"Dance!" Keller Greene shouted. "Dance like it's your last minute to live!" Students laughed and swirled, flickering around him like flames. He'd pushed the desks to the walls so his class could imagine a haunted ballroom: crimson carpet, shining chandelier, scent of death. Two girls held hands and spun until one staggered, hitting her knee against a desk. Keller grinned. He wanted them to lose control. He wanted them to feel it: this riotous warmth, this exuberance, this ability to keep despair momentarily at bay.
The shed last night had gone up easily, after the flare and hiss of the starter paper, the spreading red glow at its edges. The first flames stumbled uncertainly, like newborn fawns. But soon they grew strong, roaring orange mouths devouring wood into ash. Keller wasn't trapped in this windowless classroom. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend the faint must of the walls was smoke: soft grey tendrils curling from the tip of his match.
"Now!" Keller said, holding up an arm. "Enter—the Red Death!" He pointed to the boy who'd been crouching behind his desk. The boy sprang out, snarling, and ran toward a group of girls near the door. The lights went out; girls squealed. The classroom fell black.
This darkness was like the shed, a close cavern scented of birdseed and potting soil, faint light struggling through the grimy windows. It was a mile from his own home, on Smith's retired farm, so far buried in the wooded backyard that the old man couldn't see Keller slip in, kneel, and cup his hands around an orange glow.
Blinking, the classroom lights struggled to come back on. The period was nearly over, just as the enactment had exhausted its fuel.
"All right, everyone. Back to your desks," Keller said. The fire had made the front page. In this small town, it was the most exciting event in weeks. They had a picture of soggy black ash on the ground; wetting the coals had been all the firefighters could do. He looked out at his class's smooth trusting faces. What would they think if they knew?
But it didn't matter; they wouldn't find out. He was being careful now. He'd purchased his matches three months ago with cash, and had left behind a cigarette butt for authenticity. Besides, no one would investigate the burning of an old shed. They were probably happy it was gone. The thing had been a hazard, a heap of splinters and tetanus at the edge of old Smith's land.
"Bye, Mr. Greene! See you tomorrow!" the students called as they ran out the door. Keller smiled. The shed was a small feat compared to what he was planning next.
For thirteen months now, Keller had wanted to burn the old Silverton house. It was a decaying two-story Victorian he'd discovered when he first moved to town. He'd taken a drive to investigate possibilities. He liked weary abandoned places, where time gathered softly like dust. Past the church and the pond, and past the old town library, with its bricks and bay windows, he found a driveway leading into the woods. He parked at the entrance. His feet crunched on the gravel, as loudly as a person breathing in an empty room.
He ignored the blackened "No Trespassing" sign, a futile sentry at the foot of the weed-grown yard. He inspected the house. The light blue paint was peeling. One of the upper windows had been cracked, fractures spidering out from the central eye. The railing of the front porch had broken loose from the siding; it dangled over a patch of wild daisies, as though it might jump to join them.
Most people felt disquieted by signs of the town's decay. They dreaded shuttered stores and houses surrendered to dust. They turned their eyes from boarded windows, rusted cars, crumbling sidewalks claimed by tree roots. Most of all they feared the silence. It crept up on them in their homes, stealing silently like water spreading across the floor. Young people fled to cities, where noise obscured the sound of crumbling time.
But Keller liked the silence; he saw anonymity behind stands of trees. He saw lonely houses, aching for release from the emptiness of their rooms. He strode through the weeds and over broken steps onto the porch of the Silverton house, resting his hand on the windowsill. The wood was cracked and dry.
He waited. It would be dangerous to start another fire too soon. His fingers longed for matches. He loved their slender wooden stems, their proud red tips. It amazed him that such modest little sticks stood ready to burst into flame. Sometimes he sat in his backyard and struck an entire box one by one, with as much pleasure as people who eat chocolate in the privacy of their bedrooms. But now he had waited enough.
At seven o' clock, Keller drove to the library and parked his car. He liked to leave it far from the scene. He checked the parking lot for witnesses: not a person in sight. It was nearly always deserted, since the town could only afford to keep it open part-time. He left his cell phone on the passenger seat. From the trunk, he took a backpack full of crumpled newspapers. He walked for ten minutes to the Silverton house.
