Part 2 is a lot longer than intended, but I didn’t want to split it into 3 parts
There was a shoe rack beside the front door and a table with keys on the other side. There were stairs directly ahead and two doors on either side of the hall.
He walked through the left door, confident with his knowledge of the house’s layout, into the loungeroom. Only the back wall showed damage, although the smoke would have not made this a safe place during the fire. He had analysed the information and come to the conclusion that there was no space that would have guaranteed safety in the house, anyone inside would have had to leave through the front door. Falling asleep in front of the television would not have save the woman who lived here.
He continued through the open doorway to the kitchen. It was much darker here, the back wall having largely collapsed. He peeked around, trying to find the source of the fire. The reports indicated that it had been an electrical fire, but he needed to know for himself so that he could accurately piece together the events.
The shelving on the right wall had been burned away. From the charring on the wall below, he deduced that the electrical socket on the wall beside the fridge had started the fire. He took only a few steps into the wall, staying under largely undamaged ceiling. He turned in a circle, his torch focusing on the highest point of the walls. He found what he was looking for above the doorway he had just come through. The smoke alarm.
He dragged a footstool from the loungeroom to the doorway and began to prise it from its holder. With his feet sinking into the soft cushion, he could not quite get the height he needed. He leaned up onto his toes, the hand holding the torch pressed against the doorframe for balance. It was hard to twist the smoke alarm one handed, so he turned off the torch and put it on the footstool and blindly gripped it with both hands. The moment it clicked, he heard a noise from the entrance to the house and fell, the alarm thrown from his hands as he reached to catch himself. He landed on the charcoal smeared floor of the kitchen. He quickly grabbed for the torch, pressing the lit end against his belly to smother it as he fumbled with the switch. The moment it was off, he froze and listened.
It would be so easy for someone to think that loud creaks were simply the house settling. He couldn’t have been that loud and he was sure that he had not screamed as he fell.
There was no further noise, but he did not move yet. It had sounded metallic, like keys. Maybe someone coming to look for any precious possessions to loot? It wouldn’t be the worst idea to take the keys next to the door, to see if the fob unlocked any cars on the street.
In the dark, he started reaching for the smoke alarm. If there was someone there who would turn him in, he needed his answers before he could be removed from the property.
He heard footsteps coming into the loungeroom right as he found the smoke alarm. His heart racing, he felt the now bare back and his suspicions were confirmed. He could run now – the batteries had been removed.
Still on the floor, Ian peeked around the footstool in the doorway. There was someone in the loungeroom. They were closing the curtains. In the split-second they were framed by the streetlight, he saw it was a small frame, definitely that of a woman. He was sure he could rush her, push past her and be outside before she could stop him. That was going to be his next move, until she turned on her torch. Faced with sudden brightness and the chance of losing the element of surprise, he ducked behind the footstool, aware that if the woman walked forward, she would easily see his curled frame.
She sounded surprised, but not necessarily scared. She did not sound confident.
Ian remained still and, judging from the silence, so did she. The light was in his direction now. Deciding that she was not a threat, he slid the alarm under the footstool and used held up his now empty hand both as a greeting and to show he was unarmed. No need for her to get riled up if he needed to make his escape.
Ian turned on his torch, focussing it on the woman who stood metres away. He hoped the brightness would help obscure her vision. He wanted to make it harder to give a description, if she was inclined to report him. She was slender, wearing tracksuit pants and a grey t-shirt. Not a policewoman then, he thought. She had blonde hair in a low ponytail and was staring at him with a look of concern.
“Why are you here?” She asked.
“Just wanted to look around. I’m not taking anything” Ian replied, trying to sound nonchalant, like there was no crime being committed. Which, he had always thought, should be the case. How is it trespassing if it doesn’t bother any living person? The only risk really is to himself.
She sounded uncertain and Ian chose to capitalise on that.
“Why are you here?”
He tried to make it sound more accusatory than her version.
“I… I don’t know. I just came past this place and I really wanted to come in. The door was open”
For a moment, Ian wondered if she had been sleepwalking. It would make sense, given her attire. But she seemed fully cognizant, if a little confused.
“You… wanted to come and explore it?”
The idea of someone being interested in the same hobby piqued his interest. Particularly someone attractive who could accompany him. She was already willing to break into a burned house in the middle of the night, she might already be trying his hobby.
“Yeah, I think so. I just… wanted to come in and see. It almost looked ok from the front. I couldn’t imagine someone just died here”
She looked past him, through to the remains of the kitchen.
He took the chance to redirect her attention.
“Well… if you want to be exact, she died upstairs”
He tried to sound hesitant, to hide his growing excitement. He waiting eagerly to see her reaction – wide eyes, intrigue, maybe she’d sound impressed by his knowledge?
The reaction was a flat “Oh”
Not what he had wanted, but he tried again.
