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Ashes to Ashes

 

At first glance, my morning routine doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary for a man in his thirties living alone. I wake up, shrug on robe just slightly too small for me, and shuffle my way into the kitchen, making a beeline for the Mr. Coffee in the corner of my otherwise bare countertop. The difference starts with the view from my kitchen window. As I stand there at the sink below the sill and listen to the steady drip of my brewing coffee, I’m not looking out onto a neatly modest patch of green yard, complete with a gently rusting barbecue and a mismatched set of plastic deck chairs. All I can see through the double-paned glass are acres of barren field: the graveyard of some failed crop from seasons ago left to bake in the sunlight.

Despite its strangeness, this is where I’ve been living for the better part of a year—separate from the outside world, in complete isolation. And it’s where I’m meant to die on the day that my body ignites and I’m finally consumed in flames.

***

               On a similar morning 18 months earlier I was in my old house, the kitchen full of the smells of a cooked breakfast. Brenda had just set a mug of steaming coffee in front of me; black as the Oxford shoes I’d just finished lacing to get ready for my morning commute. I raised the drink to my lips and took the first scalding sip, burning my tongue.

The phone began to ring. It sounded twice before Brenda could reach it, maneuvering her swollen belly carefully around the pointed edge of the countertop. Her tone as she answered, although light enough for appearance’s sake, was strained and impatient.

“Hello? . . . Yes, this is his wife. May I ask who’s calling, please? . . . Right, hold on one sec while I check for you.” She pulled the receiver away from her mouth and tucked it under her jaw bone, whispering to me, “It’s the medical examiner’s office.”

“Did they say what they wanted?”

“No, not yet, just that they wanted to speak with you,” she turned slightly back toward the phone cradle and rested her weight gingerly on one hip. She’d had trouble sleeping the night before and the hand on her belly was chapped and sore in the winter dryness.

I got up from my seat, leaving the coffee where it sat.

“Tom Daily. Can I help you?”

“Hello, Mr. Daily. This is Sue-Ellen from the Prince William Medical Examiner’s Office.” Her voice was warm, feminine, and measured.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but the Examiner has requested that you please visit our office as soon as is convenient, Mr. Daily.”

“Visit your office? Well yes, of course. Is there anything wrong?” Brenda looked up at me from the sink. Her eyes met mine, her brow furrowed with concern.

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that with you over the phone, Mr. Daily, though I can tell you it is regarding your brother, Roger Daily.”  My throat constricted hearing Roger’s name and I could feel my pulse pound beneath my temples. Brenda must have seen the look on my face because she turned off the water and made her way over to me, stripping off her bright yellow rubber gloves.

“Sir, we strongly advise that you come at your soonest available moment. Do you know where our offices are located?”

“My brother? . . . Why can’t you tell me, if it’s so urgent? What’s happened? Is he in some kind of trouble?” My voice caught in my throat and I gripped poor Brenda’s hand in mine, bringing the pink knuckles to my chest.

“Please, Mr. Daily, I assure you that everything will be perfectly clear as soon as you arrive. If you’re not sure where to find us then I can give you directions now, if you like, though our address is also listed on our website. It may, however, be advisable to make arrangements at your place of work.”

“No need for directions, then. I’ll get over there as soon as I can. Thank you.” She thanked me and I hung up, a cold pit slowly growing in my stomach.

***

                It took me four minutes longer than what the GPS had predicted it would take for me to arrive at the Medical examiner’s office. I was met at the door of the brick building by a man in a loosely cut dark suit and a badge that told me he was a member of the local law enforcement. He led me into a nearby room where he sat across from me behind a sooth vinyl desk. A group photograph of men in uniform hung on the wall behind him, next to a set of framed certificates.

“I really appreciate you coming in on such short notice, Mr. Daily. I understand how difficult that can be,” his clean shaven face was very pale against the navy of his lapel, but his nose, ears, and hands were flushed.

