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Fiction On Fire

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We got stories about arsonists. We got stories about accidental house fires. We got one about a fire-jumper, one about a dragon and one told from the point of view of a doomed cigarette. Plus a few more about arsonists.

But after all the submissions for CP's third annual short-fiction contest were read -- first by CP staff, who narrowed the field to 10 finalists, then by our panel of judges -- the stories that stood out most were not, of course, literally about this year's theme, fire.

Sure, the fires in Kara Lin-Greenberg's "The Most Beautiful Thing," Anjali Sachdeva's "Willful" and George Long's "Bonfire" are all real physical presences, not mere symbols. But like the fire swiped by Prometheus, the spectral flame on a matchhead or the life-giving, death-dealing furnace heat from one of Pittsburgh's extinguished steel mills, the fires in these stories embody the complex relationships between the characters, their environments and the sometimes even more complicated goings-on within their own minds.

It's fiction, we hope that you'll find warm as a storyteller's campfire -- and perhaps even a bit combustible.

Judges:
boice-Terrel Allen
is the editor of Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction & Poetry by Multicultural Writers and two novels, Janet Hurst and The Daughters of a Mother, published by Rattlecat Press, which he founded. He holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and New York University's Graduate School of Journalism.Allen's received grants and scholarships from the Multicultural Arts Initiative, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation.He's also a founding member of the Pittsburgh writers collective, The Forgery. Currently, Allen's at work on a collection of short stories and a memoir. Visit him online: www.rattlecat.com.

Kevin Clark Forsythe is author of the Pittsburgh River Trilogy (2003): Stardust on the Allegheny, Murder on the Mon, Twilight on the Ohio. His fourth novel, The Three Boys: A Winter's Tale of the Northern Tier, will appear in 2006. Forsythe, 48, works for City Controller Tom Flaherty. Past exploits include: attorney, keyboards, saxophone, vocals, management, booking, radio promotion, and producing three nationally released albums for Pittsburgh's legendary power trio, A.T.S.; maker of Zippo Lighters, warehouseman, oil-field roustabout, janitor, night-shift beer distributor, bookstore clerk, furniture mover, insurance salesman, house painter, typewriter cleaner, summer-school gym teacher.

Sherrie Flick recently won the 2003-04 Flume Press Fiction Prize. Her chapbook, I Call This Flirting, will be published by Flume Press/California State University, Chico in August 2004. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, and Quarterly West; her work is anthologized in Sudden Fiction: The Mammoth Anthology of Minuscule Fiction. She has been awarded artist residencies from the Ucross Foundation and Atlantic Center for the Arts and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers' Conference. Co-founder and director of the Gist Street Reading Series, she lives in Pittsburgh.

Honorable Mentions:
"Smoke," by Beth Steidle
"Immolation," by Claire Litton



The Most Beautiful Thing
By Karin Lin-Greenberg

I'm sitting by Laurel's hospital bed because I feel guilty. Laurel's mother is in the room -- there has to be an adult here since I am under 18 -- and I can't make eye contact with her. I didn't do anything wrong -- I'm not the one in police custody -- but I know that I didn't do much right either.

Everything started last week in Mr. Myers' seventh-period English class. We'd read a story about the Vietnam War, where a soldier's friend stepped on a booby trap and the soldier described his friend's body blowing up as a beautiful sight, glistening in the bright afternoon sunlight. "So," Mr. Myers said, "what do you guys think about that description?"

Mr. Myers was 23. He never told us this, but once he mentioned the year he'd graduated high school so we did the math. He cursed all the time and didn't bat an eyelash when we cursed too.

"I think it's bullshit," Mitch Henderson said.

"Why?" Mr. Myers said, as he wrote BULLSHIT on the left side of the board. His eyes darted to the open door, I guess checking for the principal.

"Well," Mitch said, "if you see your buddy explode in front of your face you'd be like, ‘Fuck, that could've been me.' And then you'd get sick when you saw his guts all hanging over the tree branches."