The light grew dim as the sun slipped down, leaving a cold orange glow in its wake. Pine trees creaked as he walked up the driveway. He paused at the weed-grown yard and watched. The house was a blot of darkness against the fading day, the windows blank like guarded faces. He imagined the house bright; the tips of his fingers anticipated warmth. He would try the front door first.
He was nearly to the steps when he saw something move—a person or an animal? He focused on a splotch of shadow blacker than the rest of the darkness, and as he froze his heart became loud in his ears.
"Hello?" Keller called, his voice louder than he had intended. "Hello?"
He thought he could make out a person, but no one responded.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
"I'm really sorry," a woman's voice said. "I was just about to get going. Don't mind me."
She stood up and skipped down the steps. Then she glanced at him and stopped.
"Keller?" the woman asked. "Is that you?"
Keller pictured running away. He could deny it all. He could still pretend that he'd never been at the Silverton house that day. But now he realized who the woman was, and he had to stay.
"Lara?" Keller asked.
It was the art teacher—the strange young woman who, at the last staff meeting, had asked everyone to donate scraps from their three-hole punches for some kind of "installation." The teachers exchanged glances: she was already disliked for protesting the principal's decision to replace rotting ceiling tiles, which leaked whenever it rained. He shouldn't do this, Lara said, because the mildewed scent would teach the students to think of passing time. Keller had seen her at meetings and in hallways, but he had never spoken to her before.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I was—" She looked away and paused. "It's kind of weird, but I really like old houses. I just like being around them. I was sitting on the porch, and thinking."
"I love old houses too," Keller said. He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. It would seem suspicious.
"Especially this one. It's gorgeous. When I see it, I can practically hear time passing."
"I know what you mean."
"You know," she said, "I've been trying to work up the courage to break in. Not to do anything—just to look around. I come here a lot, almost every day sometimes, but I haven't done it yet."
He stared at her. She wore a fitted wool coat in a dark shade of purple, her dark hair loosely hanging around her shoulders. If she came that often, how would he ever plant his supplies?
"Let's do it," Keller said, stepping onto the porch. "Let's break in."
"I'm surprised to see you here," Lara said, as Keller tried the front door. It was locked, so he stepped to the side and pressed his palms against the grimy porch window. It slid grudgingly open. "In school you seem so—normal."
"I do?" he asked, laughing.
He stepped over the sill and climbed inside, his backpack still on his shoulder. He held out both hands to help her through. Inside, fragments of light struggled through the far windows. For a moment both of them stared at the shadows and the silence—and then Keller, realizing he still held Lara's hands, let go suddenly. She smiled and turned to walk around the room. Dust stirred in the wake of her footsteps, swirling in soft silent eddies. Dreamily she traced a finger along the wall, leaving a narrow trail. Only a few artifacts were left: an overstuffed couch, a shabby wicker chair. Lara stepped carefully around the perimeter of a faded red rug with yellow tassels.
"I love this rug. I had one like it, once. But my bathroom flooded and it got ruined." She wandered into the next room. "The poor widow," she called back. "Did you hear what happened?"
"Yes," Keller said, following her. "I read about it—how they found the body three weeks later."
"She must have been so lonely," Lara said. "I wonder what's upstairs." The wooden floor creaked under her feet. They came onto a small landing and went into the first bedroom. There was an old grey smoke detector in the center of the ceiling, the batteries probably dead. Curtains hung by the window. Keller went over to investigate. They were dry, almost brittle.
"This is beautiful," Lara said, in the opposite corner of the room. "It's just so gorgeous. It'd be perfect for my installation." She was stroking the wall. He turned to look at it. The wallpaper was pale faded gold, slightly reflective in the dim light. It had a pattern of vines, with red thumbnail roses tucked into curls of leaves.
"It is pretty nice." He would never have noticed if she hadn't pointed it out.
"We have to come back," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"For the wallpaper. To peel it off. Will you come back tomorrow, to help me? It's such hard work. But I definitely need it, for my installation." She was standing close to him now. She smelled sweet, with an undertone of clay: an art teacher smell.
