Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter One

The dreary night settles around him, the overhead clouds refracting the moonlight and keeping the night from being completely dark, although the sky is ominously overcast. As swollen as the clouds are though, they refuse to pour down rain. Nathaniel Murdoch sits on the flaking park bench, his hands paralyzingly still in his lap. He is not tempted in the least to pick at the green, graffiti- marked paint, although countless hands that have come before have surely done so. The low overhang of clouds makes the air chilly and damp, but he does not even shiver in his thin long-sleeved t-shirt. Wind stirs his hair against his face, blowing a white fast food bag across the ground in front of him. His eyes follow the bag; it snares on the chainlink fence that is laced around the trash can to his left. For some reason, this contrast of white paper against rusty chain link strikes Nathaniel. He does not probe into the reason.

Across the park a ways a homeless man stumbles through the uncut grass, warmed by only a threadbare flannel shirt and the bottle of cheap wine he holds close to his chest. Nathaniel has seen the man before in his trips to the park, but they have never spoken. The man stumbles, and then rights himself. Suddenly a fierce barking shatters the wind-blown night. A boy on a skateboard, surely still too young to legally buy cigarettes, comes flying up the cracked sidewalk, with a skinny rottweiler on a leash. His helter-skelter journey brings him cuttingly close to the homeless man. The dirty man wobbles and in his efforts to right himself, he drops the bottle from his hands.

“Watch where you are going, you creepy old fart!” the kid yells, popping his skateboard right then left and speeding off, barking dog in tow. His laughter is brittle in the air. Nathaniel watches, unmoving, as the homeless man gets to his knees in a desperate attempt to scoop the spilled wine off the sidewalk. Nathaniel looks away again. He finds that some things are best not watched for too long.
The wind picks up with a desperate howl, and a tornado of leaves whips around him. One sticks in the collar of his shirt, poking his neck insistently. He does not brush it away. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the bum stumble off into some bushes. The wind blows the bag on the fence flat; Nathaniel can hear it crinkling over the wind. It seems to be trying to tell him something, but before he can decide if he really wants to understand its message, the bag is muted as a flier blows across it. The flier is red with bold, black letters that proclaim EMMA’S DISCOUNT EMPORIUM: ALL ITEMS HALF-OFF!!!!! The red looks like blood seeped across the white and for the first time, Nathaniel moves to look away.

Despite the action of turning aside, Nathaniel’s mind snaps him back into the past. He can see dark hair, not unlike his own, stark against a white tiled floor, blood pooling to one side. His father’s face is turned away, but Nathaniel knows his eyes will be opened, filmed over with death, his mouth twisted into an unholy grimace.

Unease creeps along Nathaniel’s back, even as he drags himself bodily from the memory. He reaches into the front pocket of his jeans, and pulls out a cell phone. The LED screen does not light up when he opens it, and a rapid pushing of buttons tells why. The battery is dead, (dead like his father) and Nathaniel woodenly replaces the cell phone in his pocket. This cannot be the omen it feels like, and so he forces himself to sit still for several long minutes. He has grown good at stillness. His unease builds as the seconds tick past. Suddenly the bag rips free from the fence, its tearing like a gunshot. At that moment, with his heart still in his throat from the sound, Nathaniel becomes aware of the smell of smoke. The bag tumbles past him and sirens begin to wail. He knows the sirens are mostly for show, but yelling carries to him on the wind.

He bolts to his feet, heading out of the park and towards home. He walks faster and faster, his hand still clenched around the cell phone. When he crests the edge of the park, he can see the smoke and the flames. His stomach clenches painfully, even as his hold on the dead cell tightens. The fire must at least be near his home. In his heart, he knows better. In his heart he knows where the flame beast originates.

His face is down, against the sight and the reality of what it means, but he sees a dark limousine slip past, its windows tinted with secrets. Such a vehicle would be out of place in the Underground, where he lives, except that it isn’t. This limo is like a shark in the water, a deadly predator. And in that instant, Nathaniel knows for sure. She has been here. It is her hand that has violated his sanctuary. He breaks into a run, his speed hampered by the hand he cannot seem to get out of his pocket.

A block and a half from his apartment complex, the crowds congest. He is forced to slow as he pushes past people. Angry and startled voices rise around him, as he shoves against the flow. He can feel the beginnings of anger burning his chest. For so long he has caged the anger down into a rabbit-hole of fear and self-preservation. Now it is breaking free with a vengeance.

A man is standing in front of the building, staring at the flames with the rapt attention of a worshipper and the caress of a lover. His eyes are fevered, although Nathaniel doesn’t know if it is the fire or drugs or both. His face is painted red with the excitement of watching the fire burn, but beneath it his shirt is white as snow. Nathaniel clenches his fists, the hand with the cell phone a painful sting. He resists the urge to hit the firebug, contenting himself with shoving past the man. He continues toward the front door, the roar of the crowd so much back-ground noise behind him. A hand tightens on the back of his shirt.

Nathaniel whirls, ripping his shirt free and sees the incarnation of inaction, the firebug staring at him, mouth open. For a moment his eyes glow with destruction, as though the destruction raging through the building has somehow gotten inside of him. He lunges and grabs Nathaniel’s arm. For a moment, Nathaniel thinks the crazy man is trying to stop him from entering the building. Then with a junkie’s fervor, the firebug whispered thickly, “This is so freakin’ burnt man.” The admiration is clear in his voice.

Nathaniel knocks his hand away, and disappears inside the smoke and flame-filled building, the anger raging inside him no match for the fire.