By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
In Queens, another warehouse burns to the ground. I see the article in the Times, which Rain has left open on the kitchen counter beside a box of low-fat macaroons. Crumbs speckle the photograph. Against a black sky, flames shoot heroically above cement ruins.
I keep Delphie safe. In the jolting subway car, no one has left a newspaper abandoned on the seat. The wind does not single out this page from the tangle by the curb, does not skirt it along the pavement and deposit it against Delphie's shoe. And even if the breeze did betray me, my brother would shake free. He would walk with his head lifted, his mind focused forward, recovering.
Rain is absorbed in Melissa. She paces the kitchen from one end to the other, gesturing outward from her chest as she sings. She struggles with the notes. In the early sixties, when she starred in her only musical, a less attractive and more melodious actress provided her voice off-screen. When I pointed out this inconsistency, she said, "I've matured," as if time gives instead of taking away.
"There," she says, stopping by the sink. She breathes hard, her face flushed, the script clasped to her breast. "I think I've almost got it."
"You're getting better." I hold up the paper. "Did you see this?"
"What? Oh, yes." She gulps down a glass of water. "A firefighter died."
So struck by the image, I forgot to read the text. Now I quickly skim, trying to locate the exact point of demise. I use my finger to press down the words. Joe Giralti, thirty-seven. Father of four.
"Tragic," Rain says. "Nothing inside but some old boxes and tools."
She places her glass upside down in the dish drainer and slowly turns to face me. I realize what she is thinking. I fold the newspaper in half, and the fire disappears.
"You're not suspecting," she says.
"Nothing." She waves the script. "Ready for Act Two?"
"He has programs," I say. "And a job."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything. Of course the two aren't connected."
"Then why did you say it?"
"I just thought you'd worry."
"I trust my brother."
My voice absolves me. I push the newspaper to the side, put a whole macaroon in my mouth, and chew.
"I know," Rain says. "Here." She hands me the script. "Act Two."
She pulls a chair into the middle of the room.
"Imagine me in a spotlight," she says. "Imagine me in a feathered gown."
Delphie could not have set the fires in Queens. When examined calmly, rationally, the lines do not connect. But the suggestion alone is enough.
As afternoon stretches into evening, the ruined building becomes the ruined house and the names form again, unwanted. The Greenes trail me through the apartment. They are the pads of my bare feet on the kitchen floor, the faucet turning on, the splash of water, the clank of a pot against the stove. I open the window, and they become the bark of a dog, the slam of a car door, a child's sing-song voice.
Why can't I be left alone?
I think of the soldiers.
Dr. Zarro painted model soldiers and lined them up according to rank on card tables in his basement. I hated going down there. The basement was cold and dank and devoid of color except for the neat, bright rows of tiny marching men. As soon as we walked through the door, Jenny would give me a little push. "Okay, sweetheart," she'd say, smiling up at Dr. Zarro. "You can go see the soldiers now."
She brought me rarely, only when Anna cancelled at the last minute, but every visit was torture. Delphie never went. He was old enough to be left on his own, but not old enough to be entrusted—or burdened—with me. When Jenny and I returned home, we found the house eerily quiet and Delphie sprawled out on top of his bed reading science fiction books, or hunched over his desk working on math problems. I understood the farce. I knew the action went on behind the shed, where he could let the flames burn his fingers.
Dr. Zarro's house smelled like latex gloves, but no other signs of his profession were in evidence. He wore tight jeans and undershirts and drank can after can of cheap beer. Coarse, dark hairs spiraled out of his chest. I couldn't wrap my head around what Jenny never failed to remind me: that this strange, bulging-eyed man was the reason both Delphie and I were alive. Of course our mother loved him.
In the basement I listened for creaks. I knew they liked to dance, and so I imagined them waltzing like the people in the black and white movies Anna watched. Sometimes I heard music, but it was distant, muffled, like a memory. I tiptoed around the perimeter of the room, sticking close to the shadows, trailing my hand along the rough wall. Overhead, my mother's laughter faded in and out.
I tried not to look at the soldiers. Once, after a visit, I had a nightmare in which they came to life and surrounded me, guns and bayonets pointing. I screamed for my mother, but she just kept dancing. Dr. Zarro spun her around and around until she became so dizzy, she threw up all over her ice-blue princess gown.
When I told Delphie, he rolled his eyes.
"That man is seriously weird," he said.
Jenny told us we should be grateful. Deep down I thought she might be right, but neither Delphie nor I could muster gratitude. We were a family of solid lines, steel barriers, reinforced doors.
Then one day the soldiers melted.
Carefully illustrated faces and historically accurate uniforms blended into a ball of primary colors. Dr. Zarro found no survivors. He could not even identify the remains.
Jenny came home in tears. He had turned away her advances, her attempts at comfort. He preferred to mourn alone in his foul-smelling basement.
"They're just stupid toys," she said.
That night she shut herself in her bedroom, but the next night she made dinner—roasted chicken, biscuits from scratch. She served us mint chocolate ice cream, which the three of us ate while watching The Wizard of Oz. By the end of the month, she was back to working late and dancing on the weekends with the doctor, but for three weeks, Delphie and I had her for our own. And from then on, the doctor had a hole burned into his heart, one that would never close. Their relationship began to blister.
I never knew how Delphie accomplished this greatest act of treason. Only I understood that he was the culprit and that he acted for us both. I saw the smirk of satisfaction when he heard that Dr. Zarro had screamed and howled and beaten his fists against the card table. I know he envisioned the crash of those powerful knees onto the hard cement floor.