Archive for January 14th, 2012

14th January
written by amber

Burning Down the House

It was an act of desperation. But not exactly spontaneous.

When he first fantasized about it, the conflagration in his imagination was huge. The entire neighbourhood burned. Of course, that wasn’t a desirable outcome.

So he started with yard work. He took out all the bushes on the property and cut down the two trees. They weren’t doing very well anyhow, due to the drought. Replacing his lawn with rocks and sand wasn’t an unusual step – many people in the city were doing that. But his newfound interest in his yard was questioned – by the people next door, by his ex-wife when she came by to question him about the late cheque.

“I’m going to try to sell,” he told them. “I don’t need such a big place and the mortgage payments are killing me.”

Ripping out the wooden fence did not make him popular. His explanation, “I’m putting in a chain link fence and I’m getting a dog. A big dog,” didn’t help to endear him to the neighbours. Since the financial troubles, people were already a lot less friendly. He hadn’t socialized with the people on his block for years. But he still didn’t want his fire to spread to their houses.

Meanwhile, he’d rented a storage unit under an assumed name, using cash. Every night he’d take more of his stuff there under cover of darkness. Whenever his wife came by to harass him about the cheques, he’d talk to her outside, not wanting her to see how barren of furnishings the place now was.

But then he read about someone who was suspected of arson because no remains of furniture were found in the smoking wreckage, so he brought some of the stuff back, and picked up cheap things at yard sales to stand in for items he didn’t want to lose.

The perfect conditions finally arrived – a little cool and windless, that was important. He’d considered various scenarios with regard to whether he ought to be there or not. Easier if he wasn’t around, but that might look suspicious. Being there, being inside, escaping with his life and perhaps some small injury – that would look best.

No accelerant, that went without saying. An electrical fire was best, and the old lamp he’d bought would be the perfect culprit. The wires were frayed, he frayed them some more and laid them down in a nest of dust bunnies. Then he turned the lamp on and waited. There were no sparks. He unplugged the lamp and bent the wires back and forth, trying to simulate a lifetime of wear and abuse. He turned it on again. This time there were sparks, but the dust bunnies were remarkably resistant to fire. They’d smoke, then cease. He tried dryer lint with the same effect, then sawdust from his (now mostly tool free) shop which was a real disappointment. Torn up paper would leave evidence, he knew, but he was a man living alone. You’d expect to find piles of paper heaped about, pizza boxes, old magazines, even used tissues thrown on the floor. But he had nothing like that. He couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription or junk food.

So he took a few more days and used the last of his savings to buy newspapers, take-out food, even beer. Turned his house into a bachelor pad, then turned on the lamp again.

After he knew the fire had taken a good hold, he decided against his original plan of waiting in his bedroom until heat forced him to exit through the window, stepping down onto the scrap-wood dog house he’d conveniently placed there in anticipation of his fictional dog. But what if someone had seen him turn on the lamp? It was 2 a.m. sure, but lots of people had insomnia these days. Why turn on a lamp then go to bed? A guy might turn on a lamp in the living room, then sit down and watch late night TV, maybe drink some beer.

So he turned on the TV and drank some beer and enjoyed the merry little fire in the corner as all his dreams burned up.

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

This story is inspired by the title of a Talking Heads song.