"Did you bring the camera?" asked one of the sisters. I didn't know if it was Greta or Gabrielle; I couldn't really tell them apart.
"Yes," I said. The sisters nodded in unison. Twins. We were meeting under the street light at the end of the dead end. Their faces looked pale, gaunt, and greenish under the light. They each carried a small black duffle bag and wore black jeans and black fleece hoodies. I suddenly wished I had put more thought into my outfit. I was just wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt and I had the video camera in a backpack with bright reflector strips. They must have thought I was an idiot.
All the occupied houses were asleep. This neighborhood was filled with abandoned, foreclosed homes. It was super-quiet. There was a bit of a chill in the air. The twins looked at each other, smiled, then they turned together and walked out of the circle of light. I followed them. They diverged from the road and beelined for a stand of trees. It was a shortcut to the golf-course. When we got through the trees and onto a green, I decided to ask them which house they chose.
"It's an older one," said the sister on the right.
"No one lives there," said the sister on the left.
"But don't you think this is wrong?" I asked.
"Yeah of course, but that's not the point," said the one on the left.
"Why did you ask me?" I said.
"But, you've never spoken to me, in ten years. Either of you," I said.
"Why do you care?"
"I don't know, it's just weird," I said.
"Why did you come with us?"
"I don't know. Curiosity I guess," I said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Just consider yourself a social experiment in progress," said one them. I thought about this for a bit. I couldn't tell if they were messing with my head, or were completely serious.
"Gee, thanks," I said.
"Yeah, don't worry about the house. It's ridden with cockroaches and rats. It's been empty for awhile," said one of the sisters.
"There's been some people squatting in it too, but they left," said the other.
"How do you know?" I asked. The sisters were silent for several seconds.
"We just know things," said one finally.
"We're almost there," said the other.
We came up on the house from the backyard, which faced the golf-course. The sisters quickly climbed up the wooden fence. They had to help me up and over. The yard was overgrown, and there was a swimming pool with a few feet of sludgy, leaf-strewn water at the bottom. It smelled really bad. There was something bobbing in there, probably the corpse of some unfortunate small animal, like it was trapped in the LaBrea tar pit. There was some lawn furniture turned over next to the pool. A gas barbecue sat open by the back sliding doors. The sisters walked around the backyard with flashlights on. One of them stopped by the side of the house.
"Take a look at this," she said. The other sister and I walked over. The sisters shone their lights over the skeleton of a dog connected to a thick chain wrapped around a post.
"Oh my God," I said. "Who would do that? Just leave a dog there to die? I mean, didn't anyone hear the dog barking? It must have been barking. Why wouldn't anyone come?"
"This whole neighborhood is pretty much gone," said one of the sisters.
"I almost don't want to do this anymore," said the other.
"Yeah, we gotta, you know."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Forget about it, okay? We're going to do this. Right Gret?"
"Yeah, sure," said Greta. I figured I tried to keep track of them now that I knew who was who.
Greta then went to the sliding door. She put down her duffle bag and unzipped it. She took out a pair of surgical gloves and safety glasses and put them on. She put the end of the flashlight in her mouth. She took out a ball-peen hammer and a punch tool. She held the punch next to glass, near the door handle and struck hard. The door shattered inward. I flinched at the sound, but I pretty much figured no one would hear it but us. Greta took off the glasses and put them and the hammer back in her bag.
Gabrielle meanwhile had walked over to the barbecue. She was kneeling down at the tank.
"Hey, help me with this," she said. Greta walked over and they disconnected the tank.
"You sure that's safe?" I asked.
"No," they said together.
"That's part of the fun," said Gabrielle. "What's life without a little risk?"
"It's not gonna blow up?" I asked.
"Hey that's an idea," said Greta to Gabrielle.
"What?" I said.
"I was just going to empty it out inside, but this will be more impressive," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah," said Greta. "And it's pretty full too."
"No, no, that's not what we talked about," I said.
"Geez, nothing's going to happen to you," said Greta.
"You're the one that get's to stand back and film," said Gabrielle. "You'll be fine."
"I don't know..."
"Don't think about it too much," said Greta.
"We don't," said Gabrielle.
"Obviously," I said, under my breath.
"Let's get this in," said Greta. They carried the tank inside, into the kitchen, and put in the sink. Then they walked around with the flashlights. The place inside was an absolute mess. Whoever lived here had left in a hurry. There was still a full trash container, though everything in it had long since turned black and dehydrated. There were dirty dishes and old food containers all over every surface. Roaches crawled all over the walls; they skittered in all directions, crawling over each other and falling down to the floor, when the flashlight beam hit them. I suddenly wanted a shower.
"This is really nasty," I said.
"We've seen worse," said Greta.
