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'A Winter Night in a Suburban Street'

'A Winter Night in a Suburban Street' (Credit: Julia and Tania)

Sagney sat on the steps and starred at the house across the street. It was not much to look at; never had been. The gutters brimmed with leaves from the sprawling half-dead oak in the front yard, which needed one last summer mowing before the raking season began. The plants in the hanging baskets on the porch had turned a brittle brown, waiting for a touch to dissolve them into an organic powder. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Weeds pushed their way through the steps, shoving aside the brick in their quest for light and life.

It was evening, very nearly dusk, and the glow of the light in the upstairs window was already clear. Beyond the window was Mr. Florence’s room, with a wide, antique four-poster bed in a light-colored wood, two nightstands, a dresser and chest-of-drawers, and a tiny old television set that, when on, cast a beam of light that moved with shadow and color from the room.

Sagney’s father had remarked at breakfast that morning that he’d noticed it on when he woke up at 2 and thought about calling Mr. Florence to see if he was OK, but decided that it might come across as nosy. No sense bothering a man who’s sitting up reading, or just left the light on while he went to the bathroom.

Mr. Florence lived alone, which was the source of the concern expressed by Sagney’s father, who himself had grown up in a poor village where survival required that everyone look out for each other. There was safety in numbers, and everyone brought something different to the community. Even if you didn’t care for your neighbor, you might still need his pots or his cobbling skills to haul your water or mend your shoes. Sagney’s father looked at this neighborhood in the same light; everyone had a use, no matter how obnoxious they might be.

Sagney watched as the light seemed to grow brighter as the sun dwindled and sank along the horizon. Life continued all around – cars motored down the street, children laughed, somewhere nearby some older boys were throwing around a football. Sagney could hear the plastic pigskin slap against the boys’ palms as they caught the ball.

Darker, darker. The sun slipped at last behind the horizon, leaving a lingering pink hue to the sky. Up and down the suburban street, the security lights flashed on in the chaotic way that electronic eyes with difference definitions of darkness will do.

The homes on either side of Mr. Florence’s were quiet. Sagney could see through their windows that the televisions were on. They were eating dinner, perhaps, or watching a movie. No matter. No one sits and stares out a window anymore. Distraction had its uses, Sagney decided.

The street up and down the block was quiet. The front yards and narrow porches were deserted. Sagney stood, looked back at his own house, then sprinted across the street and slipped around the back of Mr. Florence’s home. There was a shed in the corner of the yard. It was never locked. Mr. Florence always said there wasn’t anything in there worth someone busting the door for. He pulled the door open, slowly, so as not to cause the old hinges to squeak. There in the middle of the floor was the cache Sagney was looking for – jugs of gasoline, about a dozen of them, almost all full.

He’d been collecting them for weeks, snatching them from neighbors’ yards and sheds and porches. It was a difficult task – people will stop and question a young teenager walking along the sidewalk with a bright red gas can, after all. But still, he’d been intrepid, smuggling what he could in a backpack. Those that were empty he’d refilled as best he could, siphoning fuel from his father’s car. In a stroke of fortune, it happened that Mr. Florence had accumulated five of them himself, ranging in age from ancient metal casks of flaking red paint to more contemporary plastic ones. Sagney slipped on a pair of old work gloves.

One by one, Sagney stole across the yard with them, depositing them on the stoop just outside Mr. Florence’s back door. Though a privacy fence concealed his progress, Sagney’s eyes scanned constantly for interlopers who might question – or at least quietly note – his unusual activities.

The last trip, Sagney grabbed a paper dust mask from an old box on a shelf. It would be of little use, he knew, but something – anything – to filter his nose would be welcome.

When he opened the door, the stench from inside the house barrelled through him like a large dog welcoming his master. Quickly, Sagney shoveled the jugs and tins of gasoline into the tiny mud room in the back of the house.

His plans required him to act quickly, though he was sure he had all evening if he liked. It was the stench that produced the urgency. From a toolbox in the mudroom, Sagney grabbed a hammer – a new-ish one, with a bright yellow fiberglass handle. In the living room, Mr. Florence’s computer sat on a tiny desk in a corner of the room. Still wearing his work gloves, Sagney operated on the machine, pulling off its cover. With all the grace of a brutally inept surgeon, Sagney battered loose the hard drive, largely smashing the components to smithereens in the process. He then slipped the cover back on the computer and refastened it into place.

At the back of the house, Sagney tossed it onto the concrete landing at the bottom of the back stairs.

He grabbed two jugs of gasoline – large ones, full ones – and headed up the stairs. The smell was suffocating. He wanted to wretch. The house had been shut up for more than a week, keeping the horrid odor inside. Sagney approached the door to Mr. Florence’s bedroom and pushed the door open. It didn’t latch; Sagney knew it didn’t latch. You had to lift up on it to knob to latch it. But it was no matter – a nail kept on top of the doorjamb ensured that, even if you were to shut it, even if you did lock it, even if you pressed against it with all your weight and squeezed the knob between your hands as tightly as you could to keep it from turning, he could still insert the end of the nail into the little hole on the outside of the knob, press the lock’s release mechanism, turn it, and shove the door open. Sagney shoved the door open with his knee.

The room was buzzing. Much of the activity centered on the bed. Flies flew in an out of the edge of the blanket that covered a long, lumpy object beneath. Sagney dropped one of the jugs of gasoline and pulled the lit off the other, leaving the build-in spout on the floor. He doused the mass in the fuel, soaking the blankets and sheets and pillows. He dedicated about half the other container to the same purpose, reserving the rest to cover the room as best he could.

Trip after trip, Sagney doused the furniture, carpets, tablecloths – everything that would retain gasoline, everything that would burn, all around the house, until they at last were all empty but one.

Back in Mr. Florence’s bedroom, Sagney pulled a rag from his pocket and shoved it into the end of the can of gasoline, soaking a little of it in the fuel. He drew the curtains, then pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and carefully struck one. This would be the hard part.

He lit the rag, threw the pack of matches onto the bed and sprinted for the door. His feet didn’t touch the stairs at all as he flew down them, landing at the bottom and bolting straight for the backdoor. As he reached it, he heard the combustion upstairs – loud to him, but not too loud. Not loud enough that someone inside another house would hear it. He shot through the back door and ran back to the shed, where he replaced the gloves and waited and watched. The house seemed quiet from back here.

Sagney pulled the latch back in place on the shed and raced back to the back door, grabbed the hard drive off the pavement, then ran around to the front of the house. Still no traffic, still no one in a front yard anywhere along the block, still no one wise that anything was amiss.

He returned to his stoop, sat, and gasped for air. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve and looked up at Mr. Florence’s bedroom window. The curtains were moving, but barely. There was light coming from the living room window, and from the drawing room across from it. Sagney trotted upstairs to his own room, lifted the edge of his mattress and shoved the hard drive as far underneath it as he could.

Sagney then returned to his porch to watch, and wait, and see how much of the house could grow consumed before he felt obliged to tell his father that anything was wrong.

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