In that moment of profound clarity, I realized there were only two options. I could allow things to go on as they always had or I could burn the house to ground, with her in it. The choice was obvious.
John Neville gently placed the pen next to the yellow legal pad he had been given to record his testimony. He rubbed his eyes, forgetting the lids were still burned from the night before. It felt like grinding glass shards into his skin.
The interrogation room was lit with a harsh florescence that made everything feel hard and cold. But even this terrible place (and the possibility of something worse) was better than what he had escaped from.
A smile pulled at the corner of John’s lips as he picked up the pen and began writing again.
When they found him that night, John was kneeling in the street, his fingers still clenched tightly around a brass lighter, hands pink and taut from the flames.
There was a tall man in a waist-length coat who strode over and knelt in front of John. “Do you know what happened here?” the detective asked quietly. John was somewhere else. Unanswered, he asked again. “John.” The earnest tone in the detective’s voice brought him back for a moment. “What happened, John?”
“Fire.” A whisper, throat raw from the smoke. “She… everything’s all gone. It’s over.” A fierce grin spread across his cracked lips.
The detective’s eyes grew wide and he repeated his name. “John. Who else was in there?” But John looked up and was somewhere else again.
“John!” The voice tore him away from his thoughts. Myra. John wouldn’t have guessed he was capable of hating one noise as much as he’d come to hate her voice.
He reluctantly got up from his desk in the tiny spare room at the back of the split-level house. It was the last place that remained untouched from Myra’s “collection.” That was the term John had conjured during one of their shouting matches.
John paused for a moment with his hand on the doorknob. He knew there wasn’t much point in answering. Myra would want him to “come down here” to fetch something from the kitchen or run some errand or adjust the temperature.
The door could only be partially opened before wedging against a column of magazines stacked against the wall. Immediately the smell assaulted John’s nose, a mixture of old paper and stale processed food futilely masked by aerosol air fresheners. He swallowed involuntarily.
The floor creaked as he stepping over a basket full of clean, unfolded clothes that Myra said she would go through. That was three weeks ago.
Along the walls of the hallway were haphazard stacks of books, magazines and loose paper. The path was barely wide enough for one person to fit through, making the hallway seem much longer than it was.
As he slid by the last of the books that threatened to collapse on him, John immediately regretted leaving his room. It was difficult to breathe. The walls felt like they were closing in on him.
He rounded the corner to the staircase and carefully walked down the side that wasn’t littered with shoes.
The entire ground floor was a maze. There was one main path that ran from one end of the house to the other, splitting off into smaller tributaries that led to other rooms. He walked by massive heaps of clothing, books, bags filled with knickknacks, pillows and blankets, photo albums and DVD cases.
He was damned if he knew how Myra realized something was out of place. But somehow she always did.
At the center of the living room was a beige recliner pointed at a TV on the back wall. Upon it sat Myra, motionless, intently watching some sort of cooking show.
John stood behind the recliner. Myra hardly ever left its cushioned bosom. He wondered if she even could. He managed to clear his throat. “What is it, dear?”
“What are you doing up there?” Myra asked, an indignant tone in her voice. “All you do is sit up in that room. You don’t want to be with me anymore?”
He swallowed what would surely have been some sarcastic response and answered with a calm, “No, of course not, I’m just trying to catch up on some work so we can watch that movie later.” He didn’t know if there even was a movie, but it was a safe guess.
“Can you put the wash in?” she asked, sounding a touch more civil. Her arm motioned toward a basket of clothes that must have been gathered up the night before. “And can you get me a soda?” His eyes darted to the stacks of empty cans next to the recliner.
Something clicked inside his head. There was a sharp spasm that shot through his shoulder and down through his arm. Inky blackness creeped into his peripheral, followed by blinding technicolor blobs of light, and he felt as if he might pass out.
In one smooth motion, John’s arm raised and his fingers curled around the first solid thing they came into contact with, the heavy base of an old metal lamp.
“John, did you hear – “
The voice was cut off by a loud, wet crack as the corner of the lamp’s base split through the top of Myra’s forehead.
The room was silent save for the loud announcer on the cooking show. John stood perfectly still, his arm outstretched, the lamp firmly embedded in his wife’s forehead. Then he started to quiver violently as the realization of what had just happened hit him. He let go of the lamp and dropped to his knees, his breath coming in sharp, rapid bursts.
John looked around, still on his knees. The collection was closing in on him, rushing in from all sides. He felt as if he were some great singularity and the gravity of every last thing was being pulled in his directing with crushing force.
He crashed through the closest wall of of unopened mail and vaulted in the direction of the kitchen. He could feel the room contract as he tore through the drawers in desperation.
There! he thought. The brass Zippo he’d received as a wedding present so long ago. He kept it full of fluid. Flicking it open, it ignited immediately. He grabbed for the closest can of aerosol freshener and pointed it at the flame.
A stream liquid fire spewed from of the tip of the can into the stack of papers he had just leapt through. They blackened, caught and burned, flame spreading rapidly through the room. John leaned against the drawer and watched in horror as the fire enveloped the the collection, through the meandering paths until the flames began to lick at the back of the great beige recliner.
A sudden searing pain caused his arm to retract instinctively to his chest. Thick smoke billowed against the ceiling and orange light bathed the room with brilliant luminescence. John coughed violently and ran headlong into the door at the end of the kitchen.
The door exploded open. Pouring into the cold night air, John staggered towards the street, face blackened from floating ashes.
As he fell to his knees, his breathing calmed and a sense of pure serenity washed over him. He could hear the sirens echoing from miles away, their steady, two-tone wailing mirroring the voice in his head. Myra’s voice.
Thank you. Thank you.
The tall detective was watching John scribble on the pad through a one-way mirror. He could see John’s mouth moving but couldn’t make out the words. There was a young constable in the room, listening. He nodded before turning to exit the room. John continued writing, slowly and deliberately.
The detective turned his head when the door behind him opened and the constable emerged, holding a paper.
“So that’s it, he’s confessed?” The younger man nodded. “He said he couldn’t take it, the collection, he called it. So he torched the place along with his wife. He said he set them both free. He’s almost done writing it all down now.”
The young man held out the paper. “There’s one thing. Fire report from last night, just came in. I… think you should read it, sir.”
The detective glanced over the brief before suddenly looking back through the glass at John, who had put down his pen and seemed to be lost in thought again. His arm fell to his side and the paper slid out of his limp hand, gliding to a rest at his feet. It read simply:
The property was a total loss. The fire spread quickly due to massive amounts of paper and aerosol cans. No bodies located. One identifiable object was found, the charred remains of a full-size women’s mannikin, its head split in half, still tied to a recliner in the middle of the living room.