Jill's brother Matthew believes he's responsible for her death. Guilt keeps him stuck.
Matthew d. 1958
"Matthew! The fuse must have been blown again." With polio, Jill had grown accustomed to life in a wheelchair. Her brother Matthew provided for her as many comforts as possible in a second-floor bedroom. Among the appliances plugged in were a hot plate, an electric space heater, a coffee percolator, a radio, a toaster and overhead lighting.
She wheeled over to the doorway. "Did you hear me? The second floor is dark."
"I heard you, Jilly. This is the third time that fuse got blown this month! I'll be right there." Flashlight in hand, Matthew descended the stairs to the dark basement. "I'll have the power back on pronto."
He located the fuse box. It was an old wooden structure mounted on a wall with lots of wires leading to holes for the fuses. Normally he kept a stock of fuses for such events. But there were none today. So he reached into a pant pocket to find a copper penny.
Next, he pulled down the main power switch leading to the fuse box. Holding the flashlight with one hand, he unscrewed the blown fuse. Next, he replaced it by cramming a Lincoln head penny down into the fuse hole and screwing the blown fuse downward till it touched the penny. Turning the main switch on now made all the lights and appliances worked again.
"There you are, Jilly. By the way, I'll be joining some friends at a tavern a few blocks away. It's near a grocery store. Is there anything you need that I can pick up for you?"
"Not really. I'll just boil some water for tea and make some toast." She could hear the howling wind rattling the rain-spattered windows. "And I have the space heater too. I'll be fine. There's a gale force wind out there, Matty. Be careful." She smiled at Matthew from her wheelchair, "I may need you from time to time."
Their father James passed away two years previously due to injuries suffered in a car collision. And with the sudden death of Meredith, Matthew inherited Hoyt House. Jill, crippled with polio meant life in a wheelchair. She needed looking after. So, Matthew looked forward to his monthly afternoon of cards and beers with his four buds.
Three pitchers of beer and several rounds of rummy made Matthew rubbery and pleased with life. Their attention was briefly grabbed by the sounds of a fire engine followed by and an ambulance racing down the street. But not for long. It was time for more beer, peanuts and cards.
Jill really wanted toast with her tea. She wheeled over to a counter where a toaster and hot plate were just within reach. She mused about life in a wheelchair. Yep, Jilly my girl, she said to herself remembering a TV commercial. 'Wonder Bread builds strong bodies eight ways.' But will that make me able to walk again? Doubt it.
Jill reached for a bread loaf and tore at the folds of the waxed paper covering. It wasn't easy. More by feel than by sight, because she could reach only so high, she pulled out two slices of "balloon bread". It required patience and dexterity to hold two slices with one hand and guide them into the waiting slots of a toaster.
She wheeled around her wheelchair to face the counter. From this angle she was able to get both hands on the toaster The sheet metal housing was flimsy enough to require one hand to hold it down while the other pushed down on the lever to take the slices down near the glowing electrical ribbon coils. It took several tries of pushing the lever down for the toaster tray to finally stay down.
Next, she wheeled over to the sink filled and filled a pot with tap water. Next, she placed it on a hot plate and turned it up all the way. Why wait for the water to boil on medium?
She turned on her radio and heard: "One two three four. Tell the people what she wore. She wore a teeny weeny yellow polka do bikini for the first time today...."
It was funny how silly songs could lighten Jill's day. She began to move her hips to the rhythm as much as a wheelchair would permit. After all, she could use a bit of lightening up. Without waiting for the water to boil, she dropped a bag of Lipton tea into the teapot.
She heard the toaster attempt to send up it's browned slices. Both were stuck inside. Her stomach began to growl. Dang! I want my toast!
Life in a wheelchair sometimes required cutting corners to get things done. She wheeled over to the knife drawer and grabbed a butter knife, hoping to nudge the bread upward out of the toaster slots.
Carefully, but not bothering to unplug her toaster, Jill tried to work out the now well a browned slice with the butter knife. She had little success. The bread was stuck down inside in such a way as to prevent the toaster from turning off. It began to smoke a bit. Determined to get it out, Jill continued to poke around with the butter knife till arcs and sparks began. That startled her so thoroughly that she reacted by tossing the toaster to the floor where it continued to spark and smoke.
Matthew's copper penny kept the circuit flowing. With no fuse, the wiring inside the wall began to glow a bit. Strong winds blew against the cedar shingle siding, sending little fingers of air into small openings. Tiny bits of sawdust insulation began to ignite, stoked by the wind. A subtle, quiet fire began smoldering in the walls, stoked by the relentless wind. Smoke slowly filtered through the bedroom walls. All the while, several electrical appliances continued to work: the toaster, the hot plate, the room heater, the lights and the radio.
The last sound Jill heard that day was Jerry Lee Lewis--"Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire!"
