WHAT THE ARSONIST WORE - ELIZA WALTON
Last night, I woke up to pee, but realized, rolling over, I didn’t have to. I could have, the way you go before a car trip, or the way Steve and I both have piddled preemptively since we hit our mid-sixties, but I didn’t have to. Mid-January, the air brushed cold against my bare shoulder, even in our overheated apartment. Settling back to sleep, I shivered to recognize that terror, whatever it is, when you can’t name the dread but the black maw is there, and it shakes your body and your mind and you might as well turn on the light and read, because facing that hole at the moment is manageable—of course, you won’t die, you’ll just clench up—but why do it any more than you have to? It’s not a contest, to see how much anxiety you can stomach, now, is it?
I read for a while, on my side, turned away from Steve. I tried to use my torso to shield his closed eyes from the lamplight. I was halfway into a murder mystery with more gruesome details than I see on a daily basis in my life, even though I watch the news and CSI and ER, and live, like over a million others, in Manhattan, which, while it might be safer by far than twenty years ago, is still full of people who could kill me. Murder mysteries strike me as our contemporary Greek myths: I will always find justice there, sweet, with all its ends tied.
Blinking lights—red, yellow, blue and white—pounced around on the insulating blinds like blurry, kaleidoscopic cat paws. I pulled the cord to break this mood, peered out at 1st Avenue. Across the street, at 2:16, people were walking rapidly. I have lived for sixty-eight years in this city, and it still amazes me to see them, so like the cockroaches that plagued us when we lived in our old walk-up in Chelsea. Three fire trucks and two ambulances siren past. And something made me look up, down, then up again, at an apartment, three buildings up the avenue, on the other side. I couldn’t see very clearly, but it seemed obvious there was a fire raging.
“911. What is your address?”
“Ahhhh... well, my address is 1705 First Avenue, ah, that’s between...”
“Thank you, ma’am. And you are reporting...?”
“I’m... there’s a fire across the street. I can’t see very clearly but...”
“Thank you, ma’am, and your name is...?”
“My name is Clara Dubarde.”
“Thank you for calling 911 and we will alert the fire department.” Click.
I stared at the glowing windows. Soft orange, almost red at the edges of each pane of glass. I saw a body moving. Then two others, smaller. They were all scrambling. I thought, Oh God, a family lives there!
I called back 911 because I couldn’t hear any sirens coming to prevent this tragedy, unfolding right there, right in front of me. Each minute, the windows seemed larger, the walls between them narrower. The building itself seemed to shrink, although the bricks found more exact delineation, like a real building morphed into a miniature rendering, rather than the smoky blur of impression, which is the way I tend to see structures in the city. Never the clarity of each leaf, stone and structure I see when we travel. And I felt so powerless! People might die while I watched.
Another voice answered, “911. Your address?”
I gave the whole business, once more, but just before this operator could disconnect, I asked, “Is there no one coming to this fire?” As if it were a barbecue.
He answered, “No, ma’am, there isn’t, because we’ve been advised by the FDNY that this is a ‘controlled burn...’”
His words faded as I saw a figure, furtive, head turning around every few strides, running down the avenue below me, illuminated by the streetlights and the cars, so many even in the middle of the night, as always. I saw she was not wearing a hat. She had her blonde hair tucked into a pretty bun, and she sported a sleek, dark green jacket, fabric, not down, as it seemed almost felted. And a short, twirly skirt, it might have been wool, because it draped, when she paused in her strides, around graceful, long legs, like the most elegant gabardine. It was paneled, various shades of rose, cerise and black. The young woman wore black stockings and black gloves and a brilliant Kelly green scarf. She carried a red, metal gallon can in one hand, and I can’t imagine it weighed much because she was swinging it back and forth as she slowed her pace a little. I caught the expression on her face once or twice, not sly by then, nearing the end of the third block away from that fiery building—the windows had to have burst by then—but she was smiling. Grinning.
A ‘controlled burn?’ As in a country field weeded by flames? But...one apartment? In that case, surely, the whole building would catch fire? And each home or shop adjacent? (What city planning board approved this plan? Infernos waiting for a spark.)
I jerked my head back toward the building, and I can’t tell you what I saw, then: some contemporary god pursing his lips beneath a bulbous nose, the fiery tentacles of a land kraken—not a visual image, more an odor—or, no, it was the idea, itself: the apocalyptic collapse of an entire block of buildings, walls to walls conjoined, no alleyways even for a firebreak. Or, at least, the sound of bricks and mortar spewed in a mythological convulsion I couldn’t hear in its entirety but managed to catch, in myriad, jagged bits flying outward: clink, clink, clink.
BIO: Eliza Walton was one of a handful of writers, who submitted stories via Libby Cudmore and Matthew Quinn Martin’s writing workshop, and was chosen by yours truly to represent the workshop here at A Twist Of Noir.