Mark Charm is a pyromaniac. But it is only in his senior year of high school that he takes his personal obsession citywide. And on a dry autumn night Mark starts to wonder what it would be like if the whole city burned.
|Publisher:||San Val, Incorporated|
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Mark Charm sat in the audience and thought of love and fire. Jessa Welling had that effect on him; she cooled his longing and fanned his lust. If there was a perfect image for what was desirable in the world, she would be it. Especially on the stage, starring in The Season of the Witch -- and particularly tonight, when so much in his life seemed so wrong. Sitting in the dark, in the third row, and watching Jessa cast her cunning spells on unsuspecting heroes and villains, Mark knew that he would give this life and his next for just one night with Jessa.
"And who are you?" Jessa's character, Ebo, asked a lost minstrel who had had the bad luck to stumble into her secret cave. "What is thy name? Thy place of birth? And what is thy deepest desire? Speak! Before I anger and burn you with a touch."
Jessa touched Speen, David Simmons's character, as she pronounced her threat. Mark thought of Romeo and Juliet as she caressed Speen's cheek with a gloved hand. Mark wished that he were a hand upon that glove. Actually, he wished he were David Simmons, handsome and confident enough to star opposite Jessa.
"I am a mere mortal, lost in an illusion from which there is no escape," Speen replied. "I have come to you for truth and wisdom."
"Truth and wisdom!" Ebo said with a laugh. "You will find neither here. You have entered a realm of shadows, where only death can show you light." She continued to stroke his cheek lovingly and spoke softly. "Shall I show you this light now? Or would you prefer to wait?"
Mark was tired of waiting. He had been trying to summon the courage to speak to Jessa since the first day of school eight weeks ago. Tonight he was gwas an excellent tennis player, number one in the league, and also an avid surfer. The outdoor exercise had built him a lanky, muscular body. His brown hair showed streaks of blond from being overexposed to the sun. With intense dark eyes, and a habit of falling into reflective silence while others babbled senselessly, he possessed his own quiet allure, a mystery that more than a few girls at Zale High found seductive. However, Mark was only vaguely aware of this private fan club. To go up to Jessa and ask her out was going to take the most nerve of his life.
Still, he vowed he would do it. Tonight.
Somehow, somewhere, he felt a clock ticking.
It was as if the sands of time were pouring over his heart.
The play went on, through three violent acts. The season of the witch finally came to a close as Ebo became the victim of one of her own curses. Ebo, who was now loved by Speen, died in his arms. He ended his life by jumping onto the funeral pyre he had built to consume Ebo's remains. Justice was served but at a bitter price. Ebo had not been a kind character and Mark felt that rather fitting because Jessa was no sweetheart either. The way she sauntered around campus demonstrated she had an attitude. But he, like Speen, was willing to endure it to be close to her. As the curtain fell after the final bow -- accompanied by loud cheering -- Mark was quickly on his feet and heading backstage.
He plunged into chaos. This was the last night of the play -- Mark had seen it four times -- and this final performance had been exceptional, which the actors knew. The drama teacher, small and lumpish Ms. Chort, plowed the narrow halls behind the stage issuing congratulations and high-pitched giggles. All the actors were hugging and kissing and acting as if heaven had finally opened above a dark world. But Mark could not find Jessa and worried she was already in the dressing room and very possibly off limits. He knew she owned a car and would probably be driving herself home.
Still, he had made a vow to himself and forced himself to approach her dressing room door, located at the far end of the hall. Doubt dogged his steps as the din from the others receded. He knocked so softly he was sure she would not have been able to hear. Yet her voice called out to come in. God, she was asking for him, heart failure was just over the threshold. He opened the door, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.
She was sitting with her back to him, in front of a large makeup mirror. The mirror reflected a blank wall, so he doubted she could see who was with her. She dabbed at her eyes with a white cotton ball, removing a layer of red powder. She was out of her black robe and now sat scantily clad in a thin white slip, her skin as soft as cream. Mark felt shame and excitement, and as he cleared his throat to speak, he almost choked on his tonsils.
"Am I disturbing you?" he asked.
She changed her angle to see him in the mirror, but did not turn around.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Mark Charm." He fidgeted. "I wanted to tell you how much I liked your performance."