"Gotta go guys. I had a great time as usual. But it's time to check on Jilly" As soon as Matthew hit the sidewalk, he felt something bad was happening.
Needing to check it out, he ran two blocks down Hoyt Street, only to see his house filled with smoke. Fire engines, two patrol cars and a red and white Cadillac ambulance blocked the street.
Fueled by panic, he ran toward the scene. He spotted a firefighter who was folding up a rigid water hose, now empty. He seemed to be winding down activity. "My sister was in a second-floor bedroom! Is she all right? Where is she?"
With a grim face, the firefighter pointed to the ambulance, engine running and its surface reflecting the rotating lights from nearby police cruisers. Practically breathless, Matthew ran toward it, waving his hands to get someone's attention. Members of the ambulance corps were recognizable, each with a white shirt, tie and an official hat. He approached one who was putting away medical gear.
"Was my sister brought here? She was in a wheelchair on the second floor. Do you have her?", he desperately asked the nearest one.
The corpsman, rather than looking Matthew in the eye, addressed the pavement. "We found her. She didn't make it. Smoke inhalation." A moment later, he offered, 'I'm sorry."
Matthew's gaze shifted away from the ambulance, hungry for answers. What happened? What caused the fire? He spotted a fire engine, that was still running, and ran to it trying to get the attention of a firefighter.
One turned around and said, "Can I help you?" He had a leathery face that had born witness to a volume of human tragedy. All caused by fire.
In desperation now, Matthew just blurted out, "What happened? That's my house! How could it catch fire?"
"You want me to tell you?" The firefighter looked weary and sour.
"Well yeah. I gotta know how the fire started."
"I wish people would just understand how dangerous electricity can be. It was your fuse box." He slapped his forehead. "I've seen this a dozen times. Someone crams a copper penny in the fuse chamber in place of an unblown fuse. Do you understand what that does?"
Matthew, feeling especially dumb now, shook his head.
"That copper penny allows unlimited electrical current through your house wires. Are they properly grounded? How many appliances were you running?"
"Lemme see, my oven was not on. Nothing on a burner. And the coffee pot... not so sure. My clock radio.... maybe a light somewhere."
"I know what happened. On the floor next to the ahh....victim was found. Next to her was a toaster with a butter knife sticking out of it."
"Her toaster", Matthew acknowledged. Jill so loved toast.
"It showed signs of electrical arc burns. And that butter knife was black. On top of that, there was a hot plate running, red hot. With that penny in place, enough current passed through the wiring to make it dangerously hot."
Matthew's eyes widened. "Hot enough to start a fire?"
"You bet. Especially with sawdust insulation in the walls close to the wires." He gestured toward the house. "It's one of the old ones built in the last century. Sawdust was a commonly used insulator." He felt like reprimanding Matthew for this deadly mistake. But he just lost his sister. Yet he had to say something.
"Maybe you weren't the one who stuck a penny in that fuse chamber, but someone did. That caused the fire."
It was a damp and cold November night in Portland. The Steel Bridge spanning the Willamette River was also cold and damp to the touch. That did not deter Matthew, stabbed with grief complicated by guilt: grief on steroids.
I killed my sister with a goddamn copper penny. I killed Jilly with a penny. I have no life now. I do not deserve to live!
The open steel girders gave Matthew many openings where he could grab and pull himself upward. The river below was as cold and silent as death. Empty blackness beckoned. I'm so sorry Jill! I deserve my fate. Just one leap.
Matthew told himself. No more me. No more guilt. But for Matthew, not exactly.
He came to, hovering above the Willamette River, now windless, dark and silent. No cold, no sensations. Where am I?, he wondered. The crashing memory of his neck loudly snapping was still loud in his awareness. He felt cold and wet all over, and yet at the same time an absence of sensation.... Nothing, except guilt. An ordeal of shame.
Next, he instinctively reached around his waist, feeling for something tangible and safe. It seemed natural to do so, but nothing was there. Next, Matthew was overcome by the familiar nightmare of plodding through a mire of something dreadful: dead people and a frightening dead end.
Am I back in that dream again? No. It otta be fucking cold. That river! But he wasn't cold and shivering. He stared at a vast emptiness. Then a wave of shame flooded his awareness. Oh, I get it. I jumped. He remembered screaming, for just a moment.
Webbings of energetic fibers blended together forming a kind of bubble around him. And for some reason, an old understanding came to him. He instinctually knew that it's not safe to hover around in the afterlife without something safe surrounding him.
Auditory reflections with muted voices floated by. Then from the vast darkness, red eyes became visible. Eyes that felt predatory. He could hear them. We understand your confusion. It can be so sad after suicide. Just follow us....
Matthew felt especially exposed and vulnerable. All right, I get it. That's why I need this, a sphere of some sort. Inwardly he remembered the need to be patient. Let it take as long as it needs to. Yes.
So, this is death, he concluded. A long silence followed. Now what? ...... Jill! Where did they take her? Is she OK? It's all my fault!
Weighed down by grief, guilt and confusion, there was only one place to go looking for her. His own Hoyt House, it had been saved. It was not burnt to the ground.
Approaching the house, he now saw a collage of memories: fire trucks, hoses, smoke and an ambulance. Even though the fire was extinguished, he noticed a smoky-like residue all around, resembling a sepia photo.
Waves of grief washed over him. "Jilly! My home!"
Matthew wanted to go bounding up the carpeted stairs normally. Instead, he simply drifted up to Jill's second-floor bedroom.
Jill could feel someone approaching. In a wheelchair due to polio, she felt helpless. It was time to face impending doom. Sin has it's own reward. One day they will come for me. I don't deserve forgiveness. Her personal mantra.
Jill stared at the ceiling. "Could this be my angel of death?"
"Hi, Jill. Thank God you're here. I'm so relieved." He was at a loss for words.
Gasping for air that was unavailable for ghostly lungs, she nevertheless hacked loudly and said, "So, it's only you. Guess my time has yet to come....."
"Sorry to disappoint you. I just had to check on you. Are you OK?." He paused for a moment. "I know what happened to you. And it's my fault."
"Am I OK? I dunno. Just waiting for my avenging angel to take me to Hell."
Jill looked up at her older brother and wondered, He looks almost as pale as me. Oh, I get it. "You're dead aren't you?"
"Yeah", he said with resignation. "Me too."
"Tell me what happened, Matty."
"I, uh sort of..." There was just too much emotion.
"No!, she hollered. "I don't want to hear about it. I'm just happy that you're here, Matty. You're always my big brother. I feel safe here with you. You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah. The big brother who killed you. I'm so sorry Jill. I don't know what to say."
But, there was no way he would ever leave her alone. If Jill was determined to stay right where she was, Matthew had no choice but to remain a resident of Hoyt House.
"I'll be here for you Jilly, now and forever. Now and forever."
Yet he had to attempt persuasion with Jill, maybe to give her a glimmer of hope. "Haven't you suffered enough by now? Getting polio and dying of smoke inhalation while stuck in a wheelchair?"
What is he getting at? Jill just shook her head as if to say No over and over.
Matthew noticed an inner urge to assist her somehow. "Surely the Lord has forgiveness for you."
"With two mortal sins on my record", Jill continued, "I'm stained beyond redemption. They're looking for me, the Lord's avenging angels!" Jill's voice became grave. " For sinners like me, it's that lake of fire!"
"Oh Jilly, can't you shift your focus away from that for a moment? What if you were invited to go to Heaven? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
"I suppose so. But, you forget one thing: I have a reservation in Hell. With two mortal sins, my fate is sealed. First, I got knocked up. Then I had an abortion."
Matthew rolled his eyes. How many more times? He had listened to her toxic affirmations ever since she got polio years ago.
"Besides, who knows if they are real angels. At church I was warned about false angels. Minions of the Devil often disguise themselves to look like real angels." She looked at him accusingly. "Ever hear of that, Matty? Ya gotta be careful!"
Matthew knew by now that her fears were unchanging, as if etched on stone. And Jill was quite the drama queen.
"Do you see my Bible anywhere?"
He looked around the blackened bedroom and saw it on an end table. He grabbed it and laid it in her lap.
Jill screamed and raised her arms, "Not so close to me!" In response, Matthew jerked it upward.
"Don't take it away. I might need it."
So he slowly laid it to rest on Jill's lap. He watched her squirm as he did.
"Sorry, Matty." Jill began to mumble. "I get so scared sometimes."
He felt for her, being stuck in a wheelchair now, just as when she was alive. How long will this last, he wondered?
"I'll never leave you alone. I'll always be with you here, Jilly. No more fires, no more death."
"And no more copper pennies, right Matty?" Jill looked him in the eye.
"Um, of course not", he replied weakly.
"I mean it!" Jill looked him over. "How many pennies ya got in your pocket, Matty?"
"None. I promise I have no pennies."
"No pennies anywhere in the house?" She looked around suspiciously. "You promise me?"
Exasperated now, he replied slowly, "I will never allow another copper penny at Hoyt House. All right?" Wanting to change the subject, he continued with one last attempt. "So Jill, you already suffered fire and death in this very house. Isn't that punishment enough for your sins?"
"Who knows?" Jill looked upward nervously. "Maybe I'm afraid to find out." She managed a bit of levity. "From what I've read, the Lord can hold a grudge for a very long time."
But, levity was soon overshadowed by a shared curtain of shame and fear. And Jill returned to her ghostly form in the old wheelchair. It had been a place to call home. If nothing else, her wheelchair was familiar. And, familiarity has a certain comfort, even for those waiting for hell.