Smoke billowed from the vent eaves—wavy, boneless, grey arms, reaching for the sky and signaling for help. Discombobulated by the sight, Harry eased his car into the driveway, anyway. In a matter of seconds flames burst through the roof and a section of lumber, shingles and insulation plunged into the living room. The fire inhaled and then roared back out. Tiny bits of his house, charred red and still hot, pelted down and rolled off the hood of his sedan. He looked up at the house only one more time before putting the vehicle in reverse.
“Wow,” his five-year-old son said from the back seat. Little Ralph strained against his safety harness to get a better view of the spectacle.
Slowly and carefully, Harry parked the car in an empty slot across the street. As he unbuckled his son from the toddler seat and heaved the boy into his arms, he couldn’t help but look at the fire eating—gobbling up—his humble, two-bedroom home and all that he possessed in this world. Flames licked at the shingles on the edges of the roof, now, curling down, as if the yellow beast was intent on reaching for the last bits of its meal.
He flipped his cell phone open and dialed 911. “Excuse me, but I have a fire at my house. That’s 184 Sycamore Drive.” A moment passed. “Yes,” he said, “I do believe that there is someone in the house.”
At that precise moment, his wife burst through the front door. Tiny nubs of hair still clung to her scalp, and remnants of cloth were netted to her body in a bizarre checker-board fashion. She yelped like an injured and inconsolable puppy and collapsed three feet from the blacken door. Little Ralph whimpered. His tiny hands clutched at his father’s neck. Harry swapped the cell phone to his other ear.
“I’m sorry,” he told the operator. “I have to go now. You’d better send a fire truck and an ambulance too.”
Harry looked up and down the street, partly to see if anyone would come running to his aid and partly to see if any traffic was approaching. The road remained empty, free of any concerned neighbors or flashing red emergency lights. He rushed across the pavement, as Little Ralph bounce like a bobble in his arms. Harry didn’t want to put the boy down. His son was such a curious fellow; he might try to investigate the fire or rush to his mother’s side or look for the family dog—if the idea popped into his head—or do some other unimaginable thing.
Harry lifted his wife’s arm and drug her another twenty feet into the front yard, but he could still feel the heat coming from the house. The skin around her wrist slipped under fingers and fresh welts of blood oozed out like a dozen hot rills of sticky red ink. To him, it seemed the blood was much thicker than it should be.
Rover, their pet dachshund, skidded around the edge of the building and came to a halt on top of Harry’s foot. The dog—singed but still very much alive—promptly peed on his shoe. Harry scooted the dog away, shifted the boy to a new position and bent over his wife’s body. Her chest heaved up and down.
“Dear,” he said, whispering into her ear. She blinked at him with eyes that had no lashes. “Were you trying to multitask, again?”
She drew a long ragged breath, and he thought he heard her say, “Cooking and watching TV.”
“You know that’s illegal,” he said and tsked-tsked. As soon as the words were out, he immediately regretted them. His last words to her should not be a reprimand; he should say something comforting to her, but he couldn’t. What would he say? Everything will be all right. Obviously, nothing would ever be all right again.
A breath, fouled with smoke and the strange scent of rusty penny, escaped her lips. She shuttered violently and drew long breaths that were spaced too far apart, as if her soul wrestled with its crispy exterior, and then she melted, limp and lifeless, onto his freshly mowed grass.
“You see, son,” he said. “This is what happens when you get in a hurry. This is why we are not supposed to multitask. The government banned multitasking, way back in 2-oh-6-oh. The Brainy-People decided that the general population was no longer smart enough to multitask.”
“But why did Mommy break the law?” Ralph asked, whimpering into his father’s shoulder.
“Mommy was a nervous person,” Harry said, trying to explain the unexplainable to a five-year-old and reflecting on the unpleasant sense of tension that had always surrounded Gloria. “She had a big ego. She always thought that she was smart enough to do two things at one time. But her I.Q was only 68, just two points above mine.”
“I’ll miss her,” Ralph said. “Won’t you, Daddy?” His son’s round, blue eyes floated in two half moons of tears.
“Don’t’ start crying now, son. If you cry, I’ll cry too. And we really should walk safely back to the car, first. Okay? We mustn’t multitask; we mustn’t be like Mommy. We might get run over on the road; we might even get run over by the fire truck that we called to save us. That wouldn’t be nice, would it?” He gave the boy a very stern look.
Ralph snorkeled and nodded. “No, Daddy.”