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Something to Burn

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She leaves the biochem lab feeling the pleased satisfaction of success—she's been rerunning that damn experiment all week, and only today has it yielded the results it's supposed to. She stretches, looks up at the sky—dark already, but the stars are clear. She's not expecting Sam until late tonight, but she wishes he was back already, to sit on the steps with her and point out the constellations even though they both already know them.

She'll make dinner, she decides, do yoga, then maybe call Hanna and see if she wants to catch up on the episodes of Queer as Folk that she Tivos. No homework—she's done for the day.

Walking into the house, though, she's suddenly jumpy, as though there's something she's forgotten to do, somewhere she needs to be. She flips the switch for the living-room light, and it flickers, then goes out with a pop. It's been like that the past couple of days—she reminds herself to tell Sam about it when he gets back, ask him to talk to the management company. He's always better with that than she is.

It's like a buzzing in the back of her head, the strange unease, and she even checks her planner, makes sure there isn't an assignment she overlooked. There isn't—she's done everything she needs to for class tomorrow. It's probably PMS—not that time of the month, but close—and the weirdness of having Sam gone.

Rather than cook, she takes out butter, flour, sugar, eggs—baking always makes her feel better. But before she gets the stick of butter unwrapped, the phone rings. She picks it up; there's static on the line. God, everything is screwy around here lately. "Hello?"

"I have beautiful gay boys and salmon with fennel," Hanna announces, French accent making even the plainest of words sultry. "You cannot resist me."

"I'm feeling really weird and tired—not good company. Gay boys tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow I have rehearsal until ten. I will feed you, we will watch Brian bend Justin over the sofa, you will feel better. Come over."

Hanna's mixture of generosity and imperiousness is, as always, impossible to resist.

"Are you sure? I've been in the lab all day; I probably smell."

"Then change your shirt. And bring some wine."

"Oh, fine," Jess says, and feels herself smiling despite the weird mood. "I'll be over in a few minutes."

Hanna lives with her sister in the building across the street. They're both Parisians doing various degrees at Stanford—Hanna undergrad like Jess and Sam, and Simone a PhD in neuroscience. Jess and Hanna were roommates their freshman year, and have lived close by each other ever since. At the door, Jess takes off her shoes, leaning on the frame—by habit now on the left side, so as to avoid bumping the mezuzah on the right. Jess grew up seeing them in doorways at various friends' houses, but generally only the main entrance; Hanna and Simone's father, however, brought several with him when he visited shortly after their move, and affixed them not just to the front but to every doorway except the bathroom and closets inside the apartment.

"I want my gay boys!" Jess yells.

Hanna appears, and they exchange cheek-kisses. "I promised gay boys, but I cannot deliver," she says, looking annoyed. "Something is wrong with the television; I will have to phone Sony about it tomorrow. It is still under warranty, fortunately."

"Is there still salmon?"

"That, I can deliver."

Jess hands her the wine. "Then all is forgiven."

*************************

 

Dinner is finished and they're on a second bottle of wine when the lights go out.

Simone swears, colorfully, in French. "This has been happening all weekend!"

"But PGE swears nothing is wrong," adds Hanna.

Jess pushes herself up. "Let's see if the other buildings have power."

They open the front door and go out onto the steps. They're not the only ones outside—neighbors have come out, too, and are glancing around with equal bewilderment. "You guys have power?" calls a woman from next door.

"No," says Hanna. "It has been acting up all weekend."

Jess looks over at her own building. The windows are dark—but there's enough moonlight to reveal a figure on her steps. "There's someone at my door," she says.

"Sam's home?" Simone asks.

Jess walks a few steps forward, but then shakes her head. "No, not tall enough." She starts toward the sidewalk—probably a neighbor lacking power himself.

"Wait," Hanna says, with an urgency in her voice that makes Jess turn around.

"What?" Jess asks.

"Come inside." Hanna's standing a couple of feet from the front steps, her posture rigid.

"I'm just going to go see what he wants. It's probably one of the other people in our building."

"No. Jess, come inside."

"Hanna—"

Hanna interrupts her. "Remember how you told Amy to stay home from school?"

