The fire at 5 Curtis Place began above the stove. The arsonist, a man, stood in the kitchen, holding a box of matches. Warm street light shone through the paned window above the sink, casting a yellow glow on the cracked wall tiles and the worn, wooden floor.
The matchbox bore a cartoon of a girl with red hair. Her expression was cheerful. The man’s frown deepened. He had not smiled all night, nor most of the previous day.
He slid the matchbox open, then used a leather-gloved hand to strike the match against the side of the box which was coated in a mix of sand, powdered glass, and red phosphorus. Flame glowed to life, then abruptly fizzled out, leaving the tip of the match blackened. A wisp of smoke, invisible in the warm streetlight ambiance, wafted toward the ceiling and dispersed into the air.
The man took another match and struck it against the rough side of the box. The flame flickered to life and he tilted the match upside down, letting the stick catch.
After watching the match smoke and sputter, he dropped it onto a pile of tea towels on one of the stove’s burners. The koala towel on top, threadbare in some places from the years of use, was damp with accelerant. It caught, and the fire spread. The towel next to it lit immediately after and the faded motif of a singing magpie in a gum tree blackened. He watched as the animals burned, a mockery of the wildfires that often took over parts of the country.
* * *
Next door to the house where the arsonist watched the fire spread from one tea towel to the next, Jennifer Hudson lay on the top bunk of her two-story bed. Her white sheets tangled around her legs. She wore her favorite blue unicorn pajamas.
It was too hot to sleep. Summer in Western Australia had started early and though she was a third-generation Aussie who had suffered 17 long summers, she was miserable.
Jen’s best friend, Claire, slept on the bottom bunk. She wore a matching set of unicorn pajamas, hers pink. Claire snored once and Jen opened her eyes, then sat up, bed-tangled hair hanging around her sweaty forehead.
“Claire?” Jen said.
There was no reply.
Jen lay down, rolled over once, then twice, before settling for a position on her back. She closed her eyes, opened them again, then sat up once more. She rolled the cuffs of her PJ pants up to her knees, then rolled her shirt up above her navel, letting her skin breathe.
She lay down again, closed her eyes, and listened for the rhythmic beeping. During the summer, the elderly couple next door left their bedroom window open. The old man’s heart monitor always beeped through the night. Jen had made a habit, on restless nights, of counting the beeps until she drifted away. It was easier than trying to imagine sheep.
Jen listened for a moment, but there was no beep. She looked at the window, making sure it was open. The sheer curtain wavered back and forth, pushed by the light summer breeze.
She’d have to do without the counting.
Jen rolled over again and tried to sleep.
* * *
When the stack of tea towels had fully caught, the flame rose half a meter. The man stepped back, trying to get away from the heat.
The flame reached out with red tendrils and greedily passed over the accelerant on the counter. The paper towel holder next to the stove lit, catching seemingly all at once and forming a tube of light. Next to the paper towels, a white, plastic container of kitchen utensils blackened and drooped. The fire grew, and the wooden implements inside caught. A spoon, sticking high above the rest of the utensils, glowed with creeping fire.
Smoke, a deadly mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, and ash, filled the air. The man coughed and muffled it with his gloved hand. He looked over his shoulder. The smoke detector, which had for years lived above the stove, lay lifeless on the kitchen table. He watched the smoke detector, convinced it would jump to life and blare a piercing warning.
The dismembered pieces of plastic stayed silent.
He looked at the fire one final time, then departed. He exited through the back door on the other side of the kitchen, then climbed over the back fence and disappeared. He had practiced this twice before.
The fire continued, uncaring about the loss of its audience. The temperature reached 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and the layer of smoke thickened.
* * *
Eric Jefferies was never the first to notice anything.
That night, as the fire crossed from the tea towel pile to the paper towels, Eric sat on the edge of his bed in the dark, staring out the window while his wife slept.
Eric seldom noticed when anything changed. Most of the time, he was caught in his own world, thinking about the upcoming footy match he’d bet on, or wondering when the parts he’d ordered for his out-of-order yellow project car, this one was a yellow 1984 Camero, would show up. International shipping sure was a bitch.
