There was a little house in the dark. It was charred and on fire.
“What happened,” she said aloud. As if she didn’t know.
Flames had turned the dying window frames to sticks, devouring the seams of the attic, engulfing the scalloped roof tiles. It was all going down. The blackened chips of siding gave way in her hand as she rounded the corner to the front door, smudging her palms.
She mounted the crumbling stairs, felt her way along the dark smoldering hallway and into the center room where he was waiting. The ceiling above him was partly gone now. He settled back calmly into the remains of his burnt chair as if to say, of course. Of course this would happen. Of course the living room would be an inferno. Just his luck.
She looked around the place, trying to get her bearings. Was this his house or hers? Had she set it or had he? Probably her. She always acted like she had thirteen other houses to spare. The kitchen behind him was on fire. The pipes were melting. The momentos were ashes, nothing soft left, no signs of home. Nothing left but hard wood. Just fuel to burn. Fuel made of me, she thought and the excitement rose into her neck. Fuck the house. Her body was shaking with the thrill of seeing him. She consumed his closeness like tinder, like cigarettes, like curtains, and then when all that was gone, she turned on her own four walls. Nothing was enough.
He stood up, long muscled arms at his sides, eyes trained on her like an opponent. He paced the floor around his chair, in no hurry. The wood underfoot was light gray like barnwood.
“Messed up isn’t it,” he said finally, swinging his arms to present the blaze, like ta-da! Then that dry laugh of his, where all the glee had turned black. That I don’t give a damn laugh. That fuck a buncha this shit.
“Yep,” he said, taking in the scene. “This is pretty much what I get.”
It weathered her, the churning, grinding sound of his frustrated laughter. It felt like it was coming from her own guts, washing away pieces of her as it passed through. Since the first kiss, all her wiring had gotten fused with his, and half the time she didn’t know if she was feeling his pain or hers. A flaming rafter collapsed between them, and neither flinched.
“What was I supposed to do?” she said . “You and your silence. Hurt me worse than death.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” he snapped right back. “But what do you do? You done gone apeshit. Keep telling me to leave you. I told you I didn’t want to. What is wrong with you.”
You act like you want to, she wanted to say. But maybe he was right, maybe she was crazy. You don’t care how I feel, she wanted to say, you don’t care about my life. But how could he, when he couldn’t deal with his own. You’re hooked on disaster, she’d tell him, but she’d known that from day one. Known it and lined up for more.
She looked back at him, emptyhanded. Shrinking and rotting inside. Any second her floor would give way.
“I told you I would sacrifice what I wanted to protect you,” he said, each word separated so it would ring like a knife across steel. “You accuse me of bullshit on text? After what I been through, you think I’m gonna let you do that to me again?”
He circled her now, light and sharp, with eyes like a hawk. Sacrifice, she thought. The word had felt so soft when he’d laid it at her feet . Now pointed at her throat it was a very different sort of thing, and she suddenly caught the meaning. He’d throw everything overboard if necessary. He could sever all ties at a moment’s notice. He could snuff out her love in a snap and not think twice. All he needed was a reason, because he traveled hard and light and would not be trapped again. No fucking way.
I’m on your side, she wanted to say, to calm him. She was crying now, because tears were a way of life with him. Her sheets, her phone, her life was dried over with a tide of salt.
It’s just me. Remember me?
But she couldn’t say that because he didn’t remember her. He didn’t know the first thing about her. All he knew was that she’d hit a nerve and it didn’t matter why. Fuck her. And fuck this and fuck you. That’s what mattered.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I made a bad decision. Tell me what to do to make it right.”
She said it because she knew the opposite side of him too. She knew his charms better than anyone, the pieces were strewn everywhere. He’d toss her a handful of sweetness like bullet casings and saunter away, crunching them underfoot. He had no idea that she’d pocketed every word he had no use for, all the glimmering stories he’d ever told, as if later on they could all be glued back together and he’d remember who he was. But he spoke of the pain so much he almost disappeared into it.
“Welcome to my life,” he said, turning his back to face the fiery walls. “Same shit, different year.”
That was his chipped circuitry, shorting out at the same dead end, unable to power a clock, let alone a heart. It was the obtuse handiwork given to him by the iron machinery that’d raised him. Harsh training for a boy whose heart was made for speed and light and laughter.
She drew a step closer, wanting to get right up against his chest so she could anchor him with her wood-gray eyes. The gate inside her was broken too, missing, ripped off just for him. If he would just look down at her for a second he would see that he could reach into them like shallow pools and take whatever he needed. She’d tip back her head with the pleasure of it all because plundering herself was a drug, a quick bypass around reality, straight into the velvety core of what she wished this could be, even as it all went up in smoke before her eyes. That was the thing about her — if she liked you enough she could ignore the facts so hard they almost disappeared.
He can give back someday, she’d tell herself. He can fix the rafters and the beams and himself and everything.
If she could just get him to kiss her, he would melt, he would radiate that tenderness and play the sweet badboy and it would all fit perfectly with the story she wanted. She could forget the rest, she could curl up real low where the smoke wouldn’t cut off the air, and disappear into her dreams about him. Pull a version of him around her body like wool.
