“He’s out there,” my mother said. She rushed from the front window and snatched her cell phone from the dining room table. Her hand trembled while she dialed. She almost dropped the phone twice before she put it to her left ear. “Hello? Police?” Her face contorted into a mask of disappointment. “Sorry,” she said, then to me: “I dialed the wrong number.” Her bottom lip trembled as she began to cry.
Something heavy pounded against the front door. Thump thump thump. This time she did drop the phone.
“Don’t answer it,” she said. She scooted behind my chair where I sat with my laptop. The screen showed my Facebook wall where five new updates waited for me to click on them.
“Is it locked?” I asked.
The pounding started up again, louder.
“Is the back door locked?” I asked.
“Yes … NO.” She hurried away to lock it.
The downstairs windows in the house were closed and locked to keep out the January cold. When my mother returned, the pounding stopped. She grabbed her phone and called the police.
“Hurry,” she said into her phone.
We waited. Mother paced and peeked at the front door. I updated my Facebook wall and let my friends know what was happening. Several of my friends said that he should be behind bars for terrorizing me and my mom.
“He may be crazy,” I wrote. “He’s been pissed ever since the divorce.”
“Where are the sirens?” my mother asked. She went to the front door and peeked through one of the three diamond shaped windows. “He’s not there. His car’s still there but he’s not inside.”
I looked at the back door past the kitchen. He stood there, large and dark, peering through the glass. I ran and closed the summery yellow curtain. The hulking figure of my step-father loomed through the thin fabric.
“Let me in,” he growled.
“The police are coming,” I yelled. I hurried away and met mother rushing at me. “It’ll be okay,” I said as we embraced and waited for the police to come.
Five minutes seemed like an hour.
“Where are they?” My mother paced. “Why aren’t they here yet?” She sat. “This is a small town.” She lit a cigarette from the pack of Marlboro Lights on the table and sucked menthol-flavored smoke into her lungs. She held her breath for several seconds, then let it out slowly. Smoke rushed to the ceiling. I had closed my computer while she had struggled to light the cigarette. Now I sat and breathed in the pleasant smoke and waited for the police.
Five minutes later her cigarette was in the ashtray and I was at the front window. His blue Impala from the 1990s was still there. Rust had eaten into the doors and fenders. He loved that car more than he loved my mother. It was shocking to see it like that. But I knew times had been hard on him since the divorce. The plastics factory where he once earned premium wages had closed. Someone said he now worked as a maintenance person at one of the Walmarts near Buffalo.
I looked at the car and felt sorry for him. Divorce had been brutal on the guy. My mom had made out, getting everything in the settlement, including the small, gingerbread-style Victorian house that had belonged to his parents. The only thing he loved more than that car was this house.
A floorboard above my head squeaked.
“He’s in the house.”
My mother hurried toward me. She was looking at the stairs behind me. I grabbed her. “Don’t go up there,” I said.
“No. NO. Let me go.”
I held her until she stopped struggling.
His voice bellowed from upstairs. “Don’t you come up here, Jessica. I have a gun.”
“Get out of my house, Howard.”
I pulled my mom to the front door.
“Not your house,” Howard yelled.
I got the door unlocked.
“This is so my house, you sonofabitch.”
I got the door opened.
“Come on.” I pulled her outside into a winter chill that bit instantly through the back of my sweatshirt. I shivered. “The police are coming.”
She relaxed, though she shivered, frightened and cold.
We waited in the frigid front lawn; the afternoon gray became darker and colder, except where flames leaped from the back of the house.
“The house is on fire,” I said, though I think we said it in unison. A window broke and smoke rushed to get outside.
My mother screamed. “NO.”
I watched the flames grow; foul smelling smoke billowed darker than the sky. It roiled from the front door I had left open. That’s when I heard a gunshot. I held my shaking mother close and we shared body heat to stay warm. The house was ablaze before any heat came from it. It came blistering at us, so we stepped away and stood in the street.
When the first police car drove up, the house was a giant bonfire. Neighbors who had peered from their homes now ventured out and joined us to watch the house burn. Sirens wailed behind us and grew louder as a police officer led us to a safer distance.
My mother stopped shaking, though she held me tight as we stood next to the pulsating blue and red lights of so many emergency vehicles suddenly on our street.
When the roof collapsed, I realized that we were homeless. I wept and mother pulled my face to her shoulder. “It’s all his now,” she said.
I saw Howard’s car and wanted to kick it, to dent its doors and smash its windows. Worse, I wanted to set on fire.
“No,” mother said when I told her how I felt.
“Why not? We have nothing now.” I stared hard at her. “Don’t you realize that he took everything?”
“We have each other,” I said. “I know that, and I’m grateful. But…” I looked at the burning house where everything I owned was engulfed in fire.
“No,” mother said again. She looked at her diamond engagement ring. “I remember now what happened to the earrings.” She went to the driver’s door. “I thought I had lost them at the restaurant. We’d been drinking.” She got into the back seat, then handed me her ring. “The night Howard proposed to me at the restaurant, he gave me a matching set of earrings.” She dug around inside the seat. “I remember now that I took them off back here because… well, I didn’t want something to happen to them while we… you know.”
I didn’t want to but I blushed at the image she presented.
“I wrapped them in a Kleenex,” she said. “A-ha.” She backed up and staggered from the car. In her hand was wadded tissue. She unfolded the Kleenex and showed me the diamond earrings.
“Do you know what this means?” She grinned. “We can start over.”
A firefighter hurried to where we stood. “I’m so sorry, Jessica.” He looked at me sadly. “Maggie, you poor child.”
“Howard was inside, Johnny,” mother said. She took him by the arm and he steadied her. “He did this.”
Johnny Peters shook his head. He was in his forties, single. His wife had died of cervical cancer.
“If there’s anything I can do,” he said.
Mother pushed herself closer to him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
Johnny put an arm around her. Mother rested her head against his shoulder. I looked at the burning house being doused by large plumes of water from several hoses. It would be okay. Mother would provide.