The fire had been out for days but the smell hung heavy in the air. The earth, scorched black, was covered with a carpet of dead, moldy leaves, damp from the rain that helped stop the raging flames. The black stumps of the old oaks that had shaded the house echoed the bleak desolation of its remains.
Marlene clutched her windbreaker tight against her, staring at the blackened shell that had been the only home she had ever known. It had been hot that morning, hot and windy, signs that a Santa Ana was brewing. Today, only a breeze came from the ocean. She shivered slightly. She wasn’t sure if it was the chill in the air or because …
She shifted her weight. Her new running shoes cut into her ankles. Running. Wasn’t that funny. It had taken everything she could manage just to make it from the road up the slope to the ruin of the house. The wooden stairs that lead from the road to the front porch were gone, the gravel driveway covered in charred remnants of God only knew what. She certainly didn’t.
She took a step closer. The porch had been there. A wonderful porch, covered against the summer sun and the winter’s driving rains. You could look straight down the mountain from that porch, over rocks and oaks and pines that covered the hills to watch the never ending traffic on Highway 1 and the constantly changing face of the ocean beyond. She took a few steps closer. Was that a runner from one of the rockers sticking up from the pile of blackened rubble? There was the front door, no longer dark red, swinging back and forth on one hinge, inviting you into nothing at all.
“This was my home,” she thought. “I was born here, I grew up here. I lived here all of my married life. This is where my husband and my sister died.”
The black, charred embers faded and it was as it had always been, a large, two story house topped with a heavy shake roof. Her bedroom looked out over the oaks, the pines, and the dense underbrush for a clear view of the lights of Cambria, so close, so far. She had always kept that room, even after …
She waited to feel something; pain, grief, loss, but nothing came but memories. Unwelcome memories. She tried to bat them away, like flies, but they insisted on playing themselves out.
There, on the porch, the round little girl with the pale red curls and the small breasts, at only twelve already straining the fabric of her too tight tee shirt, that couldn’t really be her. But it is. The man in the rocking chair, holding the other, smaller girl, laughing, tickling her, is her father and the girl her sister. Her curls are a brighter, deeper red; her jeans don’t strain to cover her slim hips, her tiny hand rests on their father’s cheek as she smiles up at him.
“Flaming Freddie, that’s who you are.” He hugs the child close.
A woman comes through the front door, stops, frowns at the older child, reaches down to adjust the ribbon holding back the pale curls, then walks to the porch railing, staring out at the dry California hillside.
She watches her mother, and then almost absently reaches toward the plate of cookies sitting on the table by the rocking chair.
“I told you, only one, Marlene,” the woman says, her back turned. “You’ll get fat.”
The child snatches back her hand as if touched by fire.
The father gives a cookie to the giggling Freddie as he sets her down. “It’s all right, Marlene. Looks aren’t everything.” He pauses. “You’re the smart one.” He gives the little girl another hug.
“Yes.” Their mother turns to examine both girls. Her eyes rest longer on the oldest. She sighs and turns toward their father. “Must you always call Fredericka by that ridiculous name? Flaming Freddie. It’s obscene.”
“It suits her.” He smiles at the child.
“No. It suits you. You insisted on naming her after yourself. Now you invent that stupid name.” Her tone is low and scathing, designed to hurt.
His reply is full of venom. “I wouldn’t have named her Fredericka if you’d given me a son.”
She looks at him, her eyes hard, her mouth pinched. “You don’t deserve a son.” She takes the smaller child by the hand and leads her into the house, turning her back on both the man and the other child as if they don’t exist.