Most people don’t wish their house had burned down, but Ralph Herbertson did.
If it did, there would have been insurance payouts, an excuse to leave, new beginnings, and best of all—ashes in place of memories. For weeks Ralph sat on the porch watching the murky-orange glow of flames on the horizon, breathing in the crisp diffusion of smoke like the warm scent of an apple pie. The Northfield wildfire was devouring the Rocky Mountains, and all he had to do was wait.
Nothing had been right in the place since Marcie left. Yes, things had gone south long before then because losing a child is one of those things that destroys life’s puzzle. It shatters the pieces, scatters them into mayhem and leaves some forever missing. But it took another ten months for the marriage to dissolve.
They had failed their young boy, their only child. That’s what Marcie said, almost daily, and what Ralph came to believe as well. Since Henry’s death he felt more sorrow and despair than the human psyche could ever possibly digest, but the guilt was most potent. Guilt because no matter how much they did, how much they spent, where they went or the specialists they sought, the boy’s leukemia refused to be beat. It ravaged his frail body with the unresting persistence of a Vegas casino. And in the end, it proved the old adage true; the house is damn hard to beat.
Yet, every time Ralph glimpsed Marcie’s gray-blue eyes in the ten months that followed, he felt that they could have done more. It was a parent’s curse, Ralph knew that. But he felt it nonetheless. And when Marcie finally packed her bags and drove away in her little green Subaru, the house went irreversibly cold.
The lawyers did what lawyers do and Ralph signed where he was told. After the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, he was left with the house. Marcie didn’t want it. She proposed they sell and split the proceeds, but Ralph refused. He’d be damned if she could walk away from everything with half the dough, but he never had the slightest intention of staying. So, while the fire made its vicious progression toward the house, Ralph sat in comfort.
That big, bad, fightin’ machine ate up western Colorado like Thanksgiving dinner. It ripped through more than a hundred homes, turning walls and roofs to dust and rubble until finally it was Ralph’s turn to evacuate. He spent the time blissfully holed up in a dumpy motel room, tuned in to the reign of destruction. 50,000 acres of damage became 100,000, then 155,000. Six firefighters lost their lives. A terrible tragedy.
But at least Ralph’s house was as good as gone. Because life takes and it gives, right? It took Henry’s short life and ended the marriage; at least now it would take that dreadful house, too. Ralph would be left to move on, leave it all behind him, and start over with a sizeable check from the insurance company. Marcie would get nothing but disappointment and regret, and all in the world would be evenly calibrated once again.
Instead, after a month and a half in a Motel 6, Ralph was allowed to return home. His house had been saved. It was nothing short of a miracle, you’re the only house within a hundred acres that was saved, but we did it! The flames never reached your front door!
No, but they reached everything around it. Every stock of grass, every beautiful, blossoming flower. The flames purged everything Ralph loved about the property and left the one thing he despised.
And now, selling was no longer an option.
No one would buy a lonely house (no more neighbors) on ten acres of a dead, alien version of Earth. Not a single blade of grass for miles, just the firm, cement-colored soil littered with charred timber. The trees that once fostered a dynamic ecosystem were stripped naked and bare like millions of telephone poles devoid of energy. The animals (that survived) were gone.
It was just Ralph and his Rita Remote—Top of the market wireless smart remote with support for over 1,000 brands and compatibility with up to five devices.
He’d had it installed about two weeks after Marcie left, and what an advantageous exchange that turned out to be. Simply murmur Rita out loud and a lovely electronic hum replies, Hello. How can I help you? Turn on the TV? You got it. Play “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses? No problemo. Ask Rita Remote to dim the lights and she’ll even display a little digital switch on her screen so that your fat thumb can adjust it to just the right glow. With that small gizmo Ralph could control the entire house from the palm of his hand.
He took a sip from his scotch and reclined his Lay-Z-Boy. “Rita?”
Hello. How can I help you?
“Turn on Game Show Network.”
And just like that, they were joined by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek wearing that flat-but-cordial grin as the timer ticked away. It’s a cruel world with small pleasures.
Ralph brought his glass back to his lips as a pale beanstalk of a man requested American Presidents for 400, and Alex Trebek began reading the clue in his timeless American tenor.
“Woodrow Wilson,” Ralph mumbled. The president who went by his middle name and established the Federal Reserve, prompting his later appearance on the $100,000 bill that was used sparingly but never circulated. That was an easy one.
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you say?
Ralph snorted a laugh and caressed Rita Remote with his thumb. “Nooo, wasn’t talkin’ to you, darlin’,” he drawled. He took another sip and the remaining ice cubes followed the last droplet as it trickled out. Time for a refill.
Ralph ambled into the kitchen.
“Rita? Turn on kitchen lights.” He immediately regretted it. “Rita? Turn off kitchen lights.”
