By Jon Stark
By Jon Stark
Levi did what anyone else would do. He pretended not to see. But some problems don’t go away by themselves. That’s what Hannah would say. He still wasn’t ready to admit she might be right.
Things were out of hand now, though. He couldn’t ignore that. Fall was well on its way to winter. Time to gather up the mess. Time to get on with it.
Levi didn’t know how to do that, though. The trash can was out, he’d never fit it all in. A gust of wind stirred the mass of leaves in his yard. Spun them up into a spectral shape that danced a hundred yards before dissolving, drifting back to the ground. He shivered.
There were branches down in the yard too. An idea formed. Then the shape of a fire as he gathered sticks, broke them to size, and constructed a teepee within a log cabin. That should do it.
No, it wouldn’t. Levi gathered more wood and stacked it beside the carefully laid fire. He crumpled newspaper and hid it inside the sticks.
More leaves fell. Clouds roiled in the sky as night crept upon him. He glared at the faces of his neighbors, peering from the windows of their warm houses, judging him with their immaculate lawns and orderly bags of debris stacked at the ends of driveways that got fresh sealant every summer.
He didn’t like being judged. He’d told Hannah that a hundred times. She had a problem though, involving judging, talking, and not listening. The quiet was nice.
Dark had come when he was finally ready. Those who knew him would say it was because he was lazy and started too late in the day, not because he’d planned it that way. Others would suspect that he labored over the fire, adjusting everything just so, because be he sick in the head.
Once he had a good blaze going he headed to the house and dragged out some of the trash bags. The rooms were packed with garbage, a warren that both comforted and horrified him. The neighbors had complained unsuccessfully -- the homeowner’s association only had rules for the outside and to see his mess you had to be a nosey Nancy and look through his windows.
All the same, he’d blocked the windows. Hannah didn’t like that, but she was too busy running her yap to do anything about it.
A pair of eyes watched Levi from his neighbor’s upstairs bedroom. He stared back until they went away. The fire flickered and the rising shadows turned his face to a grotesque parody of a man.
Levi heaved one of the bags onto the blaze. It sputtered for a moment, hissed, then burned with a sudden furry. He wasn’t prepared for the smell. He’d thought it would be horrible but it was more like grilling steak.
Flashing lights caught his attention. He rushed around front. A sheriff’s deputy walked from the curb toward the house. “What can I do for you, Officer?” asked Levi.
The deputy stopped, shined his 6 cell flash light at Levi, then walked over to him. “Had a call about a fire.”
“Just burning some stuff I cleaned up,” said Levi.
“You’re supposed to call before you burn,” said the deputy.
Levi cursed under his breath. How had he forgotten that? “Sorry. I was rushing to get it done, didn’t think of it.”
The officer nodded. “That’s alright. Just don’t let it happen again.”
“It definitely won’t happen again,” said Levi.
The man walked back toward his car then turned. “What are you cooking? Smells great.”
Levi stared at him.
“You okay?” asked the deputy.
“Dinner. I’m hungry.”
The deputy frowned, shrugged, and went back to his car. “Be careful with that fire.”
Levi didn’t wave. He ran into his house and through the piles of collected junk to the freezer. He grabbed a package of meat and put it on his grill out back near the fire.
The grill wouldn’t start. He cursed. He hit it. Again. He threw it around his deck. It didn’t start.
The fire settled into coals. He threw on another trash bag. It caught quickly with a sickening hiss. This time flames didn’t leap up, they crawled low and blue. He watched them dance. The way he watched Hannah dance. He felt the same stirring.
It took some puttering but he wasn’t upset about the cop anymore and he got the grill going. He wasn’t sure anyone ever grilled a roast but nobody would be that close.
He threw more wood on the fire. He couldn’t afford to let it go out. Then he dragged out a half dozen more trash bags, one at a time, carefully so that they wouldn’t rip.
One of his neighbors waved from her back deck, a can of something in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He ignored her.
“You and Hannah having a late night barbeque?” she asked.
Levi snapped his head around. The woman had come to the edge of her lawn and was watching him. He glared at her, the fire casting a deep red tint on them both.
She caught her breath and stumbled back inside.
Levi spent hours at the fire, adding wood and trash bags until he was out of both. He poked at it with a long stick, shifting the ash and bones.
He dozed on a rusting folding chair. The moon came up and played hide and seek with the clouds. Still the fire burned. He startled awake, a curse on his lips. He looked around. Nothing. And the fire.
The flames rose up, formed and reformed. Arms stretched out and retreated. A face laughed at him. The wood was gone but still it burned. He poked at it again. He was tired. How long would it take?
Dawn crept into the sky and the fire burned. He sprayed it down but the fire kept burning. He could clearly see the bones now, fire fliting in and out of the empty eye sockets of the cracked skull.
He ran to the garage and fumbled for a rake. He worked feverishly and dumped piles of leaves on the fire, smothering it. Smoke poured out, vile, acrid, thick.
Levi went inside. He ate. Outside, the fire burned through the leaves. He went back to work, feeding the fire with leaves and fallen branches.
Every time it burned down he would sift and stir and each time he found the bones still burning, no hint that they were being consumed. All day and into the night he labored. He burned all of the leaves. Still the bones looked untouched by the fire that clung to them.
His phone rang. He ignored it. A few minutes later his neighbor was back, with a fresh can and cigarette. “Where’s Hannah? I just tried to call and she didn’t answer. Haven’t seen her in a few weeks.”
“Gone,” said Levi. “Maybe to her mother’s?”
“Why would she go there?” A drag on the cigarette.
“Or you weren’t listening?” It was playful. So was the subtle unzipping of the sweatshirt she wore. “She say when she was coming back?”
Levi shook his head. He threw some books onto the fire from where he’d moved the stack in the dining room to a pile beside the fire. “I told her to shut up. She said I couldn’t make her. I stopped paying attention after that.”
His neighbor nodded sagely. Finished her can. “You let me know if there’s... anything I can do.”
“You can go home and leave me alone,” said Levi. He threw the rest of the books on the fire. She zipped up the sweatshirt and huffed away.
The fire burned all night. He tried soaking it with the hose but the water just hissed and mocked him. The fire danced and leered at him.
He emptied the house, burning decades of collected treasures but each time the trash was consumed, it left only the bones. The sheriff’s deputy came back. He chased the man away. Promised he was almost done.
But he wasn’t. When the trash in the house was burned he started on the garage. Then the furniture in the house. Then he tore up the floors and broke up the walls. The fire consumed all of it.
The fire department chief came by and suggested that maybe it was time to put out the fire. Levi told him he was on it. His eyes blazed and smoke clung to him and the fireman retreated, shaken.
Levi tried burying the fire. The bones moved together then, hiding from the dirt. Scurrying out of the pit and onto his lawn. He hacked at them with his shovel. They danced out of reach.
Exhausted, he stopped for breath. They came together. Feet, legs, pelvis, ribs, shoulders, arms, hands. He watched in horror as the bone fingers lifted the skull and set it in place.
A voice, harsh with smoke, hissed at him from the broken jaw. He fell to his knees, covered his ears. But he still heard her.