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Authors: Scott Spencer

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BOOK: Endless Love
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Was I running for the sake of my masterplan or did I somehow know that the fire I’d set had leapt out of control? Did I smell smoke or did the part of me that had understood from the beginning the consequence of my actions finally fight its way through the thicket of wilfulness and heartsickness to scream its alarm? I ran and now my heart was not beating with a lover’s mournful nervousness but it seemed to bound against my chest like a furious dog against a fence.

I don’t understand how fire works; I haven’t learned the scientific explanations for its cunning and greed. A lick of flame can scurry like a cat while it hunts for the choicest morsel of fuel. An infant flame is subject to the government of the elements. But by adolescence, fire is as brave and artful as a revolutionary band, snatching easy victories here, extending the limits of its power there, consolidating, attacking, brightening with triumph. At its full force, its victory over the stable world complete and everything from Doric columns to magazine racks within its mercy, fire is messianic—it rules over its domain with a blistering, totalitarian authority and seems to believe that all of creation ought be in flames. By the time I reached Jade’s house, the fire I’d set was not in its uncontrollable maturity but it had advanced to its daredevil adolescence. The central flame, headquartered in the stack of newspapers, had sent attack parties of smaller flames to menace the house itself. Points of flame scattered along the side of the house and fluttered like small orange pennants. A circle of fire had been dispatched to the floor of the porch and seemed to race around the newspapers for a short time, and then, thrilled with the very fact of its existence and drunk with the berserkness of its cause, spread out in a dozen different directions.

I backed away. I already felt the heat on my face, burning through the passive warmth of the August air. I backed off until I slipped off the curb and rammed myself against Hugh’s car, a ten-year-old Bentley that he nursed and loved to excess and beyond. I rubbed my back—a moron checking for a bruise on his spine while everyone he loves sits in a burning house. The flames that darted this way and that on the house itself were all on the feeble side, but there were so many of them and they had enough confidence in their power to continually divide themselves. And then, almost as if the fire was controlled by a dial like the flame on a gas stove, in an instant the flames—all of them—tripled in size and power. I let out a cry and rushed toward the house.

The porch was already half covered with flame—there were shoots of fire everywhere, an intermediate garden of fire. I flung the screen door open and tried to open the big wooden door, which was usually unlocked (not as a gesture of trust but an accommodation to the constant human traffic). Tonight, however, the door was locked. I pounded on it with my fists and shouted—no, not “Fire!” but “Let me in! Let me in, goddamnit! Let me in!”

Sammy opened the door. He was, in fact, on his way out because now, finally, they all smelled smoke. “David,” he said, and put up his small hands as if to stop me.

I pulled him out onto the porch and then ran into the house. The small, cluttered foyer already smelled of smoke and when I made the familiar right turn into the living room, Hugh was backing away from the window with his hand over his eyes.

“We’re on fire,” I said. (Hugh was later to testify that I’d said this in a “casual” tone of voice. It seems incredible; but I don’t remember.)

The living room was hotter than any summer’s day. It didn’t so much seem that smoke was rushing in as that the air itself was turning into smoke. The fire, with its tactical instinct, had surrounded the frame of the largest window on the outside, maneuvering toward the easiest entry into the house. It raced around the pulpy, half-rotten wood, multiplying its intensity, dancing, dancing like warriors working themselves up before a battle, until the heat was powerful enough to explode the window and a long orange arm reached in and turned the curtains to flame.

It is here, at this point, when the window blew out and the curtains caught fire, that the sequence of events become irretrievable. We were, I would suppose, like any other group of people in a burning house, fighting back our terror with the worthless fantasy that really nothing so terribly serious was happening. Only Hugh, who had fought in a war and had spent time in a prison camp, only Hugh knew firsthand how sometimes ordinary life is completely overturned. The rest of us, even as we breathed in the heat and the smoke, even as our lungs burned and our eyes teared and we heard the crackle of the wood, held onto the possibility that disaster would suddenly stop in its tracks, turn around, and disappear.

I forced myself to be calm as I went to Jade’s side, and I put my arm around her in the manner of someone taking charge during an emergency—but really, all I wanted to do was touch her.

“How are you?” I said, putting my lips near her ear. Her hair smelled from the curling gel she had set it with; her neck looked naked and vulnerable.

