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Never Burn A Witch

M. R. Sellars

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment I, Constitution of the United States of America, Ratified December 15, 1791

Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live.

Holy Bible – KJV, Book of Exodus Chapter 22, Verse 18

PROLOGUE

Wet clumps of snowflakes streamed heavily downward from the low blanket of clouds that covered the city. Along Wellington Parkway, a large clock on a bank marquee winked languidly in the frosty night. With several of its bulbs having long since expired from usefulness, dark holes were left gaping in the teeter-tottering display of time and temperature. Four-Oh-something A.M. Twenty-something degrees F. Minus-something degrees C. The sign continued silently dispensing the information even as yet another of its incandescent elements flared and sputtered into nonexistence. Now, only an empty black rectangle stared back from where the “something” used to be.

The old man cinched his threadbare overcoat tighter against the chill winter wind and took another pull on the pint of off-brand whiskey before burying his half-frozen hands in his pockets. Watching the clock with bleary, watered eyes, he muttered nonsensically to himself. His slurred voice recited a local adage that said, “If you don’t like the weather in Saint Louis, just wait a minute. It’ll change.” Thus far, the only change he had witnessed had been for the worse.

This winter felt just as fickle to him as the recent summer. Brief reprieves followed by endless torture. It made no difference that the experts were proclaiming this an unusually harsh winter for Saint Louis. The harshest in more than twenty years, they said. If you lived on the streets, isobaric graphs were mere scribbles on a map, and “El Nino” was just a foreign phrase. Reality was that you either froze or you broiled. The pleasant weather in between the two extremes never seemed to last for long.

The whiskey finished burning its way down the old man’s raw throat and splashed hard in the pit of his empty stomach. The merest tingling sensation spread outward, lending him only the faintest illusion of warmth. In his clouded brain, he feared it wasn’t real. In his apathetic heart, he knew it wouldn’t last.

Recent events bleached lackluster by the alcohol flickered unevenly through his brain, bringing a brief smile to his blistered lips. The warmth and comfort of the mall before the rent-a-cops had chased him from its sanctuary. A fresh pint of whiskey. A half pack of cigarettes carelessly lost by someone who could afford more and serendipitously found by him. But most especially, he recalled watching the televisions through the window of the video store just like he did every night. Yes, most especially that.

He never missed the evening news, and he always made sure to watch Channel Four. The others were okay, but Channel Four was his favorite, all because of Tracy. Tracy Watson, the cute, brunette weather girl with the red, pouting lips and bright blue eyes. Now, even in the frigid night, he felt a rush of warmth as he fantasized about the way she enhanced the burgundy sweater she had been wearing when she gave her forecast. The pearl necklace around her delicate neck. The way she brushed the hair from her face with manicured fingernails just before smiling at him and motioning to the chroma-keyed radar map.

He knew she was smiling at him. He knew she was talking directly to him. He knew because she always talked specifically to him, warning of heat waves and cold snaps. Tracy cared about the old man, of this he was sure-and last night was no exception. With loving concern, she had instructed him to find someplace indoors to sleep because it was going to get colder, and it was going to snow very soon. She was worried about him, and it made the old man feel wanted.

He took heed of her caution, for Tracy was always right about the weather. But, he mumbled aloud as his libido assumed control, even if she wasn’t right this time, “Tracy’s got great tits.”

Bitter wind hacked away at the old man in small choppy gusts, snapping him out of his lurid fantasy and testifying that the pretty meteorologist had truly been correct this time. Icy gobbets of snowflakes spattered against his wind-chapped face and clung momentarily to his scraggly beard before morphing into their liquid state. He took another quick pull on the whiskey bottle then gathered the buttonless front of his overcoat in frostbitten hands before hurrying across the dimly lit street. The sign on the bank winked and visually announced it to be four- thirty-something A.M.

Meadowbrook Park. The old man trudged across the hard ground, his numb feet making crunching noises on the frozen grass as he took staggering aim at a not too distant building. The public restrooms were always unlocked and open, and it was here he would seek refuge whenever Tracy warned him to do so. When it was hot, running water and a cool concrete floor would chase away the sweltering heat of a typical Saint Louis summer. When it was cold, cinder block walls and a roof offered shelter from the bitter wind. To a homeless individual like himself, the Meadowbrook Park public restrooms were like a suite at the Adam’s Mark downtown.

Just a few more steps and he would be inside where he could escape the winter tempest and its dangerous chill, and then he would be okay. Tracy had told him so just before she blew him a kiss.

Sickly yellow light emanating from a low-wattage, incandescent bulb flowed down the side of the small building, struggling to chase away the cold darkness, only to be swallowed by it. He pressed forward, only to be halted by a recent attack of bureaucratic efficiency. Elongated shadows spread diagonally across the brown painted door, cast prominently by a freshly installed, heavy-duty hasp and padlock. The reflections from the shiny hardware taunted the old man as he reached out to touch the ice-cold metal barrier. Yes. Yes, it was really there-not a sour mash-induced hallucination as he had hoped. Of all the times for the county maintenance crews to suddenly do their jobs, why now?

Dammit! What was he going to do? He’d been wandering all night, and if he didn’t find shelter soon he would surely freeze to death. He knew that such a thing would make Tracy sad, and he couldn’t bear such a thought. Even worse, he’d never again get to see her wear that pink blouse he liked so much. The one he was sure he could see right through. The one he was certain she wore just for him.

The old man continued murmuring his random musings about the lovely, young television personality, stopping only for a moment to suck eagerly on the rapidly depleting pint of cheap whiskey. With frost-deadened fingers, he fumbled the cap back onto the bottle and thrust it into his thin coat. Burying his hands in his pockets, he hunched his shoulders forward to ward off the wind and turned in place as he stamped his feet. The warmth of the alcohol was fading as rapidly as it came, and the bottle would soon be empty. The old man needed to find a place to sleep.

Fire.

At first, he thought it might be just another of those bourbon-induced mirages, but the padlock on the door had definitely been for real, so maybe this was too. Squinting through bleary eyes, the old man struggled to focus on the bright, yellow-orange glow in the near distance. The flickering light was growing brighter by the second and now illuminated the interior of the nearby picnic pavilion from which it came.

Fire.

The old man could smell it, even over his own unwashed stench. The scent of fuel being relentlessly

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