Ash fell softly on the ground, piling up into a shuffle of dust around Karen’s feet. She kicked a bit of it, sending it swirling into the air, the breeze lifting it momentarily before it began to once again settle on the ground. Pretty, in its own way, the piles of ash. Spread out before her on the ground, in all directions, as she stood in the center of what had only recently been Clifton street. The bones of the neighborhood stood still, the blackened shafts of framing standing tall, see-through, like little geometric ghosts. One still had paint on it, the navy blue paint of what she assumed must have been a garage door, the whites around the blues contrasting and homey. You stored things in there: vehicles, lawn equipment, tools, all the things you wanted packed away but still safe and loved went behind that frame.
Yellow-garbed fireman, their gear on and decked to the nines, ran about in the wooden skeletons around her, searching for other survivors. They carefully sifted through the ash on the ground, the bones of another life. Singed couches, burnt toys, melted plastic, all of it latched to the frames of old homes.
Karen looked back and forth, all of the sight taken in at once. The fire had taken most of the neighborhood, the little hobo fire mixed with the gasoline of the car in old Mr. Hampton’s garage as he worked on his car. The man had been the first victim, his old but muscled body the first fuel and the first to be consumed fully. The fire consumed all.
Insurance had not arrived yet. Typical, but it freed-up her time to walk. She headed from the street to her house, working her way through the piles of ash and dust. The pieces of her broken, lost life lived in the ash of the remnant. As she stepped through the door frame she could see the melted television, the ash around what was once her bookshelf, and the singed remains of her favorite chair. The post-apocalyptic scene was burned into her mind and life. She walked to the wall-frame of the house, looked next door to Mr. Wellson’s house. His life lay around as well, the outline of a body in the ash on the floor.
The outline moved.
She jumped, twitched away. Hiding behind the remnants of her fireplace, Karen shed harsh, ragged, panicked breaths. Brick oddly warm against her back, the heat of the fire still in clinging on, spread through her body and she felt normal again, as though sitting in her chair with a crackling blaze contained within. She risked a peek around the corner. Looking, Karen found that the outline was only faintly there now. It looked as though the ash had been scattered once more.
“Fuck!” she shouted, a high pitched squeal leaking out of her chilled lungs. She spun around, but instead found only empty air. “Mr. Wellson?”
“Yes, it’s me,” came the reply. No one was there, of course, the air before her empty and hollow like the bones of former lives all around her. She turned again and walked around the chimney, looking for Rodney Wellson. There was no one there, of course.
“Dearie, I’m over here,” came the voice again.
She spun, looked around again. No one remained, no trace of the man she heard. “Christ,” she thought, “I’m hallucinating. I’m losing my mind.” She shook her head and chuckled a bit, afraid of the hysterical laughter that came out. She had heard another laughing like that, Mrs. Kendall from across the street. The woman had held her crying six-year-old son in her arms as they watched their house blaze in the night, laughing and weeping and giggling to herself as she whispered into the night about the “joke” that she found the burning to be. The neighbors had all been frightened, scared, and Mrs. Kendall had sat there in the heat of the blaze, in the middle of the street, crying as she cracked up. “It’s a joke,” Karen said to herself. “I’m losing it.”
“No,” the voice came once more, “I’m afraid not.” She lurched against the fireplace again, looking down. A set of footprints began to manifest before her eyes, coming around from the inside of the house to the outside to stand before her. “Ma’am, I’m afraid you must help me. You see, I’m quite trapped.”
She shivered in the cold, the warmth on her back leeching out of her as a chill seared up her spine. The footprints came to rest directly before her and she felt the heat of breath on her face, the smell of bananas and human exhalation assaulting her nose. “What is this?” she asked.
“This,” came the answer, “is not an hallucination. This is an anomaly of my own making. I did this, you see, and I cannot undo it now. At least, not for awhile.”
“How is this happening, what is it? What’s happening?”
“Ah, see that’s rather tricky to explain. The incident happened over two weeks ago, the night of the blackout.”
“The blackout,” she breathed.
