He closed his eyes and let the heat absorb into his cracked skin. His phone was still ringing but could barely be heard over the commotion. He felt people rushing all around him. Cars were swerving and honking their horns. Police sirens and what he assumed was a fire truck echoed from blocks away. Paramedics had already arrived and were tending to those injured and burned. But none of that concerned him. He stood as still as he could ever remember standing and simply allowed himself to feel the destruction he held not a bit of remorse over.
The brownstone at 21 Mulberry had been in the Waskimov family for five generations before the bank foreclosed on it and he bought it. He was barely a junior paralegal at the time, but all tragedies have a silver lining, and while his father would spend the rest of his life in jail, he no longer had to share his grandfather’s inheritance with his sister and two cousins and could think of nothing better to spend it on.
He had no other family, and his only piece of furniture was a Murphy bed, also left to him. The neighbors, who had adored the Waskimov’s scoffed and sneered at him as he moved his three suitcases and one Murphy bed into the four-story monster that had seen a total of nine Waskimov children born within its very walls. Five were boys, four were girls; three went on to become doctors; one a professor of literature; two followed in the family business, accounting; two became chefs; and one, who held the deed to the Waskimov brownstone when the bank seized it, spent most of his life pursuing a dream.
He pictured all of their faces as a fireman attempted to force him to take a few steps back for safety reasons. “Sir, you need to cross the street.” He heard the deep crack of wood from within and wondered if it was the broken floorboard he had damaged riding a skateboard in the living room.
“It took me six years to put a piece of furniture on the first floor.”
“Sir, you need to move back. It’s not safe for you to stand here.”
“Six years. I’ve only been in the attic twice in my entire life.”
A second fireman echoed the safety precautions and the two of them forced him to the other side of the street. That’s when his eyes opened and he saw his entire life crackling and falling. He could still feel the heat and pressed his left thumb hard into his forefinger, trying to find the splinter he had never dug out after falling down the oak stairwell on his thirty-fifth birthday.
“Six years.” He couldn’t stop whispering it, his mind wandering through memories that weren’t his, trying to remember the names of the Waskimov children who had been born, grew, and fostered children of their own within the walls he took for granted. Within those walls that he used to throw baseballs through after having one too many whiskeys and paint murals on after his hippy best friend re-introduced him to Mary Jane on his twenty-ninth birthday. On the floorboards he used to drip shower water on during his “I don’t use a towel” years. Under the ceiling he had painted to reflect the night sky because he missed the stars he had grown up with. Next to the pillars he tried to have removed because they got in the way of his Italian, black-felt billiards table. Behind the hand carved cabinets that had been brought over on a boat by the first Mr. Waskimov, who bought the brownstone at 21 Mulberry for a steal, just seventy-five dollars more than the Italian, black-felt billiards table.
“Sir, do you live here?”
“I slept on that Murphy bed for forty-six years.”
Were his skin not so warm, the tears would’ve slid straight down. “Sir, do you live here? Is this your home?” The officer had little patience for old stories. He wanted to know how the fire had started.
“My father never saw it. He would’ve loved this.” He wasn’t sad. He wasn’t confused. He had fallen into a spiral of memories he had forgotten existed and nothing, not the fire, not the firemen, not the cries of neighbors, and not the officers who were placing him handcuffs, could pull him out of it. He wondered if he would die there, hoping if it were to happen that it would be before the fire was completely put out.
“Sir, your neighbors say they heard you crying tonight. Do you remember that?”
“No.” He wasn’t answering the officer’s question. He was trying to tell a window frame not to fall. He couldn’t hear nor care less about a single word or question anyone had for him.
“Sir, do you remember what happened tonight?”
He took a deep breath and again, closed his eyes. “I just wanted to see what it felt like. I never understood.”
The officer had heard enough. Even without a confession, the neighbors had all seen him light the branch on fire, toss it into the house, and then just stand there as it swallowed the brownstone. He was led to the officer’s car and sat down in the backseat, the officer carefully minding not to bump his head on the doorframe.
The patrol car’s flashing lights blended in perfectly with the flickering remnants of the fire. “Is my father here yet?” He asked the officer. “Is my father here yet? He’ll want to see this. It’s all he ever wanted.”
The officer put the car into drive and began to pull away. The heat subsided from his face and the tears began to take their natural path through his wrinkles and cracks. He wondered if his grandfather, sister, and cousins knew who had killed them. He took one last look at the smoldering embers and again, closed his eyes. “He’d be so proud of this one. It was way bigger than his.”
So sad and compelling