Mr. Myers scribbled under the heading BULLSHIT then said, "Good support for your argument."

"But it could be beautiful," Amy Lopez said. "The sun reflecting at the right angle on just about anything could make it beautiful. And if you dissociate yourself from what actually happened, maybe you could see the beauty. Or maybe perceiving the moment as beautiful was a coping mechanism for that soldier."

"Okay, good," Mr. Myers said. He moved to the right side of the board and wrote BEAUTY and underneath it wrote Amy's comments.

I hated war stories, hated blood and guts, and just wanted to get through the day. I was counting the minutes until class was over, but I'm not sure why I was so eager to leave. After school I had to take the bus over to the mall and work for the rest of the afternoon at a dress store, Dance the Night Away. I'd taken the job because I was saving to buy a car. My duties consisted of wearing a prom dress and standing outside the door of the store and handing out flyers that advertised 10 percent off of dresses. It wasn't a bad job. I just smiled and pretended I didn't notice people rolling their eyes and laughing at me all dressed up right there in the middle of the mall.

"Sally?"

"Huh?" I said and looked up. The board had filled up with more supporting evidence under BEAUTY and BULLSHIT.

"Which category?" Mr. Myers said.

"I don't know."

So in between BEAUTY and BULLSHIT Mr. Meyers wrote BEFUDDLEMENT. We'd finished a unit on poetry the week before, and Mr. Myers seemed pretty excited about alliteration, so I suppose he was pulling that lesson into this one. But I wasn't as much befuddled as not listening.

"Tell me more, Sally."

"Well," I said, "it seems like one of those things that you can't talk about until you've actually seen."

"Well then wouldn't that negate the purpose of literature? Why read about the Holocaust? Slavery?"

"An argument for another day, Amy," Mr. Myers said, and Amy sat back hard in her chair and crossed her arms.

"I'm not saying that you'd have to have fought in the Vietnam War," I said, "but maybe a person should have seen something terrible, anything, and thought for a second or two that it was beautiful."

"I feel that," Reilly said from the back of the room. Reilly almost never talked even though he was smart. I only knew he was smart because I'd known him since kindergarten. He'd been small and blond in elementary school and was always the first one with his hand up, but now he sat hunched in the back of classes and dyed his oily hair black and worked at a gas station and reeked of cigarettes. He liked starting fights for no reason and he wore those light-blue gas station attendant shirts with someone's name other than his own stitched on them: Butch, Biff, Hank -- the types of names no one in our school would ever have. I suspected he blew half his paycheck on these shirts at Urban Outfitters.

A few months back we'd read A Tale of Two Cities and had to write reports about life in Victorian England. Reilly had written his report about women whose long dresses caught fire on candles or cooking flames. We had to present our findings to the class and he'd even drawn a picture of a woman screaming because the fire from her dress was engulfing her. It was like he was trying to scare the class, but no one really cared. I might've been a little frightened if I hadn't known that he grew up in a big house with a swing set outside and that his parents both worked in advertising yet made time to volunteer for bake sales and the family even owned a golden retriever. Yet for some reason Reilly wanted to appear troubled, as if he'd survived some horrible past.

Reilly and I hadn't spoken in years, but he was dating Laurel James, who worked at Dance the Night Away with me. Sometimes when Reilly came to pick up Laurel he'd nod at me, but we never went so far as to talk. So I was surprised when he spoke up in my defense.

"All right. So you're feeling it, Reilly," Mr. Myers said. "Elaborate."

"Well, the people who are calling it bullshit have no right. How can you argue about someone's perception of beauty? But on the other hand, maybe it's beautiful because the victim was someone the narrator knew. Like it wasn't just random carnage."

"Well," Mr. Myers said, looking at the clock and then at the door again, "keep your eyes open this weekend and see if you spot anything that's simultaneously grotesque and beautiful." Then he quickly wiped the word BULLSHIT off the board.