I told him not to worry and that it had been not trouble at all to come, but he must have seen the straightness of my back or the tightness of the muscles in my jaw, because he didn’t waste any more time except for to offer me a glass of water. When he was ready, his voice settled into a deeper tone, his eye watching me carefully.

“The truth is, we called you here as a matter of procedure. It was essential that the news I am about to give you is done so in person.”

I felt myself lean forward in my chair, my pulse quickening and my skin tightening. At this point, I had already played through so many different scenarios in my head that I was sure I would be ready for whatever he told me.

“Mr. Daily, at 8 o’clock last night, a body was found in your brother’s home, by a neighbor of his investigating a sound of alarm. We have surveilled the area and made several attempts to contact your brother, all of which have been fruitless. This therefore leads us to conclude that there is a strong likelihood that the body in question is that of your brother, Roger Daily.”

I instantly felt the blood drain from my face and my skin prickle with sweat. I had thought wrong.

He didn’t pause long, obviously trained for my shocked reaction.

“Sir, please understand, however, that it is impossible for us to confirm the identity of the remains. We called you here to see if you could provide us with an I.D. positive or negative, so that we can move forward with our investigations.”

I couldn’t quite yet summon the ability to respond, but after another prompt I told him that I’d do my best to help in any way that I could, though my legs seemed to be much heavier than they should have been and I couldn’t imagine how I would manage the walk to wherever they were keeping my brother.

***

Coming forward to identify the body of a relative is difficult enough, but there’s absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the sight of your twin’s charred remains lying in the bottom of a plastic tub. The fluorescent lighting in the freezing room, cast a shadow of my slumped form over the contents of the bin as I peered over to look in. All that was left of him was a pile of ash and the bottom half of his left leg, the wound cauterized, foot still clad in one of his dorky tennis shoes, the white sock pushed down his thick calf to his ankle, everything singed at the edges. A label on white card tucked discretely in the corner identified him as a John Doe, but since I knew it couldn’t have been anyone else but my brother.

If it hadn’t have been for that shoe, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell at all, but I’d made fun of it enough.  Too much like the ones our grade school gym teacher used to wear, I’d tease, the one that had smelled of cigarettes. I’d told him that if he wasn’t careful he’d wake up bald as an egg and with an incurable case of jock-itch. It would be settled then and there that I was the handsomest and most eligible twin and he’d have to go on the prowl for a whole new generation of kids to scream at.

He never took it well. His jaw would tighten and his brow would furrow and if I was lucky, I’d dodge the swipe he made at me without too much trouble. It was true that we both looked alike, so much so that our father would avoid calling us by name, sticking with “kiddo” and “champ” instead. But now that there was nothing left of the man with whom, for our whole lives, I had shared a face, I felt less like a limited edition model and more incomplete, now of considerably less value on my own.

***

The pathologist wasn’t able to do much with what few remains of my brother were left to him, but what he was able to decipher ended up being more troubling than if nothing had been found at all. Roger had burned to death, according to the neatly filled out white box on the autopsy report. But he hadn’t passed out drunk in front of a furnace and caught on fire, not had he doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight. In either case it would have simply been a matter of filling out a post mortem psychological evaluation and my brother’s case could be put to rest. But no . . . the flames that had killed my brother had come from within his own body.

Before his death, I hadn’t thought of spontaneous human combustion as anything more than a curiosity—one of those shitty ways to die that you hear about on the Twilight Zone but still doubt could ever happen in real life. Even if it was a legitimate danger, it could only be reserved for those stupid enough to drink so much that their blood became flammable, or the unlucky bastards in charge of toxic waste disposal at some shady government-run plant. The truth is, the only prerequisite for S.H.C. is a heaping spoonful of extreme bad luck.

