CAUSE OF DEATH • by Jacob Graysol

Charlie’s never seen me burn lamb chops, but he’s grown outraged over less, and over nothing at all.

“Budweiser!” he screams into the phone. “What do you mean I can’t cancel the dispatch? That’s my code word! … I don’t care what happened in Hillsborough, I’m not trying to burn down my own damn house!”

He throws the handset, then glares at me, seething. But he keeps his distance, waiting to turn away the firefighters, I’m sure, so he can get away with pulling out the heavy belt, the brown one with the oval buckle that hasn’t been around his waist since we’ve been married.

When the captain arrives, I sneak a glance at my watch: three minutes and forty seconds.

***

The deepest bruise from lamb chop night, the card-sized one on my left thigh, had swelled then blued then yellowed; sitting no longer hurts, even now, circling our willow on the mower, taking some bumps. When I leave the shade, shrill beeps draw my attention to smoke streaming from the garage window. And if we were living in the suburbs — neighbors within earshot — the chirps would’ve jolted them, too.

My impulse is to run, and I obey the adrenaline, realizing midway there that shifting into fourth would’ve gotten me to him quicker. I reach the back of the garage, if you’d call a structure where an incompetent sets up a wall-to-wall machine shop with no fire extinguisher a “garage.” The blackness obscures whether Charlie’s escaped out front. Better to check there before taking any chances, then roll up the garage door to clear the smoke.

Another dash. I pray for him to be anywhere but inside, that today he’s not in a drunken stupor before lunch… not again.

But when I turn the corner, only the Fiesta is in the driveway. I’m still alone.

I pound the door. “Charlie!” Bang, bang, bang! “CHARLIE!” Smoke is pouring out the top seam and seeping around the sides, making my eyes water. I grab the handle and heave, to save my love. Damn! The idiot kept it locked! A quick glance about, then check my watch: two minutes before the captain arrives. Hurry around, rescue my love.

I race to the back door and reach for the knob, then stop. I bite my lip. What if it’s too hot? I shake my head — I have to save my love, no matter what.

Shoulders tight, I tap the brass. Only warm. Big huff, muscles relax. More smoke than heat, so far. I throw open the door and get blasted by an angry cloud, a witness drawn away by the wind. “Charlie! Are you in there?”

Time for my plunge. I hold a deep breath and trudge in, blinded, arms outstretched. Four steps. I couldn’t breathe if I tried. I drop to the ground, ready to crawl backward; but nature’s left a few clear inches of air, like the teachers promised. Except I can’t see Charlie from the concrete, just the bottoms of some sawhorses and his air compressor. I pivot on my hands and knees, running out of breath, keeping track of the door, I think, while I’m scanning. Halfway around, lungs burning, a glow from outdoors, not far at all. I try a breath. Cough! Cough! I crawl. More smoky breaths, more coughing, even some panic.

It takes twice as long as I’d guessed, but it was only a few feet, and I collapse on the grass. I can’t go back for my love — we shouldn’t both die.

I hear a siren, the captain’s siren. When he yells, I’m gasping for air. He smashes glass, and I call, “I think Charlie’s in there!” And my throat is raw. Again. As the captain would expect. About the same as twenty minutes ago, when I was inhaling smoke from an oily rag and exhaling deep into that abusive lush’s mouth, step one of covering up that I’d killed him by pumping the mower’s exhaust under a tarp I’d laid over his head. My love always moved his benders to his workshop when spring arrived, and I couldn’t chance the heat detector waking him after I dropped his soldering iron into the overstuffed wastebasket.

The coroner would check for soot residue in Charlie’s airways in addition to carbon monoxide saturation; the fire captain would criticize Charlie salvaging that hideous carpet remnant and being so cavalier about the grease splotches; and the sheriff would dissect my memories of trying to save him, judging if I made them in real time. It’s been seven years. No apologies.


Jacob Graysol lives and writes in central New Jersey. He wrote the lawyer-laden police procedural Righteous Judgment, and published its sequel, Righteous Endeavors, in February, 2020. His flash fiction “Gender Screened” has been published by Reflex Press (UK).


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