New dresses came into Dance the Night Away that Friday afternoon. I'm not usually a fan of what we sell, but this time the dresses were beautiful. No sequins or weird belts, just plain and classy, satin on top and layers of chiffon on the bottom.

Laurel was in the employee changing room when I got to the store. "Nice, huh?" said Jamie, our boss, and I nodded as I helped unpack a box of dresses. Jamie owned the store and took selling dresses pretty seriously. She wouldn't let the high school workers use the cash register. All we could do was pass out flyers in our dresses and then help straighten out the store at the end of the day. Only college girls could work the registers, which was stupid, but at least I didn't ever have to deal with money.

"You should put this one on. It's your size," Jamie said, checking the tag on a pale blue dress. "Once girls pass by and see these dresses, they'll buy our whole stock."

Laurel flung back the red dressing-room curtain. She was wearing a light pink dress, which looked good with her dark curly hair and pale skin. "You look nice," I said. And that was about all I had to say to her. She was always smiling, always friendly, but the two of us had nothing to talk about. We weren't in any of the same classes, and she hadn't moved to town until last year, so we had no history. And Laurel never seemed to try hard in conversations, just sat around and waited for someone else to talk. But I could tell she was a daydreamer because I was one too, and I could spot people who got lost in their own minds. So maybe I forgave Laurel for her boringness because I knew something was going on in her head, even if I couldn't get to it. Sometimes you could just see her face go all blank and then she got these weird expressions -- sometimes happy, sometimes sad -- that had nothing to do with what was actually going on in the real world.

She and Reilly together confused me, but I think she was all part of Reilly's plan to appear to be something he wasn't. She was like a prop for him, the type of girl who actually had to get a job after school to help her family out. I think Reilly wished his family was more like Laurel's, with too many kids and an old station wagon and a house that was almost falling apart. That way, maybe he'd have an excuse to misbehave. And as far as I could figure, Laurel liked Reilly because he seemed dangerous.

I changed into my dress right after Laurel finished and we stood outside for an hour trying to give flyers to people who didn't really want them.

"My feet hurt," Laurel said, lifting the hem of her skirt. She was wearing high heels with fake diamondy sparkles on them. We didn't sell those in the store. They must've been left over from some dance or wedding she'd gone to.

"Mine don't," I said, lifting my skirt to reveal black Converse All-Stars.

"Oh, that's smart," Laurel said. "Since no one can see your feet anyway."

"Yeah."

Then we were quiet again. Laurel started fidgeting, drumming her fingers against her thigh, which I knew meant she wanted a cigarette.

"Jamie's gone," I told her. "She went out the rear exit and said she'd be back at 8:30 to close up."

"Great," Laurel said, "cover for me?"

"I'll try to keep up with the pace of customers," I said, glancing down the nearly empty hallway.

Laurel looked confused for a second, then smiled. "Oh, right. Okay, be right back."

She left and I thought about my hypothetical car, which, in my fantasies, was always bright red and shiny. Whenever I daydreamed about it, I had to bypass the practical stuff, like figuring out how many hours I'd have to work in order to afford a used car that actually ran, much less something new. But the image of myself at 60 years old, still crammed into a prom dress, still handing out flyers, and still fantasizing about a new car, haunted me.

"Hey," Reilly said loudly, breaking through my daydream. He strutted down the hall holding two dark green cardboard coffee cups that I knew came from the Quick Mart at the gas station where he worked.

"Class was interesting today, huh?" he said. "It got me thinking. And school almost never does that."

"I guess," I said, shifting my weight from foot to foot. It felt like Reilly wanted something.

"Nice dress," he said.

"We got a box of them in today."

"It's pretty."

"Laurel's wearing the same one but in pink," I said.

"Where is Laurel?" he said, looking into the store. I felt better. That's why he was there.

"Outside," I said, "smoking."

