“The Silence of a Death.” The Nevada Review 3.1 (2011): 55-58. Print.
He reclined the leather chair and examined his fingertips. The nails were short and uneven and the skin around the cuticles was rugged and bloody. He hated to pick at them but it was too early in the day for either a shot of whiskey or a joint. Ben Dale tugged on a loose piece of skin on his left index finger to calm his nerves. Nauseated almost daily, he still refused to see it for what it was. His conscience was making an announcement, he was a fraud.
Drinking the last of his coffee, Ben wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His lips cracked and formed a blister. His face felt like he spent two days in the desert in the middle of July. His eyes burned but rubbing one was like slicing the cornea with a razorblade. When he smelled smoke, Ben stood up. The odor was faint at first. He turned on the ceiling fan, opened the window and waited for the air to clear. The curtains swayed in a gentle breeze but the fumes grew worse. Ben loosened his tie and took off his jacket. He was sweating profusely and portions of his dress shirt adhered to his skin. Strangely, the sleeves were inflated a bit. He unbuttoned the left cuff and smoke poured out. Smoke then fire.
Engulfed in flames, Ben ran into the hallway. The secretary yelled for him to drop and roll but he heard only the sound of his own howls. One of the partners forced him down to the ground and covered him with a trench coat. The secretary sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. When the fire died down, Ben remained still and tried to make sense of what happened. It was Wednesday, a day of no particular importance. He ate breakfast and got into his Mercedes at the usual time, when much of Henderson, Nevada was still asleep. Undisturbed sprinkler dew glistened of the manicured lawns. It was a normal morning, during a normal week. He and Emma didn’t speak but nothing was unusual about that either. They were only cordial to one another at the marriage counselor’s office. The ambulance finally arrived. Paramedics wiped off the foam but didn’t find a single burn, on either his skin or his clothes. Some fire damage was found on the back of his office chair. Confused and despondent, Ben swallowed an antidepressant and returned to work.
Emma Dale waited for the garage door to close prior to turning on the television. It eased her loneliness but the programming was predicable: flash floods in the Midwest, rising unemployment, senate confirmation hearings. Her husband didn’t disappoint in forgetting their baby’s seven month birthday but she saved this ammunition for a later time. Needing him home for at least one full day to bear the brunt of that mistake, Emma had to wait until Saturday. She put the infant back in the crib and sat down on the couch.
Once upon a time, they were in love even if only with the illusion of the other. They met in law school and married for money and status. Their families approved and perpetuated the façade. But three years later, the illusion was gone. All that was left was a projection of happiness, a real estate advertisement with an emphasis on the positive. But an image is not a reality and the reality was that Ben resented her. Emma knew it and resented back. They got engaged when she got pregnant. She had an abortion because a proper wedding was expected. And a proper wedding of no fewer than 250 guests couldn’t be organized before she started to show. The decision was mutual and the false front was up. But that mattered little since the foundation was rotting from the inside out.
Emma was haunted by these thoughts. Alcohol numbed their effect a little but nothing made them go away completely. She imagined the smoothness of the glass in her hand and the sweetness of the wine on her lips but wanted to wait until at least noon. Staring into space, something unusual caught the corner of her eye. The far wall was moving. Emma turned off the television and waited for a few seconds. When she looked up, the wall was closer. The desk, near the left wall, was right next to the coffee table. Thinking back to last year’s remodeling project, she remembered that the room was precisely 17’x18’. It now measured at a little less than 15’x16’. Emma cautiously walked up to the wall and positioned her hands at right angles to her shoulders. For extra support, she placed one foot behind the other and pushed with all her might. The wall didn’t budge. Admitting defeat, Emma collapsed on the couch. A few hours later, the walls were back to normal and she moved the furniture to its proper place. Ben came home and they ate dinner in silence. Ignorant of the fact that willful blindness always has a price, neither revealed their secret.
The next morning, the walls started to close in early. Emma drank a beer to stave off some of the claustrophobia. Ben buried his head in a deposition and worked straight through his lunch break. Yet fears were masked only temporarily. By early afternoon, Ben again saw smoke and smelled the undeniable scent of burning flesh. He dropped to the floor and rolled from one side of his office to the other. Black clouds quickly morphed into slivers of flame. The fire was finally put out when the secretary burst in with a fire extinguisher. Ben had no visible burns and the paramedics were not called. Later that afternoon, the law partners organized an emergency meeting. Spontaneous combustion was a liability and Ben was encouraged to seek other employment.
He drove home in a state of dread. Given that he grew up in a family where a sense of purpose was associated with upward mobility, unemployment was even more devastating than spontaneous combustion. Ben’s father was a retired insurance executive who considered principles the same thing as obligation and greed. He spent most of his adult life drowning in pride and antidepressants and Ben knew no other way. He admired his father’s commitment and waited for the opportunity to sacrifice for his own family, like his father did for his. Sometimes he almost wished that Emma was already like her mother, an alcoholic with three DUI’s and two failed stints in court ordered rehab. That way she could fulfill his last desire, to be needed forever.
Lacking a feasible explanation for what happened, Ben dragged his feet over the doorstep and dropped his briefcase on the floor. It was only six but Emma already drank her eighth beer and rearranged the furniture for the fifth time. The room was at least three feet smaller in perimeter and the far wall was now only a few feet away from the couch. Paying no attention to his incessant blinking, Emma waited for Ben to notice.
Ben’s face turned pale and his lips cracked. Faint smell of burning flesh filled the room. He unbuttoned the right shirt sleeve and let some of the smoke billow out. It was starting again and he waited for Emma to notice.
Neither recalled who uttered the first insult but it didn’t really matter. They screamed at each other on top of their lungs and each putdown relieved a part of the affliction. The walls regressed a few inches and the smoke dissipated a little. The fight continued until a quiet wave of relief swept over them. Everything went back to normal. At least it appeared so.
The Dale house burned down a few days later and few people heard anything from them since. Both were at home when the fire started yet oblivious to the fact that the entire second floor was an inferno. While no formal charges were ever filed, suspicions circled like bees around a honeycomb. Co-workers and neighbors whispered about Ben’s history of setting fires and Emma’s propensity to drink but the scene offered little in the way of incriminating forensic evidence. It was determined that the infant died from smoke inhalation. She was found in a room whose walls were recently altered and moved closer. She had no visible burns but the residue on her skin indicated that she was a likely source of the fire. Many questions remained unanswered. The death was ruled an accident.