Mo Matheson kicked off her blankets in the middle of the night. Why did the air feel so hot? It was winter and Dad always set the heat at sixty-eight degrees at bedtime. Her throat felt dry. She coughed. There was a smell, like a camp fire, and a high-pitched sound. A wail.
The fire alarm!
Mo scrambled off the bed. She ran to her door and put her hand against it like Dad had taught them during family home evening. Hot. Too hot. She was supposed to go out the window. They had practiced that—how she’d slide open the basement window, release the screen, climb up on her bed, and slither through the frame to the ground outside. But . . . she couldn’t hear anyone moving upstairs. What if no one else heard the alarm?
She should do what Dad said. She turned to the window and struggled with it, grunted and coughed. It didn’t open. It’s stuck . . . or frozen! A gasp escaped her lips, and the desperation in the sound frightened her. Then she remembered the lock. She gripped it and pulled hard. The window slid to the side. Snow on the ground fluttered inside, and crystals in the crisp cold wind rushed in through the screen.
Mo put her hands against the screen, ready to push it out. She paused, listening for footsteps above her head or outside her door. Still nothing.
She ran back to her bedroom door and threw it open. Smoke entered as though it had been waiting to pounce. It touched her face with a hot, gritty film. She brought her hands to her nose and moved into the hazy basement hallway. Flowing and intensifying, it seemed like the inside of a storm cloud.
She heard Dad’s voice in her mind—“Crouch down, stay low.” Mo did and the smoke wasn’t as thick. The heat against her feet and ankles was like standing on the bathroom vent. Still covering her mouth with her hand, she hurried down the hall to Nathan’s room. The air felt like it was singeing the hair on her arms. She flung open his door.
With the lights of town coming through his window, she could faintly see him. His head was under his pillow. His long, gangly legs stuck out from a pair of knee-length basketball shorts, and his feet reached all the way to the end of his bed. Mo ran to him and shook his shoulder. “Nathan! Wake up!” she yelled. “Fire!”
“Maury?” he said, turning over. His dark, short-cropped hair stuck up at all angles.
A shiver of relief overtook her. He’s okay. She coughed as smoke from the hallway caught up to her.
Nathan flung the pillow on the floor and stood. Smoke was filling his room. “Where’s everyone?”
“I don’t know,” Mo gasped. “What should we do?”
He grabbed her arm and led her into the hall. “Keep down low,” he said. “Crawl.” But they didn’t crawl. Hunched low, they made their way to the stairs. Mo’s eyes stung and watered. It was hard to see much of anything. She reached out for the railing as they scrambled up the steps, but a glowing fiery ribbon along the polished wood lit her fingers and she swiftly pulled them back.
Nathan opened the front door. “Go to the meeting place.” He put his hand on her back and pushed her forward, hard. She took several involuntary steps into the night, then whirled around. All she could see was smoke, but behind it Nathan coughed violently and then yelled, “Mom! Dad!”
Mo didn’t care what he said. She wasn’t going to leave him to find the others alone. She gulped in fresh air, held her nightshirt over her nose and mouth, and darted in after him. He had gone up the first few steps from the landing. The other bedrooms were on the second floor of the bi-level home. She touched his arm as she caught up to him. “Go!” he hissed, shoving her shoulder.
“No!” She expelled the fresh air from her lungs and took a shallow breath. She could make out the edges of the living room drapes by the golden ruffle of flame burning there. Smoke was everywhere, though a thinner fog flowed on the main floor than in the basement.
It took Mo about four seconds to realize what else was different up here. Less smoke—and no fire alarm! Why isn’t it going off? The carpet ahead of her burst into flames, and before she could stop herself she dropped the shirt over her mouth and gulped a big breath of smoke. She coughed so deeply it seemed to turn her lungs inside out. She sank to the floor at the top of the stairs. Nathan grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet.
Mom, Dad, Bailey, and little Jordy appeared through the haze. Bailey screamed in hysterical bursts that may or may not have been words. She waved her arms, pointing at each new horror, her golden curls swinging around her shoulders. Jordy squirmed in Mom’s arms and wailed, “Well Bear! Well Bear!”
A cracking noise echoed through the house. Mo turned. Fire now churned on the upper stair, moving down like a fiery waterfall . . . until it stopped. Halfway down the stairs was a black, cavernous gap. Loud clattering followed as unseen timbers fell.
