FICTION December 16, 2016

The Fires

Fiction by Dave Housley

The fires came down from the north. Or they drifted in from the west, sparks floating like dandelions over the desert and the mountain streams. Some heard they had started in Mexico, some that they had crossed the Atlantic. At that point, so much had happened, so much had been lost, that the few who remained would have believed anything, and the idea of burning oceans—or of fire bubbling out of the ground like water—was almost reasonable. Of course some said it was the government, what was left of it, or aliens or Halliburton or Hollywood, but those culprits had been blamed for everything that had happened already, and what good did blame do, anyway? If the fires were coming, they were coming.

+  +  +

An ancient man and his adult son huddled in the hayloft of a barn. They had decided earlier that if it started, if the smoke they could see from the northwest was going to burn through what was left of the corn and onto the farm, it would be best, finally, if they went with it.

“Well?” the old man said. He sat on a discarded couch that had been dragged into the barn years ago, when his children were teenagers.

The son, forty-eight and feeling like an old man in his own right, stood by the window. “I think,” he said.

The son was a doctor and had spent the past several months roaming the countryside, helping the sick wherever he had found them. What he had learned was that everybody was sick, everybody was dying, most were already dead, and there was nothing an obstetrician could do to stem the tide. With nowhere left to go, with his own family long gone in the first wave of the sickness, he had turned north with no more idea in his head than distance between himself and the three graves in his back yard, and hadn’t really thought so much about it until he was walking the ghostly halls of his old high school.

An old song had come into his head like an infection that had taken root years ago and lain dormant until that moment: “Magic Power” by the band Triumph. “She’s young now, she’s wild now, she wants to be free / she gets the magic power of the music in me.” He had stopped at a locker and wondered whether it was his old one, whether his muscle memory had somehow led him to that place. He had put a hand on the door but hadn’t tried to open it.

There was no magic power, and the fact that this notion had once held some meaning for him, tenuous but real, was as absurd as the books and notebooks and wrappers that lined the halls. All of it kindling for whatever came next.

When he had gotten to the farm, he hadn’t been surprised to find the old man still alive, even though he hadn’t seen another live person for more than a week. Or a month. Time had gone slippery. Of course the bane of his early existence, the holder of switches and secrets and reproaches, was still alive. They had greeted one another with a nod.

“Did you bring any food, at least?” the old man had said, but it wasn’t really a question, and the man had just grunted and shook his head and looked out the window at the smoke far off in the distance.

They had settled into a routine of watching in the barn and reading books, cooking one meal a day, pumping water from the well. Now, for the first time, smoke began to fill the barn.

“Is it coming?” the old man said.

The man went to the window. Corn was burning in the northwest. He looked out the other side. He was not surprised to see fire encroaching from the south. Had he come here seeking resolution? Kinship? Mercy? Vengeance? The old man had missed a lifetime of accomplishments, of victories and defeats and births and deaths. There was so much to say.

“It’s here,” he said.

+  +  +

Ronnie sniffed. “Smoke.” He pulled the blankets up to his chin, and the girl squished down, pushed her head under the covers. “Is that okay?” he said.

She squeezed his hand more tightly. “Did my heart love till now?” she said. She stared off into the middle distance, toward the LeBron James poster on the wall. “For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.”

He had stopped asking whether she thought they should leave, try to make it to the beach or the places he had heard about beneath the subway, back when there were still people to hear things from. He had decided to wait it out, face whatever was coming next, and live through it or not, right here in this room. There was a certain poetry to it that he guessed she would have appreciated before whatever had happened to her.

The boy was a few years older, sixteen to her fourteen, or that was what he guessed. He didn’t know what she had been like before, but there were clues: the way she never used contractions, the filthy Hermes bag that she had packed with scarves and underthings that looked like they had been expensive, at one point. Before.