"Good. We're going to pay her a visit."

"I can't."

Reilly took a pile of flyers out of my hands and placed them on the ground. "Just for a minute. I want you to see something."

"We'll be right back," Reilly shouted to Leslie, the college girl who was working the register, as he pulled me by the arm.

"Fine," Leslie said, without looking up from the issue of Vanity Fair that she was flipping through.

It felt weird, walking through the mall in the new blue dress with Reilly, who was grungy and gas station-smelling. Right then something felt wrong all the way down to my bones, but I followed him anyway. I was too curious to stop.

As we walked, Reilly sniffed the lids of both coffee cups, then took a sip out of one. We made our way to the long hallway that led outside to the Dumpsters where Laurel always smoked. At the door, Reilly said, "When I call you, open the door." I nodded. I waited a second after the door shut behind him, then reopened it an inch and peered out. Reilly smelled the coffee cups again then handed one to Laurel. She smiled at him, gave him her cigarette, then sipped the coffee. Reilly took Laurel's cigarette and held it between his teeth. Then he stood behind Laurel and wrapped his arms around her waist while she drank. He pointed at the setting sun in the pinkish sky and Laurel tilted her head. Then Reilly stepped back, took the white plastic cap off his cup, tossed it into the Dumpster, and stared into the cup for a second. A plane flew by then, roaring, and Laurel watched it. As Laurel's gaze followed the plane, Reilly poured the contents of the cup onto the chiffon on the bottom of Laurel's skirt and right then I knew it was gasoline. I guess Laurel didn't notice because the skirt was so puffy, layers and layers of fabric. I should've yelled STOP! right then, burst through the door, but I didn't. I just felt the back of my own skirt, the same style as Laurel's. And then Reilly took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it to the back of Laurel's skirt. It took a few seconds to catch, but suddenly there was fire. Reilly shouted my name, shouted it loud and gruff, like Marlon Brando shouting out "Stella!" in that movie of Streetcar we'd watched in Mr. Myers' class, and I opened the door wider. Laurel didn't move, didn't even know what was happening yet and the sky was pink and orange and yellow like drippy watercolors and the pink dress reflected the magenta of the sky and her pale face was lit up in warm tones and the setting sun wove highlights through her dark hair and Reilly yelled, "It is beautiful!" and I wanted to stand there forever, make the world exist only in that moment, stopped time, just cause but no effect. "It's not bullshit!" shouted Reilly and then Laurel screamed and swatted at the chiffon and spun in a circle and the dress billowed and the fire flared and her screams were drowned out by another plane and I couldn't look anymore and had to run for help. And once help finally came I stood there, my dress drenched in sweat, the bottom torn and tripped over, looking at Laurel and her blackened dress and her charred body -- third-degree burns, I'd later learn -- and Reilly wept and said, "God, that was so beautiful" as the police put handcuffs around his wrists and the sun set so quickly over everything that there was, within the space of minutes, nothing left to see.

"I like having a prompt," says Karin Lin-Greenberg of the challenge to write a story with a fire theme. But an earlier inspiration for "The Most Beautiful Thing" was a creative-writing class she took as a Bryn Mawr undergrad, in which other students were baffled by the concept of a beautiful explosion described in Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story." "It made sense to me but it absolutely didn't make sense to my class," says Lin-Greenberg, who's now starting her second year in the University of Pittsburgh's MFA writing program. The New Jersey native, 26, has previously had stories published in the journal Redivider and the online journal Slow Trains; another is forthcoming in Eclipse. Lin-Greenburg lives in Friendship.

Judge's comment
I look now at the notes I scribbled on the back of this story. Among them I find the following: "Something was ‘at stake.' The ‘why' of beauty."

