When I Was A Child, I Knew My House Would Burn

When Mom was a little girl with too much on her shoulders—”more than any child should have to deal with, you’ve got it so easy”—her house burned twice. Two summers in a row. Or that’s how I heard it. The walls started seeping smoke. She dreamed of popcorn before waking to find the crackling was the paint searing off of the front porch. She screamed before the smoke choked her. Mom corralled her parents and little siblings to safety—and bug bites.

In the year between burns Mom believed she was safe. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, she thought. But she was wrong because anything can happen to anyone. Again she woke in the night, flames tearing at her home. How could she sleep again?

Mom sleepwalks and sleep talks with nothing nice to say. Between marriages, Mom begged every last one of us to sleep with her, “Just another body in bed, please.” When her doorbell rang at midnight, a neighbor boy having a crisis, Mom drew a gun from the nightstand, sleeping with it drawn for days after. It took me hours to convince her to at least keep the safety on. In short, Mom’s house burned twice because anything can happen to anyone, and to forget that is to let yourself burn.

So by five I had a plan. My room was upstairs in the rickety farmhouse. My escape route: a double-decker wrap-around porch going green with mold, in need of a power washing that would never come. My big sister, twelve years older, promised I’d be safe. Anything can happen to anyone, but she had the fastest legs at the high school, and when she set her jaw, the world would bend to her will. She said I’d be safe, and I knew it was true. We walked on the second story of the porch, plotting. She sat me on the railing and pointed. “I’ll jump down first. Then I’ll catch you.” She spread her arms wide to show me how easy she’d make it; from flames to her embrace, I could see it happening, knew it would. “You’ll be okay. But will you be brave enough to jump?”

When Mom was a little girl, she jumped off the roof. It was before the first burn. She jumped again and again, each time with an umbrella that would soon be torn and smashed. She jumped, hoping to fly. Grandpa thought she’d lost her mind. Come spring, they had to buy new umbrellas.

“Why’d you keep jumping?”

“Each time, for a second, I flew.”

Then the house burned twice because anything can happen to anyone except flight.

My big sister, sixteen, rolled the car into a ditch and couldn’t get out. When she was freed from the torn metal and returned home, I knew the fire had to come soon. Anything can happen to anyone, and if she was taken from me before the flames came, I’d be doomed. My big sister, eighteen, slept holding scissors behind a locked door because a big man had put poison in a drink to weaken her will and slow her legs. My big sister, twenty-three, emailed me every day. She couldn’t come home because she couldn’t face the sleepwalking, but she talked me through nights until I, too, could leave. My big sister, twenty-eight, had a baby girl. She never mentioned the the twice-burned house to her child.

When I was a child, I knew my house would burn, and I made plans and couldn’t sleep. I sang “Stop Drop and Roll” through the night, waiting. Now when we all go home to visit, Mom and I are the last to bed. We stand in the kitchen like actors waiting for our cue. It will come, we’re sure. Eventually, the night gets hazy, and Mom talks about being small and the smoke and how much her shoulders ache.



Image: “eppny” by woodleywonderworks, licensed under CC 2.0.


Cole Chamberlain
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