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Today's Story by Michael Baird

I can hear my dishes breaking onto the floor. My cabinets must be going now. Did they light from the bottom or the top?


No one ever asks why you’re at a wake. If they don’t recognize you, they assume. They figure you are a friend from work, or neighbor, friend of a friend even.  When it’s a man’s wake, and you’re a woman, there’s suspicion. It’s important to hide. You go through the line, shake hands with the family, and use the obligatory, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and keep the line moving.  This part is essential to avoid questions-keep the line moving.

The line at this one is creeping.  There must be a talker, or a real sympathizer.  This is someone who knew the departed, and wants to share a quick anecdote with Grandma.  Invariably, sympathizers are overweight.  That’s another key.  Find a thin person.  Thin people are usually polite and know the protocol.   Although I suspected this would be the case and that reality now poses considerable risk. I had to come.

It was a five alarm blaze. Small houses usually go up quickly.  Was it a pro? Who knows.  Accidents happen.  How did it start?  Was it dryer lint?  Was the iron left plugged in? If I need to, I can learn all that later. For now, I need to see if the bodies still smell.

First is the father.  His casket is open. Kneeling down next to him, I am in awe of the mortician’s handiwork.  It looks like he was able to match the hair piece to what was left of his hair. He must have lost most of it. I get a slight whiff of burnt hair.  For some reason, I always think it smells like rotten glue, but I never actually smelled rotten glue. My knees relax and press further into the kneeling pad. I can only stay for a moment before moving onto the son.  The casket is closed; the smell hits me as I approach it.  The perfume that they use mixed with the flowers is fighting the good fight, but it’s a losing battle against burnt flesh and hair.

My shoulders relax and I am no longer concerned about the receiving line.  Kneeling next to the coffin, the smell triggers memories.  Memories of sleep filled nights and productive days. There used to be more days that began and ended.  I can’t linger; I must move on.  No one here will tell me what kind of appliances they have.  If they were stainless steel, then they char in a certain way, if not, then they might bend or simply stain.  It all depends on whether or not the flame got to them. If it didn’t, then the heat has a certain impact.

After the boy’s coffin, I enter the line to shake hands. First is the woman. She is a little older than me and incredibly gracious.  I soak her in. She is tall, thin and leaning. Her head nods as she accepts her condolences. This should be an easy one.

My tears of joy can easily pass for sadness.  I extend my right hand, once clasped; I enclose my left hand over hers.  “I am so sorry for your loss.”  Her hair still smells. Only she and I notice. Her hands are thinner and stronger than mine. In another situation, we could be friends.  There’s no telling how someone will respond to being alone.  It takes time.  I could give her pointers.  Of course, the situation doesn’t warrant it, and never will.

“Thank you.” She nods and looks at the next person. I move on to the man’s mother.

“I am so sorry for your loss.”  I extend my hand again. She gives me her fingers like she expects me to kiss her hand.

“This is my sister, Jacob’s aunt.”   She says.

I lean toward the aunt and give a greeting nod. “I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Did you know Jacob?” I am now face to face with the aunt, and have discovered the source of the slow moving line.

“I knew who he was, it’s just such a tragedy, I am so sorry for your loss.”

We both whisper only to match the décor of the room. “The inspectors are looking into it,” She says.  Why would she say such a thing?

“Do they have any idea?” The words come out before I can stop them. Impulse control is, after all, the root of my condition.  I must move on, there is no time for this conversation.  There are other ways to find out.

“No,” she begins. “Sometimes these things…”

I turn to my left and feign surprise at the line backing up.  I regain control and, set to move on.

“I am so sorry for your loss.” And I am done.

I see him as I leave the funeral home. He is just tall enough and in all other ways perfect. His uniform fits him like it grew on.  Firefighters have their dress uniforms tailored.  His dress hat fits under his right arm with the express purpose of showing off his dirty blonde hair. For the moment I am unable to move.

