Flames by Robert Guffey

A searing portrait of hatred and regret.

As the 19th of April dissolved into the 20th, Samuel crept into an alley permeated by the stench of week-old garbage. Piles of rotting food, broken wine bottles, torn magazines, and a horde of other useless objects had spilled out of a large blue bin standing against a graffiti-stained brick wall. A stray black cat leaped out of the refuse and darted in front of his path. Christ, just what he needed.

Samuel knelt down in front of the church’s back door. The lock was primitive; it would be easy. He reached into his belt and removed two pencil-thin lock picks made of hand-finished clock spring steel. He eased them into the lock. After a mere flick of the wrist the tumbler snapped aside.

Samuel returned the picks to his belt. He pushed the door inward, stepped inside. The room was dark, but not indiscernible. It was a kitchen. Lori’s detailed blueprints of the church had indicated as much. According to the plans, a door leading to the basement was located on the left.

The plans were correct. Exactly ten feet to his left stood a plain wooden door. He turned the knob and found it to be unlocked. Lori had told him that the pastor locked every door, including this one, night after night. Odd. Perhaps the pastor was in the basement. If so, he was going to receive quite a shock in a few moments. He patted the concealed gun strapped to his side, drew reassurance from its presence.

Samuel opened the door slowly, using the knob to lift the door up just enough to prevent it from creaking. The door pressed against something lying on the floor: a small blue lump. Samuel knelt down to examine it. He was surprised to see that it was a raggedy white doll with yellow yarn for hair, two red circles for cheeks, black buttons for eyes, a fluffy denim dress for clothing. It appeared to have been sewn by hand. What was it doing on the kitchen floor?

Since he had no way of knowing, and couldn’t care less even if he did, Samuel slid the doll across the linoleum floor with his foot. He opened the door the rest of the way, withdrew a powerful flashlight from his belt, slipped through the doorway. He shone the light from side to side, found himself on a landing just above a flight of wooden stairs. The beam illuminated only Samuel’s immediate surroundings. The bottom of the stairs was obscured by darkness.

Samuel descended the stairs, attempting to place his boots on the far edges of each step to soften the creaking. If the pastor was indeed here, he would have to be hiding in the dark. Samuel found this unlikely. Perhaps the old man had just forgotten to lock the basement door this one unfortunate night. Unfortunate for the pastor, at least.

Twenty-four steps later Samuel reached the bottom of the stairs. Placing his feet on the concrete floor, he swung the beam of light from one side of the basement to the other. Piles of cardboard boxes connected by silken spider webs lined the walls. To his right were the circle of wooden barrels Lori had told him about. Behind the barrels, in the corner of the room, stood the boiler. Samuel approached it.

He set the tool box beside the boiler, then slipped the flashlight between his teeth. He crouched down and lifted the lid from the tool box. Inside sat a dry cell, an alarm clock, a single stick of phosphorous, and seven sticks of dynamite. Though the alarm clock was already set for two o’clock, he had not yet connected the electrical wires. He wasn’t too keen on kissing the material plane goodbye due to some jackass turning on his cell phone too close to his toolbox. He would have to trail the wires from the blasting cap to the dry cell, then from the dry cell to the hammer of the bell as well as the bell itself.

He was in the midst of doing exactly this when he heard the rustling behind him. In one swift motion Samuel released the wires, pulled the revolver from his belt, and spun around. He saw someone emerging from beneath the stairs. A black man. From his soiled clothes and haggard appearance, he was obviously used to sleeping on the streets. He seemed to be in his late 40s, though he could’ve been younger. Samuel knew all too well how the streets could age you beyond recognition. The man had the distinctive, roadmap face of a professional alcoholic. His eyes were filled with fear. Upon seeing the gun his arms shot into the air.

“Who the fuck are you?” Samuel said.

“I ain’t nobody,” the man said, his voice trembling. “Hey, listen, man, I ain’t seen shit, okay? Just let me go and I won’t say nothin’. I don’t want no trouble. I was just lookin’ for a place to sleep. I had no idea this was your squat.”

“How’d you get in here?”

