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Fiction

As Detective Frank Meyers arrived at 59 Mulberry Street, he watched the mid-1950s ranch home go up in flames. There, in his mind, sheets of fire billowed out from the newly installed ridge vents along the roof line. Flames like dragon’s breath shot out of the gable vents on each end of the house. The fire light painted the gray brick house “all Halloween orange and chimney red,” just as Tom Waits rasped in “Frank’s Wild Years.” Detective Meyers could see the blaze, as it burned the night before, because he investigated arson for a living. And, here, at 8:30 am on the morning after the fire, it was time for Frank to get to work.

“Hello?” Frank said into his cell phone.

“She wants you to be there, Frank,” Katie said. 

Frank paused. He had to choose his next words carefully. All last week, Katie, Frank’s ex-wife, had been trying to talk Frank into going to his daughter’s birthday party. 

“Will Connor be there?” Frank asked.

“Of course Connor will be there! He’s her step-father for Christ’s sake!”

“What time?”

“5 p.m. Saturday.”

Frank paused again. Their overpriced custody agreement stated that, on Sarah’s birthday, Sarah was to be with Katie (“Mom”) for half the day and then with Frank (“Dad”) for half the day. This birthday party idea didn’t exactly piss all over the court order, but it did fart on it. But that’s Katie for you. She bends the rules far past the point where they should have broken already and then pretends everything’s A-O-K. 

“She wants us both to be there, Frank,” she said. “Frank? Frank!”

“I’ll be there. Gotta go.” Frank hung up. 

Frank’s CB unit buzzed. “Frankie? You on site.”

“Yeah, Sully, I’m pulling up now.” 

“The chief says not to take more than an hour, Frankie.”

“I’ll do my best, but you know how fires go.”

“I know it. You know it. But the chief don’t know it. He never worked arson.” Frank heard Captain Sullivan sip his Maxwell House on the other side of the CB line. “Look, I can cover for you after the hour’s up, but only for a little bit. The chief’s—”

“Gotta make budget cuts. I know, Sully.” 

“Well, that’s what I wanted to tell you. If you ain’t back in an hour, he’s gonna transfer you to traffic beat. He’s on the warpath this morning. Haven’t seen him this pissed off since the Soprano’s finale.”

“I’d better get to it then. Meyers out.”

Frank walked around to the trunk of his police cruiser, opened it, and grabbed the only three tools he ever needed for an arson investigation—his Letherman, a flashlight, and a small broom. His arson scene gig bag was also equipped with plenty of bags, tags, and Sharpies.

Walking toward 59 Mulberry, Frank inferred that the Chatham City Fire Department arrived within an hour of the fire’s starting bell. The building was pretty much still intact at the end of the final round, save the holes in the roof where the fire raged. Brick can go the distance. Wood gets knocked out in the first round. The front door sustained a TKO. It still worked, but it was all bruised and blackened. The knocker on the door looked just like the one he and Katie had at their first (and last) house together. 

A fire that’s capable of obliterating a house usually starts in one of a few ways: someone was smoking in bed, a techie put too many extension chords in one socket, or a seven year old was playing with matches. Seldom does lightning take out a house. Three years ago, a slumlord burned down a vacant house to collect insurance benefits. 

This house had been vacant, too. Mrs. Witherstone had gone into long term care about six months ago, but her daughter was still paying the rent. Mrs. W. moved in to 59 Mulberry 20 years ago when cancer whacked her husband. She couldn’t see for shit even back then and had a hearing aid when she moved in. There’s no telling how bad she deteriorated since then. 

Frank’s galoshes squished across Mrs. W.’s hardwood floor. Frank always wore rain shoes to a scene. The fire trucks shower a million or so gallons of water everywhere and it takes a while for it to go away. Frank walked about the house, looking for what started the fire. All the sockets looked clean. Mrs. W didn’t live here at the moment, so she wasn’t smoking in bed and probably didn’t smoke at all if she was in her eighties. Judging by the evenly dispersed smoke patterns on the walls, Frank concluded that the fire started in the basement. And, if it came from the basement, it was probably a bum furnace that caused it.

Frank pulled out his cell phone, but then put it back in his pocket. He had the urge to tell Katie to go to hell. Frank, let’s pretend everything’s OK, OK? I need to have it both ways. Frank was coming up on nine months of sobriety, and he was trying to keep his side of the street clean. “Resentment is the number one offender,” they say all the time at those meetings. But sometimes, Frank found, he needed to stew in his anger. Nine months was enough clean time for Frank to know how dangerous idle rage could be. But there he was: stewing in his deep, dark shit. He liked to imagine Katie and Connor spontaneously combusting, or maybe watching them both cling to each other in horror as they watched their precious McMansion go up in flames. What a douche. Yeah, the house is nice, but it’s nothing special. What kind of boss bangs his new administrative assistant, knowing full well that she’s (a) married, (b) returning to work after being at home with a toddler for a few years, and, (c) well, impressionable? 