The boy draws the massive line.  Blondie perfect, is at the beginning.  I barely could come up with a reason to be here, never mind establishing a reason to stay or talk to someone in line at a wake.  I force my feet to move out the door.  Besides, with this out of the way, I need to get some sleep.

Home is your typical apartment for a single girl.  The walls are dark beige with white trim. A sculpture made out of old-fashioned spoons hangs on the wall.  Sometimes there are flowers on the round table. Numerous levels of paint cover the char marks. Bed is a cloud of down and featherbeds on a firm surface.  There is every sleep gadget. There are tempurpedic pillows, massage tools, eye masks with beads in them.  I did have to get rid of the aroma therapy candles.

Blondie perfect shook hands with the wife.  He needs a better name.  He looks like a Thad.  No last name needed, just Thad.  I can feel my breath relaxing.  I welcome the rest, I can still smell the dad’s hair, but I am positive that it is the smell from the boy that allows me to sleep through the night.

As I make coffee the next morning, I picture Thad in his uniform shaking hands and getting hugs from the ladies in the line.   He is offering condolences; he is so kind. He is sweet, sincere and caring.  He goes to a lot of these things. But he never gets used to them.  His uniform tugs in outrageous fashion as he reaches for his hugs.  I didn’t realize that firefighters went to those things, maybe just the ones on duty.  I wonder if he lives in town, or just works here.

The way to work isn’t simple, but the routine is almost soothing. This traffic light is usually red, that one is green.  The turns take longer on slow mornings.  I even recognize some of the cars.  It’s almost like we’re all going together.  I need to get in early because I have an appointment with Dr. Polar this afternoon.  He’ll be happy to know about last night’s sleep.  There must be some way that I can run into Thad.

Before I notice it, I am sitting at my computer.  Thad’s incredible ability to balance humility and heroism is interrupted by Joanne.  She has medium length dark hair and does triathlons.

“Shelah, did you bring the files back?” She asks.

“Um, yes, they’re right here.”  I dig into my bag.  It’s canvas and it has my initials on it.

“Do any of the claims need to be paid?”

“All of them actually, just by the files themselves, it’s hard to say if any of it was on purpose.”

“We have investigators for this stuff you know.”  She reminds me.

“Well, they don’t always know what to look for.”

“What do you mean?”

I look at her.  She understands why.  We’ve had this conversation before. “Well…” I feel my palms flatten on my desk. Suddenly, the right one turns up.  “It’s not like someone is going to leave a box of matches on the ground. Look at this one.”  I grab the file that has me most intrigued.  “It is an abandoned house that burned down due to faulty wiring.   If the house was abandoned, why were the lights on?”

“Just organize the files once the investigators are done with them, okay?”

She takes all of the files from me.  We exchange looks of understanding and she walks away.

“I could go check them out.” I call after her.  No doubt, I can’t really explain to her why walking around in a burnt building would help me in many ways.

“We HAVE investigators.” She clenches her teeth and mumbles it in frustration, but I know what she says.

Really, I took the files to get addresses of buildings that were consumed.  Being in these buildings is awkward.  Some of them are crime scenes, and you simply can’t go anonymously.  If someone figures out that you are with an insurance company, then they call supervisors.  My qualifications are less than official, so I really have no business going, in the business sense of the word.  Actually, my old habits make me extraordinarily qualified, but it’s not like I can share it with anyone here.   No one really knows why I see Dr Polar.   They simply know, every Thursday, 2 pm.

Today, Dr. Polar has a new couch in his office. It’s still leather. It’s brown instead of black. I guess it’s modern to be retro.

“So, I assume that you went to the St. Croix family wake?” He is wearing roundish glasses.  Those must be new as well.

“I went.” My neck begins to hurt from the strain of the arm rest.  I need a new pillow under it.  Once the pillow is in place, I can focus.  The ceiling is still industrial.  But the lamps give the office a therapeutic hum.  Thank god he doesn’t turn on those fluorescent overhead lights.