The man pointed up at the basement window, which was open a crack. Samuel cursed himself. A fine housebreaker I am, he thought. I could’ve come in through the fuckin’ window.

“I just wanted some sleep,” the man repeated.

“Shut up.” The smart move would’ve been to shoot him, but Samuel wasn’t feeling all that smart today. He was just feeling tired. Tired of everything. He whipped out the handcuffs from the breast pocket of his repairman’s uniform and began walking toward the man.

“Hey, wh-what’re you doin’?” the man said, backing away toward the stairs.

“Don’t move one more inch,” Samuel said as softly as possible. The man obeyed. Samuel slapped one end of the handcuffs around the man’s left wrist, then connected the other end to the railing of the stairway. The man began whimpering like a little baby. Samuel didn’t like that, he didn’t like that at all. He wished he had something to stuff in the man’s mouth,—even a handkerchief would do—but he hadn’t prepared for this possibility. Nothing ever went smoothly for him.

He leaned into the man’s pockmarked face and pressed his gun against his cracked lips. “Listen to me very carefully. I’ve got a job to do and I need to concentrate. It’ll be very dangerous for both you and me if I can not concentrate. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. If I feel my concentration slipping I’m liable to turn around and plant a bullet in your face, you got that? Just nod if you understand.” The man nodded, his mouth just barely touching the barrel of the gun. “Thank you for your cooperation, sir.” He pulled the gun away from the man’s face, then glanced at his wrist watch. Ten to one.

He turned his back on the man, kneeled in front of the toolbox. He began connecting the wire to the blasting cap. Despite Samuel’s warning, the man continued to whimper. Perhaps he didn’t even know he was doing it. Samuel managed to block out all the sounds surrounding him. A delicate, dangerous procedure like this commanded his entire attention. He took a deep breath before twisting the wire around the nodes of the dry cell. From the dry cell he connected it to the bell of the alarm clock.

While tying the wire around the hammer of the bell, he heard the creaking behind him. He glanced over his shoulder. The man was trying to squeeze his wrist through the handcuff.

“God damn you,” Samuel said, trying not to lose his cool. “Sit the fuck down.” He had to say it twice before the idiot paid him any attention. At last the man sank down to the dusty floor and drew his knees to his chest, his left arm still dangling above his head. Samuel closed his eyes for a moment, trying to regain his focus. He pushed the man out of his mind again, continued trailing the wire from the alarm clock back to the blasting cap, completed the three-way connection. He slid the toolbox behind the boiler, destroying an intricate pattern of spider webs that had no doubt hung there for a very long time. He shined his light on a small dark creature scurrying across his boot—an ugly, mottled brown spider. His first instinct was to step on it, but he held back. After all, what would be the point?

Samuel started back up the stairs, not even glancing at the handcuffed man.

“Hey, where’re you goin’?” the man said. “You’re not gonna just leave me down here, are you? I’m tellin’ you, I didn’t see a thing, man. I don’t care about what you got down here. I don’t care. I just wanted a place to sleep. I just wanted—” His words segued into heavy sobs.

Near the top of the stairs, Samuel turned around and said, “Heads up.” The man glanced upwards just in time to see the keys flying towards his head. He tried to catch them, but they bounced off his fingertips and landed somewhere in the darkness surrounding him. Samuel couldn’t waste any more time. He silently wished the man luck, then locked the basement door behind him. Why make it easy? Besides, there was always the window.

Samuel retraced his steps. He padded across the kitchen floor, listened carefully, but could hear no sounds emerging from the adjoining rooms. As he closed the back door of the church, Samuel heard Trimble’s crackling voice through his ear piece; the only sign of life in the area was now a mangy-looking black cat, he was told. Good, good. Samuel jogged down the alley, out onto the sidewalk, and across the street toward the van. Trimble swung open the doors for him as he approached. The teenager was bubbling over with excitement, but knew better than to utter a word.

Samuel shut the doors behind him, then began slipping out of his uniform. Trimble peered into his surveillance periscope, which was disguised as a roof vent. Making sure everything was in order one last time, no doubt. The kid’s exuberance disgusted Samuel. Fifteen years before, Samuel had been just like him.