"Thanks." She gestured casually toward a chair. "Have a seat."
"I can come back," he offered.
"No problem." She finally turned, without bothering to cover her breasts. Not that he could see them completely, but a lot was visible. The contours of her nipples poked through the fine material. She stared at him for a moment before slowly smi ling and speaking, "I know you."
He sat with an audible thump. He didn't know where to put his hands, what to do with them. Finally he decided to leave them attached to the end of his arms.
"You do?" he asked, surprised.
"Yeah. You're the guy who's always in the library, reading."
"I don't read all the time."
She was amused. "What's the matter? Are you ashamed of being smart?"
"No." He paused. "How do you know I'm in the library a lot?"
She turned back to her mirror with cold cream and a clean cotton ball. "You mean, you never see me in the library? I'm in there a lot, too, I just keep out of sight." She wiped at her lipstick. "Who's your favorite author?"
He shrugged. "I have so many. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. How about you?"
"James Joyce. Have you read Ulysses?"
"Tried. I'm not sure I understood it."
She nodded. "You're honest. Who really understands that book? I like Dante as well, his Inferno."
"That's a hell of a literary work."
She stared at him in the mirror. "Hell interests me."
She might have been teasing, he wasn't sure. "Why?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No why. It's just what holds my attention." She stopped. "Do you think I'm weird?"
He was careful. "I hardly know you."
"What did you say your name was?"
"What kind of name is that?"
He kept a straight face. "Mark is a common name, Jessa."
She laughed. "You have a sense of humor, I like that." She gestured. "I suppose I should cover myself, but you seem like the kind of guy who likes to look at half-naked girls."
He felt bold. "Actually, I like totally naked girls." He couldn't believe he had just said that to her, especially to her. She continued to smil e.
"Did you really like my performance?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said seriously. "I loved it. When you're onstage, you are Ebo."
"What did you think of David Simmons?"
"He was OK."
"Yeah. He was no you."
She was pleased. "Between you and me, I think he sucks. I hate it when he kisses me. I always want to vomit in his face."
Mark was happy to hear that. "And I thought you two were an item."
She lost her smile. "Why? Because he follows me around campus? He just doesn't know how to take no for an answer."
Mark had a sudden crisis of confidence. Now was the perfect time to ask her out. They would not be alone forever. He was on a roll and she seemed to like him. But his brain froze up, he couldn't think of anything to say -- not even a miserable comment on the unseasonably dry weather they were having. He noticed her studying him in her bright mirror.
"Is there something wrong?" she asked.
"No." He stood. "I should be going."
She was too cool to be offended. "All right. It was nice meeting you, Mark. Maybe some time we can talk again."
She was practically inviting him out!
Ask her out! Do it!
He nodded. "We'll see. Nice talking to you."
He was out the door before she could respond.
Outside, in the warm night air, he could have shot himself.
"We'll see?" he swore to himself. "Damn!"
Well, he thought, he couldn't go back inside and try again, not tonight at least. But it hadn't gone badly, he had to admit to himself. She had flirted with him and said how much she disliked David Simmons. That was more than he could have hoped for when the evening started. He would talk to her Monday at lunch, ask her out then.
Mark left the campus feeling high.
Th e feeling did not remain. His mother was ill; she had advanced bone cancer. The tumors had already spread to her brain, and now it was a waiting game. Even the recently engineered genetic miracle drugs could not stop the spread of the disease. The doctors said they could keep her comfortable, nothing more. But comfort was a relative term. She was only free from pain when she had a milligram of the designer Txex flowing through her veins. Otherwise, simply breathing was unbearable. He had been spending most every free minute with her because there were only the two of them. His father had died in a fire when he was ten and his mother had never remarried. He didn't know what he was going to do when she did finally die, didn't know if he could take it.
Perhaps his trying to ask Jessa out had been an act of desperation. Yet he didn't believe he was trying to replace the single person who had ever truly loved him with a fresh love. He believed his infatuation with Jessa was an entity unto itself. It didn't matter that his mother's name was Jessica -- that was a coincidence. There were such things.
