Jeffrey could hear the sirens from two blocks away. The fire had a definite smell; it was raw and earthy…he peddled faster. The sirens were behind him now, he pulled the old brown Schwinn he’d borrowed over to allow the fire engines to pass. He wondered if he could get a ticket for halting their expedient passage to the fire. People were standing on the street, looking over towards the block where his house stood. Police were putting up barriers to stop traffic. He looked up into the sky and could see billowing smoke, it was a dark gray color. Under the smoke, he could see the tips of flames dancing as if to an exotic song, orange, red, yellow, they could have been beautiful, if not so dangerous. The September winds were carrying pieces of ash, they were creating layers upon the neighborhood on cars and houses. By tomorrow they would leave evidence of a torrid night. The fire looked as if it could be coming from Cedar Avenue, his street, but it couldn’t be. It’s probably like the moon, it always seems so close, but it’s really lightyears away, he thought.
“Stop!” an officer yelled at him.
“I live here, I’m trying to get home,” Jeffrey explained.
“You’re going to have to wait,” a chill ran down his body, he could feel it through his extremities.
I have to get home, he thought.
Earlier that same day, Jeffrey tossed his sweater and backpack on the kitchen table, as he did everyday after school. He began to rifle through the cupboards in the pantry in search of sweet and salty treats, popcorn, cookies, chips. A day of school can churn up an appetite, he felt like a bear who stumbled upon a picnic, only to find he’s late. “Mom! Where’s the snacks?” he waited for an answer, but it was so silent you could hear cotton balls bounce. The quiet won Jeffrey’s curiosity and he walked through the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room. He stepped past the dining room, into the living room where he noticed his mother’s favorite magazines strewn about on the coffee table. They seemed to be placed as if she’d been looking through them but didn’t have time to restack them neatly on the bottom shelf of the coffee table, their usual place. There was a cup of coffee with a spoon resting near the magazines on a dish, as if she’d just stirred it and again didn’t have time to put the coffee cup in the sink. The curiosity was building, the only thing odder than his mother not being in the house was a full cup of coffee. “Mom!” he yelled out again, his shouting woke up the cat who was sleeping at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms. “Hey Raindrop, where’s everyone?” he asked the now awakened cat as she gave a long stretch, only for her to find a new sleeping position. Raindrop got her name from her unusual cat habit of playing in the rain. Whenever drops begin to fall from the sky, she would scratch to be let out and Jeffrey would watch her frolicking in and stepping on raindrops.
After inspecting the upstairs rooms with no sign of his parents, brother or sister, Jeffrey plopped himself down in front of the t.v. and found himself mindlessly skipping through channels. He opted to stop looking for another human being and decided to take advantage of the alone time that was bestowed upon him.
Take a deep breath, he commanded himself. What are the odds that it’s your house?
He could feel the familiar sensation of his cell phone vibrating in his pocket, that’s weird, who calls? He fished the phone out of his back pocket and could see the call was from his mother.
“Where are you?” she did not sound happy.
“You were supposed to pick up your sister, where were you?”
“I forgot! Is Chrissy okay?” Jeffrey silently prayed to himself.
“She didn’t want to get you in trouble, so she tried to walk home by herself, she’s only seven,” my mom sounded scared.
“Is she okay?” please God, let her be ok…
“She got hit by a kid on a bike and she hurt her arm,” my mother started to cry.
“Where are you, I’ll go right now,” Jeffrey felt desperate.
“We’re on our way to St. Mathews Hospital, but just stay there. There’s nothing you can do,” Jeffrey could hear his mother take a shaky breath, just before she clicked off.
He took an Uber to St. Mathews, the driver left him off down the street because of the traffic in front of the hospital. There were fire trucks and police cars, he’d overheard a passerby talking about a multicar accident two streets over on Tyler Blvd. Jeffrey was relieved to finally arrive to the front of the hospital, the automatic doors opened, and he passed through. He remembered the last time he’d been in St. Mathew’s. It was when Chrissy fell off her bike and suffered a concussion. He’d felt responsible for that too. His mother had asked him to make sure she wore a helmet, and he was too busy playing with his friends, and forgot, the same as today. Please let her be okay.
Jeffrey found the front desk, thankfully someone was there and no line, “I’m looking for my sister, Christine Blake. She was in a bike accident?”
The man working the information desk was in his 50s, with thrick gray hair, he wore black college framed glasses. Jeffrey noticed that he had on a tie, I guess he takes his job seriously, he thought. “Have you checked emergency? I don’t see her name in the computer,” he continued to check, “how is her name spelled?” he asked.
After spelling out her first and last name, the man working the information desk looked again. “No, still cannot find anyone admitted with that name, not in emergency either, sorry. Maybe another hospital?” he gave him a helpless look.
“This is St. Mathew’s?” he asked feeling a little confused and wondering if he’d given the Uber driver the wrong hospital name. Before the information clerk could answer, Jeffrey felt the buzzing of his cell phone. He retrieved the phone from his back pocket and walked away from the information desk. The caller’s number did not look familiar, but he’d hoped whoever was calling would have some answers, “hello?”
Jeffrey was starting to panic. He walked the bike down the street looking for an opening that would open up a path to Cedar Street. People were standing outside of their houses, most of them were staring at the skies above their houses towards his own street. It can’t be my house.
“Hey Jeff!” he heard someone call his name and looked towards the people lining up in the street.
“Hey, Brian,” it was a friend from school. “What do you think about the fire?”