“What do you see?” Samuel said. He hoped the nervousness in his voice was not obvious.

“Looks like some nigger tearing past the church,” Trimble said. “He’s going north on Avalon. You think he might’ve seen something?”

So he escaped. Samuel felt relieved, though he couldn’t say why. Only a year ago he would’ve shot the man without a second thought. “I doubt it,” he said. “Let’s just go.” He threw his uniform into a cardboard box beside the swivel chair.

“I could put Lori on his tail.”

“I said forget it.” Samuel glanced at his watch. One o’clock on the dot. “Just tell her to go back to the motel. We’ll meet her there.”

Samuel locked the doors of the truck, then climbed into the driver’s seat. He drove out of there at a safe, sane pace. No reason to draw attention to themselves.

Well, looks like another routine work day has come to a close, he thought, not without sarcasm.

* * * * *

Samuel and Trimble were too wired to go to sleep when they arrived back at the motel room, an insect-ridden dump called The Detroit Motor Inn off Sunset and Pico in Hollywood. At 3:40 Trimble switched on the radio. He searched the dial for an all-news station. At last he found KNX 1070 AM. A continuous stream of late-breaking news poured out of the announcer’s mouth, everything from traffic jams to natural disasters. No news on the church, not yet.

At 3:51 Lori strolled into the motel room as if she’d just returned from a mild sorority party. She was a pretty young blonde who looked like she should be jumping up and down in a cheerleader’s outfit at a high school football game rather than coordinating mass bombings. Rumor had it she was fucking one of the Generals.

Lori plopped down on Trimble’s bed and told them she had stayed behind to record the conflagration from a distance. Through a handheld night vision viewer, the explosion had looked like a magnificent firework display in honor of the Fourth of July. There were a lot of respectable businessmen and “philanthropists” who would pay loads of cash for such a video. She seemed to think it would become as much in demand as the video of the July ’77 Son of Sam shootings; she’d heard a copy had gone for $30,000 during a private auction only a few months before. To celebrate, she withdrew a bottle of champagne from a brown paper bag, courtesy of the Generals themselves. She poured three glasses.

At 4:05 the announcer informed them that the St. John African Methodist Church had been engulfed by flames. Even now the fire department was attempting to control the spread of the fire. The announcer was not yet certain whether or not there had been any fatalities, or if this fire was connected to the wave of church burnings that had swept across the country in recent months. Samuel, Trimble and Lori clinked their glasses together and toasted this most special day, so long in planning.

At 5:00 they learned that there had been five fatalities connected to the fire, including a fireman who was shot by a local resident as he climbed a ladder toward the second floor of the church. Lori laughed at that last bit of news. The bottle of champagne was almost empty. As he grew more and more drunk, Trimble kept mumbling about how proud his dad was going to be. Outside, the sun was just beginning to rise.

By 5:10 Trimble was fucking Lori in the squeaky bed as Samuel sat on the carpet, in the dark, his ear pressed up against the radio’s speaker as if he could draw more information from it by squeezing its metal casing. His stomach was upset, his chest tight, his forehead clammy and warm. Something was wrong, he knew it.

At seven minutes after the hour the announcer returned with an update. The firemen had removed four charred corpses from the blackened rubble. Apparently the bodies were those of the Reverend Robert L. Cather and a local homeless family that the pastor had been allowing to sleep in the church for the past three months. The family included an adult Caucasian male, an adult Caucasian female, and their eight-year-old daughter. Their names were not yet known.

Samuel switched off the radio, closed his eyes, opened the door slowly, using the knob to lift the door up just enough to prevent it from creaking. The door pressed against something lying on the floor: a small blue lump. Samuel knelt down to examine it. He was surprised to see that it was a raggedy white doll with yellow yarn for hair, two red circles for cheeks, black buttons for eyes, a fluffy denim dress for clothing. It appeared to have been sewn by hand. He remembered kicking the doll across the kitchen floor, discarding it like a piece of trash.

