By mid-afternoon there is nothing left of the garage but charred wood and heat-warped tin. Three firefighters, her mother and four neighbors speak of how lucky no one is hurt and that the fire hadn’t spread and that someone spotted the flames.
The someone is eleven-year-old Connie. But for reasons unknown, her mother led everyone to understand she was on the scene, omitting her arrival home minutes before the rural volunteers reached the acreage. The fabrication compounded. Her mother said she sent Connie to phone for help while she located Tanya, playing in the sandbox, unaware of danger. A heroine emerges in the smoky lie; Connie’s mother.
The sandbox, obscured by a fallen wall, is only used by barn cats as a place to shit, but the convincing power of the story is strong enough that even Connie pictures Tanya as an innocently playing toddler and not the eight-year-old that finds sandboxes boring.
Connie remembers herself at eight because that’s when her mother left. At that time she put together meals and did laundry when her father was not trucking, and she was not with her aunt. The way her mother tells it, when she came back after three years, she fit like a puzzle piece that is returned to the open spot.
But the picture is changed. Connie is supposed to think of Tanya as her new sister but her aunts whisper that she’s some kid of a hook-up; no more than a stray. Stray is a name for creatures that wander in. It isn’t hard to picture Tanya crossing a path into her mother’s attention. Tanya cannot go a day without trauma, drama, or meanness. Connie is everyone’s good girl.
Tanya is introduced to the neighborhood as part of their back-together-again family. Tanya could not be left behind; she is the same as a daughter. It leaves Connie hollowed. Her mother could. Leave a daughter behind.
After supper Tanya is tucked into bed. Connie too is sent to bed but cannot rest. She tiptoes downstairs. Her mother is on the phone with her father. The fire could have started by a wiring problem. Or an underground fire had flared up. You couldn’t really tell.
Connie could tell. Tanya taunted her, by taking the matches. It had been up to Connie to stop the younger girl. But Connie turned away like people do when they encounter a stray. She couldn’t tell; not without the whole truth and truth is a house of cards.
Connie waits until the house is dark. There is no parental bedtime check for her. She slips outside.
The flicker reaches into the handful of grass and a tongue of fire caresses the dry wood. Connie watches as her wooden match curls into the fire. Her story begins. The garage fire must have flared up, and a spark leapt to the house. She had been searching for her missing cat. She couldn’t leave it outside in danger; it’s like a sister to her.
Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta, Canada.