Read an Excerpt
Chris heard a loud thump. The furnace had turned on: soon warmth would begin to flow through the rickety little house. She wrinkled her nose, then remembered that heaters always smelled of burning dust and soot the first day they operated. She returned her fingers to the laptop keys, and her concentration to the last chapter of her story about a twelve-year-old boy named Jake. After seven rewrites, Jake was finally about to enjoy some resolution to the previous 122 pages of pubescent tribulation he'd suffered in his first year of junior high school.
This was her fourth attempt at a young adult novel, and Chris knew she was getting closer. Of earlier attempts editors had used such words as brisk, lively, smooth. Also words such as awkward, unresolved, clumsy in places.
She stopped typing and wrinkled her nose again. Should it smell that bad? She had asked the landlord if the furnace should be serviced or cleaned before she set the thermostat, but he'd assured her it was fine. Of course, he said everything was fine, and this old rat-trap was anything but. To be fair, she had never actually seen a rat, but she had swept up plenty of suspicious little pebbles, which she assumed were mouse turds. The traps she set, however, remainedthank you, Godabandoned.
She and the children had made do with oven heat until now, waiting as long as possible before turning on central heat. Utility bills were hard on a Christmas budget, and, when you got right down to it, hers was hardly a budget. But the temperature might drop to freezing tonight, and sleeping bags alone wouldn't keep the kids warm.
She looked at the kitchen clock. Nearly midnight. Her eyes were scratchy, but tonight she was determined to finish the last chapter. To be published finally? Much of this great push, she had to admit, was for Jake himself, a great kid who deserved a resolution that was not awkward or clumsy in places. As did she.
As for publishing, the responses she collected had been consistently more encouraging, asking her to send future work. "Write what you know," a writing instructor had advised. Chris certainly knew what it was like to be twelve, to be struggling for self-reliance while simultaneously fighting feelings of incompetence. She knew this dilemma even better at twenty-seven.
The shrill siren of the smoke detector interrupted her musings. The sound wrapped strangling fingers around her heart and squeezed. Stunned, she looked up from the gridlock of library books, photocopied magazine articles and her laptop on the kitchen table. Through the kitchen door, her wide eyes quickly scanned the little living room with its two beanbag chairs, old television, clutter of secondhand toys and card table littered with the remnants of the macaroni-and-cheese dinner she had given the kids hours earlier.
And there, from the floor vents in the living room, poured smoke.
She bolted from the chair, fairly leaped to turn off the thermostat and raced into her kids' room. She grabbed one in each armfive-year-old Carrie and three-year-old Kyle.
"There's a fire in the house," she said, hustling them through the thick smoke and toward the door. "We have to get outside, quick." As she rushed past the smoking vents, she prayed the situation wasn't as grim as it looked. Maybe it was only dirt? Soot? Dead bugs? But she didn't pause in her flight out the front door.
Only when they were safely outside did she stop to take stock of her predicament. The neighborhood was dark. Even in broad daylight it left something to be desired; at night it seemed almost threatening. There was not so much as a yard light shining. Her seven-year-old Honda sat on the street, and she opened the car door, nearly threw the kids inside and reached into the back seat for a blanket. "Wrap up in this, Carrie. Wrap Kyle up, too. Come on, that's a girl. I have to get someone to call the fire department. Don't get out of the car. Don't. Do you hear?"
Kyle started to whimper, rubbing his eyes. Carrie pulled the blanket around her little brother and nodded to her mother. Then she began to comfort Kyle with little crooning, motherly sounds of "'s'okay 's'okay ."
Chris slammed the car door shut and ran to the house next door. Like her own house, it was small, ramshackle and in need of a paint job. She rang the bell and pounded on the front door. After a minute or two she gave up, ran to the house across the street and began ringing and pounding and yelling. She was panicked. How long do you wait for someone to get up? She jumped from one foot to the other, cursing her decision to cancel her cell phone because it cost too much money. No light came on at this house, either. "Come on, c'mon! Anybody home?" The porch light across the street went on, where she had begun. "Damn," she muttered, turning away from the door to run. The porch light behind her came on. "Jeez," she hissed, doubling back.
