Her frail body had no chance. Deadly plumes of carbon monoxide had robbed her of oxygen; they were now forming invisible funnels aloft the building. We would get cases like this once in a while. Resting with my cheekbone against the truck’s window, I would listen to our siren, wailing its way through the city like an impromptu death march. People, jaded to its sound, were attending to their everyday affairs. Hurry up Vitya, hurry up, we’re going to be late to the ballet. Are you sure your husband isn’t coming back today? Of course this is safe; just sign here and we’ll transfer you the money. Bright orange and deep black ribbons! Extra patriotic, make it extra patriotic, I tell you! Two Eskimos, please. Mum, what’s that smoke? Move along. Andrey. Andrey, put her down; I’m adding her to the body count.
The source of the voice was somewhere far away, across the tundra, submerged in the deepest lake. My being was numb to its sound. Her scorched hands were clutching a Barbie doll, which was disfigured and hairless, and her molten limbs were giving off a foul stench. Same as her. The dainty mouth was left untouched by the raging conflagration – a single patch of healthy skin. She had my sister’s puckered upper lip. It seemed as if only yesterday she’d been standing by the Christmas tree, smiling. Her lips vocalised: Oh, Father Christmas, let us see what gifts you brought to spark our glee… She shone brighter than the damn tree. Now this girl was just a statistic – a static piece of flesh in a flurry of charred flakes that swirled around us. My lungs were trapped in a vice; I found it difficult to breathe looking at her. I took off my helmet and carefully put it on her head. It was too big for her, but I wanted to cover her face. My supervisor was rather listlessly scrawling away in his notepad. I approached him with the body still in my embrace. Andrey, didn’t you hear me? Put her down – together with the rest, he said. Something was wrong; it didn’t make any sense. How did it happen, I asked. A faulty smoke detector. The whole goddamn building was burnt to the ground, Vadim. You’re telling me all of this is because of one faulty smoke detector? Yes. I could barely keep my composure.
Vadim, look at her. I raised the visor. What for? Look at her! She’s a goddamn fucking corpse; it used to be human! Andrey, what does regulation twenty-five require us to do? I couldn’t help but clench my teeth. We are required to put all the deceased in the truck and deliver them to the coroner. Do that. I complied. Nobody survived that night. I had served as a fireman for over twenty years, but something about that case was unsettling. For weeks, in my hypnagogic nightmares, her scorched head morphed into a swollen smoke detector and back. She died by chance. There were fleeting moments when the smoke detector would morph into the Evil Decider – an animated cadaver whose slender phalanges would pull a lever, tentatively, teasingly, then forcefully. And the Wheel of Fortuna would spin. Every time, the arrow landed on her head, hatted with my helmet. Every wedge on the wheel had the same image. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Zopiclone had no more effect on me.
My supervisor was making a triangle with his fingers, looking at me through his thick-framed glasses. He was a father-figure to all of us in the department. Used to be anyway. I had the privilege – or the misfortune – of observing his metamorphosis: from a gentle, loving grandfather who would take his grandchildren fishing every other week, to this. The only sound in the room was the foreboding ticking of his clock, hung just above a photograph of Putin. A lot of people in the higher-ups had a photograph of Putin in their offices. For them, it was like a lucky charm; for me, it signified something else entirely. I tried not to fidget on the hard wooden chair across his desk. My mouth was dry. I asked around, I said. He killed the triangle and folded his arms. You did? I nodded deeply. He leaned back. Well then, what did you find out? The smoke detector. He drilled me with his eyes awhile and then slowly opened a drawer in his desk. He felt for something inside it. What about it? Nobody checked it in ten years – or any other smoke detector in the house. A disaster was overdue.
He sighed. Andrey, there are twenty-three hundred smoke detectors in our town. How can we possibly check all of them? Vadim, our job is to make that possible. Our job is to prevent the kind of horror that happened back there. It happened to a select few, Andrey. What about social welfare? Have you thought about your fellow man and what could be best for him? He revealed an ample bundle wrapped in an old yellow newspaper and nudged it in my direction. Think about what could be best for you. I had heard about the Bundle Manoeuvre. Never thought I would be treated to it myself. Not by him. What is this nonsense? How can you so pragmatically view human lives? Our job is to save each and every person we can. The strength of my voice tapered off towards the end of the sentence. It was a feeble diminuendo. I felt weak under his stare; it was making my limbs heavy.
He began unwrapping the bundle. I concentrated my eyes on his, trying to avoid looking at it. There are many ways to save a person! For some people, the only salvation is material goods. Why, the other day, when I was feeling a little under the weather, I bought myself a bottle of Stolichnaya, and it fixed everything. It’s a simple manipulation of numbers. You could save one person, and make him happy – and that’s not even a given. Or you could give a hundred lonely men a bottle of vodka each and make a hundred men happy. No matter if you’re a fireman or a surgeon, it is your duty to optimise social welfare. After he had finished unwrapping the bundle, he wet his thumb and started rustling through the contents. He was counting. There is a reason you’ve never been promoted to my position, Andrey. You never saw the big picture. There are architects, and then there are grunts. Under the photo of our president, his figure motionless, he raised his glare from the bundle and grinned wickedly. I was small. I was but a speck.
Four months after our conversation a brand-new supermarket was built in our town. People were attending to their everyday affairs. Hurry up, Vitya, hurry up, we’re going to be late to the ballet. Are you sure your husband isn’t coming back today? Of course this is safe; just sign here and we’ll transfer you the money. Bright orange and deep black ribbons! Extra patriotic, make it extra patriotic, I tell you! Two Eskimos, please. Everybody entering and leaving the supermarket had a bright smile on their face. I was standing in the kids toys’ aisle.
I was looking at Barbie dolls.
Arthur Krohin was awarded a degree in Mathematics from the University of Warwick, currently working as consultant and developer for a major IT firm and exploring the applications of machine learning in business environments. Believing art and science to be complementary to each other, he writes from experimental points of view, creating fresh takes on modern and postmodern styles of prose.