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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
It was the smell I noticed first. The familiar, welcoming aroma of smoke, strong and thick on the air. It was in my lungs too, making me cough. I guessed it was that which must have brought me round, shaken me back into consciousness.
As the coughing subsided, I peeled open my eyes, sore and so thick with gunk they seemed almost glued together. I looked up at a blue, cloud-spotted sky, where a family of house martins wheeled in noisy delight high above me. I was outside, in the open air, flat on my back, which was something of a surprise. As my hands felt around me, they found short, thin blades of grass, a lawn it seemed, while, from some way off beyond my feet, came loud voices, men and women, filled with anxiety, almost panic.
It took a little while longer, laying there on my back, motionless and listening, to clear my head enough so that I could recall what had happened to bring me to this point, or, at least, most of what occurred. I smiled and might even have laughed if I’d not been concerned it would cause me to break out in another fit of coughing. My throat was too sore for that.
The irony of my situation could hardly escape me. I’d been taking an afternoon nap in the living room of my small, two bed house. It was a lovely early autumn Sunday afternoon, warm with sunlight, the gentlest of breezes creeping in from the south-west. You really couldn’t have asked for much more. It was a rarity for me to sleep during the day, since whenever I did I usually woke up feeling grumpy and fuzzy-headed and that wasn’t a welcome sensation. But the previous week had been demanding; long hours at work and evenings spent decorating the kitchen. Ah, the kitchen, I wondered what that would look like now.
Somewhere during a dream about a bush fire that raced across hundreds of square miles of Australia, consuming all before it, I woke to find the room and my lungs rapidly filling with smoke. I was confused, my brain not able to properly process the information being fed to it, and all I could do was sit there, coughing, wondering where the barbecue was and why it was so smokey.
Then something shattered, a loud crashing explosion that came from inside the house. With a jolt my brain caught up with reality and I realised the fire wasn’t in a neighbour’s garden, it was inside my house. A fire, in my own house. I’d never thought about the possibility. It seemed so obvious now that I felt a complete idiot. They say the simplest things are often the hardest to see and here was living proof of that. But this was one fire I hadn’t started, much to my irritation. No, I’d missed the boat with this one, too slow to see the potential.
However, exciting though it was, I most definitely wasn’t ready to die and the need to flee became an instant priority. Fire was a tricky thing, as I well knew from considerable experience. It could tease you, mislead you and most certainly outwit you. In such a situation time was a luxury and it was already clear that it was something I didn’t possess. I needed to move quickly.
The door to the hallway was hot to the touch, so much so I didn’t even give serious consideration to opening it to see if escape along the hallway and out of the front door was a possibility. Not even the nerve-tingling prospect of staring straight into the heart of the fire was strong enough to cause me to make such a mistake. And believe me it was tempting. To stand there, in the epicentre of an inferno, as it raged and spiralled before me, its maddening screams of delight filling my ears, was an experience that had so far only come with my dreams. It would be a pinnacle of sorts, the ultimate culmination of all my efforts. But I wasn’t ready for life to end yet or, perhaps, I lacked the courage. I’m not altogether sure which it was, but, in either case, death was not a welcome prospect.
The French doors leading out from the living room on to the patio had always been temperamental, an exercise in physical violence. They never seemed to want to separate and open up. Maybe they were lovers who feared never being reunited. Now, of course, they were as bad as ever, seeming to be locked solid, as if someone had nailed and screwed them tight. For a brief moment the thought crossed my mind that someone had found me out, someone from my long list of victims, and had decided to inflict the ultimate retribution on an arsonist. But then, as the smoke grew so thick I could hardly breathe and feared collapse, the doors creaked, then burst open.
I stumbled out into the open air, barely able to see and struggling to breathe. The world was disorientated, out of focus, moving in such a random manner I couldn’t keep up. Someone, or was it more than one, shouted from nearby. I couldn’t make out properly what they said. Things were closing in, taking my sight, my wits and any semblance of cohesion. The last thing I can recall is hitting my head hard on the patio paving, then darkness and silence.
Now, here I was, on what I took to be my own front lawn. The face of a bespectacled, dark-haired woman appeared above me, her features filled with concern and smeared with thick, black lines of soot. She asked me how I felt in a throaty, rather appealing voice. I nodded, but didn’t bother trying to speak. Using her hands, she inspected my face and, for some odd reason, my ears, then she was gone, leaving behind some partially heard words about water. I hoped it was for me to drink.
