Nine Weeks of Strange, Week 9: “Raging Love, for wherever you are”

This is the story of Mia, a pyromaniac with a cop boyfriend. If you love stories about fire, overindulgence, crime, money, and psychotic exes, this is the tale for you.

Excerpt from “Raging Love, for wherever you are”, from Women in Strange Places: Stories. (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009

Stephen was the only person that made me worry about my future and my own sanity when I wasn’t around him. And I didn’t like it. It was a feeling that snuck up behind me slow, mammoth, like a shark coming up behind a small fish as it bared its teeth.

Like that shark, Stephen was the moving inevitable. I’d never fallen in love before. Sometimes when he wasn’t around I hoped I would never fall in love again. I couldn’t imagine shedding that madness and then putting it on for someone else. I couldn’t imagine belonging to anyone else.

I hated it when he didn’t call me to say hi or to tell me he missed me; anything to remind me that he was alright. When he had to work long nights I worried if he forgot to call. I worried something awful had happened to him. That what-if feeling was capable of dropping the temperature in my already empty bed by so many degrees. We had a wonderful thing going. I feared losing him, every night he had to work.

When we met he caught me running out of a house with my gas cans just as the house began to catch fire. He arrested me for arson and trespassing and a number of things, but midway on the ride to the police station he pulled over and said he couldn’t do it. He was a lover of fire too, but he could never bring himself to actually setting one. After we talked he told me he’d protect me from police investigations, so long as no one ever died or got hurt by what I did. He respected me too much to allow arrests to stop me.

I would meet him here and there on his routes. He would help me dispose of evidence and held on to any nice things I wanted to keep from the houses I torched. We talked about many things. He’d tell me I was a nice distraction from the boredom of his routes. Three months later we fell in love. The night we did, I invited him to come with me and watch a burn.

I made designs for him with the gas and some other neat little chemicals I had. I wrote his initials in flames into the wall of a hollow living room. He stared in awe as the chemicals glowed and then sparked alive. I loved that they distorted the material they rested on, the air around them, the chemical composition of what they were themselves – merely to represent him for a few gorgeous seconds.

Being without him drove me crazy. Feeling the weight of him next to me in bed was like being moored to an ultimate safety.  Not having that feeling for more than one night made me feel lost. And on the night things went to hell, back in October, I hadn’t seen Stephen in almost a week. He got sent off to a training in Chicago.

I had to relax.

I put on tight black jeans and a thin, fitted black sweater. I went down into the plywood and stone basement and got my duffel, my gun, two gas cans, and four boxes of long-stem matches.

I drove a half-hour down to my preferred Southvale, where the history of the once artsy neighborhood was being erased by bulldozers to make room for condos. I planned on condos being my next project once they were up. But until then, I remained hung up on abandoned old houses.

There weren’t very many to choose from that night. If I hadn’t hesitated so much in the nights previous I probably would have found some good ones before they were dozed out.

I felt that it would be better for me to burn those houses. Better me than some idiot with a hardhat. The concept of eminent domain was a soft spot for me. I came from money. I was raised in a way that taught me that it had to be earned, never flaunted, and always given to those who needed it. Most people wouldn’t know I was rich just by looking at me.

It was only apparent through my house. I lived in a very nice house in a beautiful neighborhood. I earned it through my own business a few years before. It was nicely decorated because I loved it. My thoughts and my days were dedicated to it.

It was a gift to myself for my work, and for not needing to take anything from anyone else. I was about to add even more goodness to it because I planned to ask Stephen to move in with me when he got back from his trip.

I hated people and corporations with money who flaunted it, especially when the flaunting made everything look the same. When they distilled variety and history into perfection born from a template, I had to do something.

I found the right house at the desolate corner of Prince and Turner. It was a small one-story house and it was begging to go. It looked like an animal that had been shot and was still standing, purely out of instinct to live, even if living meant standing around with a mortal wound.

