Inferno

The Cartwright family watched their house burn early Friday morning. They stood in disbelief as the flames crawled out of the home’s windows and over the roof. There was nothing the fire department could do. Water from the fireman’s hose shot into the night, but fell far short of dousing the blaze.

The next day, Michael Cartwright left his family in their hotel room and went to check on their house. He planned to search for valuables, but expected to find only wet timber and insulation. When Michael arrived home and stepped out of his car, he slammed the door shut and was overwhelmed with disbelief. It was as if there had been no fire at all. There were shingles and shutters, and a new awning above the front porch.

Fumbling with his keys, Michael hurried toward the side door. He let himself in and rushed through the kitchen. He ran through the living room, then upstairs. Everything was where it had been left the day before. All the toys, dirty dishes, laundry, and even his cellphone. He picked it up and dialed his wife, Patricia.

Waiting for her to answer, Michael ran his hand through his hair and scanned the home. He marveled at his unblemished master bedroom. It should have been blackened cinder and two-by-fours. The call went to voicemail.

Michael rushed inside the closet and grabbed one of Patricia’s evening dresses and put on one of his polo shirts and some jeans. He’d still been wearing his pajama pants. He ran downstairs. Hesitating at the door, Michael looked back at the foyer and the dining room. He wasn’t sure he could believe what he was seeing.

* * *

Rushing into the hotel room with his wife’s dress, Michael cried, “Patricia!”

His wife stood in front of a mirror drying her hair. The children were glued to the TV, leaning away from their father as he walked past. Michael’s wife turned and looked at her husband.

He was trembling as he said, “The house is okay!”

“What?” yelled Patricia over the hair dryer.

“It didn’t burn!”

Patricia turned the hair dryer off and looked Michael up and down. “What are you talking about?” She had a sick look on her face, pale from a lack of sleep.

“It’s like nothing happened,” Michael said.

Shaking her head, Patricia stared blankly before mumbling, “That’s not funny.”

“Here, I brought a dress from the closet.” Michael held out the red evening dress. “And look what I’m wearing.”

Patricia took it, but frowned. “Were these clothes in the car?”

“No!” Filled with nervous energy, anxious after seeing so much he couldn’t explain, Michael turned to his children. “Turn off the TV.” His kids groaned, but Michael shouted, “We’re going home!”

Sam, the eldest child, looked surprised. His sister looked at him and mimicked his shock as their mother said, “I’m not taking them there, Michael. Are you insane?”

Michael shook his head. “You need to see it for yourself. I know is sounds impossible, but everything is like it was before the fire.”

Patricia shook her head. “Are you feeling okay?”

“You have to trust me.”

She sighed, then backed away. “Okay. You heard your father. We’re going home.”

* * *

Michael’s marriage had been on the verge of divorce before the fire. His family wasn’t prepared for that kind of tragedy. He gave up all hope that night. However, he did look down at his children and thank God they were still alive.

Michael remembered how Patricia had been bathed in the fire’s orange glow. There was an image that stuck out in his mind. She’d had her hand over her mouth and her gaze was lost somewhere in the flames. He’d only been distracted from his wife by a fireman passing by toting another hose. Then there were the lights coming on inside nearby homes. There were silhouettes of people by their porch lights. Michael walked toward his wife and put his arm around her as she sobbed. There was only the loud sound of the inferno as Patricia looked at him and asked, “How could this happen?”

Michael’s gaze fell as he said he didn’t know.

A second fireman approached them both. “I’m going to have to ask you and your family to stay across the street.”

* * *

Standing outside of her house, Patricia said, “I prayed for this.”

Michael unlocked the front door.
She said, “I prayed for another house. Not this one, of course. But here it is.”

It was miraculous, but Michael wasn’t prepared to discuss the way their lives had changed so drastically in the past twenty-four hours.

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Patricia as she moved thorough the foyer. Her children scampered past, heading to the stairs as their mother searched through the drawers in the kitchen. She marveled at the unharmed flatware and kitchen cutlery, then turned to the cabinets and exclaimed, “I cannot believe this.”

Michael walked around the corner, saying, “I told you.”

“I didn’t believe you,” Patricia said as she approached him.

Michael hugged his wife. He put his hand on her hips afterward and looked her in the eye. “What did we see last night? I mean, I saw our house burning.”

“I don’t care,” said Patricia, stepping away and walking toward the fridge. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear and continued, “I mean, I saw what you saw.” She opened the refrigerator and looked over her shoulder. “Everything’s fine.”

* * *

Soon after the Cartwrights were asleep a second fire began. Once again, Michael relayed information to the police. The officer appeared disinterested in how this might have happened twice. It was a different police officer. Michael looked around at the firemen when they arrived, but none of them seemed to question the fact that they had been at the same address the night before. The fire was extinguished, and all that remained of the house was charred lumber.