He leaned onto the counter and rested his head beside the tall bottle of scotch. The little journey from living room to kitchen had revived that mean thumper of a headache. That insistent hammering at his forehead. He closed his eyes.
Darkness. What a wonderful thing.
When Ralph looked up again, he caught a faint light out the kitchen window. He could only squint against the headache in his temples, but there was no need to open any further; the damn garage light was on.
He cursed his good-for-nothin’ memory.
What an unforeseen inconvenience it was not to have paid to include the garage in the Rita Remote’s installation. At the time it seemed like an unnecessary, even gluttonous, addition. And those new age techy specialists will nickel-and-dime you if you let ‘em.
But what a cheap idiot he had been. Ralph envisioned those techy kids chuckling at him, then poured another drink.
He stepped into a pair of loose leather boots and opened the front door. The bitter bite of the night air filled his lungs and gripped his throat. It felt wonderful. It was a welcome relief to what had been an unseasonably warm winter so far, and unseasonably warm winters led to summers where forest fires scorched the state. That was something Ralph could never forget.
He took a sip, then trudged across the yard. The space was once a fifteen-yard stretch of open grass that he and Marcie would intentionally leave uncut. A space where deer often grazed—sometimes a dozen at a time—on early spring mornings, just outside the living room window. Now, it was just charred dirt.
Ralph flipped off the garage light and took half a step before tripping. The glass of scotch shattered at his feet; electric pain shot up his shin.
“Godda—” Ralph clenched his teeth. It’s the umpteenth time he’s caught a pedal to the shin because Henry likes to jump right off and let the damn thing fall where it stands, never mind if that’s smack dab in the middle of the doorway. The boy has the whole garage, has the whole yard, and still
Ralph’s chest deflated when he flipped the light on.
It wasn’t Henry’s bike that tripped him, it was the edge of his rolling tool chest. And how awful to assume, even for a second, that it was the bike—that little thing hadn’t been around for years, let alone in the way.
Ralph kicked the steel chest. What he wouldn’t give for Henry’s bike to have tripped him instead. And for that little boy to be racing up and down the driveway again. The breeze combing his hair and tugging at each end of his smile.
There was a pool of scotch and a spattering all the way to the spare gasoline cans against the wall. Shards of fractured glass protruding from the spill like rocks in a tidepool. But that was all right. The mess would be there in the morning and there was more scotch inside. There was always more.
“Rita, turn off—” Then Ralph remembered. He could hear the little remote burring a response in his pocket, but this was out of her jurisdiction. Ralph flipped off the light the old fashion way. He staggered back across the yard and through the front door, stumbling as he kicked his boots off one at a time.
“Rita, turn on entryway lights.” This time she did as instructed, but Ralph rested his head against the wall before the hall was illuminated. He drew a breath and fought back the headache slicing its own San Andreas Fault down his forehead. Only one fix for that.
When he returned to the La-Z-Boy with a new glass of scotch, Alex Trebek had been replaced by a round man selling the newest and greatest solution to hair loss. The guy would be better off focusing on a weight loss solution, Ralph thought, but to each their own. Ralph Herbertson would never be mistaken for an Olympian, either. Although—in the thirty or so years following high school—he had managed to stay on the right side of the obesity epidemic, if maybe occasionally walking the line. But it wasn’t hot doggies and French fries that turned him circular, it was the booze. And right about now, for the same reason, his bladder was screaming.
“Take a whiz for me, Rita.”
Hello. How can I help you?
“I said, Would you kindly relieve my poor bladder, please?”
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you say?
Ralph chuckled. He pushed himself to his feet.
Since Marcie left, the shift from room to room had the feel of trespassing across vacant property. She never filled the place with her presence, but without her there was an emptiness that permeated the rooms like the scent of an embalmed body: musty perfume masking the fragrance of death.
At least little Henry’s death occurred in a sterile, drug-infused hospital room and not this miserable place. The boy fell into his final sleep surrounded by Mommy and Daddy and several bumbling doctors incapable of preserving his innocent soul. But that wasn’t on Ralph’s mind as he staggered into the bathroom because scotch has a way of making you forget.
“Rita, turn on bathroom-1 lights.” One of the lights was out, casting shadows in odd angles across the square, half-lit room.
Ralph did his business, then stood in front of the sink and leveled his gaze on the reflection in the mirror. It was worse than the last time he dared a glance. You ugly sonofabitch, he thought. When had his wrinkles turned from seasoned to cruel? The evolution was complete now, stiff and cemented. But hell, when had he started to look like such a decrepit old geezer?
Probably when Henry died. Then Marcie went and expedited the process with all her blaming and sobbing. That was why he looked like shit.
