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Housefires in May

by Caroline Mure

May was difficult to explain. A magic trick that had no reveal. The tension rose like a gasoline fire and I did what they told me. I did what they told me. I watched everything burn instead of running back in. I watched the wheelbarrows and the bookshelves and the silver wear. I watched the bath towels and the bike tires and the car keys. I saw my reflection in the small glass rectangles of the garage doors. I pressed the button to open them but the remote needed new batteries. As did the smoke detectors. As did the walkie talkies. As did my electric toothbrush. I knew a man was in the kitchen, and I knew the kitchen was burning. But I wanted to run back in to save a home, not a life. 


The mornings of May I woke up in the same bed every morning. The curtains were always drawn and the red string lights were still plugged in and weak against the white glow of daylight. During May I slept in late and then left. My bare feet didn’t make a sound against the carpet. The bed didn’t creak because the bed had no frame. The dog didn’t bark because there was no dog. I didn’t make a sound. The one time I did make a sound, my face turned purple. I grew up building fires in the woodstove and chopping wood in the back yard. I’d ask, what do we do with the small scraps of wood? The not-logs? That is kindling, to start the fire, someone told me. That was years before May. Before I learned that kindling doesn’t have to be small pieces of wood. That kindling doesn’t have to be wood at all. 


May burned like they told me it would. First the house, then the church next door. I heard the iron bell in the steeple fall and thud against the ground. Like a boulder. Like a life-sized monopoly piece being rolled on the board. Except the board was pavement and the money I had saved had been spent. The fire burned in May and when it stopped burning it was June. I was in my sweatpants and my white T-shirt. I was holding the kitchen knives in their custom wooden block, unopened. I was holding a birthday card with my parent’s phone numbers written on the inside. I was holding glasses with a new prescription. I was holding a newspaper from December. I was holding my elbows in my palms. I was holding on. 


 A woman there told me I was lucky it only burned for a few months, that some burn for a year, two years, three years, four years, or even five. Some burn for a decade. Some burn for five years and take a decade to fully extinguish. I didn’t mind the mistake she made, the mistake she made in saying a few months instead of one month. May to June. But truly I didn’t mind. I really didn’t mind. I looked down at everything I was holding. I looked at my feet bare on the new black asphalt. I remember an aunt I had growing up, who called one day and told our family that her daughter, Sarah, had burned her feet on the playground at her elementary school. They pavement was new and black and boiled in the sun’s heat. The bell had rung and Sarah had run out to recess, holding her sandals under her arm. The teachers heard her screams and looked to see her standing, tears flooding down her cheeks. No one tells you when you’re young not to stand on hot pavement during the hottest part of the day. Especially when the hottest part of the day happens to be the moment you are most free. 

And even if they tell you while you’re standing there, the skin slowly bubbling and blistering, what can a person do? Lift your bleeding, scarred feet and walk to the grass? Stand on your hands?  Stand on your head? You can only hope you are not alone, and that someone will wrap your feet with gauze and carry you to the shade. 

She’s repeating them again, the statistics. One I saw burn for sixteen years. Children and all. She’s going on. Years and Years and Years. My arms begin to tire. She’s still talking over the sound of the fire truck’s hoses, I see my mother under firefighter gear carrying the middle slack of a hose. I see my father holding the front. I see my sisters and my brothers pulling out what’s left of my belongings. I see a professor I had in college jump from the driver’s side of the truck. I see him tell my priest from St. Matthews to go in and make sure no one else was in the building. She’s still talking about the statistics. I had a friend in Dayton who’s sister got into a mess like this. Diana I think was her name. The house burned in winter and it’s still burning now. They tried to put it out, but some fires never burn out. Some fires last forever. She paused and wiped the dried mascara from under her eye. Some burn without anyone ever knowing. 

About the Author

Caroline Mure is a recent graduate from Susquehanna University. She currently teaches English and enjoys mountains and black coffee.

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