“Yes,” Wellson replied. “See, that was my mistake. I put a bit too much electricity into what I was experimenting with and…well, you can see the result. I’m afraid what I was doing resulted in a bit of….refraction. The refraction embedded into the skin, causing the problem I am now in the throes of. It’s rather inconvenient, I admit it, but I think it might also be rather significant.”
“No,” she whispered. “No, no, what are you doing?”
“Madam, please. You must calm down.” The footprints began to appear again, pacing back and forth in the snow. They ran up and down, the ash still falling around them. She looked up, seeing it fall on what appeared to be a head of hair and shoulders. The man was in front of her and yet unseen, shaded from her. A faint ripple appeared in his movement, the light playing tricks on her.
“You aren’t real,” she said.
“It would be easier for us both if you accepted that I am,” he replied.
“You’re not. You’re a figment of my imagination.” Her bladder suddenly felt full, fear giving her the need to evacuate. “You can’t be real, you just can’t. No one can do this, it’s fake.”
“It’s not,” he said.
“Has to be.”
“You heard Mrs. Kendall in the street, yes?” he asked.
“Mrs. Kendall? What does she have to do with this.”
“The ranting and raving in the street!” he shouted. “Her nonsensical mumbling on the pavement was from me. You see, I rescued her child. The son was trapped in the home as the blaze burned. There was nothing I could do for the father, by the time I got inside he was already too far gone, but I was able to get the son out. I’m afraid she reacted rather badly to the sight of her boy floating out to her, the whispers of an unseen man telling her how sorry he was that he could not help her husband, but I thought saving her son was noble enough.”
“How did you save him?” she asked. “I saw your outline in the house next door, the body imprint.”
“Ah. My vanity is to blame on this front.”
“Your vanity,” she breathed, confused.
“Yes, my shameful pride. I’m a good Catholic, you see. We all feel that guilt, that shame at small sins, and this is my greatest. I ran back for my research, opening the fire safe to save it. Ironically, if I’d left it there I might have it still. I was struck on the head by some falling something-or-other and the fire consumed my research backups. The paper files, the hard drives melted, all of it gone.”
“Why….why didn’t you store on cloud?” she asked, bewildered with herself for asking.
“Never trust what you read on the internet, sweetheart, the whole thing is a scam to steal data like mine,” he growled. “Look, I just need some assistance.”
“What kind of assistance?”
“Well, the kind you can provide. You’re a scientist, yes?”
She laughed. “I’m a biology masters, I work studying apes at the zoo! I have no idea what the hell you’ve done to yourself, let alone how or what to do to help you. I don’t even quite understand what you’ve done.”
“Yes, but you could,” he said. “You could understand, quite easily. You have the mind for this kind of thing, we’ve had conversations that indicate such. All it would take is a bit of explanation and a lot of help in research on your part. It would take a year, maybe two, but you could help.”
“Again, help with what?” she asked.
“Help them see me again,” he said with a sigh. “Help me to come back to the world, so that I might show them what I’ve done and how to undo it. Help me show everyone what it could be to have a few hours to yourself, to take a vacation, to walk among everyone as no one for awhile. As my assistant you would come to the top with me.”
“This is crazy,” Karen said. “Crazy and weird and you aren’t here.”
“Help me, Karen. Please.”
She stood, back firm against the brick. “No,” she replied. “No, this isn’t right. Whatever you did, you’re stuck.”
“Ah,” he scoffed. “Pity, we might have accomplished something.” She looked down and saw the footsteps turn, begin to walk away. “Your loss, my dear,” he said as they led away from her.
The cold returned, the heat of another human body receding into the darkness of the night. The ash flew off of the shoulder, brushed aside by an unseen hand. A fireman ran around the side of the chimney, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Ma’am,” he said, “this isn’t a safe area. I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist you go out to the street while we clear the area. There might be flammables and these frames aren’t stable anymore, they might fall. You have to head back out there and away from this. Do you have any idea how many toxins you’re probably inhaling just by being here?”
She nodded, agreeing but not paying attention. She began to follow the footsteps in the ashen snow, their trail leading out to the street. The fireman turned away, headed back into the wreckage. Karen stumbled on, led by curiosity and a twinge of already-felt regret. They continued down the street. She stopped and watched as they went.
“The bones of another life,” she whispered, watching as Rodney Wellson exited her life.