Mark drove his five-year-old used electric Saturn toward the hospital. There weren't many fossil fuel cars left in Los Angeles, but gasoline stations died slowly. He passed two on the way to the UCLA Medical Center. He had never driven an internal combustion engine car and hated the noise and smell. He didn't mind the gasoline, though, and he had his reasons. He could be a little wild at times, when he was feeling hyper or distraught.
He didn't know how to handle the pain his mother's agony brought him. When he was with her, he appeared to be composed. He would talk and rub her back and read to her. They' d watch TV or else play a computer game together. He tried to let her win, but her concentration was fading. The doctors said she would be one of the first people to die of cancer in L.A. that year. He didn't understand why they had shared that fact with him. It made him want to take the hospital and turn it to ash.
In his mind Mark could picture it burning as he turned off Wilshire Boulevard and saw it standing straight and tall. Many considered it the finest hospital in the land, but to him it was a witch's castle. Ebo's spells haunted its corridors. Even if Jessica made love to him all night, it would not bring his mother back once she was gone. Nothing would -- the universe did not allow library books to be returned and repaired once they were damaged and lost. Of course not, how could it? Universal logic dictated that hope pitted against logic was hopeless.
Still, he prayed for a miracle. Fool.
Her room was on the ninth floor. The nighttime view of Westwood and neighboring Beverly Hills was calming, but since it was past visiting hours, he knew he would have little chance to enjoy it. He would just have started to talk to her when a nurse would appear and kick him out. But they knew she was dying, and they always gave him a few minutes. The hospital staff weren't bad, he realized, they just couldn't heal her.
His mom was asleep when he entered the room. From the sound of her breathing, shallow and labored, he decided not to wake her. Better the dreams of the unconscious than the nightmares of the awake. He sat on a chair near her bed and stared at her wrinkled face. His mom was only forty-five but she looked seventy. His eyes burned as he watched her withered body struggle with the spre ading disease, and his unshed tears washed away the remains of his talk with Jessa. He knew what would happen when his mother died -- it was inevitable. He had only one mother and she had only one life. That was the basic insanity of life -- it snuffed out so easily. He realized that all over the world people were suffering that very moment. But right then, staring at his mom, he felt he lived alone in an empty universe.
He didn't touch her because he didn't want to wake her.
He didn't want to wake himself, either, and kill his useless hope.
He left after five minutes. The nurses never knew he had been there.
The road home was lonely. He kept trying to think of Jessa, but his mother's face would rise up and blot it out. Her pain would burn through his wishes. The image of fire, more than of drowning, haunted him as he passed another gasoline station. Not really thinking what he was doing -- but nevertheless knowing full well -- he pulled his electric car into a station and popped the trunk.
Mark kept a five-gallon can in his trunk. He brought it with him because, well, he occasionally liked to fill it with fuel. And this fuel, well, he occasionally liked to burn it -- and other things, too. But he didn't think of himself as a pyromaniac because he didn't feel the need to burn things every day. He didn't get off on the act, sexually, like most pyros did. He only burned things when everything inside him got so pent up that he felt he would explode. Or else fry. Yes, he only burned things when he was hot inside. It was really very simple, and he didn't think it was too weird. Of course, he usually tried not to think about it at all.
Mark purchased the gasoline -- filled the can to the top - - put it back in the trunk, and drove off. His direction was not aimless. He lived in Pacific Palisades -- wedged between Malibu and Santa Monica -- and was fond of hiking in the Malibu hills above the cool blue ocean and the big moviestar homes. The previous month he had stumbled upon a huge house about two months shy of completion. He had witnessed the rich white owner chewing out the hardworking Hispanic foreman, and Mark had thought the rich cat should not be so rude. Not that the idea of burning down the house had come to him then, but the seed had been planted. Yet in a way a part of him was always on the lookout for something to burn.
He probably was a pyromaniac.
He was a mystery even to himself. Yet for an enigma his desires were surprisingly simple when he was in the dark mood. He just loved to watch a fire, to feel the spark of reflected light on his pupils, to sense the hypnotic heat on his face, and taste the bitter smoke. Since he had been young he had loved and even worshipped fire.
