Contest #216 shortlist ⭐️


Drama Suspense Fiction

“Good morning, Arthur,” I say, as the thick metal door shuts behind me with a ponderous clang. Multiple locks automatically click into place, sounding like a series of gunshots. “How are you today?”

“Oh, just peachy, Doc.” The man sitting on the other side of the table shifts in his chair. The links of the manacles he wears—bolted to the scuffed, battered tabletop—jingle and clink. “And you?”

“Can’t complain, Arthur. Can’t complain.” I set a folder on the table, careful to keep it out of Arthur’s reach. Then I slip into the seat opposite him; it’s a bit of a trick, since the metal, institution-grade chair is fixed to the floor, and to be honest, I’m no spring chicken.

“No, I don’t imagine you could,” Arthur says, with a small twitch of his lips that could have been a smile. “Not with what the state pays you for these little visits.”

I smile back at him. “So, what’s new in your life?”

He arches an eyebrow. “Plenty. Got a haircut two days ago.” He reaches up to brush a hand across his stubbled scalp. The chains rattle again. “Quite an experience, having a fearful, quivering orderly pass a shaver over my head a few times. Some hair got up my nose and I sneezed; everyone in the room nearly lost it.” Now he does smile, a feral grin that shows all his teeth.

I nod. “I imagine they would. Looks good, by the way.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

I feel a faint vibration from my coat pocket: my phone’s timer. I’ve already burnt through five minutes. Time to move things along.

I open the folder, scanning the top page. “Are you still having those dreams, Arthur?”

“Yes,” he replies without hesitation.

“Any changes?”

“Nope. Same as always. Walking in a field of flowers, see someone in the distance, can’t tell who. Then the flames come.” A new look comes over his face, eyes widening slightly, pupils dilating, nostrils flaring, jaw slackening. It’s the kind of look a kid would get on Christmas, when he’s just torn away the wrapping, and found just what he wanted. “The flames… they just… wash over everything, burning it all in seconds. It’s… wonderful…”

He's right. No changes there. I assume he’s telling the truth. Arthur may be many things, but he’s always been honest. “What do you think it means?”

His gaze focuses on me again. “You ask that every time, Doc. You’re the one with the degree in psychiatry; why don’t you tell me?”

“I’m not big on third-party dream interpretation,” I say, with a shake of my head. “But I do think that they mean something to the person who’s dreaming them.”

“Okay.” Arthur shrugs. “What can I say? I like fire.”

Now I nod again. “Yes. I’d say we both know that.” I glance down at the folder again. “Other than the dreams, have you been having any problems sleeping?”

He blinks. “I don’t consider the dreams a problem. But, no, no trouble sleeping. Why?”

“Just looking for something, Arthur, that tells me how you feel about… what you did.”

He shrugs again. “No secrets there, Doc. I feel fine about it.” Another smile, hard and cold, flits across his face. “I’m at peace with it.”

“Really?” Yes, Arthur’s always been honest and open in the past. But I hope he isn’t right now. “Not troubled at all?”

“Why would I be?” His grin widens. “Are you expecting me to suddenly change my mind? To feel… what? Guilt? Remorse?”

“We all feel guilt, Arthur,” I say. “It’s at the core of everything that’s wrong with us. Whether we should or not, we’re all troubled by the things we’ve done.”

“Hunh,” Arthur grunts. Then his eyes narrow. “And what do you feel guilty about, Doc?”

“I’d rather focus on your guilt, Arthur.”

“Or lack thereof?”

“Perceived lack.”

“But now I’m curious. Come on, Doc. Tell.”

I sigh. “I just want to help you, Arthur.”

Arthur laughs, a low, breathy chuckle. “You feel guilty… for me? Because you can’t ‘help’ me? Like you’re a repairman, and I’m something broken, and you should be able to fix me?”

“Something like that, Arthur. Believe it or not, I genuinely care about my patients.”

“Even the hopeless ones?”

“Especially the hopeless ones.”

He nods, pressing his lips together, a caricature of serious contemplation. “Okay. Maybe I do feel a little guilty about something. Just the one thing, though.”

I have to struggle to keep a straight face. In three years of regular sessions with Arthur, this is the closest I’ve come to anything resembling a breakthrough. “Tell me, Arthur, what do you feel guilty about?”

He sighs. “Well, I feel like I’ve failed with you. I wish I could make you understand. Show you things from my point of view. Give you the perspective that keeps me going, even in here.” He spreads his hands, the gesture encompassing the heavy, metal furniture, the scarred walls painted a dull olive green, the scratched surface of the two-way mirror behind me. “The vision that gives me purpose. That gives me… hope.”

I shift in my seat, wishing for the umpteenth time that these chairs could be a little more comfortable. “Why don’t you give it a try, Arthur? Tell me how you see things.”  

For a long minute, he just stares at me. It’s as if he’s trying to decide whether I’m deserving of what he’s about to impart. When he finally speaks, it’s in the rapt tones of a prophet delivering a message of salvation. “It’s about the fire, Doc. Sure, it burns, ravages, consumes. Takes from us. A thing to be feared.” He raises his arms, holding out his hands, like he’s offering something priceless. “But it gives as well. Light. Warmth. Comfort. Solace. It can destroy, but it can also purify.”

