I Know Your Secret - Ruth Heald
The fire started on the duvet. A candle on a neatly made bed, scorching a black hole in the white cotton cover, burning through the synthetic fibres beneath. The hole grew as the flames spread, fanning out towards the rest of the room. She watched the fire reach out for the red dress that hung on the cupboard door, consuming it in one angry burst, before attacking the wood behind it. The flames licked the walls, scraps of wallpaper crinkling, blackening and then disappearing entirely.
She couldn’t believe how easy it was to destroy, how quickly the flames devoured everything they touched. Elation overcame her, an intense rush. This was it. What she needed. The release was blissful.
She didn’t know how long she’d been standing there. She could feel her skin heating up, her blood running hot through her veins, her eyes stinging. She must leave. The smoke was everywhere, in her hair, in her lungs. But a part of her wanted to stay, to let the flames consume her too.
She smiled as she turned to go, to walk out of the door, before the door frame itself was caught up in the inferno. Out of the bedroom and into the living room then quickly out into the corridor before the flames followed.
She could hear the sound of the smoke alarm above the roar of the flames. It started to dawn on her what she had done. She needed to leave now, before others appeared, asked her what she was doing here. Realised that she started the fire.
Running towards the stairs, she thought she heard something else. Screaming.
The sound was desperate. Hardly human.
Suddenly she felt sick, her feeling of power gone in an instant.
It must be something else, something caught in the flames, emitting the sound as it burned. It couldn’t be a person.
As she entered the stairwell, she thought she saw the shadow of someone coming out of the lift. Had they seen her? She panicked then, finally thinking of the consequences of what she’d done. Then she ran down the stairs, careering down two at a time and then out of the building, into the street.
The cold air burnt her lungs and she stopped and looked up, her breathing ragged. In the orange glow from the window on the second floor a shadow stumbled.
There was someone inside the flat.
‘I can’t do this anymore, Beth.’
I lift my soapy hands out of the washing-up bowl and stare at Richard in disbelief, a cup in one hand. ‘What?’
Richard shifts his weight from one foot to the other. ‘I’m sorry. I just can’t keep going like this.’
I feel my jaw clench as my grip tightens on the cup. I know our relationship is in trouble, but I hadn’t thought it would come to this. ‘But we said we’d work to fix things between us. We said we wouldn’t just throw it all away over nothing.’ Since his affair with a woman he met in a bar, we’ve been trying to rebuild our relationship, trying to return to the way we used to be. I’ve been working so hard to keep everything together. How can he so callously tear it apart?
‘Keep your voice down,’ I hiss, aware of Charlie watching cartoons in the living room. He’s the reason we’re still together. He’s the reason I’ve been holding onto hope, clinging to the fading embers of our love. If it wasn’t for our son, Richard would have been out the door as soon as I found out he’d cheated.
‘I’m leaving tonight,’ he says. He indicates the dining table and I see a suitcase parked behind one of the chairs. He must have brought it down while I was clearing up in the kitchen. It’s our best one, the one we bought for our honeymoon. The biggest one.
‘You’ve packed? Without telling me?’ Blood pounds in my head, and I lose my grip on the cup. It falls out of my hand to the floor and shatters.
We both stare at its broken remains, but neither of us moves to clear it up.
‘Look, I don’t want an argument,’ Richard says.
‘You don’t want an argument?’ My voice quivers.
‘We can talk another time. When you’ve calmed down. We’re not going to resolve this now and like you say, we shouldn’t argue when Charlie might overhear.’
I think of Charlie in the other room, oblivious to how his life’s about to be turned upside down. Heat rises in my body and I dig my fingernails into my palm. ‘How could you do this