What The Fire Gives Back
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
By Paul Davenport Randell
(It's been a hellish busy month and I've not had time to write a new blogpost. So here's a free short story, in case you missed the link in the third and final installment of How to Write a Short Story: Revising and Editing the Final Draft. Examples from early drafts of this short story were used in the two previous how-to blogs in this instructive series, and can be found by clicking one or the other here: How to Write a Short Story: A Quick 3-Step Guide to Finding Ideas and Getting Started, and How To Write A Short Story: Rewriting The First Draft)
We’d lost everything.
Like that, the full sum and meaning of our lives was gone.
Every piece of furniture — gone.
All of our clothes, books, artwork, ornaments and trinkets — gone.
Oskar’s toys, his wheelchair, every photograph of him that we’d ever had framed —
‘You got off lightly,’ said the insurance investigator, casting his gaze over the ashy remains of our lives, searching for evidence of causality. Any clue that would prevent Church Inc. from making a single payment more than it must. Just doing his job. 'Compared to some.'
Helena turned her glare on him. Her hands were shaking. They hadn’t stopped since the sudden cacophony of alarms and honking sirens got us leaping from our bed. Since we saw the smoke leaking under the door and the edges of the blind hung in the window flickered with an unfamiliar orange light. Since fear and panic and hysteria rattled through us and we were beaten back from reaching the secure room down the hallway by flames funnelling along its ceiling, floor and walls, and all we could do was get out.
‘Compared to who?’ she said.
The investigator cocked a thumb over his shoulder.
‘Compared to those poor people piled up against the Wall. Whole families together,’ he said. ‘You don’t even want to imagine what they must have thought when the gates wouldn’t open. You can see where their fingernails clawed into the concrete. Christ-knows how they got up that high.’
He took another careful step forward, gently placing his foot down, barely disturbing the delicate integrity of powder beneath. He had on plastic protective socks over his shoes, another covering his trimmed brown hair, a solemn dark suit. Helena still had on the same pair of jeans and the tshirt she’d escaped in, filthy and reeking of dried-in chlorine and smoke. I was wearing a pair of training bottoms and a hoodie that were not mine. I’d picked them out from one of the donations’ boxes brought to Church Inc.’s enormous Community Blocks.
‘At least they can be given proper burials,’ she said. She looked ravaged, her eyes red-rimmed and raw from the pain of grief and sleeplessness. White tracks ran through the smut on the sides of her cheeks, those newer overlaying the old, made by tears mixed with unstemmable beads of perspiration: in the summer months, even at night, the air never cooled. ‘What the hell am I supposed to bury?’ she asked him. ‘How will I know what’s my son? How am I supposed to separate the ashes?’
We’d come back to sift among the ruins, to salvage what we could, to try and make sense of everything. Little remained standing or intact. A few charcoaled stumps of timber nosed through the ash, and the black shells of copper-plated saucepans. The burnt hulls of oven, washing machine, dishwasher — one unrecognisable from the other — now stood alone and separated from the steel-handled, gleaming units that had bookended them and were now reduced to dust. The unbreakable granite worktop that was sold to us as being sourced from the now desert regions of Southern Independent Europe, was veined with cracks and broken in two, there on the ground in the same space that used to be the kitchen. A low section of the curving west wall, blackened with smut, gave glimpses of the once-white-but-now-darkly-sepia bamboo-leaf-patterned wallpaper Helena had chosen for our bedroom. Running the length of the back of the house was the steel frame of the sliding doors, leaning and glassless now, and through which we’d got out and stood helpless and horrified among the roar and rage of the fire, and which had opened onto the broad decking that was good now only for slag. And on its back, among the soot and the rubble and the after-fire smell, laid the specially fabricated metal bed-base that had cradled the mattress Oskar had been strapped to, and which I couldn’t bring my gaze to fall upon.
That morning, on our way back here, we’d seen firefighters carrying body bags to a windowless vehicle. One of the black bags was the size of a pillowcase and couldn’t have weighed more than a few kilos. Helena had covered her mouth and begun hyperventilating. She got up and pushed out of the seat beside me and rushed down the aisle between the seats. She commanded the Collectivibus to stop and the doors hissed open and she tumbled out and threw up onto the thick ash covering the road, that broad highway nobody had expected the fire to leap.
Helena was rocking back and forth, her fists clenching and unclenching. A look of incomprehension had fixed upon her features. I wondered when she might break down. So far, she’d held herself together remarkably. I was certain some part of her clung to the possibility that Oskar, somehow defying all probability, had broken free of his restraints and crawled out under the fire to safety.