Keller felt helpless.
"Of course I will."
The next morning, he found a note in his office mailbox:
If you can, meet me in my classroom at 5. I want to show you my project. — Lara.
It was written in flowing cursive across a faded yellow, lined piece of paper, the kind schools had when Keller was a boy. It smelled like it had been in a closet for several years. Anyone else would have emailed.
Intrigued, he went to Lara's classroom at five. Pollock-style splatter murals in red, orange, and blue marked the hallway outside the art room. Inside, paint and paper shreds speckled the floor. Against the walls, pointillist paintings were clipped to drying lines. Papier-mâché bowls covered several tables; autumn leaves cut from construction paper hung from the ceiling. Lara seemed to favor the burnable arts.
"Here I am!" she said from behind him, carrying a box of paint bottles. Her hair was wrapped into a wispy bun; she wore a black button-down shirt spattered with paint. She unbuttoned the shirt and threw it on the counter, revealing a violet V-neck sweater.
"Do you have time to see my installation?" she asked. "It's at the library. Afterward we can go to the house. I can drive us."
"Why don't we both drive to the library, so you don't have to bring me back later? We can walk to the house from there. It's nice out." In his trunk was a backpack concealing three tall soda bottles, each filled with paint thinner. He wasn't about to let her disrupt his supply-planting again.
An old brick cottage sat in the park behind the library. As Lara led him around back, he was surprised to see the brick facade scrubbed clean, with new bushes planted in front. The old warped-glass windows had been polished. No longer vaguely opaque, like early cataract eyes, they had become clear and reflective.
"Did you know the Silvertons owned the library?" Lara asked. "The cottage was the caretaker's place."
"I remember reading something about it," Keller said.
"It was abandoned for years. But I got a grant to make it into an exhibit," Lara said.
She took a key from her pocket and opened the door. The cottage was small and square, with hardwood floors. A writing desk stood in the corner; a gilded mirror hung on the wall. Two glass-doored bookcases housed volumes with cracked spines. Lace curtains framed the windows, and from the ceiling hung strings of origami cranes. The walls were white and bare.
"It's a room where old things are safe," Lara said. "I found all of it around town. I really hope the wallpaper's dry-strippable. I want to paste the strips on these walls."
Brick buildings didn't burn, but things inside them did: desks, curtains, hole punches. A handful of white ones sat on the bedside table, scattered slightly.
"Is this what you need the hole punches for?" Keller asked.
"Yes. They're the dust. I want to get them in every color and scatter them all over the room. In the summer, we'll open the windows, so the place will be full of light and air. The wind will stir them when it comes through. The only problem is, people aren't bringing me any hole punches. I might have to make them all myself." She frowned, and then he realized what was so beautiful about her face. Hidden behind her mouth, and reflected in her eyes, was a line of vague and causeless sadness.
Back at the cars, Keller checked his watch: 5:30. They'd have an hour before sunset. He took the backpack from the trunk. "Supplies," he said. "I think we'll have enough sun, but I brought a flashlight, just in case." A whole backpack for a flashlight: brilliant excuse. His voice sounded loud and false; surely Lara could tell.
"I brought putty knives," Lara said unfazed, taking a backpack and cardboard box from her trunk.
They went down Silverton Road. The wind rustled the pines as they turned up the long gravel driveway. It was the first time Keller's footsteps hadn't sounded so unbearably loud, now that they were joined by Lara's. The porch window was closed, just as they had left it last time. He raised the window and held her hands to help her climb inside. She lingered near him, then continued into the living room, smiling. He shifted the backpack on his shoulder. He didn't know when he would hide his paint thinner, or where.
He followed her as she floated toward the stairs, her footsteps creaking on the warped wooden floors. In the pale darkness she looked unreal. How could he be sure she was not just a lovely ghost, that she wouldn't pass through a wall and vanish? The stairs spiraled into the dark; she faded as she climbed further up. She turned a corner and disappeared. He couldn't lose her now. He leapt up the stairs. He plunged into the darkness of the hallway and found the door. There in the bedroom was Lara, smiling and stroking the wallpaper.
