I let myself into the dingy flat, put some soup on the burner, and dropped some rye bread into the toaster. I had been thinking about eating healthy, so the only thing I had to spread on the toast was some sunflower oil margarine. Like so many things that are good for you, it tasted terrible.
Perhaps it was because I disliked the toast so much, or perhaps because I slightly over browned it, that I didn't smell the smoke.
I dozed off, even, sitting in my kitchen chair. In my dream, I kept hearing the screaming of the bystanders as Albert lay in the gutter. I woke in a daze. It took me a moment to realize that the screaming was actually coming from my apartment building. The hallway outside my door rang with the sound of running feet, and I heard yelling from the floor below. I went to the window but could see nothing. Thick black smoke coated the outside of the window.
Someone pounded on my door. When I opened it, a gray-haired man with a handkerchief to his face informed me the building was on fire, and I probably wanted to get out as quickly as possible. “Don’t use the front stairs,” he said. “Those are blocked. You'll have to go out the back, down the fire escape.”
“How much time do I have?” I said.
“A minute, maybe less,” he said, and ran off toward the back stairs.
I keep a small bag, ever since Albert and I got together, a kind of overnight bag I can grab to get me out the door as quickly as possible. I had no time to think of much else, just grabbed that bag, and my satchel, and left. I locked the door. Habit.
By the time I got to the back stairs, they were a chimney. I covered my mouth as best I could. By the time I hit the ground floor, I was coughing. My eyes burned. I crashed through the door and out into the street.
I staggered over to a clot of people with blankets and collapsed into a chair. Fire vehicles pulled up just a moment later. They sprayed water all over everything, But most especially the apartment buildings on either side. I guess they figured ours was mostly a loss. All three floors by now were burning, and I watched as bright orange flame and acrid smoke filled up the inside of my window. It broke, buckling from the heat, and a sheet of flame spurted out, followed by smoke darker and more malignant than any we had seen. I had lost everything.
The firemen came and asked me If I was OK. “We can take you to the hospital,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I'm all right,” and topped this by hacking a couple of times into my hand. The firemen looked dubious but had more pressing concerns to deal with. I sat there and watched the building collapse. The ones on either side were salvageable, the fire never really reached them, but everything in our building was a complete loss.
An aid worker came through, asking if we all had places to go. I said I did, although it wasn't quite true. I could go to a hotel, of course, but for a long time I just sat on the curb and stared at the building, or what was left of it. It seemed symbolic somehow.
Eventually, I ended up at the local hotel. I'm not quite certain how, as I have no memory of it. But once inside, with my two small bags, I unpacked a little to see what I had. My satchel I had taken directly from work, so inside was my laptop, a charger, and a couple of books I had intended to read. I guessed I would probably have time. I had the clothes on my back, and then what was in my travel bag.
It was when I grabbed the zipper tab that I remembered: this was the same travel bag I had taken to Albert's the night he died. I had never unpacked it. All the clothes in there were clothes that Albert had urged me to buy, even picked out for me. There weren't many of them, but what was there was an odd assortment, some oranges and browns, colors that Albert loved and that I loathed. I had a dress, two blouses, and a skirt.
And those impossible heels that were the cause of the whole problem in the first place. I was certain I could never wear them. I pulled the clothing out and laid it on the bed. When bag was empty I hung them up to get some of the wrinkles out. I took a hot shower, and put on the hotel robe.
I walked past the bag, and noticed something in the bottom that couldn't possibly have been there. It was the locket. It had been hanging on the mirror in my apartment. I had not stopped to grab it, I would never do that kind of thing. It had to have burned with the rest of the apartment. or melted, or whatever happens to lockets under intense heat. But there it was, sitting in the bottom of my bag. I thought I should pull it out to make sure, but I knew the shape of it by now. I took the bag and set it on the dresser next to the TV. I didn't dare touch the thing, because I had begun to form a suspicion.
I sat up a long time, numb, watching pointless programming, thinking about what had been in the apartment that I would never see again. There weren't very many things. As long as I had lived in that apartment, I had never really moved into it in the way that one moves into a place one intends to stay.
There were a couple of pictures on the walls, but I had backups in the cloud. There were three or four dozen books, and those would be missed at some point but all the ones that I needed for my classes to finish out this term I had either in my satchel or on the bookshelf at the office. I had no jewelry to speak of.
One of the good things about having lost all of one's possessions, is that they can't go missing. Other than my car, which was mercifully moved from the parking lot during the fire, everything I owned fit neatly on the bed. I sat, television drumming in the background, and stared at my meager possessions. None of them moved. Of course not.
I fell asleep that way, propped up in bed, all my worldly possessions spread around me. When I woke in the morning, they were all still there, just as I had left them, with one exception. The locket had moved itself onto the bed next to me.
Unable to help myself, I reached down, picked up the locket, and clasped it around my neck. That day, nothing went missing. I wore clothes that Albert had picked out. Nothing went missing. The only thing I could not bring myself to do was to wear those horrid shoes.
But the next morning came.
I had not left, and no one had come in, I could not find my other shoes. The only shoes available were the terrible, gold, one-size-too-small heels I had worn on our last night together. What could I do?
I wore them to work. Nothing went missing. Gradually, over the course of the next few weeks, acquired some additional clothes, insurance paid for a few things, and I was able to more or less move my life back onto a normal footing. It also gave me an opportunity to test my theory.
As long as I kept the locket clasped around my neck, nothing went missing. If I took it off, or if I tried to wear clothes that I liked, rather than the ones Albert had liked, things happened. My car keys disappeared. I lost my cell phone. I couldn't find the materials to give the students to test.
That one, right there, very nearly cost me my job. I couldn't risk it again. for the rest of the semester, I made sure I had the locket clasped firmly around my neck, and I wore those terrible heels, although they made my back and my hips hurt even more than my feet. I sprained my ankle, and tried to wear other shoes. They vanished. In retaliation, I tore the locket from my neck and hurled it out the window.
That was when my curling iron shorted out and lit the back of my hair on fire. The shower put it out, and when I stepped back out of the tub, there was the locket swinging gently from the mirror. I never tried that again.
It was like wearing a lead weight. A bloody, burning, lead weight that stole things if I disrespected it. I needed a plan. Or I needed to join Albert in the gutter.
One more round. But Helen has something up her sleeve.