My girlfriend, Lena, has become expectant. She says something wonderful is coming; there is a jitter in the air is how she phrases it, an auburn magnetism. I trust her, because she is usually right, and I like how hard she tries with words.
She is making a cup of coffee in the kitchen while she mulls over this latest energy, humming to herself, her dreamcatcher earrings dancing above her shoulders as she moves between cabinets. She stops a moment to hold her right hand on her belly in several places, wondering, and then resumes the morning dance. I am leaning against a bookshelf just outside the kitchen so it leans against the wall, helping it to stand straight. I glance at Lena and smile briefly, my dimples shading in, and then the moment evaporates.
Soon Lena will ask me what’s wrong and I will tell her nothing, let’s go sit on the balcony, which I’ve been staring at all morning to admire the spider webs that are slowly consuming it. Lena will sigh, pour the coffee, and to the balcony we will go. It’s an event without momentum. We usually murmur more than talk as the folding chairs, stiffened by the first October frosts, crackle and thaw beneath the weight of us.
We are just settling in, unfurling a thick blanket to drape across our laps, when our noses wrinkle up. Together we glance right and left, then over our shoulders into our apartment, but no—the smell of smoke isn’t ours. I grab the collar of my green-and-burgundy flannel and take a whiff, because I can’t remember if I washed it after our most recent stay-cation to a campsite twenty minutes east of here, but no—it smells of pine needles and sex, but not of smoke. I open my mouth to tease Lena about the musk when we both see it.
Across the parking lot of our apartment complex, a whistle of smoke is streaming from a second floor apartment and dancing in the sky. Lena gasps and nearly spills her coffee before she fiddles with her earrings and says oh no, and I say you were right, there’s a jitter in the air. We are up in a flash and throwing on our windbreakers.
We hustle across the lot, nearly flattened by a UPS truck (their routes do not account for fires or similarly errant events), and stand close to each other thirty yards away from the apartment, looking up at the smoke. It seems to be choreographing itself, trailing right-left-up in steady, waltzing increments into a sky so blue it’s blinding. There is hollering from inside and the beeping of smoke detectors and a wailing, upset baby and the clatter of a life mid-abandonment as a set of sirens whir to life from a fire station just five blocks away. Lena asks if we should be heroes and go in and I’m about to say yes, there’s a jitter in the air, when a woman comes barreling out the door of the apartment with the baby in her arms the size of a cardamom pod. Clutched between her fingers are a half-full bag of disposable diapers and a cell phone, held from the ground only by the woman’s long, metallic nails. We go to her and ask if she’s alright, but she ignores us; she is balling tears and they’re soaking the neck of her t-shirt, and she can’t stop kissing her baby and praising Allah that she has her baby, her own little cardamom pod, and a minute later she’s putting a diaper around her because she wasn’t able to finish the chore inside. A fire interrupted her.
Our windbreakers flutter in a breeze which fills into the apartment and breathes on the fire so that, in a matter of seconds, the flame has skipped most of its childhood and become a raging pill of a teenager, running away from home and laying waste to a few things in the process. Its room is a smelly, ashy disaster. Lena holds a hand to her belly again and coughs. We back away and watch as the firemen arrive and attach nozzles to hoses and hydrants and get to fighting.
One of them tries to talk with the woman who’s escaped with her baby, wondering what happened, but gets the same lack of response as Lena and I. After a while he turns and shrugs at his partners, who’ve tamed the fire. Ten minutes later they’ve put it out entirely. Everyone leaves--a family member comes in a minivan for the woman and her baby--and the excitement is over for the day.
Later that evening Lena and I are sitting on our balcony, sucking on autumn air, seeing how the blackened apartment across the parking lot fades into the night until the two are inseparable. Our apartment sits just right of an exterior light which often flickers, never sure it wants to join us. When it does work, it illuminates the spiders slaving away at their metallurgy. One of them already has quite a catch of little gnats and flies tonight, and even a sweat bee. This is something we like about the spiders; they manage the insects for us, which makes Lena and I feel very organic.
I was wrong today, says Lena, I thought something wonderful was coming. Stumbling for helpful words, I say it could have been worse, that woman and her baby could have died. That was more than a pan fire. This doesn’t seem to help Lena feel any better; she smiles and presses a fist to her abdomen, tries a show of bravery, but the moment evaporates.
A covert spider lowers itself until it dangles just above Lena’s head, its silhouette outlined by the fluorescent light beside us. My folding chair groans as I shift and lean over to flit it away, but I don’t get that far; Lena reaches up and grabs my arm, then crawls with her dull nails up my wrist until her fingers weave with mine.
Don’t, she says. That little guy won’t hurt us.
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Nice writing style. I especially like that you took time out to put the part about the ups truck 'their routes do not account for fires or similarly errant events'
Thanks so much for the specific feedback, Jalissa. Funnily, you're not the first person I've had tell me they like that line! I look forward to reading your stories as I join this reading community. :)
Hi Dustin. This is an absolutely lovely story. Very well written. I love the plot so much. I especially loved the part where you personified the fire as a child, and then a teenager. That was brilliant. It's the little details that make this such an enjoyable read. While it is not an emotionally heavy story since everyone was safe (thank God, I'm happy), it still hit me emotionally a little because like Lena, on a day I thought something wonderful was going to happen, I lost a friend. I'm grateful you wrote this story. If I can chip in a l...
I'm sorry to hear about the instinct that deceived you. I am glad, though, that this story could tie into that event in your life and be relevant. I hear you on the quotes; I went back and forth for a long time on whether the stylistic choice to exclude them was worth the potential confusion. Maybe I should put them back in. Talk soon. -Dusty