Eric watched the street, thinking about what to do next. He was, according to his neighbor in the much nicer house next door, the last person in the neighborhood to notice his wife of ten years had been cheating. The statement had burned its way down from his ears into his chest. It was bad enough that she was cheating, but worse still, to hear it from the asshole next door. Eric had brushed it off as teasing. They did tease, often, about who had recently purchased the nicest barbeque setup or fixer-upper car. It was friendly on the surface, but there was always a malevolence at its heart that bit and stung. At first, Eric classified the comment about Susan as a mean-spirited joke, but, the more he’d thought about it over the last couple of days, the more he’d realized it had been the truth.
Susan, his wife of teen years, had been cheating. But, with whom? That, he had no idea, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. It bothered him that she’d been unfaithful, but it bothered him, even more, when he realized he didn’t care very much. They shared a quiet, suburban life, almost entirely separate from each other with their own hobbies, friends, and careers. It was peaceful, in its own way. He preferred to keep to himself.
Still, being the last to find out stung his pride.
A car passed the end of the street, drawing Eric’s attention to the road. Across the street, a light was on in the kitchen, but something wasn’t quite right. He stared, mind clouded and heavy with choices, struggling to make concepts connect where they should.
All at once, the sight before him sunk in and for once in his life, Erick Jeffires was the first to notice something.
His neighbor’s kitchen was on fire.
* * *
On the counter, a cardboard box of cereal caught fire all at once. A loaf of bread in a paper package was next, and the thin plastic netting on the package melted while the bread toasted, blackened, and then burned.
Above the highest point of the flames in the cup of kitchen utensils, the underside of the wooden cabinet darkened. Smoke crept up inside the cupboard doors, and the flower-patterned tableware inside dimmed with soot. The protective layer on the cupboard door peeled back, revealing raw wood inside, and that too began to burn. Fire made its way over the cabinet surface. Nearby, onions hung in a metal basket. The papery onion skin lit instantly, then shriveled. For a brief moment, the onions were perfectly charred on the outside, but the moment passed and they burned. The potent smell of cooked onion joined the toxic perfume of gasses.
The lace curtains behind the sink ignited, allowing the blaze to pass over to the other side of the counter which held an assortment of cookbooks. They were alphabetized and had brightly-painted kookaburra bookends.
The smoke layer on the ceiling thickened and lowered as the flames grew. Had a person been inside the room, their airways would have been scorched with the combination of heat, and fumes.
After spreading down the cabinets to the floor, the linoleum curled and the fire passed. In the center of the room, a wooden dining table and chairs lit almost all at once. The disassembled smoke detector which had gone off many a time when a pot boiled over and always been regarded as a nuisance, lay on the table. The single battery which had been removed caught fire and burst with a loud pop.
The smoke layer lowered. Smoke crept out into the living room, then into the bathroom, and downstairs guest room. Then, finally, the smoke found its way up the stairs to the second level of the house.
Forgotten, the only other smoke detector in the house lay in wait, ready to do its job
* * *
Parker Glensen slept fitfully on his new mattress. He and his family had only started moving into the house on Curtis Place that day. Their newly purchased house. Their newly purchased Australian home, in real life Australia. Parker and his family were Americans from California, and he had always dreamt of moving to Australia. Finally, when a position opened in Fremantle at the shipping communication company he worked for, he got his chance.
His wife had argued and his children had cried, but he was the man of the house, the sole breadwinner. It was his career to manage and his choice to make. The family uprooted, they had moved. They had crossed an ocean, to a new land.
Parker had gone to sleep a few hours earlier after a day of unpacking the shipping containers that held an entire home’s worth of items. He had gone to sleep with a smile on his face, next to a wife that had slowly accepted, and come to approve his choice to uproot their family.
He had gone to sleep with a grin, but now woke in terror, to the sound of a smoke alarm. Parker sat up at the same time his wife did, both roused by the loud blaring beep.
“Is that here?” Gloria Glensen, new Australian resident, asked.
Parker listened for a moment. Relief came over him all at once as he realized the sound was not coming from inside their newly purchased home. “It’s next door,” he said.
Together, the couple got out of bed and went to the window. The street was dark except for the single, yellow street light that reflected on the cars and in the sheen of windows.
Gloria turned to her husband. “I don’t see anything.”
Parker lifted the window. Faintly, the smell of smoke was there, lingering, and it wafted in between the curtains.
“Do you think we should call?” Parker said.
“Let’s wait a moment, it might be a false alarm, someone cooking.”