With the gun tucked firmly down the back of my pants I moved under the webbing of do not cross tape around the property. I had to make sure there was no one inside first. The house had stone steps leading to a small porch, and black iron sconces on either side of the front door. I grabbed the doorknob and twisted it, surprised to find it unlocked. Inside it smelled like mildew and human shit.

I pulled my gun and held the flashlight under it. “Who’s in here?” I called. “Answer me right now!”

I walked through an empty living room with holes gouged into the walls and the floor. Every step I took creaked. I was very careful, placing one foot directly in front of the other. I then passed through a small den and then the kitchen. It was reduced to a cascade of tiles on the floor, and exposed bones of tubing in the wall.

There was a door at the end of the opposite hall, across from the bathroom, that led to the basement. I opened it wide and aimed the beam into black room. The wooden steps were long collapsed, and only left behind part of a landing and part of a splintered rail.

“Who is in here?” I shouted down. I heard nothing in response.

I sneezed. As I turned away to close the door, I thought I heard something shift down there. It was a very slight sound, and could have been anything – a draft moving through sheets of plastic for all I knew – but it was subtle enough to make me aim the beam down again. I inched my way into the doorway a little bit, getting to where the landing frayed off.

“Hello!”

I waited in the high-pitched silence. I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a pool at night. My heart was starting to go faster than my breath was able to accommodate.

I didn’t hear anything again, so I backed away slowly and shut the door. I walked out to the car to get my things.

The gas was the color of honey in the flashlight’s beam. I coated the front rooms first, watching the old thirsty floor drink it.

I thought of Stephen and the way he would laugh in his sleep.

I retraced my steps with the second gas can, dousing the walls and the window frames, blessing everything like a priest with honeyed holy water.

Stephen should have been there to see the peace of it all. I was a shadow moving among shadow. The only sounds were my breath and the splashing gas. I was there to hurt no one or nothing. It was the same feeling I’d get when I was with him.

As a stress reliever, fire had always held my hand, but now more than ever I needed it as a literal expression of me and the raging love I had inside me, that scared me at every turn. I knew the blaze in that house would be big and beautiful. It would remind me that it was okay to love.

I lit the matches fast and dropped them on the floor as I went through each room. The flames started to catch and I walked around. As they fed and fucked one another I had forgotten about the holes in the floor. My leg went straight through one, mere feet from the front door. I hit my knee on my outside leg incredibly hard, and the feeling of the floor having disappeared from under me had left me disoriented.

The heat and light grew around me. I watched as flames crawled closer to me, first following the path of the gas and then going where they pleased with their strength. I bent forward and tried to pull my leg from the hole without catching my hair on fire. I freed myself and stood up. The box of matches went up in flames behind me.

I ran to my car down the block. I was smiling, and fearing the inevitable roar which I knew that for a moment, even though I’d parked half a block away, would push its heat onto my face like an engulfing kiss.

I leaned against my car and squeezed at my knee. The house glowed and fell into itself for about two minutes before a massive explosion happened. It was perfect. There was a split second where the back and front sides of the house expanded out simultaneously. Flames squeezed out of the side windows to make the broken glass and ancient bottles on the ground look like glitter.

Black smoke twisted into the air. I was confused yet elated. The house couldn’t have had any gas still running to it. It didn’t make sense that the house would explode like that, even with all the gasoline I used.

The next day I slept late. I woke in the afternoon to do laundry and get the smell of smoke out of my pillowcases.

I watched a news-at-five teaser about the Southvale burn. It was the fifth one that month and authorities were still investigating. I smiled.

Authorities were always investigating.

That night, I sat in front of my fireplace in my underwear with a half-bottle of Merlot. I watched my yellow-red friends dance on wood. I lay on my side and listened to the crackle of their laughter. The house was silent. I fell asleep with my phone next to my head and the empty bottle overturned on the carpet.