“Yeah, I think she was trying to save her cat”
“That doesn’t sound… why do you think that?”
She sounded much more interested now and he appreciated her questioning the deceased’s motives. Scepticism was needed for this sort of investigation. Maybe if he got her to question more of the facts, he could provide more information and she would see just what he had to offer.
“Well, she had a cat. It hasn’t turned up since the fire, so it doesn’t look like it got out”
He had checked Facebook groups and animal shelter listings in the weeks following the fire.
“Plus the smell, I guess”
Ian was puzzled, he hadn’t smelled anything except the familiar smells of a scorched home.
“What do you mean?”
“Upstairs, I smelled something like cat pee when I came in”
“I didn’t notice. Can you show me?”
Ian picked up the torch and followed her to the hallway, commending himself on his technique. You can’t just show off your knowledge, you need to give the other person a chance to feel clever.
Standing in the hallway, Ian sniffed. There was something acrid-smelling, now that his attention had been drawn to it, and it was coming from upstairs as she had said.
“Do you want to check it out?”
Ian tried to hide the excitement in his voice. Her reply was nervous.
“Why do you want to check out the smell of cat pee? Plus, is it safe up there?”
“I want to see what it’s like. Isn’t that why you came in here? Besides, it should be safe as long as we stay in the hallway and don’t go into any rooms near the back of the house”
He started walking up the stairs, pausing and turning to give what he thought was a daredevil smile.
The woman paused, then nodded. Ian continued walking, the footsteps behind him desperately outpaced by his racing pulse.
He turned on the torch and looked down the hall. All the doors were closed, the ceiling was black and the smell was worse here.
“ugh, this is awful”
She was covered her mouth and nose with her hand. Ian scrunched up his nose and nodded. He walked down the hallway, opening each door and shining the light around. He couldn’t find a litter box or any definitive signs of a pet, but he did see some small toys that might have been suitable for a cat. He had just finished opening the last door on the right side of the hall when he heard his companion call out.
“I think this is her bedroom!”
Ian turned just in time to see her walking through the central door, the one directly across from the stairs. He followed her, wanting to make sure that he could take in the room where the inhabitant had died before she could ruin anything. He opened it, the knob turning loosely in his hand. He stepped through the doorway just as the battery in his torch died.
In complete darkness, he could hear his companion breathing heavily and the groan of floorboards beneath their feet. He heard her walking closer to him, felt her leaning around her, then suddenly there was light. She had reached around him to turn on the bedroom light. The door behind him was closed and his heart was racing.
As she stepped back, Ian took in as much of the room as his adjusting eyes could. Photos of the inhabitant’s cat were on the desk. The smell of cat urine was stronger, too. He expected he’d find the litter box under the bed. Walking to the far side, he noticed that the window frame had been painted over so many times that it would not open. He gave it a few tugs to check, careful to cover his hands with his sleeves. She should have gotten that fixed. Either way, with the furniture in the room she could have still broken the glass and squeezed out if the door wasn’t an option. A few gashes is better than burning alive.
He heard a creak as the woman walked over the sit on the bed. Meeting his gaze, she patted the spot beside her. Ian was excited to explore the room, having almost forgotten she was there, but he sat down when invited. Maybe he could lead her through the investigation, teach her to find each mistake, to put together the circumstances and what should have happened. He’d ask her to look for the source of the smell first, he decided. A simple task with immediate results to reward her and keep her interested.
“What do you think happened?”
“Smoke inhalation. It was around 2am, so hopefully she was asleep”
He added the last part to seem sympathetic to the dead woman. Really, it was better to be awake, so that you had a chance to notice the smoke and get out.
“Why do you know so much about what happened here?”
“I was in a house fire when I was a kid”
It might be a bit early to play the sympathy card, but he didn’t want to explain his exact process, plus it might endear him to her. He continued, trying to sound hesitant, “My parents died trying to save me, but I got out before it went up. I just… can’t stop thinking about this kind of stuff”
He gestured around the room, then looked around again, wondering what was wrong when he had just looked.
“What kind of stuff? Death?”
She looked up at him with large eyes and moved closer to him on the bed.
“Ye- well no. Not death. Not all deaths. Just ones where, like, it was preventable. If people just thought things through for a fucking sec-”
He felt her stiffen and changed direction.
“Just… places where if people had thought things through, they wouldn’t leave people behind who don’t understand what happened”
Not his best-scripted line, but he had tied it nicely back into him being an orphan. That must reduce the harshness of his words, at least a little.
He felt her link her right arm with his left as she leaned into him. Her head was on his shoulder and he barely hesitated before resting his head atop hers.
“That’s it, isn’t it? Because it’s their fault for leaving you? If they were smarter, you wouldn’t be alone”
He could feel the vibration of her words through the top of her head. He nodded, which she seemed to understand by the motion against her hair.
