The Burning Times
– Fierce Fiction by Caroline Misner –
Adele had known the man whose body was found nestled among the bags of expired bread behind the 7-11. His name had been Ted, but no one, not even the other street people, knew his last name. Like Adele, he’d been a loner. According to the post mortem, Ted had been dumpster diving when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the bin. The garbage man had found him the next morning. Ted’s eyes were opened and covered with a layer of ice; one hand still clutched a rusty head of lettuce. A fine film of fresh frost crusted the body.
Adele knew it could have happened to anyone, anytime. Even the rich got heart attacks, though there was usually someone there to rush them to the hospital in time. Usually, there was someone with them who cared. The people on the streets had to be more vigilant. Sometimes you found allies that watched out for you; but they were just as likely to stab you in the back for that apple core in your pocket. It was safer to stay friendless.
Living outdoors wasn’t so bad. If you knew what streets to avoid and the best corners for panhandling and when the shelters and missions opened, you could survive just fine. Adele had lived in the streets for five years so far. She kept track of time by counting the winters. Today it began to snow, marking her sixth year.
The snow had started falling around midday and by the time the evening commuters began boarding the buses and trains, a frigid wind whipped in from the west, tunnelling through the alleys and whirling pillows of snow into her face. The nearest shelter was at least a dozen blocks away in the basement of St. Isadore’s Mission Church. Adele couldn’t remember walking so far. Normally, she stayed close to the shelters, rarely straying more than a few blocks away from the familiar streets with the same recognizable faces hunched in doorways and huddling near the bus shelters. But lately her mind had been wandering, especially when she roamed the city streets, dipping into the garbage cans in front of the fast food outlets for something to eat and rooting for trinkets she could add to the growing collection of treasures in her cart.
Taking the bus would be impossible. She knew the driver would never let her on with her shopping cart, even though she had enough bus fare jingling in her pocket. She had tried before and had always been turned away. She would never abandon her shopping cart, not even for a night in a warm bed and a hot meal. It was all in the world she owned.
Adele fished into her cart and pulled on a red knitted cap with a matching pair of threadbare gloves with the fingertips snipped off. They had been given to her at one of the missions—Adele couldn’t remember which, by a young volunteer who said Adele reminded him of his grandmother. Poor kid, Adele thought as she zipped her coat up to her throat and hunched her shoulders. It would be a long trek through the crowds gathering on the sidewalks—businessmen lugging briefcases and laptops, hailing taxis; well-heeled women hustling to the parking garages with their bags of shopping; kids dashing and weaving as they lobbed snowballs at one another. The sidewalk was slick and thick with accumulating snow. Slush seeped in through the fissures in her boots. Earlier that day, she had lined them with the glossy paper flyers for a new pizza parlor someone on the street corner was handing out.
Clumps of snow stuck in the wheels of her cart, slowing her down. Dusk had settled and neon signs in bright shades of pink and yellow shivered over the store windows, their lights muted by the falling snow. She passed the department stores with windows full of bald and faceless mannequins dressed in leather coats, posed as carefully as museum dioramas. The next window housed a large gourmet and housewares store; its window displayed hand painted china on a meticulously laid out dining room table in a perfect tableau of domesticity.
At first Adele thought she stepped on a particularly hard cube of ice. It was more out of instinct that she stopped to pick it up. Over the years she had become so accustomed to collecting any items she found on the streets, even if the object would be nothing more than an ice cube or oddly shaped stone.
Adele unhinged her fingers and scraped the snow away. It was an old fashioned Zippo lighter, the kind Carl had used to light his cigarettes. Skull and crossbones, like those on a pirate flag, were engraved on one side.
She looked around, expecting someone from the river of passing faces to step up and claim it. It had happened to her before. The lighter had probably been dropped by one of those Goth kids that roamed the streets after dark. They loitered at noisy clubs and brawled on the sidewalks. They pierced and tattooed every visible body part and dyed their hair in crazy shades of pink and green. Even the boys wore black lipstick and earrings. Adele avoided them. There were rumors these vampire kids harassed and robbed some of the older squatters—if they had anything worth taking. Adele had plenty.