“This late at night?” Parker checked his watch. He clicked the little nubbin of a button on the side of the watch his children had bought him for father’s day six years ago and the LED glowed, showing the analog dial. It was 3:37 AM. “It’s three-thirty. I don’t think anyone’s cooking.”
The couple stared out the window, smelling the smoke and frowning.
“Maybe it’s normal,” Gloria said.
“Maybe.” Perhaps this always happens. It being their first night in the neighborhood, they wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t be good to cry wolf and call the fire trucks blaring into the neighborhood on their first night there, overreacting to a false alarm.
“I don’t know the number, anyway,” Gloria said.
Parker realized with a start that he didn’t know the emergency number, either. He knew it wasn’t 911, that was strictly American, but he couldn’t remember what the Australian one was.
The couple looked at each other in the streetlight’s warmth.
“I guess we’ll wait and see, someone else will call, if it doesn’t turn off soon,” Parker said, hoping it wasn’t a real emergency, and hoping it would shut off soon so they could go back to bed. It would be another few days of unpacking, and they had to pay for the extra days they kept the shipping container that currently lay on the front lawn, no doubt killing the patchy grass.
They looked out the window, waiting for the alarm to stop.
* * *
Upstairs, the smoke reached the fire detector. Downstairs, fire passed from the countertops to the refrigerator. Plastic magnets began to melt, and drip. As the temperature rose, they lost their magnetism. A magnet with HEAPS GOOD written across the shape of the state of Victoria melted and distorted, then dropped from the fridge. The remaining magnets fell to the floor, soft plinks and plonks of melted plastic inaudible above the upstairs fire detector. A crayon drawing, released from the grip of the magnet, fluttered toward the fire, rose again with the upward flowing heat that caused a slight wind, and finally settled into the flames some feet away, turning to ash almost instantly. The recycling bin instruction manual, heavier with thick paper, dropped straight to the floor and avoided the blaze for a few moments longer.
The temperature at the source of the fire climbed above 400 degrees Fahrenheit. With nearly the entire kitchen ablaze, the fire began to make its way into the living room, following the path of the smoke. The armchairs and settee went up first. Made of synthetic materials, the furniture burst into flames almost all at once with large rushes of heat. The foam inside the couch melted and dribbled down through the metal springs to the floor in a pouring of toxic, stinking chemicals.
The temperature at the source reached over 500 degrees. Soon, the flashover would occur.
* * *
Eldred Johansson sat up in bed when she heard the smoke alarm down the street. Her old heart raced, and she looked around for signs of smoke. Wakefulness came to her, and she realized the sound was coming from outside. With surprising agility for a woman of her age, she moved off her mattress, waterproof cover giving a slight rustle, and moved on wrinkled feet to the window.
Aside from the single streetlight and a light in the living room of number Five Curtis Place, the street was dark.
Eldred felt around on her nightstand for her coke-bottle glasses and slid them onto her face, above her pointed nose. The street was still dark, but now, she could see better. She followed the sound of the alarm to the house it seemed to come from. The light in the window of number five wasn’t quite right. It flickered a little, and was very warm in tone, making it seem like the alarm wasn’t a false one.
On her nightstand, glowing with a gentle blue, sat Eldred’s cell phone. Given to her by her daughter some years ago, it had spent most of its life in the charging cradle by her bedside. Now, Eldred grabbed for it, and flipped it open. The screen glowed abusingly bright, and she squinted while trying to focus on the LED lit numbers on the keypad. She dialed 000, the emergency line, then clicked the speaker button. After a brief wait, the dispatcher answered, and Eldred told the woman on the other end of the line what she’d seen, and heard.
* * *
The temperature at the source of the fire neared 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Full of toxic chemicals, the smoke at the top of the ceiling itself burned. Flames moved along the ceiling, and into the living room, inside of which, nearly every surface glowed with fire.
The flames followed the smoke though the HVAC vents. Upstairs, the bedroom, empty of occupants, saw flames come through the vent in the floor. A nearby carpet, green, shaggy, reminiscent of lush grass, lit. The synthetic fibers melted as they burned, and let off a toxic gas which was also highly flammable.
On the ceiling, the smoke detector still wailed its warning cry. On average, in the case of a serious fire, a report is made to the emergency services within the first two minutes. On this night as the neighborhood slept, it took longer for anyone to notice. As the arsonist had planned, this would ensure the success of the fire. It took over three minutes for the first call to be made and at this point in time, it had summoned 3 separate calls to the emergency services.
