This is a story Mrs. Marincovich started and I had to finish. :)
By Caitlin Plathe
On the day that my neighbor set fire to his house, I was watching The Price is Right. Pathetic, I know. I had called in to work sick that morning, battling a cold that had been running rampant through the high school. I had coughed my way all week through teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and teacher meetings, and so today, I was giving myself permission to rest. Whenever I am sick, I remember those days as a kid when I’d stay home from school and lie on the couch all day, the latest Nancy Drew mystery on the floor next to me. My mom would feed me chicken soup and Seven-Up, and at night, rub my chest with the dreaded Vick’s VapoRub. Today, comic books have been replaced with research papers, stacks of dull writing that, each year, become more and more painful to grade. This is proven by the fact that I would rather huddle under my afghan and watch mindless game shows.
And so, on that rather odd day, as I watched an elderly lady jump around on stage like a wild chimpanzee after winning a side-by-side refrigerator, a flash of orange from my dining room window caught my eye. It took a moment to register, but then I realized that Old Man Larson’s house was on fire. It must have been the cold medicine that caused me to stare stupidly out the window rather than take some sort of action. By the time my brain woke up, the sirens were wailing.
Old Man Larson is the kind of character who appears in those creepy, badly written mystery novels you read in junior high. He’s lived across the street from me for the past several years, but I’ve only seen him a handful of times. The kids in the neighborhood call him Spook. I think it’s because he’s got this really pale skin and wispy gray hair that flies around his head like frayed feathers. He seems to live in the same tattered overalls which he always wears shirtless. Rumor has it he used to be a big shot at a bank until his wife died suddenly, and then he started drinking and basically shut himself in his house. When I moved in three years ago, his reputation was already firmly established among the neighbors.
It took barely five minutes for the fire trucks to show up, but by then, flames were already shooting through the roof of the house. I watched as burly men in overcoats and boots pulled out the hoses and shot water into the windows. I kept wondering, where was Larson? Was he trapped inside? Judging by the amount of smoke billowing into the sky, it seemed unlikely that he could survive this. After about 15 minutes, the house began to smolder. One of the firemen put on a gas mask and pushed his way through the front door. By now, my other neighbors had wandered into the street to watch the action. As I debated whether to get dressed and join the crowd for a better look, I heard a knock at my back door.
I barely recognized him. Instead of the usual overalls, Larson was dressed in a business suit. His wispy hair had been cut and slicked back, and he wore black framed eyeglasses, the fashionable kind you see on celebrities these days. He was holding a brown leather briefcase. We stared at each other for a moment. Then, I silently beckoned him inside. He stepped over the threshold like he had been doing it his whole life.
Once inside, he asked in a curt voice, “Your kitchen?”
My mouth hung open, but I quickly pulled myself together. I cleared my throat. “It’s right in here.”
He—Old Man Larson, the man who regularly wore overalls—strutted to the kitchen. Then he promptly put his briefcase on the kitchen counter, where I had planned on making chicken noodle soup for myself later that day. So much for that.
Larson pulled a dusty, black book out of his briefcase and went to work, not even batting an eye. I stood there awkwardly, not entirely sure what one was supposed to do in this kind of situation. Should I offer him something to drink? Perhaps he’s hungry. His home just burned down, why on earth did he come to my house? Maybe I should say my condolences? I chose to go with the latter.
“I’m so sorry about what happened to your house, Mr. Larson. I can’t even imagine what you must be going through. Here, let me get you something to drink.” I turned to the fridge and pulled out the lemonade I made the other day.
“What exactly do you think I’m going through?”
“Sorry?” I asked, reaching for one of the few clean glasses left, which happened to be on the top shelf.
When I turned around, glass in hand, my mind played a trick on me—for a split second, I didn’t think he was there. A flash of empty came across my vision, but I blinked, and he was back. My sinuses must be blocking more than just my nose, I think, so I ignored it.
“The way you said that means you’re assuming that I must be going through something fairly horrific. What exactly makes you believe this?” His voice was much deeper and more pristine than I imagined it to be. People always described him as quiet, even with a drink in his hand.
My eyes narrowed as I poured the glass for him, and he watched, well, stared, as I did so. Would it not be “fairly horrific” to see your own home burn to the ground? “Oh. Well, I guess I just assumed you’d be a little distraught after something like this happening, is all.” I avoided saying the word “fire.” I handed him the glass, and started to stand on my toes to get another glass for myself.