A sleepy, unshaven and angry-looking man opened the door. He was holding his robe closed over boxer shorts. That was when Chris remembered she was wearing only an extralarge T-shirt, moccasins and her undies. Purple silk undies, to be precise. That was it.
"Call the fire department," she begged her unsavory-looking neighbor. "The furnace is on fire. My kids are in my car. Hurry. Hurry!"
She turned and ran back to her car. She opened the door. "Are you okay?" They looked like two little birds peeking out from under the blanket.
"Mommy, what about Cheeks?" Carrie asked.
"Cheeks is in the backyard, sweetie. He's okay." She lifted her head to listen. "He's barking. Hear him?"
Carrie nodded, and her yellow curls bounced. "Can Cheeks come in the car with us?"
"I'll get him in a minute. You stay right here. Promise?" Again Carrie nodded. "I'll be right back. The fire truck is on its way. Pretty soon you'll hear the siren."
"Will our house burn down?"
"Burn down?" Kyle echoed.
"It'll be okay. Stay here now. I'll be right back."
Chris knew it was stupid to go back into a burning building; people died that way. But under these circumstances, she rationalized, it wasn't entirely stupid. First of all, she had seen only smoke, no other evidence of a bona fide fire. Second, the house was so tiny that the kitchen table, where her laptop and all her research lay, couldn't be more than ten steps inside the front door, which she intended to leave open in the event she had to make a fast getaway. Third, she wasn't going inside unless it looked relatively safe.
She heard the distant trill of the siren. The station was only about a mile away. She would be quick. And the smoke was not terrible, not blinding or choking. She had a plan.
She filled her lungs with clean air and bolted toward the kitchen. Even if the whole house burned to a cinder, the refrigerator would remain intact, like the bathtub in a tornado, right? Since she couldn't possibly gather up all her materials and her laptop and get them out of the house in one trip, she opened the refrigerator door and started heaving papers into it. It wasn't even supposed to be a long book. How had she ended up with so much stuff? And the booksthe sourcebooks and expensive reference volumeswent in next. One marked Sacramento Public Library landed in the butter dish, but she didn't have time for neatness. She yanked out a half gallon of two-percent milk to make room for a pile of photocopied pagesthe sirens were getting closerand replaced a jug of apple juice with the large, old dictionary she had gotten at a garage sale. The sirens seemed to be winding down.
Suddenly Chris started feeling woozy. The laptop, she thought dimly. Could she carry it out? But things started to blur. She looked toward the vents. That sucker, she thought remotely, was really smokin' .
The first fire engine stopped behind an old green Honda, and the men sprang off. The truck with ladders and hydraulics was right behind. As his men pulled a hose to a hydrant, Captain Mike Cavanaugh glanced at the burning house and approached the man in boxer shorts and a ratty bathrobe who stood on the curb. The furnace, he'd been told. He saw heat waves come off the roof. A furnace fire could have started in the basement, but in these old houses without fire-stops there could be an attic fire already. The ladder company would go up. Over his shoulder he called, "Take the peanut line in to fog it, and we'll open up the top." Then he turned to the bathrobed man. "Anyone in the house?"
"It ain't my house. Some woman's house. She's only lived there a couple of months. Them's her kids, there."
"Did you call it in?"
"Yeah, she was pounding on my door, said her furnace was on fire and her kids was in the car."
Mike felt someone tugging on his coat, and looked down. The face that stared up at him jarred him, almost cut through him. A little blond girl with the face of an angel, a face something inside him seemed to remember. She wore pajamas with feet, and beside her was a similarly attired little boy, one hand dragging a blanket and one hand holding on to his sister's pajamas.
"Our mother's in the house," she said. "She told us to stay in the car."
"Then you'd better get back in the car," he said. "I'll get your mother." He spoke gently, but he broke into a run, pulling at the mouthpiece of his air pack so he could cover his face. "There's a woman in there," he informed a firefighter nearby. "Number 56 will initiate rescue. Take over incident command." The man, Jim Eble, turned to pass the word.
"Women," Mike muttered. Women invariably thought there was something worth saving in a fire. Usually a purse or some jewelry, but sometimes they were goofy enough to go back after a pair of shoes, or a robe.