Mark drove deep into Malibu and parked down the hill from the construction sight. Carrying the heavy can, he hiked up a dirt path leading off the long winding Malibu road. The property was plum, although there were as yet no trees to give it shade, only Malibu's infamous late autumn dry bushes, fuel for fires and nationwide headlines. The house, three stories of exquisite angles and lacquered wood, had both mountain and ocean views and was far off the beaten path. He had never burned down anything so expensive; previously it had been just a shed here, an outhouse there. He was excited but worried as well. The cops and firefighters would come quick.
The hike up to the place proved harder than he had imagined. But if the smell of fire pleased him, then the aroma of gasoline sparked his imagination. He was panting heavily when he crested the bluff that overlooked the house, the dark swath of the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly off to his right, two miles distant. The house was Mediterranean -- white stucco with an orange-tiled roof -- and it had a dozen oval windows that faced the sea. In the faint light from the moon he could make out the beige wall-to-wall carpet through the rows of glass. The thought of the soon-to-be-exploding silicon was pleasant. He set the can down and contemplated his next move.
He realized that the place might already have an alarm system installed. The owner -- paranoid bastard that he was -- would have installed one the moment the walls were in place. For that reason Mark focused on the stunted power pole that had been erected in a corner of the property. He decided to take that out after he disabled the backup battery. He could clip the wires more effectively than burning them, even though he wanted to smell the rubbery smoke. That night, thinking of his screwed-up life and his poor mom, he wanted to burn the world.
Besides his big can of gasoline and box of matches, he had brought a pair of sharp pliers and a tiny pair of Nikon binoculars -- precious items his trunk was never without. Huddling beside the power pole, he thought of the rudeness of the owner and how the guy deserved to have his dream house torched. No doubt, in those last minutes, Mark tried to rationalize his act. But the truth was he just wanted to watch the place burn, it would make one hell of an inferno up there on the hill.
He thought of hell and Jessa's literary reference as his pliers sliced through the wire and the black coil fell lifeless at his feet. Hell -- a place to be feared, but a favorite fantasy destination of his. He had not read Dante's Inferno, but he would search for it in the library on Monday. Perhaps Dante had been a pyro, maybe Jessa was -- she had obviously loved casting her alter ego's curses in the play. That was the trouble with obsessive people, Mark knew, they could learn to enjoy anything.
He wanted to enter the house carefully, but after crawling around the exterior he came away with a healthy respect for its solid wood doors. He ended up breaking a pane of glass in a door with a rock.
He tried to cushion the blow so the glass would fall inside, but the glass shards fell all around him. The impact and noise made him jump, although he doubted that anyone could have heard it. Nevertheless, he picked up his pace as he reached inside and twisted the dead bolt on the door free.
In a moment he was inside and restlessly tossing gasoline around, an ounce in the downstairs bathroom, generous amounts over the plush living room carpet, a steady trail up the mahogany stairs to the second and third floors. Because the night was warm, the fumes came quick and thick. For him it was an aroma to stimulate hunger. There was an instant when he even thought of splashing a little gasoline on himself and turning himself into a human torch.
But he knew that would hurt.
In the master bedroom, on the third floor, he dumped what was left on a stack of boxes. He didn't pause to see what they contained.
Then he did something foolish. Standing beside the boxes, the empty can at his feet, he reached for his lighter and playfully spun the wheel. Crazily he wanted to challenge the fire, his life against it. All along he had planned to light the fire when he was standing next to the front door. But now he wanted to ride the devil's roller coaster, see if he could outrun the orange tongues of flame down the gasoline-soaked stairs. The flame sprung to life in his right hand; he leaned over and touched it to the stack of mysterious boxes.
They began to burn, upward of course, but the fire also followed the gasoline along the floor as well. He stared at it with detached fascination -- he could have been watching a movie. But when the bedroom carpet began to burn, he was shocked out of his stupor and realized the folly of his act. He was one second shy of cremating himself when he took off for the door and the stairs.
