Edna Selwyn’s old house still hadn’t sold. It had been eight months since she died, and the house had been on the market for six. It’s true that the place was in bad shape, and Edna’s daughter had been too cheap (or too deep in mourning) to have it spruced up. The wallpaper was a sunflower pattern from the 1970s, the carpet the color of the red hair dye Edna favored. Also there was moss on the roof, and when the light hit it at a certain angle, the moss glowed in an otherworldly manner.
These cosmetic issues were secondary, however. I knew the real reason no one wanted the Selwyn place. You see, a child was living there—a five-year-old boy, seemingly ordinary, except no ordinary boy could have survived alone in that house for so long. I often saw him in the downstairs window when I looked out from my house across the street. He stuck his thumb against his nose and waggled his fingers, or slid his hand under his armpit and pumped his elbow, producing a flatulent sound.
Mrs. Burke, look at me, he sang. I know you can see me. Look at me.
The boy reminded me of one of my kindergarten students from decades ago, a very spirited child named David Dockery. When I said it was time for Silent Reading, David would take that as his cue to stand on his chair, flap his arms, and squawk like a chicken. More than once, when I was writing on the board and turned unexpectedly, I caught him mirroring, or rather exaggerating, my movements, waving his invisible chalk in great swoops and, for some reason, wiggling his behind. The other children found him hilarious. I admit, I secretly admired his anti-authority mindset. He wasn’t going to take any crap from The Man, or The Woman in my case, even if that crap was building the foundation for his future.
At any rate, whenever the real estate agent tried to show the Selwyn house, the boy must have peered out from behind the ragged old curtains, or stood behind the agent, silently mimicking her as she extoled the house’s hidden virtues. Confused and frightened, potential buyers made excuses and fled. Meanwhile, the place was deteriorating by the day, taking with it the neighborhood’s property values. And no one was doing anything about it.
Therefore, one warm spring night, I broke through the glass door at the back of the house with a tire iron and poured gasoline all over the living room. I lit a match and threw it toward the curtains. The flames flared with a Whump! that resounded through my whole body.
As I turned to make my escape, I noticed the painting of a young boy over the mantel. I had forgotten all about this painting, though there was no reason I should have remembered it. I had only been to Edna Selwyn’s house once, to discuss the AT&T box. All the neighbors refused to let AT&T put a U-Verse box in front of their houses, so I said, Sure, put it in front of mine. Now an ugly box looms over my lawn, and everyone has high-speed internet.
But who was the boy in the painting? Edna had no sons. The work was amateurish, likely from a garage sale, which was perhaps why Edna’s daughter didn’t want it. From the boy’s joyful grin, it was clear that he believed he was loved—at the time the painting was made, at least. Obviously, that was not true now.
I had no more time to ponder. The flames cackled behind me, yearning to consume me and the painting together. I snatched the boy off the wall and ran with him out the back door. With the painting propped beside me, I watched from my living room as the Selwyn place burned to cinders.
When the house collapsed, the painted boy, whom I decided to call David, turned to me and whispered, Thank you. He had been trapped alone in the house, you see. But when the place sold, he would likely have met an even more dismal fate in a landfill. His only choice was to keep buyers away as long as possible and hope a sympathetic soul like me rescued him.
After the fire, the debris was cleared away and the grass replanted. The lot is still for sale, at a reduced price, but at least we don’t have a decrepit old house bringing down our property values.
As with the AT&T box, none of the neighbors has thanked me for my efforts on their behalf. But I don’t mind. Since they’ve never given me a moment’s consideration, they will never suspect that I burned down the Selwyn place, even though the painting I technically stole hangs over my fireplace for anyone to see.
And now, at last, I have someone to talk to.
Ann Gelder’s fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Monkeybicycle, Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby (Bona Fide Books), is a satire set in 1980s America.