“We’ll have to jump to make it to the front door,” Dad said. That’s when Mo realized the midsection of the stairs had burned away, cracked and crumbled. “You two first!” He placed one hand on Mo’s shoulder and the other on Nathan’s.
The flames on the lower railing flared an angry orange.
Mo wiped her eyes with her nightshirt. She stared at the hole in the middle of the staircase, wondering if she could make it.
“Four steps, then jump,” yelled Dad.
“One—” The flames on the first step licked up toward the bottom of Mo’s flannel pants.
“Two—” Nathan grabbed her hand in a crushing grip. “Three . . . four.” They jumped.
Mo’s feet sailed through the flames. She remembered the way she used to lick her finger and run it through a birthday candle. That small thrill, intensified a thousand times, was a terror.
She and Nathan landed with a thud on the front entranceway, but she lost her grip on his hand and stumbled. She swerved to avoid the burning railing and fell to the floor, then just as quickly scrambled to her feet. Hazy images swam together. She rubbed her stinging eyes and strained to see anything at all.
Mo heard things collapsing and falling to the floor, but she couldn’t tell what they were. She wiped her eyes again.
Jordy’s piercing scream cut through the air. Mo squinted up, desperate to see through the veil of smoke. Jordy thrashed about, alternately clinging to Mom and arching away from her. Dad reached in to grab Jordy, but he clung tighter to Mom. Bailey’s blond head was leaning in toward Jordy. She was probably trying to reason with him, but Jordy screamed, “Where’s Well Bear?” He sounded like a siren. “I-need-Well-Bear!”
Dad ran back in the direction of the bedrooms, his form blurred into a ghostly outline. There was a distant echo of Jordy’s scream. A real siren? Bailey yelled, “Catch him, Nathan!” She pried Jordy’s arms off Mom, who managed to unclamp his legs.
Nathan stood, arms ready. Mo sputtered and coughed.
“Jump to Nathan!” yelled Mom. Together Mom and Bailey launched the three-year-old. His body twisted in a mid-fall spasm before landing in Nathan’s arms.
Nathan thrust Jordy into Mo’s chest. “Take him out.”
She closed her arms around the solid little boy, and he clamped his arms around her neck. “Well Bear! Where’s Well Bear?” he whined between coughs.
“Jump now, Bailey!” Nathan yelled.
Mo moved away from the blaze with Jordy. Her breaths came quick and shallow. Snow fell, the crystal-like flakes biting into her face. She felt dizzy but stumbled on.
When she was halfway to the road, she shifted Jordy to her hip and turned to look at the house. Smoke billowed out the open door as if from a huge mouth, poisoning the glow from the streetlights. It was like the house was heaving out everything except the people trapped inside.
Suddenly Mo’s feet hurt so bad she wanted to scream. The tender skin, burned on the fiery carpet, demanded attention, but she bit her lip and held Jordy tighter. The snow on the ground felt hard and jagged against Mo’s scorched feet.
The swelling smoke at the door seemed to take human form, then alter and round out in ways a body didn’t move. Each second of waiting seemed like forever. “Why don’t they come out?” whispered Mo.
The siren wail grew stronger until it vibrated within her. Finally, a red fire engine appeared and pulled to a stop at the curb. Several men and women in protective gear jumped out of the huge vehicle.
“They’re inside,” Mo called hoarsely. She turned and saw Bailey emerge from the billowing smoke.
Mo started forward, but a hand clamped onto her shoulder, halting her. “Hold on, Maureen. They’ve got her.” She turned and looked into the eyes of Mr. Cassatt, her guidance counselor at school. He was a volunteer fire fighter. “You should sit,” he said.
Two fire fighters rushed to Bailey and spoke to her. Mo saw her answer their questions, frantically pointing.
Several fire fighters in full gear, with large oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, entered the front door of the house.
Just then, their neighbor, Mrs. Nornburg, came at Mo with her arms filled with blankets. “Maureen! Are you okay?” She didn’t wait for a response but rambled on about smoke and sirens. The older woman draped a wool blanket over Mo’s shoulders. Then she said something that included the words “come over to my house.” The woman’s eyebrows were arched as she waited. Mo shook her head insistently. She wasn’t going anywhere without her family. Mrs. Nornburg placed another blanket on the ground and straightened the edges. “You look exhausted, Maureen. You two should at least sit down.”
