He thought incongruously about the seagulls on Portuguese Beach that one night in early October, a Sunday, thousands of them crowding the receding water and shallow waves. What is it? he’d asked. What are they looking for? Silvery bodies lined the beach; he tried not to step on the slim fish. Anchovies, Norm had said. He knew these things, always did, one of the traits Tim had fallen in love with. Norm wasn’t showy, he hadn’t even looked Tim’s way.
He still heard the birds, still saw all the iPhones in the late-season tourists’ raised hands, a cult performing a sacred ritual, so unified and beautiful. And as after every visit to the beach, Tim had felt his head ache on the way home to Santa Rosa. He couldn’t remember what they’d done after turning into their driveway that night. Maybe he'd fixed a martini, a salad.
The fire had stopped at their house. Their trees still stood. Next door, Betty’s home had been destroyed so badly, they'd torn the rest down. The other side of their street had completely vanished, and there was nothing left to see until your eyes hit the train line half a mile to the west.
Norm and Tim had only ever met Betty at their mailboxes, which shared a pole. Betty and her husband, whose name Tim couldn't remember or had never learned in the first place, yelled at their children after coming home with Taco Bell takeout. Their pool now lay empty, chain-link fencing securing it. The yard still hadn’t been cleaned up.
Betty’s house and hundreds more had burnt, but not their own. Tim and Norm had evacuated the night of the fire like everyone else and they had not been allowed to return for several weeks. First, the National Guard had blocked off the entire area, then the house needed to be cleaned by a specialized contractor hired through their insurance. Curtains, carpets, even the sofa, had to be thrown away. Ducts and vents were cleaned or replaced. And still, Tim smelled smoke everywhere. At least the ash was gone from their place, at least that. The cleaners had returned twice because ash had reappeared overnight as though it had snowed from the ceiling. Even Norm, Norm the spend-thrift, had donated all his clothes to Goodwill after they'd cleaned their house, because no amount of time or sport-wash could make them feel safe again. Tim and Norm, they couldn't be the same people anymore. Tim had even purged his underwear and socks. He couldn't face the old ones. Everything had been repainted.
They'd intended to have a porch built before the winter; this would have to wait. Tim smoked his pre-rolled on the concrete steps staring into the utter blackness in front of him. The underground power lines no longer worked. The streetlights had burnt too.
To his left, a row of houses marked what remained of the neighborhood. Cars were parked in driveways, and whenever someone left a still-standing house, they stood by the car door as if a memory of a past lover had struck them. They blinked and looked at the emptiness ahead. Their fingers caressed the doorframe until a shudder ran through them and they got behind the wheel.
Tim didn't speak to his neighbors anymore. What he wanted to say he couldn't. Whenever he started, commonplaces appeared, barricaded what he had to say. He wished to say he felt moth-eaten, he was afraid to die now with everything in the balance. He wanted to describe the weight of Norm's hand on his stomach at night. He wanted to speak of the moths eating his skin, the coughs, the burn of the alcohol. Yet he was greeted with words of hatred -- resilience, rising from the ashes, insurance claims, the tough get going. That's what people had to offer, and he fell in with them, repeated the same hatred. Hatred against everything that was soft and loving and cherished and had been lost.
A few empty lots toward the train line, he could spot the solar-powered lights neighbors had left in front of what was left of Carol's house. Tim had never met her, he was quite certain. She'd turned seventy-four in September and had not been awakened the night of the fires. There had been no sirens, no phone alerts.
Tim hadn't knocked on anyone's door before evacuating. It had been Norm who'd gathered their wallets, passports, and an overnight bag. He'd called the Doubletree twenty miles to the south and made reservations. Tim hadn't saved anything, not a toothbrush, not their marriage license, not their photo albums. He'd only grabbed the dachshunds, Jenny and Sibyl, and their second car had survived inside the garage. A Honda Civic SI, Norm's toy. Their toys had all survived, they were all there, but they meant different things now, they meant so little.
Last week he'd bought a new watch. He looked down at his new watch, hands glowing green. By 5:30 pm it was dark, and without the watch, how could he tell how late it was? The days were spent at work, and then it was dark. Tim liked the new watch, he wasn't sure how long he would keep it, how long his new watch would hold on to its meaning. The old Tim lived sometime before the fire, still remained in the old house. He could feel his presence, or rather gaze at him from where he sat on the stoop. The light in which the old Tim lived would be forever yellow-turning-orange, the trees being bent violently by gusts. The air was so dry, the old Tim meant to be breathing dust. That Tim lived with memories of the beach and seagulls and slim, silvery fish, and he would never be able to take a step forward. Backwards, there was much left to explore, but he would never make it past that Sunday in October.
New Tim had thrown away old Tim's watch. New Tim smoked his pre-rolled and stared into the darkness. Cats and dogs came to his door at times, and he fed them, posted their photos on Nextdoor and hoped the right people would see them float past.
The neighborhood stank like an ashtray.
His wrist was burning with the new watch. It was a watch for the bargain watch circle, Ricky, his boss at Home Depot, had told him; he'd never known such a circle existed. Ricky wore a Tag Heuer, a 'good beater watch' he called it. Tim dreamed of his watch almost every night since he'd bought it. He'd wanted to explain to Ricky why he couldn't buy himself a monthly-salary watch, but they'd been interrupted by Ricky's phone, an incoming text that was more urgent than what Tim was thinking about buying watches.