He looked down at her and softened, shaking his head. The fire boiled all around, eating the cracks and crevasses.
“What’s it like?” he asked, expressionless.
What’s what like?”
“Walking around being so beautiful all the time. What’s that like.”
But underneath the flattery was his pain. His honest need to know. How had she ended up with such dumb luck while he’d been dragged through the trenches. Where do people get these lives? he’d asked her once, with that unhappy laugh. Like maybe it was a checkout line he’d missed. A ticket he’d accidentally washed in the pocket of his jeans. Maybe that’s why his eyes glazed over whenever she talked. Why he walked out the back door or looked away or changed the subject. He kept her on mute. What right did she have to say shit anyway.
But she’d clung to his back for dear life anyway, hooked on the weathered rock of his body, the permanent fighting stance, the rhythmic cadence of his voice. Maybe she was just like the monkey in a lab cage, refusing food and water, clinging instead to the stuffed replica of another monkey. A false thing could keep you alive, so long as it felt like the real thing. So long as you overlooked the details.
He can never love you back. That was what the fear whispered when it crept in. It was there when It was in the way he’d dropped her off and rushed her bags inside. It was in the songs he’d played on the way home. Songs about the past. Songs about the pain.
He doesn’t have anything left to give you.
Bullshit. She could cook, couldn’t she? She could listen, she could shore up his supplies. She could peel off her clothes and coax his attention back to a full color spectrum. That look on his face while she watched him shower, my god it had seared her. He’d been hard as an arrow, hadn’t he? Looked and smelled so good as he dried off and shaved. He’d ripped off her shirt and fucked her by the sink hadn’t he. Grabbed her soft swollen tits with his rough hand, one palm steadying her face as he kissed her harder and harder and then just barely grazed her lips. We’ve got all afternoon, he whispered against her jaw, and lightning struck right outside. That wasn’t nothing, was it? The sizzling rain, the scorch drifting in through the open window, was that the moment the end began? She was so high on his tongue, on the way his eyes furrowed with longing while she rode him, killed him dead with every thrust. Oh the relief when he did it back. That pleasure, that can’t get enough, that was love, wasn’t it? What about the good morning sugar. What about her sink full of clean dishes. What about the, you better not hurt me. He’d said that hadn’t he.
Can a person be addicted to pain? She texted her girlfriend late at night, crying again. Does that make any sense?
Maybe for the attention, came the answer. Maybe they don’t think they deserve better.
He’s the former, she wrote back, uselessly. Am I the latter?
Her mind obsessed on him in fruitless circles. But what the fuck did it matter if she’d lost her grip. All she wanted to do was lay with him now amid these crackling walls, basking in the orange glow as they slowly burned down. Her drowsy lips were wet against his chest. She’d ask about it again. Tell me how how she broke you. Tell me how everything got so bad.
“Can’t never get away from it,” he’d despair, stretching each syllable across her like piano wire. And he’d tell her the story again, his voice low and rhythmic. Each detail crisp, each line spoken precisely as it had been said ten years before, each ending worse than the one before. She could listen to him talk til the sun came up and still it wouldn’t fix anything. Every molecule of air on earth could be dedicated to it, every ounce of sleep incinerated, and still nothing would fall into place. The telling left him empty and dilated, even as she stockpiled her chest with the traumas, busting at her own seams with adoration and jealousy and interest and still empty as hell deep inside.
“Let’s go outside,” she said finally, leading him.
The house was done. It couldn’t stay anymore. He followed her down over the blackened planks, outside where the night air sparkled with crickets and cold. She looked back at the blaze, imagining the whole thing sliding off its foundation and vanishing backwards over a cliff. All that would be left was an outline of ashes.
Or maybe she could push the rubble over just a hundred feet or so, just to be near it but not in it. She could put up something else in its place: some placid, dull, lacey-curtained kitchen where she could sit at her silent table by herself, beside an unbroken window , and finally stop weeping over him. But she knew what waited. Her ears would still perk for every engine that drove by, waiting for the one that would sound just like his, the one that would purr slowly into her drive. Her delusions would bloom in the night, laying naked in her empty bed, reliving his smile, wanting his body like a half-dose of morphine, writhing instead against a rigidly cheerful, plastic replacement. She’d sit up in the darkness, certain that shadow was him. Was it him? Had he come for her finally? And then she’d realize. And check her phone again. And turn over in the dark, sick from withdrawal.
If she could have him just once more. Just one more time it would stop hurting.
He’ll just punish you again, and next time? It’ll be worse.
“It’s all got to go,” she said out loud. One of his eyes was shadow, the other embers, just like the chambers of his heart. She seized the fabric of his shirt in her fist, pulling his chest toward hers. This hold he had on her. This fixated desire. These stupid ruined houses, her head full of phantoms. Everything had to go. She’d sleep on the wet ground if she had to. Anything to not be tattered and on fire.
But instead, she stood there clutching his shirt, her feet heavy as iron.
“Well okay then,” he dared, stepping free of her grip. “Go.”
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016