"I love paper," she said. "All of it: books, newspapers, stationery. I just love how it kind of disintegrates when it's old. It's so delicate, it could burn up in an instant. That's what makes it beautiful."
She bent closer to the wall. "This has an amazing texture. It reminds me of rice paper." She wasn't paying any attention to him: here was his chance. He darted out of the room. There had to be some place he could hide things. Usually he stocked supplies slowly, over the course of several days. He liked to use a variety of materials: paint thinner, nail polish remover, hairspray, newspaper. He relished taking time, stocking inconspicuously, while planning how best to unleash the conflagration. But he'd never had an art teacher along, trying to salvage historical artifacts.
There were two other bedrooms on the second floor, each also covered in wallpaper. What if Lara went in to look at them? In one of the rooms was a mattress: that would be useful later. Keller ran downstairs. On the first floor was the kitchen; the oven would do for now. He stuffed the bottles of paint thinner inside and ran back upstairs.
"Everything okay?" Lara asked.
"I was checking for more wallpaper," he said. "There's some great blue stuff in the master bedroom."
"This should be enough," Lara said. "But maybe we can use that for other projects!"
She lifted a corner of the paper with her putty knife and pulled. The wallpaper peeled away in a long strip, and her eyes widened.
"We're lucky!" she said. "I think we'll be able to dry-strip it. Careful—try not to rip it too much!" Keller tested the drywall beneath his hands. It was brittle, and the autumn air cool: perfect burning conditions. His mouth grew dry at the thought of a glorious, quick-spreading conflagration. Lara gently rolled her strip and put it in the box.
An hour later, as they walked back together with the box of wallpaper strips, Lara exulted. "I feel like a criminal!" she said. "It's kind of exciting!" Keller laughed.
At the library, he experienced a startling sight. Usually his car was alone in the parking lot. But now, like a ghostly double, Lara's sat next to it.
Keller made himself a promise: he wouldn't burn the house until Lara had taken all the wallpaper. It was a matter of prudence. If he burned it too soon, she would be upset, and might ask questions. And he did want to see her finish the installation. The bare white walls were clearly incomplete. Her room begged for golden finish, with green curling vines and red thumbnail roses. The wallpaper was necessary for the wind, which otherwise would never come to stir the lace curtains and colorful hole punch dust.
He worked with her twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. The other days, he struggled to contain himself. He couldn't go to the house. Otherwise, he'd imagine smoke filling the rooms; his hands would sweat, anticipating the beautiful, dense heat. Then he would have to light the first match. Against the image of red light he held Lara's pale, thin smile. He'd waited this long; he could wait for another few weeks.
Late on Sundays, he found recycled newspapers shivering helplessly on the curb. He hated seeing words thrown away, stripped of their dignity and next to the trash. He rescued the newspapers from their homelessness; he dismembered them and crumpled them up. He piled them in conical stacks six feet high, framed by dry branches from the lower reaches of pine trees. He lit matches to send the words off, releasing them with sympathy: the same way he freed abandoned houses from the emptiness of their rooms.
But backyard bonfires weren't enough. The fire consumed the paper greedily; after the initial joy of flame and smoke, it vanished within minutes. Then Keller felt as he did when news of random violence triggered visions of his own body in the grave. He needed more than anything to light a momentous fire, one that would burn slowly and grandly in an old Victorian house. But he thought also of Lara, who had begun to excite him almost as much as burning. Nothing was quite like peeling golden wallpaper with a peculiar woman in pale darkness, as she spoke in her low voice about art.
"What do you want to be?" Lara asked.
The greatest fire-starter in the country—but Keller self-censored. "I want to be a great teacher," he said. "I want to make kids love reading."
"You already do," she said. "They talk about you in my class. Just the other day they were raving about Edgar Allen Poe. I practically know your syllabus, from hearing them."
"They also talk about you. They love your class, especially the papier-mâché."
"I'm glad. Sometimes I feel like I'm not getting through to them. I just want to make them see beauty, whether it's a Renoir painting or a scrap of paper in the street."
