Ten months after I miserably-contorted my body beneath the tranquil coat of my deceased dog—the placid autumn sun locking his muscles forever in the desolate expression of his passing— the two-story, haint blue house my neighbors owned, mysteriously burnt to the ground. Officially, the fire was said to have been started by an over-turned lamp in their son’s upstairs bedroom. Yet as I slithered through the tree house window days later, strategically studying the semi-scorched windows from the shadows of the tree, I was unaware of the actual damage. Even though the stench of smoke lingered in the air for weeks— filling our lungs with the irreplaceable particles of their lives— the outward appearance of the slowly imploding house seemed unaltered.
The sirens that blared down our idle street that hazy night hadn’t been the first. Every Christmas we devotedly waited in mismatched scarf sets and snugly fit snow boots for the man in red to throw handfuls of candy down to us from his towering crimson truck. With the untamed madness of scavengers, we would scatter and sort through the snow for the lost pieces that gently ricocheted off of our firmly padded bodies. Although we spent hours picking and prodding through the snow, a few waterlogged pieces always made it to spring; haunting us with the lost prospects of winter and forcing us to strategically revise our ever-changing candy plan.
Yet, as I struggled against my light cotton sheets that frosty night, attempting to distort the rushed footsteps and hushed screams of my family, the rich, calming scent of a nearby bonfire coaxed me back into my dreams. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, my father covered me in an old blue crocheted blanket and carried me outside, placing me in the back seat of our van. While I struggled to find a comfortable spot between the stiffly protruding seat belts— cocooning the spongy fabric around my delicate frame— the slight chimes of Christmas began to advance from the distance.
As I clung to my sheets— expecting the bells and smoke to suddenly fill the car with a bitter wind— the lightly tinted windows of our van filled with the swirling crimson lights of a lone fire truck. Slowly, as I opened my eyes, the distant humming of approaching sirens began to sing in unison with the large vehicle that was abandoned a few feet from my head. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I watched as two men quickly jumped out of the truck, running towards the hydrant and stabilizing the hose, as the driver attempted to secure the outside of the house.
“Ma,” I yelled, as I climbed over the front seats and fumbled with the handle of the door. “Ma, where’s Vicky?”
“Get back in the car, Meghan,” my mother said as she excused herself from the growing group of bystanders. “She’s fine, but you have to stay in here.”
“He’s over there,” she said, pointing to the side of our yard that paralleled the rising smoke of the corner lot.
“But Ma, Vicky’s house is on fire,” I said, attempting to push past her. “We have to save her.”
“Meghan Kathleen,” my mother said, firmly holding my wrist. “She’s fine. She’s with her family right now. You need to stay in here until they put the fire out.”
“I don’t wanna,” I stammered, as my body slid down the seat, pooling into a crooked puddle on the floorboards. “I wanna go inside. I wanna see Vicky.”
“I’m sorry Megs, but you can’t. We have to stay out here for awhile.”
“But, why?” I moaned, dropping my head into my fists.
“Listen Meghan,” my mother said as she cautiously planned her next words. “There is a possibility that the fire may spread. We have to stay outside— with the firemen to be safe.”
“But Vicky’s over there. I can see her. Vicky,” I yelled, pushing past my mother and sprinting towards the flames.
“Hey Meghan,” she said, quickly wiping the tears from the crevices of her eyes with the back of her smoke stained hand.
“Vicky, your house is on fire. I thought you were going to burn.”
She smiled slightly as she wrapped her blanket around my shoulders, exchanging a glance with my mother. “Why don’t you go wait in the van. I’ll come see you in a few minutes.”
“No,” I said burrowing my shoulder into her waist.
“Why don’t you just try and go back to sleep,” My mother said as she readjusted the blanket on my shoulders. “Do you want me to have your father come and read to you?”
“No,” I screamed, collapsing to the ground and folding my knees to my chest. “I wanna go inside.”