This topic intrigues me and the story drew me in from paragraph two. But it wasn't just the "why" of beauty and it wasn't just the "what" of the chosen topic. I like the "how" of this story. I like being in this writer's mind, seeing through her eyes. I feel comfortable there. Things, people, comments, situations come and go. Nothing gets in the way. I'm carried along. (Kevin Forsythe)



Willful
By Anjali Sachdeva


There's a cigarette in the spine of an open book. The book is an old Reader's Digest condensed volume: Dangerous Liaisons, Rebecca, Murder on the Orient Express. The pages are browned and chipped at the edges. Someone has underlined the word "willful" on the left-hand page, and there is a smudged chocolate fingerprint on the right. The cigarette has a blotch of mauve lipstick at one end, and has been set down in haste. In the dim interior of the attic it slowly consumes itself. But don't worry about it right now. Push it to the back of your mind, like a grain of sand worrying the soft flesh of an oyster. The doorbell's chiming.

She greets him at the door out of breath, her cheeks flushed from running down three flights of stairs. Her name is Anna. She is 32 years old, with olive skin, rich brown eyes, and the beginnings of wrinkles on her forehead and at the corners of her mouth. A kerchief covers her curly black hair, to protect it from the attic dust, and she smiles in a puzzled way at the man in the doorframe, who is her husband, who has no need to ring the doorbell.

"Forget your keys, hon?" Anna asks.

Jack says, "We have a problem."

He takes her by the shoulder and guides her into the house, pushing her down into a chair a little harder than she likes. Anna looks up at him curiously, and he paces in front of her. He is a big man, broad-shouldered, muscular, heavy, but she has never been afraid of him before.

Finally he stops pacing and looks at her. He reaches out to touch her and then pulls his hand back again.

"It's Jessie."

Jessie is one of Jack's students at the university, a wiry redhead who can't be more than 20. She has been to their house for dinner three times, accompanied by some of her classmates, and always compliments Anna's cooking profusely.

"She says she's going to go to the dean and tell him we've been sleeping together," he continues. "I'm going to lose my goddamn job."

"But there must be some way to prove that she's lying."

Jack glares at her.

"Don't do this to me, Anna. You're not stupid. You can walk around here for months on end and refuse to acknowledge what's going on, and pretend you don't care, and be the perfect little ice queen when I come home at night, but you can't pretend you didn't know. She's not lying, that's the whole problem."

And that is how things end. The pieces of her life are blown apart and then sink as slowly and silently as a handful of pebbles flung into a lake. It's silent as she runs upstairs, yanks open her closet, and stuffs clothes into a duffle bag. It's silent when she comes across the bottle of Scotch at the bottom of her sweater drawer, hidden not because she's an alcoholic but because Jack is, though he's been sober for seven years now. She tries to kick the drawer shut, but it sticks, so she tucks the sweaters under her arm, slings her bag over one shoulder and runs back down the stairs. Jack's the one sitting in the chair now, with his head in his hands. For a moment she has a reflex impulse to kiss the exposed back of his neck, and then to bite it. Instead she walks out the door.

Anna doesn't realize it, but as she tears down the highway at 90 miles per hour she is cursing under her breath, words which would make her blush on a normal day. She searches the radio for something that will keep her adrenaline pounding. Outside there are low-hanging clouds and occasionally a fat drop of water spatters against her windshield. She drives west, weaving around other cars, clenching the steering wheel until her fingers start to twitch.

She only stops driving because she's almost out of gas. The songs on the radio have all turned tragic and tears have made her eyes pink and stinging. A sign indicates a motel ahead, but when she takes the exit she realizes that the place is still several miles away. Regardless, she loops down the country road, past fields of spent cornstalks and a chapel with a blue neon cross. Finally, she finds the place, a squat, yellow brick building in a dirt lot backed by a stand of oak trees.

At the front desk there is a bell to ring for service, but a teen-age girl, about 17 from the look of her, is already sitting behind the counter, bent over a comic book. When Anna comes in the girl does not look up, but feels in a drawer and extracts a piece of paper which she sets on the desk, along with a pen. Anna fills out the information sheet. She is relieved not to have to talk, although a regimented part of her twinges at the girl's rudeness.