Not knowing was as brutal as knowing, and I loathed seeing her like this, teetering, this woman who always stood so strong and rigid. I clamped my teeth together so hard I felt a shock of pain shoot from behind my ear up to my temples. I moved towards her, not knowing what else I could do, reaching out with both hands to draw her into me and absorb her hurt, to carry its appalling weight for her, in that empty space where mine should have been. But she shook her head and turned her shoulder away from me, repelling me in a way she never had. She knew my hurt was less than hers and her resentment had been growing all morning.
The investigator was staring at Helena’s back. He looked panic stricken. I could see his mind whirring, no doubt trying to conceive a way to call back his words, as though a pack of rabid dogs he’d let loose.
‘I — I’m sorry —I didn’t know,’ he stuttered, holding up both his palms. I noticed he didn’t have a Church Inc. logo inked on the back of his wrist. Too early to know if he was a “company man”, if he was “truly faithful”, I supposed.
So, they’d sent us a rookie. The seniors were no doubt assessing the razed properties of those residents on the next salary-level. Church's hierarchy remained rigid even in a disaster.
‘Church didn’t tell me anything. Usually they’re supposed to brief us in these situations, but this isn’t a normal situation, right?’
I half expected him to drop to his knees and begin imploring us for understanding and clemency. I imagined he was suddenly fearing for his elevating lifestyle, his loss of merits, his yearly bonus, his job, his pension, his future — all reliant on how we would rate him at the end of our meeting. On a scale from one to five, with one being the lowest and five the highest, how sympathetic was our representative today?
He blabbered on, nervously. ‘. . . main receiver’s badly damaged . . . personal tracking systems down . . . engineers still trying to . . .’
But my mind was racing again, retracing my steps the afternoon of the night the fire had started.
After I’d swiped-out of the LAB, I’d worked-out at Church Inc.’s gym block, showered, jumped on a Collectivibus and came home, where I’d seen Oskar’s carer out, presented Oskar with another lense to add to his biscuit tin (a monthly ritual), pushed Oskar out into the garden and together picked a couple of lemons and plucked a few sweet basil leaves to add to the salad dressing and salad — taking with us nothing more incriminating than a wooden bowl to collect them in — and then, a little later, I’d fastened Oskar to his bed, as we must for both his and our own safety, before finally sitting down with Helena at about 8 o’clock and over dinner discussing our days, then we'd watched an hour’s TV and finally went to bed — nothing undue or unusual.
‘. . . communication channels broken . . . biometrics screwed . . . barely no info’s getting through . . . ‘
Nothing, that was, that could implicate me in any act of negligence against Church Inc.
And moreover, nothing that might exclude us from the Church Community.
‘. . . . nobody has a clue how many made it to the Clouds.’
I noticed the investigator steal another quick glance around him, eyes flitting here and there. I wondered whether he’d resumed his work or else was searching for a shovel, one a rescue worker might have left unattended, and use it to shovel back on top of him the soil from the deep hole he’d dug himself into. Either that, or use it to clear us a path himself, in order to take us back to the Community Block at Cloud Nine and show us where to pin up a photo we didn’t have and start helping us look for our ‘missing relative.’
He began rubbing at the soft flesh behind his earlobe, as though hoping to massage back to life the Tag buried there, and tap out a distress signal.
‘Look — I probably shouldn’t say this,’ he said, scanning around him, as if to ensure nobody was within hearing distance. ‘But you shouldn’t give up hope. Miracles do happen. Only last month — six days after the latest earthquake in Paris — three sisters were found alive in one of the collapsed metro stations. Now if that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. And let’s face it, there’s nowhere more likely you’ll see a miracle than here, right? In Church’s own heavenly garden.’
I screwed my eyes shut, then opened them again and turned them up to the bright sky above. How wide and clear and blue it appeared today, without a trace of the choking black smoke that had filled it so completely three days earlier.
‘When the Clouds are fully complete and populated, as One through Eleven in the northern districts already are, Heavenland will be the biggest, safest, and securest eco-housing project ever seen anywhere on this earth.’
The estate agent — across from whose desk Helena and I sat gripping one another’s hands with excitement — appeared so humanlike that I had to look hard to see the half-a-hair’s-breadth corona of light running around on her corneal-lense to be certain she was in fact manfactured. Once sure, though, I experience a moment of pride for my part in her development. I’d spent five years working on this last barrier to the appearance of the real and lifelike, that is, the complex, soft, bio-organic matrices of eye colouration. And since incredible improvements had been made to stabilising rogue growth cells — and since genetic mutations had been successfully edited out in almost all instances of new builds, eliminating any propensity for violence or worse — not to mention the corrections to the arousal functions for certain models so that at least the act of sex was possible — I’d even backtracked on my objections and now agreed it ethically permissible to genderise all Church’s AI products. And yes, even that their kind ought be granted something like a birth certificate, be allowed to marry, be given the same rights as us, and by extension, become citizens of the Church Community.
