Serathi combed over the faces in the crowd; the expectant, dirty, faces that hung on to his words and wreathed them with their hopes and dreams. Though their number was meager, the applause was hearty enough. He bowed, thanked them and their broad faces and shook their crummy hands. He knew that he should have been paying more attention to them and their concerns, but he was finding it difficult to tear his mind from a thought than niggled in the back of his head.
Someone in this crowd was going to kill him.
They brought him smiles, promises of eternal gratitude, the fruit of their labor. He accepted all of it, because he had to.
“You deserve more than this,” some old woman murmured. He fought a sneer as he shook her papery hand. She tottered away.
Another hand grasped his, shaking his arm with fervor that could have been violence. Serathi clasped a rigid hand on the man’s thick shoulder, a mixed signal. The man grinned through his thick, beer stained mustache.
“You’ve done us a right bit more than any one else has, that’s for certain!” Serathi clapped the man on his powerful back, and waved at the crowd. Then, not so gently, he pushed the drunkard away.
The man stumbled into the crowd, replaced by more shuffling, stooped neighbors. Their smiles glowed yellow in the electric hum that lit their dirty little town square. Serathi smiled back, eyes flicking to the darkened houses and debris that surrounded the clearing.
The visions came directly after he’d fallen asleep, wrenching him back into consciousness. Those dirty neighbors never looked close, couldn’t see the dark baggage his eyes carried. Their eyes usually fell around his chest, or in the curls of his dark hair. He took another hand, fingernails coated with grime. Kissed a pink baby on its smudged head, then turned and spit behind his hand. The baby was gone, but more were coming.
Today’s was even more fragmented than usual. Different, though. It had sound. He’d heard the voice; This is the dove in your bedroom, then pain. The tiger in your tank, the giant in your privy. White-hot lightning zagged through his side, even after he woke up and washed the night-sweat from himself.
There was also light. Red-white light that blasted through the usual muted drab of his vision. Someone had brought a dog. He ruffled its ears. Was that something moving in Teani’s garden? The electric lights flickered. Just once, but Serathi noticed.
Half the crowd had shuffled home, but there were so many more. The figurative ache in his head had become a literal one in his back. Another approached him, this one a father who dragged kids behind him.
“I just wanna thank you, Sir. You’ve done wonders for us, really. I’m gonna get folks to digging on that irrigation ditch right away. That river’s gonna do wonders for our crop production.”
Serathi nodded, “And we’ll all smell better too.”
There! Again! Someone had leapt the fence that separated Matthew’s home from Arely’s. Fighting the urge to go and lock himself away he pushed through the people, straining to see into the darkness beyond the houses.
A big hand closed around his arm. Serathi whirled, ready to claw out eyes and throats, but the man who had grabbed him held up his hands.
“Only trying to help, sir. You okay?”
Serathi waved the man away. A nervous hum flickered through the crowd and disappeared. He looked over all the faces again, the ache in his back leaping through his spine and into his stomach.
“I’m fine. I have no choice but to be fine, you’re all depending on me.” He smiled the sun at the crowd, and they cheered.
“You need something, we got you!”
A corner of the crowd erupted, promising more food and additions to his cabin. One farmer offered up his daughter. The lights flickered again. Serathi stared at the nearest collection of them for a second before continuing.
“I appreciate all of you. Really, I do. I’m fine, though. I just need a little rest, it’s been a very long day.” He gave them his best disappointed look.
They murmured apologies; talks of a rest day began.
“No, no. No rest day. I want to work just as hard as you. I’ll be out there bright and early with the irrigation team, digging right alongside them. No one is exempt from some hard work. No one. It takes work to make us work!” He raised a triumphant fist, and the crowd dissolved into chorus again.
The lights flickered once, and then blinked out with a pop. The square erupted into a jumble of noise, dirty bodies, and dust. Serathi pushed through, the nerves in his neck thrumming an urgent song. He could see the rise of his house at the opposite edge of the circle.
Men, women, and pets blocked his way though. He stumbled over a fallen body, heard it wail, and kept moving. His house grew as he neared it, like an enchanted tree. Focused, he kept pushing through.
Near now, almost through the final press. As he cleared the crowd, bony fingers closed around his wrist, pulling him back. Serathi struggled, then writhed as he felt a blade punch white hot into his belly.
“You hate us,” the voice whispered. Whipped the blade out, ripping him apart. Plunged it deep into his side. Hot-edged lightning zagged though his torso.
“We will mourn you, and survive.” The hand released him, and he fell to the dirt. His sight dimmed, then flared as his murderer put flame to a torch. Behind the flames, the lined face of the old woman whose hand he shook earlier leered at him. The smile she brought was venomous. She held it high, flames licking the dark sky, and dropped it on his bleeding form.
Serathi had not envisioned the flames.
Written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge, “The Torch“