All she would talk about was love—whether they were in it or not, how deeply, the kinds of things she would do if deprived of his love. He guessed she had seen some movie or read some book, and when it all started to go wrong, when the sickness had come and then the death, the loneliness and the silence and the birds, and now the smoke and sound of something coming—fires or oceans or dragons, he would be surprised by nothing—she had regressed somehow, latched onto something from before and closed up around it like a locket protecting a photograph.

He could feel the heat rising. The smoke had been distant, a hint and then a promise and then all of a sudden it was present, here, as much a part of the room as the LeBron James poster or the peeling paint on the ceiling. He realized in a flash that this was not like the sickness, which had passed him by for reasons he couldn’t fathom. “I don’t know if we’re going to . . .” he said.

She put a finger on his lips. “Shhhhhh,” she said. She sat up and looked again toward LeBron James, frozen in mid-air. “Take him and cut him out in little stars,” she said. He knew she was reciting something but couldn’t place it. Maybe the movie about the teenage vampires? “And he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”

It was becoming difficult to breathe. He pulled her close and could feel the sweat on her legs. She burrowed her head into his chest and coughed. He pulled the comforter over their heads and held his breath.

+  +  +

Jake sat in the chair and worked through his back files. There was one he always wondered about, a boat insurance client who had kept him on the line and then bailed at the last minute. He wondered whether the man was still alive, or the wife, who had been the one to hang up on him. They were almost certainly gone. Everybody was gone.

He picked up the phone and heard nothing, as usual. The dial tone had been such a rich, full sound in his life, the precedent to a call, maybe a sale, a chance to fix a problem for somebody or even to simply connect with another lonely person in the middle of the night. When he had started, the sound had terrified him—so full, insistent, waiting, almost daring him to go ahead and call the numbers and see whether he could do it, convince somebody he would never meet in person, whose name had come to be on the sheet in various ways that he never did fully understand, that their life would be better somehow if they entrusted a piece of it to State Farm.

Now he put the phone back in the cradle. He pulled at a loose string on the arm of his red golf shirt. His clothes were starting to fall apart, but he had always dressed professionally—Dockers and the company shirt—and he wasn’t about to stop now. He had been surprised when his coworkers stopped showing up for work, first a trickle and then almost everybody, and then it was just him and Mr. Hernandez for a week until the man had shaken his hand, calmly walked into the break room, and put a bullet in his head.

That night Jake had walked home and not seen a live person, only a few packs of wild dogs already taking over the streets. It was six o’clock, the sky almost blacked out by birds circling in a pattern that seemed ominous and not really real, something out of Hollywood. It was the last time he left the office. There was a supply of snack food in the break room, and once it became clear that nobody was coming back, he’d found an astounding amount of supplies. The things they kept in their desks—soup and energy bars and packages of chana masala. Tequila and bourbon and gin. He had eighteen tubes of toothpaste left and imagined that unless what was coming was suddenly stopped, the fire changing direction or miraculously being put out by a gale wind or hurricane, he would never leave the building again.

He searched through his notes. He remembered the call was in summer sometime, when he had been working the night shift. Those had been good times. He had been an up and comer, working hard for the promise of a better future.

It was getting hotter, and he took the red shirt off, went down to his undershirt. He glanced quickly at the desks to his left and right, but of course nobody was there to scold him, raise an eyebrow, or tsk tsk. The roar was getting louder, a sound like a thousand spigots released at once. He wondered whether he should go to the roof.

Jake opened a file. “Snyder, Damon H.” They had signed up when their son was born. They had good insurance. He wondered whether they had thought about it as the sickness set in, whether it was a comfort in those final moments. Everybody needed good insurance.

The smoke was in his eyes, snaking down his throat. He could barely see the motivational poster he had affixed to the far wall: Dream big: Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude. He had only wanted to help people. He had only wanted to work hard, move up the ladder, maybe go to the beach once a year.

He placed the “Snyder, Damon H.” file on his desk and reached for Mr. Hernandez’s gun.