What makes it all the more ridiculous: it takes a very hot flame to burn a human body to ashes. Crematoriums are built with specially designed chambers to manipulate the flow of air, concentrating the heat in the centre of the oven as a way to get the temperatures hot enough. The idea that a simple, random chemical imbalance could cause a body to light up like a Molotov cocktail and burn to the ground is both terrifying and inconceivable at a basic level. It’s no wonder that before science could attempt to decipher these things, the only possible explanation anyone could give for it was an act of God: a good old-fashioned smiting.

In fact, the more I read about it, the less I seemed to understand. The city library had only a limited record of cases of spontaneous human combustion and what I was able to find barely scratched the surface. It seemed the medical examiner’s office was in much the same position I was. They could not pinpoint exactly what had caused the ignition in the first place. They were sure of one thing, however: as his identical twin, I was very likely harboring the same combustible genes in my own body.

A long series of examinations ensued. Every weekday, I’d have to take an extended lunch break from work to meet with them in the city hospital where they’d commandeered a room in a disused hall in the pediatric ward—I assume so that if I did go up the casualties could be minimized. I’d sit on the crinkly paper of the examining bed and pretend that it didn’t make me feel like a ten-year-old again, peering up at the inanely cheerful, though peeling, decorative wall runner. It was during one of these sessions, while I was waiting for the bitchy nurse to finally find the elusive vein in my arm she’d been stabbing away at for ten minutes, that I remembered how Roger and I used to love our joint doctors visits. Not that we liked getting shots or anything like that, but rather because we never had to go in alone. Our mother, thanks to a mysterious childhood trauma, detested being in the presence of doctors of any sort, and as soon as we were old enough, she’s send Roger and I into the office alone while she smoked outside of the waiting room. The two of us would distract each other with look-and-find, and I-Spy games, seeing who could spot the most interesting open window in the cityscape, or counts the most ducklings on the farm. Leaning back against the wall, massaging the welt under the hastily-applied bandage on my arm, I thought to myself that there wouldn’t have been room enough for the both of us to sit here now.

***

It wasn’t much longer afterwards that Brenda stopped asking me for updates on my prognosis. I no longer returned home to find her sitting up in bed, tortoise shell reading glasses perched below her furrowed brow as she plowed her way through another five dollar romance. She’d still leave the kitchen light on for me and a covered plate in the microwave, but I’d walk into the blue moonlight that flooded our bedroom to find her slender back facing my empty side of the bed, the spare pillow peeking out from underneath where it was supporting her belly. I’d eat my dinner cold, in case the microwave disturbed her, and would slip into the cool sheets next to her with just the slightest creak of our oak bed frame under me.

Sleep didn’t always find me, however and I often stayed awake for a long time before I finally dropped off. One such night, I lay awake staring at the floral print on the back of my wife’s night shirt, thinking about what the doctors had said to me that day. They had wanted to know about Brenda and I, the state of our marriage, the progression of her pregnancy, how often we fought or argued, whether or not we shared a bed. At first, I’d told them to mind their own business and leave her out of it, but they’d persisted with their interrogation and explained to me that it was time for them to evaluate my situation to determine what danger, if any, my family could be in by living in such close proximity to my condition. This had shocked me. Up until now, the possibility that these tests and evaluations might lead to something had only been restricted to nightmares, like it was somehow powerless in safety of the home I shared with my wife. They had closed our appointment by saying they’d continue their evaluation independently and bring me their results in the morning, thanking me once again for my time.

As I lay there with my troubled thoughts, watching the contour of Brenda’s shoulders rise and fall against the pale shadows on our wall, she sighed and turned over; maneuvering in her sleep so that she was facing me. I froze and stilled my breath. Even in the earliest stages in her pregnancy, Brenda had struggled with sleeplessness. After a few minutes of waiting as I debated whether I should feign sleep or try to comfort her if she woke, her breathing deepened and she stopped fidgeting, her mind returning to whatever dream she was having with the gentle flicker of her eyes underneath smooth lids.