Long into the night I woke to find I was in Stephen’s arms on the floor. His body felt hot, wrapped around me from behind, with one strong arm around my waist. I found myself using the other arm as a pillow. His chin rested just over my head. The fire fed off of new logs.

I squirmed a little, in annoyance and delight at the heat, and I heard him laugh to himself quietly.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

I smiled and felt a tremendous calm take over my body. I continued to stare at the flames while I talked to him. “Thank goodness. I was worried I had another bunch of days ahead of me.”

“I missed you.” He squeezed me and pressed himself tight against me.

I tried to turn over so I could face him but he held me where I was.

“No, no,” he said. “Just watch them.”

I stared at the writhing fire ahead of us while he played with my body. He kissed down the back of my neck as he rubbed my breasts. I closed my eyes, feeling him more as traveling heat than a person, feeling myself succumb to everything he did. As we made love, my back pressed to his chest, I couldn’t imagine him going away again for such an eternal period of days.

When we finished I turned to face him, smiling as if I’d just seen him for the first time. I kissed him.

“You’re beautiful,” I said.

“You made me proud. You didn’t burn anything while I was gone,” he said smiling.

I shook my head. “I did. Last night. I couldn’t hold it anymore.”

“Mia, what did I tell you about that?” There was a tone to his voice I’d never heard before. “Don’t do that when I’m not nearby. What if something happens?”

“It was just a gas fire, it’s okay. The house was empty.”

“Where was it?”

“In Southvale, where else? Why do you sound so annoyed?”

He let out a breath. “I just … don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“I wish you would do it with me. All the time. Don’t fight the urge in you if it’s there. It’s stupid to tighten a uniform around it instead of letting it free.”

“It helps me to do it this way.”

“Why did you become a cop?”

He looked into my eyes, as he always did when I pressed him about that. Then he sat up. I looked at the burn scar on his shoulder blade. It was about the size of my hand. I touched it very gently, just barely feeling the wriggled texture of the burn. It was a little ironic to me that the only place on his body where he couldn’t feel my touch was on a burn.

“You know you can trust me,” I said. “Did something bad happen?”

He looked at me over his shoulder. His eyes were angry. “Let’s go to bed.”

The next morning, I turned in bed as I woke, and my hand landed on the mattress instead of on Stephen.

I called for him without opening my eyes. I sank into the covers to keep that cold feeling at bay.

“Mia, get up.”

I opened my eyes. He stood in front of me in boxers with the remote control in his hand.

“Good morning.”

“We have a real, big fucking problem.” He sat beside me and shook me. “Did you hear me? You fucked up!”

I sat up in a start. I could hear a newscaster’s voice talking loud and fast about stocks in the living room.

“It was just on the news. There was a body in the basement.”

“What?!”

His eyes were burning. “What the hell did you do?”

I explained to him what I had done and about the collapsed stairs into the basement. I came to a halt as I spoke, remembering the shifting sound I heard before I came in with the gas. Someone had been down there. But why didn’t they answer me?

“Okay,” I said. “What have they found so far?”

“Skeletal remains.”

“But – that doesn’t necessarily have to do with me, what if there was someone dead down there already?” I got cold just thinking about it.

“The body isn’t a problem. I got a call from work, they’re putting some people on it. I’m part of the investigation.”

“Well that’s a good thing isn’t it?”

“No. The house was part of a firegame.”

“A firegame? That’s a stupid crime myth, those don’t happen!”

He grabbed my hand and said, “Yes they do. The house was rigged at the basement with explosives. They found a sealed up steel case where the kitchen was. It had instructions and chemicals in there.”

According to the stories, the people who played firegames were arsonists and pyros that did a kind of scavenger hunt once a season. It was said there were groups of them in every city in the world. The game had some ridiculous monetary buy-in, and participants had to be a convicted arsonist or other criminal in order to be considered. Those who weren’t had to at least be very crazy and very intelligent. They were known for playing elaborate games with each other in the middle of their competitions.