His old watch had been powered by a quartz movement, seconds ticking off like an endless march. His new one came alive and stayed alive on his wrist with sweeping hands, and Tim cared for it like an animal, feeding it with his movements. He'd only owned it for a week and hadn't taken it off, not even at night.
He woke often during these nights, smoke lingering, alerting him. He made coffee every evening, a new habit, and drank it at one or two in the morning, when his heart made it impossible to fall asleep again, that beast trying its hardest to kill him. He'd sit on the stoop, as he was doing now, watching the watch and its hands in the darkness, and drink the still-hot coffee. At times, he thought, hoped maybe, that something larger, much larger than a cat or stray dog might materialize, a creature he needed to run away from, but one that could be killed. To make death final. Instead, death came every night at odd hours. Tim didn't look too sharp in those hours, nor at any others. He could detect his face blurring from week to week. He drank two or three martinis instead of one. He bought the vodka at Costco, whatever was on sale. Norm didn't comment on his drinking or smoking, just let it go. This evening, Tim had asked what would happen to them. It wasn't a question, really, but Norm had responded immediately, "I'll take care of you."
"It's rotten work."
"Not to me. Not if it's you."
Tim had mixed two more martinis and Norm hadn't protested. Norm was ten years younger, not young, but he would survive Tim. Of that, Tim felt certain, like he'd signed a contract. This gave him solace; it made him feel nostalgic for the years he wouldn't spend with his love, would not be there to take care of him.
Norm disliked the watch. He hadn't said so, he hadn't said anything. Norm was stingy with money, and Tim could hear him ask, What was wrong with the old one? Norm still wore his protective mask whenever they took walks through the old neighborhood. At Home Depot, they'd been sold out for days. The first three weeks after the fire, Norm hadn't dared to run. He was small, thin, with a perfect runner's build, but smoke covering the county proved too thick to even walk outside. They'd taken their two dachshunds from the hotel entrance to the next tree and back. They stayed indoors and made each other miserable. Their desire for each other had hardened; it no longer afflicted their limbs. The fire had turned their bodies into comfort, not excitement.
Tim's stomach felt soft and hard at the same time, he was obsessed with it. Since leaving old Tim behind on that Sunday night, he'd taken Zantac to quieten that stomach. Couldn't be good, right? But what the hell. He wasn't going to cook again anytime soon. Before the fire he'd insisted on salads in the evening, everything fresh. Now only salty, packaged things made him feel right. Food was comfort, not an adventure. Things had to be heavy and substantial and dead.
The heavier his stomach, the more he felt he was still in this world. Because he knew he'd left behind old Tim, but what he didn't know was whether or not new Tim really existed. Somebody was still there, in this neighborhood that stretched out in darkness, but it might not have been anybody who was called Tim. He should have taken a new name, he thought, something mothballed and antique. Eugene or Walter or Arthur. He should have chosen something more substantial, maybe he should have picked a more substantial watch.
The dark ate his feet, his calves, his knees. The dark ate his hands, and not even Norm could bring them back. Norm might find the watch on top of the stairs; Tim hoped it was substantial enough to hint at his own existence and disappearance.
Survivor's guilt, his boss had said. Your house didn't burn. Tim was sure that Ricky had read the term in Newsweek or Time. Ricky wasn't stupid, he just couldn't tell where words belonged and who to speak them to. If Ricky could find a name for Tim's misery, he had solved the problem as far as he was concerned.
You were lucky, Tim's brother in Wyoming wrote on Facebook. Count your blessings. He wasn't stupid either, that brother, but Tim felt that same discomfort he'd felt in the presence of his boss. Ricky and his brother felt the need to guide Tim's feelings, as though they were an old lady they were trying to feed some soup or help across the street. They said what they said so they didn't have to wait for Tim's answer after asking how he felt and Tim taking another moment to respond. There were too many answers hooked to such a question, and he needed to be careful reeling them in and speaking them.
In five years, maybe three, Tim would retire. Norm had done the math; they could afford it. Norm knew math, but he didn't have a smartphone. Not a flip phone either. No phone. One phone in the family was enough, he said. He didn't have any family left, only Tim. That's how he said it, no family left, to make people think they all had died.
Tim did feel guilt. He was lucky, but not because he had survived. He felt guilt over not saving Tim. Tim, who now spent his days trapped inside the house with memories of the beach. He hadn't been able to save his love for this street, this neighborhood, Norm. New Tim had killed them all.
He hadn't awakened Carol.
He was done smoking. The lights on Carol's lot were still visible, but nothing else. He wished their home had burnt too. He didn't want this house which old Tim still haunted, forever unable to escape the fire. Smoke stung his nose. Maybe he could fall asleep tonight. If only they could see how naked they were and make love to each other. Maybe tonight, if Norm made love to him, he could afford to sleep.
Stefan Kiesbye's stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. His first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award, and has been translated into German, Dutch, and Spanish. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone made EW’s Must List and was named one of the best books of 2012 by Slate editor Dan Kois. The LA Noir Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles (Vanishing Point) and the novel The Staked Plains were released in 2015; the Gothic novel Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames followed in October 2016. His new novel Berlingeles is available from Revelore Press. Kiesbye teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.
twitter handle -- @skiesbye
instagram -- skiesbye