A slight figure stood barefoot in the night. I stopped short. A street light hummed insistently. The fact she was out alone at this hour was troubling. Her hair smelled like smoke. Not the clean woodsy scent of a campfire. The potent, acrid stench of insulation, plastic, and desperation. Fire was an adversary I knew so well that I had forgotten how to hate it. This child had been in a house fire. Recently.
“Hey there sweetheart. Are you hurt? ” I crouched, trying not to frighten the girl. She was wearing a frilly nightgown. It was soot covered and singed. Shoulders hunched, she didn’t reply. The streetlamp cast a pool of warm light behind her. She clung to the shadows.
I tried again. “Where are your parents?” She stared silently at the sidewalk, stringy auburn hair obscuring her face. “It’s ok. My name’s Andy. I’m a fireman.”
She refused to meet my eye. Her only reaction was to clutch the bundle in her arms tight. Curious, I peered closer. She held an old fashioned baby-doll, wrapped in a knitted blanket. 1940’s style. It reminded me of the collection my mom was hanging onto. I hated them with their creepy painted hair and eyes. Mom claimed she’d give them to my daughter someday, and then she’d sigh, awkwardly changing the subject. She pretended she didn’t know I volunteered for the fire department solely to be near David. Unfortunately, he barely noticed me. I was such an idiot.
The child clasped the doll to her chest like a shield, warding off dangerous unknowns, lurking in the night. One blue eye with stenciled lashes stared up at me. Half of the hard plastic face was melted, warping the visage into a blackened, grisly nightmare. I shuddered. The sight was fright show disturbing.
I reached forward with exaggerated slowness, careful not to touch the girl. I tucked a loose corner of the blanket around the ghastly doll. “There you go. Best to keep baby warm.” The girl’s shoulders dropped a little. I recognized the stance; she was starting to relax. I tried to keep my voice casual, undemanding, masking the urgency I felt. “Honey, where was the fire?”
The girl flinched as if struck. She finally looked at me. When she met my gaze, my heart lurched. The complex burden of emotion she bore was too weighty for a child. I wanted to draw her into my arms, sweep away the sorrow that haunted her eyes. I tried to read her features. There was more than grief and fear, something hard to identify. Guilt? I sat down, cross-legged on the sidewalk. A bold, if scraggly, daisy struggled to stay rooted in a fissure in the concrete.
“Sometimes things are hard. Bad things happen that we can’t control.” Her dark eyes latched onto me, hooded and unreadable. I gestured to the shabby blossom. “But look at that flower. He’d probably rather live in a nice sunny meadow, right?” I paused and was rewarded with a solemn nod. “But he can’t because this is where the seed landed. So he makes the best of things. He’s brave enough to bloom, right here in the crack in the sidewalk.” Her chubby, tentative fingers reached out, hovering above the white petals.
“Do you think that you can be brave too? Can you tell me what happened?” I held my breath.
“She let me borrow her dolly. She said I could play with baby, only if we were friends. Forever.” She choked out a hoarse, broken whisper. “I didn’t know she’d make a fire.” Remorse twisted her face. Fat tears welled, caught up in long eyelashes.
“Oh, sweetie. It’s not your fault. I promise.” Instinctively I reached for her but she shied back. I dropped my hand back in my lap. “Can you show me where the fire was?”
The girl considered for an eternity, studying my face. Measuring. I wondered what she read there. Her grave stare made her seem older than her years. An impossibly ancient and otherworldly soul in the body of a seven year old. Between one heartbeat and the next, she nodded, satisfied. Time snapped into fast forward as she turned up the closest driveway. I scrambled after her. Behind us the buzzing street light flickered and died.
The duplex seemed familiar, yet skewed somehow, a mirror image of expectation. The whole development was filled with cookie cutter houses, in varying shades of siding. In the 40’s it had all been military housing. When the base closed, some opportunistic developer turned it into affordable condos. Barely affordable. I should know; I was paying the mortgage on half of a duplex of my own. I had a right hand door. We went in a left hand one. As expected, the layout reflected exactly opposite of my place.
As we moved through the darkened entryway, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Something was off. I glanced around at the living room. On a credenza, a bouquet of tulips in a glass mason jar leant a homey feel. The place wasn’t fancy, but tidy and comfortable. There was no evidence of a fire, recent or otherwise. In the distance a siren wailed. It was faint, an echo of a memory. I reached to check my pager, but I must have left it on the counter at home. Momentarily lightheaded, I grabbed the table to steady myself, nearly knocking over the vase of daffodils. I rubbed my temples, battling a growing sense of unease.
We headed down the hallway to a bedroom. Stuffed animals covered the pink comforter. A small desk held a bucket of crayons and markers. My odd little companion sat down at the desk, ignoring me. She began to work on a half finished drawing of a house on a large sheet of construction paper. I looked closer. No, it was a duplex. A stick figure slept in a bed, a baby doll in her arms. A second stick figure was lighting fire to the carpet. It was blue, just like the one under our feet. The child selected a black crayon. Furiously she scribbled curling smoke, pressing so hard the paper tore. Her whole body shook. I reached out and gently covered her hand with mine.
