“He’s out there,” Sarah’s 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?” Jessica’s face contorted into a mask of disappointment. “Yes, I need the police,” she said. “Hurry. Send someone right away. He may be crazy … my ex-husband. He’s been angry ever since the divorce.” Her bottom lip trembled as she forced herself not to cry.
Something heavy pounded against the front door. Thump thump thump. This time she did drop the phone.
“Don’t answer it,” Jessica said to Sarah. She scooted behind Sarah’s chair.
Sarah sat with her laptop on her lap. The screen showed her Facebook wall where five new updates waited for her to click on them. “Is the door locked?” she asked.
The pounding started again, louder.
“Is the back door locked?” Sarah asked.
“Yes … NO.” Jessica hurried away to lock it.
The pounding continued. Sarah’s stepfather shouted for someone to let him in.
“Are all the windows locked?” she asked when Jessica returned.
“It’s January. Of course they are.”
The pounding stopped. Jessica grabbed her phone from the living room carpet and dialed 911 again. She gave her address this time. “You tell them to get here right away. They don’t want me calling the mayor.” She hung up, paced the floor, and watched the front door.
“Where are the sirens?” she asked a minute later. She went to the front door and peeked through one of the three diamond shaped windows. “I don’t see him. His car’s still there but he’s not inside.”
“He should be behind bars for terrorizing us,” Sarah said. She glanced at the back door past the kitchen. He stood there, large and dark, peering through the glass. She ran and closed the yellow blinds. The hulking shadow of her stepfather silhouetted the thin plastic.
“Let me in,” he growled, “or I’m going to break the glass and unlock the door.”
“The police are coming,” Sarah yelled. She hurried back to her mother.
“Where are they? Why aren’t they here yet?” Jessica asked. She stopped pacing and sat on the sofa next to Sarah’s chair. “This is a small town.” She lit a cigarette from the pack of Marlboro Lights on the coffee table and sucked menthol-flavored smoke into her lungs. She held her breath for several seconds, then forced it out. Smoke rushed to the ceiling.
Sarah closed her computer, breathed in the pleasant smoke, and waited for the police.
Three minutes later, her mom’s cigarette was in the ashtray and Sarah was at the front door. Her stepdad’s blue Impala from the 1990s was still there. Rust had eaten into the doors and fenders. Howard loved that car more than he loved her mother. It was shocking to see it like that. But Sarah 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 Walmart stores near Buffalo.
She felt sorry for him. Divorce had been brutal on the guy. Her mom had made out, getting everything in the settlement, including the small, gingerbread-style Victorian house that had belonged to Howard’s parents. The only thing he loved more than that car was this house.
A floorboard above her head squeaked.
Howard was in the house.
Jessica rushed past Sarah, heading to the stairs. Sarah caught up to her at the bottom step and stepped in front of her.
“Don’t go up there, Mom.”
“I have to. Let me pass this instant.”
Howard’s voice bellowed from upstairs. “Don’t come up here, Jessica. I have a gun.”
“Get out of my house, you son of a bitch.”
“Not your house,” Howard yelled.
Sarah pulled her to the front door and unlocked it.
“This is so my house. I hope the police lock you up for twenty years for breaking and entering, you lousy—”
“Come on,” Sarah said, opening the door. She pulled Jessica outside into a winter chill. It clawed instantly through the back of Sarah’s sweatshirt. She shivered. Her mom complained that she was not inside, taking care of Howard with her fists.
“It’ll be okay,” Sarah said. “The police will take care of it. Meanwhile, everyone’s safer out here.”
An upstairs window broke and smoke rushed to get outside. Flames leaped from the curtains at the window.
Jessica screamed. “NO.”
When the first police car drove up, foul smelling smoke billowed from the front door Sarah had left open. That’s when she heard a gunshot. By the time the fire department arrived, the house was ablaze and burning the branches of two maple trees in front of it.
Blistering heat sent Sarah and Jessica into the street, which was a sea of emergency people and their vehicles with pulsating blue and red lights. A police officer led them across the street to the sidewalk, away from the firehoses and their house. Some of the neighbors who had peered from their homes joined them to watch the house burn. It was a giant, gloomy bonfire. No one spoke.
When part of the roof collapsed, Sarah ran to Howard’s car and kicked the front passenger’s door, denting it. “We’re homeless,” she yelled. She wept and Jessica pulled her into an embrace.
“We have nothing,” Sarah said.
Jessica released her and went to the driver’s door. “I thought I had lost them at the restaurant. We had been drinking.” She got into the back seat, took off her diamond engagement ring and handed it to Sarah. “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 I didn’t want to lose them while we … you know. So I wrapped them in a Kleenex. A-ha.” She backed up and staggered from the car. In her hand was wadded tissue. She unfolded the Kleenex and showed Sarah the diamond earrings. “These and our homeowners insurance will get us back on our feet.”
A well-dressed man in a fur coat and hat hurried to where they stood. “I’m so sorry, Jessica.” He looked at Sarah sadly. “You too, Sarah, you poor child.”
“Howard was inside, Ronny,” Jessica said. She took him by the arm and he steadied her. “He did this. A twisted act of revenge.”
Mayor Ronald Peters shook his head. “If there’s anything I can do,” he said.
Jessica pushed herself closer to him. “I don’t know what Sarah and I are going to do.”
The mayor put an arm around her. She rested her head against his shoulder. Sarah stood behind them and eyed the ring finger of his left hand. It no longer held the gold wedding band. Lucy Peters had died of cervical cancer more than ten years ago. It had taken him this long to let go. She looked away and watched plumes of water from several hoses douse the burning house.
It will be okay, she thought. Mother will provide.