The way a firegame worked was that there were a certain number of locations in the city that had to be burned. Every location had materials and instructions. Once a location was raided for materials, it had to be burned using the materials acquired from the previous location. A car full of dynamite, for example, would get torched using gasoline stolen from a gas station, and the dynamite would be used at the next place, likely to be a large house or something like that.

The targets got bigger and bigger until the end, where the last location housed the pot of money. The teams were usually eliminated by any means necessary. They’d fight each other – some people said they’d kill each other. It never made sense to me.

Each firegame had a theme to the destruction. But pyros weren’t usually people who cared about themes or missions or messages, we just loved fire. Maybe when you were that bored and money hungry you could make a game out of anything.

“You broke up their game and killed one of them. You didn’t see anyone? Hear anything?”

“No, of course not! I checked, Stephen.”

He stood up and started to look through his suitcase. His face was straight and angry. I hadn’t seen him that way since the day we met when he arrested me.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I need to go home and grab some things and then I need to get to the station.”

“What do you think is going to happen? They can’t figure out it was me.”

“They run in pairs and they work fast. I’m going to pull in a favor and keep a unit outside your house.”

My heart jumped. “This is ridiculous, I – ”

“Mia stop being so hard-headed, these people are real.”

I watched him put his pants and socks on. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want police around me.

“Why are you so sure they know who I am?” I asked.

He groaned. He picked up his suitcase and slammed it back down onto the bureau.

“Stephen, what the fuck? Why are you so pissed off?”

He leaned forward on his hands. “You’re not the first I’ve been with,” he said. He turned around and looked at me with regret. “My ex-girlfriend Angie was a real psycho. She played firegames all the time. She tried to get me to join them and I couldn’t do it. I found out she was traveling as much as she did so she could play, and she was killing people in the process, so I left her. I didn’t like the thought that that’s what people like us could turn into. After that she tried to kill me. She burned my old house down one night when I was asleep inside. That’s where I got this.” He pointed behind him, to his shoulder blade.

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Nine Weeks of Strange, Week 7: “A Drop in the Mercury”

Are we born good? Bad? Inbetween and we just eventually go one way or another later in life? Or are we always walking a fine line between the light and dark sides of ourselves? Such are the themes this week. Get ready for plenty of blood. 

Video and text excerpts, for your voyeuristic, twisted pleasures:

 

Excerpt from “A Drop in the Mercury” from Women in Strange Places: Stories. (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009

Thelma was a wonderful intimidator. She hadn’t worked in over a year because she managed to bully a few people in her building into giving her money. Eight-hundred dollars a month came from four apartments: 9F, where Lee the speed-metal heroin punk lived; 10B, where a recluse named Therese lived; and 6D, her favorite – Harry and Lorna’s apartment. It was directly above Thelma’s. Harry liked to beat Lorna. Lorna sat there and took it. Thelma saw Lorna one day in the hall and told her that if she didn’t leave him she would start to collect tax from them for making so much noise upstairs when they fought.

Lorna said, “Talk to Harry.”

Thelma could see something in her eyes that could go either way. That lady would either kill Harry or kill herself. She was stupid if she did the latter. So Thelma collected, and waited.

The fourth apartment was next door to Thelma’s, 5E, where “Porno Diane” lived. She was a former porn star that ran the all-too common track of being popular, falling into drugs, losing her looks and ending up a forgotten “whore”. Diane was living proof to Thelma’s conscience that she had a tiny molecule of goodness – she wouldn’t put Diane out of her misery. And all she needed from Diane was two dollars a month, in exchange for being Diane’s “ear”. The woman had more problems than there were cracks in that building’s walls.

Thelma went off to start her rent collection. She dragged her hands along the walls as she walked toward the flickering stairwell. Her palms were wet with the humidity beading on the walls by the time she reached the door.

At 9F, the usual way-too-loud-for-human-ears metal blared from the apartment. The ninth floor was so shady that Thelma always brought her gun up there. The hall lights were always out, except for the two red exit signs at either end of the halls. In the red light, the graffiti on the walls looked like animals watching her in a dark jungle. Cockroaches were moving lumps under the old carpet on the floor.

