The Fire at the Edge of Town: A Short Story
The flames continued to blaze going on their thirty-second year. Or was it the thirty-first? It’s hard to keep track. There is oddly no archived story in the town’s newspaper to shed light on when it first popped up. It’s a slight point of contention among townsfolk. Those to the east of the fire swear up and down that it’s been thirty-two years since the first flickers took over the lot at 115 Delaware Drive. The west-enders almost unanimously agree that it’s been thirty-one. Some people have moved across town to avoid this general conflict.
The exact address is itself a point of debate. While the street is certainly Delaware Drive, the post office may or may not have made a clerical error when it first assigned a civic address to the lot that had now been aflame for more than thirty consecutive years. This disagreement doesn’t seem to cause as many rifts within the community. The houses on either side of the eternally burning lot bear the numbers 103 and 117.
All that said, very little else is ever discussed about the fire or the people who lived at whatever address it was prior to the engulfment. People pass it on walks, drives, sojourns, jaunts, runs and dalliances. It had, for lack of a more apropos term, burned itself into the town’s everyday routine.
Logan, age 12, bicycles past the fire on a nearly daily basis on his way home from school. He takes an alternate route in the morning because he can’t determine with one-hundred per cent accuracy which way is faster. One morning, depending on traffic, will be more efficient and one evening will end with him reaching his top speed and maintaining it for a longer stretch of time. He’s more tempted to reach for his personal best away from school instead of on his way there. He’s never late, but he is never too keen on being very early, either. Lately, however, Logan has taken to stopping at the fire for extended periods of time after school like he was seeing it for the first time. He knows it is older than him, has been there all his life, but it only recently started to bother him.
Arriving home after a prolonged stop at the fire, Logan was determined to know more. His father, Raymond, age 42, would have been ten or eleven when the fire first flamed. His mother, Eloise, age 43, would have been eleven or twelve. He didn’t have a brother or sister.
He walked in the door, leaving his bicycle on the front lawn and ran to the kitchen. Raymond sat at the table reading the local newspaper; Eloise pruned a flower.
“You’re late from school,” Raymond said to his son without looking up.
“You’re early from work,” Logan said.
Raymond looked at the kitchen clock attached to the microwave. It read exactly 4:30. School closed at 3:30 and Raymond was off work at 5:00.
“So I am,” Raymond said.
Logan hesitated. Most days, his parents opened the floor for a discussion with a lazy and apathetic ‘how was your day,’ and that was precisely the cue he waited for that wouldn’t come. Raymond kept turning the pages of his paper; Eloise had moved on to repair the broken picture window overlooking the back yard. Unsure of how it happened to begin with, Logan was too distracted to ask. He watched her and looked back at his father flipping pages and wondered how they didn’t notice him standing there waiting to engage. A thought crossed his mind that perhaps they decided to try a new tactic of waiting for Logan to initiate actual conversations. Had he been snarky lately? He couldn’t remember.
He bit the bullet.
Raymond grunted what sounded like a question mark. His eyes remained glued to the paper.
“I want you to tell me about the fire on Delaware Drive.”
Raymond let his paper wilt in his hands and slowly looked at his son. Eloise carefully set down a large sheet of plate glass, leaning it against the wall beside the broken picture window. She sighed and took a seat across from her husband at the table. They looked at each other. She shrugged, he swallowed.
“Well,” Raymond began. “It all started thirty-two years ago…”
“Thirty-one,” Eloise interrupted.
“We say thirty-two. Would you believe, and I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, that our families were very much against us getting married because of the number thing? Very taboo.”
“Your grampy still doesn’t much care for dad,” Eloise said, smiling.
“Well, I like him fine,” Raymond said.
“What about the fire?” Logan asked with growing impatience. As far as he knew, fires weren’t supposed to eternally burn with no apparent growth or decline. This fire, as long as Logan had been alive, hadn’t changed in any noticeable fashion.
His parents glanced at each other again and Eloise took the lead.
“There used to be a house there. It belonged to a small family, husband and wife, maybe a dog. They were…oh…Rick and Tammy Johnson.”
“Johnston,” Raymond said. “With a ‘t.’”
“Right. Johnston. I didn’t know them. They didn’t have kids, and we were both young.”
“My parents never much talked about them, at least not that I remember.”
“It was just a house,” Eloise said. “A place people lived. They got up in the morning and went to work and then came home. Just like everyone else.”
“Unless they worked nights, but I don’t think they did,” Raymond said. “Though he might have. I honestly don’t know.”
Logan rolled his eyes. He was getting nowhere and he couldn’t tell if they were stalling or had just lost their abilities to focus. He started to push the chair back from the table, figuring he’d be better off looking for answers somewhere else, though he was still uncertain what he wanted to know and why he wanted to know it. His parents kept talking nonsense as he stood and walked away from the table. They noticed.
“Okay, Logan,” Raymond said. “The fire started then it continued and it just kind of stuck around. After awhile, we just got used to it.”
“Everybody did,” Eloise added.
Logan thought about this a moment. He wasn’t sure which question to ask first. He tossed his curiosity around inside his head, confused about so much, thinking his parents should be more confused, too. With his brow furrowed, he ventured forward in his line of questioning.
“What about the fire department?”
“What about it?” Raymond asked.
“They put out fires, right?” Logan said with a little edge on it.
“Of course they do, and there’s no need to get short,” Raymond said.
He took a deep breath and his parents filled him in as best they could considering how long it had been. Any questions anyone had evaporated with time. No one called the fire department, and they presumed the house wasn’t properly equipped with smoke detectors. Neighbours gathered in the street and watched the flames rip through the wood siding. Raymond clearly remembered melted pieces of shingles dripping from the roof to the ground below. It made him think of candlewax. Both his parents agreed that the fire never appeared to grow, that no one could identify how or when it started or what it looked like when it did. It was as if the house was always on fire, though everyone knew this wasn’t true, until it fully disintegrated. The fire just didn’t leave when the house was gone.
Before Logan could ask, Eloise admitted that it was a bit strange that the fire could continue without any obviously flammable material for it to consume. While odd, she didn’t seem to Logan to care one way or another about it. He didn’t say it, but that’s what frustrated him most. His parents could objectively state that everything about the fire disobeyed every form of logic known to humankind, but they had no interest in understanding the ‘why’ of it. They were numb to it.
“What about the Johnstons? What happened to them?”
“Oh,” Raymond started. “They died horribly.”
Without any sensible answers to his questions, Logan pretended to accept the line presented by his parents who promptly returned to their chores and leisure thinking they had succeeded at expert parenting. Their son silently sat through dinner, barely registering the overly salted green beans and the undercooked beef sirloin. After cleaning the remainder of the food into the trash and putting the dish in the dishwasher, Logan told his mother that he was going to meet some friends at the park. She asked about homework and he lied for the second time in a matter of seconds.
He biked with urgency and had hardly come to a stop as he leapt from the seat and hit concrete. He sprinted to a spot as close to the fire as he could without singing the fuzz forming on his face. The fire, like fire often can, hooked his gaze. Though it had a calming effect, Logan’s confusion had hardly disappeared. Behind him, people walked their dogs, cars drove, his peers biked, and none paid him any heed or attention. Any mystery the fire held for them in the past, if it ever did, had evaporated like rising smoke. They chose to live with it. So Logan did, too.