Mo sat and held Jordy on her lap. She stared at the house and then at her sister, who still spoke with one of the fire fighters. Jordy cried, leaning his head against Mo’s shoulder. As she smoothed the white-blond hair on his forehead, she noticed his mouth was lined in dark ash. She touched her own lips, and black goo came away on her fingers. She had no idea how to comfort her little brother.
A minute later Mr. Cassatt knelt next to Mo and helped her put on an oxygen mask. Next he put a mask on Jordy, who pulled it off a few seconds after the man left. Mo replaced the mask and lifted her own to say, “Stop, Jordy. You have to wear this for a little while. I have one too, see?” He nodded and succumbed, sinking his head against her again.
Bailey approached, her hair tangled and singed. A fireman caught up to her and asked, “Which room?”
“Facing the back of the house, second door on the right,” she told the fire fighter, who then left. Bailey wandered in one direction before turning and going another. Behind her, a fireman emerged from the house with Nathan and Mom. Nathan hunched forward as he walked. He looked eighty years old. The wince with every step drew Mo’s attention to his feet. He was in pain.
Another rescue worker pointed to where Bailey, Mo, and Jordy were gathered. Mo lifted the oxygen mask and started to get to her feet, but Mrs. Nornburg gently pressed on her shoulders to keep her down. “You’ve inhaled a lot of smoke,” she said gently. “Here.” She pushed a disposable water bottle into Mo’s hand. “When you’re ready.” She handed another bottle to Bailey.
Nathan and Mom. But no Dad. Mo saw three more firemen enter the blaze.
“Did he come out, Maureen?” Mom sputtered as she hurried over. “Did you see Dad?”
Mo removed her oxygen mask and croaked, “No.” She held out the mask. “Here, Mom.”
Mom shook her head and motioned to Bailey, who sank onto the thin blanket and put on the mask. She gulped at the oxygen. Mom walked rapidly in circles, pausing often to hack and cough. She wrung her hands and then nodded at each of her children. Her lips formed the silent words “One, two, three, four.” When they were in crowds, she would count them to make sure they were all there. Now, her anxious looks at the house emphasized that Dad was missing. Mo could hardly bear the panic in her mom’s eyes.
A few more neighbors approached, wearing winter coats over their pajamas. Two ladies hugged Mom, one of them crying. “Kate, are you all right?” they asked.
“Robert’s still in there,” Mom said, and the way her voice shook left Mo trembling even more. “Maybe he’s in the back yard.” Mom turned to another neighbor. “Maybe he climbed from Jordy’s window!”
Mo leaned forward. He might’ve done that. He always told us to get out through the windows . . .
“I’ll go,” said a man with slippers on his feet. He ran, his steps matching the wailing pulse of the siren. He jogged around the right side of the house. Mom gnawed on a fingernail and paced, obviously torn between watching the front door and checking the back yard.
Mo held her breath. Yes, of course. Dad’s in the back yard. He had gone to Jordy’s room for the stuffed animal her brother had freaked out about. The room faced the back yard, and it would be a long jump from the window to the ground. The firemen should get their ladders over there.
Mo waved over a woman strapping on gear. The fire fighter approached quickly, asking, “You doin’ okay?” Then she yelled to someone else, “More oxygen over here.”
“The back! Check the back windows!” Mo pleaded. “Maybe my dad . . .”
“Okay, we will. We’ll do all we can.” She patted Mo’s shoulder and left.
Bailey lifted the oxygen mask. “Here, Nathan. Use this.”
He shook his head. “Keep it on.” He looked past Bailey, and the twist of his lips and his darting eyes made Mo’s chest ache. He turned away from the house and smacked his fist into his other hand, then clenched his teeth. “Where is he?” Nathan clasped his hands behind his head.
A few seconds later, he dropped his hands to his sides and strode awkwardly across the snow-and-ice-covered yard. The neighbor who had gone to the back to search for their father came around the house. When Nathan attempted to walk past him, the neighbor grabbed Nathan’s arms and stopped him. Mo couldn’t hear what was said, but both guys shook their heads. “He’s not in the back,” the neighbor said as they returned to Mo and the others.