“I’m sorry Megs,” my mom said, picking me up and carrying me towards the van. “Just try and get some sleep, okay?” She gently scratched my head and shut the door, avoiding my odious glare.
My mother’s body faded into the bundled crowd of bystanders, as I watched my father steadily spray the roof and paneling of our house— fighting the firemen for enough water to weigh down the matchless elements of our lives. In the ginger-soaked light I could see his fierce gray eyes, swiftly tracing the brittle branches that dangerously dusted our overstuffed gutters. As he turned away, shielding his eyes from the growing glare, he nodded and shrugged, catching my eye.
It’ll be all right kiddo.
Comforted by my fathers glance, I toppled towards the driver’s side door, forcing my body to stay veiled beneath the polished wooden panels of the dashboard. Cracking the door slightly, I slowly slid my slender legs through the opening, allowing my body to balance itself, before continuing. As I pressed my body against the frosty metal of the van— inching my way towards the flames— the mixed aromas of chocolate and firewood began to dart together, filling my nostrils with a thick, potent musk.
“Do you have any hot chocolate?” I asked, as I darted around the corner of the van.
“Oh heavens, sweetheart. Is that your house?” The lady asked, frowning at my red footed pajamas.
“Nope. It’s Vicky’s. She’d want some hot chocolate too, but my mom said I have to stay in the van.”
She looked at me suspiciously and made her way towards the makeshift table that was leaning against the side of the ambulance. As she mixed and stirred my hot chocolate I watched the lives of my neighbor’s combust and turn into hot, lifeless ash. Yet, as I sipped my coco, watching the firemen struggle to stabilize the flames that were dancing dangerously close to our house, I was unaltered. I felt nothing but the warmth of the coco in my hands and the soft, tattered cotton around my shoulders.
It’ll be all right.
The stale smoke lingered in the air for weeks, filling our lungs with the irreplaceable particles of our neighbors’ lives. Some things were saved that night— the children, the dogs, a photo album— others were salvageable. Yet, in the early hours of that morning, as the fire was extinguished and the plums and cherry’s of the rising sun became visible over the trees, we were all aware of a change in the atmosphere around us. Although we continued in our everyday lives, attempting to forget the tragedy that we witnessed, the tar— made up of their scalded positions and memories— resonated in our lungs, forever becoming a part of our own daily existence.
“I’ve washed her clothes four times, Michael,” my mother said, stuffing the clothes into various trash bags. “They still smell like smoke. She doesn’t even have a bra, or a school uniform.”
“Jesus Christ, you can’t just throw out all of her things Trudy,” my father said, stubbornly shifting a small pile of clothing behind him as he crossed his arms.
“Yes I can. I’m giving her some of the things Colleen didn’t want when she left for school, then taking her to the store to replace the rest. We took her in Michael. She’s living with us now, until this whole thing gets sorted out. We can’t just let her run around smelling like a god damn chimney.”
“Don’t overdo it Trudy. It’s not easy for people to accept charity.”
“She doesn’t have a single bra left, or much of a choice.”
As my mother bundled the clothing into the bulging bags, I slowly crept further into the room, watching as my father slid a few more shirts into the growing pile behind him.
“Yeah Megs?” He asked, looking down at me with a strange smile of success.
“What’s a bra?”
He paused for a moment, looking at my mother before running his fingers through my tangled dirty blond curls. “I have work to do kiddo. But maybe we can get ice cream after dinner.” He started towards the door, stepping around me as I watched him leave.
“I don’t know how to explain it Megs, but you can come with us when Vicky gets out of school, it shouldn’t be too much longer.”
“Why does she stay in school so long?” I asked, as my mother tied the tops of the over-stuffed trash bags.
“Well, she’s older.”
“But I go to school too Ma, everyday.”
“And next year, when you start first grade you’ll get to go a full day as well.”
“Neat,” I said, collapsing to the floor.
“What’s neat?” Vicky questioned, as she opened the door, attempting to look concerned.
