A Burning Compulsion

Sam climbed over crumbled concrete, everywhere he touched came away black from soot and ash. The metal remains of furniture poked out in places, buried like twisted metal skeletons. There was no roof, and only a few steel beams standing like monuments in the corners to suggest that there ever was one. Sam shook his head, there were no clues to uncover in all this destruction. He stood at the top of a pile of rubble and took a few moments to simply stare, before heading back to his car.

Sam brushed as much ash off of his clothes as he could before attempting to wash his hands with a bottle of water. Then he swished some water around his mouth. When he spit, it came out black. It was back at the office that he would do his real investigation, using the surprisingly sophisticated security system which had backed up in realtime to an offsite facility.

Sam had all of the footage starting from an hour before the first reports of the fire until they cut off. Camera 1 was apparently in the southwest corner of the building. He meticulously worked his way through every camera shot, south to the north, west to east, marking the time that the fire first appeared on a map of the facility. The west side of the building was mostly dormitories, empty in the middle of the afternoon, except for a few stragglers who zoomed through the frame in quadruple time.

By the time he had reached the middle of the building where the common areas were, Sam had sped up the footage to where the nurses walking around were barely more than blurs. But the patients were just sitting down, staring at things–staring at the TV, staring at each other, staring at the wall. They didn’t move out of their chairs and gave the impression of twitching, like they were bugs stuck to their chairs with pins.

He was about to close the video when he noticed a man standing in the corner. The man was abandoned, hidden from the door by a potted plant, still staring at the wall. Sam resumed the video and watched the flames advance while the man continued to stand there. The man never seemed to notice the heat or the smoke and stayed staring at the wall until, overcome, the man collapsed backwards, legs folded under him at an awkward angle, eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. It was the first time that Sam had seen the transition from living person, to burned up corpse.

He rewound the video, his eyes fixed on the man in the corner. Did he not feel the heat? What did he see on the wall? Sam leaned in closer to the screen. He enlarged just the corner of the image, trying to glean information from the back of a head, the position of an arm. He paused on the man’s face at the end, low definition and slightly hazy from the heat, but to Sam’s eye strangely blank, somehow immune to the horror just witnessed. Sam replayed it, over and over. He slowed it down, he sped it up. He went home and dreamed of it, seeing it from several new angles. He watched the flames wash over him and consume him, leaving the room empty and broken. He saw himself walk over his bones without realizing it.

The next day Sam found the culprit. A patient was playing with a lighter and things got out of hand. Then there must have been a fault in the sprinkler system that prevented it from working — nobody ever did proper maintenance or testing on those.

Sam wrote his report, including details on how the fire spread and how to slow it down — nothing that wasn’t already known — and at the end made a recommendation for better sprinkler servicing. But before he handed off all of his records, he made a copy of the man dying. The copy sat on a thumb drive, buried in a drawer in a desk in his house; until it was eventually thrown out, many years later, without even looking at its contents.

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