Lela stood, trying to get her breath in the smoky air. The fire trucks and police cars and an ambulance had gone streaming past, sirens blaring, as she emerged from her apartment in the pre-dawn gloom. She turned in the direction they’d gone and power walked her way up the hill as quickly as she could.
The people standing on the sidewalk opposite the little grocery store were murmuring to one another as the firefighters trained their hoses on the blaze. Neighbors, some still in house robes and slippers, gawked; postures tense, arms crossed over their chests, shaking their heads. Small as she was, she had to crane her neck, hoping to catch some glimpse of Mr. Gupti, the old man who owned the shop and slept in the rooms above it.
He wasn’t there.
She started to approach a small knot of people, hoping to get some news, some reassurance that no matter how bad things looked, there was still some rightness in the world. She glanced to her left and noticed a man standing apart from the rest of the crowd. Unlike everyone else, he looked relaxed, nonchalant. He was dressed all in black and was rocking back and forth on his heels, hands in his pockets. As she looked, he turned and looked right back at her. Their eyes met, and then, horribly, he smiled. Smiled right at her and looked her squarely in the eye. Flustered she turned and walked back down the hill, back to the apartment, as quickly as she could without appearing to flee. Halfway down she glanced back over her shoulder. He hadn’t followed her. Good.
She paced around her apartment for a full hour, glancing through the curtains to the street below, scared that she’d somehow been followed without her knowledge. Finally she convinced herself that it was safe to get into the shower and get herself ready.
All the other stores were open when she got there. The security gates were up, lights on, music echoing in the empty corridors of the mall while bored clerks verified the funds in their opening cash drawers or lounged in the entrances. She walked fast, returning perfunctory greetings when necessary. George, the mall cop, accosted her as she turned a corner and headed toward the store.
“You’re late getting your gate up, Lela.”
“I know. I’m sorry, George. There was a fire…”
“A fire? At your place?”
“No, up the street. There were cops and firefighters all over the place.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Everybody OK? Nobody got hurt?”
“I… I don’t know. There’s an old man who lives there. I didn’t see him.”
“Oh. That’s too bad. I hope he’s all right. You try to have a good day, OK?”
“OK. Thanks, George.”
She scuttled off toward the shop, relieved that George clearly didn’t intend to fine her. You never knew with George.
She stooped and inserted her key into the lock, then tugged the gate up part way. She ducked under it and hurried into the back to turn on the lights and grab her drawer from the safe. She practically ran back out, set the tray on the counter next to the register and began counting. Fifty dollars, right on the money. She was glad there was no discrepancy, that she didn’t have to recount or document any shortage or overage. She popped the drawer into the register, slapped it shut, and looked up, ready to pull the gate all the way up and let the non-existent customers in. He was standing right there, looking at her, still smiling.
“Good morning, Lela.”
For a beat she didn’t respond. She gazed at him. He had his hands in his pockets, and he looked supremely unconcerned about the shock his presence must have given her. He was good looking, and she hated herself for noticing.
“Who are you? What do you want? You shouldn’t be in here; my gate’s not up all the way yet. How do you know my name?” It all came out in an angry rush. She was scared, and he knew it. She had a sinking feeling that he was rather enjoying the effect he’d created.
He shrugged as if none of this was really important. “I saw you. At the fire. This morning.”
“Yes. I know. Why are you here now? I’ll call security, you know.”
“Who? George?” He laughed. “Go ahead. Call him. I ducked under your gate 10 minutes past the official opening time. Big deal.”
George. He must have overheard her conversation with George. That’s how he knew her name.
“You still haven’t told me why you’re here. What do you want?”
He grinned and said, “You seem a bit uptight, Lela. It’s OK. Just relax. Everything is fine.”
She hated it when men told her to relax, as if she were acting like a child, as if her feelings and reactions were out of proportion to the situation. She almost gave in to the impulse to check herself, to ask herself if she wasn’t being stupid.
“You set that fire.”
It wasn’t a question. He smiled. “Did you like it?”
“Like it?” she sneered. “There was an old man who lived in the rooms above that shop. Mr. Gupti. He was my friend, and now he may be dead.”
For the first time, his smile faltered. “Was there? I didn’t know that. I thought it would be empty so early in the morning.” He looked down and scuffed his foot on the carpet. Suddenly he was the one who looked like a child, proud of a picture he’d made until he learned that mummy wasn’t pleased he’d drawn on the walls with his crayons. This softened her. She wondered if he knew, if he was doing it on purpose.
“Did they bring anyone out?” she asked. She held her breath. He shook his head, still looking down.
“I see.” She made her way out from behind the counter and walked past him to open the gate the rest of the way. She could smell the lingering smoke on his clothing. He smelled good.
“So… do you want to grab a cup of coffee with me later? I could swing by your apartment and pick you up. I have a car.”
“Ok,” she agreed, “but you’re paying.”
This was inspired by Trent Lewin’s story, This is Trade, in which another fire is burning. Trent is a fantastic writer. He never fails to draw me fully into the places, people, and situations he creates. Enjoy.