Friday
Oct142011


Fires

By Nick Antosca


 

 

Civil Coping Mechanisms
October 2011
230 pages
978-0984603794


 

As I cross the street, a false wind swirls around me—the breath of the fire—blowing ashes up my nose, making me choke.  I get to Coach Mursey's lawn, then stop.  Terrible curiosity: I must get a good look at the fire.  I step around the side of Mursey's house. 

And there it is.

Mythic, nightmarish, obscene.  The main blaze is throwing spot fires forward to burn treetops and bushes, then advancing to fill the gaps.  A few houses that I can see are already engulfed by flame, which dances on them in victory, throwing up its arms to the sky, vomiting a great filthy column of smoke.  A firefighter half a block away seems to look in my direction as he jogs toward the fire—but doesn't register my presence at all.

Startled nonetheless, I go backwards and up the porch.  The front door is open.  I duck under the yellow tape and close the door behind me.  My panting, in the close darkness, sounds ferociously loud.  The house feels uninhabited.

James?

James?

The living and dining rooms are empty, dark and soft with shadows—and the kitchen is too, although I find the basement door open.  Catching my breath, I descend.  Ruined light is streaming weakly through the basement window, falling on tools, benches, shelves, old furniture upholstered with dust.  The little door in the wall is shut.  Kneeling, knees in the dust, I undo the three locks and shove it open.  On all fours I crawl into the reeking darkness.  A flick of my lighter reveals bare walls, naked concrete; he's not here.

I crawl back out, pocket my lighter, and go up to the kitchen.  I don't for a second believe he actually left without me.  I go into the hall.

After a moment's hesitation, I climb the stairs.  In the upstairs hallway, I pause and listen.  Nothing.  There is a door across from me and I open it.  The bathroom.  In my house, this door leads to the bathroom too.  I go down the hall.

James?

Another door.  In my house it would be my parents' bedroom.  I push it slowly open.

The room is dark, blanketed in dust.  Empty except for a stuffed elk's head with black glassy eyes and grotesque hairless patches lying on the bare floor.  I close the door.

Further down the hall is a third door, a door that would be mine.  On the carpet outside it lie small white things—animal teeth.  From behind the door come no sounds.  A fear possesses me.  That Coach Mursey has come back, that he's behind this door.  I will open the door and he will devour me, a monster from a children's story.  I open the door.

With a terrible calm, I enter.  In the swampy darkness there sits, beast-like, a king-size bed.  It has been stripped and its nudity looks obscene.  A heavy, medieval iron sword is mounted above the bed; there's a holy cross etched on the blade.  Propped against one wall in noble repose, paws planted close together, is a dead Dalmatian.  The taxidermy is disturbingly amateurish; the dog's skin looks glued on.  On the wall hangs a framed, embroidered sampler, which says, in green stitching, 'In mysterious ways His wonders He works.

James sits on the bed.

He's facing away from me, shirtless, the white Kabuki mask pushed up onto his forehead.  Shoulders slumped.  I am filled with gentle, unexpected sympathy, as if for a large animal that has been wounded.  But anger too.

You didn't wake me up, I say.

He turns to look at me, red-eyed and regretful.

I know, he sighs.  What can I say?  There's no excuse.

Yeah, well.  We better go, you think?

I don't know how it got this late.

There is a softness to him, like his muscles withered during the night.  I come around the other side of the bed, glancing out the window as I do: the world is burning.  Only then do I look back at him—and see the gun.  He's holding it in his lap, a black handgun, small and docile like a toy.

Is that real? I ask.

It's a kid's thing.  I found it in one of the houses.

I laugh.  Sure it's not real?  Did you test it out?

No, I found it in a kid's room.

There is a pause.  In this pause I feel a sort of patient assurance settle over me.  He is a wreck and I will have to coax him, but we are going to get out of this okay.

You all right to walk? I ask.

Walk where?

Um.  Away from the fire.

I've been walking all night.

Well, James, you're gonna have to walk more, okay?  Time to go.

I got all worked up after you went to sleep, he says.  I went outside to see the fire, although I had to keep hiding from the firefighters—they're everywhere now, did you see?

The mask slides down partway over his eyes, and he pushes it back up.  His face is pale, confused.  He smells like cigarettes.

Around 4 AM, he says, the coke just sort of melted something away, and I suddenly understood what I came here to do. 

Yeah?

His hands sort of absently toy with the gun.  He does something to it without looking—it makes a hard clicking sound.

My chest tightens up.  I thought that was a toy, James.

Oh, right.  He sighs.  Well, the truth comes out.  The truth comes out!

Jesus Christ—James, put that thing down and let's fucking get out of here.

He gives me an irritated glance.  You know why I came here?

I'm getting the idea.

