HOW THE FIRE STARTED
By Melissa DosSantos Sullivan
Marian kept the pills in an old sugar bowl on the top of the refrigerator her mother had bought new in 1948. Her arthritic hand cramped as she pulled one out of the narrow opening. She wasn’t in a lot of pain today but talking to the police had set her on edge. The running water in the sink had just begun to get to the perfect temperature when there was a stout knock at the back door.
“Marian?” a voice called. “It’s Jenny.”
Marian shut her eyes. What could she possibly want?
Three more hard knocks. “Marian? Are you home?”
Marian shook her head, but it was pointless. If Jenny looked through the kitchen window, which of course she would, she would see Marian standing there. Better to face the music.
Marian placed the pill on her tongue and scooped a handful of water from the running tap directly into her mouth.
Marian sighed and walked over to the back door, opening the inner door but leaving the screen door shut. The scrim of gray wires made Jenny look more haggard than usual, her blond hair limp and her faint blue eyes disappearing into her pale face. Marian’s mother, who never stepped outside without mascara, lipstick and a hat, would have been appalled. A woman is never too busy to be beautiful, Marian’s mother’s voice sing-songed in her head. On one hip, Jenny carried the youngest brat, its face covered with something sticky.
“Hi, Marian. Sorry to bother, but I wanted to see if you were alright. I heard… Well, the police dropped by.”
“I’m fine,” Marian said shortly, then took a breath. “We’re both fine. Thanks for asking.”
Jenny shook her head and shifted the baby to the other hip. “When I heard, I couldn’t believe it. A burglary, in our neighborhood.”
Marian shrugged. “They didn’t take much. It was vandalism, pure and simple. Probably some hooligans looking for trouble.” Marian narrowed her eyes at the little monster, who was loudly sucking her fingers.
Jenny shifted her weight. “And Sheppy?”
Marian sighed. Even using dish soap as the dog stylist had suggested over the phone, she hadn’t been able to get all of the purple paint out of Sheppy’s beautiful white fur, and despite hours of scrubbing, Sheppy remained a delicate violet, like the Blue Rinse Brigade that used to shuffle in to her mother’s salon on senior discount day. Thinking about it, how she had found Sheppy cowering under the kitchen table, her head stuck to her paws, whimpering in fear and pain, made Marian want to cry again.
“If you will excuse me…” Marian put her hand on the door.
“Actually…” Jenny bit her lip. It was a habit of hers, Marian had noticed, whenever Jenny was upset or confused, which was often. “Well, I wanted to ask you something. If you have a moment.”
Marian sighed louder than she meant to. “What is it?”
“Can I come in?”
Marian hesitated then unhooked the screen door and pushed the frame out six inches. Jenny opened it further with one hand and slipped in. Marian noticed that Jenny’s flip flops were caked with mud from the yard and make a note to swiffer after she left.
“So,” Marian said, crossing her arms and standing in front of the hall, making sure Jenny didn’t think she had been invited to tea or anything. “What did you want to ask?”
“I need a favor.”
Jenny shifted her weight and looked away. “I was wondering if you could… watch the kids this afternoon.”
Marian raised her eyebrows.
“I know it’s a lot,” Jenny rushed out. “But I don’t have anyone else to ask.”
“It’s awfully short notice.”
“I know that, I do. And I wouldn’t have asked if I had any other options. You see, I have this… appointment and Kyle was supposed to come home, but he got an extra shift and they’ve been so stingy with overtime lately…”
“Can’t you… reschedule?”
“No,” Jenny said firmly. “I can’t.” Marian waited but Jenny didn’t elaborate.
Marian looked pointedly at the baby. “It is all the kids? Because with my hip -”
“Oh, no! It’s just Joey and Avery. Kyle, Jr. is at a friend’s ‘til five and I’ll take Sophia with me. I’ll be back in by three, four tops, so it’ll only be a few hours. They already ate so you don’t even need to feed them. Just make sure they don’t start any fires or anything.”
“Jenny, I don’t think – ”
“Oh, Marian.” Jenny’s eyes started to water. Ugh. Tears. The weak woman’s weapon. Marian sliced the air with one hand.
“None of that. I’ll watch them, but…” Marian held up one finger. “Just this once.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much. I can bring them right over – ”
Marian shook her head, envisioning more muddy feet on her white floor. “No, no,” she said loudly. “Sheppy and I will go over there.”
