Hearts of Ash

I listened to the last of the liquor drip off the bottom stair, ping with a dull liquid pop against the bare gray concrete floor. I felt the house groan, creak. I heard the muffled crackle of the flames upstairs. I stared through the hazy dark at the cheap wood paneling clinging to every wall of this half-finished basement inside this stranger’s house. I heard the rough rasps of her relaxed breaths as she lay beside me. From the depth, the rate, the slow soft blow of her hot exhales against my sweat-soaked shoulder, I could tell she was as sharply awake as I. But she was different. Something had changed inside her. Even in this heat I could feel the cold radiating from some deep hidden place inside her chest, a jagged chunk of ice belching frost between her ribs.

This was our sixth visit in less than a year, but this one had been different somehow. The thrill, the glee, the high. It wasn’t the same. The roaring ecstasy of the hungry flames, the spicy sweet smell of roasting flesh. It didn’t work this time. And without her feeling it, I had no chance. Things just weren’t the way they used to be between us. So this was finally the end, I guessed. I felt the lack like a structural weakness in my bones, as if some protein vital to survival had suddenly vanished from my body.

I rolled onto my back. The sweat-dampened sheets of the pull-out futon clung to my hip, my elbow, my heel. I glanced up the dark stairs to the searing white rectangle of light, the doorway back to the other world. The world that rejected us both, brought us together, stranded us here in this other place, this hidden realm of existence that hovers in the smoke-fogged basements of strangers. This plane of being that floats just below the surface of the normal world where happy families sit at their dinner tables and listen to the clink of their flatware as they make small talk and live their entire lives believing that they will never feel all the pain the human body is capable of feeling. That they will never experience all the terror the human brain is capable of conjuring. This hidden plane that is only accessible to those with the blackened residue of smoke clinging to their skin, with the smell of seared flesh trapped in their hair, with the taste of ash chalking their tongues.

I tore my gaze from the blinding doorway of light and looked over at her. Damp spikes of her long brown hair splashed across her face like painted on camouflage. Her hard blue eyes sat open, staring blankly through the dark at the ceiling above my head. They looked like lifeless pearls jammed into the eye sockets of a porcelain statue. Each time I look into those eyes, I realize I’ve never seen something look so beautiful yet so dead. Back when things were still good, I used to tell her to keep a jar of Vaseline with her at all times, because whoever finds her body is going to need it. She always liked that one. That’s the kind of sense of humor she has, or at least used to. But the thought actually sickens me. I only said things like that because I knew they would make her laugh. But we don’t say anything like that now. We haven’t for a while.

She was naked. We both were. A rumpled clump of the damp bedsheet sat wedged between us like a mountain range cutting through the heart of a continent. She breathed in deep, slow, and exhaled with a tired whoosh. I felt the relaxed rise and fall of her chest. I never could understand how she was always so calm at this point in a visit. I could barely keep my fingers, my hands, my arms, from shaking. Her right arm lay draped across my chest. A slimy film of slick sweat pooled in that place where our bodies met. I heard the crackling pop of the flames, the low roaring whoosh of the high-pressure wind sucking in to feed the hungry fire. We closed the door of that upstairs room and wedged it shut with a chair, but we didn’t have much time left. Who knew how much longer that floor would hold before the fire burst through. Once that happened, it would follow the trail we’d left for it and come straight for us, down here in the basement. If the police didn’t get here first.

Right before we came down here, she told me she called the police. That got me worried. Not because I was scared of getting caught, but because it told me she needed them to make her feel it this time. She needed the extra jolt of electricity. The jolt that the visit, the heat, the flames, the basement, and I, had failed to provide. When she told me this, I got mad. Or at least I tried my best to pretend I was. I grabbed her wrist and squeezed that narrow twig of flesh as hard as I could. I wrenched her toward me and glared at her with all the hate I sometimes feel for her, for what kind of person she is, for what she’s transformed me into. But mostly, I was just glaring at her with the petulant anger of knowing she’d never really be mine, would never be reliable in the way I wanted and needed her to be. And I felt that way because I knew I was expendable to her. I knew she could leave me in a moment, without a thought or a worry or a tear, and find someone else just like me in a day, maybe two. So I tried putting all those feelings into the stare I fixed onto her as I clutched her wrist and felt her thin bones bend under my fingers. I whispered about how angry I was at her for calling the cops, about how fucking stupid it had been, about how she really must be goddamn deranged if she needs to do something like that just to get off, because, Christ, what the hell did we just do in that room, for the sixth time in a year, that that somehow wasn’t enough for her? And then I saw in her eyes that it had ended. That we had ended. And then her gaze shifted to the cabinet behind my head. She stepped past me without a word. I let go of her wrist and felt my hand drop to my side. She opened the cabinet and found a gleaming stash of fifteen or twenty unopened bottles of liquor.