She looked away at the window, trying to hide her growing smile. The sunlight was almost gone. "Where does the time go?" she asked. "It rushes away so quickly. I always felt it passing, even when I was a kid. Sometimes, when I was walking home from the bus, I'd turn around as fast as I could to try and catch a glimpse of the past me. I never knew what I'd do though, if I actually saw myself."
"I know," Keller said. "You can almost see time evaporating before your eyes."
"That's why I love art," Lara said. "When a work of art reaches you, the artist seems as real as people living now. Sometimes I feel like Monet is more alive to me than people I actually know."
"I'm the same way with books. I'll read something written a hundred years ago, and it makes me feel less alone."
Keller and Lara stood close together. As he reached to grab a corner of paper his hand touched hers.
"Sorry," he said.
"Don't worry," she said, not moving away.
One Thursday, after the students had gone home, Lara appeared in the doorway of Keller's classroom. He had been sitting at his desk thinking of her.
"I can't make it tonight," she said. "I'm behind on my grant proposal. It's awful, but I have to finish it. I'd much rather spend the evening with you." She was wearing a blue dress with tights. She frowned and started to walk along the wall, tracing the gaps between the concrete blocks with her fingers.
"Well, another time, then." He watched her walk the perimeter. It comforted him to think that she was as strange as he was. They could understand each other. Thinking of not seeing her, a chill of disappointment settled on his skin like fine snow.
"I was thinking maybe tomorrow," she said. "Are you free?"
"Yes," he said, too quickly.
"Also, I have a project to show you, at my house. Maybe you could come over afterwards?"
"Sure. I'm definitely around."
"Great. See you tomorrow, then." She came near his desk and brushed the front edge with her hand, smiling at him. As she walked out the door, she let the white tips of her fingers linger on the frame before she disappeared.
Keller got to the library early. It was a dry day in October, his favorite month. He liked to think of the trees as slow fires, shifting from green to orange to black. He crossed his arms and leaned against the trunk of his car, wondering what Lara's house would look like. It might be strewn with all sorts of interesting art projects. Maybe there would be more of her clay sculptures—abstract shapes with intriguing textures embedded into the surface, glazed in hues of yellow and purple. Maybe each room would have a different kind of wallpaper.
He checked his cell phone. It was 7:15: their meeting time plus fifteen minutes for Lara's customary lateness. But she had not arrived, nor were there any texts from her. He walked around the library and peered in the windows. Rows of books huddled in the gloom. They looked dry and lonely, sadly unused.
He went around to the back to Lara's cottage. The setting sun cast a glare on the windows, so that they were brashly opaque. He cupped his hands around his face to look inside. For a moment he thought he saw something white moving inside, and he jumped back, but when he looked again, it was only the lace curtains.
It was 8:00. He had heard nothing from her. He sent her a text, but she did not respond. He wondered what to do next. Maybe he had misunderstood their meeting place, and her phone was off. He got into his car and drove to the house. He drove up the gravel driveway, hoping to see her. But the window they used was closed.
He drove back to the library and waited for a few more minutes in the parking lot. He called her, but she did not answer. He swore and slammed his fist on the trunk of his car. She was not coming.
It was a ten-minute drive back home. He paced his yard, resentment burning in the back of his throat. If she didn't want to see him, why had she acted that way the day before? Maybe she'd found out about him, somehow. It wasn't fair. Other people could be their true selves, if their happiness depended upon banking, or filing things in an office, or flying planes. But his true self was forbidden. The scenes of his incendiary passion blazed before him. In high school, the neighbor's doghouse, after the gentle golden retriever had died. In college, a sad, squat ranch in Vermont. Since then, a small barn and an old grain silo. Here was the way to relieve his emptiness. Keller's hands grew damp. He could do it now.
He got in his car and drove to the Silverton house. He didn't bother to stop at the library; he recklessly parked halfway up the driveway.
What had the widow thought, as she lay withering in the dust-strewn light? Did she think of her husband, who had died so pointlessly eleven years earlier? He was shot by a robber at the florist's, after her spendthrift son had already been lost in a plane accident. With family and fortune gone, the widow buried herself inside. The next time people saw her, she was dead.
