Conflagration: a story

By Joseph Mueller

James dreamt fire. “Conflagration.” That was a word he had heard in a movie about the Hindenburg and later looked up in his father’s enormous dictionary. There was a conflagration in the middle of the night and James was the only one to realize the danger. Leaping out of bed, he ran upstairs to wake his parents. “Wake up! Wake up!”

No one seemed to hear. Smoke inhalation, he thought, remembering the phrase from television, they must all be unconscious. James ran through the flames that blazed up and down the stairwell without thought for his bare feet or his favorite green striped pajamas which were sure to catch fire, especially around the frayed sleeves. But in the dream, the stairs grew more numerous and the fire burned hotter and more fearful. James could hear sirens but he knew they were too far away, too slow to be able to help him now.

His parents were asleep on their bed. He knew he had to get his mother out first because she was pregnant and he didn’t want the smoke inhalation to hurt the baby inside of her. But he wasn’t strong enough to lift her off of the bed and carry her out. He had to wake his father. “Dad! Dad!” James screamed near his father’s ear. “You’ve got to wake up and help Mom!”

His father stirred, but he didn’t wake up. James was desperate. He thought of the time he had fallen off of the parallel bars at the school gym and his father had slapped his face, trying to make James say something, to open his eyes. For a long time after the accident, James remembered the slap more than the pain from the fall. He slapped his father on the cheek. Not too hard at first, but then, when his father still did not rise, harder. James felt his father’s cheek compress under the force of his open palm. He felt the night-stubble on his face and the moisture from the side of his father’s mouth. The thin trickle of spit slipping from the corner of his father’s lips made him angry. James slapped his father one more time, really hard, leaving a red hand print on the side of his face. His palm hurt, but his father was coming awake now, groggy, but moving. “Dad!” James yelled. “There’s a fire and you’ve got to get Mom out of here!” His father’s eyes widened with fright. “A fire? Here?”

“No time for questions,” James said. He had seen Mr. Fantastic say that to The Thing when immediate action was necessary and there was no time for explanations. “You’re going to have to go out the window, the stairs are too weak to hold both of you. “Here,” he said tying two sheets together at their corners, “I’ll tie Mom to your back and you can lower yourself down to the ground.” His father looked at James with a new respect in his eyes.

His father looked like he was about to say something, something like, “I always knew you were a hero,” or “You’re the best,” but the fire was growing hotter as James pushed his parents toward the window.

The sirens were getting closer now but the fire was also burning stronger. James had to get out of the house, fast. He could hear the roaring the flames made as they swallowed more and more of his house. He could smell the chemical stink of the new vinyl siding curling and melting into ugly brick-colored clots. Following his parents out the window, James was stopped by the nagging feeling that he was forgetting something, something extremely important.

“Renee!” he cried. “I forgot Renee!” Renee was in James’ fourth grade class. James thought she was beautiful. In this dream she was sleeping over at his house because her parents had gone away somewhere on a trip.

James leapt from the top of the stairwell to the front door landing because the stairs were almost burned away, He could see figures out in the front yard; his parents, a fire truck, firemen. James leapt again, directly through a wall of flame that was advancing down the lower steps. The right sleeve of his green-striped pajamas caught fire and James ripped the sleeve from him, leaving it to burn with the stairs.

The house was really burning now and James could barely see anything through the smoke and the heat and the flames. Then he heard someone calling his name, “James! James! Where are you?” It was Renee. He had to save her. He was her only hope. He could hear the roof collapsing into the upper floor of the house. Soon, the whole structure would fall right into the basement, right onto their heads. “I’m coming!” James shouted above the roaring and cracking of the fire. He found Renee in his mother’s sewing room. She was sitting on the floor crying, holding her left ankle with both hands. “Oh James,” she said, “you found me. I don’t think I can walk.”

James heard the screams of the nails and screws that held the house together as they were pulled from their places by the tremendous weight of the collapsing home. He heard the fire engines outside but knew that the firemen in their heavy black jackets would never be able to fight their way through the blaze to save them. Images of his family and his neighbors out in the street, barefoot and in their night clothes, filled his thoughts. His mother would be huddled under a blanket Mrs. Aspitale would bring out from her home next door. Everyone would be crying. The firemen would not let James’ father near the house. His father would be screaming and crying too; “James! My son!” But the firemen would say, “There’s no way anyone could survive that inferno in there. We can’t even get close enough to use our axes.”

James didn’t want his family to suffer. He thought about the sadness in Renee’s parents’ eyes when they found out she was dead, burnt and buried with James. They wouldn’t even have the bodies for the funerals. Maybe his parents and Renee’s parents would buy one tombstone for the both of them, “James and Renee” it would read, “Forever.” He had to get them out of there, now. Finding some reserve of incredible strength, James, coughing from the smoke, lifted Renee into his arms. “Throw that blanket over us, quick! We’re going to make a run for it!”

