And the Fires Burned

Reading Time: 4 minutes


It was a good day for tips, at least. It was always a good day for tips when the fires were burning. Schools were closed, and businesses were shut down where they could be. No one wanted to brave the tainted air on their morning commute. And yet, no one wanted to be cooped up in their own homes either, so here they were at the Boyerville Cybercafe. Nearly every computer in the cafe was occupied by all manner of managers, directors, and administrators. Any job that could be done from home was done from the cafe when the fires were burning.

“Excuse me, can I get a hot caramel macchiato?” I looked up from the bowl I was scrubbing to see a man in a dark blue suit at the counter.

“Of course,” I answered, wiping my hands on the towel by the sink and pulling on a pair of latex gloves.

“What kind of milk would you like?”


“No problem. What size?”


(Illustration by Mitchelle Lumumba from an image by vecstock)

I rang up his order at the register–$4.59; no tip “because $4.59 is outrageous for a coffee”–and wordlessly began making his order.

“How about that weather today?” I hate when customers try to make small talk.

“They say the smoke will be worse tomorrow.”

“It seems closer than last time. I wonder which town it is.”

“Beats me.” The espresso machine whirred to life, drowning out the man’s incessant prattle.

“– deserve it if you ask me.”

“Uh-huh.” Sometimes, it was better to just pretend you heard them.

“I can’t believe they make you come into work on a day like today.”

“Well, if I wasn’t here, there’d be no one to make your coffee.”

I forced a smile onto my face as I handed the man his coffee, and he took it without a word.

A busy day like today was really too much work for just one employee, but Arianna had called in sick this morning. Her asthma was acting up. I really couldn’t blame her. People filtered in and out of the cafe all morning, and I caught snatches of conversation here and there. There was no better way to stay informed than to catch up on the gossip. The news was putting out the same sort of story it did every time. This time, it was a farmer burning leaves. Last time, it was a family campfire that got out of control. Before that, a house fire had spread to the nearby forest.

One man said he heard it was Delverville that was burning. The woman next to him adamantly disagreed. She had a cousin in Delverville, and they weren’t the sort that would be set ablaze. Abertown, that’s what was burning, she said; they’d held that festival last year, and the Firemen had had their eye on them ever since.

It was like this every time. People whispered about who had incurred the Firemen’s wrath while they had nothing better to do, then when the smoke cleared, they returned to work and school as if nothing had happened. It’s a conspiracy, Mrs. Abbey had told me last week; the Firemen are just a story you tell young children to get them to behave; they’re not real. Yet here she was, just like last time, telling Mr. Smith all about how the Firemen were burning Pottsdale to the ground for treachery.

By the end of the day, it seemed that the townspeople had come to a consensus on what had happened. Lainsbury had been burned. Something to do with misuse of government funds. Their own fault, really, Mr. Dooley said, and his companions murmured in solemn agreement.


We closed at 5, but I couldn’t start my closing duties until 5:30. Customers continued to place orders despite the sorry, we’re closed sign on the counter until I finally unplugged the espresso machine. It took even longer for people to finally take the hint and leave the cafe. I had already done the dishes, cleaned the counters, mopped the floors, and dumped the last of the coffee down the sink by the time the last customer left. All that was left was to gather up the uneaten pastries and take them to the dumpster out back. A shame really, these pastries were expensive. Would anyone notice if I took a small handful home for my wife? The fires always made her anxious, and a treat like this would make her day.

I dumped the trays of scones and tarts into a trash bag, but not before carefully picking out two strawberry-glazed donuts and wrapping them in paper napkins. I gathered my belongings and walked out the back door with the trash bag slung over my shoulder. The sky outside was a sickly pale yellow, and the hills on the outskirts of town were obscured by a thick haze. The sun hung low in the sky, burning with an unnatural crimson color. Even this far from the fire in Lainsbury, the air was heavy with the smell of smoke.

I heaved the trash bag over the side of the dumpster. Trash pickup was tomorrow, and the dumpster was nearly full. The smell of a week’s worth of pastries left out in the sun was almost enough to make me gag.

“Samantha Brook. Boyerville. Misappropriation of resources.”

The voice made me jump. I gripped my purse tighter, my heart racing. There wasn’t anyone here; where had the voice come from?

“Samantha Brook. Boyerville. Misappropriation of resources.”

The voice came from behind me. The wall above me; there was a speaker. Next to it, a security camera with a blinking red light. No. How had I missed it? I didn’t know what to do, so I ran, leaving the stolen donuts on the ground beside the dumpster. Behind me, I could still hear the speaker repeating my name and my crime.

“Samantha Brook. Boyerville. Misappropriation of resources.”

The next day, Boyerville burned.


This story previously appeared in NYC Midnight 2023 Flash Fiction Contest.
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.


Rowan Woods is an aspiring writer currently attending university for Biology. They believe in the magic of everyday life, despite their affinity for depressing science fiction and fantasy stories.