An ambulance pulled up to the house, blaring its arrival. Nathan’s eyes darted in one direction, then back at the house, then another direction, then back to the house, as though he was trying to see everywhere at once. The snow came down hard, mean, and angry now as if thrown by an invisible army of miniature snowball fighters.
Mo pulled her blanket up over Jordy’s head to shield him from the storm. In her head, one word churned over and over. Dad? Dad? Dad? It was a question—a desperate, unanswered question.
She searched the faces around her. Why doesn’t he come to us? Is he out here? Is that him on the other side of the yard? If it was, maybe he felt as dizzy as she did, Mo thought. Maybe he was stumbling around, or had stopped to rest on the ground.
Bailey, who was wearing someone else’s coat, handed the oxygen mask to Mo and wandered around in front of the house. From one of the top- floor windows, a big flame reached out with long fingers toward the sky. Mo’s eyes were drawn to the flame, which seemed to char her heart.
An EMT worker, a woman with a red ponytail, was suddenly squatting in front of her. “Here’s another blanket, sweetie.”
Mo processed the thought slowly. But it’s hot. My dad’s in there. It’s hot. The words wouldn’t come.
As the blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, she realized how hard she was shaking. Where’s Dad? She wanted to grab the EMT, wring the answer out of her. The woman said something to the person standing beside her, but the only word Mo caught was shock. Her gaze returned to the house. The flame in the upstairs window flared even brighter now. She wanted Dad to be out here safe, with her.
Another fire engine thundered up. Six or eight fire fighters hopped off. A few busied themselves hooking up hoses, one spoke into a phone, and others geared up.
Someone was coming out the front door! Mo saw the reflective stripes of a fire fighter’s uniform, and then a bright- yellow helmet cleared the smoke and haze. The fire fighter walked slowly as if bracing his body with each step. A motionless form was draped over his shoulder, with two long, thick snakes bouncing against him.
Not snakes. Legs. “Dad!” yelled Mo.
Enter Draw For a Free Copy!
The emergency room seemed deserted except for Mo and her family. “Where’s Dad?” she said as they reached the admitting area. “Where did they take him?”
Two women in scrubs sat behind the desk. One clicked keys on the computer. The other said she would see what she could find out and walked away.
“You’re the Mathesons.” Mo turned at the words and saw a nurse emerge from an area where curtains were pulled around beds. “Let’s get you admitted, then you can follow me,” she said. Mo recognized her as the older sister of a girl in her grade.
“What about my husband?” asked Mom in a shaky voice.
“The doctor is with him now.”
Half an hour later the family, minus Dad, waited in a hospital room for the doctor on call. Nathan groaned softly as he shifted in his bed next to Mo’s. Mom paced and Bailey rested in a chair by the window.
One nurse had checked their blood pressure, pulse, and breathing, then taken blood samples. Two other nurses bandaged Nathan’s and Mo’s feet and cleaned everyone’s scrapes and cuts. Nathan adjusted the oxygen tube leading to his nose.
The salve on Mo’s feet didn’t help much—they hurt so bad. Jordy was nestled next to her, asleep. The dirty teddy bear lay beside him. It had been wedged under Dad’s shirt when the fire fighters rescued him. Now Mo grabbed the bear and threw it on the floor.
It seemed they had been waiting an eternity.
“Dad really was great tonight,” Bailey said. “Always thinking of others—”
“Don’t you do that, Bailey Jean Matheson!” snapped her mother. “Don’t you talk about him that way!”
“I just meant—”
“Don’t you talk about him in the past tense, not like he’s . . .” Mom’s head dropped into her hands.
A lump formed in Mo’s throat. It was already difficult to inhale after all the smoke, and now she felt like she was drowning. Her breaths were shallow—she couldn’t get enough air. Calm down. Relax. It’s just panic. Don’t let it win.
“Are you okay, Maury?” asked Bailey.
She took a moment to answer as she willed her breaths to come slow and deep. “Yes. I still smell the smoke.”
“We probably will for days,” said Nathan.
A couple of minutes later, a somber-faced man in a hip-length white coat entered the room and paused in front of Mo’s bed, nearest the door. Mom jumped to her feet.
