A few content warnings: cursing, suicidal thoughts, death, and a brief mention of substance abuse.
Thanks for reading!
It started with an envelope - white and innocuous save for the “time sensitive” stamp in the bottom right corner. Whoever it was had spelled my name correctly, which was a rare occurrence among the spam mail I regularly received.
Yes, my family is Irish, I would deadpan to whoever asked, as if it weren’t the most obvious thing in the world.
I’d seen my name spelled every which way, but rarely as my mother intended. It’s what moved me to tear open the envelope in the doorway of my tiny Brookyln apartment - that in two days I would be waving goodbye to from the back of a cab, no longer able to afford the skyrocketing rent prices - before even taking off my raincoat. I felt the rain drip down my calves, into my worn Birkenstocks, and puddle at my heel.
WELLSTON COLLECTION SERVICES screamed at me from the top of the thick white page and my eyes could do nothing else but immediately pan to the bolded number at the bottom of the list of charges.
A tightness in my chest gave way to a feeling of dissociation, a separation between my physical and mental forms. I felt my eyes float over the credit card charges, ones Mom had made over the last several years that added up to just over ninety thousand dollars. And 15 cents. Suddenly, an erratic laugh escaped my lips. 15 cents. Wellston Collection Services would quite literally nickel and dime me. In my state of acute grief and panic, I found this little detail hysterical.
As I continued laughing, turning the pages over in my hands, I felt a roughness on my calf and looked down to see Mouse, my 15-year-old Siamese, licking droplets of rain from my skin. He rubbed my leg with his furry head. Then he bit me.
“Ouch! Someone’s fickle today, huh?”
He looked at me with no expression, as he was wont to do, then padded away.
I could be fickle, too. Which is why I threw that envelope in the recycling bin and went about my business.
Two days later, I moved into the old farmhouse where my mother raised my elder sister and I in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Maeve had been dead for ten years, found at a crack house in Philly with her even deader - by a day, police estimated - boyfriend. The culprit was found in their system days later during the autopsy - fentanyl. Thirty years old and addicted to opioids for almost half of her life, I registered the news of her death with as much surprise as one might when they’ve dealt with a family member’s addiction for over a decade; that is to say, there was not a shocked bone in my body. I had long since left the old, musty farmhouse for Brooklyn, but I tried to visit my grieving mother as often as my temp jobs would allow me, which wasn’t often.
Mom dealt with the news of my sister’s death the only way she knew how. The only way a family of addicts could.
She gambled. To the tune of 91,655.15.
I left Brooklyn, but was able to keep my medical billing job and work remotely. What I didn’t leave behind in Brooklyn was a certain collection agency.
In just a few days since receiving the first envelope, I received another. Then another.
I stowed the envelopes in a kitchen drawer with takeout menus, coupons Mom would never use, and a pile of dead batteries, dusty with age.
Then those angry men over at Wellston decided the letters in the junk drawer weren’t cutting it. I received polite phone calls to begin with, then ones with more vitriol, then some that were downright vulgar. This all happened in the span of a week.
No rest for the weary and apparently not for the grieving either.
Mom died 16 days ago. She had apparently resorted to more than one vice over the years since Maeve’s death. With alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver and no hope for a transplant, she wasted away in less than a year. I cared for her in the farmhouse, wondering to myself every time I helped her sip water, wiped her down with a damp cloth, bundled her in blankets, if she knew all along that this was how she would go. She seemed so resigned to her fate, so willing to die.
The resentful part of me thinks she prayed for this, for a reprieve from her debt, her shame, her hopelessness.
Let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of me. All of me thought that. Maybe that made me a despicable daughter, but it was nearly impossible not to scorn her memory when some gravely-voiced debt collector was shouting obscenities at me as I ate the freezer-burnt Lean Cuisine I dug out of the freezer.
The way I saw it, I had three options.
One. Kill myself. This one had its appeal. My life hadn’t quite reached initial expectations. I was accepted into an Ivy - Cornell - at 17-years-old, but deferred to care for my sister, who at 25 was fresh out of rehab for the third time. Mom was never equipped to handle Maeve’s illness. I figured it was perhaps due to the addictive tendencies she herself had and always denied, as if I didn’t notice the power cutoffs and the stack of unpaid bills on the kitchen table. I never did make it to Cornell, a combination of obstacles - money, an ailing sister, crippling imposter syndrome - standing in my way. Since then, I’d held a series of temp jobs until I found something akin to complacency in medical billing/coding. I had a few boyfriends over the years, but they ultimately left for better things once they realized I was about as boring and lackluster as they come. I did have Mouse, but I suspected that he wouldn’t be moved one way or another by my death, so long as I left out enough food until someone found my rotting corpse.