“I’m OK,” Jade said, in her low, porous voice. She did not look at me. “Except I’m…high. I’m very, very high.” She covered her eyes against the smoke and coughed. “And scared,” she said.

Perhaps there had been something more than Jade had said, but I knew immediately that the family had not been smoking grass: for the past couple months, Ann had been in correspondence with her cousin in California, trying to seduce him into sending her some of the laboratory LSD he had access to, and tonight, with all ceremony and seriousness, they had swallowed it, ingesting the spirit of the new consciousness in a square of chemically treated blotter paper, just as they from time to time ingested the spirit of Christ in the form of an Episcopalian wafer. Now, suddenly, horribly, I understood the pages of that art book being turned in slow motion and Jade’s waxed features as she had sat immobile in the chair.…

Across the room, Ann was at Hugh’s side. He was trying to pull the curtains down and she held onto his shirt and said, “Not a good idea, Hugh.” Sammy was back in the house. He stumbled and fell to his knees; he began to right himself but it was too much effort. (Or did he know that close to the floor was the safest place to be during a fire? It was the sort of thing Sammy would know.) Looking up at his parents from his hands and knees, Sammy said, “You should see it. The whole house is burning.” Ann finally pulled Hugh away from the curtains—they barely existed anyhow: they were just a sheet of flame sending out more flame. There was fire on the walls now and, a moment later, fire on the ceiling.

When the ceiling started to burn, Ann said, “I’m calling.” She said it in a fed-up voice, a put-upon citizen forced to call in the officials. But she made no move toward the telephone in the kitchen, even though the kitchen was still free of fire. We all stayed together in the most perilous part of the house, knit together and nailed to our places by astonishment, and I was one of them.

It seemed that that house longed to burn, just as a heart can long to be overcome with love. One moment I was saying to Jade, “Are you OK?” and the next one whole wall was covered in flame. Freely, wantonly the house yielded to the fire, donating its substance to eternity with the reckless passion of someone who’d been waiting for years for the proper suitor. If any of us were to that point still debating whether we were faced with a household mishap or an emergency, it was now certain that all previous bets were off and it was time to do what we could to save our lives.

Sammy was on his feet. “We can’t go out the front. The porch is burning like crazy.”

Ann was shaking her head. Annoyance had given way to grief—and a certain weariness that made me wonder if she wanted to save herself. She felt the lure of the fire, as someone on a high balcony will suddenly have a curious desire to jump off.

Hugh was kneading the sides of his skull as if pacifying its contents. “Everyone stay together,” he said. “Hold hands.” (He repeated this two or three times.) “We go out the back door. And we stay together.”

I took Jade’s hand. It felt like melting ice. She wouldn’t quite look at me but she gripped my hand with all her strength.

“On the floor,” I said. “We’ll crawl out.” To my surprise, they listened to me. And then I knew: as out of control as I felt, I was the sanest person in the room.

“I feel scared, I really feel scared,” Jade said.

“We just have to keep our heads,” I said.

“Oh my God,” said Hugh. “I knew we shouldn’t have. I can’t get it straight.” He dug his knuckles into his eyes.

Sammy was on the floor, talking away to someone he imagined was next to him; he sounded perfectly in control of himself as he conversed with the apparition.

“OK, I’m all right,” Hugh said. “I can feel myself getting all right.”

Jade took my hand and pressed it against her breast. “Is my heart still going?” she asked in a whisper.

“It’s incredible,” Ann said. “All we have to do is get out of here and we can’t.…” She made a short laugh.

“Where’s Keith?” I cried.

“He’s upstairs!” Jade said.

We were on the floor; the room was more than half smoke, much more. I could barely see the staircase, and as I ran toward it my only hope was that by the second floor I’d find more clear space. A thousand other things must have been racing through my mind but the only one I remember was the hope that someone—Jade—would grab my leg and stop me from going up for Keith.