“Distraught is something I would be if I couldn’t remember my own name.” His right hand wrapped around the drink, and I noticed a deep scar on the back of his wrist. “Or maybe something I’d be if I were locked in a room without windows. However, distraught is not something I am after burning my own house down.” He admired the glass and proceeded to take a sip.
I started coughing profusely, unable to finish the glass I had started to pour into.
Larson glanced over at me and gave this flash of surprisingly white and straight teeth—I assumed it was an attempt to smile.
“You burned your own house down?”
He nodded slowly and carefully, keeping his eyes locked on me. “You seem confused for some reason.”
A scoff escaped and I quickly covered my mouth. Confused “seemed” to be a bit of an understatement. Questions swirled around in my head, and my blocked sinuses didn’t help much. His eyes flashed to emptiness, and then returned again. “Why would you burn your house down?” I finally managed to ask.
Larson brought his scarred hand up to his chin, like he had to really process this question. It reminded me of when my grandpa used to tell—slur—unimaginable stories about Flying Spaghetti and the Dangerous Dandelion. They were completely made up tales, and most of the time they were filled with innuendos I didn’t understand until I started middle school. My grandma hated when he told me stories like that, mostly because I could never fall asleep at night. I imagined that the Dangerous Dandelion (who, for some reason, always had a witch hat on—which scared me even more) sat in my closet, waiting for me to drift off into my dreams.
“Do you know how long I have lived in that house?” Larson asked.
I shook my head. “I’ve only lived here for a few years now.”
“Hmm,” he murmured. “So you’ve never met Gillian? Ah, how lucky of you.” A guffaw burst out of him, and it felt like my head was spinning. I needed to sit down.
“Gillian? I don’t think so...”
“Well, that’s okay,” he said, his breathing calming down after his laughing fit. “You’re not missing out on much. Especially now.”
By this point, everything felt out of hand. First of all, I was in the middle of watching my game show. Secondly, here this crazy Old Man Larson was, sitting in my kitchen, telling me he’s burned his own house down. Thirdly, my head was spinning so much that I felt like the world around me disappeared with every blink. And finally, my nose was so stuffed up that I couldn’t even think straight. I almost wished I had gone to work.
“Mr. Larson,” I sighed, “as sorry as I am about your home, I’m just a little confused as to why you are here. Do you need anything? Do you have anywhere to go?”
“Of course I have somewhere to go,” he answered quickly. “I came straight to the place I was meant to be. Gillian would have wanted that.” He giggled. Giggled.
“I don’t understand any of this. Who is Gillian?”
“My wife of course! You know, the one with the long, scraggly hair? The one with the smoker’s cough? She’s never smoked a day in her life, though. Although maybe she should have, considering what a tight-ass she was.” He paused, a slight smirk resting on his face. “I guess she smoked a lot right before she died, though.”
He pulled out a picture from his tightly-held book, the edges slightly singed. For a second he glanced at it, and I almost saw a loving expression fill his eyes. As fast as it was there, though, it dispersed into a fire almost as deep as the one he set on his house. It made me shiver. He flipped it so I could see, and what was caught on photograph shocked me.
Underneath the fraying, fried edges, sat a woman, in a strait jacket, strapped to a chair. She had exactly as he described: scraggly blonde hair, the roots looking like the smoke billowing from their home. Her eyes were void of emotion—she stared into the camera without expression.
“I almost keep forgetting she’s not here now,” he said in a quiet voice, like he forgot I was even there. “Time isn’t everyone’s friend.”
I moved my way towards the telephone that sat next to fridge. Old Man Larson seemed a little on edge, and the fear that I used to get from my grandfather’s stories crept underneath my skin.
“She had begun to lose her memory.”
This stopped me in my tracks.
Larson looked up at me, eyes full of something that looked a lot like regret.
“Gillian went through four miscarriages before it all started. She forgot to get the groceries one day—even though she went to the store almost every other day.” His hand tightened around his glass. “Then she forgot to cook. She forgot to shower. She would forget what she was doing. Eventually she couldn’t even remember who I was. Saw me walk through the door and cowered in her underwear behind the couch, because she had forgotten to do the laundry as well.”
A sad smile appeared from beneath his rough exterior. “Soon she started to hurt herself when I wasn’t there to watch, and she started talking to the ‘others’ who just so happened to live in our designated baby room.” I saw his jaw clench.
I stood there in awe, confusion still growing as he told a story I had never even asked for. I could almost hear the tears in between each breath.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t try to do anything for her, for my Gillian. I took her to every doctor I could afford.” He paused, and put the picture back between the pages in the book. “Quietly of course. I couldn’t have the whole world know what was going on. I couldn’t have everyone knowing my wife didn’t know her own name. After a while I stopped letting my parents come over, so they didn’t even know what was happening. They were as clueless as she was.”
