4:07am, February 10, 5572 Fairbrook Ave.
The fire started at Ms. Mary Comstock’s house. Mary was old, so old she couldn’t hear worth a damn. She always watched her movies on mute, studying the overly expressive faces as if they had lost the power to speak and could only mouth words soundlessly in order to communicate. It made her feel like she had some sort of power over them.
Her deafness also meant that she certainly didn’t hear the cracks and pops of her furniture, let alone the roar of the fire, when she was deeply asleep. She didn’t even feel the menacing smoke as it smothered her crow-footed face, as it passed over her spotted hands with veins like long, blue ropes strung up underneath her skin.
If she could have heard all the popping noises as her house was consumed in flames, it would have reminded her of the pops of her canning jars back when she used to pickle vegetables from her garden. Back when she had a garden.
The fire had started due to an overloaded electrical socket in her living room. It was February and her Christmas tree, months old, was still next to the socket because who would know? Who would see? Because from where was she supposed to draw the strength it would take to remove it? The only reason she even had a Christmas tree was because her son said he would visit on Christmas day. He was forty-four years old but was adamant about his mother keeping everything exactly the same as he remembered it. She had taken a few posters down from his old bedroom years earlier and he had stormed out of the house in disappointment. So she tried to keep things as similar to how they were when he was a child, just to please him.
The very real Christmas tree had become very dry and pyrolyzed in the flames, creating a wall of gray smoke against the black smoke that had already formed.
5:00pm, February 9, 5574 Fairbrook Ave.
Britta James liked to sit under the kitchen skylight with her mug of coffee and let the gray winter light reflect off the surface of it like mercury while she waited for her husband to come home.
This particular day, Britta thought about how she and Wheeler used to go to a nearby vineyard in the summers, lay on the lawn and talk about the days feeling both long and short at the same time. She thought about how they didn’t do that anymore. But we don’t not do it, it’s just too cold for the vineyard, it’s still winter, she told herself, shaking her head. She only spoke in double negatives when she was sleep deprived.
Britta was a freelance handwriting expert. Her job was becoming obsolete. She thought about her role as a movie premise: A not-so-young woman is able to interpret every idiosyncratic wisp of pen but is unable to interpret basic human behaviors, such as love and the expression of it. Her stomach curdled at the fact that she was able to come up with such a trite summary.
Britta was worried that Wheeler would not come home tonight. She let the mug warm the tips of her fingers. She wondered if she should move out, move to that downtown condo; the tingle of homeownership without all the hedge trimming.
But Britta and Wheeler James would end up staying the night together, together with the rest of their cul-de-sac neighbors, very soon, on the floor of the local elementary school gym. She would experience the horror of fluorescent lights, the porous, flimsy look of the cinderblock walls painted white, the racing stripes in the school’s colors (blue and gold) along the sides of the wall in a flourish.
2:35pm, February 8, 5573 Fairbrook Ave.
Wheeler James rapped respectfully on the front door of Mr. Cornelius Starling’s home. He grew impatient on the stoop. Feeling mutinous, he thought about running away before Corny could reach the door, the trek over here Britta’s weak attempt at fostering neighborly community.
But Corny reached the door, not exactly clambering to get there, more like shuffling. Wheeler was welcomed inside the sweltering house. Corny kept the temperature up high and the humidifier running almost constantly. He kept it so hot and dank in there, and his front hallway was so narrow, that stepping into it felt like stepping into an esophagus. Constellations of lint were gathered on the carpet.
Corny always had a toothpick dangling from the right side of his mouth, and when he would later hear of Ms. Mary Comstock’s death, he would weep like an embarrassed child being bullied on the playground.
Mr. Starling, we were–I was wondering if you’d like me to–while I already have the snow shovel out, just take care of your driveway, too? I mean, just to make things easier, said Wheeler. Why do I sound so exasperated? he thought.
Corny just sniffed, pushed out his toothpick a little more so that it dangled from his lips.
It’s not that I think you need help or anything. Your yard always looks so pristine, said Wheeler. It was the perfect amount of true. True enough to be flattering but not so true that it made them uncomfortable.