‘We have successfully negotiated a no-fly-zone overhead,’ the estate agent continued. ’By which I mean, to all personal and private drones, as well as to military Nano-drones and all domestic aircraft.
‘There will not be a single nook or cranny left unmonitored by our 24/7 surveillance team—both internally and externally. Though I should say, there will be an option for privacy in all bedrooms between designated hours, no matter the nature of the partner.’
She wrinkled her nose and smiled teeth perfectly white and straight and agleam with all manner of reassurances.
‘Our algorithms predict that crime-rate will measure no more than 0.000013 per cent per year. Minor offences, mostly, such as recycling errors, or so it’s thought, and warranting a fine of a few hundred DIgicoins at most.
‘The air will be the cleanest you’ll breathe anywhere. The entire area of three-thousand square miles will be powered by renewables and one-hundred per cent energy efficient. All motorised travel within the Heavenland’s Wall will be clean and driverless and computer controlled from a central board. Accidents involving more than one vehicle will be virtually impossible.’
‘Virtually?’ I said, narrowing my eyes.
The estate agent leaned forward, covered her upper lip with her hand and lowered her voice. ‘Well, completely, actually,’ she whispered, as though imparting a secret she shouldn't really be telling us. ‘But, because as you will both know, since nothing can claim to be perfect or entirely true and reliable, for legal reasons, we are obligated to refrain from using absolute terms. Terms, that is, impossible to test.’
‘And what about the trees?’ I said.
‘The trees?’ Her smile didn’t falter, though something pulsed, something bio-electrical, just beneath her lower left eyelid. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand your question.’
‘Are they real or have they been replaced by fire-retardant GM replicas?'
Rumour had it that global temperatures were up again the last quarter and now nudged critical point. Three years ago, wildfire destroyed most of the Black Forest and half of California. Last year, Yukon saw an unprecedented acreage of forest burn — an area the size of Iceland, so it was estimated — and reports suggested the usual signs of recovery were not being seen. Drought was rife three-quarters of the world over. Elsewhere, rising sea-levels had disappeared the Norfolk Broads. Parts of the Netherlands, too, was under siege from melting icecaps. All this had very effectively reduced the world population by a third, while a third of the south was migrating north, by land, by sea, hoping to be let into areas already over-populated. Unsurprisingly, Church Inc. was assuring its public they were totally committed to remote intervention on the world’s weather systems and signs of reversal was expected by the end of the year. Though another rumour had it that all its Founding Fathers and shareholders had bought one-way tickets to CS19. And therefore, I had concerns.
‘When a fire starts in a forest,’ I explained, ‘real trees become fuel. Inside the Wall, if any stray spark catches, Heavenland will become one enormous pizza-oven.’
‘Ah. I see.’ The estate agent sat back again, smiled again, sure of herself once more. ‘Let me assure you, Christian, Helena, that all our properties are totally fire proof, constructed with materials designed to resist temperatures exceeding that at the centre of our sun. So, as you see, Heavenland will be the safest environment anywhere to live — and indeed to raise a child — even a child such as yours, with the kind of needs Oskar will require. And may I say how brave I think you both are in choosing to accept him as he came. Many parents wouldn’t. Most don’t, now such options for editing are open and available to everyone.’
Helena smiled back, as though one mother to another.
Pre-programmed homilies done with and ticked off, the estate agent leaned forward once more and gently placed her hands on the white-topped desk between us, cocked her head to one side in a brilliantly learned attitude meant to elicit a sense of trustworthiness, and resumed her pitch.
‘Furthermore, naked flames will be not only strictly prohibited but quite unnecessary: all our appliances are powered by fusion energy. Plus, as an extra precaution, we pay a premium to our partners at Government to ensure Church Inc.’s not-so-very little Garden of Eden remains emerald all year round by constant irrigation and like this, resemble conditions as moist as any tropical rain forest. The odds of Heavenland catching fire, then, so our algorithms tell us, is equal to the odds of Lake Geneva igniting – before it finally dried up, that is. Ha ha.
‘So, you see, I can promise you both, hand on my heart,’ she paused for dramatic effect, until both Helena’s and my gaze were drawn to the centre of her chest, ‘that every precaution imaginable has been taken to protect all of Heavenland’s residents. The safety of its population is paramount to our generous owners and to our collective employers at Church Inc. As it says right there in the brochure: “We do all the worrying, so you don’t have to”.
