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Norwegian Wood

George walked the long, curving street, head up, watching the shadows. A midnight stroll wasn't safe--too many animals that used to avoid the suburbs had lost fear--but at night he could convince himself the neighborhood was the way it had been a year before. He pretended normality, even though the city had never been this dark or quiet, and he kept his hand on the bear spray in his pocket. Thirty-foot range. He had a case of them back at his house. Foxes owned the city now, and dogs and bears and deer. Eventually, he supposed there would be wolves.
They called it the Three-Day Plague. A touch of something on Monday. A cough and fever on Tuesday. Dead by Wednesday. Not everyone caught it at the same time, but the progress was the same. George had retreated to his house to wait for the inevitable.
A sliver of moon cast the faintest of shadows. The air smelled clean, no whiff of decay now. No exhaust either. No industry. No barbeques. Just dead lawns that didn't smell like anything, and non-native trees standing without leaves, waiting for the windstorm that would take them down, maybe this year or the next.
And it wasn't like there were no lights at all. Even after a year, some houses sported decorative walkway lamps that glowed at night, powered by their photoelectric cells and tiny batteries.
The first time he'd walked after sunset, when he emerged from weeks of fruitless waiting for an illness that never visited, he saw the sidewalk lights at the Fenton's house. His heart pounded, thinking that someone else was alive, but no one answered the door. He broke in. Jeb Fenton lay on the couch under a blanket, flies rising and settling on his face. On the floor in a back bedroom beside a crib, Lydia wore a bathrobe, her head on a pillow, eyes fish-white and open, a baby bottle upright by her hand. George didn't direct his flashlight toward the lump beneath a pink, flowered blanket in the crib.
He booted every walkway lamp into oblivion when he left the house, but by the time he saw the next set a few houses later, he couldn't hold onto the anger, so he walked on.
Now he imagined families tucked away in beds behind the black windows, and he felt terribly alone. He kicked a pebble that skittered and bounced. At a junction, he contemplated turning left, away from the hilltop, but he couldn't stop himself. Behind him and below the city sprawled, deep grey and lifeless, until it rose to the hills on the other side of the valley. Somewhere in between the subdivision changed from Norwegian Wood to Strawberry Fields. If he walked far enough north, he would be in Penny Lane. South would bring him to Golden Slumbers.
The developer had a fascination.
The faint moon caught off a car windshield, blocks away, its tires as flat as all the other cars parked on the streets.
He shoved his hands to the bottom of his pockets. A breeze came up, pressed against his back. A coyote yipped in the valley, and another answered. Perhaps he'd start the diesel generator and try the radio again. "I'm living," he'd say, "are you?" dialing up and down the bands. "I'm living. I'm living. I'm living, are you?"
Static. Pulsing carrier signals. The stations he'd heard the first weeks vanished one after another. Prerecorded, surely, only reaching out as long as they had power. "I'm living. I'm living. I'm living."
Another quiet block passed as he climbed. It took a turn and a thigh-burning ascent up the steep street before the bulldog house came into view in all its glory. Porch light burning. Chandelier lit and glittering above the kitchen window. Two of the three second-story bedroom lights on. A stereo played inside.
When he saw it a year ago, he'd cried he was so happy. He rushed to the front door between the two stone bulldogs that looked out on the street like library lions, rang the bell, waited.
No one answered, of course, and after he circled the house twice, looking in every window, he broke in the backdoor. Nobody home. The beds neatly made. One car missing in the garage, and on the garage wall, a huge battery system connected to solar cells on the roof. Everything in the house controlled by timers. George thought about moving in. The system was so much better than the diesel generator he'd set up at his own house, but the empty rooms looked too expectant, as if the house longed for its family to return, so he repaired the backdoor. Left the front door unlocked. For weeks at a time, he stayed away, took his walks elsewhere, hoping that the batteries would give out and restore reality, but periodically he returned, and for a moment let his heart soar when he saw the streaming welcome pouring through the windows. This would be the time when they would be home and invite him in.
He stood on the sidewalk, staring. Everything he hoped for, so close, teasing. In a moment, the family could drive up. Their garage door would open. They would wave from their car, like he was a long lost uncle come home at last.
The living room had gathered a year's dust since he'd last been in the house. He dragged his fingers on the kitchen table, leaving a trail as he made his way to the garage. The lights there were already on. Rakes and shovels hung from one wall. Neatly labeled paint cans filled a cabinet by the work bench: "Jenny's room," "Back porch exterior," "Upstairs bathroom." In the same cabinet George found a nearly full gallon of paint thinner.
He splashed it on the front drapes and the book shelves and the wood paneling in the study. His hand shook as he lit a match and dropped it on the carpet. Flame raced to the wall. He backed away from the smoke and out of the house.
From the street, he watched the undoing. At first, smoke poured from the front door. The stereo still played. Within a minute, fire wavered in the living room window, and then, very soon, it glowed behind the upstairs bedroom drapes. Suddenly, the lights that had shone for a year without care, flickered and went out.
Not that it mattered. Soon the bulldog house blazed brighter than it ever had. Flames danced along the roof's edge, roaring and casting a sick heat on his face. "Isn't it good?" he asked himself as the conflagration lit the neighbor houses in Norwegian Wood.
The attic collapsed first, casting sparks skyward. Windows cracked and blew out. Tomorrow, he knew, if he came back, some of the timbers might still be smoking, but in the night it was unlikely that he would see them. Perhaps, even, if the night was dark enough he would walk right by the bulldog house's blackened walls.
No more false hope. "I'm alive," he thought, with all the stress on "I'm."
He turned his back on the fire and walked down the hill toward his house. It took a couple blocks before his eyes adjusted. Looking at the burning house had been like staring into the sun.
Now he could see the grey valley again, all the suburban houses hunched under the stars. Many of them private mausoleums. His gaze drifted. On top of a hill on the other side of the valley, miles away in Strawberry Fields, a lone light glowed, a fire.
He stopped.
It had to be a building. Nothing else could cast as much light. Only a structure as big as the bulldog house could flare as bright. It must be an answer, a call, a beacon.
Someone had seen the bulldog house burning.
George scanned the city. Were there other lights? Had others been waiting for a sign for the last year, sitting in their house like he did, surrounded by their food stores, alone?
The rest of the city remained dark.
It didn't matter. If he walked steadily, he could cross the valley and be there by dawn. It might be an accident.
Houses could burn down on their own. But animals don't build fires.
Only a person could do that.
"We're alive," he thought. "We live."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 12th, 2019
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