Undetected by the blissfully engaged young lovers across the hall, the one candle Ross had failed to completely extinguish had flickered back to life, guttering wax onto a loose pile of papers on his desk. If the candle had been an ordinary one, Ross's hasty puff of breath would have easily blown it out. But having sacrificed his three stoutest candles to woo Vonda back to her darkened lair, Ross had been forced to scrounge together an assortment of mismatched birthday candles he'd found in his kitchen drawer.
Congratulating himself on his keen ingenuity, Ross had bound a dozen of the candles with twine and set the assembly on a tin-can lid. The combined candles had given off a bright if short-lived light, enabling Ross to gather his camera and call Dewey to arrange a photo shoot of the newly acquired T-20Z. Hastening to leave, Ross had extinguished the Christmas candles on his desk and then blown out the bound birthday candles.
But unbeknownst to Ross, one of the candles was of the trick variety which only appeared to fizzle when blown out. True to its design, this single small candle had sparked back to life seconds after he'd left, re-lighting the other eleven candles bound to it.
If the wax had dripped on a stack of Sears catalogs, perhaps the fire might not have spread, for the dense catalogs had more in common with a fire-resistant post of wood than they did with highly flammable loose sheets of paper.
Given that his desk was a clutter of paper—torn scraps of scribbled notes, receipts from online auctions and the like—Ross had placed the can lid on top of a seemingly stable stack of papers. As the candle burned down, wax flowed from the loose papers onto a pile of newspapers that he’d placed on a string-bound stack of Commentary magazines.
When the candles burned low enough, their last flames licked along the molten wax to the paper, which quickly caught fire. The rivulet of wax provided a perfect pathway of ready fuel, and a scrap of burning paper fell from the desk onto the wax-dotted newspapers, which were soon burning with surprising intensity.
These newspapers acted as kindling to the dense stack of magazines beneath, and just as small branches will eventually ignite a thick log, the magazines smoldered and then caught fire.
The flames on the cluttered desktop found ample fuel to spread to the Christmas candles and thence to the other end of the desk, where the hot embers drifted into the rubbish can filled with loosely crumpled paper.
All this happened in a few minutes; but once the quick-burning paper had been consumed, the fire seemed to die back. A hot fire which completely burns the fuel generates little smoke, and since the nearest smoke detector was in the hallway, there was no warning shriek or burning smell to alert other residents. But the fire had not died out; it was simply gathering its strength and heating nearby stacks of magazines up to the ignition point.
Thus we must forgive the self-absorbed young lovers across the hall their inattention; for only when the fire arose anew, in a much hotter and more frightening incarnation, did sufficient smoke build up in the crowded space to pour out beneath Ross's door to the hallway. From there it seeped under Kylie's door and drifted up the stairs to Vonda's age-impaired nostrils.
The young lovers were still catching their breaths from love's denouement when Kylie whispered, "Do you smell smoke?"
Robin eased away from her embrace to sniff the air. "Yes. Something's burning."
A door creaked open on the second floor and noisy footfalls clumped down the steps. A few seconds later Vonda's craggy voice filled the hallway. "Ross! Open up!"
As Kylie bolted upright, Vonda's agitated shout came through her door. "Kylie! Ross's room is on fire!"
The two lovers scrambled to their feet in the darkness just as Vonda opened Kylie's door and clicked on the light switch. The two splendidly naked lovers froze, blinking in the sudden brightness. "Are you alright, Kylie dear?"
Kylie did not know how recently Vonda had updated her horn-rimmed glasses, but judging by her shocked expression it seemed her thick lenses corrected quite adequately for distance. "I'm sorry to bust in like this, honey, but the house is on fire," Vonda wheezed. As Kylie covered herself—an impossible dilemma, Kylie, knew, to have three spots to hide and only two hands to do it with—she sharply regretted not locking her door.
Vonda straightened her saffron evening robe—her daytime one was light-blue—and said in an exaggerated tone, "I heard you were at home—" Kylie blushed a hot hue at this revelation—"and I'm just so happy you're alright, Dearie."
Robin scurried back to the protection of the bedsheets, but Vonda had already taken in all there was to see, and her voice quavered hoarsely with a gossip's glee. "So that's your boyfriend. He's handsome."
Kylie's voice was urgently stern. "Vonda, did you call nine-one-one yet?"
"No. I wanted to make sure you and Ross were OK. I thought I heard him leave, but—"
"Yes, he's gone," Kylie snapped.
Turning to Robin, who was now clutching the bedsheet for protection, Vonda smiled brightly. "You're a lucky one, aren't you?"
"Vonda, the house is on fire," Kylie barked. "Go see if anyone else is home and I'll call nine-one-one."
Vonda's gray hair bobbed animatedly as she began a rundown of the other residents' whereabouts, and Kylie herded her politely out the door. "Make sure everyone gets out, Vonda," she ordered, and then closed the door. Running to her bathroom, she grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her midriff. As Robin struggled into his khakis and shirt, Kylie rushed to her purse and took out her phone. The masseuse had evidently called to cancel, but with her phone set on vibrate and buried in her purse, she hadn't noticed the call. As she punched in the emergency number, approaching sirens indicated that hers was not the first report.
Scurrying to the bed, she snatched her panties and skirt from the floor, quickly pulled on her clothing and then grabbed a jacket from her closet. "Grab my laptop, will you?" she asked Robin, and then hastily retrieved her worn address book and single small box of jewelry.
"Good-bye, room," she said in a low voice, and hurried out after Robin.
The hallway was hazy with smoke and the fire crackled menacingly behind Ross's door, a sound weirdly similar to someone compressing sheets of fresh newspaper into balls; the blazing heat on the other side had caused the white paint to bubble off in huge blisters, and a weird light flickered in the crack beneath the door.
Kylie and Robin exited to the sidewalk and watched the firefighters drag a hose around the side of the smoke-choked house, break Ross's window and began dousing the glowing interior.
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