Lee never locked his door. Thelma came in and found him on his more-bedspring-than-mattress of a bed.

He held his arms up and said, “Thelma! You look extra kick-ass today!”

But Thelma didn’t hear anything except music.

Lee shoved his hands in his pockets and gave her a crumpled bunch of money that totaled $266.

On the sixth floor Thelma ran into a gang initiation. Nine guys were on one guy on the floor, beating him with brass knuckles and other things. They looked like a pack of dogs descended on meat. When they saw Thelma coming they made room for her to pass. She stepped over the newbie and pounded on Harry and Lorna’s door.

Lorna was mid-scream when she got there. Harry opened the door. He was a man about Thelma’s height who never wore shirts when he was in the building, like he had something to his 57-year-old torso he needed to show off.

She looked over his shoulder at Lorna, standing half in shadow wearing a lovely green and white dress.

Thelma looked back at Harry while speaking to Lorna. “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”

“She don’t have to dress nice for nobody,” Harry answered. He reached into his pocket and handed Thelma a wad of cash.

As Thelma counted the money she said again, “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”

Lorna didn’t answer. Thelma counted the exact amount and then looked at Lorna.

“Still not budgin’, huh?” Thelma asked her. “Very well.”

“Don’t you know when you’ve interrupted a conversation?” Harry asked.

Thelma smiled as she walked away saying, “Oh don’t worry, Harry baby, we’re going to have us a long talk one day.”

At 10B Thelma got no answer from Therese. She pounded on the maroon door. The hallway was dim and empty.

10C opened up. Mr. Cordo came out. He was a sweet old man who was about to retire from being a teacher. The nicer residents in the building called him “Grampa.”

“That girl doesn’t live there anymore,” he said lowly. “Moved out yesterday. End of the month and all.”

Thelma came to him with her aggressive energy, saying, “And how do you know?”

“She and I started talking a couple of weeks ago. She told me she was leaving. She gave me a card and everything before she left.”

“Where’d she go?”

“She became a flight attendant, she said. Off to see the world, bless her heart. She didn’t tell you?”

Thelma was a little surprised the old man hadn’t backed away from her, considering how she was standing over him.

“No. She owed me money.” She looked up and down the hall, thinking. She knew who was home at that time and who wasn’t. Anyone else she could get money from wouldn’t be around for a few hours.

“Lucky for her she left now. Did you hear? The new landlords? Damned mob bought the place, that’s what they’re saying now. A lot of people were going downstairs to pay their rent nice and early this morning.” Mr. Cordo shook his head in dismay as he turned and headed toward his small kitchen. “I remember when this was a lovely building. Oh, twenty years ago. Bright. The people were good people. Oh, well. I was just going to have a snack, some nice cool fruit. Would you like to join me?”

Mr. Cordo turned around again. Thelma was gone.

She ran down to her apartment, where she found Diane about to knock on her door with two dollars in hand. She was dressed in a pencil skirt and a mesh-sleeved blouse. Diane always looked older and older to Thelma. She was only thirty-one but looked like a woman who had survived all her children.

“Here. Sorry. I almost forgot,” she said.

Thelma took the two dollars. “Hey, is it true about the landlords?”

“I guess. Why?” Diane combed her nails through her red hair as she chewed her bubble gum lunch.

Thelma resented the feeling of worry inside her. The mob was the only group she had to worry about, yet it was the only group she envied and wanted to be a part of. They were organized chaos. In a matter of a handful of years they had grown into a network with many arms, strangling the city from the inside out. But they were very much a boys-only club.

“I’m short,” she said.

“Oh that’s no good. I heard they beat some old lady up like an hour ago cuz she didn’t have her cash. The ambulance was just here, didn’t you hear?”

“No. Give me money.”

