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ONLY THE WOMEN ARE BURNING
SciFi Mystery Suspense
BY NANCY BURKE
Three women are lost in a single morning, one at a commuter train, one at a school, one while walking her dog in the woods. The police think the women are making some kind of political statement by setting themselves on fire….maybe members of a cult. But Cassandra knows better. You won’t rest until Cassandra, a mom and former anthropologist, solves the mystery of these fiery deaths. Part mystery, part science fiction, part a suburban domestic novel, Only the Women are Burning asks important questions about women in contemporary suburban lives.
“A suspenseful, vivid, and convincing portrayal of the often precarious position of women in the world.”
—Sheila Kohler, author Cracks, Crossways, and the memoir, Once We Were Sisters
“A compelling mystery with an engaging look at suburban womanhood”
— Foreword Clarion Reviews
“I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that’s in me should set hell on fire.” ~ William Shakespeare
Chapter 1- Hillston, New Jersey
Friday started as an ordinary day, but that was before I failed to save Ann Neelam from burning to death. I stepped through the usual golden light filtering through the branches onto the blacktopped path through my park to the train. I greeted a squirrel poking out of a trash can with a chunk of someone’s discarded bagel in its jaw. That station, with its quaint station house, it’s coffee window for busy commuters, its old wooden roof and neat platform will never feel tranquil again, but that Friday my girls were off to school, my coffee maker was shut off and unplugged, the front door was closed and locked into its frame and I walked my usual eight minutes to the station. I had a vague recognition that my life was so routine that I was entering a phase of middle age where habits and patterns would repeat endlessly, and I would perish from my own boredom.
My neighbors in their own routines were already aboard the midtown direct to their big jobs in New York, which stopped in Newark and would normally drop me to my twelve dollar an hour job teaching visiting school groups at the museum, but not that morning. I never got on the train. They however watched from the windows while I tried to save her.
That day should have been a happy acknowledgment of spring. I liked teaching the kids, and I got home before the school bus dropped Mia and Allie, my eight-year-old twins, at the corner. Before that day, it all worked.
On the platform, the whistle announced the train, commuters shifted briefcases, newspapers and their weight from one foot to the other. A man dropped a coffee cup into the wastebasket. Headlines in the newspaper dispenser offered the only hint of dread, “Roadside bombs incinerate three U.S. Marines,” along with three head-shots. I stared at the soldier’s portraits, there in their young perfection, their buzz cuts, hats perched above their young scrubbed faces, reflecting their assertion of inherent toughness and pride. I thought of their mothers receiving phone calls, visits from men in uniform delivering a blow from which there is no recovery. With three daughters I was not likely to ever face such a thing. My three daughters were not the tough female soldier archetype. More Hera or Aphrodite than Athena, although Lila was beginning to go to war with me as she entered her teen years. I knew women’s struggles were very often the silent variety.
The train was visible in the distance. The weight of all that metal screamed at its approach, slowed to a crawl and stopped. On time, dependable, strong and enduring. I use my time on the train to review my notes about ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, mythical creatures, life after death, Buddha, the wheel of law and the Hindu goddess Durga. Whatever was on my lesson calendar for the day. I needed no notes for the god of destruction, Shiva, as I was intimately acquainted with him from my days in Bangalore.
I stepped into line among the women in low heels, their confidence obvious in their posture, their preoccupation with watches or cell phones. Next to me, a blue suited woman with a briefcase and purse, holding a cup of coffee up to her lips, tisked her tongue against her teeth and sighed. Her impatience, her gaze up the tracks, made me think she was waiting for someone or something more important and far more interesting than anything I expected. That hint, that sense that there is always something more, more than what I did every day, hovered there over me and for an instant I felt envy of her. She was waiting for something so important that she was impatient. I was always patient. Often I laughed and told other mothers that God first gave me patience, then he gave me Lila.
I reached for the railing and lifted my foot. It was just then a wave of heat flowed over me like a hot flash. I turned and the heat burst into a pillar of flame the ends of which gave off dark smoke like a phantom cloud forming in the shape of a demon. Waves of hot gaseous plasma hit me, a raging tower of yellow fire, from exactly where the tisking woman had been. I can only now compare it to that feeling of time slowing when in a car you know a crash is unavoidable and you hear the metal crunching of impact. Terror knotted in my viscera. I expected the flame to roar and engulf me. Panic tasted like metal in my throat and my heart’s pounding mobilized me to flee. I turned back from thirty feet away and saw the flame had now pulled into itself and towered in a vertical column, and the woman was behind it, underneath it, inside it. My God, the woman in the blue suit was burning. My skin felt singed, a dry hot wind pushed my hair across my eyes and I stood, my mind saying help her, my heart saying move before it leaps and ignites you. But I could not, frozen as I was in holy terror. Stop, drop and roll is what they teach you in first aid class, but there was nothing to roll her in, and the flame was like a shield pushing back everyone. It was only me and the conductor and her, and I succumbed to a helplessness I’d felt only once before. This woman in the blue suit was burning to death. The conductor was at the station’s ticket booth pulling a fire extinguisher from the wall. My CPR training, as a Girl Scout leader, screamed, ‘first call for help’ and I dug out my cell phone and dialed. The flames licked down her arms and legs while the voice of the female dispatcher came on, “911, what is your emergency.”
“A fire,” I said. “A woman is on fire at the Hillston train station.”
“A building, you say?”
“No, a woman. She’s …was…waiting for the train. She’s burning.” My mind raced through what needed to happen; the calm-voiced dispatcher was too slow. “Get them here to help her. Now…hurry…before she…” My voice was deadpan, my words left me, while my heart raced and sweat pooled in my palms.
“Is there danger to anyone else?”
“What? Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“The station has been called. They’re on their way. Please hold.”
Hold? She put me on hold? Faces on the train, through the windows, stared. I could see the flame wasn’t spreading to the train or the pillar holding up the roof, or the conductor and me. It was just taking her. In that fraction of a second of knowing I would be unharmed, I was mesmerized by the flame. A roaring of it filled the air, the scent of burning hair, of flesh. My throat closed, I held my breath. Banhi. Had that nightmare followed me here? The flame was colorful, flecks of blue and green mingled with the yellow and orange dancing in the oxygen it consumed. Unlike Banhi who screamed and moaned, this woman hadn’t moved under it. Hadn’t run and fallen over. Hadn’t waved her arms or screamed in pain. She’d simply succumbed. Like a statue. A tree. Like she was abdicating to a higher power.
Nancy Burke’s latest novel, Only the Women are Burning, combines a sci-fi/fabulist mystery with a domestic novel about the choices we make as we navigate ambition, career, family and love. Her earlier books include From the Abuelas’ Window, 2006 and If I Could Paint the Moon Black, 2014, both refugee stories. Her short fiction has appeared in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review and Pilgrim: A Journal of Catholic Experience. Two plays Midway Island: 1944 and Make Yourself at Home, were selected as finalists in festivals. She’s a mom to three adult daughters, is active in two local writing workshops, Working Title Six, and Finding Our Way Back, for those who find writing to be an element in healing. She resides in Montclair and teaches writing at Montclair State and Kean Universities when not deep into a writing project. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, Newark (2011). Only the Women are Burning, is her third book. Her fourth, a collection of short stories is in progress.
Links to Nancy’s website, blog, books, etc.:
Links to some reviews/news coverage of release
Criminal Element Review
Local Baristanet news blog article
Podcast interview with Citywide Blackout
TV Spot on ABC affiliate with Amy Impellizzeri
Thanks, Nancy, for sharing your story with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!