“I’m Dr. Whistler,” said the man.
“How is he?” Mom asked.
“He has second- and third-degree burns on thirty- five percent of his body. We’re also treating him for smoke inhalation.”
“Oh?” Mom reached out her hands like she was begging. “But . . . but he’s going to be all right?”
“We are doing all we can, and our team here is excellent.”
Mo’s hand came to her chin. She pressed a finger to her lips as if trying to stop the trembling.
“There are so many factors beyond our control.” The doctor glanced her way. “I’m sorry I can’t be more reassuring.”
Mo didn’t think he looked sorry. He seemed tired and maybe a little haggard, but not exactly sorry. He probably couldn’t wait to get home to his own wife. He would crawl into bed and she would hold him and he would tell her about the bad time he had at work. How he had to tell a woman that he couldn’t say if her husband would recover. How the woman’s children had been shocked and scared. Then the doctor’s wife would tell him he was a good man. And tomorrow would be a better day.
“His burns will be painful but probably not life threatening,” Dr. Whistler was saying. “Damage to the airways and lungs is our most pressing concern. He’s stable for now.”
“Can I see him?” asked Mom.
“Just for a moment. And just you.” Dr. Whistler swept his hand forward, and Mom left the room with him.
The familiar nurse appeared. The ID hanging from a lanyard around her neck said her name was Lisa. With her was an older Filipino woman, also in scrubs. The nurses asked questions about the fire. Nathan closed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest but Mo and Bailey answered in scratchy voices.
“I woke up and then got Nathan,” said Mo when Lisa asked for the basic details.
“Dad got me,” Bailey explained. “The upstairs alarm didn’t go off, but the downstairs one must have woke him up.”
“. . . In that newer subdivision,” said Mo in response to another question from the nurses.
“. . . I was scared to jump. It took me so long to do it,” was Bailey’s reply to another.
Then Lisa asked how the fire started. “I have no idea,” Mo said quietly.
“It must have been horribly scary,” Lisa replied.
“So awful,” agreed the older nurse.
Before long, the doctor returned without Mom. He spoke softly with Lisa, then passed Mo’s bed and went straight to Nathan. He took the chart at the end of the bed and scanned the information, then examined Nathan’s feet while the nurse stood nearby. Mo didn’t like the grunts coming from the doctor.
Jordy’s little frame was giving off an uncomfortable amount of body heat. She wished he would move but didn’t want to wake him.
Dr. Whistler took a stethoscope from around his neck and fit the earpieces in place to listen to Nathan’s chest and back. He looked down Nathan’s throat and up his nose. “Your mother tells me you were quite a hero tonight,” the doctor said.
“That’s not true!” snapped Nathan, his voice roughened by smoke.
“Okay, okay.” Dr. Whistler sounded as though he was soothing a small child. He was in his late thirties, probably. Mo wondered if he had children of his own. “I know we always wish we could have done more in these situations, but you were a great help to your family.” The doctor paused and then said in a tone Nathan couldn’t argue with, “We’re going to keep the oxygen on for a while yet.” He motioned to the tube in Nathan’s nose. “And take care of these burns on the feet.”
“Okay, who’s next?” the doctor asked, obviously trying to sound cheerful. He looked in Mo’s direction. She pointed at Bailey, who’d spent more time in the burning house than she had. Mo strained to hear the doctor’s soft voice as he examined her sister at the bed on the other side of the room. Bailey didn’t have bad burns, thankfully, but she had inhaled a lot of smoke. The doctor told the nurses to give her more oxygen and some drug with a long name, which would help shrink the swelling in her airways.
Then Dr. Whistler examined Mo. The first-degree burns on her feet were like a nasty sunburn, he told her. The comparison made her feel rather ashamed. Nathan got it so much worse. The doctor ordered more oxygen for Mo, as well as the same drug Bailey would receive to help her lungs and throat.
Dr. Whistler turned to Jordy, who was asleep as though he was tucked under his covers at home. But there was no home, and he no longer had a bed of his own.
Once the doctor finished the exam, he left the room. A few minutes later, Mom walked back in.
“How’s Dad?” Mo asked her.
“He’s all bandaged up—his face and arms and hands.”
Bailey gasped. “Even his face?”“What did he say?” asked Nathan.