We went towards the front of the house, in the living room. There was still furniture, though it was rotting apart. I could hear things moving around underneath the sofa. There were more roaches on the walls. Gabrielle opened her duffle bag extracted a fat newspaper from the weekend. She opened it up and gave several sections to her sister. They tore off pages and crumpled them up, then threw them around the room.
"When should I start filming?" I asked.
"Not yet," they said together.
"But soon," said Greta. "When we light the match."
"Okay," I said.
They continued to crumple up the pages until the entire newspaper was on the floor. Then Gabrielle took out an can of lighter fluid from her bag, uncapped it, then started squirting it at the paper. She emptied out the entire thing. It was a strong smell, but not quite powerful enough to overcome the stench of the house.
"Get ready," said Greta. "This is my favorite part." She reached into her jeans pocket and took out a match. I suddenly realized that I was supposed to be filming. I took off my backpack carefully, so as not to touch anything in the room with it (or I might be tempted to throw it out, like I would with my shoes as soon as I got home). I took out the camera, and turned it on. I had already checked to see if it had a fresh media card.
"Where should I stand?" I asked.
"Anywhere. Just so you don't film either of us," said Gabrielle.
"Ready?" asked Greta.
"Yeah," I said. I flipped up the viewscreen.
"Make sure to zoom in on the match," said Greta.
"Well, you're gonna be in the frame," I said.
"You can shoot just my hand--I don't care about that," said Greta.
"Uh, okay," I said.
"Is it on?" asked Gabrielle. "Are you recording yet?"
"No, not yet," I said.
"You're going to mute this when you post it right?"
"Yeah, yes, of course," I said.
"Good," said Gabrielle. I pushed the record button.
"Okay, recording," I said. Greta struck the match. She held it out from her body and looked at me. I zoomed in on just the flame. It lit up the room with a rustic light. The flame danced and wavered gently. Then Greta let it fall to the ground. I tried to follow it, but was a little slow. It it the layer of soaked paper, and a blue bordered light immediately fanned out, and the intensity of the light overpowered my camera, messing with the autofocus feature. I was a little surprised at how quickly a huge bonfire had formed in the middle of the room. I looked to both Greta and Gabrielle, smiling at each other from across the fire. They stepped back a bit, as the heat rose. I could hear roaches popping, and I gagged a little. Waves of bright orange caught the curtains and the fire rose and licked the ceiling. Gabrielle and Greta walked back behind me. I zoomed out and tried to get as much of the flames as possible. They were mesmerizing.
One of the twins pulled on my shirt, and I then realized how much danger I was in. My heart started thumping and I broke a sweat. I stepped back into the kitchen, as the fire engulfed the entire room. The couch gave off a foul odor as it burned, and smoke billowed up into the air. Glass broke somewhere in the room, but I couldn't see what it was. I backed out further. The sisters were guiding me backward through the hall and then the kitchen, making sure I didn't trip on any of the leftover furniture.
The we were outside again. We backed out to the far side of the pool. I kept the camera on the house. The fire had now spread upstairs--more rooms were consumed. It hadn't really gotten to the kitchen yet.
"Turn it off," said Greta. I did. We jumped the fence, and ran out into the middle of the golf-course. I felt like laughing, but the sisters were dead-serious.
"That was a-amazing!" I yelled. "I've never done something that bad before."
"Yeah, okay, calm down greenhorn," said Greta.
"You want to film the finale or what?" said Gabrielle.
"Oh, yeah," I said. I turned the camera back on and pointed in the direction of the house. The flames were up racing around on the roof. I zoomed in, and we waited and watched. BOOM! The glass blew out the back of the house. A pressure wave gently rocked past us. "Wow," I said.
"Okay, that's enough," said Greta. "Let's split up." I turned off the camera.
"Wait," I said. "Can we do this again?"
Greta turned around and looked at her sister. They seemed to communicate something between them with just slight inflections of facial muscles.
"I don't know," said Gabrielle.
"I think we're going to lie low for awhile," said Greta. "These people really bother me."
"Shush!" said Gabrielle.
"I don't really care, Gabby. This family," Greta pointed to the flaming house, "really pissed me off. Leaving their dog to die. That's just sick and wrong."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"It's nothing," said Gabrielle, trying to laugh.
"They pay us to do this," said Greta.
"Gret! No we we have to share with her too!" said Gabrielle.
"What, you get paid to do this? For other people?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's commonly called insurance fraud," said Greta. Gabrielle looked unhappy.
"That's pretty serious, isn't it? I mean, together with arson," I said. "And you made me an accomplice to both?"
"Then you don't want any money?" asked Gabrielle.
"No," I said, slightly perplexed. "I didn't realize this was serious crime." I looked at the camera. "I'm not sure I can post this."
"Well, whatever," said Greta. "It doesn't matter to me. See you at school." Then the sisters walked off. I stood and watched the fire for awhile. A fire truck never came, and the house just burned to the ground.