Sure, Corny grunted, go ahead. He waved his hand back and forth and Wheeler wasn’t sure if the wave was in dismissal or encouragement. Talking to him reminded Wheeler of a famous head coach who always gave an abbreviated explanation to sideline reporters before running decidedly in the opposite direction.
Wheeler smiled and made his way quickly back through the digestive tract of hallway.
Cornelius Starling had become somewhat of an amateur ornithologist. He had always wanted to bird watch but didn’t want to appear narcissistic due to his last name, so he held off until retirement. His binoculars had a thin film of dried grease where his face pressed against them as he observed the turdus migratorius flit around his stone birdbath in the backyard.
4:16am, February 10, 5574 Fairbrook Ave.
It had begun to snow as the fire reached the outer wall of Britta and Wheeler James’ house. The outside temperature had been quickly dropping through the night; the fire, fueled by manufactured materials, as if some twisted answer to prayer for warmth. The hard freeze had slowed down the molecules, slowing down the minutes before the fire along with it, as Britta stared, awake in bed. The night as cold and vast as its sky. She shivered under the quilt and studied the deadly peace of the black stillness. Even the frames on their wall had been affected by the snowstorm; the temperature constricting the walls and the frames sliding crookedly in complaint.
Then she heard cracking, felt choked for oxygen, wondering if she was having a panic attack. She tasted the fire before she saw it.
Choking, she shook Wheeler awake before even thinking of whether she really wanted to. They held hands as they navigated what used to be a recognizable floor plan. The fire was turning their home into a newly discovered planet, scorched and uninhabitable.
Where are we?
Where are we?
Where are we?
Wheeler kept asking through his coughs.
Shh, Britta said, leading him out the front door after testing that it was cold enough to open.
By the time they curled up in the street next to the snow drifts, jacketless and bewildered, the fire trucks were attempting to make the tight turn of the cul-de-sac circle. Corny had called the firemen, had somehow managed to grab his down vest and binoculars before escaping, and was spitting into the snow as he waited.
They stood and watched because what else could they do? They stood and watched because they were powerless against the flames. But not completely powerless, because they were alive. And wasn’t being alive remarkable?
The three of them were pretty dazed from the smoke trying to invade their lungs and head. Britta found herself thinking of her grandfather, the conversation they had when her other grandfather had died. He had told her she would start seeing his face in strangers, be reminded of him everywhere. He had said this with such confidence but she wasn’t convinced. Her mother’s father was so distinct looking, there was no way anyone else could look like him. He ended up not only being exactly right in his prediction, but this conversation also happened to be one of their last, as if he were preparing her for his own death, too. Britta wondered if the same principles could be true for houses that were destroyed.
Where’s Ms. Comstock? Corny shouted at her. The fire truck’s water began to freeze after being released from the hose and some of the uniformed men started to slip and fall on the pathway to the Comstock residence.
4:28am, February 10, 5575 Fairbrook Ave.
Clarence Egerton lived in the same small cul-de-sac made up of new homes fully constructed of composite wood. Clarence’s house was shrouded in black smoke, the manufactured wood like a gallon of gasoline to the fire that had spread from Ms. Mary Comstock’s house. Clarence was completely unaware of the fire, as he was in Cancun, Mexico at a flea market, with gritty sand naturally exfoliating his rough heels as he walked.
He didn’t really know his neighbors very well, though he was often talked about. Clarence was the only crossing guard they knew who drove a BMW. They also had discovered he was a part-time nudist, as his curtains were rather sheer. Clarence stayed a mystery to them because they liked it that way, and he did too.
[Refer: This story refers to “Brush,” a story by Jeanne Althouse.]
Image by Orin Zebest
Claire Hopple’s fiction is published in Monkeybicycle, Bluestem, Quarter After Eight, Timber, Hermeneutic Chaos, District Lit, Maudlin House, Third Point Press, Crab Fat and others. She’s just a steel town girl on a Saturday night. More at clairehopple.com.