Even these thoughts left him totally unprepared for what he found just steps inside the front door: a small woman, her thick, wavy hair in a fat ponytail, wearing only slippers, an oversize T-shirt and purpleyes, purplesilk underwear. He knew about the underwear because she was actually bending over, digging in the refrigerator, in a house cloudy with smoke.
He tapped her on the shoulder. "What are you, hungry?" Through his mask it came out something like "Bflust uurrr doooo, flungee?"
When she turned toward him he instantly recognized the ashen pallor and the glassy eyes. She coughed, her knees buckled, and he put his hands on her waist. She folded over his shoulder like a duffel bag. He supposed she might toss her cookies down his back; it wouldn't be the first time.
He pointed that purple silk rump toward the front door. It was right beside his ear, creating an indelible impression even in the midst of chaos.
Once he got her outside, he put her down by the rear of the engine and pulled down his mask. "Anyone else in the house?" he barked.
"Cheeks is in.. " she wheezed and choked " the backyard."
"Cheeks?" he asked.
"Dog wirehaired terrier," she managed. She gagged and fell against Jim, who held her shoulders and backed her up to the tailboard of the engine so she could sit down.
"I'll get the dog," Mike said to his friend. "Furnace is in the basement. We'll have to go down. Right smack in the middle of the house. That's not a new roof." He headed toward the backyard.
"Here," said Jim, pushing a mask toward Chris. "You'll feel a little better after some oxygen."
Chris decided this fireman was much gentler than the one who'd deposited her on the sidewalk. But his voice seemed to become smaller and more distant as her head whirled and her stomach flipped. She abruptly leaned away from him and lost her dinner and several cups of coffee in the street. Bracing a hand on the tailboard, she heaved and shuddered. The man handed her a bunch of gauze four-by-fours to wipe her mouth. "Sometimes you feel a lot better after that." He touched her back. "It'll be okay now. Take it easy."
Chris, mortified, accepted the wipes and mopped her nose and mouth, meanwhile dying of all kinds of embarrassment. A large green trash bag miraculously appeared and covered the mess. All of this, she assumed, must be standard business at a fire.
"Is our mother sick?" Carrie asked in a small voice.
"Mama?" came Kyle's echo.
The fireman hunkered down and smiled into their little faces. "Naw, not really. She smelled too much smoke, and it made her sick to her stomach. She feels better now. Dontcha, Mom?"
She straightened up, eyes closed, and nodded. She couldn't speak yet, but she felt her pea-green face turning red. The irony was not lost on her that her house was burning down, and all she felt was shame because she was wearing practically nothing and had thrown up in the street.
"Our mother is going to be upset if her book burns up," Carrie told the fireman.
"Well, now, we can always get another book, can't we? But it sure would be hard to find another mommy as special as this one. That's why we never go back into a house where there's a fire."
"Our mother is typing her book, and it takes a very long time and is very hard to do," Carrie informed him rather indignantly.
As the fireman glanced at Chris, she stretched her T-shirt down over her thighs. She was recovering now. "Never mind that, Carrie. The fireman is rightI should not have gone back into the house. It was very dangerous and very stupid." She looked up at the fireman. "I don't suppose you have a drink of water?"
"Well," he said, standing and looking around, "water is pretty hard to come by."
She noticed three different hoses reaching across the lawn toward her smoking house and shook her head.
"I'll ask a neighbor," he said, moving away.
A minute or two later he returned with a paper cup. After she had taken a few swallows she noticed that he was holding a blanket toward her. "Thanks," she said, trading the water for the cover. "If I'd known you were coming, I would have dressed."
"No problem," he said. "Besides, you don't have to be embarrassed by those legs," he added as he turned away. The blanket, thankfully, reached her ankles.
"Whoa!" came a baritone shout, followed by a crashing sound.
Part of the roof where men had been poking opened up, and flames leaped out. Two firefighters came shooting out the front door of the house, then two others dragged a larger hose in. They were everywhereinside, outside, on the roof.
It was amazing, Chris thought. Just a few minutes ago she'd only seen a little smoke. Now there was a great deal more than smoke; redorange flames were eating up the little house.
Out of the darkness the tall fireman who had saved her life approached them with a silver ball of fur that went grrrr in his arms. He handed Cheeks to Chris. Cheeks, very particular about who carried him around, snarled and yapped in transit. He was cranky.