Keller, too, would die alone. He was a fool. Love and arson were incompatible truths, he knew that. And since the latter was indispensable, the former was out. He thought of Lara, scraping in her purple coat, smiling in the dust. She was too good to be ruined by his vague and causeless misfortune—and apparently she knew it. His feet crunched on the gravel; for once the mournful pines were still. Here was the Silverton house, leaking dark loneliness from the windows. It was up to him to rescue it from time.
There were matches and bottles of paint thinner in the oven, nearly a hundred newspapers in all the kitchen cabinets. In a closet on the first floor, he'd hidden hairspray and nail polish remover, a paintbrush and large plastic bags. Wearing leather gloves, he snatched his supplies from hiding. He ran through the house, opening all the doors and windows, taking the bottles of paint thinner upstairs. The door to the room with the wallpaper was already open; as he passed, he looked away and paused. How would Lara feel when she realized the house was gone? He hoped she'd feel exactly as he did right now. He knew what the room looked like: three walls bare, a single side of gold left next to the windows—next to the brittle, burnable curtains.
Though he hadn't lit the fire yet, already the rousing scent of smoke blackened his lungs; premonitions of flames leapt before his eyes. He neglected to open the windows of the wallpaper room, and strode to the far bedroom instead.
He dragged the mattress into the hallway, propping it against the wall near the top of the stairs. He unscrewed the cap from one bottle of paint thinner and poured it over the mattress. As it dripped down the side, the pungent scent thrilled his nostrils. His hands trembled as he unscrewed the other caps and balanced the open bottles on the mattress. He ran downstairs for the newspapers and hairspray, bringing them back to the second floor. Grinning, he scattered the newspapers down the stairs, spritzing them with hairspray as he descended to the first floor.
At the bottom of the staircase, he used the paintbrush to dab some nail polish remover on an electrical outlet, arranging a few pieces of newspaper between it and the stairs to create a trail. His hands were sweating now, his heart thumping like a little boy's on Christmas morning. Dabbing more nail polish remover on his paintbrush, he swept the perimeter of the room to connect the electrical outlets—always a useful trick for confusing fire investigators. Next he gathered the furniture: the overstuffed couch and the wicker chair. He shoved the couch next to the wood-paneled wall that sheltered the stairs, stacking the chair on top of it. He emptied the bottle of nail polish remover over them, stuffing more newspapers in the spaces between. Finally, he rolled up the red rug and propped it against the entire starter pile. Lara loved that rug.
"This is for you," he said. He struck the first match. It flared up between his fingers, and he held it carefully to the newspapers under the chair. Suddenly, they lit, and Keller jumped back. The couch became engulfed in flame; the wicker chair burned like it was in love. The smoke rolled; Keller laughed. It was his best fire yet.
He took out a handful of matches, scraped them all against the box, and tossed them. They scattered happily, one landing near the stairs. The electric outlet burst into flame, and soon the newspapers caught. The fire traveled toward the stairs; there would be an explosion, exactly as he had laid the path. Keller's heart beat proudly. The house was full of light, no longer the dark abode of dust. And it was all because of him. But already the black smoke grew dense. He had to get out.
He burst from the house and dashed down the porch steps. Halfway through the yard, he turned back to look. The fire was spreading quickly; he could see the light starting to leap in the second floor. Soon the windows would explode in flashover, and all the evidence would be destroyed. Keller laughed happily. The fire wasn't just outside him; it was inside him too. He felt warm and buoyant. He ran from the house.
There was Lara at the opening of the driveway, her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her purple coat. By the glow of the blaze she seemed small and dim. The firelight shone in the tears on her cheeks; her eyes were as blank as empty windows. Suddenly Keller's stomach felt like a pit of ice.
"Keller," Lara said. "You did this, didn't you?"
"Oh, so now you show up."
"What are you talking about? I texted you, from my friend's phone."
"About half an hour ago. My stupid bathroom flooded again. The plumber said he fixed it last time, but I guess not. Everything in the dining room was ruined. My phone, my laptop, a bunch of projects. It never occurred to you that my phone might break?"
Keller shook his head.
"What the hell are you doing?" Her hands were stuffed in her pockets. He noticed that she was slowly backing away.