“Nothing. He was asleep when I got there.” Mom wandered over and sat on the edge of the empty bed in the far corner. “I couldn’t see if he had bandages anywhere else. That LPN didn’t know either, since she just came on shift. Mom placed her trembling hands on her thighs. “Just part of his face was bandaged.” She got up and walked the width of the room. “He seemed okay, though. I’m sure he’ll be okay. I know he needs his sleep to recover, but it sure would have been nice to hear a couple of words from him.”
The familiar nurse, Lisa, came in again. She looked at Mom, who still paced the room. “You all need to rest,” Lisa told her. “You’ve been awake all night. Is there someone you would like to call?”
“No,” Mom whispered. “Not at this time.”
“Should we take him to another bed, so Maury can rest easier?” The nurse pointed at Jordy.
Mom nodded. “I’ll come to that room too. He’ll be upset if he wakes in a strange place alone.”
“Of course,” the nurse replied.
Mom picked up Jordy. “Well Bear,” he said groggily. Mom grabbed the bear off the floor and gave it to him. He clutched the animal to his chest and laid his head back on her shoulder. She walked out of the room but appeared again a moment later. “I love you all. I’m sure if Dad was awake he would say the same thing. Just remember, we have what’s most important. She met each of their eyes and tightened her hold on Jordy. The rest is just stuff.” Then Mom left.
Lisa came back a few minutes later and straightened Mo’s bed sheets. “Try to sleep,” the nurse said. “How do your feet feel?”
Lisa looked at her hard.
Mo pressed her dry lips together. “Sore, tender,” she admitted.
She closed her eyes. The doctor had said first-degree burns would only take a few days to heal. She had no right to complain. Nathan’s burns were much worse, even though the doctor had said they were first degree as well. Mo was glad the nurses had given Nathan something for the pain.
What about Dad’s burns? She thought about how much pain he was going to be in. Mo couldn’t fathom why there were a bunch of factors beyond the doctors’ control. It’s almost the year 2000, for goodness sake! With all the amazing medical stuff available now, why can’t they help him more?
Mo felt Lisa’s hand smoothing her hair from her face. Then, as though the young nurse could read Mo’s mind, she said, “I’m sure your father will be doing better tomorrow and you can see him.” The nurse sounded much more confident than the doctor had, and she had an honest face. Wanting to believe her, Mo met her eyes and nodded.
Lisa left Mo’s bed and went to check on Nathan and Bailey. Images and sounds from the fire flashed through Mo’s mind. Picturing her first frustrating attempt to open her window brought tears to her eyes, and she wondered why that would bother her now. With brisk movements, she wiped away her tears.
Suddenly, the light went out and the nurse left the room, closing the door behind her.
Return to the Scene
Hotel rooms were always cramped, but when you shoved in an extra cot and had to call the place home, it was like living in a tin can. It hadn’t sunk in, not really. It felt like a forced vacation— like a trip to a cold, stormy beach, only worse since there was no option to go home.
Mo walked back and forth from the beds to the door. “Bailey! Hurry up! If we want to get a decent visit in with Dad before the youth activity, we need to go now.”
Bailey exited the bathroom with a thick strand of her long blond hair twirled around her index finger. She eased her finger out like she was dealing with something fragile, and a ringlet bounced at her shoulder. “Is it okay with you if I try to get my fried hair to look half decent?”
Mo exhaled sharply. Even though she’d thoroughly showered several times and gargled with salt water twice, she could still smell smoke. The scent reminded her of the nightmares that ruined her sleep the past three nights. The smell of smoke always seemed so strong in the dreams, the images of the fire so vivid.
Nathan held open the door to the room. He wore floppy moccasins on his bandaged feet. Mom grabbed the keys and her new purse, which looked rather flat without all the things she usually had in her handbag. Normally if Mo asked Mom if she had a Tylenol, or a pen or nail clippers or whatever, she could dig it out of her purse.
Mom took Jordy’s hand and they left the hotel room. Outside, the cold wind whipped Mo’s straight blond hair, sending a shiver up her neck. Her bangs blew into her eyes as she walked toward the van. Mom unlocked the doors, and everyone got in.
“Could we drive by . . .” said Nathan from the front passenger seat.
“Not today.” Mom stared straight ahead.