#

But I know now it’s over. I lay in the dark beside her and listened to her smooth regular breaths, to the creaking and buckling of the burning house above us. The thick air crushed down on me like a heavy vest of wet lead draped over my chest. I noticed that the liquor had stopped dripping.

#

I first met her a little over a year ago. I had gone back to school at a local community college to study business so I could finally move up to store manager at my awful retail job that I’d had since I graduated college the first time. I don’t even know what it was that made me follow her. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I was angry or depressed that my life hadn’t turned out the way I wanted. That I’d never had the talent, the determination, the luck, necessary to get anywhere as a soundtrack composer. Maybe I was mad at myself for wasting my life on such a stupid pipe dream. Maybe I was angry at my parents, my school, my teachers, for never being honest to me. For never telling me that what I was doing was foolish, idiotic, never going to happen. Maybe it was all of those things, or none of them. Maybe I was just lonely. Maybe I just liked her.

I was out on a run around campus one day late in the afternoon when I first met her. It was fall. The colors were pretty. The bloody reds, the syrupy browns, the starry yellows, all those mixed shades in between. I was running through the dense woods behind campus, following the twisting trail, smelling the woody sharpness of the crisp air, listening to my huffing breaths, the smack and grind of the dirt and leaves underfoot. A few minutes into the run I came to a clearing I’d never discovered before. I saw a thread of gray smoke rising into the sky like a soft-lead pencil line smeared by a careless thumb. I figured it was someone burning a pile of leaves, maybe the smoke from a hidden little cottage tucked away in the woods. I decided to take a look. If nothing else, it would distract me for a few minutes, make the time go faster.

I tramped across the clearing and found another trail leading deeper into the woods. I followed that for about a minute until I found a cabin. The cobblestone chimney belched the same rope of gray smoke I’d seen a minute ago, but the smoke looked different up close. It was thicker, blacker, saturated with dense particles that seemed to break from the rising column and flutter to the ground like a shower of confetti made of ash. The cabin looked pretty old, but not abandoned. Just outside the front door, a stack of rain-warped newspapers sat drooping and yellowed inside a sturdy cardboard box taped open with fresh spotless strips of clear packing tape. Yesterday’s newspaper sat upside down on top of the stack inside the open box. I read the upside-down words of the sports page headline. Mets stick it to fish. I tried to imagine the upside-down M as a W, but my mind kept turning it over the right way, never seeing it as anything but an upside-down M. I glanced behind the shack and stared through the graveyard of creaking trees. I watched the crimson leaves collecting in the dirt like dry flakes of curdled blood. I heard the soft watery clatter of a stream nearby. That was good enough for me. I glanced down at my watch and started jogging away. I took four strides before I heard the cabin door burst open behind me. I stopped in an instant and turned around to see her standing in the doorway. Her face and clothes were smeared with streaks of black soot. Her hands and sleeves were spotted with dots and blots of dark red, as if she’d eaten a messy bowl of spaghetti for lunch. She was beautiful. Young. Couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. Her skin shined with an unnatural glowing whiteness that made her look like a marble statue. She was dressed like a member of the student council who’d gotten lost on a nature hike: khakis, chunky hiking boots with gaudy strips of mismatched browns and greens, cheap pull-over fleece with those spots of red all over the sleeves. Her eyes were closed and she wore a wide, intoxicated smile on her flushed face, as if she was high. That’s what I thought at the time. Made sense. A couple of high-strung, dean’s list types steal off into the woods to smoke a little weed, blow off a little stress, get away from their studies for a few hours. Happens all the time. Made perfect sense to me. Until I looked past her and into the cabin.