His voice was quiet. "Well, I—"
"What are you, crazy? I don't show up right on time, so you torch the place? You're insane. I can't believe this. I thought you loved this house, like I did." Lara's voice shook. Her eyes were squinting, like it hurt her to look at him.
He couldn't bear to wait for the rest of her denunciation. In a blaze of pain and fear, Keller ran.
Before Lara there had been Kacey, a sweet-voiced redhead who'd noticed Keller's details gradually, until the day she understood them all at once.
"Why do you have nail polish remover?" she asked, looking for paper towels in the bathroom cabinet. "Do you really need five bottles of it?"
"It's good for removing stains," Keller said, ignoring her puzzled glance.
"Wow, need any more matches?" she'd asked, finding sixteen boxes in the pantry.
"I buy them in bulk. Otherwise it's impossible to remember. Don't want to be caught matchless!"
Kacey spotted all the clues—but in the absence of their glorious sum, it would have taken a person like Keller to piece them together. And in Easton, the healthy suburban town where he taught for four years, there was not a single person like him. He projected the semblance of a normal young man; for this, others liked him. A friend introduced him to Kacey, whose sweetness and pale beauty felt to Keller like rewards for feigning sanity. He took her to community contradances, where her orange and blue paisley dresses flared generously from her waist. He wrapped his fingers in her curls and stroked her smooth pale legs. He told himself he was happy.
But stealthily the old emptiness crept up inside him. As much as he kissed Kacey and gazed into her cheerful blue eyes, he couldn't help craving what she had caused him to abandon. Soon he was stockpiling again: three boxes of matches at the grocery store, hair spray at the pharmacy. One weekend he told Kacey he was busy, and that Saturday he torched an old barn in the next town over.
And one day, the old farmer who owned the grain silo died. The silo seemed stricken with dementia. Loose shingles and rotting wood signaled its pitiful demise, until Keller decided he had to stop it. He told Kacey he had tests to grade. He readied his supplies, and late one night he lit another match.
He was strolling away from the fire when Kacey saw him in the street. He knew she liked to walk alone, but he didn't know that she did it at night.
"Keller?" Kacey asked. "Thank goodness! Did you see that fire? The one time I forget my phone, there's an emergency!"
"The silo? Yeah, I was just about to call the fire department," he said, pulling out his phone.
"You didn't already?" she asked, looking at him oddly.
Keller made the phone call.
"How can you be so calm?" Kacey asked. "What if it spreads to the house next door? You smell like smoke," she said, frowning and stepping closer.
"You know, Kacey, I'm pretty tired. I'm going to go home," he said.
"Don't you want to wait for the fire trucks? I want to see them put it out."
"I'm tired. I'm going home now."
She stared at him. "You did this," she said, realization changing her face.
Keller did not reply.
"You did, didn't you? I can't believe it," she said.
Keller said nothing.
"It all adds up. You've lost your mind. Go, Keller, before I call the police."
He ran. In the three months that he searched for a new job elsewhere, he kept waiting for the police to arrive at his door, but they never did. Kacey had liked him at least that much.
It burned that the revelation of his truest self had frightened her away. That Kacey could not love him made Keller lie awake at night, feeling like there was no ceiling above him—only endless black sky and empty universe, space lurking and waiting to vacuum him up.
This was his unchangeable self, the one he had known since fifth grade. He discovered it on the day he found the match. He'd been dragging his feet as slowly as possible through the moldering hallways of the elementary school, bathroom pass dangling from one hand, when he found the message: a folded paper triangle flung far beneath the stairs. Such triangles were scattered in classrooms throughout the school, folded so carefully they seemed to promise secrets. Usually Keller was disappointed; most were wordless, mere objects for flinging at enemies' backs. Still, he unfolded the paper in the gloom of the stairwell, and as he detected the scratches of letters his heart raced. He could barely make them out. He shifted toward the light. He read: "YOU ARE NOT."
He flipped the paper over. There was nothing on the reverse side, not even scratch marks as though the pen had run out of ink. Only the terrifying message. YOU ARE NOT. Keller's stomach sank. He stuck the paper in his pocket, where it hung like a small dreadful weight. He couldn't bring himself to throw it away; he would know it was hiding in the trash can, mocking him. The loneliness that lurked like a lump of fog in his stomach unfurled, and by the time he returned to class it had seized his insides.
