Matt Badger believes that what happened happened for a reason. That his children were born in order to live in order to die the way they did, that out of it something meaningful must come. If at any point it becomes clear to him that he is wrong, that what happened is instead an anecdote of the universe’s brutal indifference, then he will kill himself.
This kind of faith renders all starting points equally as relevant and moot, including that early morning of December 25, 2011, in Stamford, Connecticut, where, on the peninsula of Shippan Avenue, Engine 4 was racing, sirens blaring. Inside 2267 Shippan, a 116-year-old Victorian house, three girls—Lily, 9, and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah and Grace—had wanted to make a fire on Christmas Eve. Michael Borcina, the contractor working on the house for the past year, whose relationship with the owner, Madonna Badger, had recently turned romantic, placed a bundle of wood and two Duraflame fire-starters in the fireplace in the living room. The fire was warming the newly opened-up first floor by the time Madonna’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, arrived from Lomer’s final shift playing Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The artificial tree was lit; the stockings were hung. Earlier in the day, the girls had played outside, riding their bikes in the street. Grace lit electric candles. Madonna cooked a ham dinner. She was, at 47, among the most successful advertising executives in New York City; she had recently divorced her husband and had bought the house the previous December. Renovations were only now finally inching toward completion; despite wishing everything to be perfect for the holidays, Madonna had called off the painters who’d been scheduled to return that morning.
At 10 p.m., the girls were herded up the stairs to their pink-and-white bedrooms on the third floor. They believed that Santa Claus was nearing the air above Connecticut. It was difficult to get them to sleep. Borcina, who’d been staying in the three-car garage out back and was spending his first night in the house, read aloud Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the children. Lily was, despite being the oldest, always the most sensitive, and she made a fuss about not wanting to sleep alone; she and Sarah fell asleep together, in the twins’ turreted room. Grace ended up in bed with her grandparents.
Madonna and Borcina commenced wrapping gifts in the garage out back, where their cache was secreted. It was 3:32 a.m.—Madonna glanced at the clock—when they returned through the kitchen with their arms full of presents. They arranged them under the tree. The fire was long out. Madonna asked Borcina to prepare the fireplace, which was unkempt with spent ashes, for Christmas morning. He separated the partially burned logs, shoveling the ash into a paper shopping bag, running his hands through them to make sure they were cold, then placing the bag inside an empty plastic storage box. He deposited the bag in the mudroom, near 43 unused Duraflame logs Madonna had purchased from Stop & Shop. He washed the soot from his hands in the new, deep sink. They ate apple pie and drank milk and tea. It was late. Rounding the corner to climb the narrow butler’s stairwell off the kitchen, Madonna glanced into the mudroom. She flipped off all the lights.
She lay down in bed with Borcina in the back rear-corner bedroom and accidentally fell asleep, waking sometime after 4 a.m. to his tapping her. She made her way to the second-floor master bedroom that composed the entire front of the house and a corner facing Long Island Sound, slid the pocket doors behind her, and fell into bed.
Outside, it was 28 degrees. A breeze from the northwest blew at six to eight miles an hour. The only sound was of the sea gurgling and hissing and intermittently slapping. Inside, it was dark; near the kitchen, beside the basement stairs, the keypad for the new fire-detection-and-security system, not yet powered, was dark, too. In the mudroom, inside the brown paper bag, it had begun, the process of deterioration favored by all molecules on Earth, now accelerated by combustion, blackness spreading across the surface of the ash like oil pooling, giving way to white wisps of smoke, the suggestion of incandescence, ruddiness, finally: fire.
When Matt Badger comes downstairs from his apartment in Battery Park City, wearing jeans and an untucked olive button-down shirt, there are two children playing in front of his building, a girl with bright-red hair pushing another girl on a scooter. He looks at them and smiles. He does not appear well.