Adele pulled a soiled tissue from her pocket and wrapped the lighter in it. She slipped it back into her pocket and strained her weight against the cart. The snow was piling up and it was getting more difficult to push it. But she wouldn’t need to get to St. Isadore’s. Thanks to her good luck, she would be warm tonight. There was still enough food in her cart to get her through the night, though she wasn’t very hungry: a half-eaten hamburger still in its paper coffin and a small plastic soda bottle with some flat root beer sloshing in it.
She pushed her cart into a narrow alley between a travel agency and a luggage shop. The snow was not as thick in there. A single lightbulb in a small steel cage over a door marked “Employees Only” provided scant illumination. She parked her cart between two piles of stacked crates, below a canopy that blocked off the remainder of falling snow. This was as good as any place to spend the night.
She’d slept in her shopping cart before, many times when she couldn’t get to the shelters in time or they were already full up due to a storm or a sudden freeze. Her sleeping bag was rolled up in a larger plastic shopping bag to keep out the damp, though it still smelled of must and stale sweat from the hot summer nights she had slept in it. She organized her treasures in the cart, moving some of the harder items such as bobble-head dolls and plastic dishes to the lower rack between the snow-caked wheels, and arranging bags of old clothes to create a temporary bed. Even though she couldn’t lie down, the cart would be comfortable enough—and warm enough now that she’d found the lighter.
Adele climbed into her cart, wrapping her sodden feet in an old scarf to keep them warm, and unzipped her sleeping bag halfway. A few more tucks and arrangements and she had a small makeshift tent over her shopping cart. It was dark inside and dank from the snow melting off her coat, but it was cozy enough and soon it would be warm as toast.
Her fingertips were so numb that at first she couldn’t even flip the lid off the lighter. A spark jumped from the wick when she rolled her thumb down the wheel, and quickly died. She tried again and again and each time all she got was a flimsy spark. She cursed herself for not checking the lighter first. It was probably out of fluid and now it was too late to get to St. Isadore’s. On a night like tonight they were most likely full and she didn’t relish having to spend the night sleeping over a grate. She tried again, last time.
The spark erupted into a two-inch flame, catching her by surprise. Relieved, Adele sighed and leaned back against a sack of socks and underwear. The sleeping bag began to warm and the flame flickered and glowed. Adele smiled and watched it. She gazed deeply into the heart of the flame, where it glowed a soothing blue before paling into orange and yellow. It had been a long time since she had been this close to a warm fire.
Grammy Ross had kept a fire going in the old wood stove night and day during the winters. Papa had left Adele in her care while he went to work in the mines, promising to return for her as soon as he’d saved enough money to buy them their own house. Grammy’s house was small and dilapidated. You couldn’t go upstairs because the floorboards had rotted out and you could fall through into the kitchen. The summers weren’t so bad but during the winters freezing winds blew in through cracks in the windows. Adele and Grammy shared a sofa bed in the main room just off the kitchen, huddling together for warmth under Grammy’s homemade quilts. Grammy always rose early. Adele reached out and felt the warm spot on the mattress where her body had lain. She opened her eyes and in her half-sleep saw Grammy in her threadbare bathrobe leaning over the woodstove, stirring last night’s cinders with a poker. She tossed in a few more logs and sparks sprang up around them before catching fire. Ah! The warmth! Adele reached out with both hands. Her fingers were icicles and she was certain that if she touched that fire they would melt.
The Zippo lighter fell into Adele’s lap when she jerked away. The flame went out, casting her small tent in darkness. Her fingertips prickled but she fumbled until she found the hot square of the lighter. She must have dozed off and started dreaming, though she rarely dreamed of her past anymore. She rolled the wheel with her stinging thumb and this time it blazed and filled the tent with a warming light the first time. The flame was taller than before and it danced in the wafts of her breath.
Adele had danced many times. She remembered dancing round campfires at friends’ cottages under star-speckled skies. It was where she had met Carl, swaying to the music of a single guitar plucked by a friend of a friend, sitting by the campfire. Carl was so handsome back then, a can of beer in one hand and a pack of cigarettes tucked in the sleeve of his T-shirt. The others at the party had started clapping and singing old folk songs and Carl had asked her to join in. Someone threw a pair of old tires onto the fire and sparks shot up into the sky. Greasy smoke smothered the moon and made everyone cough.
The coughs rattled Adele’s throat. She clapped the lid down over the lighter and balled her fist against her mouth. She thought she smelled something burning but couldn’t be sure. A nearby restaurant must have overcooked something and tossed the remains into the trash in the alley. Adele made a mental note to go looking for it in the morning.
