The fire happened three days later, when he was heat-stripping the second floor window casings. Rain was massing to the west, a yellow and orange blob moving over Providence on the Weather Channel, heading for the Cape and Islands. He wanted to beat the weather, so he rushed through the set-up, just like Mio cleaning his gun.
But there were life and death mistakes in the real world, too.
If Mike had tried to fill a spray bottle with water, as Dave Congdon always did when using a heat gun, he would have noticed that the water was turned off all along Baxter Road. The DWP was excavating for a new sewer line; they’d sent a letter the week before but Mike hadn’t bothered to open it.
He’d left the dishes from the night before, and of course the toilet tank was full, so he had one bonus flush left. He was in too much of a hurry to notice the silence where he should have heard the rush of refill water.
In any case, he had never taken Dave’s worries seriously. Most of the nightmare anecdotes came from the old days when painters use ‘lead boys’ to keep the metal bubbling over an open fire so they could add a steady supply to the paint and they stripped houses with a torch. Using fire near tinder-box shingles – Mike could understand the danger of that. But a heat gun was a glorified hair dryer. He never ‘burned’ the paint; he just used the gun to soften it enough to lift the thick layers off with a putty knife.
But Dave was right, as he often was. The heat from the gun flowed silently through the tiny gap between the casing and the shingles and ignited the dry dust behind them. In a way, Mike was lucky. As Dave described the historical catastrophes, they had smoldered for hours, finally catching fire long after the job site was deserted.
Mike saw the smoke immediately.
For a second he froze. Then he stupidly reached out for the missing water bottle. How could he have ignored that most basic safety precaution?The curl of smoke thickened. He could smell it now.
He scrambled down the ladder, his heart pounding in his throat, jumped the last few feet, landed hard and sprinted for the back door. Through the screen, shoulder to the woode panel, into the kitchen. He grabbed a highball glass out of the dish drainer and turned the taps on.
He stared in horror at the dry faucet. The water was turned off? Today? He didn’t have time for anger or frustration. He had to think. The house was seconds away from burning down. He had used the upstairs toilet this morning. There would still be water in the downstairs tank. He leapt for the dining room door, pulling off his t-shirt, blinded for a second by the sweat-stained cotton, suffocating as it caught on his chin, claustrophobic, panic climbing his chest. Then his head was free and he slammed into the bathroom, yanked the cover off the tank and plunged his t-shirt into the rusty water.
He ran through the house leaving a trail of drips behind him, flew into the yard and stopped short, looking up.
Carol Ann Tuttle stood teetering high on the ladder, both hands on a giant orange white and blue super soaker water blaster, pumping the handle, sending swirling pulses of water down at the charred shingles.
She looked down at him with a wild grin, grabbed the side of the ladder with one hand, brandished the big water pistol like an insurgent with an AK-47.
“It was in the basement!” she shouted down to him. “We got them last summer. This one had some water left.”
The relief hit him like another jolt of panic. The crazy little girl next door had saved his house. She was barefoot, wearing the white cotton shorts and t-shirt she used for pajamas. She must have seen what was happening out her window when she got up and then flung herself into action just as he had, with no time to change or even find a pair of flip-flops. He looked away, embarrassed by the intimacy of her attire. The emergency should have demolished any useless prurient thought. After all, he was standing bare-chested himself, still clutching his dripping t-shirt.
Carol Ann climbed down and stood staring at him.
“Oh my God,” she said. “What happened to you?”
He closed his eyes, still trembling with relief.
He opened his eyes, looked at her.
“I got to come home,” he said.