My father has threatened to set the house on fire before, many times. During his drunken rages, we were scared, but we never thought he’d do it. Now that we’ve gotten rid of him, we never know what he’ll do next. He has nothing left to lose.
Our small, simple house sits just outside the city limits. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got. A partial brick façade faces the street, though the siding consists mostly of long panels of wood painted red. The rain gutter in front, also painted red, keeps coming loose, like it might collapse in the midst of even one more storm. Something about that crooked gutter makes the whole house look sad. But houses don’t have feelings. Inside, they have rooms, and these rooms contain all the artifacts of the lives we lead.
Today, we’ve left our house empty and unprotected in order to visit my aunt and uncle in Asheville. If it’d been up to me, we wouldn’t be here, but Mother says we can’t live in fear all the time. It’s normal to see family and get to know them better, she insists. While that’s fine in theory, we made a mistake by coming here today. Someone needs to be home at all times in case something happens.
Going to school each day is bad enough. I tell myself it’s safer during the day since it’s light out and one would have to be really, really stupid to pull anything, but I squirm at my desk all the same, anxious about what I’ll find when the bus drops me off. Knowing that he works during the day eases my nerves somewhat, but it’s not like construction jobs are all that regular. A change in the weather can free up his entire day. He’s also been known to skip work altogether, following Mother around instead, always two cars behind. He pulls his pickup into the parking lot up on the hill overlooking the hosiery mill, keeping an eye on her. He sits and smokes and watches and waits.
There’s not much we can do about school and work. Monday through Friday, we have no choice but to leave the house unguarded. But taking off for Asheville on a late Friday afternoon is careless. “Let me stay,” I begged Mother. “You and Teddy can still go.”
“Nonsense,” she said, brushing me off. “We’re all going.”
“But what if something happens while we’re gone?”
She stared at me with this awful look in her eyes. “It’ll be fine,” she said, reaching out to caress the side of my face. I flinched, backing away from her. We are not a family that touches. Even if everything’s different now, you can’t expect a creek to suddenly flow like a river. There are limits to what I can handle, and I don’t want to drown. Being normal like everyone else is the dream, of course. Fists flying, constant yelling, whiskey breath before sundown, guns pulled out in the middle of the night, everyone scared—none of that’s normal. It shouldn’t be like this, I told Mother back when he still lived with us.
She started believing me after a while, especially since he was becoming so unpredictable. Day by day, things were only getting worse. Each night, I went to sleep with the baseball bat under my bed, just in case. That was normal. Now, I leave it propped up against the wall behind the door. It might not seem all that different, but it feels like progress to me.
“Hello? Your aunt is talking to you.”
“What?” I mumble, confused.
“I was just asking about school,” Jean says. At a loss for words, I just stare at her. She looks like a more filled-out version of my mom. Both have remarkably similar features—green eyes, high cheekbones, slightly upturned noses; yet, where Jean’s face is soft and round, Mother’s is narrow and sharp-edged, making her appear to be the older one when she’s actually two years younger. Their hair is the same dark brown color, but Jean’s is big and puffy like cotton candy while Mother’s is straight and pulled back into a loose ponytail.
I suddenly notice everyone is looking at me, waiting for me to say something. My relatives probably think I’m a halfwit. “Uh, school is fine,” I say.
“That’s good,” Jean says.
“He makes straight As,” my mother brags, embarrassing me.
They continue talking, but I look away. My little brother Teddy is in the kitchen playing with the slot machine. Uncle Charles bought it for Jean since she likes to gamble so much. They’re always flying off to Las Vegas, apparently. He teases that she won’t lose as much money now that they have their own machine, but she points out that he lost more than her during their last trip. He lights a cigarette and smiles. He smiles too much, really, and his face is always distorted by laughter at his own jokes. I hate his mustache too. To be fair, he seems nice enough. It’s just hard to trust someone I hardly know, and I never trust people who seem so carefree and happy. It’s like they’re trying too hard.
Charles joins my brother in the kitchen, showing him how the slot machine works. My mother goes on talking with her sister, pulling out a long, slender cigarette and lighting up, adding to the fog of smoke polluting the air. My father is a chain-smoker, so I really don’t like cigarettes. I try not to hold it against my mother and even understand why she likes it. The whole “taking a break” aspect of smoking is attractive. Right now, if I smoked, I’d have something to do with my sweaty, fidgety hands as I sit here wondering how I’m supposed to act. This getting to know your family stuff is really hard.
Just as my aunt turns her gaze back to me, the phone rings. She picks up the green handset and says hello. Her brow creases as she listens closely. “Who is this?” she asks in a high, sharp voice. I’m not sure how they answer, but I know who’s on the other end. “How’d you get this number?”
Watching Jean, we’re all quiet, waiting for an explanation. Charles has returned, his face a question mark of concern. My mother looks at Jean before turning to meet my eyes.