“Frequent attendance at these things where you don’t belong could be offensive to some people.  Are you being careful?”

“Your idea.”

“I know, It’s just…” He pauses. “How many have you gone to?”

“They happen pretty rarely. This was the first one in a while, maybe five or six months.  But, it isn’t always wakes, anything to associate, you know.”

“You aren’t still asking to do inspections are you?”

“I stopped asking. But burnt buildings used to help.”  My head shakes in a false fashion, “They are very strict.”

“Maybe being an investigator would be a great career for you.”

“I am trying to hide my best qualification.”

“Five or six months. How have you been sleeping?” He asks.

“It’s off and on.” I am surprised at how calm this comes out.

“Would you say more on than off?”

“I would, actually.”  Even I am surprised.

“Do these things help?”

“Yep.”  I picture Thad standing amidst the biting heat of a massive orange flame. Dr. Polar is clearly surprised by my good mood.

“Do you need a refill on your prescription?”

I snap back into reality. “I think I have enough until next week.”

“Good, you haven’t been doubling up, then.”  He looks at me over the top of his hipster glasses like a suspecting father.   You can’t keep anything from him.

“Going to things like the wake, that helps.” I tell him.

“Good to hear.”

It was true.  It had been some time, since I lit.  Dr. Polar, for all of his absurdity and new age trendiness, is quite effective.  When I first came to see him, I was lighting pretty often.  I would see something and wonder what it looked like charred, or what kind of smell it would create when burnt. Questions needed to be answered.  It was like the flames belonged there, but they were missing from the picture.  When they were lit, the picture was complete.  It had been a few years now with Dr. Polar.  The questions still remain, but imagination suffices.

“When do you think I could start seeing someone?”  I ask.

“I never said that you shouldn’t.”  I can’t see him, but I know he is pressing his hands together, palm to palm.  I can picture it perfectly, it’s like they’re dancing.

“I know, but when do you think I am ready.”

“I don’t know that. You know that. Do you have someone in mind?”

I don’t respond.

“Shelah? Do you think you’re ready for someone?”

“I won’t know until we meet, I guess.”

“You seem to be making good progress.  It’s been a couple of years without incident, how comfortable will you feel sharing this part of your life with someone?”  I consider the response.  He continues. “What if things go wrong?  Do you think you could handle that stress?  These are serious considerations.”

“I need to know.”

Dr. Polar smiled.  He actually smiled at this thought.

Thad’s uniform was from the town department.  Meeting him was going to take some serious planning.  I had no reason to go to or call the fire department.   Maybe there would be another wake to run into him.  Even then, I have the problem of confrontation.  That would be no good.   The only real planning is preparation.

I sit up to see Dr. Polar smiling.  “I have really made a lot of progress here with you.  I think I’m ready to start taking more things on, and I have you to thank for that.”

I am surprised by his look, I thought he would be happier. He removes his glasses with one hand.  “I am glad that you feel that way, but we still have a lot of work to do.  Whatever it is that you are planning on doing, it will be great to work on here as well.”

I nod in agreement.  The session is over.

The following Thursday, Joanne is wearing some piece of twisted silver on a silver chain.  The temperature to bend metal like that is back arching.   That shape can be achieved by neither hand nor tool.  It has to be by pure heat.

“Shelah, do you have any files that you brought home?”

“Nope, I didn’t take any last week.”

“Oh, okay, but the reviews look okay,” She asks.

“Nothing fishy.”  She nods at me and makes a subconscious gesture to the clock.  We both know that I’m not supposed to be there.

The inevitable message from Dr.Polar’s office is awaiting me at home. My phone is white plastic, and will in all likelihood shrivel in a matter of seconds when the time is right.  This is the first of only four reminder calls that would follow.  When you stop seeing a doctor, they eventually stop calling. Pharmacists however, are more persistent, particularly with medication such as mine.  They space the calls out too, roughly once a month.  It’s still easy to shut everything out.