Two. Run away to some country in South America or Asia. Would anyone even bother coming after me? Perhaps they would see my running away as enough of a punishment, knowing full well that I’d be downright useless in a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. I’d drown my sorrows in the cheap alcohol I’ve always avoided - in a family of addicts, one can never be too careful - and die lonely and penniless.
Three. Burn the fucking farmhouse to the ground. This alternative of course came with a certain amount of risk, namely being found out and thrown in jail, but it also had the most potential for reward. Killing myself or moving to a country where I’d be a poverty-stricken hermit for the rest of my life were downright depressing options. But burning the house down for the insurance money, paying off Mom’s debt, getting the debt collectors off my back, and maybe having enough left over to go back to school and get a degree in something I enjoyed? Well, that actually sounded like a blessing.
“You’re a fucking idiot if you think we’re going to let this slide,” said that day’s angry debt-collector, Kevin, who I liked to imagine was living in squalor in some tiny apartment shared with five other angry debt-collectors, each with a potbelly and alcohol-reddened face, stinking up the place with their farts. “I bet you’re as fucked up as your mother clearly was. Bet you’ll end up just like her.”
Kevin was right about one thing. I was fucked up.
But I was not her.
I decided that the risk was worth the reward. And I couldn’t wait to watch this house light up in flames.
I started planning. I was smart about it, too. I knew from binge-watching enough crime TV that you never do your dirty-deed research on your computer or phone where it could easily be tracked. Since I was back in town and needed to catch up with extended family, I cleverly used that opportunity to grab dinner and drinks with cousin Danny, a firefighter. After several rounds of whiskey in a neighboring town’s shabby watering hole, he became positively silly, enough to share trade secrets without even being asked. He talked about the dogs that were trained in sniffing out accelerants and how stupid people were to think they could “get away with something like that”. I added this, among others scenarios he shared, to a list of mental notes. I drank my whiskey slowly and downed my water quickly in an effort to stay lucid.
He and his wife, Lily, and their two daughters came over that Sunday afternoon for lunch after mass. It was almost too good to be true how much Danny loved to talk about fire. While Lily and the girls were outside, he and I were in Mom’s bedroom, poking around the boxed up items I had been putting together, desperately wanting to be rid of anything that held memories of Mom or Maeve.
“Is there anything you think you might want? I’ve been trying to donate a few things when and where I can, but it’s stop and go. There’s a lot of memories here, as you can imagine.” I gestured to the space around me, boxes and Rubbermaid totes abound.
“Of course,” He said in that pitying kind of way that I’d grown accustomed to since Maeve and Mom’s deaths. “It must be so hard. You know, your mom was like a second mother to me. I’m sure there’s some things here that the girls would love to have.” He ambled over to a box of old dolls that had belonged to Mom, then Maeve, then me.
“Shit, Vonnie.” He said, picking up a few candles Mom had collected on her bedside table. “With how much she drank, I can’t believe Aunt Kath would keep these things around. Ours is a candle-free home, especially with the girls being so young and curious. You wouldn’t believe the kind of stuff I see. Fires started from a tipped over candle or a grease fire in the kitchen.”
Of course. Candles. Mom always hated overhead lighting. She preferred the moody, subtle light of a lamp or candle. You could find them scattered all over the house. The obsession rubbed off on Maeve and I. In fact, when they found Maeve’s body, they said the air carried not only a stench of death, but also something faintly citrus - a mandarin-scented candle that had burned down to the wick on the floor beside her lifeless body.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that, Danny. I’m as careful as they come.”
Conveniently enough for my story I’d tell the police, insurance agent, or whoever it was that investigated these things, Mouse had a tendency to knock things over. Glasses holding beverages, my cell phone, fragile trinkets (like the sorely missed succulent I had kept in a tiny terracotta pot) were not safe around Mouse, no matter the height you put them at, for he was agile and could scale anything. In fact, as much as I loved candles, I scarcely lit them at my Brooklyn apartment for fear that he would grow curious about the bright flame.
“I think my cat knocked the candle over,” I said to myself in the bathroom mirror as I practiced my explanation, hoping to find the right balance of regret, shock, and sadness. “I must’ve dozed off. I’m so stupid!”
Mouse was sitting outside the bathroom door, eyeing me suspiciously, as if he knew I’d place part of the blame on his impulsivity and meddling nature. However, he seemed to shrug it off quickly as he opened his mouth for a big yawn. He sauntered off, leaving me to perfect my speech.