My gaze is drawn to his hands, his arms. To the scars. Deeply etched in his flesh, the burns almost take on the form of flames, leaping and dancing, eager and hungry. I open my mouth, a flippant remark on the tip of my tongue, but Arthur raises his voice to cut me off.

“You know about forest fires, right? How they’re an essential part of nature? There are plants that can’t reproduce without the cleansing that a wildfire brings. It clears away the dross, gives room for new growth. Gives the forest a chance to survive.” A sad smile touches his face, a look of pleading in his eyes. “That’s all I want for the world. All I offer. A cleansing. Rebirth. Another chance for this world.”

I can practically feel the force of his conviction, his need to convince me. But, as always, it fails, and for the same reason. “What about the cost, Arthur? What about the loss of life? You say you want to bring rebirth; why do so many have to die for that to happen?”

He sits back in his chair, his breath coming out in a tired, frustrated sigh. “Fire destroys, Doc. It’s inevitable that there will be collateral.” He seems a little angry that I’m still arguing with him, like I should be smart enough to see it his way. “My motives are pure, my methods necessary.”

Another vibration comes from my pocket. Time’s running out, and I have only minutes to try to make some progress. It seems hopeless. Arthur is so deeply lost in his delusion that it would take a miracle to reach him, pull him out. Rehabilitate him. I wonder why I try. I guess I agree with Arthur that everyone should have another chance. I just disagree with how it should come.

“Arthur, our time is almost up,” I say, leaning forward, my voice intent and urgent. “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything to make your life easier in here?”

Arthur laughs, jiggles his chains. “No, Doc. I’m doing just fine. Except maybe there is one thing…”

I pause in the act of gathering my papers back into the folder. “What’s that, Arthur?”

He arches an eyebrow. “I’m dying for a cigarette; think you could get me a light?”

I blink. Then a soft chuckle escapes me. “I’ll see what I can do about that, Arthur.”

Arthur laughs as well, but quickly sobers. “Seriously, Doc. The fire’s coming. Everything will burn. I wish I could make you see that. And while I’d love to play a part in it, I’ll watch from the sidelines if I have to. You ask me about my dreams? To me, they’re not dreams: they’re visions. Prophecy. The fire will come. You need to believe that.”

I just look at him for a minute, wishing I could help him. Then I shake my head. “And I wish I could help you see that it’s all in your head, Arthur. That you did something monstrous and terrible. Something very wrong. And that you need to come to terms with that.”

My phone vibrates again, at the same time as a harsh buzzer sounds. Time is up. “Sorry, Arthur, but our session is over.”

“Looks that way.” Arthur smiles, that feral, predatory grin, the one that first convinced me that he isn’t truly insane, that there’s something more… dangerous… lurking beneath his façade. “But don’t worry, Doc. You’ll see me again before the end. Maybe I’ll be able to convince you. After all, I believe everyone deserves another chance.”

September 22, 2023 13:42

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AnneMarie Miles
13:09 Sep 29, 2023

Oooh! This was sinister and wonderful all at the same time! I love criminal psychology so this was a treat, and I also like the idea that this dream of Arthur's could be a prophecy, suggesting there's a higher power at play. I think the conversation between the two was smooth and realistic, and you managed to convey Arthur's eeriness well. It was certainly an entertaining and intriguing read!


Ian Gonzales
20:38 Sep 29, 2023

Thank you so much! I love these prompt contests; they're always fun, and challenge me to do things a little differently. And I'm so happy you like the story.


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Story Time
16:23 Oct 05, 2023

Great job, Ian. I really felt like this was a fully-formed character in such a short amount of space. I never really knew what was coming next, and the pacing was sublime.


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Helen A Smith
07:20 Oct 02, 2023

You really pulled me in with the subject. Arthur is so convincing as a character with his prophetic beliefs and delusions that it really does seem he will never be able to see things differently or consider the devastation they have on innocent people. The contrast between the two men played out well. Congratulations on the short list.


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Philip Ebuluofor
18:52 Oct 01, 2023

I think it is enlightening. Sounds real. Congrats.


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Jonathan Page
23:56 Sep 30, 2023

Wow Ian! Masterful writing. You really had me in the beginning thinking that this guy was mostly innocuous and had learned his lesson. As a lawyer who goes into prisons sometimes to visit inmates, I know that feeling of being locked in a cell with someone, but it didn't immediately make me think the guy was "a monster" because in my experience that is usually not the case--but sometimes it is. It's interesting that there were quite a few stories this week set in these kind of prison or police station lock-up cells. You did a great job w...


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Judith Jerdé
14:21 Sep 30, 2023

Ian, I’m so happy you received recognition for this well written story. It reminds me of working in a mental health clinic with veterans who suffered with serious mental disorders. Author’s delusional material is spot on. Congrats!


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Audrey Knox
20:41 Sep 29, 2023

I love what you did with the prompt here. The event that is referenced is unexplained but is so specific. It really does feel like there is an iceberg of a story under there. Very eerie. Nice work.


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AnneMarie Miles
15:48 Sep 29, 2023

Woohoo! Congrats! This was a great story, knew I'd see it on board today 🎉


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