How a fire alarm took a sharp turn to the weird. Illustration by Justin Crain.
Step. Slide. Step. Slide. Boots on.
Pull up. Arm. Arm. Zip. Pants. Jacket.
Hop. Close door. Buckle up. Headset on.
My eyes finally open.
“What do we got, Cap’n?” falls out of my mouth.
“A residential fire alarm.”
My watch tells me that if the call doesn’t last too long, I could get a couple more hours of sleep.
“Is there any additional?”
“Yeaaaah,” he says, drawing out the one-syllable word, “supposedly, there’s no smoke or smell — just an alarm beeping.”
It’s silent the rest of the way to the house. We’re teetering on that fine line: awake enough to process but able to fall back asleep quickly. Our driver never even turns on the sirens. There’s no need; nobody’s up at this hour in the suburbs.
“All right, we’re pulling up.”
My head nearly falls between my knees. I shoot up, shift in my seat, roll out my neck, and notice that my air pack straps have found their place over my shoulders.
Before getting out of the engine, I grab 9-volt batteries. Once out, I grab the water can and the Z-hook. We’re in a cul-de-sac, and I trail behind my captain as we make our way up the inclined driveway. The trees block most of my view of the house, but I see there’s a roundabout with a fountain in the near distance. Decaying bags of mulch line the flower bed as we approach the staircase to the front door.
The steel door is over 10 feet tall — barely a third of the height of the arched patio. Incandescent lights shine through the side window panes, and my captain beats on the door. “Fire department.”
Behind the door, it sounds like boxes are sliding on the ground. An elderly woman in a nightgown opens the door and peeks through the small opening.
Two marble Roman Tuscan columns stretch to the domed ceiling, where painted naked babies with wings are dancing on clouds.
“We’re told your fire alarms are going off,” my captain says.
“Well, they’re not anymore. But there’s an occasional beep.”
“Want us to check them out?”
As she opens the door, boxes continue to slide on the ground, and a musty smell welcomes us. Soaked pet training pads are scattered on the entryway floor. Two marble Roman Tuscan columns stretch to the domed ceiling, where painted naked babies with wings are dancing on clouds.
Not breaking eye contact, she gestures while cradling a Shih Tzu. “I think the beeping is coming from this way.”
Down a dim hallway, we walk into the master bedroom. Static on the TV projects the only light and sound in the room.
The carpet’s been ripped up, but bits of glue, tack strips, and foam remain. Across the room from the TV, a king-size bed with no sheets lies on the floor. The blanket looks as though it’s been pulled back from just one side of the bed.
With direct eye contact, she points behind us. “I think it’s that alarm.”
We stare at it. A steady green light glows from the tiny bulb. I’m almost nodding off. Nothing happens.
“I swear all the alarms were going off,” she says.
Her sunken eyes open even wider, and it looks like her stringy gray hair stands up another inch.
“Then just one would beep. And it wouldn’t stop. Until you guys came.”
“We can always take a look at your other alarms,” my captain offers.
She escorts us back down the dimly lit hallway into the living room. On top of one of the boxes, I see two books: Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill and The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers by Terry Gould.
Her eyes catch me looking at the boxes, and I go out of my way to avoid eye contact or do anything that might invite conversation with this woman, who probably remembers the death of Stalin.
I go out of my way to avoid eye contact or do anything that might invite conversation with this woman, who probably remembers the death of Stalin.
“I’m in the process of moving.”
Obviously. I nod and smile.
“But I’m just trying to sort through some things with my kids.”
“Where’re you moving?” my captain interrupts, luckily.
“Still not sure. I’ve been packing for a while now. Probably about 12 years or so. It’s just become difficult to take care of this place.”
She waves her thin arms around the room, and as she turns, wind nearly pulls her nightgown off a shoulder, revealing more than anyone wants to see.
“We’re gonna check around for that alarm,” my captain says.
After investigating downstairs, I make my way up a half-turn spiral staircase. The first room is practically empty other than the Victorian-style bed frame in the middle of the room with a plastic-wrapped mattress. Vacuum lines are the only things that fill the second room. Sliding pocket doors hide the third room. I stare at the recessed knobs and tilt my head to the side before opening them.
There are no windows, and I have to turn on my flashlight to see. Most of the floor is recessed. A massive stereo system lines the wall to my left, nothing is to my right, and there’s a bar across the room. As I step down in the conversation pit where there’s no furniture, I notice the ceiling is purple and made of velvet, and all the walls are painted black.
As I step down in the conversation pit where there’s no furniture, I notice the ceiling is purple and made of velvet, and all the walls are painted black.
Suddenly, a door behind the bar opens, and my captain walks out.
“Where the hell did you come from?” I ask.
“There’s a secret stairwell over here.”
We walk down together, and the stairwell ends next to a door that leads outside. We’re near the garage, washroom, and kitchen and make our way back to the living room. The lady’s in the same spot, staring at us, cradling that Shih Tzu. We tell her that we never heard a beep or saw any signs of a faulty fire alarm.
She smiles — something akin to Austin Powers. “You know, it was probably just Charles.”
My captain and I sneak a glance at each other.
“Who’s Charles?” he asks.
“My husband,” she says as a matter of fact. “He passed away 12 years ago. He communicates to me through electronics, and he’s probably just letting me know everything is okay. He was always shy and probably didn’t want to say much in front of y’all.”
The lady’s in the same spot, staring at us, cradling that Shih Tzu.
“Well, ma’am, you let us know if there’s anything else we can do for ya before we head out,” my captain says.
There isn’t anything else to do for her, so we head back to the station. The bumps and turns don’t spark a conversation. It’s silent.
We pull into the bay, and I’m no longer tired. I put on a pot of coffee and sit down at the kitchen table before my captain barges out of his office and rounds the corner.
“What the hell am I supposed to put down in my report for the cause of activation?” he asks.
“Interdimensional spirit?” I say.
“Yeah.” He chuckles. “I’m gonna have fun explaining this one to the chief.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine.
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Tyler James Carroll is a father of four and a husband to his high school sweetheart. Their home is in a suburb of Dallas, where he works for the local fire department. Prior to that, he served as a combat medic for the US Army. He is currently pursuing his MFA in writing at Lindenwood University. He also co-founded an independent publishing company, Dead Reckoning Collective. His poems can be found in the collections Fact & Memory and In Love … &War: The Anthology of Poet Warriors.
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