Jess's best friend from home went to an exclusive private school housed in beautiful, austere eighteenth-century buildings. One morning someone smoking a cigarette had tossed a butt that wasn't all the way out, and an entire wing of the school burned to the ground in five minutes. There were multiple deaths, most of them members of Amy's English class, held in the room closest to where the fire started. Amy, an honor student with a perfect attendance record, was absent that day—her best friend, the equally overachieving Jessica Moore, had convinced her to skip school for the first time in their lives.

"The day of the fire," Jess says.

"You knew."

It hadn't just been an attack of senioritis, although Jess had claimed precisely that: How else do you explain the sudden and certain knowledge that if your best friend goes to school on a particular day, she's going to die? "Yes," Jess says.

"I am, for that reason, asking you to come inside my apartment immediately and refrain from going across the street."

Simone, still on the steps, looks from Jess to Hanna and back again. "If he's a neighbor," she points out, "he can just ask someone else."

The man still hasn't knocked or, as far as Jess can tell, called out to anyone. He's just standing there on her front steps, apparently staring at the door.

Except then he begins to turn around.

Jess can't explain what drives her to turn as well, to retrace her steps as briskly as she can without running, and to walk inside the apartment and watch Hanna throw the deadbolt. Hanna checks the door to the patio, too, then picks up her cell phone, holding it in her hand but not dialling.

"Hanna," Simone says carefully, "what are you doing?"

"I don't know," Hanna says. "Maybe I am wrong. I hope that I am. I have been stressed because of school; maybe I am having a nervous breakdown." Her voice is steady but scared, and Jess and Simone go to stand on either side of her in front of the kitchen window.

The man is walking away from Jess and Sam's apartment, and something in Jess hopes, and hopes dearly, that he'll get into one of the cars parked at the curb and drive away. But instead he crosses the street at the crosswalk, where the traffic light is out, and starts up the walk to Hanna and Simone's door.

Hanna's finger is on the 9 button.

There's a knock.

Hanna shakes her head.

Another knock.

Simone reaches across the counter and picks up her marble rolling pin.

"Good evening, ladies." The voice from the other side of the door is clear, and completely normal, and makes Jess's skin crawl. "I'm looking for Miss Jessica Moore."

"She is not here," Hanna calls back, voice still calm.

"Oh, but I know that's a lie, Miss Bernard." His pronunciation is correct, with the guttural French r. "So why don't you just send her on out for a chat?"

"I said, she is not here. Please leave, or I will phone the police."

The man's voice drops, and yet it's still perfectly audible, like the low sonic boom of an explosion that doesn't seem loud until you realize you can't hear afterwards. "Send her on out," the man says, "and maybe you and your sister will still have all your intestines in the right places tomorrow."

The door shakes on its hinges. Hanna takes Jess's hand and holds so tightly that it hurts.

Jess holds back just as tightly.

The deadbolt retreats. The handle turns. The door begins to open. Jess keeps hold of Hanna's hand, grabs Simone's, whirls to run, escape onto the patio and through the back, but Hanna doesn't move, and tightens her grip. "Stay inside," she says softly. "Stay inside."

"Hanna, il entre maintenant!" Simone says, shaky and terrified. Hanna, he's coming in!

Hanna shakes her head. "Non, il ne peut pas entrer. Mais si nous partons, il nous tuera." No, he can't come in. But if we leave, he'll kill us.

The door opens all the way to reveal an utterly unremarkable-looking man wearing a denim shirt and jeans. His smile is pleasant, and makes Jess think of a death's-head.

"Miss Moore," he says. "Miss Bernard, don't bother calling 911. I can disembowel you before you even press a button."

Hanna looks the man right in the face. Her voice is even; only her crushing grip on Jess's fingers reveals how terrified she is. "Le nom de Dieu protège cette maison." The name of God protects this home. "Chaque porte est marquée, et tu ne peux pas entrer." Each door is marked, and you cannot enter. "Tu peux te tenir debout et dire tout ce que tu veux, mais notre maison est fermée à toi." You can stand there and say whatever you want, but our home is closed to you.

The man's—the thing's—eyes flash yellow, and he turns his attention from Hanna to Jessica. "Miss Moore, how much do you know about your boyfriend?"

"Everything." Jess has to force her voice from her throat—why aren't they running, why is Hanna doing this, why are his eyes yellow—as she tells the lie. She knows most things. But she doesn't how his mother died or where he grew up or what made Sam so angry at his father and brother that he hasn't spoken to them for as long as she's known him. She's either asked and been diverted, or she's known better than to ask at all. She manages to make her voice a little stronger and says, "I know everything."