“He wants to speak to you,” Jean says, holding the phone out to my mother.
The room shifts out of focus for a moment, but I’m suddenly jumping up and grabbing the phone. “What do you want?” I hear myself asking.
“Oh, it’s you,” my father snarls. “Hope y’all are having fun.”
I wait, saying nothing.
“It’s gone,” he says. “All of it.” There’s a long pause, the silence so complete I’m sure the world has stopped. “Nothing left now but a pile of ashes. And it’s your fault.” With a click he’s gone. Slowly, I place the phone in its cradle.
“What is it?” my mother asks. “What did he want?”
“He said it’s gone,” I answer in a voice that sounds far away. “The house. He set it on fire like he said he would.”
A disturbance of various noises breaks out around me. The couch squeaks as my mother rises, my aunt says something to her, my uncle steps in and assures us it’ll be alright, and my brother mumbles in the background, hoping someone will explain what’s going on even though he must already know.
This can’t be happening. I feel the colors draining from my body, leaving nothing behind but an outline of what might have been. I can’t feel my heart, I can’t find my next breath. I’m lost in a world burning bright. All I can see are the flames eating my house.
I close my eyes and silence wraps around me like a blanket. I count to ten before opening them. There’s a loud whoosh as the blood returns, pumping through my veins and pounding in my ears as it brings me back to my aunt’s living room. I pick up the phone and dial the numbers my fingers know so well. Someone at our local sheriff’s department picks up. In one long breath, I identify myself and explain what’s happened. The deputy on the other end knows our trouble. They’ve been called on many times. “Just go to our house, see what’s going on,” I say. “Bring the fire department. We’re on our way now.”
I hang up and turn to my mother, telling her we need to go. There’s more noise, more bustling around. The relatives I’m supposed to be getting to know tell us they’re sorry and wonder how he knew we were here. They worry that he knows where they live. Don’t worry, I want to tell them. He only cares about you in relation to us. Rather than utter another word, I’m out the door, waiting in the driveway. Each passing second is an ache in my stomach, the knot twisting and tightening its grip. There’s got to be something we can do if only we can get there fast enough.
I open the passenger side door and wait, staring over at my aunt’s front porch. My mother emerges at last, but she’s so slow. Squirming around, I glare at her as she says goodbye to Jean and Charles. Teddy scrambles past them and runs over, hopping in the backseat. I want to scream but somehow manage to hold it in, getting inside the car and slamming the door as hard as I can. “I wish she would hurry,” I tell Teddy. Through the rearview mirror, I see him sucking his thumb. He goes silent in these situations.
“Finally,” I mumble as she gets in the car. She puts the key in the ignition and starts the engine, but moments pass and we’re still not moving. She digs through her purse for another cigarette. She lights up and takes a long, leisurely drag, holding it in for what feels like an eternity. “We need to hurry up,” I insist more urgently.
She sighs, staring straight ahead as a long plume of smoke drifts from her mouth and bounces off the windshield. I roll down my window to let it escape. “If he really set the house on fire, there’s not a lot we can do about it now,” she says, taking another too-long drag.
“There’s nothing we can do about it from here,” I snap, horrified she’s not taking this more seriously. Why am I the only one who seems to care if we have a home to return to or not? I ball my hands into fists and squeeze hard, unsure if I’m holding the pressure in or letting it go. “You should have listened to me.”
“So this is my fault?”
I say nothing. She cracks her window and slams the car into reverse, recklessly backing out of the driveway without checking for traffic. We wind through a few backstreets, taking each curve faster than the last one. The ride is much smoother once we reach the highway.
“You know,” Mother starts, “sometimes I wish he would burn it down. Maybe then he’d leave us alone.”
She doesn’t mean it. She can’t. What will we do if he’s really burned our house down? Where will we go? I cringe at the thought of church charity drives or my classmates being asked to donate clothes and food. If that’s what’s waiting, I’ll never go back to school. I can’t stand the idea of friends looking off to the side, too embarrassed to meet my eyes as they say they’re sorry.
I peek into the rearview mirror and see Teddy still sucking his thumb. A wave of guilt washes over me as I realize how selfish I’m being, worrying over what people at school will think in the wake of the tragedy waiting at the end of this painfully long drive. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. What matters is inside this car.
I wonder what Teddy will miss the most. Will it be his toys or the comfort of sleeping in the only bed he’s ever known? And what about Mother? I bet she’ll miss our family albums, the jewelry box she got from her grandmother, and that old green suitcase with our birth certificates and all the other documents proving we exist. I’ll miss so much—I’ll miss everything. My clothes, my books, my toothbrush, the black comb I’ve had forever, the Edgar Allen Poe diorama I made for school, my reading glasses—there are so many things that can’t be replaced.
