A fire must be lit.
I awoke with a shudder to a sound that I can only describe as sawing wood. And as my eyes adjusted to the glow effusing through the portiere, I was relieved at the realization that it had all been a dream. I was safe at home; in bed – worrying about nothing more than the unrelenting din of life from down upon Herald Circle. I smiled with childlike mirth on the occasion. Summer had finally arrived. I stepped onto the cold oak floor to retrieve a match from the mantle. T’was still early and a fire must be lit. With loving posture, I kissed my mother’s picture and opened the flue. A curtain of dust-filled sunlight caressed the wood floor and I halted. Something was amiss. Perhaps my mind was having its way with me, or maybe this was a residue leftover from the previous nights horrible dream, but I had always known sunlight to be golden yellow. Yet the glow of light radiating through my bedroom window was a fiery burnt orange.
The clock on the mantle read 7:32 AM. I quickly ran to my night table to reference my wristwatch. The time was accurate. I stood staunch before the window with my hand upon the draperies. My body went cold as I pulled the curtain apart and spied the scene below. The world as I knew it; or as I had once come to know it, was gone. In it’s place was an inferno. A blazing mass of fire. The library on the corner of Wilshire and Primrose was engulfed in flames as large as the building itself. The market where I was to purchase my rice for this evening’s supper was all but gone; a pile of red and white embers infused with soot black as night.
I quickly thought of the helpless people that might have been caught in this hell on earth but noticed almost instantly that there was an odd lack of movement. Where was everyone? Where were the sirens, the emergency crews? Why was there no effort being put forth do stop the blaze? The only vehicles in view were those left abandoned on the street – gutted by fire. Walter, get a grip on yourself.
I spun on my heels to face my bedroom door. The voice had come from that direction. The room had gone cold and turned a dark grey like the color of a winter evening. The room itself felt smaller and the fire that I had only recently lit had gone out with out even a memory. My heart began to palpitate and I reached for the glass of water sitting innocently unaware on my night table. The voice that I had heard was the same. The same from my dream. My nightmare. I placed the glass onto the sill and turned back to the horror below. What will become of me now? I thought. All that I know is gone.
I wiped my mouth with the sleeve of my nightshirt and regained my composure. Absurd. My rationale had returned in earnest and I moved with haste to my wardrobe. I must go down and help whoever I can. I dressed for the occasion, as I always do: jeans and my new white Provatchi t-shirt. One must look dashing even during the worst of situations. While lacing my boots I stole one last glance out my window. There, in the middle of the westbound side of Sweetwater was a child. And if my eyes did not deceive me, it was a girl. I was guessing of course but she appeared to me to be no older than 7 or 8. I put the laces in God’s hands and ran down the stairs and burst though the front door and out into the heat of purgatory.
Down on the street my boots fell upon an endless beach of broken glass and debris. The smell of rot covered my once beautiful city, and at once I turned round to see my own building engulfed in flame; the windows broken, shutters turned to ash. The very front door that I had just exited was in black pieces upon the steps themselves. But I had no time to ponder. I turned east down Herald Circle and quickly turned left onto Sweetwater. The girl was there, just as I had seen her from my bedroom window and I was forced to look back upon my apartment that was no longer standing. Her dress was blue like the sky once was. There was a ribbon of white silk holding ruby red curls in place. White stockings were worn underneath shoes of shinny black. She had her back turned to me as I approached.
“Walter.” She said – her back still turned.
I came closer and asked her if she was alright and where her parents might be. I would be more than happy to help her to find them.
“Walter.” The sound was that of a whisper yet vociferous in my ears.
The flames from the surrounding neighborhood threw intense heat on my face as I circled her. I stood, yes, but my legs felt as if they were no longer holding me erect. I must say now that it is quite arduous and painful to describe what I saw once I faced her. Her hair, once bouncy with curls was dirty with soot and matted to her face, Her dress was burned and fell in rags off her shoulders. The skin of her limbs was blistered and broken; puss oozed from open wounds. Her face was a mask of death. Charred pieces of flesh hung off of her face like torn meat. There was a gash that ran from her chin down to the top of her neck; open and black with dried blood. Her nose was flat as if she had fallen directly on it. The eyes – no, I cannot speak of her eyes for she had none. In their place were two black marbles – lidless – that dripped down her burnt cheeks as if they were melting from the intense heat. When she opened her mouth, her teeth appeared to match the color of the surrounding devastation. Her breath was that of rotten flesh.
