Jesse woke to a pale skin forming across the sky. He liked to sleep with open window and open curtains and open nightscape, not that he believed his dream soul wandered to other realms – he’d leave that to the sociologists and shamanic freaks. And no sane person wanted to go where his dreams often took him. But tonight the storm seemed to have washed his mind clean; he couldn’t recall a single dream.
He glanced towards the window. The rain had stopped, and the air smelled warm and sweet, like the day’s first milking. He’d leave right after breakfast. Hot water, a soft clean bed, and food – always food – how easy it was to become seduced by comfort.
That photograph. Jesse’s thoughts skidded towards it, though he wrenched the steering wheel and tried to apply the brakes – a mistake, as any driver could have told him. He recalled reading that certain cultures wouldn’t submit to photographs: the camera stole their souls. There was a kind of magic in it, he had to admit – the blank sheet of paper floating in a chemical bath, then the image gradually materialising, summoned forth from some incorporeal dimension. But the little girl had not been coaxed to surrender her soul; it had been wrest from her by fire before Finn had ever set eyes on her pitiful corpse.
Now wide awake, Jesse sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, ran his hands through his hair. He wanted to see the photograph again. It was not a good idea – he knew that. But maybe if he steered into the skid ...
Nubi made a half-hearted attempt to accompany Jesse, but curled up on the mat at the whispered command to stay. Someone must have trained him, and Jesse wondered what stories the dog might recount. At least the Andersens would treat him kindly or, Jesse trusted, find him a good home. Nubi's eyes invited soppy metaphor as the two of them, dog and boy, regarded each other for a moment before Jesse slipped barefoot from the room, admonishing himself sternly that he couldn’t possibly manage with a pet.
The house was still. Jesse had no trouble making his way to the cellar stairs, where he paused before descending. Not even a snore. The house could easily have been empty. Jesse shut the cellar door behind him carefully, and with the handrail as guide, groped his way in the dark. Once satisfied that nobody was in the darkrooms, he’d switch on the light. It would have been simple enough to knock or call out. He couldn’t have explained why he didn’t want Finn to know about his sudden impulse. It felt like a guilty secret, pocket change stolen from a parent’s wallet.
Jesse found the book straightaway. Finn had left it on his desk, as though he himself intended to open it in the morning. If anything, the photograph was worse than Jesse remembered. Emmy had been about the same age when she died – a guess, it was hard to read the glossy corpse. One look, then he thrust the book aside. He longed to tear the page out, rip it into pieces. He leaned over Finn’s desk, grasping the wooden edge with both hands, gripping until his muscles cramped. He could feel the memories rising, his blood roaring, a river in spate which threatened to burst its banks and engulf him in flame. A hot wind blowing ashes off the roof. He’s running through the garden towards the door, sobs keening in his ears. Jesse, she cries. Jesse! He swallowed, forcing back the vile taste in his mouth. Had he only imagined the stench of burnt meat and charred bone? He could never be certain. It felt like memory.
He reached for the book again and stared at the photograph. He had never got to see Emmy. If there had been anything left to see. He splayed his hand across the page, closed his eyes, fingered the sharp edge of the paper. It won’t change anything, he told himself. You can tear it out of the binding, but not out of your head. But he knew that unless he left, and soon, he might not be able to check himself. His fingers tightened on the paper, sweat trickling down the sides of his chest. It was cool down here. Why was he sweating, for god’s sake? It was just a book.
He gasped. And then that surge of fiery release, so strong that the book before him ignited.
He was fast. In a matter of seconds he’d beaten out the fire with his hands – it had only been a small one, after all. If it weren’t for the faint pall of smoke, not even enough to set off the detectors, and the acrid smell, there would be no reason to imagine a fire. Except for the curled and blackened pages of the book.
Sarah stared at Jesse in utter astonishment. She looked from his face to the desk to his face again. He met her interrogation without flinching.
‘Show me your hands,’ she demanded. ‘Are they burnt?’
He held them out. They weren’t even reddened. It had really been a very small blaze.
‘And the man in the park?’ she asked slowly.
Jesse looked away. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t be reminded of that. He kept underestimating her. What answer could he possibly give her?