When Rome Burned

Matthew Del Fiacco


It was my first night staying with Adam since my wife left me. More accurately, since my wife kicked me out of the house and kept my dog. Apparently, five years of marriage isn't enough to survive four months of unemployment. So I called around, trying to find anybody who would be willing to take me in for a week so I could figure things out. Most of my friends had moved away, a few had sided with my wife. Possibly because they were sleeping with her, or wanted to. It wouldn't surprise me. Adam had been the only one from our college group not to get married or move away, and he was more than happy to let me stay. He said he had an extra bedroom I could use as long as I needed. Adam had been the quiet one in college. He was one of my good friend's roommate, so he hung out with our group a lot. He was a reader, always holding a book, and never had much to say unless you were speaking to him. Some of our friends didn't like him, but a few thought having him around was an excellent anchor to the world. Adam kept us grounded, if we were ever thinking of doing something really stupid or dangerous that was usually the only time he spoke up on his own to talk us out of it. But in college, not a lot of kids are respected for their silence. Most quiet kids are marked by it, immediately singled out. I was a little nervous when Adam said I could stay, I was one of the kids who had marked him, but I really didn't have much of a choice.


I got to his house in the evening, was welcomed by the smell of dinner and a calmly lit main room. Adam's house was cozy, it was the first word that popped into my head and the perfect word to describe it, cozy. Adam showed me to the extra room which had a bed, dresser, closet, and bathroom attached. I thanked him five or six times and gave him a hug before setting my stuff down.


“Come grab some dinner.” He led me to the kitchen and handed me a plate of chicken he had made. It had been a few days since I had eaten a real meal, so I was a little ravenous. He smiled, and listened to me talk about my pending divorce and my job hunt. I talked for at least an hour, talked and ate. He told me a little bit about his life; he was a writer now, still single, and thinking about moving to England. I told him that was incredible, in reality I thought it was kind of stupid. From the look of it he had a nice set-up here, why would he want to change anything? He was single, a fantastic decision, and he had a home. That was the dream. Adam didn't think so, and we talked for a little while longer before heading off to bed.


The next thing I remember was an alarm, a high-pitched, piercing alarm. Needless to say it woke me up, and I stayed in bed for almost a minute before I realized what was happening. It wasn't even the alarm that told me. It was the smell. Fire.


I immediately reverted to kindergarten when we covered fire safety. How I remember that is beyond me, probably because we had to do it almost every day. I dropped to the floor and started crawling out on my stomach. I reached up to twist the door knob and crawled into the hallway. I didn't see any fire. That was a short-lived relief. I got up and walked forward, the entire upstairs was on fire. I can see now why some people find fire so terrifying, because it can easily be mistaken for a living thing. It crawled on the walls, devouring whatever it touched and seemed to bend and move in a primal way. I didn't smell a lot of smoke now, if it makes any sense to you, I smelled heat. I turned to see Adam with a book in his hand coming from the side of the house where his study was. He didn't say anything when we made eye contact, he just pointed to the front door and we both ran. We got outside, the smell of smoke came back. Adam got to the edge of his lawn where the sidewalk meets the grass, and dropped his book. The firemen pulled up and poured out of the firetruck. I stood with Adam, both of us were in a daze. I was faintly aware of the movement around me, I'm not sure if Adam was. A fireman spoke to both of us, I remember responding but not what I said. I remember bragging once that I was good in emergencies, but that must have been a lie. I had no adrenaline, barely any comprehension. That is probably why I only faintly remember speaking to the fireman at all. He asked our names, if we were okay, typical talk. Once the fire was out, the same man told us that the fire had started on the top floor, they don't know how. Adam shook each of the fireman’s hands, I followed him. They all looked empathetic and wished us luck before getting back into the truck and leaving. Adam watched them leave and rooted himself to the spot next to his book.


Like a king looking over his kingdom, Adam stoically watched the smoldering remains of his home. The skeleton of his castle was still standing, but looked fragile enough to be torn down by a strong gust of wind. The rest of the remains were scattered around the yard, bits of ash, support beams that had fallen, and a few charred household items that had somehow survived the fire. It was terrifying to look at, at least I thought so. I turned away while Adam was still unmoving. It was almost unreal, the rest of the world. I looked across the street and there was another house, exactly like Adam's, that was still standing. In the distance I could hear cars, see lights, I could even just barely see two people taking a walk on the opposite end of the road. “The world is still alive.” I thought. Here I am surrounded by smoke and death, and still people are running errands, or coming home from work. I almost laughed at myself for being so egotistical. After all, this was Adam's house. If anyone had a reason to be upset, it was him. I turned back, he hadn't moved an inch. The smell from the house, an odd combination of smoke and burning leaves, was much stronger when you were facing the source, I wasn't sure how Adam did it for so long. But I had to help him stay strong, so I stood with him and watched.

 

It was at least a half hour before there was movement around us again. None of the neighbors had come out to see what happened, or offer help, though I was sure some were watching from their windows. The house stood perfectly still, as if it was waiting for us to make the next move. That must have been what Adam thought, because his first motion in two hours was walking towards the house. I followed, cautiously.“Maybe he doesn't want me here.” The thought crossed my mind, but we were still friends despite the amount of time we had spent apart so I followed anyways.


Adam stepped over a fallen piece of wood and stood in what was left of his living room. He bent over and grabbed a handful of ash, let it fall down, and his face took on the same look it had when he was watching the fire consume his house. I resumed my role of the silent companion, which gave me a moment with my thoughts. “Does he think this is my fault?” I thought it was odd that he hadn't asked how it happened yet and that really wouldn't be the most startling of conclusions. I was the only thing that had really changed, the first night I am there and a fire starts. Even if those dots aren’t supposed to be connected, it would make sense to think that they were. Adam started to walk again, sooner than I had expected, back to the edge of lawn where his book was sitting in the grass. He sat down and put the book in his lap. I sat next to him and glanced at the plastic wrapped book. East of Eden by Steinbeck. I remember being assigned to read that book for a high school history course, I also remember not reading it. Adam was gripping it firmly, but gently. Like a mother holding onto her son, not tight enough to hurt them, but just the right amount to make sure they didn't get away. Adam saw me looking at it.