+  +  +

The writer sat under the Rothko where she had spent most of the past few days. She picked up her notebook, opened to where she had left off. She tried to read the most recent paragraph but could only make out the last sentence, which she’d written in all capitals and underlined: AND NOW FIRE.

Her eyes watered, and she felt the smoke slipping into her throat, soft and insistent like a drizzle turning to rain. She wondered how long she had. Hours? Minutes?

She had first made her way to the museum to save the Rothkos and Picassos and Lichtensteins. She had remembered one of the wars, one of the old ones, the television wars, news stories about ancient artifacts being looted from a museum in Egypt or Syria. She had wondered whether the same had happened here in New York, but of course with almost everybody dead, there had been nobody left to make that kind of trouble. She had wondered whether what had happened was a war, an ingeniously evil biological strike by the North Koreans or Russians. The television had wondered the same thing when there was still television.

She walked to the opposite wall, where she could see the Rothko, and sat down. It was beautiful, the large scale and intimate humanity, childlike colors and bleak exposition. She had tried to do some of the same things with her own work and thought she had achieved a version of it, at least, with the second novel. She was in the same neighborhood, maybe, making her way toward that place.

She had only been in New York for two days, had read at a bar in Brooklyn and was supposed to meet with her editor about the third book when the news started reporting a pandemic, the Georgia flu they called it, and warning that everybody was to stay inside. It had happened so quickly—mass exodus, traffic jams, and chained hospital doors, and then bodies in the streets and a flicker on the television, static on the radio, the birds and the rot and the smells and then finally she had heard the fires coming.

For a while she had entertained an idea that others would make their way to the museum, wait out their last days as some kind of salon, artists and thinkers gathered around some of the greatest pieces of art ever made, celebrating the importance, the permanence of art even in the face of whatever continued to befall them. “Rome is indeed burning,” she would say, “and for now, fellow artists, let us fiddle.”

That was when she still thought there were others, when she was still working on the third novel, writing some of the best sentences she had ever written. Now she flipped through the notebook. Words, words, words. She ripped a page, let it drop to the ground. She was sweating. The room seemed to be dripping, little flames alighting like pigeons here and there. She rolled the notebook up like a cone and thought of the Statue of Liberty. She coughed once, then again. She checked her feet to see whether they were on fire. Everything was so hot. She regarded the painting through watering eyes. She did not have much longer. She touched the end of the notebook to a flame and walked to the Rothko. She placed the flame in the corner and watched the colors begin to melt.

+  +  +

Emily went out into the yard and sat in her place near the garden. The sky was black, and she could barely see through the birds that circled every day now. At first they had bothered her. Dirty animals, flying in a way that seemed unnatural, evil even. Then she had started to wonder if they were the winged angels, if their constant caws and shrieks were the bellowing trumpets. Maybe the sickness hadn’t been the Rapture at all, but instead a cleansing. There had been so few left, so many gone. If she was honest with herself, and there was no point in hiding anything now, there being nobody else to be honest or dishonest with, these results were much closer to the tally she had been running in her head all these years. She didn’t understand why Pastor McAllister would have gone in the cleansing. Or Evelyn Snyder, or Thomas Ray, or the nice little girl who used to ride her scooter past the yard and wave hello. But if the current situation was proof of anything, it was that He indeed worked in mysterious ways.

Now she regarded the birds hopefully and was careful to keep her thoughts on His Word, even when making her way through the birds’ waste to her chair, wiping the scat off the arms and the seat, sitting down with the umbrella under their constant circling. She peeked out, and they seemed to be massing into a spiral, whirling tighter and tighter like something from an old-fashioned funhouse. “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint,” she whispered.

She heard a dull roar in the distance and wondered whether it was a flood. Should she have built an ark? She had prayed on it, and if she was honest with herself, again, she hadn’t really received an answer either way.

