The flashing red lights whipped through a crack in the curtains at half-second intervals. I huddled under a thin, thermal blanket on the hardwood floor of my brothers’ room. My bedroom was to be given for the night to our next-door neighbors who were called back home from an evening out by their stunned and repentant teenaged children.
The fire was not their fault.
The din of voices crept up our stairs from the kitchen like a fog of malevolent spirits. “Where is Schatzie?” Mrs. Sullivan kept asking over the sobs of her son, Jimmy. The little schnauzer had been my friend and partner before the house fire that claimed his life. “I’m so sorry Mom!” mingled with the fog and slithered under the door of the room, echoing in my ears.
My brothers and I talked for a while in the thickness of the dark in an attempt to dispel the shock that rode the invading red strobe of the firetrucks lights. Knowing it was futile, we fell into uneasy silence, not approaching sleep, but trying to discern the events that led to our pajama-clad neighbor bursting through our back door earlier that evening.
While we were blessed that it had not been our house that burned, the fire came on the heels of some difficult times for us kids. We had moved from New York to North Carolina away from friends and relatives, we had changed schools once since the move, and had suffered the unexpected death of our mother. Although our dad was a steady presence in our lives, he was consumed with grief and the weight of a new job. The fire was the last in a line of shocks that shook loose the fragile roots of predictability in our lives.
I slept with lights ablaze for years hence, trying to ward off the notion that I would not be preserved from death or fire or fate.