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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Ella and The Man

K.S. Clay is a transcriptionist by day and a spec fiction writer by night. She lives in California with her dog, Troubles, who helps her stay sane in a crazy world. "Ella and The Man" is her first published science fiction piece. She's currently at work on a novel.
Ella hit the brake as she reached a stop sign, and turned her head to check traffic. No cars were coming, but a man sat in front of an old bus shelter on the corner across the street. He'd had his head tilted back against dirty plastic, and raised it to look at her. From the passenger seat, her sister Carmen gasped.
"God, Ella. He's a mutie!"
Of course he was. No regular person would be caught out in the open, unprotected. Ella touched the vent nearest her on the dash. Filtered air blew against her palm, tinged with the scent of an antiseptic. "He looks sick. I've never seen anybody that pale."
"So? Let's go. I have to meet with a group about youth violence." Carmen was a therapist.
"He reminds me of somebody," Ella said. "Do you think we knew him?"
"When we were kids? Who knows?"
The man raised his right hand to shoulder level and waved once. Hello. "He--"
"You're running out the gas," Carmen said.
"Oh." Ella put the car in park.
The man stretched out his left hand, palm up, with his right hand on top of it, thumb up. He motioned, forward and away, forward and away. Ella had spent enough time sitting in front of windows watching the mutes to know she was being beseeched. Help. He blinked at her through filmy eyes. She shivered.
"What are you doing?" Carmen said.
"Nothing," she said.
The man tugged his shirt collar down and exposed red scratches and faded scars striping his neck.
"How do you think--"
"Mutie marks," Carmen said. "Remember Josh? He worked at the hospital, back before they stopped treating muties. Said they'd tear right through the skin. Have to scratch an itch, I guess, like trying to dig up their voice boxes so they can turn them back on."
"He needs something."
"Everybody needs something. Doesn't mean you've got to give it to them. What are you gonna do, screw up your lungs so you can play pattycake with him?"
"I don't know. I swear he looks familiar." She unclasped her seatbelt, wrapped her fingers around the door handle, and began to tug.
"Are you crazy?" Carmen said.
"Maybe," Ella said. She laughed. She faced the wheel. She didn't know the man. Leave it to the other mutes to help him, not her. She grabbed the gearshift and switched the car back into drive. A motorcycle roared up beside the car. She tapped the gas pedal and rolled forward. The motorcycle shot in front of her, cutting her off.
"Bastard," Carmen said as the rider, probably a teenager, barreled down the street, a blur of white in an anti-contamination suit. "Someone should take that damn oxygen off his back."
Ella sighed and checked for traffic again, turning her head to the right and left. "Oh god!" Her knuckles paled against the steering wheel.
The cyclist hadn't stopped to check traffic. He'd stopped to throw a ball of burning rags onto the mute's lap. The man rocked. He shoved at them with his hands. But his hands were slow, uncoordinated. His pants caught fire. Such a pale sight before, now bursts of red and orange began to coat him, licking up toward his chest. His mouth was open, the same as Ella's own, but hers emitted a scream.
Pain erupted in her chest. Her fingers fumbled their way from the steering wheel to the door handle. Carmen told her to calm down while the man banged his head against the bus shelter trying to push himself away so he could stop, drop, and roll. Ella's lungs took one more breath of the car's filtered air, and she shoved the door open.
"Stop." Carmen grabbed for her and got her jacket so that it slid down her arm. Ella yanked and got free, even managing to preserve the jacket. The jacket. She yanked it off as she ran. Carmen shouted, "Come back."
Ella reached the man and slapped at him with her jacket, trying to squelch the flames. She didn't hit mass the first time and grunted, tried again and succeeded. She could do this. She knew she could.
The man writhed beneath her. Occasionally his hands waved. A response to pain, or an attempt to speak? His arm brushed hers, skin to skin, near the elbow. Her eyes watered and she fought the fire more fervently. Then the worst of it was out and she became aware of her cough. She'd been breathing in smoke. Smoke and something more.
Across the street Carmen stopped shouting. The car door slammed. The motor revved. Ella never turned to watch her sister drive away.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 23rd, 2012


I'd love to regale you with a fascinating story about how Ella spoke to me in a dream or how I saw the first line of the story written on a tortilla. It isn't so. Ideas for me start small and expand. The origins of Ella were the words "the driver" which formed its working title. The details tacked themselves on from there.

- K.S. Clay

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