Between The Burns, by David Cotrone

The emergency responders will find him stumbling through his kitchen. They will guide him outside and douse him with water. They will not put an oxygen mask on him until the burning itself is over, since, as you know, straight oxygen mixed with fire triggers an explosion.

They will manage to cool the burns. Here’s something crucial: they will wrap him in a blanket. It is vital to keep the victim warm and dry. It’s as if once the body comes into contact with fire, it craves continuous heat.

Here’s another essential: the victim, when subjected to flames, undergoes several traumas. The burn is paltry in the first moments of post-smoldering treatment. With this in mind, the responders will first attend to his air passage, an aperture that cannot be obstructed. It is also likely that a victim of a house fire has an inhalation wound, either above or below the vocal cords. Along with carbon monoxide poisoning, this victim suffers from one of these inhalation injuries: severe lung damage.

His children will not yet be home and his wife will still be visiting her sick mother. Later, upon seeing him charred and helpless in a hospital bed, they will gasp.

*

Mr. Ghirardi. Remember his front yard? Surely, you must remember it. Once a sublime and well-groomed front yard, it is now a witness to ash and what must be ether. Arson.

The arsonists remain unidentified; despite their efforts, the authorities have not made tangible progress. They haven’t been able to surmise the felons’ identities, but they have a lead. They know the Ghirardi’s curbside mailbox disappeared two weeks before the blaze. It was a baroque mailbox, painted white and green, with a hummingbird extracting nectar from a purple flower. Perhaps the two events — the burn and the vanishing — are linked.

They also know this mailbox hasn’t been the only object to disappear. Before the Ghirardi’s, the White Swan Bed and Breakfast’s lawn chairs went missing, a grill from the Jones’ back patio, gone, along with lawn ornaments from the mobile home park. As for the elementary school, it didn’t have AWOL patio grills or lawn chairs. Instead, around the same time as the hummingbird box disappeared, Welcome signs were ushered from their usual positions.

All of this activity bewilders the town residents. They’re afraid of what will go next. They question. Is the burning tied to some unknown meaning? Is the evaporation linked to some unrevealed significance? What’s the point? What’s at stake? What’s the motivation? The residents don’t know. That is to say, they don’t know why.

*

The town itself is small and undisputedly suburban. On a map, it nears the halfway point of Cape Cod’s canted hook. There are more trees and shrubberies than there are houses. Some houses have pools in their backyards, some have gazebos, some have gardens. Those that have gardens are owned, usually, by the elderly or by families with young children. There is no discernible explanation for this phenomenon.

Most of the roads have only two lanes: one for oncoming traffic and one for forward motion. There are many bicycle lanes; crosswalks are frequent; the sidewalks are old and clean; there are more privately owned restaurants than there are food chains. The ocean is close to nearly all residences. Last August, Walter Dorman, a 55-year-old construction worker, a father to three sons, walked several miles to Newcomb Hollow Beach and sat on the sand. With legs crossed and back straight he straddled the space between water and ground as he looked out to the whitecaps; he shot himself in the head.

A few months prior, one of Walter’s sons, Jason, had fallen off his skateboard while being towed by his friend’s pickup truck. They were heading toward Emack & Bolio’s, a local ice creamery. There were no cracks in the road; in fact, Main Street had been repaved in anticipation of spring. When he landed on the pavement he injured both his brain and his face. The sun was in full view; the clouds were more white than gray, the sky a blue dome. He went unconscious almost immediately. There was a woman walking her old golden retriever and a small fountain at work outside a bookshop. For a few moments, the truck’s driver didn’t realize what had happened.

Perhaps Walter had imagined himself drifting in the deep, rolling and pitching with the waves. Or maybe he contemplated how it’s harder to swim in the ocean than it is in a neighbor’s pool. The violence of the crosscurrent and the undertow, the heaviness of salt, the cold water’s effect on the muscles — these are the reasons. There is, too, the psychological argument that the ocean’s depth correlates directly to fluid ability: In other words, the deeper the water, the more unsettling it is to even think about floating.

*

When the newspaper drops onto the church’s brick entranceway every morning, it lands with a plunk. The sound of the paper smacking against its plastic bag is audible even from a distance. Admittedly, it is tossed with ambivalence.

The church is wide and its ceiling is high. On the roof there is a cupola and a slender steeple that is topped by a cross. Inside, pews arc around the altar, and there is a large stained glass window on one wall; other walls have windows that are unmarked. In the back of the space there’s an ornate organ, its pipes made of lead and tin. When sounded, it bellows more than it howls. Its timbre is rich.

The Times began reporting stories in 1936, a few years after the church had been built. The church has since been renovated and the Times arrives at an hour during which there are no church visitors. The only ones who may be present are the priest who lives nearby or the two old parish secretaries, Norah and Joanne.

The task, then, is easy. The felons arrive in their maroon SUV. They are in uniform: black shirts, black pants, white running sneakers. They peer through the car’s panes; one looks out the windshield and another through the passenger-side window. The passenger dons thick bars of eye black. They inspect the building’s white doors, its turf, its asphalt parking lot. They have chosen this place because it’s big enough, but like the Ghirardi’s, it represents intimacy and narrative. A house and a church — these spaces signify more than framework and technical structure.

They peer at the ground, focusing on the newspaper, which now lies adjacent to the car. The car idles in drive, the driver’s foot on the brake. The passenger unbuckles, exits, and slinks to the paper upon the church’s brick entranceway. He picks up paper by the plastic bag and holds it out in front of him as if it’s a bowl filled with hot water. He climbs back into the car and closes the door. With the newspaper on his lap and the vehicle still in drive, the driver releases the brake.