She raised her arms and it was then that I saw that in her hands she held a box. I gasped at the sight of that box. Yes, the same box from my dream of the night before. The same glossy red finish. The same boar’s head clasp, with hinges made of brass. She held it aloft towards me – urging me without words to take it from her. I resisted.
“Walter.” My name, issued from her, but not her mouth set my skin to chill.
Without warning or fanfare, the box opened of it’s own purpose. I had expected to see the same thick crimson blood that was my own, but I was momentarily relieved when the box appeared to hold nothing at all. The girl held the box higher, willing me to relieve her of it. Reluctantly I did. And upon doing so, the girl changed. Gone were the charred pieces of hanging flesh. Black, lifeless eyes were replaced by eyes as green as a meadow. Her hair was a dark red; bordering on mahogany. And when she smiled, the sun reflected off of her pretty face. She had changed, but she was no longer the little girl that I had seen; that I had spoke to, and taken the box from. As if some sort of magic or trickery was taking place, the girl was now a beautiful young woman; easily the age of 35. She was tall and slim, but not too slim. Athletic yes, that’s more like it.
I had forgotten about the cursed box I was holding and continued to stare at her. The holocaust that had taken over the city was now gone. The colors of summer had returned and all around me was life. The sound of children rang throughout the streets and shop owners turned their welcome signs to “open”. Cars and busses drove passed me as I stood still, in the middle of Sweetwater Drive as she lifter her hand to touch my face.
“Do I know you?’ I asked. She didn’t speak. A nod of her head and a smile was her answer. “How do I know you?” Again, she did not answer, or refused to answer, I’m not sure of which. She held my face and my gaze and smiled a smile of the heart. The smile of an innocent child on a snowy Christmas morning.
I noticed a silver bracelet on her wrist as she touched my face. It was small and inexpensive but with inscription: “To my darling Beatrice” and knew right there who she was.
“What are you doing here?”
“Mom?” It was the only word that I could say. Again she nodded her head – unable to speak. “What are you doing here?” She pointed at the box that I held and stepped back to leave. I wanted to ask her how she was: what was it like there? I wanted to know why she had to die. I wanted to tell her about all the nights that I lay awake dreaming of all the times she sang to me; that it made me feel safe and protected. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and miss her so very much. But most of all I wanted to say thank you: Thank you Mom. Thank you for my life. I wanted all these things but she just kept pointing at the box as she faded into a soft blue mist.
If I seemed at the time to be somewhat apprehensive, It may have been because I was standing in the middle of the busiest street in the city, holding a box that once held my blood; given to me by my Mother who had been long dead. Once on the sidewalk and out of harms way I looked again at the life around me. I felt my cheek and could still smell my mother’s hand upon me. I breathed a well earned sigh of relief. And it was then that I saw the box. I had placed it down on the concrete after reaching the side of the road. I could see the window of my apartment from where I stood and I felt comforted that I was okay, and that I was going to be okay, and that the world was okay. So I lifted the box. It had closed after the dead girl had given it to me. I quick glimpse of fire in my mind held me fast and within a second, it was gone.
I carefully lifted the clasp and opened the box. The hinges once again protesting. To my surprise, the box was not empty. Though it did not hold the gore that was in my dream, I still remained on guard. Inside the box; resting on soft, red velvet, was a folded piece of torn notebook paper, like a note passed in English class to the girl you want to take to the dance. I retrieved the note and placed the box carefully on the grass. With this, the air around become like ice. The colors of my long awaited summer were gone, replaced by grey and black. There was a hideous growl from behind me and the ground shook under my feet. cold breath expelled visibly into vapor from my mouth as I unfolded the paper to read one word written in still wet red ink.