The next day, around 10 a.m., I found myself sitting on the couch in front of the coffee table, a lit candle in front of me. The scent of vetiver filled the room, earthy and clean. I stared at the candle as it melted, spotting Mouse in my peripheral vision, engrossed by the enchantment of that billowing flame.
“You’re not actually going to tip it over. You know that, right?” I said to the creature. “You’re just the scapegoat in this story.”
He looked at me with sad eyes as I finished talking, as though he were disappointed. He came over and hopped up onto my lap and curled himself into a furry ball. I continued to stare at the vetiver candle, knowing it was now or never. I heard the voices of those debt collectors everywhere now, even in my private thoughts.
But to my surprise, I found myself blowing the candle out and covering it with its lid, felt myself curl into the couch with Mouse, felt myself drift off into sleep, of which I was sorely lacking these days.
I woke up to the smell of smoke and the sound of Mouse screeching at the front door, his claws scratching against the glossy, finished wood. In a sudden rush of panic, my eyes immediately went to the candle, sitting in front of me on the coffee table, covered and dim. I panned up to see the kitchen flush with long flames, the living area around me almost completely engulfed. The fire hadn’t made it over to where the couch sat against the wall yet, but it was nearing Mouse as he stood on his hind legs against the door, begging to be let out of this circle of hell.
What had I done?
Or rather, what had I not done? Because I clearly didn’t do this.
Without thinking clearly, I stood up and raced over to my innocent pet who had the misfortune of being adopted by me all those years ago in a rundown New York humane society.
I felt the flames lick my shoulder, my elbow, singeing the hairs on my arm. I scooped up Mouse, but he fought me as I held onto him, clawing at me in his panicked state. I did everything that I was taught not to do as a child when it came to fire. I didn’t crawl beneath the smoke, I didn’t call 9-1-1, and I definitely did reach out and touch a burning door handle in order to get out. The pain of it coursed through my hand, but I really couldn’t be bothered, because I was not going to die in that godforsaken house among the ruins of my family’s misfortune.
An hour and a half later, the fire was out, the house a burnt wreckage beneath the boots of the firemen. Danny stood next to me, holding my cat who had finally calmed. I sat on the back of the ambulance, getting my burns patched up. They weren’t as bad as they had felt.
“I don’t understand how this happened, Danny.” Truly, I didn’t.
“As much as we try to prevent house fires, they can sometimes be freaks of nature.” He watched as his fellow coworkers went about their final sweep, making sure everything was extinguished. “My guess is that Aunt Kath wasn’t keeping up with the old house.”
No surprise there.
“I just wish I had answers. For all of it.”
Danny looked at me, understanding my full meaning. “Well, I can’t help you when it comes to Maeve and your mom. But our guys have trained eyes. Maybe they’ll find something.”
The phone rang late one evening in my room at the extended stay hotel. I was curled up under the scratchy bedsheets, Mouse dozing contentedly in the space between my legs. I stretched my arms out to reach it, not wanting to disturb the pet who had now - thanks to his screeching and crying that fateful day - become something of a hero to me.
“Hello, this is Siobhan,” I said in a monotone, half expecting it to be one of the debt collectors.
“Batteries,” said the voice on the other line.
“Excuse me? Who is this?”
“Sorry, sorry, it’s Danny.”
“Danny, why on earth are you calling so late?” I looked at the clock. 10:56 p.m.
He chuckled. “Well, hello to you too, Vonnie. How have you been holding up? How’s the furball? The last month has been rough for you two.”
“I’m fine. He’s fine.” I sat up straighter in the bed and Mouse jumped down and looked up at me with eyes like tiny slits, annoyed by my movements. “What’s this about batteries?”
“Oh, right!” He exclaimed, as though he had already forgotten why he’d called. “So, your mom apparently had a drawer in the kitchen with stacks and stacks of old batteries. I mean, there must have been at least a few dozen of them in there!”
I let out an irritated sigh, confused as to where this story was going. He seemed to notice, because he cleared his throat and continued. “If dead batteries aren’t stored or discarded properly, they can become a fire hazard. It looks like your mom had some keys in that drawer, or what used to be keys - they’re a pile of metal now. The batteries’ ends must’ve come into contact with the metal and, over time, began building heat in that crammed drawer.
I thought about the debt collection letters I’d put in there, a kind of kindling for said fire. Unintentionally, a smile crept onto my lips. I held my fingers there, feeling the curve that indicated to others something akin to happiness. A feeling I hadn’t known in quite some time.
It ended with a battery. A small, juiced-up source of energy that had the potential, like me, to become fed up with one’s surroundings. To erupt in flames until it broke free.
For once, Mom had done something right.