The fire service would arrive too late.
As the temperature grew in the kitchen and exceeded 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, the flashover hit. Every combustible surface in the room that had managed to avoid catching so far, lit simultaneously. The flashover resulted in a great explosion of air and gasses. The force of the explosion blew the kitchen window out, sending shattered glass into the carefully maintained rose bushes along the edge of the house. Anyone in the neighborhood who had remained unsure if the alarm was false, discovered at once that it was not. Smoke rushed out of the newly opened window, leading a trail of flames that rose into the air and began to climb the siding on the exterior of the house. The nearby roses, full of glass shards, dropped petals as the flowers died from the heat. Years of careful detail that had gone into the fragrant bushes was sent to ash as the entire bush soon caught fire.
Those that remained asleep through the sound of the fire alarm were promptly awakened by the fire engine and ambulance as they arrived on Curtis Place. By then, the fire had crept up the side of the house and spread through the bushes on that side.
Eric Jefferies was the first neighbor on the scene, shirtless, in his boxers, and wide eyed. He stood in his prickly, dry grass, and watched as the firemen jumped out of their truck and began unraveling the hose, then connected it to a fire hydrant. He had not bothered to wake his sleeping wife. Deep in an Ambien doze, she wouldn’t awake until most of the commotion had ended.
Inside the burning house, the fire alarm cut off as the burning smoke on the ceiling of the upstairs bedroom melted the circuits inside. There was, however, plenty of noise. The firemen shouted commands between each other as they moved to action, and the fire itself made a great rushing sound as it crackled through the bushes and dropped deformed pieces of artificial wood siding from the house.
Parker and Gloria, having watched the fire trucks arrive from the window that they’d stayed at, joined the scene, also in their pajamas. They stood at the edge of their new yard, next to the shipping container that held an entire life’s worth of items. Neither of them noticed when both of their children, teen twins, the boy shirtless and the girl in a flower-patterned robe, stepped out of the house and stood in the doorway behind them.
More and more neighbors exited their homes. Most stood at the borders of their own yard. Chad, Eric’s asshole neighbor, was the first to approach the scene and he was warned back by a fireman standing guard, keeping a parameter. Seeing him get closer, the other other neighbors followed. Soon, there was a semicircle of border around the sides of the firetruck as more people got closer and tested the edge of the allowed space. Additional neighbors walked up the bottom of the street, having come from the next streets over on each side at the sound of the fire trucks.
The firemen worked from inside and out, spraying with their hoses. Several had ventured inside to make sure no one was present, though they couldn’t make it far into the livingroom before all open space turned into inferno. Another truck arrived, and began spraying the house on the side where the exterior and bushes burned, in an attempt to prevent the next house from catching. That house was number 7 Curtis Place, home of Jennifer, her family, and her visiting best friend Claire. The five of them had been evacuated immediately by the firemen and they stood at what was considered a safe distance, watching their home get sprayed with fire retardant foam.
The youngest child of the Hudson family, Timothy, shouted and jumped as he watched the firemen work. “It’s gonna burn!” the 10 year old shouted.
Timothy’s mother stood with her hand over her mouth, unable to speak. Timothy’s father, however, smacked him on the back of the head, quieting him at once. But, the slap only silenced and couldn’t stop him. The boy jumped, fists in the air.
Jennifer and Claire, in their matching unicorn pajamas, one in blue and one in pink, held hands.
“Look,” Clair said, pointing away from the fire, up the street. “It’s the new family.”
Jen looked in the direction Claire had motioned and saw the couple standing at the edge of the yard. It was the same house Claire had moved out of the previous day. Since then, they’d been hiding in Jen’s room, lamenting their ending rule of the neighborhood together. They’d been friends since early childhood when they’d met in the cul de sac, each riding their small tricycles in circles at the end of the street. The new family had moved in during the day, but Jen and Claire had been too wrapped up in their sorrows to watch.
Standing behind the couple was a boy and a girl who seemed to be a similar age to Jen and Claire. Jen squinted in their direction, trying to make out the new faces. As she watched, the two teens came up to stand beside their parents. The boy had tousled bed hair that looked fresh out of a teen magazine, as if it was carefully done by a stylist with an array of products instead of the product of a restless first night in a new house. It was the girl, however, that caught Jen’s attention. Her eyes lingered on the girl in her floral, silky robe. She had long, dark hair, color undistinguishable in the low light, and a pretty face.