That smile, again, not just on the mouth, but in the eyes, too.
For the first time, I smiled back.
‘Sounds perfect,’ I said.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘I think you'll all be very happy here. Now all that’s left us to do, is for you both to accept our T&Cs and Safety Disclaimer and then roll your sleeves and hold out your hands and allow me to implant your passports to the gates of Heavenland.’
Again, I took in the scene directly in front of me. There was our pool, its water low and muddy brown, afloat with black debris and the up-turned fibreglass canoe I’d pulled out of the garage, and under which Helena and I had submerged ourselves. Just behind that was an arcing line where an area of untouched green terraced garden stood in vivid contrast to levelled pale cinders. That was the spot I’d assembled Oskar’s playhouse, on the lower tier, among the lemon trees.
‘Why are there six?’ I heard Oskar say in my ear.
I jarred, and turned, half-expecting him to appear from behind a giant yucca. Or to see him manoeuvring his chair up the drive, grinning his cheeky-boy grin, his eyes magnified large behind his thick spectacles.
But there was nobody. Only the investigator closing in on the fire-line and Helena stepping aimlessly among the dust and crumbled, failed retardant building blocks, and some short distance away, a couple of rescue workers, taking a break.
I lowered my head. I wondered whether what I’d heard was an audio-memory conjured by some semblance of grief that I was not experiencing or Oskar's ghost in my cochlea receiver, an echo of electronic feedback in the channel through which he'd communicated.
I recalled him sitting on my lap, then, the two of us watching from a deckchair as Helena planted the lemon trees. It was our first spring season inside the Wall and I remembered how lucky we felt, how privilaged we were to be here. I explained there was a lemon tree each for the three of us, another two in memory of my mother and father, and one more for my older, palsy-stricken brother.
Oskar looked uncomprehending. He’d not known my parents or Ulrich, and neither had Helena. I’d lost them many years before any of us had met. All three of them had drowned in deep waters, five months after fleeing Independent Europe and joining the 30 mile-long migrant caravan. My parents’ bodies were never found, but Ulrich washed up on a French shore a week later. I was eight and my parents had paid extra for me to wear one of the twelve lifejackets on board the tiny trawler that was stuffed to the bows with seventy-nine passengers. The storm that flipped the boat was not the worst that year, but enough to capsize half the flotilla with whom we sailed.
Somewhat cynically, I said the trees would never survive a winter outside. No matter their encoded resilience to extreme cold snaps. I remember saying to Helena that I think we she should stick them in pots and then we could bring them inside when the weather turned: few domestic lifeforms had evolved or been engineered to endure such low extremes as those we’d had last February and March. Even those Dr. Helena Kovic had been crucially instrumental in developing.
‘We’ll see,’ she’d answered.
And lo, this summer, the trees had hung heavier than ever with their wax -crayon-yellow fruit.
What branches were left now looked stuck-on, like crooked sticks of charcoal off crooked black stems, like the arms on the first stickman Oskar had drawn and which we’d proudly clamped to the refrigerator door with a magnet — and protruded on the far side only. Along with the way the grey shades of ash became darker through the depth of the house, those branches missing hinted at the course in which, fanned by a hot summer night-time wind, the fire had charged.
I turned back in that direction, and viewed once more the broad, scorched panorama falling away from me at the front of our house. Hard to believe that six days earlier, all that out there had been a dense swathe of needle leaf forest bordered by birch — and all real, after all. And now unobscured, except for the singed barebones of the few remaining trees, truncated shadows of their former selves all, I easily made out the ruins of our nearest neighbour’s house, down there at the foot of the sloop a quarter mile away, smouldering still.
Further on, I made out more ruins. A partially collapsed mezzanine floor here, and over there, an iron-gate affixed to still-standing columns at the entrance of a winding drive, and to the right, a chimney breast that must have been built for cosmetic purposes only.
I made out the cross-hatch of roads and the main bisecting highway and upon that, a long double trail of burnt-out cars caught in the gridlock of panic. I made out the silver thread of the river on which I’d taken Oskar out in our specially adapted canoe, and which had thrilled him so much.
And westward, I made out conspicuous blots of colour, these, the various grounds and properties of Church Inc.’s CEOs and major shareholders, and for the second time that morning I felt an electrical surge of bitterness rattle me.
We’d driven through that area earlier, on one of the few passable roads that could bring us back here. There had been a palpable air of bewilderment aboard the Collectivibus, which turned quickly to simmering anger.