Ralph opened the drawer under the sink. He took out an electric razor. There was a time in the marriage when Marcie had been so full of glitter and gold that she wrapped the razor under the Christmas tree as if it was an upgrade to his old-fashioned shaft and blade. He didn’t care for it and he didn’t pretend to, which is why the little electric toy wound up dusty in a spare bathroom drawer. An artifact from a former era.
But the baby still worked when plugged in. Of course it did. Divorce or not, electricity still reigned supreme. Ralph marveled at the buzzing vibration in his palm, the unburdened and persistent electric purr. He brought the sensation to his cheek, then to his scalp. He buzzed a straight line through the center of his hair, the opposite of a mohawk, and looked at his work in the mirror. It felt a lot better than it looked. He brought the razor back to his head and buzzed around his left ear. It was like a massage. Ralph closed his eyes, then buzzed some more.
The razor’s remorseless destruction was intoxicating, the way it devoured whatever lay in its path. But the ecstasy dulled as more and more hair gathered in the sink until eventually there was no remaining pleasure in dragging the vibration over his dry scalp.
Ralph turned the razor off and ran a hand over his head. He did a sloppy job; there were still various clusters of hair. They were in spots he couldn’t see, not that he was even looking. Ralph was locked in stare with his own sunken eyes. Their hazel tint gone somber and dull. They lacked their old gleam, lacked any sense of vibrancy at all.
He took Rita Remote from his pocket. “Rita, my darling, rewind the clock ten years, will ya?”
Did you say, Play “10 Years” by Wasteland?
“No. That’s not what I said.”
I’m sorry, I must have missed that. What did—
“Shut up.” Ralph clamped the remote in his palm to mute the sound. He glared into his reflection. The wrinkles spread like roots from chin to forehead. They were evidence of years he couldn’t remember. Evidence of struggles that yielded nothing but more struggles. And what did he have to show for it besides a dead son, estranged wife, and an empty house?
Ralph tightened his grip around the remote. He clenched until his hand was shaking, until his whole arm was trembling, then drove his fist into his reflection. Right between the eyes.
“Rita? Turn off bathroom-1 lights.” He uncoiled his fingers and slide the remote into his pocket. In the dark, Ralph could feel more than he could see a shard of glass stuck between his middle and pointer finger. He plucked it out, felt a surge of blood merge with the warm pools settling in the creases of his palm.
You started it, Ralph.
“What?” He spun around in the empty bathroom.
You started the fire.
“Marcie?” he asked. No, it wasn’t Marcie. Didn’t sound anything like Marcie. Why would it be?
You started the fire.
“No I didn’t!” Ralph pushed through the door and staggered into the hall. “Rita, turn on hallway-1 lights.” He used a finger to dim them halfway down the dial. His hand was already dripping blood, spotting the floorboards with thick crimson blots. But it looked worse than it felt, much worse, and he could thank the patron saint of scotch for that.
Ralph brought his bloody hand into the kitchen and wrapped it with a dish towel. He plopped down on a chair. Marcie had neglected most of the kitchen items when she packed up and left, but these days it looked emptier than ever. Like every object turned hollow. All the non-perishable cans in the pantry, the bag of flour beside them, the milk in the fridge. Even the shadows—the same shadows cast by the same cheap light above—looked sharper and deeper.
Why didn’t they just let this damn place burn, Ralph thought. He sure thought it would. Hell, he had been certain.
The little round clock on the wall beeped to signal the change of hour. Ten o’clock. Ralph poured himself a shot and threw it back.
“Rita? Turn off kitchen lights.” He stumbled around the corner and immediately stopped in place. His dead son was standing at the end of the hall. Ralph blinked.
“Henry?” he murmured. The boy was pale as printer paper. But hadn’t he always looked a little on the pasty side? Leukemia will do that to a child.
Ralph smiled and took a small step forward. “Welcome back, buddy,” he whispered. The boy took an equal step back. “Hey, it’s okay.” Ralph extended a hand. He took another step forward. “You’re home now.”
Henry began to cry. His fits always commenced with a quivering furrow in his eyebrows, as if he was programmed to render a warning before the tears, a brief flash of lightning before the big boom. It was happening now. His eyes swelled, then a single black tear trickled down his cheek.
“Rita, TURN HALLWAY LIGHTS OFF!” Ralph shouted.
It’s your fault, Ralph. It came with the darkness. As if it belonged to the darkness. Unconfined, like smog in the air. And it sure sounded like Marcie, but it was only her words—not her voice. No, definitely not her voice. Too artificial to be her voice.
You started the fire.
“No, I didn’t!” Ralph thundered. And that was true. He didn’t start the fire. It was some bang-bang-boom-loving drunkard expressing his passion for Uncle Sam through a series of fireworks you can’t exactly buy from the local shop down the street. Ralph had been at home, 150 miles away.
