - were free of the mob. And then, he ran. He ran until his legs ached and his breath rasped. He ran until there were no more people, no more faces. He ran until his footsteps echoed.

Finally, Desmond in tow, he veered off a deserted street and up three concrete steps to a large empty building. Broken glass and jagged metal crunched under his feet. At the top of the steps, two shattered entry doors swung precariously on twisted hinges. He stopped in the shadows near the doors, doubled over, and gulped mouthfuls of air. After catching his breath, he glanced at a luminous dial on his wrist.

Fifteen minutes.

He turned to the breathless and ashen boy.

"There’s something I have to do," he said, "and then, I promise – we’ll find your parents."

The night breeze whipped through his hair and a full moon illuminated carved marble letters above the broken entry doors.

Public Library

All are Invited to Read and Learn

He covered his face with his hands. After a moment, he lowered his hands and smiled sadly at Desmond.

"C’mon," he said. He patted his folder. "We’re five minutes from help."

He started down the steps. His back and legs stiffened. He reversed, grabbed Desmond by the hand, and squeezed past the broken doors into the darkened library.

Outside, down the middle of the street, Crewcut, Vertag, and a line of firemen marched – with helmets on and flamethrowers ready.

They stopped in front of the library.

Vertag’s voice crawled on the night breeze.

"I know, you’re here, Raynard! We can track identity chips anywhere. And, I know about the book."

Raynard rubbed his wrist. His mouth was a gash in his face.

Vertag stepped forward, his hand moved, a trigger clicked, a jet of orange flame spurted toward the library steps.

"Come out with the book," he said. "Or the Library will be your funeral pyre. You’re a traitor, Raynard. You write, but your words mean nothing." Vertag released another burst of orange toward the library. The sides of his lips twisted upward and flames danced in his eyes.

"You’ve got five minutes."

He loves this, thought Raynard. And in that moment, he knew. He knew how things must end, but he also knew…

He bent and touched Desmond’s arm. "Everything will be okay," he whispered.

Desmond nodded.

Raynard pulled a sheet of paper from his folder. Head down, he scribbled furiously. When he finished, he looked Desmond in the eyes.

"Elm Street is two blocks directly behind us," he said. "I need your help. I’m going outside. When I do, count to ten, then go out that side window. Don’t stop, don’t look back. Go to Granger’s Cafe. It’s red brick – 451 Elm - you can’t miss it. My wife, Margaret will be at a table in the corner. She’ll help you find your parents. Please, give her this page."

"What is it?" asked Desmond.

"The beginning," replied Raynard.

Vertag’s voice oozed into the library.

"Midnight, time’s up."

Raynard hugged Desmond. He gathered his novel to his chest and stepped outside.

Desmond counted.

"Ten nine eight seven six …"

He scrambled to the window.

"… five four three two one."

He clambered out.

He heard flames howl – and a scream of pain.

He did not stop. He did not look back.

#

A heavy man with horn-rimmed glasses rose from the corner table.

"Can’t wait any longer, Margaret," he said.

"I know," she answered.

He pushed her briefcase back toward her. It was filled with brown pages.

"I can’t believe he wrote every page twice," said the man, "and that you got the copy here. But, with the beginning missing, I can’t publish it."

"Please, it’s what he lived for."

The publisher slowly shook his head. "Sorry, not worth the risk."

As he stepped away from the table, a small boy with matchstick legs peered into the café. He hesitated, then walked in.

#

Six months later, the school bell rang. Desmond opened his locker, put his computer equipment and gym bag inside and retrieved his jacket. He slipped it on. That’s odd, he thought. Something in the inner pocket. His pulled the top of the jacket away from his body and peeked inside. His eyes opened wide. His feet barely touched the ground as he scrambled home. Once inside, he dashed past the telescreens and upstairs to his room. His mother yelled from the kitchen.

"Dinner soon as father’s home."

Desmond closed and locked his bedroom door. He lowered his window shades and squeezed into the space under his desk. There was just enough light. He retrieved the object from his pocket and ran his fingers over it. Then, he cracked the binding, and he read …

Fahrenheit 451

The temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns

"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed…"

No, it isn’t, he thought, remembering the man with the sad eyes – and the sound of midnight fire. He turned a page – and another - and another - and dreamed about how the world should be.


For Clarisse, Montag – and, of course, with the deepest respect and admiration, for Mr. Ray Bradbury – the real author of Fahrenheit 451.



If you liked this story, you can find more of them in my short story collection, The Sound of Midnight Fire, available on Amazon.com.