When Anna hands the form back, the receptionist reluctantly looks up. The girl has watery blue eyes, a sharp nose, limp blonde hair and teeth that stick out just far enough to be noticeably unattractive. Streaks of vivid pink are spattered across her pale skin, as though she is allergic to her surroundings.

The desk is scattered with comic books; a small radio sits on one corner; there is a hand mirror, though for all that Anna can see the girl wears no makeup and doesn't care about her appearance; there are a few dollar bills wrapped around a pencil, and half a candy bar.

The girl swipes Anna's credit card, turns to a board behind her painted with gold numbers and selects a key. Anna notices that none of the other keys are missing.

"Am I the only one here?"

"Without me you would be," the girl says. "My aunt usually closes the place up after Labor Day. But my parents thought it would be good for me to get away from home for a bit. Or so they said," she adds, dryly. "I'm Crystal. If you want anything, just holler."

Crystal hands Anna the key, then pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and taps it against the palm of her hand a few times. Extracting one cigarette she lights it, takes a drag and then wedges it between the pages of her comic book as she reaches under the counter to grab an ashtray.

"Oh, no," says Anna, looking down at the cigarette in the book.

Crystal rolls her eyes.

"The rooms are all non-smoking, don't worry."

Anna says, "Shit," under her breath, and hesitates for a moment. She reaches for the phone on the desk.

"Long distance?" the girl asks in a perfunctory monotone, turning back to her reading.

Anna looks at the phone for a moment, hard, as though it is expected to answer the question for her. Crystal has a striped afghan wrapped around her for warmth, but Anna suddenly feels overheated in her thin T-shirt. It is the first time since she left her house that she has let herself think, and ironically all the scenes in her head are happy ones. She can see herself and Jack in their beach cottage, and watching television in bed on Sunday nights, and celebrating their 10th anniversary in San Francisco a few months earlier. But she holds on to these memories a second too long, and the color drains out of them. Suddenly, she has the sensation that her mouth and lungs are full of blood, and it's all she can do not to spit.

Anna has had a habit since childhood of crossing herself whenever she has a thought that she considers evil. At this point in her life it has become an ingrained superstition, and although she's discreet about it if she's in public, all her friends know that she does it, without fail. But this time she doesn't bother. She pictures Jack, and she pictures Jessie underneath him, and she doesn't pick up the phone.

"You need to make a call?" the girl asks.

"No," says Anna, bitterly. "I'm sure he's just fine." Crystal raises her eyebrows and smirks but doesn't look up. Anna walks quickly up to her room and crawls into bed without undressing. She refuses to let herself wonder how many nights Jack has spent in places like this, and eventually she falls asleep.

At 7 a.m. the next morning Anna sits on the bed for three minutes, which is exactly as long as she is able to stand the silence. Then she slips on her shoes and walks downstairs.

The front desk is deserted now, so she goes outside and follows a gravel path that leads around to the back of the building. The path continues through the rear parking lot, between the oak trees, and leads her to a weathered barn.

Light sifts in through the cracks between the boards, dissolving into the dusky interior. Anna steps inside. The place smells of moldering hay, and even this late in the year she can hear the buzzing of a few flies echoing against the high roof. She takes a bridle down from a hook in an empty stall, grasps the reins in both hands and stretches them, feeling the tautness in her forearms as the leather pulls tight. She jerks the reins again, and again, faster and harder, and the snap of the leather cracks cleanly across her eardrums. Then she hears a faint rustle from the other side of the barn. Looking up she finds Crystal in the hayloft, watching her.

"Need something?" asks Crystal.

"No, I was just taking a walk. Wanted to be by myself for a bit."

"Wouldn't that be nice?"

