I’m not usually this awkward. Really. I just didn’t say much because there was too much junk to contemplate.
I guess it sounds mean or dismissive to call it that — junk — but that’s what it was. No one could’ve used that blackened toaster tipped on its side or that pile of rubble that used to be a bookshelf. In what was once the family room, books had fallen on the ground, some open with their scorched pages whipping back and forth in the wind. The scene was an apocalyptic version of the photos I used to see in my mom’s Country Living magazines.
It sounds wrong, but I sorta wished the fire had reduced the house to even less, wished I was staring at a big old pile of ashes. Then I could go sit in the car and wait for a gust of wind to do the clean-up work, carry away the debris in a dust storm. It’d be a magic show — “Abracadabra!” Junk gone.
And I wouldn’t have to do a thing.
But the junk wasn’t gone, and I stood in front of blackened heaps while my Aunt Susan was off to my right, crying real hard. The kind of crying where a person’s face is crumpled and red like a mound of uncooked ground beef. My usual condolences — “Sorry” and “That sucks” — seemed a little off the mark, given the circumstances, so when I’d walked up the lawn, I defaulted to saying pretty much nothing.
Which maybe seemed callous to onlookers. I don’t know.
To my relief, one of the neighbors had shown up, too. She was a matronly, round-bodied woman who’d brought Susan a thermos of coffee and was rubbing circles into her back, murmuring reassurances and what-have-you. With Susan distracted, I had a few seconds to ingest the jagged, smoldering mess before us. Everywhere I looked, there was charred furniture — a chair chomped down to half its size, a sofa covered in sooty leopard spots. The air stank like a just-used fireplace.
“Oh, Dylan, I’m so glad you’re here,” Susan said, leaning past the neighbor. As she looked at me, her voice was tremulous, and I knew I was supposed to say something back. Yeah, I’m glad to be here didn’t feel quite right.
So I pivoted toward her, smiling grimly. “God, Susan, I-I’m really sorry.” I waited a beat, wondered what she was thinking as she rubbed her forehead on a shirtsleeve. Then impulsively, the words came out: “Should we maybe get you out of here…?” I scratched an ear that didn’t itch. “Go get breakfast or something? It sounds like it’ll be a couple hours before my mom and the others get here.”
Like most of our relatives, my parents lived almost three hours away. In fact, the only reason I lived so close now was because of school. It wasn’t like I actually saw Susan that much. We weren’t close per se. But, you know… she’d called my cell phone that morning, blubbering about a fire and could I come over?, and I’d stumbled out of my dorm room to be with her because I honestly liked Susan. Really. And we were family.
I didn’t think my aunt would actually want to go to breakfast. She even slanted her watery gaze at me like she was about to say no.
Then the neighbor cut in. “Aww, go with him, honey. The insurance agent will be poking around for a while yet, and the police and fire look about done. I’ll be around if anyone has questions. You should take a breather from all this.”
For a moment, Susan’s eyes dropped, and I still thought she’d decline, but when she lifted her head, her jaw was clenched. “Yeah, okay,” she said.
That was how we ended up in the car a few minutes later. My aunt was frozen in the passenger seat while I pulled away from the curb, frantically searching my brain for something to say. Not that my worrying really mattered — Susan was looking out the window, watching the trees, the morning joggers, and the passing houses. ‘Watching’ but probably not seeing. I could hear her breathing.
In hindsight, I should’ve driven her some place nice, but in the moment, I unthinkingly steered us toward the donut shop next door to the local drugstore. At the time, my logic was good: Susan needed something with sprinkles on it. Something with color to counterbalance all that blackness at her house.
We were just at the end of her block when, out of nowhere, she said, “They don’t know exactly what started it. The firemen said it looked like an electrical fire.”
I dropped my foot on the brake as we approached a red stoplight just outside the neighborhood. And it was then that Susan turned. Suddenly clamped a hand on my arm. I felt her palm (clammier than I’d expected) pressing into my elbow and her eyes harpooning the side of my face.
Her voice got real quiet and faraway. She looked at me and said something I’ll never forget.
“You know, Dylan… there’s a part of me that’s glad to see it all go. Lord, it feels wrong. I can’t even explain it…”
Only she didn’t need to explain it — I knew what she meant. I thought of how I lived three hours from home and could still imagine the leathery scent of my parents’ living room couch. How my childhood dog, Murphy, died last year, but I could still remember the feeling of his wrinkly fur under my fingertips. It was like once something was gone, then you knew it was invincible.
I nodded because I got her. I really did. I just couldn’t figure out how to say so.
Chelsea Resnick is a Texas-born, Kansas-bred writer. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, she has worked as a greeting card editor, a children’s book editor, and a short story writer for an educational publisher. Her pieces have been published by Hallmark Gift Books, StressFree Living Magazine, and XZR English, among others. Chelsea currently lives with her family in North Carolina where she works as a freelance writer. She also maintains a blog focused on writing and creative inspiration.