Albany, New York
The boy wakes to smoke and fire.
The thick black smoke chokes his ten-year-old lungs as if he were swallowing dirt. It makes his eyes water and sting. Makes the darkness that fills his small second-floor corner bedroom even darker.
Then there’s the heat.
A heat like he’s never felt before. But that’s not right. He’s felt this kind of heat on other occasions, under far different circumstances. When his father, after a long day’s work, would build fires in the fireplace he built himself out of field stone in the downstairs living room. Sometimes, after coming in from playing out in the cold and the snow, the boy would warm himself by the fire. He would sit on the stone ledge only inches away from the dry wood-fed flames until he could feel the heat seeping through layers of thick clothing. If he sat there for too long, the heat would penetrate the layers and burn his skin until it stung. The fire brought him pain then, but it was a good pain.
That’s the kind of heat he’s feeling now. Only thing is, the pain that comes with it is not good.
Some of the heat is making its way through the wall that separates his bedroom from his parents’ master bedroom. More heat is blowing in from the hallway, where the fire burns and creeps. When he looks over his shoulder, he can make out the flashes of firelight that break through the thick darkness out in the hall. The fire gives the hall a strange, flickering glow. Like candlelight dancing against the walls, only bigger, hotter, deadlier. His heart pounds and his smoke-filled lungs ache. He coughs and chokes. He’s just a boy, but he knows that this should not be happening in the upstairs of his home in the night.
Then comes a scream.
The scream is louder than the fire and pierces his flesh and bone like a sharp knife. The scream belongs to his mother. She keeps screaming.
Her screams are high-pitched and filled with suffering, like she’s trapped in hell. He knows she’s in pain. He closes his eyes, tries to convince himself that what’s happening is a nightmare, and that if he closes his eyes tight he’ll go back to sleep. If he closes his eyes now, he’ll wake up to sunshine leaking in through his windows in the morning and everything will be okay. His mother won’t be screaming anymore. She’ll be downstairs in the kitchen wrapped in her old blue terry-cloth robe, making pancakes while the first cigarette of the day dangles from her lips. His two older brothers will be dressed and fighting over who gets to drive the pickup truck to high school that day. His father will already be off to work.
His mother’s screams strike a new, fiercer pitch, jarring his eyes back open.
This scream is followed by a kind of guttural moan, and then, nothing. The boy lies on his back, his eyes wide open, feeling the wetness from the tears flowing down his smooth cheeks. Even in all his despair he’s a little surprised because the tears dry up as fast as they pour out of his eyes. The heat has become that intense, the flames that close.
Suddenly the figure of a man appears in his doorway. It’s the boy’s father.
“We have to get the hell out of here, Reece!” his father shouts in between lung-choking coughs.
“Dad,” Reece cries above the roar of a flame that is eating away the walls, “are we going to die?”
His father enters into the bedroom, wraps his red, white, and blue Superman comforter tightly around him, and lifts his youngest son from the bed. He then cradles Reece in his big arms, presses the boy’s face into his chest to protect him from the fire that is sure to come.
“Listen to me, Reece,” his father says. “We have to make a run through the fire. You are not to inhale a breath. You understand? When I tell you to, I want you to close your mouth and your eyes and don’t breathe. You got it? Do not take a breath.”
Reece tries to say something while his face is stuffed against his dad’s chest, yet it’s impossible for him to utter a single word. But then, what difference does it make? He’s far too afraid to speak anyway.
Turning for the door, his father grips him so tightly, Reece feels like his bones might break. “Ready?” his father shouts above the roar of the flame. “Close your eyes and your mouth. Do it now.”
Reece does it. At the same time, he feels himself being propelled out the open bedroom door, then down a hallway that is hellishly hot and deafeningly loud. He feels as if he’s been tossed into a furnace, the iron door slammed shut behind him. He hears his father do something he’s never heard him do before. His father screams. The voice is piercing and filled with pain, just like his mother’s voice sounded only a split second before her shrieks suddenly stopped.