Halfway down the stairs the fire caught up to him. Yet it did not burn him, probably because he was moving too fast. It was as if he and the fire were in a dead heat, but it couldn't take the lead on him. When he hit the living room floor, however, things got spooky. The flames exploded in every direction, and for several seconds he found himself trapped in the middle of the room. Still, it was odd -- it was as if the flames had decided to show him mercy and retreated several feet. They seemed to be studying him as he studied them and that was the first time he really understood fire as a living entity. It had sparks for neurotransmitters, orange flames for limbs, and heat for blood. He felt his own blood boil as the flames stared at him with the smoldering eyes of cremation. The fire would only study him so long, he knew.
He escaped from the house by diving headfirst out a window. He was lucky because he landed in a pile of sand and -- except for a couple scratches on his face and arms -- the glass did him no real damage. A perverted but powerful protector seemed to enfold him. The night was turning out to be a blast after all -- he wanted to scream. Adrenaline was pumping as he grabbed his binoculars and pliers and ran full speed down the hill. It was amazing he didn't stumble because he kept looking back to watch the fire. The house was going up quickly; when the firefighters arrived they would have only ash to hose down. As the windows exploded, they sounded like human souls being consumed by demons. He laughed as he ran, so loud he could have been screaming.
His red Saturn -- what other color would he have bought? -- was where he had left it. He had forgotten to lock it; no matter, he was inside and barreling down the road within seconds. His goal was to reach the top of a hill that overlooked the house. But to reach it he first had to drive a mile down toward the ocean. The house was now off to his right and above him. Nothing more now than a box of oversize fireflies waging a version of World War Three. Paranoia began to dampen his enthusiasm because there was still a chance he would run into a cop while fleeing from the scene.
But he fretted unnecessarily. It wasn't until he was parked and sitting on the high hill, staring down at his handiwork, that the first police cruisers and fire trucks reached the road that led up to the house. He noted their leisurely pace; they knew the house was history. But he didn't underestimate the cops, they would be scanning the area for the fiend who had torched the place. Virtually all pyromaniacs were caught watching the fires that they themselves had started. Somehow, that didn't seem right to him.
But he would not be caught. He had chosen the perfect place to watch. He could get off the hill by taking any one of three dirt roads, two down to the sea, the other deeper into the Malibu hills. For now he was in heaven, sitting cross-legged all by himself on that hill, observing the flames through his small glass eyes. His mother and Jessa were momentarily forgotten. It was always that way right after he had had his fix.
The breeze blew up the hills; he could smell the smoke, taste it even. Not for a second did he lament the work his single act had wasted. It seemed a perfect end for the home. The place could have sat there for fifty years, housing any number of boring families. But this way it got to expend all its energy in a single glorious night. In some mysterious way, he knew he would do the same with his life.
Then Mark saw him. As the police and firefighters scattered around the house, Mark scanned the terrain with his binoculars and caught sight of a dark figure on top of a hill off to his left and farther back from the ocean. The person appeared to be male, tall, and dressed in a long black coat. From a ray of light from the fire Mark caught sight of the guy's binoculars -- a stab of reflected orange on a hard lens -- and realized that the guy was staring at him and not at the fire. The man's binoculars must have been stronger than his. The moment Mark focused on him, the guy turned away and walked into the hills.
A cold shiver of intuition swept over Mark, a shiver that was not warmed by the hot smoke blowing his way. The man was not running toward the police; he was not going to report him. But Mark knew he would see the man again.
Copyright © 199 9 by Christopher Pike
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Pike is a great writer but this was not one of his best. The book was confusing at times and what happened to jessa for her to be there,at the clinic?
I read this book in a couple of hours about a year ago, and not to discourage anyone from reading it or put down Mr. Pike, but I personally thought it sucked. It was much too confusing for most people to understand without reading it twice, which makes you loose interest in it fast. Whatever happened to his geniusness in 'Spellbound'...
This is the first book of Pike's i have ever read and i loved it.This ia the book that will want me to buy more of his books.Well i used to hate reading but when i started reading this i could not put it down.Now i love to read(atleat pike's books).I encourge all of pike's fans to read this book.
I have been an avid fan of Pike for 8 or 9 years and hoensty this is his worst book. THe story is way too convuluted and, not to give away the ending, but you find out that it was all for naught. I really hate books that end like this. It is as if pike could think of no clear ending but the easy way out. What happened to the days of Chain Letter Chris?