‘What baffles me is how that many teams of firefighters,’ said one of the passengers, voicing what many of us were thinking, ‘firefighters that should never have been needed, let alone existed — if all those promises and guarantees the agency made are anything to go by — how many were recruited and deployed as quickly as they clearly were.’
‘You think they were assembled on the hoc? At the time the warnings started coming in?’ one of the more senior investigators chortled, a flabby fellow whose small eyes were dewy with mirth. ‘Don’t kid yourselves. Human nature never changes. Money will be saved where money can be, so as much as possible can be retained, for no good reason than keeping the curve rising.’
‘I think I've found something,’ said the investigator.
‘Oh God!’ said Helena, turning away, unable to look. ‘Oh God, please, don’t let it be him.’
The investigator squatted on his haunches and picked up something small and light and cubic and brushed the ash off. I knew at once what it was and what it had contained. Before the investigator followed through and retrieved from the cold embers the handful of coin-sized lenses Oskar had kept in the old biscuit tin, an image of the eye of the sun burning through one of them and igniting a flame came sickeningly to my mind.
The investigator contemplated the lenses for some long while, thumbing them, and he then regarded me for what felt a while longer still.
‘What is it, Christian?’ Helena had both her hands covering her face, barely daring to peer through her fingers, her whole body turned to the road. ‘Is it him?’
The investigator closed his fist around the lenses.
‘It’s nothing, Mrs Kovič,’ he said at last. ‘Just a few worthless old coins. Sorry.’
He opened the lid on the biscuit tin and dropped the lenses inside, closed the lid and held it out to me. Then he wiped the smut from his fingers on the leg of his trousers.
Tensed as I was, I hadn't heard the Collectivibus pull to a stop at the end of our drive. But I did hear Helena.
I looked round just as a door opened at the back of the vehicle and a ramp extend onto the road. Out backed a plump woman easing a wheelchair down along with her. Once on the ground, she turned the wheelchair to face us and there was Oskar. His glasses were absent but his ice-blue eyes sparkled back at us.
There was a soft crackle before he was reconnected to the implant behind my ear and I heard his voice.
‘Mummy! Daddy! I’ve come back to you. Look. I’ve come back. Are you happy?’
I waited for Helena to erupt with joy and run to embrace him.
But she stood silent, her eyebrows knitting with confusion.
‘What have you done?’ she said. ‘My God, what the hell have you done?’
'It’s Oskar! It’s our son!’ I said.
Helena began shaking her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘No, no, no, no. That is not our son. That is not Oskar.’
‘Of course it’s Oskar. Look at him, Helena. Look at him.’ I waved and Oskar waved back.
‘With all that’s going on around us, the noise, the unfamiliarity of everything, these strangers — Oskar would be screaming right now.’
‘He’s just pleased to see us,’ I said.
‘How could you do this, Christian? How could you think I wouldn’t know or care ? How could you even think I wouldn't recognise my own child? That I wouldn't see he was a hack.'
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath.
‘Okay,’ I conceded. ‘Okay. It’s a hack. But Oskar always was a hack, Helena. A inferior copy that we accepted, with all its glitches and faults. Because you fell in love with it. Because you couldn’t bear the thought they were going to shut it down.’
‘It? It was our son?’
‘And this new Oskar can be our son, too. He isn’t that different from the old Oskar. He’s just an updated copy, that's all. An improved copy. A more perfect Oskar.’
‘I don’t want a more perfect Oskar. I’m not you, Christian. I want the one who was more like you and me. The one who was more . . . human. How have you never got that?'
With that, she picked her way back amongst the ruins of our house to the metal bedframe. As she went, I recalled the night of the fire, how I’d spitefully pulled the fastenings around Oskar’s twitching body so tight anyone else would have cried out in pain, but all he did was smile back at me his disturbing and unfaltering smile.
Then the memory was broken by the sound of the new Oskar in my ear, asking if Mummy was angry with him. I inhaled deeply through my nose, smelt the waft and blend of miscellaneous burnt materials, of trees, of true and lab-grown skin, of snuffed out existences, of those with or without consciousness, or self-awareness, with or without souls, then found my gaze gravitate towards my right and observed, below me, the huge, low-slung complex of Church Inc. and all its laboratories and production warehouses standing there, amongst a circle of evergreen landscaped garden, the silver river running around it, here and there spanned by retractable bridges, and all surrounded by an ever-expanding ground of black ash and smoking earth.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this short story, feel free to comment and share.
And if want to know more about the author and are interested in reading more by him, go to the menu at the top of the page and click on Home.