I hate him so much it scares me. It’s a black cloud that’s as dark and cold as the inside of a gun. At times, I can’t see through it at all.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Mother says.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I just want you boys to have some sort of—normal life, you know?”
I do know, and I wish the same for all of us. I stare out the window, reading the green signs marking each exit along the highway, wondering what sort of people live in the communities we pass by in such a blur. I imagine small kids playing in front yards, laughing and smiling up at doting parents—fathers who touch without hurting, mothers with no bruises to hide.
Originally, Mother wanted us to move out, taking what we could during the day while he was at work and leaving everything else behind. Poof, we’d be gone. We even went to look at a house for rent, one side of a duplex in the poorer part of town, up on a hill behind the grocery store. Once inside, my heart sank. The large, empty space with bare floors, a modest kitchen with a rusty fridge pulled away from the wall, a tiny bathroom with a dirty sink, and two small bedrooms—just being there and considering it a real possibility was too much for me to handle. We needed to escape my father, but I couldn’t imagine actually leaving the only home I’d ever known. The blood spilled between those walls is a terrible thing, but it’s reinforced our connection to the house, somehow.
Unfortunately, my father feels equally connected to our house, and he’ll never sit idly by as we try to cut him out. Maybe it would have been better if we’d just left. He’d still cause trouble, restraining order or not, following us around, calling all the time, driving by in that demon black truck of his with the engine roaring. But, being forced out of his home just made things worse. If we’d left, like Mother wanted, maybe things would have eventually settled down. I’m the one who convinced her to stay, insisting it was our home too.
This is all my fault.
I turn around to check on Teddy. He looks worried, but at least he’s not crying. I haven’t seen him cry in a long time. I’m not sure if it’s a sign he’s growing up or a result of having cried so much already.
There’s really no way out for us. My father will never stop, not until he’s dead and buried. The sheriff and deputies are no help—they often look at us like we’re the problem. A court order might say he has to stay away, but a piece of paper offers little protection in the middle of the night, when you hear the dog barking outside, making you wonder if he’s somewhere there in the dark, creeping around. A court order is just a piece of paper that will burn like anything else.
We’ve just passed the county line. I wonder if the fire truck made it to our house in time, if anything was salvaged. I wish I knew how long it takes for a house to burn down.
I dream of ways to kill him, certain I could do it with my bare hands.
We’re getting close. Mother has slowed down, following the speed limit exactly—not a mile above, not a mile below. We want to reach home as quickly as possible but are hesitant now that we’re so close. All these signs posted and the stoplight that brings us to a halt offer guidance in an otherwise chaotic set of circumstances. Cars go by, carrying people who don’t know a thing about us. I’m aware of my heart beating, surprisingly slow and steady.
As we pass the fire station, each of us examine it closely. The large doors aren’t open, making it hard to tell if the trucks are in use or not. I don’t believe in prayers but squeeze my hands together anyway, praying the trucks are still inside, their engines cold. Over this last stretch of road, no one says a word. We mustn’t disturb the silence, not until we know.
Through the locust trees, the broad side of our house comes into view. The long, red panels of wood reveal no signs of scorching. The black cloud of smoke rising from the flames is nowhere to be seen. The front yard and part of the driveway come into view, appearing just as we left them. Pulling into the driveway, the sound of the gravel crunching beneath the tires is almost too much to bear. Our house still stands, lonely and dark.
“It ain’t burned down,” Teddy says from the backseat, surprised.
Mother shifts the car into park and stares out the side window. Gasping, she slowly lifts a hand to cover her mouth. A rush of air escapes my lungs—I’d been holding my breath without realizing it. We’re home now, in the fading evening light, and nothing is wrong.
I jump out of the car and run around the house, making sure it’s really true. I find no evidence to indicate that anyone’s tried to set the house ablaze. I complete my circle, arriving back in the front yard from the other side. Teddy is standing on the front steps. Mother still sits in the car, gripping the steering wheel with both hands as she stares straight ahead. I run over and open the door, telling her to give me the keys. Silently, she hands them over. Rushing past Teddy on the steps, I shove the key in the lock and open the door, stumbling into our living room. I walk through the house, switching on all the lights as I check each and every room. I find nothing wrong. Our house still stands after all.
Clearly relieved, Mother and Teddy are talking as they enter, but I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. On the small table off to the side, I notice the blinking red dot of the answering machine. I walk over and push the button. The first message is a familiar one, the sound of someone breathing before hanging up. The second one is the same.
It’s his way of letting us know he’s always there, watching over us.
I pick the answering machine up with both hands and slam it back down as hard as I can. The explosion of sound surprises us all. I do it again, and again, consumed by the fury of my own fire. I throw it down and stomp it, not stopping until the answering machine is smashed to bits and pieces, totally destroyed.
I take a few long, deep breaths, waiting for my heart to slow. I look over at my mother who’s looking back at me. We both know what this means.