One half of Michael’s garage had been packed with items that should have been in storage or donated. Kindling, he thought now. He walked to his car. It had been spared, parked in the middle of the driveway. Michael looked at the grill and bumper. He half expected to see some melted metal. The personalized plate was wet and beading water from the firemen’s hoses, but that was all. Michael climbed into the car and started the engine.

Patricia had taken the time to grab her purse on the way out of the home. Michael didn’t chastise her this time. It was the reason they had the keys to the car and the credit cards. Michael looked at both of his children in the rear-view mirror. Charlotte was asleep, laying against the side of the car seat. Sam was staring wide-eyed out of the side of the window. Michael glanced at his wife as he began to back out of the driveway. He whispered, “It’s gonna be okay.”

“No, it won’t,” Patricia said, refusing to look at her husband or her house.

Sam spoke in a whisper. “Are we going back to the hotel, Dad?”

Michael nodded.

“Did you remember my swimsuit?”

“I don’t think the pool’s open yet, Sam.”

“Dad, it’s indoors.” Sam leaned back, crossed his arms, and frowned.

At the hotel, Michael scooped Charlotte out of the car seat and carried her inside.

“Can we watch TV?” Sam asked once they were in their room.

His mother shushed him. Patricia explained that he could watch television in the morning and then pulled back the bedding. Sam protested quietly, but climbed into bed beside his sister, who was still asleep.

Michael approached the vanity and looked at himself in the mirror. His wife followed and put her hand on his back. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk and just try to sleep. We can deal with everything in the morning.”

* * *

Michael brought fruit and muffins from the continental breakfast into the family’s room. After a sip of coffee, he said, “I’m gonna go over there.”

Patricia encouraged Charlotte to eat and looked at her husband. “We should all go.”

In the car, the family listened to the news and a Saturday morning program on NPR. After one of the jokes and laughter from the program’s audience, Michael turned it off. He focused on the hum of the road and the occasional rattle or squeal from the underside of his vehicle. Patricia didn’t speak. As the family pulled up to a traffic light and looked in the next car, he felt exposed in his pajama pants and t-shirt, as if he was in a world to which he did not belong. He scratched at the two-day growth on his chin before moving down the road.

Sam spoke up first, “Wow! Our house is amazing.”

The boy smiled at his sister and Michael looked at his wife. Patricia was tearing as she looked at it. Michael pulled the car into the driveway. He could see his entire home there as it had been before the fires. Sam hopped out and ran to the front door squealing with glee.

Michael unbuckled Charlotte and bent down to look at Patricia, who was still in the front seat. He said, “We can’t live here, Patricia.”

“What do you mean? This is our house.”

“It’s not safe here,” Michael said. “Charlotte and Sam can’t be here.”

Patricia looked out the window toward the neighbor’s, then spun around in the seat. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, Michael. It’s not like it’s happening to anyone else.” She opened the car door.

Michael helped his daughter climb down from her seat.

Patricia shook her head as she walked up the front steps. Her arms were crossed as she began, “If all the valuables are here and nothing’s damaged, I’m staying.”

Michael walked behind her into the house.

His wife walked upstairs saying, “Everything looks fine.”

“Yeah, but we can’t risk everything again.”

Patricia stopped on the stairs. “Look around. Everything is the way it should be.”

Michael watched his wife disappear around the corner into their bedroom. He followed her and sat down on the corner of their bed. Breathing deeply, he said, “We’ve just gotten lucky. One of us could get hurt or worse.”

“I’m staying,” Patricia said.

“You can’t do that.”

“The house came back; why wouldn’t we?”

“What are you saying? Sam and Charlotte?”

“Are you afraid to stay?”

“I’m not staying,” Michael said as he stood.
“This is our home,” Patricia said after a pause. She stepped toward the window and continued, “If it burns and reappears, then so will I.” She looked at Michael. “This is what we’ve worked for.”

“That’s absurd,” said Michael. “You’re just being stubborn.”

“Stubborn? Are you going to stay in a hotel forever?”

Michael looked away.

“Have you thought about trying to sell this house?” Patricia asked. “I mean, it’s a hot deal, right? Aren’t I right?” Patricia shook her head and tried to keep from tearing up. “We’re stuck here, Michael. Don’t you get that?”

Michael began to leave the bedroom, but Patricia said, “Where are you going?” She rubbed her eyes and face as she followed him to the stairs.

Michael answered, “I’m going to the garage.”

