It was nothing, Jeremiah Sherman thought, maybe a rat.
His Sterno fire was smothered and smoking lightly on the floor at his feet. Quietly he sat with his arms clenched against his knees, his head cocked and listening. He strained for the noise that had alerted his senses but the only sound that came to him was the soft breeze that rustled the torn shade, rubbing one weighted edge against the worn wooden sill like the ticking of a muffled clock.
Slowly he relaxed, the tension flowing from his tired body in a shudder that made him laugh. A rat, yeah, that was all it was. It was rare that the winos or hookers, or even the weekend teenage rowdies ever got this far up in the abandoned structure.
Jeremiah leaned heavily against the broken plaster wall. The floor he sat on was solid oak, gouged and worn. Jeremiah had swept it clean with a broom he’d found in a dumpster behind the Hall of Justice. Using paper bags and stiff cardboard he’d removed the broken plaster, glass, bits of old carpet, staples and headless nails, and had dumped them down the dark abyss of the dumbwaiter shaft at the end of the hall. From the restroom in the Shell station up the street he’d stolen a roll of paper towels and had scrubbed the floor with some PineSol he’d found in a garbage can. The floor shone amber now in the light of the construction site next door.
There was no electricity. The only furniture was a thin, stained mattress with a moth eaten wool blanket folded neatly near the bottom and a stuffed brown bear that Jeremiah used as a pillow. Across from where he sat, the bathroom door hung by one, rusty hinge that had defied all his attempts to remove it. The cracked tile floor within had been strewn with magazines, torn and greasy, yellow with age. Pornography mostly, some of it with kids in the pictures, their eyes black banded. This last had enraged him so that he’d taken the entire lot of it out back one early morning and burned it all in a rusted barrel in the alley.
All in all, though, the Washington Hotel wasn’t a bad place to be. For free. It had been a good ten years since the place had seen a paying customer.
Jeremiah’s stomach growled. It sounded too loud to his ears. He lifted his head where he’d been half dozing, half listening for the sounds he’d heard earlier. All that whispered now was the ticking of the shade and the light crackling sound of the plastic wrap that covered his blue pinstripe suit. Freshly cleaned and brushed, it hung inside its clear protective cover from a nail he’d driven into the wall.
The Goodwill suit had cost him five dollars. Real Italian wool, tailor cut. Five hundred dollars worth of suit discarded for a coffee stained cuff and a moth’s tiny lunch from the collar. He shook his head. Five hundred dollars seemed like a fortune. But not for long, he thought. Not for long.
It had taken him a week of panhandling and pawing through plastic garbage bags for cans and bottles to get the money to have the suit tailored. The pants had been cut for a much taller frame than Jeremiah’s 5′ 8″ and the vest, when buttoned, could have enfolded him and his young son and left room for squirming.
He winced at the thought of his son, long dead, buried there, in That Place. Like his wife who had died not long after him, taking what was left of his shattered world. He thought of the loneliness that had descended on him after they had gone. The torture he had continued to endure. And he thought of the rage that had kept him alive until …
Shaking his head, he squeezed tight his eyes and forced his mind to shift gears. It had been nearly three years. Ancient history now. His wife and child were gone and they weren’t coming back no matter how many tears he shed. And surely those who had destroyed his life had long ago given him up for dead. The explosions he’d set had destroyed everything, killed nearly everyone in the compound. That he knew of, only seven of the prisoners had escaped and they had each gone their separate way without so much as a word passed between them. Surely he was safe now.
He reached his hand out and ran it across the floor, searching for the black wingtips he’d found in the trash just two weeks before. His fingers brushed the cool leather and he smiled. His lucky shoes, he thought. He had been down to his last pennies when he’d found them on the top of a trash can, one sole worn completely through, the other as thin as paper. A block later he had found a cache of already flattened Diet Coke cans and a few feet from that a wind blown twenty dollar bill hidden in the tall grass.
He’d had the shoes resoled with the found riches, had spent an entire night rubbing Neet’s Foot oil into the leather and then Kiwi wax until he could see his face in the shine. The following day he’d gotten the job.
Companies didn’t hire homeless men without a past, regardless of how qualified they might be. So he thanked the shoes, letting his fingers rest on the slightly curled toes.
It was well past midnight. He’d have to be up and out by six. He longed for a shower, hot and stinging and long. The thought of another cold sponge bath in the Shell station restroom depressed him. One week down, he thought. One more to go and he’d have his first pay check. He could get a room then. A real room.
Turning his head, he peered through the darkness toward the door that led to the hallway outside, listening. No sound that didn’t belong there came to his ear. Whatever had made the noises earlier had departed. The breeze from the window caressed his face and he turned to it, sniffing. Gasoline, he thought. The air smelled of gasoline. Slowly he rose and made his way to the window.
As he walked, the floor shifted, throwing him forward. Instinct drove his hand up and he caught the edge of the window and turned. A loud whoomph filled the room, the sound a basketball would make were it hit by a sledge hammer. Everything seemed to slow down, crossing his eyes one reluctant frame at a time.
He watched the door to his room buckle, begin to glow and then blow apart in shards of burning wood that streaked across the room like meteors, slamming into the walls, the ceiling, the floor. The plastic wrap on his suit grew milky in the firelight, collapsed, melted, then burst into flame, the wool beneath it igniting in a bright blue blaze. Black smoke billowed up from the shoulders. He watched it as though it were a Hail Mary touchdown pass in slow-mo replay, watched the flame rise up the sleeves, watched the coat blown from its hanger, watched it fall across his freshly shined, lucky shoes.
And then the explosion was on him, pushing hot air into his face. His sharp inhalation caught in his throat. His hair ignited, his eyebrows. He felt the pressure on his stomach, his chest, felt himself being lifted from the ground as his clothes burst into bright red flame.
His left shoulder hit the center bar of the window, bent it out, the glass shattering, a sharp sparkle in the air around his head. A shaft of broken wood and glass pierced his back below the left shoulder blade, drove deep into his lungs. His heels caught the window sill, tearing the beat up slippers from his feet. Shoeless and in flames he flew into the night, falling end over end to earth, wondering how they had found him. Wondering how he would ever get to work in the morning.