“But it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know you were outside”
“I…. all they had to do was look outside! I was in the garden. All they had to do was walk outside, like I did”
The arm squeezed his, which he interpreted as an attempt to comfort him.
“They were trying to find you. They couldn’t know you were outside”
“I smelled the smoke and I left. I lived. They weren’t asleep, it was the middle of the day. They could have noticed like I did”
He tried to sit up, but her grip held him at her side.
“It’s so easy, isn’t it? To sift through the facts once everything is over and no one is there to contradict you. You smelled smoke. You went outside”
He was uncomfortable now. He did not like the tone of her voice or her fingers digging into his arm as she laughed under her breath.
“You smelled smoke. You went outside. But I bet it wasn’t in that order. You’ve rewritten it to make yourself look better. Instead of being a naughty child who went out to play while his terrified parents looked where he was supposed to be, you get to be the sole survivor of two idiot parents”
As Ian tried to stand, he felt more weight on his arm than should fit within her slight frame.
“And what now? You came to pass judgement. Came to feel smug about some woman who took the batteries out of her smoke alarm and died trying to save her cat. Traipsing around her house like you’re better than her, when it’s 2am and no one cares if you come home at all”
Anger was overcoming fear now. He refused to be judged by some bitch who wandered into his space.
“Get off me! You’re the one who wandered off the street like a crazy person”
He finally got his arm free and as he stood, he felt dizzy from the head-rush.
“Yes, exactly! I’m a crazy person who came in off the street! And you just let me follow you around while you committed a crime. You didn’t even pay attention to what I said, you’re too busy listening to the story you’ve written for yourself.”
Ian felt behind him and sat heavily in the desk chair, there were grazes on his arm where her nails had dug in. They were red and painful.
She was standing over him, but the light above was flickering.
Ian tried to think, but his head was swimming. From the pain, he thought as he clenched his hand around the wounds.
She told him about the smell. She took him upstairs. She took him into the bedroom.
That wasn’t right.
She took him into the bedroom, where the inhabitant had died. The room at the back of the house, directly above the kitchen. Where the house had collapsed.
He stood suddenly, stumbling to the door. The handle turned but he couldn’t feel the mechanism inside turning.
“Oh yeah, the door doesn’t open sometimes. Takes a while with a credit card to get it open if you forget and close it. You should have noticed when you came in. I guess I should have fixed it, but I was only here a week before it actually mattered”
He smelled smoke and looked over to where the woman was now sitting on the bed, her legs curled under her.
He already knew it wouldn’t open; he’d checked that. Picking up the chair, he decided to break the windowpane so that he could get out, or at least get some fresh air. The chair’s swivelling base has ineffective as the wheels tapped the glass. There was nothing heavy in the room he could easily try next.
“Come on then, think it through”
She sounded amused and he tried to ignore it.
His torch. It was metal and heavy enough to bludgeon. He grabbed it from the bed and swung it at the window. He broke one pane of glass, but the wooden crossbeams held strong, he broke another, but he could already tell he was not going to be able to break the central beams to make enough room to get out. He reached his arm through, to see if he could break the wood with his shoulder, but he only succeeded in making four deep gashes in his arm in the same place as the fingernails had dragged.
“Bad luck, guess you should have checked it was a single pane. Tried the same with my torch too. Ah well”
She waved the torch she was holding and Ian saw the long scratches on her arm.
There was definitely smoke in the room now. He leaned back against the desk.
“At least the smell is gone, huh? It bothered me for days but I assumed it was the previous owner”
The smell…. the cat pee? Why was she talking about that now? Ian’s head swam as he tried to focus on her words. Then he remembered. Electrical fires could smell odd before they lit up.
He charged at the bedroom door, slamming against a door that opened inwards and could not be forced open from this side.
He sunk down to the floor. He saw the woman’s face, resting on her hand. She was lying on her stomach and he could see her feet kicking nonchalantly as she stared at him.
“Come on, you aren’t looking for a cat. You can definitely make it out”
Her eyes were cold now.
“It’s a shame the smoke alarm didn’t go off”
Ian was nauseous and began to cough, but managed to rasp out his reply, “You removed the batteries you bitch!”
“No, I didn’t. The last tenant did and I thought the landlord had checked them before I moved in”
It was getting hotter.
“The cat was dead, by the way. That’s why I could move out of that shitty apartment, it was the only pet-friendly place I could afford”
Ian slumped to the ground, his eyes teary from the smoke.
He should have been smarter than this.
He should have recognised her from the online photos.
He should have left when a stranger showed up.
He should have understood what the smell meant.
He should have realised that the room couldn’t exist.
He should have paid attention to how weak the doorknob was.
He should have noticed when she turned the ceiling light on in a house that was half demolished.
There were a lot of things he knew he should have done.
He understood his mistakes now, but that brought him no peace as the light flickered above.