Behind him, Lori and Trimble were sound asleep. Samuel switched off the radio and turned on the television. The lead story on the Channel Five news was the church burning. The station played a video depicting the bodies being pulled out of the rubble. On a stretcher lay a small body, a blackened hand sticking out from beneath the sheet.

By the top of the hour they had attained a photo of the family. The little girl’s name was Celia Shepard. She was eight and half years old. The station overlapped her face with live video of what little was left of the St. John Church, while a newscaster reported the details of Shepard’s life.

Samuel switched off the television and stared at the fibers in the carpet for a very long time. Diffuse, gray light peeked in through the closed curtains. Because the curtains were blue they cast an ethereal glow upon every object in the room. He felt like he was half-dead, floating in a limbo of his own creation; if he didn’t leave soon he thought he might sink into the confusion within his own mind, never to re-emerge. A vertiginous sensation swept over him.

He rose to his feet, burst out of that tomb-world, shut the door behind him. He leaned against the door, closed his eyes, breathed in the cool morning air. He remained there for a moment, trying to regain his equilibrium. A distant rumbling assaulted his ears; he imagined it was the sound of Sisyphus’s rock rolling down the hill for the millionth time. He opened his eyes and saw that it was a delivery man pushing a dolly of boxes through the parking lot. The delivery man walked past Samuel.

“Good morning,” Samuel said. He just wanted to hear someone else’s voice.

The delivery man glared at him with contempt, then continued walking. The look in his eyes said it all: child-killer. The delivery man paused outside the check-out window. He asked the clerk to open the door to the office. As the clerk did so, he seemed to throw a nervous glance toward Samuel. After the delivery man rolled the dolly inside, the clerk locked the door behind him. Would they discuss Samuel within the safety of the office? Would they decide to call the police based merely on the guilt etched into Samuel’s face? Worse yet, would they contact his superiors and warn them that they had a weakling in their midst, a “useless eater?”

Samuel pushed himself away from the door, cut through the parking lot, and rounded the motel. He and Trimble had left the van a few blocks away just to be safe. He patted his pockets and was glad to find that he hadn’t left the keys back in that limbo. He almost got hit by a car while crossing the street. He barely noticed. If he got hit by a car, he got hit by a car. What did it matter? What did anything matter?

He climbed into the driver’s seat of the van, slipped his hands around the steering wheel. He lowered his head back against the vinyl seat and closed his eyes once more. His grip on the wheel tightened progressively as if he were in danger of floating away. At first he saw only darkness behind his eyes, darkness populated by green rods and floating red circles. The rods and circles were then disrupted by a rift in the darkness through which light poured in and revealed a naked black boy, only about eight years old, his body covered by a criss-crossing roadmap of thin bloody streaks as if he’d been whipped by a metal wire over and over again. (Yes, Samuel had seen this boy during his initiation, oh so long ago. How… oh God, how could I…?) The boy glanced up. Through his empty eye sockets one could see tiny human beings trapped within the walls of his skull, lodged up to their bare waists, their bony arms stretching outward in a desperate attempt to touch the freedom that lay beyond the boy’s eyes. Samuel peered closer. Inside the eyes of one of these trapped men he could see something else: a white woman in her late twenties locked in a small room filled with smoke, her face etched with panic as she slammed her fists through a window, trying so hard to save the small child clutching at her leg. Inside her eyes Samuel could see something else: a small body lying on a stretcher, covered almost entirely by a white sheet that failed to hide the girl’s charred hand. And something else … a raggedy white doll with yellow yarn for hair … a delivery man with a contemptuous glare in his eyes … a night clerk with an accusation upon his lips … a pair of giddy teenagers overbrimming with too much death.

Samuel’s eyes snapped open.

He stared at himself in the rearview mirror, recalled the oath he had been forced to utter during his initiation:

“Let me bear witness to you, my brothers, that should an enemy of our CAUSE—whether he be from within or from without—bring hurt to you, I will chase him to the ends of the earth and remove his head from his body.”

The reflection in the mirror was quite different from the boy who uttered those words fifteen years ago. But in other ways, it was exactly the same. He sat and stared at that reflection for a very long time, unmoving.