Heat blasted me. The air was searing. I couldn’t see any flames, but I could hear the hungry crackling inching closer. Thick smoke filled my lungs and I coughed. I tried to cover my face with my pajamas but they were starting to smolder. I gasped, unable to breathe. A voice in my head was screaming at me to move. Now! My limbs were leaden. When the flames kissed my skin there wasn’t enough air left in my lungs to scream.
I yanked my hand back. The skin was smooth, whole. I could still smell the scorched hair, the searing flesh. What the hell? The vision had felt real. The memory of the phantom pain ached. The little girl was watching me again with her calculating stare. She had a green crayon in her hand. She closed the coloring book. The turtle she had been shading was nearly complete.
“Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!” A singsong voice called from the hallway. The girl, Jesse, jerked and dropped the crayon.
“She’s coming.” Terror flashed across her face.
“Who are you?” The girl in the doorway could have walked out of a 1940’s photograph. Shirley Temple curls, baby doll dress, and all in breathing Technicolor. One hand on her hip, a pout puckered on her face.
“I’m Andy. Who are you?” A shiver rippled up my spine.
“Margaret. And you aren’t supposed to be here, Andy.” She was bossy. Angry. Fire flashed in her eyes. “I loaned Jesse my doll and she said we’d be friends forever.” Rage flowed from her in waves of heat. The wallpaper started to bubble. “You can’t take her away.” Wood snapped and popped as the bed caught fire. Margaret’s features changed. The blonde curls shriveled, her yellow dress became scorched and tattered. The side of her face blackened, flesh charring, distorting into a horrific parody of the melted doll’s face. Her eyes were twin infernos, blazing in uncanny fury. I opened my mouth to scream, but choked on bitter smoke. Across the room, dark eyes in an unnaturally pale face, Jesse mouthed “Run!” I turned on my heel and fled.
The flames chased me down the hallway, racing across the ceiling. The fire leapt from wall to couch, to table. It was a thing alive. The crystal vase of daisies shattered, raining splinters of glass as I hurtled through the living room. Just ahead of me the door loomed. Close. Not close enough. With an ear splitting crack, a beam fell, the fiery wood barring the way. The crackling of the fire sounded like laughter. Maniacal. Victorious. I was trapped.
I bit back a panicked shriek as a small, icy hand slipped into mine. Jesse’s long red hair floated in the currents of the heated air. She tugged, pulling me into the kitchen. “Through here.” Her voice was ragged and wheezy as she pointed towards the wall. The blaze had nibbled through the drywall, devouring the insulation. My fingers scrabbled, tearing at the charred plaster, forcing my way through the narrow gap into the apartment next door. I burst free, skittering across the floor in my bare feet.
I staggered, arms windmilling, in my own kitchen. The wall behind me was whole, unblemished. I laid a trembling hand on the hideous orange wallpaper I’d never had the time to replace. I collapsed, the fading adrenaline leaving me queasy. I pressed my forehead against the cool linoleum. Bunching my fists in my pajamas, I let out a breathy shadow of a laugh. What a vivid bitch of a nightmare.
I poured myself a tumbler of water and headed back to bed. I’d call mom in the morning, convince her to get rid of those awful dolls. I wouldn’t be able to look at one without freaking out. I took a sip from the glass and grimaced. The water tasted ashy. Time to change the carbon filter.
Stepping into the bedroom the scent of burnt flesh hit me like an uppercut to the face. I gagged, throwing my arm up over my nose. A scorched body smoldered in my bed, lipless jaws stretched wide in a silent scream. A familiar scrap plaid flannel was wrapped around one leg. He had been wearing my pajamas. I dropped the glass and for the second time that night, I fled.
I sped through my apartment, barely noticing the charred walls and blackened furniture. I whipped out the door straight into the aftermath of pandemonium. The yard was boiling with people, moving with purpose, but not urgency. The neighbors clung to each other in disbelief. Smoke still billowed lazily from our duplex, but the crew was rolling up the hoses. The fire was out.
David stumbled by me, stripping off helmet and oxygen mask. I followed him out to the sidewalk. He sank to his knees, crushing the daisy growing out of the crack. He buried his face in his hands, mumbling my name. I reached for him, but cold, pallid fingers held back my arm. Jesse shook her head. Her eyes brimmed with sorrow, shadowed with pity.
“Margaret didn’t mean to kill you too, Andy.” Her voice rasped apologetic. “She’s been lonely for so long. She didn’t know you were sleeping next door.”
Her words washed over me. I felt detached. Too bad I had to die for David to notice me.
The street light flickered on, humming. The light beckoned. I took a step. Glancing at Jesse, I held out my hand. “Come with me.”
“I can’t. I promised I’d be her best friend.” She smiled sadly. “Forever.” She gave me a gentle push. “Go ahead. They’re waiting.”
The humming streetlamp burst into song. I stepped into the light and the brilliance claimed me.