I was seventeen when I set my first fire. It was a neighbour’s shed and, in all honesty, I can’t really remember why I chose it. Perhaps it was because it had seen its best days and stood there in a corner of the garden, looking sadly neglected. Maybe I saw it as a funeral pyre. Who knows and, for that matter, who cares. Up it went, with a little help, soon engulfed in wildly-leaping flames. I positively exploded with excitement, the thrill almost more than I could bear. My parents saw me, told me it wasn’t the least bit amusing. I went up to my room and danced with joy as I watched the fire brigade arrive and turn their hoses on the already crumbling embers.
That evening brought a whole new level of joy and, I soon realised, meaning to my life; a life that had been a dull, suburban half-existence up until then. I never looked back. By the time I was twenty-one, after a carefully planned and executed string of ever-grander schemes, I’d torched my first empty warehouse, watching from the bottom of the road as the fire and smoke seemed to engulf the entire area. People were evicted from nearby houses, thrown out into a dark, warm night with just enough of a breeze to feed the flames. I hardly slept at all that night, too excited to have any chance of settling down.
That particular blaze also got me an appearance, unnamed, of course, in the local paper; something I took to be a rather considerable achievement. There was still a copy of that newspaper and numerous others in a box in my wardrobe. Only now, in all likelihood, that had itself succumbed to the flames. It was a night filled with irony.
But I digress. With nothing more than a six-month break, when I found myself unexpectedly and unhappily posted to my employer’s head office in Australia, there followed an entirely satisfying thirty-eight-year period during which I amassed what I was sure was an unparalleled record of arson. Nothing was too small or too big, too new or too old. A village post office; a primary school, standing empty over a weekend, I might add; a newly-built house not yet occupied, followed by a newly-built house on the same estate that had only just been occupied. That last one was irresistible. All that new furniture, carpets, bedding, curtains and crockery, the whole lot gone in, oh, what, an hour? I purred at my own skill and imagination.
And all the while, no one had the foggiest idea it was all down to me. Strange, really, especially as I knew three people who did come under suspicion and found themselves being questioned at length by the police. You might have thought, if they’d got that close, they would be sure to score a bulls-eye, but no, I was left entirely unmolested, to plan, plot and implement my schemes of destruction.
But there came a time, around my fiftieth birthday, I think, when I found the thrill of it all begin to wear off. I hardly noticed at first; a slight lessening of the excitement, a heartbeat that didn’t climb quite so rapidly and a tendency to linger in the vicinity of a fire for less time than I had grown used to. I began to think that perhaps it was down to my age, a kind of slowing vigour. Maybe there was a use-by date and I had reached it.
Then, one dark, cold evening as I watched a brand new wooden bus stop become engulfed in a fireball, it was as if the flames had turned their back on me, leaving me jilted at the altar. And the thing was, I almost didn’t care, the tiniest embers of my former enthusiasm all that was left, glowing ever more faintly in my heart. I left the scene of that, my last arson, before the fire brigade had even arrived and almost ten months had passed by since, those barely smouldering embers almost entirely extinct.
Yet now, as I lay on my lawn, neighbours and who knows what other people scurrying around trying to rescue possessions from my burning house as they waited for the big red engine to arrive, I felt that old familiar excitement returning, as if those embers within me had been flooded with lighter fluid and a new fire began to build and roar. Ah, the thrill of it all was wonderful, as if my long lost love had changed her mind and come running back to me, her arms open wide.
And I knew the cause of the rekindled passion, the thing that had poured petrol on my almost dead fire. Coming face-to-face, as I did inside my own house, with the wild-eyed flames, seeing things for the first time from the inside, where the fear was real and terrifying, rather than looking on from the outside, had given me an experience so exhilarating, so enthralling it was strong enough to sweep away my doubts and reignite my love.
Oh the joy that was to come. Then a thought occurred to me: I really ought to find the woman who had been so kindly towards me. I needed to repay her for her attention and, of course, there was only one way I could possibly do that. My next arson began to take shape. Still looking up at the sky, I smiled, then began to laugh and laugh and laugh.
** End **
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is August's story. Enjoy!