Once I pulled my gaze from her, my eyes settled on the fireplace. A whooshing fire burned and popped, spit glittering sparks and orange tongues of flame. A folded safety gate leaned against the wall next to the fireplace. I realized the whole damn forest was going to burn down if this girl and her friends didn’t put that gate up, so I stepped forward to warn her. That‘s when I saw it. A human foot sat wedged between two glowing logs in the fire. The nubby toes were blackened and frozen into hard, unnatural contortions. I stumbled backward and stared at the girl. Her eyes slipped open, slowly, smoothly, like ice melting, and she looked at me with the goofy, squint-eyed expression of a happy drunk. But that expression disappeared in an instant. She must have seen the sickened look on my face, the twitch of my nervous hands, the wide wet stretch of my frightened stare. And she must have known I’d seen, because she didn’t wait another moment before gently taking me by the hand and leading me into the cabin. My body shuddered with a sickened chill the moment her hand gripped mine. The touch of her hand felt cold, scaly, reptilian. I felt a powerful urge to wrench my hand free, to run away while I still had the chance.

As we stepped through the doorway of the cabin, I experienced a moment of silent clarity. I knew this was the instant I was making a choice. I had seen the foot. I understood something bad had happened, that someone was dead or severely injured. I had the capacity to understand that this girl probably had something to do with it. But by allowing myself to be led through the door, I was making myself complicit. And this is why I say maybe each time I think back to this moment in my life. This is why I wonder. Because even now, at the end of it all, at the end of me and her, at the end of our visits, at the end of this life we created together, I still don’t know for sure why I allowed myself to be led through that door. Maybe I’ve secretly wanted to do these things my entire life. Maybe I had some anger, some violence inside me I didn’t know was there. Maybe I was terrified of being ordinary, of living an ordinary life. Maybe I just wanted something I could share with someone, some secret the world would never know.

Whatever the reason was, I kept my mouth shut. I stepped through the door and didn’t say a word as she pushed it closed behind me. Once inside, the savory scent of barbequed meat, similar to the smell of roasting pork but not, filled my nose. The smell was heavier, with a fatty wooden tang darker than any other type of meat I’d ever smelled. An undertone of sharp, deeply charred plastic hovered beneath the smell, and I realized that had to have been the scent of the synthetic fibers in her victim’s burning clothes. I didn’t have a chance to think another rational thought though, because in the next instant, her lips, and her small body, pressed against me. Scorching heat seeped from her and was absorbed into me, causing my forehead, my lower back, my armpits, to slick with dripping sweat. I couldn’t understand how such a small person, such a petite body, could generate such a furious supply of heat. Our clothes melted from our bodies and we were suddenly on a bed in the corner of the room. Freshly laundered sheets slid taut and smooth beneath me. She was on top, as she always would be during our time together.

Amid the rhythmic bouncing squeak of the bed, the crackling pop of the fire, the intoxicating touch of her body, I remembered the charred foot in the fireplace. It was then that I realized this probably wasn’t the first time she’d done this. I closed my eyes and saw the blackened flesh of that foot, the toes frozen and warped into bone-snapping curls, and I thought the same thing again: this isn’t the first time she’s done this. The thought frightened me, sickened me, exhilarated me. The fire popped and showered us with sparks. She ducked, shuddered, giggled with glee. I winced and twitched in pain as the sparks bit into my soft flesh, seared my exposed skin. A moment later, a needling wash of burning air rushed over my skin. I looked to the left and saw a log roll out of the fireplace. It thumped against the floor with each roll and came to rest against the front door of the cabin. The log pulsed a molten amber-orange, like the photosphere of the sun. I tried to pull her off me, to warn her about the fire, to tell her about the stray log, but she didn’t listen. When she finally saw the log, the spitting fire, the black flower of smoke filling the cabin, she changed. That was the first time it happened. Something primal and vicious awake in her, some kind of animalistic death-lust. She clawed at my chest, wet her fingernails with my blood, crushed my groin between the pulverizing clamp of her legs. She screeched like a feral creature and continued, refusing to let me go, refusing to let me stop. I’d never seen anything like that before, such an instantaneous change in a person. It scared me, sure, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. And I don’t know. Maybe I even loved it. Maybe I fell in love in that moment.

