Unburnable Things

Duncan thinks, as he stares into the fire, about the people who have a fireplace channel on their televisions. Those who have no space for a hearth in their homes, too tidy and tame for that, but whose large televisions dominate the room and draw the eye. He knows this because he’d killed a man in front of his, once. The mark had been sitting on the couch in the home he owned by himself (nice neighbourhood, families all around, probably the only singleton on his block; nobody would find his body for weeks) scrolling down and down and down endlessly on his smartphone while, in front of him, the image of a fire roared away on the large screen attached to the wall. Duncan had killed him with a single shot to the back of the head, an expensive gun with an expensive silencer so as to not draw attention in the middle-class neighbourhood.

Perhaps the neighbours heard something anyway. Perhaps they put down their own smartphones in puzzlement for a moment, even asked “did you hear that?” Perhaps someone dropped something, they figured. Perhaps someone fell. None of their business, anyway.

Duncan had left the false fireplace on at the dead mark’s home, crackling away merrily. Every so often, a disembodied hand entered the frame to add another log.

He has a real fire, of course, in his home. Not only is the small house heated from the wood-burning stove, but he would never have bought a house that couldn’t contain a fire within it. It is necessary for sturdy strong implacable things, like houses, to be able to carry within them the means to destroy themselves and everything around them. If a house can contain a fire and not go up in flames, Duncan can contain his own secrets, his brutality, his perfect suitability for the life that he had chosen.

He’d known that Camille was not going to find what she was looking for, if they dug into the reasons behind the long-ago hit on her father. Duncan had never found out the reasons behind terribly many of his kills, but that was mainly because on the occasion that he did, they were invariably boring. People kill each other, or hire other people to kill each other, for mainly the same reasons. Money. Drugs. Business gone wrong. Business gone wrong so long ago that nobody can quite remember what was at stake in the first place, but only that the wrongness has escalated, ballooned so far out of its original proportion that snuffing out a human life is the only way to puncture it. Nobody Duncan killed had ever died for a good and noble reason, he’s fairly sure.

He’d known from the beginning of the attempt, then, that Camille didn’t really want to know why someone had had it out for her father. What Camille wanted was her family back, or failing that, for Duncan to feel their loss as keenly as she did, every day of her life.

Neither of those things were possible. Duncan would have died at her hands; would still, in fact, not protest if that was what she wanted. He values his own life highly enough to defend it against attack from others like him: those for whom his death would have no meaning but a job well done. But he cannot value it so highly as to be able to come up with any reason that he should not die righteously.

He’s glad she hadn’t killed him, not for his own sake but for hers. If she had, he wouldn’t be there to tell her that it’s normal that the images of her parents’ death scene have been replaced by images of his death. He wouldn’t be able to reassure her that eventually, memory of him will fade, and she too will be able to stare into a fire and see only fire.

Now, his house is empty and silent save for the crackle of logs. He can see out the window and across to Camille’s window, the glow of a very similar scene in her home: combustion, light, loneliness. They could be doing this together, instead of alone, but they have kept mainly apart since the conclusion of their research. Camille’s father had been killed because years ago, before he had a family, he had visited a brothel and mistreated the woman he’d seen there. He’d been offered the chance to pay extra for his misdeed– surely more to make up the cost of his wear and tear on the goods than because the owner of the the place planned on compensating the woman for emotional damage– but had refused. Years later, the prostitute in question had ended up taking ownership of the business.

Camille probably wishes she doesn’t know that. It is too late. One cannot un-know things once they are known, which is why it is often better not to know in the first place.

He’d wondered if she would leave, after that. There is no longer any reason for her to stay here, a strange sad-eyed girl in a house with a large porch, tucked away at the very edge of nowhere. She has the money to go anywhere, do anything she wants; Duncan had made sure of that. Perhaps, if she’d killed him, she would have. But he seems to bind her to this place in a way that he is not in conscious control of. He would like to feel guilty about it, but cannot. His guilt is a stunted, practical thing, questionable in the first place and then worn down through years and years of killings. He can offer her his life, but he cannot offer her his guilt. There isn’t enough to go around.

The bones of his former colleagues lie underneath the earth in front of his house, a little ways away from the bones of the small dog. The dog deserves a resting-place apart from them, but he’d dumped all of the unburnable remnants of the bodies who had come to his own home to kill him in one deep grave together. The knowledge of them there ties him to this place, and he ties Camille. Perhaps if the fire had been hotter, if he’d had a closed crematorium furnace and ground the bones down to ash to scatter to the wind, then he would be free, and so would she.

Instead he chops wood overtop of the spot where the bodies return slowly to the soil, and carries half of it to Camille’s house when he knows she is out. She knows where it comes from, but she never mentions it. It is better this way: that he keeps her hearth burning silently, unnoticeable but for the flicker in the window.