Frank turned and walked toward the kitchen where the door to the basement would be. On the hallway wall, rather than a row of pictures of grandchildren or some kind of painting of a boat or a mountain, Frank saw something out of place. The white wall, grayed by the smoke and ash, had a word written on it in a quick, large scribble of ash: LEAVE. Frank looked closer and felt his spine tingle. The ash was fresh and flaking, meaning the message had been written within the past ten minutes or so.

“Hello?” Frank said. “If someone is here, this is an arson investigation. You must leave immediately.” Frank heard nothing. He rationalized that maybe some hoods had been here before he rolled up, looking for loot. 

Frank walked to the basement door and opened it. He turned on his flashlight and looked down the stairs. The smoke patterns looked more concentrated in the basement stairwell. The fire had to have started in the basement.

The basement steps creaked and croaked as he made his way to the bottom. Frank sniffed the basement air. “Furnace,” he said aloud. He shined his flashlight toward his left, where a furnace would probably be. But then, something scurried through the dark, darting out of view. 

“Eek!” Frank intoned in a high pitched squeal.

“You must be Frank,” a woman’s voice whispered just beyond Frank’s right ear.

Frank squealed again.

“C’mon, Frankie, what would Katie say? Squealing like that. Like a scared little—”

Frank swung his evidence broom in a full circle, in a wide swoosh, hitting nothing. He pointed his flashlight everywhere, trying to find the voice that may or may not have made him shit his pants. 

“I am a police officer! This is an arson investigation! You must leave the premises at once!” Frank said. 

“Oh, Frank, if only I could LEAVE!” 

Air, or wind, or something blew past him, causing him to drop his flashlight. The batteries fell out. Frank attempted to cram the batteries back in, but then the hot air blew past him again. Frank dropped the flashlight completely and it made a cracking sound upon impact with the cement floor. He scurried to the wall behind him and felt temporary safety with his back to the cinder block wall. 

Then, everything went black. Frank looked up. Light should have been shining through the basement windows, but the room was dark as night. 

A blue light faded into view, about 10 feet away from Frank, towards the middle of the basement. A feminine silhouette emerged from the blue light.

“Sorry, Frank, I’m new at this,” she said.

“Wha-”

“What? Not a what, Frank. A who. My name is Ethel.”

Ethel’s slender, youthful figure formed out of the blue. She sat crisscross apple sauce before him. 

“Ethel?”

“What? Did you not hear me?

“No, I heard you, I’m just—”

“Freaked out. No kidding. One minute you’re on your death bed in hospice, surrounded by your loved ones, and the next thing you know you’re back in the house where you wanted to die.”

“Is your last name Witherstone?”

“Why, yes! How did you know Frank?”

“I guess your mother lived here, Mrs. Witherstone?”

“No, my mother lived in Nebraska.” 

“I don’t understand.”

“Maybe this will help: I’m dead, Frank.”

Frank had been to a few fire scenes that were still hot, too hot for him to investigate at that moment. The embers of those houses made his face hot, but they weren’t hot enough to burn his flesh. The idea of sitting in front of a ghost made his face hot and cold, running to both extremes. He could see his breath in Ethel’s blue light, but he felt the heat of her radiance. 

“You’re Ethel Witherstone? The woman who lived here for like 20 years?”

“Yes, except I can see and hear now!”

“Why did your house burn down, Ethel?”

“Oh, that. Well . . . I guess I blew my top,” Ethel giggled. 

“What happened?”

“I was trying to leave. I couldn’t and it really PISSED ME OFF!” Ethel shouted, the playfulness of her voice completely gone. She made two fists and pounded the cement with a hard thud. Flames shot up as she hit the cement with the meat of her tense hands.

“How did you know about Katie?”

“I heard you talking to her.”

Frank blushed. 

“How—”

“Al was like that. Always trying to have his cake and eat it too.”

“Who’s Al?”

“He was my husband. He killed himself before I moved in here. Well, the doc said it would look like he died from lung cancer, but he OD’d on sleeping pills.”

“I’m sorry,” Frank said.

“Me too. That cheap son of a bitch made it look like he died valiantly, but he never even tried. I hate him for that.” Ethel smiled and flames flittered from her mouth, preceding her teeth. Her eyes widened.

“I can relate. Katie wants everyone to ‘get along.’ I’m sick of it. She slept with her boss and blames it on me.”

“Why do you think she blames you?”

“I’m a drunk.”

“You don’t look like a drunk.”

“I’m sober now, but I wasn’t for a long time.”

Ethel made an “S” with her finger. A flame formed in an “S” and then disappeared.

“And, now, whenever she violates the custody order, she calls me a bad father if don’t do what she asks,” Frank said. 

“Sounds like bullshit, Frank.”

“Thank you. It is bullshit.”

“What does Sarah think about it?

“Sarah thinks she did something wrong because her parents aren’t together anymore.”

