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.
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.
“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.”
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?”
“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.