By the time we finished, the cabin was filled with black smoke. We honked deep chest coughs as we crawled around on hands and knees looking for our clothes. The smoke burned my eyes, drew hot rivers of cutting tears down my cheeks. The tears mixed with the sweat and dripped salty and bitter over my lips. We found a window at the back of the cabin and climbed out from there. We tramped through the woods to a nearby campus parking lot and found the dead man’s car. She pulled his keys out of her pocket. I didn’t ask where she got them. I didn’t need to. We drove the dead man’s car out of the parking lot and left the college, the town, and our lives, behind.

That was our first visit. I knew that was something a person could never come back from, so I didn’t even try. I let go. I let her decide what to do next. Turns out, she had done it all before. As the black highways, the dotted yellow lines, the blur of trees and towns slashed past us, she told me she’d been doing what we just did—making visits she called it—since she was fifteen. She knew it was bad to hurt people, that it was awful to do that to them, but she couldn’t help it. This is just how she is. This is her nature. It’s in her blood, to do this. You can’t get mad at a wolf for being a wolf can you? It’s just how she is, she said. It’s what she was made to do.

She told me more about the visits. She told me she only chooses certain people, usually elderly widows and widowers who live alone. People who have had a long, full life. People who don’t have a young wife, a stressed husband, a helpless baby depending on them. She doesn’t like doing it. Sure, she derives what enjoyment she can from it, and if that happens to be a healthy amount of enjoyment, then good. But she doesn’t like it. I nodded and listened, wondered how my life had cracked open and dissolved away so completely, in such a short amount of time. I wondered why this all made so much sense, why it seemed so natural. I listened to what she said, and I said okay, okay, okay. I told her I understood. At the time, I’d like to think I did understand, but now I’m not so sure. It doesn’t really make much sense anymore.

#

Down in the basement, I stroked her slick arm, felt her twitch and pull away before giving up and going limp. I listened to the sharp yelping bark of a restless dog outside, to the bang and whoosh of the fire overhead. We probably had only four or five minutes left before that bedroom floor gave out and spewed the flames onto the ground floor hovering above our heads. And from there, it wouldn’t take more than twenty or thirty seconds before the flames followed the trail of liquor and rushed down here to meet us.

I closed my eyes, blew out a relaxed sigh, let my tense body go slack.

“So I guess this is it…for us,” I said in a neutral monotone, being careful to keep all warbling emotion out of my voice. She hates any kind of sappy stuff. She used to slap me right across the face, hard, without warning, whenever I’d say or do something like that. Whenever I surprised her with a sweet present for no reason, whenever I said some dumb thing I thought sounded romantic. She once told me that if I ever even thought the word “love” in her presence, she’d do it to me. I didn’t need her to say what it was. I knew. So I never said that, even if I might have felt it about her a few times.

She squeezed my arm. I opened my eyes and looked over at her. She was crying. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never seen her like this before. The faint howling echo of a police siren drowned out the ceaseless bark of that annoying dog. I tried to sit up, but she wrapped her slick arms around my neck and pulled me back down beside her. She pulled her body against mine, her naked skin sticking and sliding against me, and began to sob. She clutched me tight and pressed her cheek against my chest. I lay back against the saturated sheets and felt her small body twitch and quake. The wet August heat pricked my skin like a suffocating blanket of pine needles. This was the end. I had no doubts anymore. Only a few regrets. I vowed to savor these last short minutes we had together, so I rested my hand on her smooth back and closed my eyes.

#

She stood in silence for a long time after she opened that cabinet and saw the gemstone sparkle of all those liquor bottles standing in wait. I didn’t say anything. I was too scared. I was afraid I would lose her forever in the span of a single word.

After a while, she grabbed one of the bottles and twisted off the cap with a crackle of snapping foil. She took a long gulp, gasped, sucked in a deep breath, took another long swig. She turned around and told me to get the bed ready in the basement. She didn’t look at me. She kept her gaze fixed on the ground. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. She had acted like this before, but she had never been this cold, this openly hostile toward me. I hoped it was just another unseen permutation of her twisted desire.