* * *

The garage door opened and sunlight poured in on the old furniture, stacks of magazines, overstuffed garbage bags, tools, shelves, and file cabinets. Michael started at the front, carrying plastic tubs into the yard. After half an hour, he had uncovered an electrical outlet and stopped. He set down a cardboard box, found a screwdriver, and removed the outlet cover. He examined the wiring, thinking he might find a short. He wasn’t sure this had been the source of the fire, but he felt that it must be. After going back inside, he found the circuit breaker and switched the power to the garage off.

Patricia was baking, stirring the contents of a bowl with a rubber spatula. She said, “I saw everything you were carrying outside. We should have a garage sale.”

“Today?”

“Of course not today,” she said. “The real buyers are out early in the morning anyway.”

Michael filled a glass with water. He watched his wife for a moment before saying, “I might have found the problem.”

Patricia licked chocolate from her finger. “Really?”

“But we still can’t stay here.”

Without looking at him, Patricia said, “You can leave if you want, but we’re not.”

“I cannot believe—”

“I’m not talking about this,” Patricia said. “We’ve already talked about it.” She poured cake batter into a tin.

Michael said, “You’re keeping the kids here?”

“I’ll check the fire alarms, Michael.”

“You’re being insane!” Michael said, stepping forward.

“Me? Insane? You’re the one that thinks he can predict when our house is going to burn down.” Patricia opened the oven and slid the baking pan inside.

* * *

After Sam and Charlotte had been put to bed, Michael and Patricia stood in the driveway beside the station wagon.

Michael said, “If I see a hint of smoke, I’m running in for the kids.”

“Fine.” Patricia walked over to the yard and ripped open one of the garbage bags on the ground. She pulled out a blanket and handed it to her husband. Michael opened his car’s door as Patricia said, “Try to get some rest.”

“I’m not going to sleep. I’ll be watching the house.”

His wife shook her head.

“Why are you doing this?”

Michael’s wife breathed deeply and looked over her shoulder at their home. She paused before saying, “No matter how much it hurts, I just know it’s the right thing to do.”

“But—”

“Michael, this has already killed me. Don’t you understand that?” Patricia turned and walked away, up the steps to the front sidewalk. About half way to the front door, she turned and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

Michael shook his head, then his wife disappeared into their home. After that, he read a newspaper by the interior light of their vehicle. He had the window down and the seat back. When he was tired of reading, he turned on the car radio and listened to classical music. Around one o’clock, he wished that he had brought a thermos of coffee.

Michael wasn’t sure how long the fire had been burning when he saw smoke. Flames escaped the windows of the garage and moved into the kitchen. He rushed around to the front of the house, opened the door, and began shouting inside the foyer. Squinting his eyes, he moved through the smoke calling out to his children.

Tears streamed from Charlotte’s eyes and her fingers were in her mouth when Michael picked her up. Together they entered Sam’s room. Michael shook his son, saying, “Sam, let’s go.” The boy sat upright. He climbed out of bed and took his father’s hand. Sam and Michael, with Charlotte in his arms, rushed out of the little boy’s room and headed for the master.

Michael cried out, “Patricia! Patricia, it’s happening!”

Michael released Sam’s hand and tried the door knob. It was locked. He pounded on the door and screamed, “Patricia!”

Charlotte began to wail and Sam had crouched down against the wall holding his ears to silence the sound of his father’s screams. Michael backed away from the door thinking he would kick it in, but his son yelled, “Dad!” and pointed downstairs. There were flames in the dining room moving toward the front door. Michael grabbed Sam’s hand once more and the three of them hurried down the steps and outside.

On the sidewalk, Michael called 911. He watched the flames rise up and spill out of second-story windows. He leaned down and said, “I want you to stay here.” Michael looked at both of his children. “Right here, do you understand?”

Michael ran toward the house and opened the front door. Flames erupted from inside. He ran to the side of the house and shouted, “Patricia!” He stopped below her window and held his hands cupped around his mouth, “Jump, Patricia! For God’s sake, I’ll catch you!”

When Michael heard sirens, he backed away from his home. It was completely engulfed in flames. Michael hoped that the fire department would arrive more quickly than it had the previous two nights, but he knew it was too late. He had seen this before.

* * *

The following morning, Michael left the children in the car in front of his unscarred home. He stepped through the front door and walked upstairs. He called out, “Patricia!” like he had the night before, but with less urgency. He was shaking now, feeling unsure of what he might find. Michael pushed his bedroom door open, and heard crying.

Patricia stood at the opposite end of the bedroom, staring through a window.

“What’s happened?” he said.

She refused to turn around as her husband moved toward her. She said, “It burns, Michael.”

“What do you mean?” he asked as he approached her and tried to put his hand on her arm.

She pulled away.

“What’s the matter?”

Patricia looked at him and said, “It still burns.”


Justin Meckes is the Founding Editor of Scrutiny. Find out more at justinmeckes.com.

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