“I didn’t do it!” He staggered backward until his hand met the front door, then grasped the handle and turned. He fell into the night air, tripped backward, and folded to the ground. Such cold, dead earth against his face and arms. Ralph rolled over. Henry’s image hovered above him the way contours of a room linger in front of your eyes after the lights are abruptly cut. The boy’s gaunt face etched with tears the color of soot.
Ralph pushed himself to his knees, held a breath, then coughed it out and vomited. His shaved head felt newly naked and exposed in the cold. He vomited again.
Once the air was tainted by a sour and acidic stench, Ralph got to his feet and used the backside of his hand to wipe his face. His forehead was thumping—a jackhammer pounding away at a pool of concrete just above his eyes.
And the garage light was still on. How in the hell was that possible?
He had already gone out to the garage, flipped the switch and tripped over his tool chest. His shin could testify to that. He turned the light on to assess the broken glass, then off again right after. Ralph was sure of it.
But he had also been sure that his house would go up in flames and that assumption was fool’s gold.
He fumbled his way across the yard, the patch that used to blossom with bright purple columbines for a few weeks every summer. Ralph looked up and froze in his sloppy steps. Henry was standing just inside the door. Dried, black tears crusted on his boney cheeks. Snot under his nose.
“No . . .” Ralph slapped himself across the cheek. He blinked, but the boy was still there.
It was you, Ralph.
“What? What did you say?”
But Henry’s lips hadn’t moved. They remained dry and sealed.
You started the fire.
“No!” Ralph took a step back. “No! Get away!” His shout echoed off the mountainside.
Henry began to lift his arm. His thin fingers curled until only one was extended. Pointing, Ralph realized. He followed the boy’s finger to the corner of the house, the big window displaying the living room. What he noticed first was that the TV was on (and dammit, he had without a doubt, most certainly turned that off) but his eyes shifted, and his every muscle went stiff.
There he was, sitting in his La-Z-Boy, eyes glued to the screen and scotch in hand. At least that’s what it looked like. Ralph turned to Henry, then back to the window. The figure was still there, slouched and unmoved from the recliner, like human Jell-O set in its cup.
“Hey!” Ralph yelled. “Hey! Hello?”
Hello. How can I help you?
Ralph cupped his pocket to mute Rita Remote. He was panting. And he was also still sitting in that chair, watching TV. How?
He looked at Henry. Gradually, the boy brought his arm back to his side.
“Talk to me!” Ralph pleaded. He wiped sweat from his forehead. “Please! Say something!” A mumbled buzz came from his pocket. Ralph lifted his hand. “Rita?”
Good evening, Ralph.
He drew the little remote from his pocket.
Start the fire.
Start the fire, Ralph.
He looked up. Henry was gone—nothing left but the door frame, open and illuminated.
Do it, Ralph. Start the fire.
Ralph clenched Rita in his hand. He walked slowly, but without stumbling, through the yard and into the garage. He looked down at the spilled scotch on the cement. Then at the spare gasoline cans against the wall. Marcie’s fault, Ralph thought. She was the one who insisted on keeping the extra one-gal gas cans around. We live in the middle of fricken nowhere, it’d be nice to know we have enough gas if we inadvertently get low, she’d said. Yes, this was her fault.
Ralph stowed Rita Remote in his pocket and lifted a can in each hand. He returned to the house, set the cans inside the door and pulled out the nozzles. He started right there in the hallway, pouring a steady trail up and down the carpet. Ralph skipped the kitchen—no sense wasting good fuel on linoleum with a house made of wood.
He peered into the living room, ensured that the Lay-Z-Boy was once again empty. It was. He poured a circle around the recliner and depleted the rest of the can in the adjacent room that Marcie once used as an office. The last can was still waiting in the hallway. That one was for the living room exclusively.
But first, a drink.
Ralph removed a clean glass from the kitchen cupboard, took two ice cubes from the fridge, and emptied the bottle into his glass.
“Rita, my love, I wish we could share a drink.” He raised the glass in toast.
Cheers to friendship?
“Cheers to friendship,” Ralph said. He took a swig.
He retrieved the second can from the hallway and stopped to grab a photo of Henry off the wall, one of Ralph’s favorites taken candidly of the boy playing with their cat Dewey. Old Dewey went the same way as Marcie, sitting shotgun in that old green Subaru as it sped away. But the boy’s smile was immortalized in a glow holding more life than he was afforded in years.
Ralph doused the living room. He left the two empty cans on the kitchen counter and took a box of matches from the drawer. He lit the first match at one end of the hall, dropping five more on his way to the office. Another two there. He hopped over the ensuing flames into the living room. There, Ralph lit the remaining matches and scattered them around the room.
He collapsed into his Lay-Z-Boy recliner with Henry’s photo in his lap. Ralph sipped his scotch and drew the remote from his pocket. “Rita?”
Hello. How can I help you?