It has been months since the St Croix wake and my last visit with Dr. Polar; love is all that matters.  I need love in my life.  No one else has come across my mind.

Days don’t stop when you don’t sleep.  You can’t keep track of when you did what.  I resort to keeping a work diary, because I can’t tell the difference between yesterday and a week ago.  Emails are dated; that helps.   It has been six months since the St Croix fire, and I still know when it happened.  It was 9 pm on a Monday night.   That must be Thad’s shift.

Visions take the place of sleep.  I have visions of orange pointed flame within touching distance.  It’s a thousand tiny triangles moving at a thousand miles an hour.  I had pictured this every time I walked through the door, woke up and went to sleep.  My curtains could go up quick enough. The flames would bend upon the ceiling like an upside down waterfall.  Soon enough, the small white oven would be covered in soot.  The legs of the wooden table would grow thin under the flame, causing the top to slam into the floor.  The sudden fall would smother some of the blaze temporarily.  But ultimately, the fire would come from every direction and there would be no match for it.

But, where would Thad find me?  I need to live to enjoy my new found love!  The bedroom was set apart enough from the living room and kitchenette.   And where else could it be really?  It’s risky.  The bedroom has only one window.  The ladder could go there.

Hearing the match was like being back in mom’s kitchen. It was familiar and comfortable. I feel my feet press into the floor and I know I belong nowhere else.  I have always wondered what the curtains would smell like as they burned.  At first they smell like they had just come out of the dryer.   Then, the smoke begins to billow and the flame starts to climb and crackle.  The smell reaches down my throat and grabs a tight hold of my wind pipe.  I cough it out, and can’t help but watch my prediction.  I knew the lamp shades wouldn’t last long.  The thin flame engulfs them and the flaming cloth dances onto the couch.   The couch!  My god, I never considered the couch.   The cloth, the stuffed pillows, the wood, it all smells like something should be cooking on top of it.  I begin to step closer, the sirens startle me.  A piece of the ceiling falls and lands at my feet.  I dart into the bedroom when I realize that I haven’t seen the oven, or the table.   I turn and there is a large wall of flame in front of my bedroom doorway.  The heat causes my back to bend. I force myself to retreat behind my bed.   It is set up perfectly, it won’t come in.  But I can hear it.  That’s another thing that I have forgotten.  The glorious crackle spits occasionally into the bedroom.  I can hear my dishes breaking onto the floor. My cabinets must be going now.  Did they light from the bottom or the top?

The vision of Thad smashing through my bedroom window is the only thing that causes me to refrain from going to see my charred appliances.  The TV and toaster, all of it must be melted from the heat alone.  I have to press my knees to the floor.

The sirens are outside now, and there is commotion.  I hear my neighbors.

“I saw her go in, but she hasn’t come out!  She hasn’t come out!”

In seconds, the water comes pouring in through the holes created by the flames.  I notice the peculiar smell of the water when something taps my window.

“She’s in there, I see her.”  His voice is muffled by the glass and excitement.  There he is. His hair is now brown and he was somehow able to change his face, but I know it’s him. We’ve been apart for too long, and I know it’s him. He is every bit as gracious, sensitive and supportive as I know.   He knows it’s me.  I cover my face to hide my excitement.   He uses his axe to break the window.   He takes careful time to clear out the excess shards of glass.  I can hear my silverware hitting the floor as he picks me up.  My face burrs into his shoulder.  The feeling of being surrounded by the crushing heat overtakes me and I laugh and cry at the same time.  He readjusts, and yells down.

“She’s hysterical, but she’s not hurt.”

The back of his neck is thick with sweat and cool from the November air.  I look into the sky and take a moment to feel the moonlight kiss my fingertips on this most perfect evening.


Michael Baird lives in New England with his wife and family. He writes all day, and types when he can.


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