Even in sleep, she looked exhausted, the lines around her eyes and mouth driven deeper with the past few week s of working through her pregnancy by herself; a deep semi-circles blossoming over her fine cheekbones. She’d always been self-conscious about the pallor of her skin, joking that she looked like a used tissue whenever she was tired or unwell, but I had always adored it; the way my dark skin looked when I used to rest my hand on her belly after we made love, like it was hovering over a basin of fresh cream.

My eyes trailed a path down to the front of her shirt and paused over a sliver of that pale skin exposed in the gap where she’d missed a button. I hesitated only a moment before gently raising my hand from the mattress and cupping my palm over the seam. A slight frown flitted across her face, but she kept on dreaming as the heat of her skin seeped through the thin fabric of her night gown and onto my chilled hand, the small area of skin-to-skin contact like a hot gash along my life line.

Suddenly, something shifted under her taut skin and I felt a small pressure against my hand, which then disappeared again as soon as it had come. My whole body went still, my heart pounding in my ears. Then it came again, longer this time and more forceful, lifting my hand from the curve of Brenda’s belly. The breath left my lungs with a whoosh and I could feel tears begin to prick my eyes, blurring the dark silhouette of my hand against the pale fabric and pearl buttons.

Bile rose in the back of my throat as I saw the pale plastic wristband I wore from the hospital catch the light when it rested back on Brenda’s belly. I wanted to grab those assholes by the lapels of their cheap white coats and, with all my strength, throw them out of my life for good. I vowed to myself there and then, with the pressure of my child against my hand, that I would do everything I could keep them safe, even if it meant keeping them safe from me.

***

It was on the morning of the next day that the doctors told me the results of their research. It had been determined that to keep my wife and unborn child safe from my condition, while still allowing me to live what was left of my life in peace, I should move into isolation. They gave me a moment to myself for me to process the information and it was all I could do not to scream at the top of my lungs and slam them against the powder blue wall for even suggesting it, but I remembered what I’d promised them both—Brenda and our child—just the night before. The rage inside of me shrank back into the widening pit deep within my belly and I called the doctors back in again. A fortnight later, I moved into the best place the local government could offer me on such short notice: this house in the middle of a dusty fire-retardant field.

Now, as I stand in my kitchen looking out at the heat waves dancing on the dusty horizon-line outside my window, the image of my brother’s body consumed in a pillar of white hot flame is burned into my vision. I dream about his death more often that is probably healthy for someone bound to follow in his footsteps. But then again- I’m not sure how important it is that I keep myself healthy these days. Technically I could booze it up all night, do all sorts of drugs, eat fatty foods—hell I could wrangle fucking venomous snakes for all it mattered. Nothing could bring me out of this hell hole.

It’s been a half a year since then; my boss has since replaced me with an employee who could make it into the office in the morning. I’ve managed to find a job writing manuals for the kitchen appliances that are shipped to me every so often—this month, it’s the Mr. Coffee Vista—which gives me just enough to send to Brenda for the baby.

He was born at his aunt’s house, where Brenda moved to after we sold the house and I was relocated to this field. I’ve only seen him a handful of times—once every other month when Brenda’s allowed to bring him to the house, swaddled in a fireproof blanket, always at a mandatory three yard safety distance. He has a bright and inquisitive face, for a baby and always peers intently around the house on his visits, taking in the strange environment. I want to tell him that he’ll get used to it; that he’ll learn to enjoy his visits to Dad’s military bunker out in the middle of nowhere, but I know I would be lying. It won’t take long for him to lose his curiosity and interest in the stranger he’s supposed to call his father.

So now I’ve given up thinking that the doctors who visit me every day with their needles and their scans will ever find a cure for my condition. I’ve given up thinking that I’ll ever be able to hold my wife’s milky skin to my own and show her that I’ve never stopped loving her. I’ve given up the idea that my son will ever consider me as anything other than a stranger. Today as I move through the paces of my morning routine, sipping my coffee and feeling the scalding liquid trickle down my throat, I think that there is no amount of heat that could possibly change how cold my world has become.

 

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