*

The heart monitor displays a pattern that satisfies the nurse. She looks down at the hospital bed. For a moment she’s jealous of the bed’s occupant. Here, the patient experiences stillness, static, rest. He has glimpsed hellish distress that has, in a fit of terror, attacked his skin. She wonders how long it was before he stopped feeling, how long before the part of his brain that detects pain dissipated into a sort of calm paralysis. She wonders if he will be able to recall the fire in linear fashion, or if he will only see fragments. She wonders if it was more of a collapse or more of an expansion. She wonders if he will see himself and the kitchen burning down from some sort of third person, a wide camera lens. Or maybe he’ll see it from above, or from his own perspective, a good old first person angle. She wonders what he thought, what crossed his mind. His wife? His children? His father? Or perhaps there were no thoughts. Perhaps it was a time of peace, maybe even grace.

She’s never been a victim; she’s never had to ride in an ambulance as a civilian or commoner. She wonders what it was like, being tucked into the vehicle’s box, looking up at the technicians and the paramedics. Was it hazy and distorted, his vision? Was it vague? Disorienting? Unclear? Or maybe it was lucid. It could have been entirely lucid. Oh, what that must have been like, she thinks. Time must have stopped. A technician or a paramedic must have leaned over the gurney and rested his hand on the patient’s knee. The patient must have closed his eyes and focused only on his breath. The oxygen must have piped into his lungs, cool and fresh. The vehicle must have rolled forward, its sirens somehow inaudible from inside. Without a doubt, time must have stopped when the patient was assured: Don’t worry… Don’t worry… Don’t…

*

The parish secretaries are clueless as to why the paper might be missing when they arrive at work each morning. Norah thinks maybe a stray dog or some wild animal lurches by and scoops the paper up, plastic bag and all, while Joanne interprets the delivery boy’s innocent nescience as “suspicious at best.” They have both filed complaints with the Times’ distributor.

Norah has not told Joanne that she works pro bono. She’s afraid Joanne might feel bad about herself, knowing that her only colleague operates for nothing, as if that’s how it should be. Or worse, Jo might think badly of Norah herself. What kind of person works for no pay, especially if that person is, well, old and weathered? Perhaps Joanne would look for ways in which her coworker was inadequate, Norah thought, if she wasn’t working for reward. Jo would be noticeably and utterly hurt if she had any reason to suspect Norah of withholding any necessary effort and exertion while attending to the secretarial duties at hand.

Norah has also neglected to tell Joanne that she’s sick. Rather, mortally ill. This is why Norah only works once a week, on Tuesdays. She and Joanne are friends, so working together is something they look forward to. Norah is terrified, though, that Joanne will find out, either about the free labor or the disease. The longer she keeps these secrets, the harder it will be to rectify any broken trust, to repair any psychological damage, to salvage the wreck; even though Tuesdays are something Norah looks forward to, they are also something she dreads.

*

Today, the two culprits return in their maroon SUV. It has been three weeks since the first pilfered newspaper. They are dressed the same as before: black clothing and white sneakers. This time, however, the driver shifts the vehicle into park. The driver watches as the passenger steps out of the vehicle and lights a cigarette. Murky clouds sprawl across the horizon as they approach the scene in a slow, steady drift; they don’t seem to indicate rain. There’s a flagpole planted in the small lawn in front of the church, but it doesn’t quite reach the steeple. The passenger drags on the cigarette as he approaches the newspaper on the ground. The church’s exterior is shingled and there’s a commemorative bench that sits outside the front door. Perennials line the church’s base and they look fresh in the morning air. After running through the night, the parking lot’s lights bang off.

He slips the paper out of its plastic bag. The paper is thin this morning, not much news to report. He cradles the cigarette butt, moves it from his mouth, and flicks it onto the paper below. The newspaper doesn’t ignite. Instead, a small circle of char and tiny embers collects on the front page. This was expected. This is a warning.

*

It’s the company, Norah says to her daughter, Linda Ghirardi, whenever she comes to visit. Seeing someone else’s face — it keeps me above sea level. Mrs. Ghirardi nods and listens. She tries to understand how it’s healthy for her mother, a frail and beaten widow, to continue working. You can’t imagine how it feels lying in bed or on the couch all day with your failing lungs as your only friend, she says. Linda, sweetie, you can’t even imagine.

*

For the most part, the town rallied around those who survived Walter. The wake and resulting funeral were heavily attended, and even before Walter’s death, many had visited Jason in the hospital. Unable to wake from unconsciousness, his room was at one point filled with bright flowers and balloons. Friends, and even the occasional acquaintance, would come sit at his bedside. After a month or two, he remained unconscious, and the luster of his suffering dissolved.

It’s as if there’s a cap on the observance of trauma, Walter’s remaining sons think. Once the accidents went public, they stayed relevant for only so long before they became private burdens again, vast and lonely yokes. They are without a father. Their brother who was once animate and active is now fallen and profoundly incapacitated. They understand that disintegration and entropy is natural, but they cannot fathom how and why their father drifted into inner oblivion, how their brother’s fall wasn’t anything less than tragic and sad. Who else would notice? Who else would tussle with these questions? Who would know?

It’s not that they want everyone to suffer. It’s not that they are vitriolic or malicious. They don’t want to watch the world burn. They only want the victims and witnesses to remember the world in which they once lived. They want them to understand.

*

Smoke rising, flames at work underneath, the church burning down. This is how things are. Mr. Ghirardi’s inhalation wound, his hospital bed and his kitchen. Norah’s broken lungs and her work desk. Vanishing artifacts. The ruins of once were. Do you see?

  • Previously published in the The Ranfurly Review

DAVID COTRONE is from Plymouth, Massachusetts and is currently a student at the College of the Holy Cross. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in places such elimae, New Plains Review, The Citron Review, and Defenestration.

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