I stand on a street corner staring down a seemingly endless expanse of stately white houses and mature oak trees. The houses glisten in the sun as if no darkness could ever touch them. They are blessed. I have a confusing mix of love and revolution for these houses. I want to possess them much in the same way a man would possess a woman. I want to smother them with oppressive love until they choke on it.
My legs tremble with the effort to stand still, to look like I belong. I fear the very fact of my wanting will betray me. As if it is a visible thing that can make me stand out in a crowd. I close my eyes and picture how the flames will look in the dead of night. The house on the corner to my left. It’s large and shinning and new. I imagine that I can hear it whispering my name. This isn’t possible but I allow myself the reality of it. I don’t face it directly for fear that it will burn out my eyes. I’m shivering with the beauty of it. I want to feel the burn so badly that I ignite the propane lighter in my pocket before I can stop myself. The tiny flame sears my leg and I leave my finger on the trigger for a moment more until I force myself to stop the burning.
I try to keep the scars in unnoticeable places. I never wear shorts and almost never wear short-sleeved shirts. The scar or two that I have on the backs of my hands and lower part of my neck make people look but they’re rarely rude enough to ask questions. I rely on this leper reaction. I find that when people question, I have trouble not telling them the truth. Sometimes I get a little too close. Sometimes those fleeting, playful flames are too tempting. My life is consumed with planning to start and starting fires. I have to do it tonight; this too sublime torture is starting to wear on my nerves.
At dusk, I am knelling in the perfectly manicured backyard of, what I have come to think of as, my house. I am squatting in the carefully sculpted hedge. The whole first story of the building is blazing with lights. The house is new and should be unoccupied. The real estate agent had probably forgotten to turn them off when she left. As I watch, I see the lights go off one by one. I hadn’t seen a car in the driveway and I didn’t hear one now. A light ignites in one the second-story rooms before being extinguished. I hear no front door slam, no car backing out of the driveway. There are two big gas tanks sitting next to me. They are filled with a half and half mixture of kerosene and canola oil. I know from experience that fancy sprinkler systems won’t be able to put out my fires. Kerosene burns bright and the oil adds water resistance and makes the fire sticky. It lends a blue-green under flame to the orange-white glow. It’s obvious but affective.
I might have chosen a more slow burning method, but I want to make sure that the destruction is complete, and I know that the fire department won’t take their time showing up here the way they do for abandoned industrial buildings. The house has been dark for over 30 minutes. There’s no movement inside and I still haven’t heard anyone leave. I probably missed the real estate agent’s exit in my preoccupation. The night sky had reached the perfect shade of blue-black; it is time to go in.
I creep up to the back door and break the windowpane above the lock. I wait a moment to see if an alarm will go off and when one doesn’t, I open the door and step into the dinning room. Once inside, I sit down the tanks and take a moment to breath in. The air in every house feels different. It also feels different if there are people in it. I have avoided burning bums alive by learning to sense this difference. This house felt empty. There is a pull in the back of my mind that wonders about the upstairs light going on and off but I push it aside. The anticipation is too sweet for me to pull back now.
In the living room, I look around and decide that it will be better to start upstairs. I’ll have a little extra time to spend with the fire. I climb the spiraled mahogany staircase and look for a suitable room. It can’t be too small because there won’t be proper ventilation, a fire can’t live without oxygen. If it is too big, the fire can spread too quickly and my stay will be abortive.
There’s a secondary bedroom two doors down from the stairs, that I deem perfect for my purposes. This house is so perfect that it almost brings me to tears. The sales company had spared no expense in furnishing their show home. Tables, chairs, dressers— everything is made with real wood. From what I can tell in the light coming in the window, it’s oak or pine. I am delighted to find that there is wallpaper everywhere. There is something deeply satisfying in the way that wallpaper will first curl at the edges before succumbing to fire. I sprinkle my cocktail along one inner and one outer wall. Pulling out a fresh book of matches, I am instantly hard. I am always able to retain my composure until this moment. The fact that I am about to light the fire pushes me over the edge. I have never been able to remain calm after this point.