I took the stairs two at a time and the smoke filled the air with deeper and more absolute authority. I felt the intensity of the heat but saw no flames—they were inside the walls and burning in toward us. Inasmuch as I could open my mouth, I called Keith’s name. On my hands and knees, I felt the heat coming up through the floor, so tangible that I thought it might actually lift me. Coughing, nauseated, I spit onto the floor. I was on the second story of the house now. Down at one end of the hall was the room where Jade and I had been sleeping for the past six months. At the other end was Ann and Hugh’s room, vast, cluttered, and open to all. In the center of the corridor, on the left, was the bathroom, and on the other side was Sammy’s small room. The door to Sammy’s room was closed and as I looked at it, it burst into flame.

The stairway to the top floor was just past Sammy’s room, and through the layers of smoke, which were dyed by the color of the flames like fog tinted by headlights, I saw what looked like a moving figure. I called Keith’s name. I didn’t know if my voice could be heard; I could not hear it over the pounding of my blood and the sound of the fire. I crawled down the hall and tried not to think about dying—my thoughts were not brave but neither did I turn and run. The figure I’d seen had disappeared. I didn’t know if it had been obscured by new dark layers of smoke or if Keith had turned back. I wondered if he even knew that his house was on fire, knew that this danger was not illusion. I knew he must be high and no Butterfield was less likely to handle the shattering of his personality than Keith: Keith the sleepwalker, Keith the mystic, Keith the hyper. If some people’s intelligence is evidence of their mind’s strength and hunger, Keith’s genius was the product of his mind’s extreme vulnerability: everything touched him and left an impression. Any other time I would have thought that the Butterfields’ taking LSD together was simply further proof of their extraordinary openness, their willingness to become a part of their times and share in the risks of the current year. But as I thought of them stumbling aimlessly below me and looked for Keith through the sheets of darkening smoke, I judged them for that moment as harshly as I ever would. I was not remembering altogether that it was me who had started the fire.

I forced myself toward the stairway to the third floor and Keith emerged again. His shirt was pulled over his face and he was coughing and weeping. I called out to him and he staggered toward me as if he’d been pushed from behind. My face was so hot I slapped at it, thinking in a panicky instant that my skin had caught fire.

“Please,” moaned Keith. “I can’t see and I don’t know what to do.”

I scuttled over to him. Keith had one arm over his eyes now and his long, thin legs bent at the knee. His other arm still reached out toward me—though I don’t know if he realized who I was. I grabbed his hand and tried to pull him down to the floor; he stiffened as if I’d shot him through with electricity.

I shouted his name as loudly as I could and pulled again. He yanked loose of me and stepped back, like a spirit preparing to disappear into the ether.

I struggled to my feet and reached out for him. He looked at me with a momentary flash of recognition.

“Take my hand goddamnit,” I shouted. “Take it!”

Keith stared at me and took another step back. I was terrified that at any instant he would burst into flames as Sammy’s door had, a human nova. I lunged for him and as I grabbed his shoulders I felt the strength leave his body. His legs buckled and he swooned into my arms. It was dead weight and I was not really equal to it. I staggered back but Keith kept coming; his forehead banged into me, his bony chest slumped against mine, and in a moment we were both on the smoking floor, he on top of me, and now my heart was wild, beating at an incredible rate as if to compensate for the eternity in which it would remain still.

And then I heard someone pounding up the stairs. I turned my head to see Hugh rushing toward us. He was roaring Keith’s name. His ferocity was nearly as awesome as the fire; even through the smoke, his eyes shone with paranormal intensity. And though I knew that Hugh had come back to rescue Keith, as he came charging up the stairs I could not help but fear that he was coming after me—not to rescue me, of course, but to take my head between his strong capable hands and crush it. Like a madman, Hugh raised his arms above his head, breathed deeply through his clenched teeth, and brought his hands down on Keith’s back to lift him up as easily as if Keith were a sack of feathers.

It was the last thing I saw. Limply, with no more than instinct’s shadow, Keith tried to hold on to me as his father lifted him up, and with that faint plucking at my shirt I lost all consciousness. The world began to ooze away from me. The last thing I saw was Hugh looking down at me and then I felt his hand on my wrist. It wasn’t until he testified against me that I learned that Hugh had carried me down slung over his shoulder (with his arm around Keith, who sobbed and stumbled at Hugh’s side) and brought me outside, where the firemen were finally arriving, their sirens whooping and the red lights skittering through the trees. To his everlasting regret, Hugh had saved my life.

BOOK: Endless Love
11.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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