She was an atheist, but quiet about it. She knew the neighbours in this conservative mid-western town had strong feelings and unfriendly ideas about her beliefs, but she refused to fault them for their certainty that she was hell-bound and ready to burn; she credited their ignorance to the stifling and closed-minded parents and schools which had raised them and passed down Depression-era values over four or five generations. She could cope with a little bit of ignorance, with the tracts tucked into her door frame, with the doorbell ringing at odd hours, waking the dogs and making the house lights flicker during mealtimes and naptimes. She knew it wasn't malicious (or at least, this was what she swore to herself, and to her parents in her e-mails, when they worried about her after she moved out of the City). She knew they didn't really want her to burn, and that in some crooked way, it affirmed their beliefs to have somebody among them to whom they felt obligated and entitled to preach at all hours.

The fire was attributed to old and faulty wiring, star-crossed copper and aluminium kissing in stolen moments at every push of the doorbell her uncle had installed for her three years ago (a contraption meant to make the house lights flicker, since she sure as hell couldn't hear it, although the dogs would certainly have alerted her eventually, as they always did, to the arrival of any visitors). Her family hated that she lived by herself, in the middle of the small town.

When the examiners first arrived, they suspected arson, but since the flames erupted at such a strange location - the very front of the house, facing the road, visible to the entire cul de sac - they took a closer look, and sure enough, there was that bell, jerry-rigged by an unlicensed amateur electrician.

She had just gotten off a double shift at the hospital, the night before, working the emergency room. She hit the hay, dead tired, like she always did, and slept well into the following early afternoon. By the time the flickering orange lights woke her up, her hamster was already dead from smoke inhalation. Years later, she would find herself detecting the phantom reek of burning paint and appliances, in moments when she least expected it. She would pass her paranoia on to her children; she would hang all her laundry on clothes lines to avoid the hazards of dryer lint traps; she would never use an oven and could not stand the crisping metallic reek of barbecue grills in the moments before food was placed on them. She would never been seen cooking, unless it was with a microwave oven.

The sickest part of it was that the local fire department was right across the street from her house. One could not stand in her yard and spit without hitting the side of a shiny red hose truck. She ran next door for the neighbour to dial 911, but the station's radios - even the backup - were set to the wrong frequency to get the call relay. It took twenty minutes for trucks to arrive from the next town over, sirens blasting her silence, red lights indistinguishable between conflagration and emergency lights on the trucks' cabs. The mayor came on the local news the next day, adamant that there had been no negligence by the station or emergency services, but he protested far too much to be believed; the news crews had no difficulty getting the fire station and the scorched rubble together in a single shot on camera.

The only other thing of interest in that camera shot was a lone Jehovah's Witness, walking up and down the street like it was any other late morning, ringing doorbells and passing out pamphlets.

This story is collectively a work of fiction, but it combines the events of four separate house fires survived by four different people I know, including my mother and my neighbour across the street, whose house did in fact burn down two nights ago, next door to the local fire department. All events and details here are factually or emotionally accurate to at least one of the four events.

Iron Noder 2013, 3/30

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