“Did you know you can boil a frog without him jumping out if you raise the temperature slowly enough?” Brian tried to lighten the mood; it was the only way he knew how to cope.
Linda dug her stiletto heel into Brian's recently polished dress shoes, “We're not talking about a God damn frog here. We're talking about dad.”
The electric company disconnected the unit and the house slowly cooled down. The long days of summer were counterproductive and it felt like weeks before Linda and Brian could go in to collect Earl's things. Brian slid his switchblade through the space between the door and its frame slicing the yellow seal of police procedure. They walked in and let it all sink below, past what they could see: they felt guilt. They had left their father alone to the devices that brought them here now; the devices that were ultimately his own.
Linda went one way, off in a daze, and Brian went another. As Brian took one ginger step after another, re-acclimating himself to a place he hadn't been in almost a year, he found the facts hung up in his head, as if on a bulletin board:
Overheated. Cooked from the outside in. The paramedics needed to wait for the fire department. Took one step in and realized it was too hot without heat resistant suits. Eggs were found literally fried in their shells – the refrigerator crapped out months before. Wax candles were in pools, their wicks still factory grade unlit, just swimming in apple cider scents or new car smell. The wallpaper had started to fray at its ends, wisp upwards in a curly geyser. The coroner couldn't determine time of death because his liver temp was that of someone living and breathing with a 104 degree fever. Police found his hair laying in mats around his house; the follicles had begun to lose their grip after about the last 4 times he incrementally raised the temperature.
Brian had all the pieces they just didn't make any sense. It was like he was trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture it was supposed to make.
When he set his keys down, Brian remembered that one thing Earl's mentor used to say of Earl, “The man is a MacGyver who could rig a cell with a rubber band and toothpick that MacGyver couldn't even break out of.” So he knew his father was capable of doing what he did. What he did was rework his entire central heating unit, the ducts, pipes, everything so it would pump out more of just that: heat. Brian just couldn't understand why he would do that.
Brian walked over to the desk where a picture of their mother, Florence, and Earl were standing with their arms around each other outside of a lake house they sold years ago. The picture was fogged up in its frame. He lifted it and noticed the residue of sweaty fingerprints clouding the glass in front of Florence's face. She died almost a year ago. It seemed old age caught up with her faster than with Earl. That was it. A quick death in her sleep and Earl was left to awake to more oxygen left in the air for him. In her eulogy Earl said he could feel the difference. The minute he became conscious of that inhale followed by its counterpart he felt fatter. Like the sum of the years in Florence's life finally got equated and changed the chemical balance of the air.
Brian dragged an inattentive hand across the books stacked on the wall shelves. Earl was a genre fiction reader. Murder/Mystery. John Sanford. Sue Grafton. Hated watching Columbo for some reason. Said it was because he couldn't feel the clues between his fingers watching TV. He could never figure the angle when he watched Columbo's playing-dumb act but the gospel he developed in the first 15 pages of a Dan Brown book became testified, almost without fail, in the closing chapters.
Brian smiled as he turned away from the years that came flooding back after seeing those books and saw the chair. Earl was found in his recliner, eyes closed, reverent. Brian walked over to it and felt a shudder like a thumbtack through his shoe. Wedged in the cushion was a thick paper-back book. He reached and unsheathed it so he could read the title: Paradise Lost. Linda could be heard rummaging around in the kitchen. More confounding than Earl's sudden interest in 17th century poets was the condition the book was in: the majority of pages were dog-eared and the binding was barely holding together.
Brian looked through it for some time before he called out to Linda. They moved the book over to the table in the center of the room and sat on the couch. Inside were countless scribblings, frenzied note taking in their father's handwriting. Passages were circled, underlined; there were holes in some pages where the pen dug through. Brian looked at Linda who was staring intently at the book, her lips moving, reading to herself as if at one point the notes would start sounding like a sane person wrote them and she would actually be able to vocalize them. After several pages of the same ramblings, they turned to the back cover and were surprised to find the most legible and coherent paragraph Earl had written throughout the entire book:
I fell with Beelzebub. I trusted his lies. I wielded sword and shield against the Almighty and was cast through clouds, earth, space, fire. Now I'm here. This angel burning forever in lakes mile-wide of flame. Repentance: the only future held in this heat. I willingly accept this eternal damnation for the sins I have committed are unspeakable.
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