Sheppy, hearing her name, lumbered out into the kitchen. She was completely dry now and her coat was extra puffy from all of the washings. And, still, a light shade of violet.
Jenny frowned then smiled. “Could you… I know, I’m the one putting you out, so I shouldn’t ask, but Joey – he’s afraid of dogs. Bitten when he was five by a mean pit bull.”
“Sheppy’s not a pit bull.”
“I know, but – ”
“She’s bred for herding and companionship. She wouldn’t hurt a flea. Plus, she gets lonely.”
“Isn’t she usually by herself during the day? Sometimes, we hear her barking…”
The baby started to whine, and Marian felt her face turn red. Nothing dries faster than a tear.
“Which is why I don’t like to leave her alone on the weekends. Besides, Sheppy loves everyone.
Would do your boy good.”
“Marian, I understand but – ”
“Look. It’s both of us or neither. Your choice.”
Jenny shook her head. “Of course. I’m being silly. It’ll be fine.”
“When do you want me to come over?”
“Is now okay?”
“Now?” Marian looked around her, like she had so many things planned for this slow Sunday afternoon, she couldn’t even begin.
“I know, I know, it’s –”
“– a lot to ask,” Marian finished. “Just let me get Sheppy’s things.”
“Thank you, Marian. Thank you so much.”
Marian took her time gathering Sheppy’s water and food bowl and her favorite squeaky toy into a reusable Shoprite bag. She hesitated and then grabbed some treats and a leash. Who knew what she would find in that house? Couldn’t have Sheppy picking things up off the floor. Jenny probably didn’t own a mop.
When Marian was done, Jenny led her across the yard and in the back door of the rental house. The kitchen was, as Marian expected, a horror show. The Formica counter tops were littered with cereal bowls and the remains of a mac n’cheese lunch. Two of the kids were sitting at the kitchen table, eating with plastic forks off paper plates, their elbows firmly on the vinyl table cloth. They looked up with wide eyes when Marian came in with Sheppy. Both of them took after their mother: slight and bland with thin bones. The girl seemed a little younger than the boy and was, as Marian begrudgingly admitted to herself, the best of the lot, her hair in attractive curls, always saying “hello” to Marian when she and Sheppy were out walking. The boy was another matter. Marian had seen this one out on his bike when it was almost dark, running after his older brother and his gang. It had been them, Marian was sure of it. Bullies are always the same.
“Joey, Avery, you remember Ms. Crawford from next door? She’s going to watch you for a couple of hours, while Mommy goes out, okay?”
Neither child spoke, but just dumbly stared.
Jenny bustled about the kitchen, placing dishes in the sink with one arm, the baby trying to kick and wriggle free. Marian stood with one arm extended, trying to keep Sheppy from licking the floor.
Finally, Jenny grabbed her purse and an overflowing diaper bag. “My cell is on the fridge if you need anything, but these guys are really self-sufficient.” To the kids, she said, “Now listen to Ms. Crawford. No biking in the street. Stay in the backyard or upstairs.” Jenny turned to look at Marian.
“Okay,” Marian replied.
“Right.” Jenny grabbed her keys from a sill and then paused at the door. “Thank you, Marian.
The screen door slammed shut behind her. Marian held tight to Sheppy’s leash, watching the rusted minivan back up the dirt driveway and pull out on to the road. Marian didn’t want to turn around, not yet. She had always despised children, of any age. Even in school, she didn’t have any particularly close friends. The Giant, the other girls had called her, as well as other, nastier things. Her mother told her be nicer to them, to smile, and they would be her friend. But Marian knew that they wouldn’t, no matter what she said or did. Her mother had made that impossible.
No use crying over spilled milk. Marian turned back. The two were still at the table, staring. Marian thought, Enough.
“Are you finished?” she asked.
They nodded slowly.
“Good. Then let’s clean these dishes.”
“They’re paper,” the girl said.
“I know that,” Marian snapped. “I mean, let’s clean up.”
“Mom does that,” the girl said matter-of-factly.
Brat, thought Marian. “Well, I’m not your mom. And if you can eat, you can clean up.”
The girl bounded out of her seat and started to enthusiastically stack the plates and the plastic utensils in one disgusting pile. The boy was much more wary, bringing his glass over to Marian, who pointed to the sink. When the boy approached, Sheppy stood up, her tail wagging. The boy stepped back quickly and held his hands out, as if to push an invisible wall.