“But she still wants to see you?”

“Yeah.”

“Frank, as I hear all this, I gotta tell you that I don’t find you all that interesting.”

Frank bristled and raised one eyebrow. 

“O—kay,” Frank said, in an extended drawl. 

“I don’t find much of any of this that interesting, Frank. Not you. Not your stupid ex-wife. Not Sarah, although I’m sure she’s lovely. Not Al, who’s a complete bastard. Not Connor. Not even your fat ass chief who’s gonna fire you for taking longer than an hour at this sorry excuse for an arson investigation.” 

Frank’s eyes widened when he realized he had been at the scene too long.

“But, I’ll tell you, Frank, what I do find interesting is the great beyond—what comes next for us. That’s why, and I just realized this, I gotta move on.”

“But how? You’ve tried to leave and couldn’t.”

“I’ve been carrying too much baggage, Frank. I’m carrying too much hate. I can’t take it with me. I gotta let go of my hate toward Al. Toward my stupid daughter too for making me go into extended care when I wanted to die here.”

“How do you—”

“Drop the bags? It’s easy, Frank. I forgive Al for being a selfish prick. I forgive Edie for holding on to me for too long. If I forgive, I can leave.”

“I’m stuck, Ethel. I just want a piano to fall on both of them.”

“Hurt people hurt people.”

“What?”

“People who are hurting, the ‘hurt people,’ work through their pain by hurting others, usually the ones closest to them.”

“And?”

“Hating someone is like drinking poison and waiting for them to die.”

Frank hung his head low, ran his fingers through his scruffy hair, and exhaled in a huff. He tears welled in his eyes. Then, the dam broke.

“Let go, Frank.” 

“I can’t.”

“There’s so much more, Frank. Here, give me a hug.”

Frank motioned toward Ethel’s apparition. He reached out to embrace her, but she was gone. She left with a whisper. No flash. No echo. No flame. Just a wisp of smoke.

As Ethel faded out, the vice grip that had been twisting clockwise around his heart loosened a bit.

“I . . . I forgive you, Katie,” Frank said.

“Frank! You down there, Frank!” Sully said from the top of the basement stairs.

“Yeah, Sully, I’m down here.” Frank wiped the tears from his eyes, stood up, and woke up his left foot, which was fast asleep. 

As Frank stomped his foot to get the pins and needles out, Sully descended the stairs, his rotund frame negotiating the dark reasonably well.

“Had to check on you, Frank. Hadn’t heard from you for a few hours.”

“You didn’t have to come out to the scene to tell me I’ve been demoted to traffic.”

“That’s the thing, Frank. The Chief ain’t gonna demote you.”

“Why?”

“Chief had a heart attack. He’s dead, Frank.”

“Oh.”

“He was ripping everyone a new asshole this morning, walking desk to desk, throwing shit. He was laying into Frances about always being late, calling her this and that, and then, he grabbed his left arm and just keeled over.”

Frank paused, mulled over the news, and then said, “Well, I’m done here.”

“Furnace?” Sully asked. Frank paused and rubbed his chin. “Frank?” 

“Oh, yeah. Furnace.”

At 5 p.m. that Saturday, Frank rung the doorbell at Connor and Katie’s house. Frank was clean shaven and had gotten a hair cut earlier in the day. Under his arm, he carried a box of Peppa Pig action figures wrapped in Peppa Pig wrapping paper. 

“Daddy!” Sarah said as she opened the McMansion door. Connor and Katie did not have a knocker on their door. 

Frank hugged Sarah and spun her around in the air. Upon landing, Sarah grabbed the present and put it on a table with a dozen gifts, also with Peppa Pig wrapping paper. Sarah ran back to the large, high ceiling living room to play with her friends. 

Katie walked around the corner.

“Thank you,” she said with her arms folded. 

“Katie, I’m glad you invited me, I—”

“Well, it wasn’t me. It was her.” Katie bit her lip and stared at the floor.

“Is Connor here? I brought you guys a Beaujolais.”

“No, Connor had to work.”

“On Saturday evening?”

“A lawyer’s work is never done,” Katie said. “Sarah! Don’t open your presents now, let’s wait until—”

Frank watched Katie’s attempt to corral the children into a game of pin the tail on Peppa, which they warmed up to once they knew candy was involved. 

For the first time in a long time, Frank’s ire toward Katie was gone, replaced with a deep sadness. He remembered how, two years ago, Connor had lured Katie into a Saturday night “had to work” lie from which Frank and Katie’s marriage never recovered. And now, payback was being her typical bitchy self.

As pin the tail on Peppa got going, Katie began to check her phone every few minutes. She was frantic, waiting for a message that would never come, swaying on the flimsy foundation of her new life, stirring a storm inside her, planning revenge, walling herself inside an impenetrable fortress of contempt.

Frank was calm, though. Unlike Katie, Frank could leave. 

August 27, 2021 12:47

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