The man hooks his thumbs in his belt loops. "Do you, now. Why, I bet you weren't aware that I was present when the dearly departed Mary Winchester said good-bye to the world. In fact, I'm proud to say I had a hand in that momentous event."

Several things then happen at once. Some kind of light illuminates the street: It's fire, spilling from the windows of Jess and Sam's apartment. Then there's a noise, a loud one: the sound of something igniting, something big, something not very far away. This building. From next door, someone shouts, "Fire!" and neighbors begin to stream from Hanna and Simone's building onto the lawn. A big black car pulls onto the block, its doors fly open, and two men jump out of it, running toward Jess and Sam's building.

Jess screams, "Sam!" In the middle of the street, he freezes, looking around—of course the doorway and apartment are dark; he can't see her. But then the man on the other side of the doorway turns, and whatever Sam reads in that motion has him running across the lawn with Dean at his heels.

The man crosses his arms, looking pleased. "Oh, what a party. You three—you can either come out and play or stay inside and roast, your choice. Oh, and I can't forget Dean."

Suddenly Dean is on the ground as if knocked over by some enormous object. He's clutching at his throat and gasping.

"Sam," the man says. "It's high time you and I sat down and had a chat."

Sam pitches forward, starts to fall—Jess tries to run toward him, out of the apartment, to Sam, away from the fire. Hanna and Simone both grab her and hold on; Jess tries to break away, but they're stronger. She can't see the fire from inside, but it's enough to make Sam's movement and the man's expression plainly visible; it's obviously burning in the back, too, because the patio bricks are awash in uneven orange light. "We have to get out!" she protests. Across the street, her own apartment is in flames, but that matters less than the fact that, if they don't leave this one, whatever risk that involves, they're assured of burning to death.

Sam's fall isn't like Dean's. He stumbles, eyes squeezed shut in what looks like agony, hands going to his head—and then he rights himself and looks at the man on the front steps. He reaches out a hand slowly, like he's not quite sure what he's doing, but his expression is hard in a way Jess has never seen.

"Sam, my boy, you're learning!" the man says delightedly.

"I thought those dreams weren't real." Sam's voice starts nearly inaudible, but grows steadily stronger. "I thought they were just nightmares. But I can feel this. It's power. And you will"—he walks closer—"get"—his hand opens—"out."

This time it's the man on the porch who stumbles.

What happens next, Jess has no power to explain. A cloud of black smoke pours from the man's mouth, viscous and evil, circling and swooping almost as if searching before it ascends and disappears.

Then the man falls.

Dean's hands drop from his throat, and he scrambles up off the ground. "I'm OK," he says to Sam, as Hanna, Simone, and Jess run outside. There's screaming, shouting; residents are still pouring out of the burning buildings; meanwhile, the man in the workshirt and jeans sits up unsteadily, coughing as he looks around in frightened bewilderment.

Sam wraps his arms around Jess, hands on her back, in her hair, cupping her face and staring at her, examining her like he can't quite believe she's alright. "You're safe," he whispers, but it seems like it's to himself more than to her. "You're safe."

That's when the fire trucks and police cars careen around the corner, and everyone herds into the street to huddle together and watch their homes burn.

 

*************************

 

Hanna and Simone stay with their aunt in San Francisco, Jess and Sam with Becky and Zach. Jess's parents and sister fly out immediately from Connecticut. Simone doesn't want to talk to Jess or to Sam; Hanna behaves as though nothing has changed, but Jess wonders when the anger will bubble up, the inevitable recognition that something came looking for Jess and burned Hanna's house down.

The days that follow are full of questions—police, arson investigators, insurance adjusters, reporters. Not to mention friends, family, and faculty. There are claims to be made, forms to be completed. Everyone is exhausted, but no one is sleeping well. Insurance will cover the loss, but Jess isn't letting herself think about the things that can't be replaced: her paintings, her journals, Sam's only picture of his parents.

Jess answers many questions, but she doesn't ask the one that looms largest in her mind. It doesn't happen until nearly two weeks later, on a night when she goes to sit on the back porch and look up at the clear dark sky filled with stars. Jess hears the sliding door open, and Sam sits down next to her and says, tentatively, "Andromeda."

She's silent for a moment before answering, "Cassiopeia." Then she looks at Sam and says, "I want you to tell me the truth about your family."