Sample text for Pyro / Earl Emerson.

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Life has been a rocky road since that morning nineteen years ago when my brother and I killed Alfred. For want of a better term, the police said Alfred was our mother’s boyfriend, but we never thought of him as anything but an interloper, not until the moment Neil and I found our sneakers stuck to the floor in his blood.

The morning of the murders my brother was eight days shy of his thirteenth birthday. I was ten.

The papers called it an execution-style slaying, and it was partially due to their distorted portrayal of the event that my brother was tried and sentenced and packed away to a long series of increasingly harsher juvenile detention facilities. We made some mistakes that morning. Not that, given the same circumstances, we wouldn’t kill Alfred again. Because we would.

In later years, our memories pasted over with hope and optimism, we decided that last drunken squabble between our mother and Alfred T. Osbourne started because Mother had been on the cusp of throwing him out. Maybe she’d found the gumption to do so. We certainly wanted to believe it. She’d never be able to tell us, since she died that morning too.

We had thought life was about as bad as it could get until Alfred and his stinky feet and seminal flashes of madness came along. He was meaner than a boot full of barbed wire, and more often than not Neil was the object of this meanness. It was a testament to Neil’s courage that he didn’t run away.

“I’m not leaving him with you and Mother. That is not an option. You just remember where we keep Uncle Oren’s Spanish Civil War revolver if we ever need it.”

“I know where.”

When she wasn’t drinking, our mother was too fragile to look out for the family, and when she was drinking, she was too drunk. Neil was the one who looked out for us. He’d been in that role for years.

It was mystifying how our mother ended up with two men of such differing temperaments as Alfred and our father, but then, she had always been a sucker for a uniform. Our father had been a Seattle firefighter; Alfred, a former King County cop, although by the time we met him, he’d traveled a good distance downslope and was working as a part-time piano mover.

There are things people never recover from, and for Emma Grant Wollf, it was the on-duty death of her husband six years earlier at an arson fire. Some people bend with adversity. Others break. Our mother fell solidly into the latter camp.

During those years after my father died, our mother struggled with a string of minimum-wage jobs that seemed to disappear as quickly as the gin she spilled on the carpet, the three of us moving into and out of a dozen apartments and as many schools in half as many years. It wasn’t long before she began going through men as fast as she went through jobs, hooking up with a series of drunks she met in bars and, in one case, at the driver’s license bureau. Mom met Alfred in the Blue Moon Tavern. She frequented the Blue Moon because it was close to the University of Washington campus and she’d heard a rumor that published poets hung out there.

Despite the cataclysmic change it produced in our lives, or perhaps because of it, that last morning together was so vaguely installed in memory, I found it difficult to bring back details. Odd, considering how much time I spend thinking about the past.

My brother Neil ended up celebrating his thirteenth birthday in the youth detention center off East Alder, where he became an immediate celebrity in that palace of losers and lost souls, the only thirteen-year-old in the United States to have slain a former cop. “People leave me alone,” he told me during a visit. “They’re afraid of me.”

The first decade of my life, Neil had been closer to me than anybody, yet for most of the next twenty years the majority of our communication constituted ten-minute collect phone calls from one prison or another.

One thing I learned early on—happiness is elusive. You learn that when you’re ten years old and your brother’s in the clink and you’re being passed around from relative to relative. It’s elusive.

Here are the facts as they stand today:

I’m twenty-nine years old, the same age my father was when he died, the same age Alfred was when we killed him right after he killed my mother. I have one sibling, Neil. For the past eight years Neil has been picking up his mail at the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. It’s the sixth time he’s been in lockup. You probably should know that in the law enforcement community, Neil is considered unpredictable and dangerous.

I’m the brother who went straight.

These days I work for the Seattle Fire Department, just as our father did. Until recently I believed I had a reputation for integrity and probity, and when other firefighters seemed wary of me, I told myself it was because they’d heard about Neil. Obviously there was more.