“Sorry. I just gave my last grip to Daisy after I paid my rent. She was scared of getting beat up too.”

Thelma grumbled.

“Oh come on, T, she’s my aunt!”

Thelma went inside and called Paul.

“I need four hundred bucks.”

Paul laughed. “Jesus Thel. Some girlfriends call for a twenty. Maybe a hundred.”

“Shut up. I never ask you for money. I’m short on rent.”

“Why?”

“I just am. And now the mob went and bought my building.”

“Is that right?” Paul said with wonder. James had never mentioned to him anything about picking up a building. “Yeah, sure. I’ll bring it over. Just meet me outside? I can never seem to leave your place without getting into a fight. I got a meeting later. I have to look right.”

 

Thursday, 98°

 

            Paul looked at his watch. 6:40. Thelma was due over in twenty minutes.

            He finished counting the cash in the black boxes in a hurry. Twenty-one thousand dollars sat in front of him in dirty hundred dollar bills. He had nine thousand dollars to go.

            He put the money back in the boxes and put them in the closet where they belonged.

            Paul lived in the industrial district, also known just as “the industrial.” He lived in one of the four newly renovated living spaces in what used to be a sugar factory. They were stacked together in one part of the rusty waste of the building. Renovations had stopped a long time ago. The downstairs was left as a hollowed-out factory, with scrap metal and glass, dimmed with age, strewn all over the vast main floor.

            Paul had the stealthy walk that his profession commanded, and he always wore white. It brought out his evergreen eyes against his black hair. He never smoked aside from the nights he had to work. He was the only person he knew that had addictions that were genuinely healthy: he was addicted to loving Thelma and he had to have four glasses of apple juice a day or else he’d get moody.

            The only thing Paul hated was his talent. He had just gotten off the phone with his mother before he sat down to count the money. She told him he was so handsome; when was he going to get a proper girlfriend? He imagined all mothers said that to their sons. He wondered if somewhere, some mothers hoped their sons would grow up to be the perfect hitman he was on the job.

            Probably none.

            He’d told Thelma he just ran cocaine and that’s how he made his money. And he did run cocaine from time to time. He couldn’t bear for her to know the truth – that he loved the precision and the seamlessness of killing people from distances. It was like he was God’s own eye when he caught the person in the crosshairs, and God’s own hand when he fired.

            He wanted Thelma to believe that goodness didn’t equal perfection and the strictness of the rules of society she perceived. Goodness could be something as simple as minding your own business, and going to sleep at night without a gun under your pillow, or having a sore hand from a fight. Paul hoped that if Thelma could believe in him as an example of how anyone could be “good”, despite their imperfections, they could start a life somewhere else. And besides – she couldn’t have been as bad as she thought she was. To Paul she was just an angry woman.

            Paul had his own problem, however. He was shaving money from the drug deals he made. His hitman pay wasn’t enough to leave the life behind. And it wasn’t like James, the mob boss, also his best friend since they were kids, was going to let him go.

Paul needed to buy a new life from people that helped mob folks disappear when they didn’t feel like dying. They were expensive of course. Fifteen grand per person. And that was just for the basic “disappearance” stuff. Full-out relocation cost an extra ten grand. But Paul could handle relocation. He just needed to make it so that James could never find him again.

            It was a bet – his hope that Thelma would agree to go with him. He worried about how Thelma would react to his being a hitman. Nine thousand dollars more and Paul could cover her disappearance too. He was sure the guys would charge him for her just because she was mob by association with him.

            Thelma was at the bus stop on Almore Street. She slept the night before but again, her dreams were full of Edward. Her mind was full of questions too: why didn’t she just earn her money? What lasting result came from slapping people around for it when she needed to?

She told her conscience to can it. She did what she did because that’s who she was. It was impossible for a person to train themselves out of being who they were.

            She stood outside the bus shelter and felt cool rain drops on her shoulders. She looked up and smiled at the grey clouds above, bloated with water and static. They came alive with lightning.