When her coughing fit abated, Adele opened the lid of the lighter and snapped the flame back on. It was starting to get warm inside the tent and she pulled off her damp woollen cap. The flame glowed a soothing white, sputtering like a bad migraine. Adele remembered such whiteness. It was her first stay in a hospital. The doctor on duty that night had called it a stillbirth, probably caused by her poor diet and her lifestyle—whatever that meant. She’d lie in the bed, watching that loathsome white florescent light in the ceiling fizzing and flickering as though mocking her. Several nurses were clustered in the corridor, chattering and gossiping and making plans for the weekend. They had taken the baby’s body away after letting Carl and Adele hold him for a while. Now her arms were empty and Carl sat beside her, muttering how much he loved her and they would try again soon for another baby and not to worry. He would have it all planned out. All the while Adele stared numbly into that overhead light, wishing it would swallow her whole and take her away to wherever they had taken her son.
Adele snapped the lid over the flame, unable to bear the memory. The lighter was hot in her hand and she would need to conserve the fluid if she was to make it through the night. But just one more time, she thought, and re-lit the flame. Just once more to heat the tent and thaw her fingers and perhaps dry out her clothes a little so she could get some sleep.
She had never been much of a sleeper, especially after Carl had left. Long nights were spent tossing and turning and staring out the window of the apartment they had shared, worrying about her financial situation. Carl had cleaned out their bank account and the only jobs she could find with her scant experience were minimum wage and hard to come by. When she had returned home after another fruitless search, she had found all her furniture and belongings piled on the sidewalk in front of her building and a notice tacked onto the apartment door; the locks had been changed. Adele gathered whatever she could fit into a shopping cart she’d found in the parking lot and headed out into the streets where she lived ever since.
That first night, someone directed her to a women’s shelter where she could spend the night. But even before she signed herself in, she knew she wouldn’t stay. The other women sported bruises and black eyes. Many were crying and even more had small children with them, screaming and running between the cots arranged in neat rows in the auditorium of what had once been a school. Other children bore terrified expressions and clutched their mothers with one hand and some tattered stuffed toy in the other. Even after lights out, the noise continued. Adele’s cot faced the auditorium doors that hung open into a hallway full of balmy golden light. She reached out for it, wanting to be in its warmth.
She slipped from her cot and gathered whatever she could carry in her shopping cart. The volunteer at the front desk was mediating a dispute between an elderly woman in a sari and the woman’s younger twin, jostling a runny-nosed toddler on her hip. They were shouting at each other in some foreign language; the younger woman brushed back a lock of shiny black hair to show the other her battered face.
“Are you leaving?” the volunteer asked when she noticed Adele heading for the door. Adele nodded. “You have to sign out if you’re leaving.”
Adele scribbled some semblance of her signature onto the clipboard on the front desk. The light in the corridor was more intense now and much hotter than before. Something was burning again. Perhaps it was outside. There was light out there, bright yellow-orange light that burgeoned through the smudged windows. Pain shot up Adele’s arm as she pushed the door opened with her hand.
Grammy Ross stood in the midst of all that light, smiling at her and beckoning her. Adele plunged into her outstretched arms. Fire radiated all around her. Adele was now older than Grammy had been when she had died decades ago, but she didn’t want to think about that or the improbability of her standing there in perfect health.
“Come home,” Grammy whispered to Adele.
The paramedics found Adele’s body mummified to a charred husk early the next morning. The fire had singed all the hair from her head and melted the plastic handle of her shopping cart. The skin had blackened and peeled away from a hand that clutched a Zippo lighter up to her chin as though she had been praying into it. The lighter was in surprisingly good condition, coated only with a layer of soot, the cap still yawning open.
“Poor old lady.” The paramedic shook her head as she and her co-worker draped a white sheet over the gurney.
“Probably tried to keep warm with only that lighter,” the other paramedic said. Usually the street people were found frozen to death on mornings such as this; some had even peeled off their clothes in a final act of desperation. He looked to the sky, grey and flat as an aluminum sheet, and wondered how many more of these bodies he would have to collect.
About the Author – Caroline Misner
Caroline Misner’s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit”; in 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox”. Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Press and has been nominated for the Governor General Award.
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