She smelled smoke in the distance. Was that the sound of fire? If she was really honest, it had been some time since she had really felt His presence. Maybe the last time had been just after the sickness, when the traveling Shakespeare troupe had come through. It had been so surprising, such a delight amid so much death and uncertainty, and she had been able to forget, if only for an evening, the question of whether she had been preserved for the Rapture or left behind.

The roar was getting louder, and the smoke seemed to be coming from all directions, somehow, getting closer like a beast stalking prey. She watched as small flames alit near the garden, over behind the shed, on the roof of the house. She put the umbrella down. The birds had disappeared, and for the first time in the past few months she noticed the sky, how dead it looked now, like staring into the clear, open eyes of a corpse. She had known all along that the birds were not angels. She opened the Bible and then closed it again. She put it in her lap and waited.

+  +  +

The only reason Cutter came into the center at all was that Mr. Bailey had asked him to, and Cutter still took pride in doing what he was asked, in doing it well and quietly and without being asked again. He hadn’t yet broken the pact he had made with himself when he’d left Maryland. If he was going to start again, really this time, even with everything that had happened, he was going to honor the pact. And it was even more important now. In the end, after all, who was going to be left to bargain with?

He had believed in God once. A god, at least. Something. But that had gone away in Maryland. Today was New Mexico and the center and the machines and the instructions from Mr. Bailey, typed and double spaced and right where they were supposed to be in the locked file cabinet. “To be used only in the circumstance of nuclear or other apocalypse,” read the title on the folder, in Mr. Bailey’s neat handwriting. The most amazing thing, Cutter thought, was that Mr. Bailey had written these instructions a full two years ago, before the sickness even. Cutter didn’t know how long he had left, but he knew he would never be the man Mr. Bailey had been.

The instructions were clear. He was to lock down completely and follow the process for re-animation. The low hum of the facility, the machines and coolers and occasional machine beep or whirr, had unnerved him at first, like being in the heart of some massive, sleeping robot, but over time he had come to regard their presence as a comfort. He gauged the silence now as he climbed the stairs toward the hatch. The entrance was a large half-moon cut into the desert floor, and when he cracked it open he was immediately overcome with smoke and heat. He pulled the door shut, coughing, and followed the lockdown procedure as best he could with his eyes streaming tears. It was time.

He had learned to call them patients but never to really feel that way about them, like there was a real person in there who might eventually come back to life whenever science was ready for them. Even with as much respect as Cutter had for Mr. Bailey, the whole thing just seemed like a rich person’s last gamble, one more way their money might be used to gain any possible advantage, even in death.

Now he went through the re-animation procedure, flicking buttons and setting temperatures, starting with the oldest patients and working his way to the most recent. The sounds had changed slightly, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the re-animation procedure or the fire above. He wondered whether liquid nitrogen was explosive. Although he knew re-animation could take weeks, he couldn’t help watching the encasements, half expecting them to slowly open. My god, he thought, what would happen to them if somehow it all worked?

At the very end of the instructions, Mr. Bailey had hand-written a final paragraph titled “For Mr. Cutter.” There, the man had outlined how Cutter was to program a chamber for one week from the current date, and then enter. “They will need somebody to help them orient,” he had written. “They will need you.” The old man really did believe, after all.

The room was getting hotter, and Cutter was pretty sure the sound was fire roaring above. He followed instructions, finding the heavy cryo suit in the exact place Mr. Bailey had said it would be, then pre-setting the lock. He settled down into the nitrogen—warm and floaty. He held his breath. He closed the door.

Dave Housley’s fourth collection of short fiction, Massive Cleansing Fire, will be published in spring 2017 by Outpost 19. His work has appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, and some other places. He is one of the founding editors and all-around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse Magazine and a co-founder of the Conversations and Connections writer's conference. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.
Dave Housley’s fourth collection of short fiction, Massive Cleansing Fire, will be published in spring 2017 by Outpost 19. His work has appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, and some other places. He is one of the founding editors and all-around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse Magazine and a co-founder of the Conversations and Connections writer’s conference. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.