“Move over, folks,” a fireman said, approaching Jen and her family, warning them back. Attention broken, Jen followed the orders to move to a safer distance.
Jen’s mother, Alice, looked at her husband. “Do you think it’ll burn?”
The man, Christopher, shook his head. “The men will take care of it,” he nodded toward the working firemen, still spraying the house with foam.
Jen hoped her father was right. The previous days had already been the worst of her life. She didn’t need to lose her home in the mix.
The gathered crowd was now made of approximately thirty neighbors, all in various states of undress. Flame slowly overtook the entire structure. Another fire engine arrived, and set about spraying down the house on the other side with fire retardant foam as well in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the neighborhood. On that front, the firemen were successful. However, the elderly couple’s home was done for, even the sleepiest neighbor could tell. And tell, they did. Chatter bubbled among the crowd of gathered people, unabashed at the late hour. The single streetlight paled in comparison to the raging housefire and each person could see the faces of those nearby clearly.
The event was horrifying, but in a way, fascinating. Had it been happening to their home, it would only be horrifying. Thankfully, it was not their home, and so they could watch with excitement as they discussed. Had the elderly couple been seen out of the house? Or, were they trapped inside?
The roof of the structure groaned, drawing the conversations to silence with a snap. The roof above the bathroom caved in, crashing to the floor and taking most of the structure with it. A great rush of heat and sparks flared out toward the crowd and they scattered back, even though they were at more than an appropriate distance, as maintained by the firemen.
When the sparks calmed and the structure regained burning at a predictable pace, the crowd moved forward again, testing the lines of the firemen. More often, Jen found herself looking over toward the new family and more accurately, the new girl. She had soft, gentle features, but there was something about the way the new girl’s eyes glowed in the firelight that spelled a mischievous excitement.
The news van pulled up when there wasn’t much of the structure left to burn. The crew got out, hoisting large cameras and boom mics.
“It’s channel Seven!” the crowd murmured among each other.
The reporter, a tall, slender woman in a tight fitting skirt and blazer began to speak as the one camera followed her. Another camera, bulking and carried on the shoulder of a short woman with a short cropped haircut, looked toward the fire, getting B roll of the remaining flames. Unfortunately for the crew, they had missed the most exciting part of the event. Now, the flames were dying down and fading out.
The crowd’s attention which had been placed in the hands of the fire moved to the grasp of the reporter as she picked people out and interviewed them. Many stood in the background of the interviews, staring blankly at the camera, unsure if they should move out of frame or enjoy their moment on television, even though it was in their pajamas.
When the news crew had driven away and the flame was reduced mostly to embers, the crowd began to break up. Grouped in families, parents ushered their sleepy-eyed children home to bed. The entire house had been destroyed in less than two hours. Most of what remained was metal structural support beams, and even those looked to be in rough shape.
Jen’s family was one of the last to leave, their house was still, according to the firemen, in danger. When the all clear was given and the burned house was mostly out, the firemen gave their approval for the family to go inside. Alice pulled at her husband’s arm, beckoning him to come back to bed, but the man only looked at his son who was sitting on the grass at his feet, head propped up on his hands.
“Let the kid stay, he’s enjoying himself,” Christopher said. “I’ll watch him.”
Alice looked at her son who looked mid-doze. She checked her watch. It was almost five in the morning. “We all need to get to bed.”
Timothy perked up at his mother’s words. “I want to watch the firemen, mum,” he said. The firemen still worked with hoses, attempting to put out the last of the sparks.
“You have work tomorrow, Chris.”
“We’ll stay,” Claire said with a look over at Jen. “We can watch him.′
Alice looked at the two teen girls, then at her son on the grass.
“The firemen will keep us back,” Jen added.
Alice relented and took her husband back inside, leaving Jen, Claire, and Timothy in the yard. All three of them took turns yawning, but the proceedings were too interesting to ignore. Firemen moved through the rubble, throwing things aside and spraying with their hoses. It was certainly a once in a lifetime sight.
The rarity of the event, however, did not stop the three of them from dozing off in the prickly, sun-dried grass.
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