I borrowed in the sheets, warm slippery, and felt her touch. She traced her finger from my ear to my lips and placed a kiss there. She must think I’m still asleep.
“I know you’re almost awake,” she said. “I can feel it.”
I took a deep breath and smelled her; clean, fresh, like she just came from the shower. There was a something in the background, though, like someone else was there.
“You’re not listening. You have to wake up,” she whispered.
What did she mean? I am awake. Wait, what was that? I ignored the sound that tickled my awareness and focused on her smell, her voice. I cracked my eyes open and there she was, enclosed in light. No, not light, a glare. The sun shone in the window behind her and surrounded her face like a halo, making it hard to make out her features.
“Beth…” I said and reached to pull her back to me, to the warm sheets.
“Wake up, Danny. Let go.”
And then she was gone. I felt for her, but the sheets were cold.
“Wake up! Let’s go!” Jack shouted over the fire alarm.
Tom flew out of bed shaking off the remnants of his last dream with difficulty. At first he wasn’t sure where he was, but the moment it came back to him he was running to pole right behind Jack to get their turnout gear. The chief was shouting orders and men were scrambling.
A few minutes later they were on a call to a burning barn outside of town near the interstate, just a few miles from the truck stop. It was an old building, no livestock, no people, no electricity, no gas; just a lot of old straw and wood. By the time they got there the damage was done so they secured the area and put out what was left of the barn.
The day was getting warm and all the snow had melted overnight so the ground was soggy. Their boots left deep impressions in the mud and grass.
“Old barns go up like this and they’re gone in minutes. Like matchsticks,” Jack was saying. As they walked around watching the last of the smoke rise from the rubble. “It doesn’t take much.”
Tom just nodded. He knew too well how old buildings went up in flames and the shadows of last night’s dreams, nightmares rather, kept him from commenting. The chief was talking to the Deputy Smithson and pointing toward the roadway then back to his clipboard, and the deputy was nodding and writing his own report.
“… no accelerants,” they heard him say, “but this fire was started intentionally and the culprit’s tracks lead to the roadway over there.”
Tom and Jack headed in the direction Chief Crider pointed.
“Hey, boys!” the chief yelled, “Don’t contaminate those footprints.”
Jack waved that he heard him and they kept walking.
“Hey, I wanted to get you away from the other guys to ask you something.” Jack said.
“Ask away,” Tom replied.
“Are you… alright?” Jack asked haltingly.
Warily, Tom said, ” What do you mean?” Does crazy show that easily?
Jack leaned closer and said “You talk in your sleep, dude.”
Tom nodded and sighed, “Yeah, I know.” He had been dreaming of Beth and Kat a lot lately, sometimes one, sometimes both. Sometimes he relived the details of Beth’s death. “How much do you hear?”
“Just mumblings, mostly, but sometimes it gets a little… scary. A lot of thrashing. Who is Beth?”
Tom didn’t want to talk about Beth again, explain everything all over again. It was painful enough to dream about it, but forcing himself to relive it while conscious was a dangerous thing. He had to answer the questions so many times after it happened to the police, to the doctors, the shrinks, his parents, her parents. When he started talking about it the guilt showed through. He didn’t want the people in his new life to see that. He decided to keep it simple.
“She was my wife. She died a few years ago.”
Jack chewed on that for a minute before he asked the inevitable question, “How?”
Tom was prepared with simple answers.
Jack blew out a low whistle.
“It was quick. She broke her neck; didn’t feel anything.”
Not for long anyway. Nobody knows what anyone feels in that split second when the initial snap happens, before oblivion, but she never felt the burns. He didn’t go into the details of the con man that got away; the gas leak, the arguments about inspections, first with her and later with his own father.
They had an old gas stove and when Beth had said she smelled gas he thought it was from the burner she was about to light. He was standing in the open front door, just getting home. The next thing he knew he was on the front walk and his jacket was on fire. It didn’t register, though. All he could see was the house in flames, the open doorway laughing at him, smoke spewing out in mockery.
He heard the sirens down the street. Why weren’t they in there? How long was he out? What was taking so long? He sat up to go in the house himself and was held down by something. It was on fire, too, heavy. The door? Using all his strength he flung it off himself and literally peeled his melting jacket off his skin. The smell made him want to gag, the pain was blinding, but he took three deep breaths to push down the gorge and surged to the house.