Then he looked into those gray eyes and said, “Fuck off.”

He slipped the keys into the ignition and drove away as fast as possible. He didn’t know where he was going, didn’t need to, not yet. However, he thought he might welcome the opportunity to lose his head along the way.

He drove aimlessly for awhile, not thinking of anything at all. He punched the button on the CD player. Chaotic music blared out of the speakers: one of Trimble’s favorite bands, RAHOWA. According to Trimble the name was derived from the first two letters of the phrase RAcial HOly WAr. The disc began in the middle of a weird tune called “Sick City,” a cover of an old Charlie Manson song, one of the many he recorded before being railroaded into prison. “… to say sick city so long farewell/And die.”

Samuel slammed his fist into the off button. The music wasn’t making him feel any better. He drove in silence for a long time and was surprised, two hours later, when he found himself parked right across the street from the smoldering remains of the St. John African Methodist Church. He realized he’d been sitting there for awhile. The sun had fully risen and was beating down hard on the shimmering black asphalt and the rats that scampered about amidst the rubble that jutted up out of the ground where the holy building had once stood. A holy building. A Holy War. Samuel began to giggle. He couldn’t stop himself. It was like having a bad case of the hiccups.

After a few minutes he got himself under control. He squinted through the glare, searching for any trace of the milling crowds that inevitably lingered around fresh disaster sites, but other than one or two dark faces passing by the open windows in the tenement buildings surrounding the street, the block appeared to be deserted.

As if an outside force were in control of his body, he found himself leaving the van and strolling toward the remains of the church. He paused in front of the empty space that the large double doors had once occupied. The police had ringed the area with a wide band of yellow ribbon (yellow yarn for hair), like the kind used to commemorate the first Gulf War.

A war. Racial Holy War.

Samuel felt the giggles returning. Oh God, he thought, what the hell am I going to do? This was a question he asked himself perhaps a hundred times over the course of the next twenty minutes while just standing there, staring….

He didn’t notice them, not through the intermittent giggles and glaring white sunlight and his own confusion. He only spotted them through his peripheral vision when they were already within thirty feet of him: a group of young black men, perhaps as many as a dozen, flanked by a familiar face, the homeless man whose life Samuel had spared. He looked frightened. “He’s the one,” he said, pointing at Samuel.

The young man at the head of the group nodded solemnly and told him to go. The homeless man scampered away.

Samuel patted his jacket, remembering now that he’d left his gun in the van. He spun around and started walking toward it. Too late. Six of the men placed themselves between him and the van. The others strolled up behind him. Samuel stared into the leader’s cool brown eyes.

“I… I don’t want any trouble,” Samuel said. His head was on fire. Sweat beads dripped into his eyes. So hard to see in this glare….

The leader smiled without humor.

Samuel felt nauseous. He needed to urinate bad. He tried to say, “I can tell you who was behind the fire.” But for some reason it was difficult to form words.

He glanced up slowly. A few dark faces peered down at him, peeking out from behind the surrounding tenement windows. Waiting to see what would happen.

He could feel the hatred closing in around him as a scattershot series of images sliced through his mind: a black cat in a doorway, an empty bottle of champagne, a bed creaking beneath the weight of two indistinct bodies fucking each other in the lengthening shadows of sunrise.

White flesh charred black with fire.

A church burning to the ground, filtered red.

Yellow yarn, curling in upon itself like the legs of a wounded spider, as it blackens, disintegrates, and disappears.

Robert Guffey’s first book of nonfiction, Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form, was published by TrineDay in May of 2012.  His first book of fiction, a collection of novellas entitled Spies & Saucers, is forthcoming from PS Publishing in the fall of 2013.  His short stories have appeared in such publications as Catastrophia, Flurb, Pearl, Phantom Drift, and The Third Alternative.  Forthcoming short stories include “The Walk” in The Mailer Review Vol. 7, “The Advertising Man” in Nameless Magazine, and “Selections From The Expectant Mother Disinformation Handbook” in Postscripts #30/31.

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