I pull a single match from the box and close it reverently. I quickly light the match, before my excitement can get the best of me. Holding the flame in front of my face, I watch it dance until it burns down half way. I don’t want to let it go before the flame reaches my fingers, but I toss it towards the fuel, reassuring myself that a much larger distraction is about to appear. The fire takes instantly; I can already feel the heat caressing my face. I gaze at it until the flames are licking my boots and I have to step back. I want so badly to stay, to allow myself to be consumed by the heat. With reluctance I turn from the room and step back into the hallway.
I turn at the doorway and watch my work spread. There is a hazy reflection of myself in the window, and my manic eyes look insane, even to me. I am so transfixed but the sight that at first I don’t notice the change. It is only when the fire, which has turned a tarnished shade of orange, starts rolling across the ceiling, picking up speed, that I turn for the stairs. I will watch it climb down the second floor from the foyer on the first. I move two doors down but the stairs aren’t there. I must have gone in the wrong direction. Turning around, I pass the burning room and count two doors but the staircase isn’t there either.
I walk further down the hallway, which is backlit but the flickering of the growing fire. It casts wavering shadows along the walls, occasionally showing distorted versions of myself. There is a long stretch of hall without doors, and then I come to a stairway. This isn’t the same one that I took up to the second floor, it is straight and narrower, but it is made out of the same burnished mahogany. I must have gotten turned around and this probably just led to the kitchen instead of the entryway.
Taking the stairs two at a time, I do come to the kitchen. I’m not worried exactly but I’m starting to feel uncomfortable and I suddenly have a panicky wish to be out of this house. I heft my gas cans and step through an archway to the dinning room and look for the back door. There isn’t one, though, and I can’t see out the windows. It looks like the same room I entered the house through but the space is large and this could be a different one. My arms are tired and I set the cans down on the kitchen table. I can come back for them when I find a way out. A little frantic, I dart through a sitting room, an atrium, and an office before I come to the entryway. I shouldn’t go out the front door, but the house is well of the street, no one will notice me.
I turn left but there is no front door. I turn right and there’s the spiral staircase. I am sure that this is where the front door was. I run my hand over the smooth wall where the door should have been. It feels solid. I knock and it gives off the low thud of a well-built wall. I find the sound ominous. The fire has spread; I can see it starting to eat the banister upstairs. I have never been able to resist my glowing friend. I find myself floating toward the stairs before self-preservation can kick in. I’m up them and waving my hands through the halo of heat surrounding the flames. The skin on my face feels raw from the ambient heat. I can’t stay; I’ll die if I stay. I have to find a way out. Looking around I see a separate staircase not far way. This is only a two-story house and this staircase is wide and permanent; it is not the kind that would lead to an attic. Something is wrong. There is a faint red glow at the top. The kind of small happy flicker that would occupy a campfire. I don’t dare go up to this floor that doesn’t exist. The heat is becoming oppressive at my back and I am having trouble breathing.
I have never in my life been afraid of fire. It has been my most trusted companion, but now, with it beginning to rage around me, I find that there is not only fear in my heart from this house that defies it’s boundaries but from the fire at my back as well. I have to find a way out. I turn to go back downstairs but the fire has already started on the steps, it is half way to the first floor. I can see the front door in the ever-increasing light of the fire. It is mockingly out of reach and I am sure that it wasn’t there before. I can feel my skin blistering, trying to peel back like the wallpaper. This was something that I had experienced before but never to this extent. My clothes are smoldering. I run down the hall but it ends abruptly and there are no doors, no windows— only blank, cheerfully wallpapered walls. I am standing, pressed into a corner, and the fire is moving quickly towards me. I crouch down as my hair sizzles. I am screaming now, begging the fire to move back, to release me. I am heartbroken by this betrayal and my tears evaporate before they can slip from my eyes.
There is a concussive boom as the gas tanks in the kitchen go. There is no way out for me. I lose consciousness when my arm splits open.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED