Rudely awakened by smoke inside and shouts beyond in the street, Austin struggled into his blue work shirt, stuffing wallet and keys into dark slacks, slipping on loafers before scrambling to street level, almost pushed aside by three firemen rushing in with hoses heading for the stairs to floor two.

The fire engine, whining siren and honking horn silenced, sat across the narrow street pumping water to them.

Looking up to the right, he could see flames licking out of a smashed window on whose sill a woman crouched.

Voices from gathering neighbors shouted, “Jump! Jump!”

Perhaps a good idea: the thick mass of privet hedges crowding the brick building’s base might lacerate her badly, which would be better than—

Melanie jumped, but the hem of her nightgown—or something—twisted her body as she fell, missing the hedges, smashing with one scream into an edge of the concrete fountain with its winged dragon, caroming her to the sidewalk.

Austin quickly elbowed his way through chattering, shouting spectators to look down at the semi-conscious twentyish woman on her back, arms and legs awkwardly bent, bloody black hair wildly askew.

Crouching more than hovering, his “Melanie?” came out more loudly than intended, signaling shock, worry, and more than a tinge of guilt. She’d proven an “easy lay” called Nice, a word with twenty synonyms offering lots of maneuvering room for a predator.

And that Austin was. He followed the law of the jungle where hungry carnivores watch clustering herbivores, looking for young ones too close to the herd’s edge, too far from strong protecting elders they would not dare take on alone.

But the jungle analogy breaks down when humans are involved. Killer animals and victims are nameless strangers, but he knew too much about Melanie to remain wholly detached, making his tinge of guilt grow stronger.

As a paramedic, respirator mask dangling under his chin, headed toward them, brusquely pushing aside clustering onlookers, he touched her cheek hesitantly with the back of his hand, asking again, “Melanie?”

Her eyes, oddly bright, opened. “Austin…we…” Her faint smile froze into death’s rictus. His feelings of guilt were almost instantly wiped out.

The medic swiftly checked the neck’s pulse before looked at him, momentarily humbled by tragedy, though he surely had already seen many such things in his young life.

His quick lowering of the head could have been accompanied by a shrug of shoulders. A practiced hand gently closed her eyelids.

Turning from the paramedic, Austin’s eye fell on the warming sight of no-longer-a-sister Kayla, wearing Leo’s trench coat, unbuttoned, so anyone could see her red ultra-short shorts and flimsy tank top; she was achingly pretty, posed like the model she’d hoped to be. Guilt added to his driving impulse to conquer yet again.

Austin had begun dating Melanie seven months back, getting close to divorcing Ruthie, who always complained he paid more attention to his job than to her, the same charge he threw at her. Though Melanie was a bit overweight, she had an aura of buoyant warmth about her and dark brown, knowing eyes.

After husband Leo shipped out to Afghanistan, Kayla had cleaned out the furnished apartment in North Carolina and moved back north to Jackson Heights, taking the spare room in Melanie’s place: and, in time, Austin.

It would be easy: practical nurse Melanie working the night shift at the 24-hour walk-in clinic on Roosevelt Avenue. Kayla would be free to entertain Austin and watch TV while kicking in a few rent dollars each month from her government check. The rest went for make-up, movies and cigarettes.

The battalion chief told Austin he could move right back in. The six-story mid-20’s apartment building was all concrete, so the only signs of fire he might find were a lingering smoke smell not to go away for weeks. That, and some streaks of black on walls where some water might have seeped down.

What did seep down from above the next evening at 10:15 was Kayla. Melanie was already forgotten, though he was slightly disturbed by the way the blonde laughed in bed, screaming when there was no reason to, silent when there was. But the face and body!

Austin trembled with excitement seeing and touching them. It was that face and body that had begun eating into his salary as manager of the across-the-boulevard Starbucks. His money was spent mostly on clothing and jewelry she had kept buried in his apartment so Melanie wouldn’t see it.

Concealing the affair from her wasn’t easy, though it helped considerably that Ruthie also worked deep into the night, at the fortyish Arab’s wholesale distributorship just across Brooklyn’s border. His top salesperson, she also modelled the “buy one, get a second one free” rayon/polyester blouses and slacks peddled on his wee-morning local television ads. No one at the company except its owner liked her.

Shortly after dawn, Ruthie let husband Austin sleep while she quietly packed a suitcase with the few things from earlier times she still wanted to keep. All else would be amply provided by the man who wouldn’t be her employer any more, at least not technically.

The Arab had been summoned home by his aging father, grown too feeble to manage the family’s small Riyadh bank; small, yet bloated with precious notes and interest payments from around the world.

All Ruthie had to do for her new life, in addition to what she had been doing for her boss in the cluttered office, was change her blonde hair to black. It would be easy enough, though the reverse of what she’d been doing since age fourteen.

What he told his wife and five children now back in their homeland, she knew not, nor cared. Nor did she care when she found the garment bag full of garish female clothes hidden behind her own crowded ones.

Ruthie was not yet out of the apartment below when Kayla continued her phone conversation with Leo in Afghanistan. Her casual mate announced that he and a “good buddy” were parlaying their modest battlefield injuries into separation from the service, after which they’d move to San Francisco.

There they would work with an older brother and his young partner. The two had relabeled their used-furniture store as a purveyor of fine antiques. Their market niche, responding to the relentless pressure of changing customer tastes, had finally brought 1950’s chairs and tables under the Antique umbrella, since Golden Oak and machine-carved Victorian were sold out everywhere.

“See ya around,” were the last words to his wife of seven years before Leo cut the call.
Kayla, real name Katherine, would, in time, go to work in a cousin’s Long Island City employment agency.

Promoted to manage a bigger Starbucks in Astoria and unwilling to pay for deodorizing and painting his short-term sub-leased apartment, Austin stuffed Ruthie’s worldly goods into black garbage bags, to be picked up by the building superintendent’s favorite charity. He then moved eastward, closer to woman-rich Manhattan.

Satisfied that the past was done with, he popped a beer and fantasized about his new hire, a thirtyish slim blonde divorcee he had had to speak to about her gum chewing. He’d accept the too-loud voice, but, what the hell, those breasts! That body!

But no one claimed Melanie’s body, so it passed through a labyrinthine municipal process, to end up at Sussmann’s Academy of Mortuary Science only a mile from where she had died, to be made visually whole in a white-walled basement by earnest trainees.

One of them, Deleep Sachan, thirty, slim and bearded, closed the cosmetic repair kit, admiring again the face whose appearance he had restored to his supervisor’s satisfaction.

Taking one last look at the permanently-closed eyes and calm expression of the woman on her stainless steel bed, he seemed to sense Melanie’s lost knowingness.

Half-silently, he said to himself, I could have loved you.