“I don’t know what to think, I’m trying to get home, do you think you can help me?” Brian looked at his friend, a friend he knew only from class and around school. But tonight, they’re acquaintanceship could escalate into new territory.
“You live on Cedar, right?”
“I think I’ve got an idea,” he motioned for Jeffrey to follow him. Brian turned into an alley with Jeffrey behind him. It was obvious Brian knew his way through this alley, he moved swiftly and intentionally, like a deer running through a familiar forest. Brian thought it was strange that he couldn’t remember walking through this alley, and it was only a few blocks from his house.
“Let’s go through here, this is my aunt’s house,” he pointed and then pushed the buttons on a pad which opened the gate. “She won’t mind, she’s probably outside with the rest of the neighborhood.”
The two teens walked by an hourglass-shaped pool, it had pink, ceramic flamingoes in different poses, they were positioned around the pool. There was a grass hut style patio near the pool, it reminded Jeffrey of a vacation he and his family took to Hawaii when he was 12 years old. He wanted to stop and admire the tropical scene, he noticed tiki torches and Chinese lanterns hanging across the yard. No time to stop, I have to get home.
“Jeffrey, is this Jeffrey Blake?”
Jeffrey did not recognize the voice on the other end of the phone. “Yes, it’s me, who’s this?”
“This is Nurse Clara from St. Mathew’s, I have your mother on the other line, hold on.”
After a few seconds, Jeffrey heard a click, “Mom?” he hoped he hadn’t lost her.
“Yes, it’s me. Are you at home?”
“No, I’m on the bus, going home from the hospital. They told me you weren’t there,” he said confused.
“They had a problem with the computers. We’re on our way home. I wanted to call you because my phone died, and I wanted to know where you were. We’ll probably get home before you, be careful,” she said.
“She’s fine, it was a slight fracture. She’ll have to wear a cast for a few weeks. We’ll see you when you get home,” he heard his mother click off, she never says good-bye.
“There will be about a 20-minute delay, you can get off the bus and take the next one or wait at your seat until the bus comes” the bus driver announced after explaining that the bus was over heating and he was waiting for a mechanic. I won’t be home for an hour.
Almost a whole hour passed and Jeffrey was still sitting in his seat, he overheard another passenger telling a person sitting near him that there was a big fire on one of the streets named after a wood, Maple, Birch or…Cedar,” those words caught his ears.
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but did you say, Cedar?” Jeffrey asked the passenger.
“I’m not sure which street, my sister just called me. She’s at her friends and stuck there because the police and fire engines are everywhere. She’s on Redwood,” she answered.
Her words only made Jeffrey nervous. I was having a nice time, sitting home alone, enjoying myself and then Chrissy gets hurt and now a fire?
After what seemed like a double math class, Jeffrey exited the bus early, six blocks from his house on Oakwood. Let me see, Oakwood, down Cypress, past Chestnut, Mahogany, Birch, Walnut and then Cedar. As he walked along Oakwood before he reached Cedar and saw an old brown Schwinn sitting in a front yard, I’ll return it, I have to get home.
“This way!” Brian yelled, Jeffrey could barely see him in the dark, but the light from the fire was making it easier to see. The two boys used Brian’s aunt’s house to reach Birch, which was just two streets to Cedar. Jeffrey could still see the fire and it looked like it was on Cedar, the flames were getting higher and the air was getting murkier full of smoke and ash. It was burning their eyes, Jeffrey kept tearing up, and not just from the fumes.
The house on the corner is vacant, we can cut through the backyard to Walnut and go through the vacant lot on the corner. Jumping the fence in the backyard of the vacant house and finding their way to Walnut was easier than Jeffrey thought. There were police, but they were able to get past them.
Jeffrey’s heart was pounding harder as he approached Cedar, he was afraid to look towards the corner where his house stood. It was as if he knew, the moment he heard the passenger on the bus talking about a fire “on one of the wood streets” he knew, it was his. Sometimes he had premonitions, he just felt it in his body, like a calmness when he knew what was going to happen. Usually it’s for things he wants, but not this time. He felt frozen on the street, Brian was still standing next to him, “Is that your house?” he asked, hoping he was wrong.
He didn’t have to answer, Brian knew by the fear that was spreading across his face, like a disease.
I don’t care about my things, not my clothes, video games, books or anything in my room, I just want my family. He was so scared, he couldn’t cry, he was afraid to think or to even pray.
Brian knew he couldn’t leave him, he stood close and watched his friend’s house sizzle under the full moon.
“Jeffrey!” he heard a familiar voice, is it in my head? “Jeffrey!” I’m just imagining it, or I’m hoping too much, but it sounds like my dad. He was afraid to turn towards the voice, he couldn’t stand it if his hope was built up and then he would have to hear the worse.
“Jeffrey! Turn around, we’re here,” the voice was getting closer.
“Isn’t that your dad!” Brian pushed his arm and pointed.
Jeffrey finally turned and the tears were finally given permission to fall, because everything was going to be okay. His father reached him and hugged him harder than he’s ever held him before. “I didn’t know where you were,” they were both crying.
“Jeffrey!” his mom and sister were close now.
“Mom! Chrissy!” he felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
“Can you believe we lost everything,” she was crying for lots of reasons.
“Trust me mom, anything important is right here,” he hugged his mom and sister, his father joined them.
His parents understood at that moment. They were sad because of their possessions, photos, furniture, jewelry. Jeffrey thought he’d lost much more and now knew what was important. Through his tears, he promised his family, he would never forget to care for his sister again.