The girl pulls her head back and disappears. Anna hangs the bridle back up and is about to leave when she sees Crystal start to descend the ladder. Anna also sees what the gathered afghan and the desk hid the night before. Crystal moves heavily and slowly, weighed down by a round globe of a belly. Anna estimates that the girl is about seven months pregnant, but it's hard to tell. Crystal wears a man's flannel shirt, rolled several times at the cuffs, and grey sweatpants. Anna goes to the foot of the ladder and holds it steady. She gets only a disdainful look for her efforts as the girl sets her feet on the ground.

"You should be more careful," Anna tells her, but Crystal only shrugs.

"What's the worst that could happen?" she asks.

Crystal walks out of the barn, back towards the motel, leaving Anna with her sought-after solitude.

An hour later Anna comes into the lobby to find Crystal seated at the desk, bent over the hand mirror. The girl's left hand pinches one nostril shut while the right holds a tightly rolled dollar bill.

"What are you doing?" says Anna, alarmed.

"What's it look like?"

"You can't …" says Anna, gesturing towards the thin line of white powder on the mirror's surface. "You don't understand. The baby."

Crystal sits up straight for a moment and looks at her.

"I don't understand? Of course I understand. Just because you don't like what I'm doing doesn't mean I'm not doing it on purpose."

Anna watches as Crystal sniffs up her line. The girl wipes her nose and contemplates Anna through half-closed eyes.

"Don't look at me like that," Crystal says. "Let me tell you something about yourself. You've been pissed off since you got here. You're mad as hell at somebody, right? But I'm not here trying to tell you what to do about it."

"It's not the same thing at all."

"Sure," says the girl. "Sure it's not. Let's just all walk around wishing people dead and pretending we don't really mean it. That'll be much better."

Anna is shaking with anger as she fishes her room key out of her pocket and sets it on the counter.

"I'd like to leave now."

Crystal returns the key to its hook and sits back in her chair. She rests her hands on her protruding stomach, patting it lightly.

"You know what you want, you're just ashamed of it. But I'm not ashamed of myself," she says. "Not at all. I want you to know that."

As Anna pulls into her driveway she focuses her gaze, at first, on the frosted green of the tall grass that borders her flowerbeds. Then her eyes sidle around to the burgundy leaves of the Japanese maple by the mailbox. But after that there's nothing left to distract her, and she's forced to deal with that ringing in her head.

When Anna was 8 years old she had a pet rabbit named Bun. Grey and white with wispy angora fur, Bun had survived two years of being aggressively petted, chased around the house, and dressed up in baby-doll clothes. He lived in a cage on her back porch, and the cage closed with a spring latch that was tight and rusty and difficult to fasten. One fall day she had taken Bun out to play with him, and on returning him to the cage found it impossible to close the latch. She tried several times and then simply gave up. Later that day when she went to play with Bun his cage was empty, and she burst into tears and called her mother. They spent the next two days searching their yard and those of the neighbors for Bun, without any luck. When her mother wondered aloud how the cage door had come to be open, Anna said nothing. It was, in her memory, the only example she could find in her life of what psychologists would call an inability to understand consequences. She had known, logically, what should happen if the cage was left open. She simply hadn't believed that it would happen. She hadn't been careless, just defiant. And this time, she knew, she hadn't been careless either. She had been angry beyond words.

She knows that cigarette should have burned itself out, instead of smoldering for so many hours. That Jack could have overlooked the bottle of Scotch, or spent all night at the bar, and never have come back home and passed out on the couch. Or that the neighbors could have been up late, watching television, and smelled smoke. But they didn't; he didn't; it didn't.

And now there's a charred framework where her house used to be. There's a stench like burnt plastic. There's a police car in her driveway. Even Anna doesn't believe she knew how it would all happen. But as the officer approaches to ask her to identify her husband's body, as he fills in pieces of the story for her, she sees a series of what should have been impossible coincidences stringing together neatly like beads on a necklace. That's when she knows for sure that yes, she really did mean it. But she cries anyway.

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