It was messy and dirty and broken. ‘Ugly’ was the word she would use and she did often. There was no reason to let it stay the way it was. None at all that she could see. But the house on the corner of Main Street stood its ground slumping over a bit in a dangerous dilapidated way. This was suburbia. In a fairly nice older neighborhood. There was talk that the little house had once had a famous person living there. But no one she knew could tell her who that person could have been. No one in town even claimed ownership. It stayed because people here didn’t like change. They didn’t take action. It was someone else’s problem. But to her the ugly house shouldn’t be here anymore.
And now it was burning. Flames licked at its buckling sides. The porch roof collapsed first and sparks flew up in the air, allowing the fire to consume the rest of it more rapidly.
She has seen it from the start. The cigarette lay glowing on the ground in the darkening of the evening. First the leaves, then the dry grasses, to the bush. The old shingles of the porch came next. It only took moments. And she didn’t stop it. She could have in the beginning but she didn’t. Why should she? The ugly house on the corner would be gone if she kept quiet. No one lived there any longer. It wouldn’t be there to offend her any longer if she let it burn, so she did.
Her hand was clutched around her cell phone in her pocket as she watched the fire grow into an uncontrollable inferno. Yet she hadn’t moved an inch. In fact she didn’t move until the searing heat pushed her back. First into the street, and then to the other side of it. She was pushed into the gathering crowd of people watching and waiting for the volunteer firefighters to come and put it out.
A police officer came and made everyone move farther down the street. “It was not safe! The firefighters need room to work! Did anyone see someone running away before it started? Go to the police car down the block the give the officer there your statement if you did.” He barked into the crowd. No one moved from their new vantage point.
She let go of the things in her pocket that she had been unconsciously clutching on to and slowly moved to the back of the crowd.
It was over for her when the fire trucks arrived. They would put out the fire and stop it from taking all the ugliness away. She wanted nothing more than to go home. To her safe and lovely home with its pretty little weedless patch of flower garden in front and its smoke detectors in every room. But she didn’t want to be the first one to leave. She didn’t want her neighbors to know that she didn’t want the fire stopped before it did its job completely. She wanted all the ugliness burned away from her.
She acted like she had gotten a shock from her cell phone going off in her pocket and plunged her hand into her pocket again. If the people near her thought she had a phone call she might be able to move away from the crowd until she could leave without notice. Pulling out her phone she pretended to hit a button and placed it to her ear, saying, “Hello! I can’t hear you just now! I’m at the fire on Main Street! I’ll have to call you back!” She pushed a button again replacing the phone in her pocket. No one noticed her on the phone. She continued to watch with the others as the firefighters hooked up the hoses and moved in to squelch the fire before it was done doing its job.
Steam was added to the smoke making it harder to see from where she now stood. Red lights flashed confusing her eyes to what was happening as the smoke billowed from the ‘ugly’ spot. Another officer was making some men and boys come down from a tree that they had climbed to get a better view. As the crowd jockeyed for position again she moved farther back. She looked down the street toward her home. She couldn’t see it from here. It was not on Main Street. She liked a quieter safer street. But she also liked being able to walk to the center of town from her own porch. She had been walking back from the library when the glow of the cigarette caught her eye. A man had been standing smoking a cigarette out in front of the little ugly house. She had thought about crossing the street to pass them but she wanted to get home fast and not miss a minute of her TV show.
She looked over the shoulder of the man in front of her. Wasn’t it over yet? Didn’t anyone need to check on children or a pot on the stove? Didn’t anyone have to go to the bathroom? She wanted to go home and see her evening shows on TV. And it was getting cooler as night crept over them and the fire lost its warmth as it died. But the people standing here just rubbed their folded arms held tight to their bodies and watched on. They talked of other fires in the past, near misses to tragedy and things they were going to change when they got home. But no one moved to go. Time seemed to stand still.
The man next to her lit a cigarette and the flame lit his face. It was the same man she had seen before the fire started. It was his cigarette, she was sure of it! She was going to tell the officer at the police car about him when some shouting started by the firefighters at the ugly house and the cigarette man pulled back and walked between the houses and was swallowed by the dark. And the darkness was trying to swallow her up as well.
It was all over town by the next morning. It seemed everyone was talking about it. “There was a body found at the fire and it was little old Miss Jenkins found dead on the ground in front of the house, her hand still clutching her cell phone in her pocket like she had been trying to dial 911. She had been raped and killed between the hedge and the house, and the fire was set to try to cover it up.” They said. “She had always hated that little old house and the way it was left to decay. She wouldn’t even walk on the same side of the street as it.” The neighbors all agreed on that. “They had seen her every week coming home from the library to her house a few blocks away. Her house was kept in beautiful condition and her small front garden never had a weed. Such a shame, and a loss to the town now that she was gone.”
They didn’t know that she was still there. She was looking for the man with the cigarette. Because the police needed to know that he didn’t mean to set the fire. She had knocked the cigarette out of his hand when he grabbed her… and tried to burn her with it… She let it burn in the leaves… It was all she could think about… Watching the flames crawl up toward the house… It was too hard to watch the rape and beating… So she watched the fire smolder and catch the bushes and move to the house… She couldn’t look at herself being abused, beaten and killed… She didn’t want to even know it in her memory. But it was too late the memory had returned.
He’d come back to look at the scared earth left from the fire. The scene of the crime. And she’d watch him on other days and she would try to call the police on her cell phone every time. But it would just start to ring, but then it would stop and disconnect. The call wouldn’t go through. And he would move off down the street.
But this time, now that her memory of what had happened back, he stayed.
The man couldn’t get over how a small patch of flowers grew there where she had died almost over night, and not one weed would move in to take over the ugly burned lot again. It had been a house from hell for him. His father had beaten and abused him there until the day he ran away. Many years had gone by, his father was dead a long time now. He came back to town to have the house torn down and to sell the lot for the back taxes. He had been trying to do the right thing, laying the past to rest. He hadn’t planned on raping and killing the woman who looked at him and the house with such disgust. The old memories just came flooding back of his father raping him as a boy and he lashed out in pain and anger. He did the same thing to someone else that had been done to him…
And now the house was gone. Burned to the ground. And he had become what his father once was to him. A monster! And monsters needed to be killed. So this last time he came to look at the lot, he took out a gun and shot himself in the head.
He fell down and was found dead, with his arms around the flowers with a note in his hand saying, “I am ugly. And ugly shouldn‘t be here anymore.”