"What's wrong, man? Come play tag!" his friends said at recess. But Keller snuck away, unable to bear this coldness in the presence of others. He went around the side of the school. As soon as he turned the corner the noise of the others seemed far away. It was quiet. Isolated with his loneliness, Keller felt calm and sad.
There, like an answer, lay the match on the sidewalk. It was placed in the center, parallel to the trough in the concrete, as if it were expressly for him. He looked around for a stranger: the match could not have dropped by accident. But he saw no one.
Keller picked the match up and held it between his thumb and forefinger. The tip was red: a sign of what it wanted to be. He knew what to do; he'd seen his dad strike them against the matchbox. He took the message out of his pocket. He did not read the words. He struck the match against the ground. It flared with a tearing sound and he held the paper to it. It lit slowly, edges curling and blackening, then went up in a brief exuberant burst. The heat nipped his fingers, and he dropped it. It fell flaring at his feet. Keller looked up at the sky. It didn't matter that time passed and that his heart was stung with sadness. Against these inexorable things he held fire as his talisman: heat, light, and joy.
This was his unchangeable self. But still he thought incurably of Lara: how she moved in the gloom of the vanished Silverton house, how she loved colors and wore a purple coat, how she fancied paper and the past. Why was it that things became more beautiful after they were lost? As Keller thought of Lara, tears burned his cheeks, and his soul felt like ashes.
"Punch!" Keller shouted. "Punch like it's your last minute to live!"
The room was strewn with colors: red, purple, orange, green, blue. One girl with dark frowning eyes had a stack of yellow all to herself, slamming several sheets at once with vigor. A large cardboard box sat on Keller's desk. Already the bottom of the box was covered with multicolored hole punches, and each second students threw in handfuls more.
"Why are we doing this?" someone asked.
"For Miss Tyler," Keller said. "For her installation."
At the end of the class the box still wasn't full. He shook it, staring into the shifting hole punches. He'd imagined heaping piles of them, but they barely filled a quarter of the volume.
The hours dragged. At five o' clock he would go to see her. He had never been so terrified, not even when he was afraid Kacey would tell the police. Lara's rejection would be more dreadful than any threat of jail.
His hands were damp as he carried the box to her classroom. He tried not to hurry, but his feet disobeyed.
"Keller," Lara said, spotting him as soon as he crossed the doorframe.
"Lara," he said, staring into the box. "My class made these for you."
"Thanks." Her face was quiet; he could not read how she felt.
"Lara, do you hate me?"
"Because of what you did? Honestly, I don't know. Probably."
"I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to understand," he said. "I'm not a criminal. I only do abandoned houses."
"But those are the best kind," she said softly, looking into the box. "The ones you shouldn't—burn. Keller, I'm sorry, but I have work to do. You should go."
Keller looked at her feet. She wore brown Oxford shoes, small and delicate like all the rest of her. He'd often wondered what her skin felt like—if it were as soft and warm as he suspected. But now he would never know.
Keller sat alone in his backyard. He held a matchbox in his left hand. He shook it slightly. Indians had rain sticks; he had these. Theirs created a long whoosh—his, a dry rattle. Dry things had such crisp, reassuring sounds. Snapping twigs. Crumpling paper.
After Lara, he thought things would be the way they were before. But now the silence grew loud in the empty rooms of his house; unaccompanied evenings hung heavy on his shoulders. And he couldn't do another fire, not for many months. He felt as though the daylight weren't bright enough—everything was dim, and the matches were brief flickers that gave respite to his darkness.
His backyard faced the woods, with a grove of young birches at the edge. Their white bark peeled like wallpaper, and the black knots looked like eyes staring at him, like they knew what he had done.
He slid the box open and selected one of the top matches. A wisp of wood in his fingers, a red tip like a flower. He struck it. A hissing noise, and then his fingers were warm, almost too warm to bear. He watched the match burn down. It was almost like he held the fire in his hand.
Title graphic: "Dry is Good and Wind is Better" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.