“What was happening, exactly?”
The loud laughter from before was replaced by a smile that didn’t seem to fit. “That’s a great question. She was gone. Gillian packed up her bags and left—leaving me with a corpse to deal with.” The word ‘corpse’ sent a shiver down my back.
“So I put her in a home, let others take care of her. The bill got ferociously high. Who knew taking care of your loved ones would cost more than just letting them go? She tried running away.” I felt like I was going to throw up. I put my hand on the counter to keep myself steady. “They put her in that jacket, the binding one. For some reason they needed ‘inventory’ of everyone in the Careview Center of mentally ill,” another laugh snorted out, “so they told her to smile and took that picture.”
I felt lost for words—but the curiosity took over my tongue. Meanwhile, the dizziness overcame my eyes again, and I thought he was gone. Instead of completely disappearing this time, though, a fuzziness sat over his face. I tried to shake it off again. “What happened to Gillian?”
He completely ignored my question. “You know,” he said, looking down at himself, “this is my funeral suit. I only wear it to death occasions. Funny, isn’t it, how dressed up we get for the dead?”
I could see his right hand shaking, the one that had held the scar at first. For another split second, like the one from before, it disappeared beneath his wrinkled hand. And then it was back. He noticed my stare.
“She did this. Got pissed off when I tried hugging her and ripped into my skin. You’d think those people at the mental hospital would cut their fingernails more often.”
The pit of my stomach hurt, and it wasn’t because I didn’t feel well. I inched my hand toward the phone, feeling like there should be someone professional here to help calm him down. He was too busy staring into the kitchen counter to know what I was doing.
“She was the one who planned it all. I let her. In her lucid moments, she asked me to die. What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to do?” Larson muttered to himself. His hands began to shake so much that it looked like he was seizing. “She told me that once I burned the house down it would all be over, that this could be over.”
I put a hand up to my mouth. “Mr. Larson... I thought your wife passed away a few years ago?”
When he looked up, it wasn’t the Old Man Larson with a curt voice anymore. His eyes were empty, an abyss of sadness that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
“Why does,” he began to say, a sob choking his words, “everyone keep saying that?”
I opened my mouth to say something but he didn’t let me.
“Why does everyone keep saying that? Why are you saying that?” His teeth were gritted, the veins popping out of his neck. “I have to finish the plan. I have to do what Gillian asked of me. I have to. I have to.”
What had once seemed like a calm and collected man now looked like a maniac waiting to attack. I dialed 911 quickly into my phone, setting it back on the counter so that he couldn’t see.
“What did you have to do?” I asked, desperation filling my voice.
“I’ve already set the house on fire,” he said, talking to himself more than me again, “I put on this damn death suit. I picked this house because she really liked the flowers outside. I wasn’t expecting you to be home.” The deranged look in his eyes shone bright. “I just have one more step. One last step. Let me do this. Please just let me do this.”
“What are you—,” I started.
Larson proceeded to pull out a gun bigger than my hand out of his briefcase.
“NO, don’t!” I reached my hand out, foolishly believing I had a chance to do something for him.
Time wasn’t everyone’s friend.
His finger pulled on the trigger and I cowered under the counter, my hands shaking as much as his had been a few minutes earlier.
But there was no gunshot.
I felt all of the blood rush into my head, and I sat there. Confused, I grasped the cool counter (the one for making chicken noodle soup) and pulled myself up slowly. When I reached eye level, there was no one there. No briefcase, no book, no gun, no Old Man Larson. The second of nothingness I had imagined earlier was in full reality right in front of me. His wispy hair and empty eyes were nowhere to be seen—and where I thought I was going to see blood, there was cleanliness.
“Mr. Larson?” I called out into my empty kitchen, into my empty home.
I could hear the phone I had dialed 911 into earlier mumbling about sending help. Walking slowly towards the window with the view of Old Man Larson’s house, I saw no fire. The house sat still and quietly, with no trace of firemen or police.
I stumbled backwards, into the counter he had set all of his belongings just minutes earlier, and the glass of lemonade I poured tipped off the counter. An explosion of glass and cool drink was as loud as I thought the gunshot would be. When I turned around, the glass shimmered underneath my kitchen light. Right next to the glass, the shattered pieces, sat a wet photograph flipped upside down.
I crouched, hesitantly reaching towards the picture.
When I flipped over the singed edges, a scraggly-haired woman sat desperately in a strait jacket.