Zakariah Johnson

Carla collects her invoice

     Joel awoke to a shrieking smoke detector. The system wasn’t flawless, and in his groggy state he assumed it was a false alarm during the half-second it took his nose and ears to register the smoke and crackling timbers.

     “Oh god!” he screamed, leaping naked from the bed and repeatedly flicking the light switch up and down. Nothing happened and he cursed the flashlights tucked uselessly into the kitchen junk drawer a story below. His feet instinctively arched off the rapidly heating floor as he groped in the dark for his robe. Finding it, he threw it on, took a deep breath, and opened the bedroom door. Hot smoke roiled on the landing, black clouds lit by the joyous flames dancing up his wooden stairs. 

     Crouching in the last pocket of breathable air, he speed-crawled to the window that was reflecting the advancing fire. He undid the latch and jerked furiously at it, uttering a cry as he realized the frame was nailed shut.

     “What the hell?”

     He punched one of the nine glass panes, jerking his fist back with a hiss as a bone broke in his hand. Coughing and retching, Joel rolled to the bathroom, retrieved the lid off the toilet and used it to smash the landing window to shards and splinters. Dropping the broken porcelain, as the fire reached him, he swatted at the burning hem of his robe and dove headfirst out the window, hoping against hope the yew bushes two stories down would spare him a broken neck.

_____

     Returning to her apartment by bicycle, Carla waited alone through the night, sipping white wine in her favorite chair with the go-bag she’d packed for jail lying at her feet, waited for the police to rap on the door or to break it down and carry her off to pay whatever debt society deemed was its due. She was reconciled to pay any cost, though, satisfied that her own debt had been reclaimed in full.

     But the knock never came.

     As dawn broke, Carla showered away the lingering smells and dressed; then she spread raspberry jam over a toasted “everything” bagel, tossing the last bite in the trash. She slipped outside and down the block in time to catch her regular bus to work.

_____

     Outside the charred shell of his house, Joel sat on the back of the ambulance nursing a thermos-cap full of coffee as an EMT bound his twisted knee. The yellow and orange of the fire had given way to the blue and red of emergency lights, white water vapor rising now instead of black smoke.

     “You were damn lucky,” the fire marshal told him, coming to reclaim his thermos. Joel disagreed, but said nothing. “We can’t say officially yet, but you smell that gas? It’s as clear a case of arson as could be. Got an enemies list?”

     Joel thought hard, but try as he might to name a suspect, the woman named Marla or Darla or whatever it was who’d come home with him from the bar one night almost a year ago never entered his mind. Which made sense. He’d never even called her back.

17 March, 2021

Zakariah Johnson plucks banjos and pens horror, thriller, and crime fiction from the south bank of the Piscataqua. His recent stories have appeared in Hoosier Noir, Bristol Noir, Thriller Magazine, and the end-of-times anthology, Apocalyptic, from Zombies Need Brains. Follow him on Twitter @Pteratorn.