A Mentor’s Mantle

Arriving at the funeral of your mentor in the brightest of striped air balloons is not the way to stop people talking. Ella Fritz, dressed in a black bustled gown with hand embroidered lace, did not need an entrance to captivate the attention of those gathered. With the stares she got, one would think they did not realise that her choice of transport had been rather limited. Who carries air balloons in black anyhow?

She was glad to see that the coffin had been closed. The accident that had stolen her mentor had left him a disfigured mess, and she didn’t need that imprinted on her memory any more than it already was. Stroking the smooth, glossy surface, a few tears gathered in her dark eyes and spilled down the dark curve of her cheek.

Taking the hand of the Professor’s wife, she silently kissed the soft cheek and shared a moment of solidarity with her. Words were ineffectual to communicate their shared grief. Both had never had another love like his.

Beyond the coffin on its stand, a willow waved its tendril branches in the breeze. The Professor would have approved of this place, Ella felt; a moment’s peace that he’d never had in his frenetic life. A remote hill in a secluded spot, resting in the shade of tree beside the red rust canyons of this land that he had loved so much.

Sitting at the back, Ella watched as the minister gathered the mourners for the service. A wry smile for the memory of the good Professor’s lack of time for the men of the cloth echoing in her mind, she tuned out to the words that someone of her profession would consider cold comfort. She liked to think of the Professor now scattered amongst the dust and the pieces of her world, driving it on with the force of his passion. But she knew that was just her.

After many years of faithful service and companionship, she’d never seen the Professor’s feet of clay, as you were want to do when familiarity bred its special contempt. With a sly smile, she wondered if others might consider that she was the clay; a young street girl he picked because of the quick deceit she pulled on him with some magnesium and a match. He’d scoured every street in that backwater hovel collection until he’d found the teen orphan. Apprenticing to him had been the best decision of her life.

If only he hadn’t been experimenting with that brimstone on his own! They had agreed to start the experiments on the properties when she returned from the outpost, but he had seemingly started without her. Which was unusual in itself, because he had always been such a stickler for safety. With their hired hand helping her at the market, there had been no one around to assist when it had all gone wrong. Ella shuddered with the memory of the green-tinged burns, the bubbles of skin like those on a stew left too long. She was glad she had managed to save the Professor’s wife that at least.

Ugly doubt had niggled at her, but a thorough investigation of the laboratory had not turned up any evidence of wrong-doing. The sheriff had eventually asked her what leads he was supposed to be investigating. Accidents could happen to anyone, even the great Professor Switch.

Like the washing out of a tide, the neat rows of white chairs emptied, and people shuffled towards the tents erected for the wake. The gravedigger piled on the red earth, the hollow sound of clods hitting the lid of the coffin making Ella shiver. She’d attended too many funerals on this forsaken colony. She noted that many of her Professor’s esteemed colleagues were not here. So many had doubted his dream.

Ella slipped her arm into the frail one of the Professor’s wife. Claire watched with dull grey eyes as the pit filled, impervious to the red dust settling on her skirts. Ella noted the new silvers in the brown hair pulled back tightly beneath her widow’s hood.

“It was too soon,” Claire said woodenly, her face turning to Ella. “We are both so young.”

Ella’s mouth twisted in sympathy for the woman who had cared for her. Barely middle-aged, this should not have been her burden so early. “I know, I know.”

Ella felt a sudden heaviness in her palm. She opened it to find the Professor’s pocketwatch shining bright and gold in her palm. With wide eyes, she refused it. It was too much.

“He wanted you to have it,” Claire smiled with remembered happiness. “He once told me that you were his greatest achievement.”

Pesky tears prickled as she turned away, stowing the keepsake in a small and hidden pocket in the folds of her dress. “Thank you,” she whispered, to both of them.

Claire began her slow descent to the pavillion, turning to see Ella untying the balloon with deft hands. “You’re not coming in?” Claire called out.

“I thought continuing his work might be the best tribute for him.”

A thin-lipped smile came to Claire’s face. Science was always stealing those she loved. She raised a hand in farewell and went to do her duty to her husband.

Stepping lightly into the balloon, and lashing the gate tightly shut, Ella lifted off, floating over the canyon and towards home. She checked the notes she’d stored in a secret compartment, the ones worth the life of the man who was almost her father. His secret invention, the atomic clock, that would revolutionise the way the world would operate. A secret Ella worried he had been killed for.

Today, she would take on his mantle. Tomorrow she would be realising his dream.

Another piece of Flash Fiction, inspired by terrible minds, that had to have the following words in it. FUNERAL CAPTIVATE DECEIT BRIMSTONE CANYON BALLOON CLAY DISFIGURED WILLOW ATOMIC

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