Well, I couldn't do it.  I have the gun, and I still just couldn't do it.  And after a while the sun came up, and I looked out the window and there's the fire.  I don't know where the time went.

The flames make a sound that puts me in mind of approaching sleep.  And we are in here, in a place of soft darkness where it seems necessary to speak in whispers.  Again the mask slips down his forehead, but instead of reaching up to push it back he slides it over his face, hiding himself.

Can you set the gun down?  I ask.  I don't want either of us getting shot.  Now, I hate to push you, but we need to get out of here.

He does not set the gun down.  Shaking his head, he says, It's so hot.

'It's so hot'?  Yeah, uh, that's right.  Let's go, James.

I'm not going yet. 

Shadows lie all around us like a carpet of leaves.  On some level I am calm, but the adrenaline is pumping now, really burning through my veins.  Outside the window an oak tree in the backyard is on fire.

No, James, you are.  Get up.  Let's get out of here.

Look, man, he says.  You just go on ahead.  I'll come later.

Let's go.  You're coming now.

Later, he says.

The Kabuki mask conceals whatever reaction there might be.  He could be a mannequin.  Actually he's sitting uncannily still, but I have the unsettling, illogical impression that he's in motion, that he's moving somewhere at dangerous speeds.

Is Ruth waiting for you? he asks.

What?

I wonder, he says, when I go back, who's waiting for me?

James.  Let's fucking go.

He jabs the gun at me, alarmingly.  Fuck you, he says.  Get down there, get out of this house.  There's no reason for you to be here. 

Seeing that he has gotten a reaction—I flinched, backed off—he lowers the gun.

You don't deserve her, he says.  She could have helped me, you know.  She really could have.  But she's selfish.  A manipulator.

Fine, I say.  Sure.

It was real serious between me and her.  Real serious.

Fine.  It doesn't matter.  Let's go.

And she didn't just leave me.  Not just once.  She'd been leaving me for a while, but she kept coming back.  She couldn't get quite enough.  Nobody knew how to hurt her like I did. 

You know what? I say, stepping forward, chills suddenly rising up below my skin (maybe it's adrenaline, plain rage, whatever, but just for a second it makes me not afraid of the gun).  Why don't you shut the fuck up.

He sighs.  The fact that he doesn't acknowledge the perceptible rise in my nerve disarms me, and for a moment I just stand there, unsure.

She knew how much power she had, he says.

A fetid silence descends.  My sympathy has gone away, and I feel nothing but ugliness toward him.  Fresh red bruises on Ruth's neck, her breasts. 

James, come on, get up.

When she met you, he says, I don't even know what I wanted to do.  I couldn't believe you were replacing me.  Again.

You have certain strange, stupid ideas in your head, I tell him.  Again?  Stop . . . deluding yourself.  These are fantasies produced by your broken mind, you understand?

Oh no, he suddenly yells at me.  No, they're not.  They're realities suppressed by your terrified memory.  And she saw through that!  Because you know what she needs to get off.  Do you hurt her?  Hurt her for me.

Furious, I reach forward and rip the mask off his face, which is drawn tight with rage, blood flowering under the skin at his cheekbones, lips pulled back in pure, childlike hatred.  His hands, one of which holds the gun, are trembling in his lap.  I try to control myself.

James, I say.  Don't say another word.

But his face is blotched with rage.  Get the fuck out of here right now, he orders.  Go back.  Go back to faking it.

Fuck it, I am leaving.  Without you.  And if you live through today—

 My hand lashes forward and grips his throat, compressing his windpipe.

—don't you ever

He jerks away—then twists and hits me in the side of the head so hard reality stutters.  I reel sideways.  I taste vomit.  When the curtains of darkness rise, I see James still sitting on the bed, watching me, and it seems I'm on the floor.  I sit up.  When he realizes I'm definitely conscious, he slides the mask back on his face, kneels over me, gun dangling from one fist, and says—

That felt incredibly cathartic for me.

I punch him in the throat and grab for the gun.

There is a jagged, inelegant fight.  I claw at the eye holes of the mask.  The gun slams my ear, again and again, like a stone.  The side of my head feels wet.  His other hand is gripping my hair, impossibly strong.  My struggling turns defensive.  I try to pull free, but end up doubled on the floor, gagging, coughing blood from a blow to the neck.  In the background, his panting seems amplified.  I look up. 

There's a sudden concussion, like a bomb going off near my left eye, which bleaches everything, which deadens my forehead, which all at once makes my skull weigh a thousand tons.

 

The ceiling is a colorless space.  Neon bacteria swim in my eyes.  A nasal tone, like a tuning fork, teases me, and I smell burnt, bitter gunpowder.  My forehead is granite.  The ceiling is cream colored.