James rushed through the hallway toward the back door, his feet starting to burn from the boiling floor. Renee was heavy in his arms. He could feel the heat of the flames on his back and the singeing pain in his lungs. He reached the door and kicked through the flames, knocking it open. There was a great howl and screech as what was left of the house collapsed in on itself.

Silence from the people in the street. There was no sound. The sirens were all quiet, just their red and white lights going around and around. James’ father fell to his knees, his head dropping to his chest. His mother was trembling, her skin drained of all color. Suddenly, James, with burnt feet and singed hair, one sleeve missing from his green striped pajamas, walked slowly from around the corner of what once was his house, carrying in his arms the smiling Renee. The crowd couldn’t believe their eyes. James’ father slowly lifted his head, his tears of pain turning to tears of joy and pride. “James,” his father said, lifting him off the ground, “you’re a hero.” The crowd roared.

James woke up.

Once James had dreamt that he had saved his father from a zeppelin crash. He had rescued Renee from earthquakes and tornadoes and even a villainous submarine captain whose name was Zemo.

James could not return to sleep. He lay awake, his head underneath the window, listening to the first of the morning birds chirp and warble. James thought that the bigger birds, the crows and ravens, even the jays, must still be asleep. Maybe the little birds had to be up early to find food before the big birds woke up and took it all away from them. It was like the shower in the morning. If he got out of bed early enough he could take a nice hot shower before school, but if he stayed in bed for even a few minutes too long, his father and then his mother and his sister would use up all of the hot water. He turned over onto his stomach and looked out the window into his backyard. The shed his father was building stood, three walls already constructed, in the corner of the yard near the Aspitale’s fence.

James had helped his father with the walls. He had carried some of the two-by-fours, dragging the ends of the longer ones in the dirt. His father had shown him how to hammer the nails into the wood with smooth steady blows. James enjoyed the feel of the hammer in his hand, the arc of the motion that brought the heavy metal head down onto the waiting nail. He could hammer all day. Out in the sun, his father had taken his shirt off, mopping the sweat off of his face with it. James hitched his hammer into the belt of his pants and did the same. He liked not wearing his shirt and working with his father.

“How are my two men doing out here?” his mother had asked, bringing out a pitcher of lemonade. She set the glasses down on a pile of shingles and poured. James handed the first glass to his father. When James held his own glass his father raised his and they clinked their glasses together. Clink. The ice and the liquid swished against the curve of James’ glass and for a moment, in the afternoon light, it seemed to James that he held the sun itself in his hands. His father smiled and James felt some wonderful feeling rise in his chest. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. He opened his mouth to say something, he wasn’t sure what, maybe just the word “Dad” when the lemonade glass, slick with condensation, slipped from his fingers and smashed on the shed’s concrete floor.

His father stopped smiling. “Why the hell are you so clumsy?” he spat, turning his back to James. “Go get the broom and clean that up.”

James fought the tears that were building in his eyes, in his chest. His face burned red. He got the broom from the house and swept the glass onto a piece of cardboard without saying a word. He turned and walked back to the house, leaving the broom, hoping his father would call him back, tell him that everything was okay, that he wanted him to stay and work on the shed. His father said nothing.

“For godsake, Jim,” James heard his mother say, “he’s only a boy.”

“What did I do?” his father asked. James’ mother said nothing and his father went back to work.

James let himself slide from the bed on his stomach, his pajama shirt rising up to his chest. Outside was still hazy gray, but the sun would rise like a ball of fire soon. He walked quietly up the stairs, placing his weight close to the edges of each step where the wood didn’t squeak as much. In his dream, the middle of the steps burned first. The black iron railing was cool in his hand. The rail was round and firm and reminded him of holding the hammer in the shed.

James took a big gulp of orange juice right from the container and closed the refrigerator door carefully. Without the refrigerator light, everything was murky in the kitchen. It wasn’t really dark and not really light; a big grey area that James stood at the center of. James shivered, though he wasn’t cold. On the kitchen table, at the base of the candles his mother had lit at dinner, sat an open matchbook.

James picked it up and looked at the cover. On a yellow background stood a muscular, bare-chested man who promised mastery over your own future through a regimen of special exercises. James fingered the matches sandwiched tightly together between the picture of Mr. Muscle and an ad for pennies worth a million dollars. He rubbed the sulphur head of one match with his thumbnail and then touched his tongue to the white powder. James spat into the kitchen garbage can. He held the matchbook, open, at an angle in front of him. The matches looked like white helmeted soldiers, standing in formation under a yellow tent. The matches missing were their fallen comrades, James thought, heroes for some cause. Burning heroes.

James put his forehead to the kitchen window and felt the cool morning glass begin to warm with his breath and the slowly rising sun. He pressed his open mouth on the glass and let his breath warm a greater area. The hotter he breathed on the window the faster the sun would come up, furious and burning. There was a noise from his parents’ room down the hall.

James slipped the matchbook into the single pocket of his green striped pajamas.

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