Empty. The house was empty. All the furniture was gone. All of the pictures, the knickknacks, everything was moved out. I climbed the stairs, just like I had done a thousand times. I walked down the hallway and into my room. Dust and soot settled on my empty walls and floor. This wasn’t the home I spent the last seventeen years in. It was just an empty shell. I pulled a permanent marker out of my back pocket and began to write on the walls, something I had never done because I was too afraid of my mom’s reaction. But at that moment, it didn’t matter. Song lyrics, love poems, even inside jokes between my best friends slowly filled my lifeless walls. All of my emotions about the past three weeks poured themselves onto my bedroom walls. When finished, I capped the marker and admired my work. All of my negative emotions, all of the pain and hurt, would be gone in twelve hours--just like the walls of my room. The thing about a house catching on fire is that it is usually reserved for TV dramas. The thing about someone setting your house on fire is usually reserved for R-rated mystery movies. But on September 13th, my small-town, average life, not unlike a TV drama or mystery movie, took an unexpected turn.
Screams. Panic. My dad was screaming from the first floor. “Grace! Get up!” Darkness covered my eyes. Rolling onto my side, I glanced at the alarm clock on my dresser. 3:39 AM. Dad, I thought, is it really time for school? “Grace, now!” I looked up at my ceiling. Thick black clouds began to cover the white stucco. I flung my legs over the bed and grabbed the nearest blanket. Pushing over my desk chair and piles of clothes, I swung open my bedroom door. I began running through the upstairs hallway, footsteps syncing up with my heartbeat. Halfway down the stairs, I heard it again. “Get your brother! Michael is still in bed!” I turned around, and began going back up the stairs. “Michael! Get up! Right now!” I yelled. Clouds of smoke brushed my head as I ran through his doorway. A groggy seven-year-old in dinosaur pajamas looked up at me through squinted eyes. “What?” he asked, but I had no time to answer. I grabbed him by the waist, and tossed him under my arm. Smoke burned my eyes and nose as I hobbled down the stairs with my fifty pound weight. When I reached the bottom, I saw smoke streaming out of the basement door and into the foyer, blocking the front door. Find a door, I thought. I put Michael down on the entrance mat to our kitchen door. I unlocked the deadbolt and finally the door. We stepped out onto the back deck, and the rush of chilly September night air surrounded us. “Call 911!” my dad yelled, and threw his cell phone at me. “176 Timbersprings Drive, Indiana PA,” I screamed into the phone. “Everyone is out,” I yelled, “but there is fire, it’s in the basement! Please hurry!” His Blackberry told me that it was 3:42 AM when I hung up on the dispatcher. My dad followed us out onto our back deck with the dog. “Did you call?” he asks, worried. But I can’t answer, I can only nod. Stillness.
Sirens. I was sitting in the back of the ambulance, holding Michael. My dad sat across from us in his own white sheet. “What took them so long,” I ask my dad, “it has to have been twenty minutes!” “It’s been 8 minutes, hun,” the ambulance driver tells me. Impossible. I’ve been sitting in the back of this ambulance for at least twenty minutes. More sirens. Michael is shivering, so I pull him closer. More sirens. I turn to my dad. “Why are they sending so many firetrucks?” I ask, but I don’t get an answer. I can’t see my house--they moved the ambulance. It is still standing? Why are there so many fire trucks? What was happening? What even started the fire? My mind was racing with questions, desperately trying to put pieces of logic together. Basement. Mom’s office is in the basement. The circuit breaker is in Mom’s office. Electrical. Electrical fire. Accident.
Morning. When I finally got out of the ambulance, it was light outside. Neighbors were gathering, staring, whispering. Stop staring, my mind screamed, but my mouth never moved--until I turned to look at my house. Broken glass carpeted the stairs leading to the front door. Firemen were moving in and out. Smoke billowed out of the broken windows of my room. Soon, people began coming up to me, each of their words running together in my mind, none of them making any sense. In my daze, I ran to find my dad. He was standing at the bottom of our driveway, talking to the fire marshal. As I approached my dad, one word finally found its way into my brain. “Arson,” said the fire marshal. Disbelief.
Nervousness. I sat patiently on the mustard-yellow couch of the waiting room. I was surrounded by State Troopers. “Miss Castro?” called Mr. Frew, the fire marshal, from behind the bullet-proof glass that protected the office. Apprehensive, I looked at my mom who sat on the opposite side of the couch. “Just tell him the truth,” she said, “you’ll be fine.” Passing through metal detectors, I entered a small office and sat on a wooden chair in the corner.
Enemies? How could I possibly have enemies, I thought. My parents mentioning the family business? Sure, I guess. Mentioning anyone wanting to kill them? Definitely not. What kind of people do you think we are, Mr. Frew? Everyone in my family is a good person. “No,” I answered politely when Mr. Frew asked. “But I hope you catch him,” I added at the end of the interview, “I hope he never sees the light of day again.”
Staring. I made the decision to come back to school on Tuesday, I thought it would help me get back to normal. Classmates, teachers, even lunch-ladies were looking at me, waiting for me to react or open up or burst into tears. What are you looking at, I thought defensively. Smoke, I thought. That’s it. They smell it on me. They must have read the article that headline that screamed out “Attempted Homicide” on front page. Channel 11 News. Channel 6. Channel 8. They must have seen it on the news this morning at breakfast. Dark circles. They see them under my eyes because I hadn’t slept in forty eight hours. Borrowed clothes. My usual uniform of jeans and brightly colored tie dye t-shirts was replaced with black sweatpants and dark, oversized hoodies that covered every inch of my body. I sat quietly through my classes that day, and even for the rest of the week.
“Unsalvageable,” I heard the contractor say about my house. My dad and I sat at the rented kitchen table in the rented kitchen of the rented house. The dinner I had just eaten began to churn in my stomach. Not my house, I thought. “We should go visit it one last time before they knock it down,” my dad turned and said to me. Knock it down? Tomorrow? Already? Fighting tears, I nodded.
Standing in the driveway, I watched the crane take apart the walls that once held family pictures, and more recently, my musings. In the rubble that used to be my house, I saw for the first time a potential for a new house, a new home, that would contain new memories. Beginnings.
I never got the smoke smell out of my favorite hoodie. Flames. Burned my memories, past and present.
Yesterday, my mom asked me what color I’d like to paint the walls in my new room. “I don’t know yet,” I responded, “maybe I’ll just write on them.”