For instance, the night I cold-cocked Chief Hertlein.

It’s not something I’m especially proud of—impulsive violence.

Say some jerk in a movie theater keeps rattling the cellophane wrapper on his candy. I turn around and object. He objects to my objection. I stand and block his view of the screen. He stands and tells me I’m an asshole. Next thing I know I’m walking out of the place in the middle of the picture and the cops are on their way. Mr. Cellophane goes to the hospital, where they wire his broken jaw shut. I know I’m bad. I can’t help it.

I escape that one. I escape them all through happenstance and a remarkable string of good fortune. Eventually I won’t escape. Eventually I’ll be in prison with my brother.

For years I’ve known where I’m headed. I’ve known it and thus far have been unable to do anything to stop it.

Before I punched out Chief Hertlein, I was assigned to Station 32 in West Seattle at the top of the hill near the YMCA. The station housed Attack 32, Medic 32, and Ladder 11. I was the lieutenant on Ladder 11.

Even though his home base was miles away at Station 29, most days you could find Hertlein in our beanery bullshitting, eating our food, and throwing his weight around. Because he protected us from other chiefs and rarely drilled us, we tolerated his bad jokes and around-the-clock presence, though I found him annoying and boorish. He was a bully and a butt-kisser, and in our department the latter made him a fast-tracker. It was rumored he was up for a deputy’s position.

The day it happened, the entire house was dispatched to an alarm at 1048 hours—the engine, the ladder truck, the medic unit, and the chief all swooping down off the hill to Pier 28 on the Duwamish waterway, just about a mile due south of downtown, where we found black smoke billowing from the hatches of a three-hundred-foot oceangoing ship.

By noon there were fifteen engine companies, six trucks, and God knows how many chiefs in the dock area. While other firefighters poured water onto the fire, we pumped the excess accumulation out of the holds lest the ship sink from the added weight. In the end we sealed the hatches and filled the holds with CO2, beginning a process that would take days to complete.

An hour before we were sent back to the station to clean up, a captain named Bill Coburn tripped on a hose line and fell down a gangway. In his mid-fifties and married to a younger female firefighter, Coburn was somebody who’d worked with my father and told me things nobody else ever did. I liked him. A lot. The fall killed him.

I was in a pretty bad mood when Hertlein arrived back at the station just after we did and made a tasteless joke about Coburn’s voluptuous wife needing a fireman to “comfort” her now that she was a widow, illustrating with a crass sexual gesture involving his meaty hand and thick hips. It was the type of thing Hertlein did all the time, though not usually under such dour circumstances.

I was the only one who thought to slug him. Or maybe we all thought of it and I was the only one with the guts to follow through.

You get an opportunity for a freebie with a guy like Bill Hertlein about once every hundred years, so I gave it everything I had.

Turned it into a work of art.

Hertlein, who was six feet and almost three hundred pounds, stagger-stepped away from my right cross, eyes rolling into his skull, his bulk striking the floor with a sickening thump that sounded like a waterlogged sofa falling off a truck. One member of my crew let out a barking laugh and then caught himself.

Flat on his back, Hertlein began snoring.

“He went down like a tree in a windstorm,” said one of the medics, spitting a plum pit into the nearby garbage can.

“You really whacked him,” said the other medic, sipping his tomato soup.

“It was a good one, all right,” Donovan added, through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Rostow, who’d been out of the room when it started, felt the chief’s body shake the building and rushed back to find five of us standing over Hertlein. “Tell me you didn’t hit him,” said Rostow. “Jesus. Boy, this is sure going to be the end of your career. Please tell me you didn’t hit him.”

I picked up my salad and walked over to the table with it.

One of the medics knelt to attend the chief and said, “It’ll be interesting. Yeah, it’ll be real interesting to see what they decide to do with this one.”

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Fire fighters Fiction, Seattle (Wash, ) Fiction, Arson investigation Fiction, Pyromania Fiction