Glancing over, I watched as the curiosity ran out of her despondent eyes, leaving nothing but a blank, deserted stare. Gently, she lowered herself into a crouching position, tracing the worn numbers of an old softball jersey. I watched her slow, deliberate movements as she turned the jersey in her small, child-like hands before placing it into of one of the large, black trash bags.
“Uhm, Trudy,” she questioned pulling her long coffee-colored hair into a tight ponytail at the base of her neck as she examined the contents of the floor.
“Look, we need to throw your clothes out. But I’ve got some of Meghan’s older sisters’ clothes for you, and we’re going to go get the rest this afternoon.”
“I know,” she said, shifting her eyes to the floor. “My sister couldn’t get the smell out of her clothes either.” Her cheeks began to redden as she nudged a pile with her toes. “You don’t have to do this. I’m going to go get a job.”
“You already have one,” my mother said nodding to me. “She needs a babysitter.”
“I do not,” I said, throwing my body on the floor and kicking one of the bags.
“Meghan Kathleen,” my mother warned.
“I don’t,” I stammered, sitting up and crossing my arms. “But my Ma says that you need a bra, but Dad won’t tell me what it is. That’s okay though, I know. I think I need one too.”
Vicky smiled at me, shaking her head as she turned to follow my mother. “I don’t think you need one of those just yet.”
“Sure I do,” I murmured, grabbing her hand as we walked up the stairs. “I start first grade next year. And I don’t want to be like Jimmy,” I started, pointing out the bay window towards his house. “He brings his lunch in a bag.”
Their dusty, slightly overrun house mimicked an old movie set— deceiving pedestrians and drivers into believing that there was something behind their barren walls. As I slithered through my tree house window, strategically studying the semi-scorched siding, I watched as cars turned the corner, slowing to see the damage that wasn’t visible from the main road. The scorched beams that once stood to support the second story were strewn throughout their back yard, dancing like broken ballerinas in the rain-filled pool, as small shards of glass turned their deck into an avant-garde kaleidoscope.
Thick, coal-incrusted ash blew like sand over the fragments of furniture that remained scattered throughout the lower portion of the house, pooling and piling in the sheltered crevices, as I walked towards the edge of the tree branch. From the street, the house looked as if it had been stripped of human life, allowing the onlookers to detach themselves from the reality of the situation. Yet, behind the overflowing city issued dumpsters— that were carefully backed against their house— stood scattered piles of melted appliances, tattered linens and a deflated basketball, fused to the remains of a baseball mitt.
The sirens that blared down our lazy street that night wouldn’t be the last. My neighbor Jimmy, was arrested for shooting a boy in the eye with a BB gun when I was nine; in fourth grade a boy down the street was pursued on foot by the police for stealing a bike; and the summer before seventh grade, Tom Talbot, a mentally handicapped male, had been held at gun point, for no particular reason, by one of Somers Point’s brightest officers. As the city began to grow, incorporating new stores and businesses into our community, our neighbors fought to reconstruct their old lives. The years passed, but their family was slowly ostracized from the social circles of our community, which seemed to encourage their disruptive behavior.
I watched as their parents returned home from work with take out boxes and slender bottles, wrapped in thick, wrinkled brown paper. My friends and I took turns throwing M&M’s into their older daughter’s window, as she drank cheap beer and fornicated with strangers and by the time I was in junior high, we no longer ran out to see why the police had been called next door.
As I looked past their rain-filled pool, noting the scrap metal that still spattered their lawn, I remembered my fathers’ fierce gray eyes, in the ginger-soaked light swiftly tracing the brittle branches that dangerously dusted our overstuffed gutters. With a single gust of wind, we could have experienced the same fate. Yet, I trusted in the confidence and hope in my father’s eyes, choosing to remain ignorant; choosing to believe the words that his pale eyes chanted. It will be all right, kiddo.
It will be all right.