I clomped down to the basement, found some bedsheets in the dryer, made up the futon. I turned out the lights and lay down on the sagging mattress. I lay in the dark, alone, and stared up at the blinding doorway of white light at the top of the stairs. I heard the sounds of footsteps on the floor directly above my head. Liquid pattered against the floor above, and then splashed, sprayed. I listened as her footsteps swished back and forth, between kitchen and living room, kitchen and living room. The liquid splashed against the floor, slashed violent and forceful like sideways rain pounding a screen door during a storm. After a few minutes, bottles began clanging against the floor with sharp resonating cracks, began shattering against the walls with hard shimmering smacks. She roared scream after throat-bursting scream as more bottles shattered and showered the floor above my head with clatters of glittering shards. The sounds went silent as the light at the top of the stairs darkened. A black figure of shadow in the same shape as her stood in the doorway. I heard the watery slosh, the wet mumble of liquid running down the stairs. It took me an extended moment of puzzled thought to realize what she was doing. She was leaving a trail for the fire. She was manufacturing the danger, the thrill, the excitement, she no longer felt with me and the standard visits. In order to tap into that animal frenzy sealed off inside her, she needed to feel like she was going to die at any moment.

The liquid stopped pouring and I saw the shadow figure turn to the side, whip an arm in a flash of black. The empty bottle banged hard against the kitchen wall and smacked against the floor, but it didn’t shatter. I held my breath and listened as the bottle rolled across the hard tile of the kitchen floor above my head. The sound stopped and she started walking down the stairs. Her feet smacked and sucked against the wet steps. She was already naked when she climbed onto the bed. I felt trapped in my thick layers of clothes. She helped me out of them and climbed on top of me, but she was different. The heat, the fire, the secret hidden life we’d made together, were gone.

#

I stroked the smooth damp skin of her twitching back, felt her small breasts compress and pool around the bent rods of my ribs. I opened my eyes and looked down at the matted tangle of her ruffled hair. It was right then that I made up my mind. It wasn’t a hard decision. I didn’t even need to think about it.

I kissed the top of her head and gently pried her clutching fingers from my skin. I grasped her shoulders and straightened her into an upright sit. She fought me. She turned her face away in shame or embarrassment or some other mysterious emotion I’d never seen her display. I steeled myself for the slap to the face, the claw to the eyes, the punch to the stomach I knew was coming, but instead she just sat there, crying, shaking. I felt a cold little stain of disappointment bloom inside my chest, seeing her like this. This is not my wolf. I swore to myself I wouldn’t remember her like this. I closed my eyes and kissed her cold lips. I broke off the kiss and whispered eight words into her ear. She let out a little huff of a breathy giggle, a small joyful sob. The breeze of her breath felt feathery and cool against my neck. She kissed me again, deeply, and bit my lip just before breaking off. I grinned. There’s my wolf. Right then I knew she’d be okay. I knew she’d make it. She’s a survivor. She’s strong, so much stronger than I’ll ever be. She started climbing off the bed but then stopped and lingered, stared at me through the dark with that look she always gets just before she changes. I shot her a slick smile, a smile dripping with charm and confidence, the kind of smile I didn’t know I had in me, and told her, don’t get any ideas. I won’t tell them a thing. She gazed back at me with that smoldering volcanic stare of hers and shook her head. Wet needles of hair swung in front of her cut-jewel eyes and a few strands stuck to her forehead in thin springy pinwheels. She turned and strode up the stairs. I knew that’s all I would get from her. But that was enough for me, because in that stare, in that shake of the head, she said all that needed to be said about us, about our time together, about this secret life we lived together, about this hidden world we explored for a year.

I lay back on the mattress as the police sirens grew louder, as the fire upstairs roared and banged like a caged dragon. She transformed back into a shadow figure of solid black as she reached the top of the stairs. She walked into the searing rectangle of light and left me, and our secret life, behind. I closed my eyes, slumped backward into the damp sheets, felt my body go slack and watery. I heard a car door plunk closed. An engine growled to life. Multiple police sirens sang out a cacophonous song of overlapping voices. Car tires screeched and skidded across pavement. The house shook with a deafening crash. A bashing rain of clattering debris banged down onto the floor above my head. I turned onto my stomach, nuzzled my face into the lumpy pillow, waited for the flames. It felt good to finally rest.

Steve Gergley studied at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, and his work has appeared in The Fiction Pool and Typishly. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.

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