“I know it’s going to be awful,” he went on, “but aren’t you guys curious?”
“I want to see it,” Bailey said. Mom didn’t reply, so Bailey added, “Maybe it’s better to know than not know.”
Mo grunted. “By now, I bet everyone in town has driven by.”
“Besides, I want to get my car,” Nathan said.
Mom started the engine and then looked at him. “I’m not sure you should drive yet. Your feet . . .”
“Walking is worse than driving is going to be, and I’m allowed walking.”
“Minimal walking,” Mom corrected. After a pause, she sighed. “Okay, but what about your key?”
“My spare is on the ring you’re using. From the garage.”
The van’s smoky smell threatened to fling Mo back into the panic of her nightmares. She cracked the window an inch even though it was cold. She was wearing new clothes. They’d thrown away everything they’d worn the night of the fire, but the van still reeked.
Mom backed out of the parking stall and pulled onto the main road. They drove past the snow-covered golf course and then turned left into their subdivision. Each moment brought them closer to the view Mo both feared and longed for. The van crept along.
Finally, they pulled up in front of the house and parked at the curb behind Nathan’s little Toyota.
Police tape surrounding the house fluttered in the breeze. The front door and most of the front wall were missing. Drawn to the house as if by a magnet, Mo got out of the van and moved up to the tape.
“Where’s the door?” asked Jordy.
Mom mumbled a reply.
“Mommy, where’s the door?” he persisted. “Snow’s gonna get in.”
Mo stared at the blackened beams, four feet apart, then at the insulation that had spilled down from the walls and gathered on the floor. The fluffy stuff looked like burned cotton candy.
“Let’s go to my room,” Jordy declared, grabbing Mom’s hand. “Get my toys.”
“We can’t go inside. It’s not safe,” she explained.
“I want my Legos!”
“No.” Mom’s voice was thin.
Mo’s eyes moved to a bright-blue object on the floor. Her Social Studies binder. She remembered seeing something like this on the news. Paper blowing in a bombed-out building. It was in another part of the world where such things happened.
“Why?” whined Jordy.
Mo clenched her teeth.
“Shh,” Mom told him.
Their house didn’t belong. Not in St. Paul, Alberta, the friendliest town in the universe—the one location on the planet that had built a goofy spaceship landing pad. Mo bit her lip to keep it from quivering. This horrible sight—the burned-out house, surrounded in yellow tape—didn’t fit here. In her memory, the house looked just as it always had every day when it welcomed her after school. But in front of her eyes, it was utter devastation. Keep out! Danger!
Jordy asked, “Will a fireman go get my Legos?”
“Please hush,” said Mom.
Mo shook her head and turned to Nathan, whose expression was like stone. Jordy stood with both hands clutching the yellow police tape. Bailey hugged herself in a tight grip, a pale line of black cutting a path from the corner of her eye to the curve of her cheek.
We shouldn’t have come, Mo realized.
She thought of the scary-looking guy who sat on Main Street. He had stringy brown hair and missing teeth. She would cross the street to avoid walking in front of him. Either he was homeless, or he lived in the seedy hotel that Mom called an eyesore. Are we kind of like him now? Mo wondered.
“Mom,” said Jordy. “Mom!”
“Shh, Jordy. Just be quiet.”
Mo thought his grumble sounded a lot like his elephant imitation. He sat on the curb and dropped his head onto his knees. Bailey, Nathan, Mo, and Mom stood in silence for several minutes. The cold wind chilled Mo’s neck and seemed to blow right through her jeans. But she welcomed the numb.
She considered going down to her bedroom and imagined burnt insulation dropping from the walls and mixing with debris on the floor, pieces of her life scorched by fire. Class pictures, her favorite sweatshirt, that ceramic dog from their trip to Montana, her journal . . .Mom’s hand on her arm startled her. “Maureen. We’re leaving.” Mo looked to the street and saw Jordy buckled in his seat in the van. Nathan and Bailey stood by the Toyota. Mo closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. Mom hugged her tight and whispered, “I know.”
After a long moment, Mo opened her eyes and pulled away, but Mom met her gaze. “Keep telling yourself it’s just stuff, honey. We’ll get a new house just like we got new clothes.”
If You Liked This Sample and Want to Read MoreEnter the Draw For a Free Copy!