“Not the most valuable book I own, or owned, but it is my favorite.” he said quietly. “I was in the study when the fire started. Must have been an electrical problem of some kind upstairs.” By now the sun was rising, it was probably six a.m. I sat and watched the house with Adam for fifteen more minutes before he stood up and offered his hand to me. I accepted his hand and stood up, brushing a little ash off of my pajamas. It occurred to me just then that I should be thankful I wore pajama pants and a t-shirt to bed that night. This could have been a much more awkward situation.


“I don't suppose I could find my keys in that mess.” Adam said.


“Sorry?”


“My keys. For the car.” I stayed quiet this time, he was probably going through shock. As many problems as I thought I had in my life, at least I didn't lose everything by chance. In my mind, that has to be worse. At least with the divorce, I know where my things are. I know there will be a settlement of some kind. I know it was for a reason. But this? A home and life burnt down to cinders because of some small error? It was almost too much to believe. But here Adam was, worrying about his car keys.


“Are you hungry?” I looked at him like he was insane. The look wasn't forced, but I felt that it was appropriate so I went with it.


“Maybe we should take a minute to process everything Adam.”
“I've been processing since I saw you in the hall under what appeared to be Hell leaking its way into our world through my ceiling. Right now, I want breakfast. I love breakfast.” He opened the top of the sleeve covering the book and pulled out a stack of crisp looking twenty dollar bills. He showed me, re-sealed the book, and waited for me to respond.


“I'm sorry Adam, you're going to need to clarify. What in the world do you mean you're hungry?” Adam was confused, in hindsight it was sort of an odd question.


“I mean I want food, this took a lot out of me. I could use a cup of coffee and some pancakes, maybe sausage.”


“Are you and I looking at the same thing?”


“A black heap of wood and debris? Yeah, I think so.”


“And you want breakfast?”


“Yep.” There was no arguing with him. We didn't even bother looking for the keys, we just walked to a small pancake house that was a mile down the road. I didn't bother grabbing my shoes on our way out, and I probably looked like a fool hopping every time I stepped on a pebble. It didn't seem to bother Adam. The hostess gave us a strange look when she saw our attire, then led us to a booth and poured coffee into our cups. I put cream in mine while Adam leaned over his cup and inhaled the fumes. He smiled and took a sip.


“Black?” I asked him. It wasn't the best question, but I was trying to break the tension. My tension. For reasons I didn't understand at the time, Adam didn't seem to have any tension at all.


“Ever since college, the stronger the coffee is the better.” The only thought I had was that this had to be an act. I let him continue with it though, and we ate our breakfast in peace. It was weird, like nothing bad had happened. We chatted like friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time and that was all. But toward the end of the meal, when Adam was enjoying his sausage, I couldn't let the charade go on.


“What are you going to do? Denial only lasts for so long you know. You need a plan.” Adam put his last bit of sausage down. He knew the conversation was coming but I must have said something he didn't expect.


“Denial?”


“This whole breakfast thing, the small talk, you're avoiding the issue. Shouldn't we talk about it?”


“You think we can talk the house back into existing?”


I was starting to get a little angry. I was here trying to be a good friend and he was making jokes.


“Adam, be realistic, what are you going to do?” He seemed to think about it for a second, inhaling the fumes of his almost empty cup of coffee again.


“Rebuild.”


“What do you mean rebuild?”

 

“I repair the old house, or get a new one, maybe an apartment. Start looking for new copies of my books, that sort of thing.” He was handling this too well, but I had heard that the effect of shock can last for awhile.

 

“And where will you find this new house? What about your insurance? Your things?”

 

“Maybe England, I've been wanting to go there. I've heard it's beautiful. So what about my things? No one died, right? Everything that was lost is replaceable, some of the novels in that room should be burned anyways. Have you ever read House of Leaves? Fantastic book, amazing writer, terrifying to read. Gave me nightmares.” He was still telling jokes. Weird jokes, mind you, and maybe if I was nearly as well read as he was I would understand them, but jokes nonetheless.

 

“You're avoiding the point.”

 

“What's the point?”

 

“Your house burned down.” I was almost shouting now, it's frustrating when you're trying to help someone and they wont let you.

 

“Yeah, I was there.”

 

“So why aren't you freaking out?”

 

“What good would that do?” the sentence came like a soft blow. Not enough to make me back down about the subject, but enough to make me a little more submissive. “I mean it. My house burned down, that sucks. It's a good thing all my money is in an electronic account at my bank. Sure, I might get insurance money for this, maybe not. Maybe my entire world just fell down. But here we are, two friends, eating breakfast. A breakfast I'm enjoying. Life is an incredibly durable thing, it can be broken apart and beaten but it still regenerates. I'll be fine.” He tapped my coffee cup with his and took a sip before adding “So will you.”

 

Everything that had happened to me lately consumed my thoughts. It had for a long time now. Losing my wife, my home, it was all I thought about, but Adam was enjoying his breakfast. The wound was still fresh for him, but he was surviving. Not even just surviving, I watched him thrive as he put the last bit of sausage into his mouth.


He smiled when he saw me watching in disbelief and continued to finish his meal. Oddly enough, I felt alright for the first time in awhile. Everything was going to be alright. I picked up my coffee and inhaled the fumes like I had seen Adam do so many times this meal. It smelled delicious. Everything was fine.

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