Then he feels himself descending the stairs. Still clutched in his father’s arms, he’s falling fast, until he feels his father’s feet land square and flat onto the stone vestibule floor. The front door is wrenched open and slammed against the interior brick wall, the big opaque glass panel embedded inside it shattering into a million pieces, and just like that, a wave of cool air slaps his exposed head along with the small portion of his face that’s no longer stuffed into his father’s chest.
His father runs out onto the lawn with Reece now bouncing in his arms, until he drops the boy onto the damp lawn and begins roughly rolling him back and forth, as if they are playing a summertime game of roll-down-the-hill-on-your-side. But this is not a game. It doesn’t take long for Reece to realize his comforter is on fire and if it should burn through the fabric, it will scorch his skin.
All it takes for the fire to go out is a couple of rolls on the dew-soaked lawn.
“Breathe now, boy,” his father says from down on his knees, his voice having gone from panicked and loud, to an exasperated whisper. “Breathe.”
Reece opens his eyes and inhales a mouthful of sweet night air. But the sweetness lasts only as long as it takes his eyes to focus on a house that is entirely engulfed in red-orange flame. Emerging from out of the darkness now is a team of firemen who carry hoses and axes. Their faces are covered by translucent oxygen masks, their thick shoulders bearing the weight of heavy oxygen tanks. There’s a squad of fire trucks, police cruisers, and EMS vans parked up on the lawn, their rooftop flashers beaming red, white, and blue light throughout the neighborhood. A never-still light that reflects off the vinyl siding of the cookie-cutter ranches and colonials.
“What about Mom?” Reece cries out while sitting up, touching a painful place on his head where his hair caught fire. “What about Tommy? And Patrick?”
He locks his eyes onto his father and is shocked to see what’s become of him. The dark hair on the man’s head is partially burned away, and his right ear and cheek are blackened and blistered like a hamburger patty that’s been left out on the grill for far too long. A long blister has formed on his right arm where the sleeve of his pajamas has burned off. The blister runs the length of the arm. It makes the boy’s back teeth hurt just to look at it.
“They’re gone, Reece,” his father says, as he begins to sob.
“What do you mean, Dad? How are they gone?”
“I couldn’t get to them in time. It was just too hot. Your mother . . .… I warned her about smoking in bed. I told her what would happen.”
“Did Mom start the fire? Did she burn my brothers?”
“She didn’t mean to start it, Reece,” he cries. “But now she’s killed them all.”
Reece watches his father cry. Watches the man bury his face in his burned hands as the ashes from the fire rise up into the night and disappear into an eternal darkness. His eyes might be glued to his father, but in his head he sees his mother and his brothers burning in their beds. He sees their skin on fire, burning, sizzling, charring.
Reece listens to his father’s sobs and it makes his heart burn with a sadness so profound, he feels as if his body will melt into the earth. The destruction is all around him. It has become a part of him now and of who he will become tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that.
He is haunted by fire.
Vincent Zandri is the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than 16 novels including THE INNOCENT, GODCHILD, THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT RISES, and the forthcoming, EVERYTHING BURNS. He is also the author of numerous Amazon bestselling digital shorts, PATHOLOGICAL, TRUE STORIES and MOONLIGHT MAFIA among them. Harlan Coben has described THE INNOCENT (formerly As Catch Can) as “…gritty, fast-paced, lyrical and haunting,” while the New York Post called it “Sensational… Masterful… Brilliant!” Zandri’s list of domestic publishers include Delacorte, Dell, Down & Out Books, and Thomas & Mercer, while his foreign publisher is Meme Publishers of Milan and Paris. An MFA in Writing graduate of Vermont College, Zandri’s work is translated in the Dutch, Russian, French, Italian, and Japanese. Recently, Zandri was the subject of a major feature by the New York Times. He has also made appearances on Bloomberg TV and FOX news. In December 2014, Suspense Magazine named Zandri’s, THE SHROUD KEY, as one of the Best Books of 2014. A freelance photo-journalist and the author of the popular “lit blog,” The Vincent Zandri Vox, Zandri has written for Living Ready Magazine, RT, New York Newsday, Hudson Valley Magazine, The Times Union (Albany), Game & Fish Magazine, and many more. He is a resident of both New York and Florence, Italy.
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