After the fire, the Clarks never came back to their house. When it rained, the charred studs got slick and shined in the streetlight. When it snowed, little white lines grew like hair on the backs of the blackened rafters. The city slapped a bright orange sticker on the front door—
CONDEMNED—but that didn’t stop bored kids from slipping in and rooting around in the ashes. They tossed their spray paint cans in the front yard.
One day a car pulled up and parked on the street and an old man got out. He was tall with thin hair and glasses and he walked with a limp. He saw the city’s sticker and stared at it, shook his head, then stepped around to the backyard where burned branches of an oak tree lay scattered all over. The firemen had to soak the tree. It had also been in danger of being lost.
The old man left and came back and left and came back several times over the course of weeks. He brought a camera and took pictures of the outside of the house, in the front and around back, from the street and even as close up as just the house number. We talked about him as an insurance man at first, but the more he came to the house, the more we began to think he’d buy it. Demolish the house, rebuild, sell. It was nice land in a nice neighborhood with, dare I say it, very nice neighbors. But after a certain point, we never saw him again. What made him change his mind?
In the springtime, bright shoots of grass and weeds sprouted up through the remnants. From the old comes the new, from the dead come the living. We’d heard “electrical fire” back then, but what about arson? An insurance scam? A dropped cigarette? What about the Clarks? That old man knew, we felt sure. If we ever saw him again, we’d make him tell.
Paul Luikart's first collection of short fiction is Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, May 2016.) His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He and his family live in Tennessee.