“Beth!” he shouted.
The heat coming up from the floor was blistering. He looked toward where the stove used to be, but she wasn’t there, either. The roof was caved in and everything was on fire. He stumbled toward the living room, the opposite direction of where she was. If the blast blew him out the door maybe she was thrown clear, too. The smoke was choking him, his throat dry and scratchy, and he thought back to grade school. Stop, drop, and roll. Crawl below the smoke.
He dropped to his knees, was breath rasping.
“Beth!” he choked.
Feeling with his hands he found something soft and warm and tried to roll it over or lift it, but it wasn’t her. He was losing his vision, his eyes far too dry to tear up, the inferno was hot, taking him. His back, arm and shoulder felt oddly cool where he peeled off his jacket.
He kept creeping along the floor and he finally found her. He could hear shouting outside, far away. He rolled over her body, black with smoke, her eyes were wide open, face charred. His heart broke.
“No, Beth,” he whispered, and felt at her throat for a pulse, listened for a breath, but the roar of the inferno drowned out everything. He wanted to get her out of there, but he was afraid of hurting her, afraid to touch her burns again. He lied down next to her and tried to yell for help but the air just rasped in and out of his throat, unable to make a sound.
“Is anyone here?” the voices said. He turned toward the sound but the fire was blinding.
He tried to answer but just choked. At least choking was a sound, he thought and choked again. He raised his arms tried to get someone’s attention.
“Is anyone in here?” the voice shouted again.
He was choking, rasping, trying to make sounds. He was falling, floating, slowly spinning.
He didn’t know how long he lay there holding her arm. They weren’t going to find them. He thought he should close his eyes and just let sleep take him, but his eyes were already closed.
He thought he felt something squeeze his chest and he groaned.
“I’ve got a live one!”
No, you don’t. We’re dead.
He later woke up in the hospital, a tube down his throat, bandages covering his right arm, shoulder, and part of his neck. His mother was there holding his hand, making soothing sounds and pushing back his hair. It was brief, but he registered that Beth wasn’t there and gladly gave himself over to unconsciousness again, praying for death.
The next time he woke there was no tube, but the bandages were still there, an IV coming out of his left hand dripped clear fluids. The lights were low, and his mother was asleep in the arm chair converted to a bed. He didn’t want to wake her so he just lay there, trying to remember exactly what happened. Was Beth dead? He knew she was or she’d be here with. Unless she was too injured to come, she would be there. He knew she was dead. He will never forget the perpetual look of horror on her face, the eyes permanently open and the skin charred around them, the frozen, unnatural grimace of her lips.
“Hey, man. Where’d you go?”
Tom shook off the memory, “No where.”
“You spaced out there for a second.”
Tom nodded and said, “Yeah, well, it was a few years ago and I got a fresh start and some therapy. I’m fine. I just have dreams sometimes. Not much I can do about that.”
“Is that how you got that scar? The one on your neck?”
“Yeah, my jacket caught on fire and when I went to take it off it had melted to my skin. No other burns though. It was a gas explosion in the kitchen. We had just bought this old house to flip and had it inspected and everything. I was standing in the front doorway with it still open when it happened so I was thrown from the worst of it. Unfortunately, my wife was the one who was lighting the stove.”
“Yeah. I found out later that the entire house should have never passed inspection. We got conned by a phony inspector, but he was long gone before it happened so nobody ever found him. In fact, we never even found out his real name.” Tom decided not to go into the details that followed. His father blamed him because he hadn’t taken his advice on which inspector to use. Tom went with the cheaper one he heard about from the realtor; a new one in town trying to get more business. He needed a clean slate here, no animosity, no blame.
“Damn,” Jack said again. “So now you’re here playing hero? Is that why you went into the fire business?”
Tom chuckled. “Something like that, yeah. A constructive obsession, I guess.”
“Or unhealthy, depending on which way you look at it. You’re not going to do anything stupid are you?” Jack asked.
He had heard that question before. “No. Like I said, it was a couple of years ago and I got therapy. I’m fine.”
They kept walking toward the area the chief pointed near the road. sure enough there was a set of footprints. They looked like they were made from a men’s set of snow boots. They led to a spot in the gravel at the side of the road and where fresh tire tracks marred the smooth gravel.
“Can I ask you another question?”