“She won’t hurt you,” Marian said, trying and failing to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
Imagine being afraid of Sheppy.
The boy – Joey – laid the glass in the sink and edged sideways out the back door. Meanwhile, Avery had finished stuffing all of the paper into the overflowing trashcan. She raced over to Marian and stood in front of her.
“What will we play next?”
Play? Ugh. “Your mother wanted you to go outside.”
“Will you play Under the Sea with me?”
“No, but I’ll watch.”
“Okay!” Avery ran out the screen door, letting it to slam after her. It rebounded once before almost settling into its frame. Really, this place was an eye sore. Marian made a mental note to call the landlord.
Sheppy started tugging at Marian’s arm, her backend waggling. She looked back at Marian, hope in her doggy eyes.
“Okay, but you need to stay on the leash. I won’t have you getting all muddy.”
Sheppy smiled like she understood.
Marian sighed and pushed open the door.
Avery was running back and forth across the yard, pretending to be a plane or something that made a loud, grating sound. Joey was sitting on one of the plastic chairs, his hands tucked beneath his skinny thighs. There was one other chair next to him, where a bit of rain water had collected on the seat. Marian looped Sheppy’s leash around the backdoor’s knob and turned the chair over before setting it down a little way from the boy. It was still wet, she noted with distaste, but seeing no other option, she grabbed the leash and sat gingerly on the light weight plastic. Sheppy flopped at her feet and placed her head on her paws.
Joey didn’t move or even turn his head but looked over out of the corner of his eye. He leaned slightly away, but didn’t stand. He was really an unpromising child: a delicate, pinched face, spindly legs, a curved back and hunched shoulders. He had recently gotten one of those military cuts so many of the boys had in the summer, the hair cropped close all around. The skin around his neck was pink with irritation, like someone had used a dull razor. At least he had already learned to be quiet. Still, Marian didn’t want to sit next to him for two hours.
“Don’t you want to play with your sister?” she asked. Avery had stopped running and was now enthusiastically slinging mud bombs at a puddle.
Joey looked at his sister and then shook his head adamantly.
“Do you want to go inside?”
Again, Joey shook his head.
Joey reached behind him and pulled out a slim book. No, not a book. A comic. Something with large, stocky letters and the profile of a man against a car window with bullet holes. A skull was featured on the man’s t-shirt and in the title.
“What is that?”
“The Punisher, No. 4.”
“Is that … appropriate?”
“Where did you get it?”
“My brother’s room.”
Ugh. The oldest boy. The worst of the lot. Probably had other, filthier materials in addition to this brain rot. Marian looking pityingly at Joey. Compared to his brother, he was obviously the runt of the family. He probably idealized and hated his brother, just like Marian had hated and envied the pretty, well-turned out girls who came with their mothers to the salon Saturday mornings. Marian had resented that the most, that on the weekends, instead a respite from the teasing and isolation, the other girls would see her, dressed in a boxy plastic smock, sweeping up hair clippings, while her glamorous mother gossiped and lit cigarettes with the gold lighter engraved with “C.G.” “Given to me by Clark Gable himself. Back when Hollywood was Hollywood. Oh, those were the days,” her mother would say with a sigh.
Marian knew that when the customers left, they probably said the same things their daughters did: that Grace was a loose woman, that she had never been to California, that Marian was a bastard. Marian didn’t know the truth, and she knew better than to ask about her father, so she felt weaponless when the sordid likelihoods were brought up on the playground. “I bet it’s not even real gold,” the girls would taunt Marian. “I just bet you it isn’t.” Then they would push her to the ground, ruining another pair of stockings, and Marian’s mother wouldn’t believe her when Marian said what happened.
People could never tell when they were being lied to, Marian thought bitterly. They just believed what they wanted, no matter how often you tried.
In fact, Marian thought, she could probably get Joey to snitch on his brother, if she was crafty enough.
“So what’s it about?” Marian asked.
Marian nodded to the man on the cover.
“Oh. Well, it’s this guy, Punisher, whose real name is Frank. And he’s, you know, like a normal guy. But he has all this military training, so…”
Marian pretended to listen and nodded, watching the boy unknot. He didn’t even react immediately when Sheppy stood and took a few steps toward him, her tonguing waging out in a friendly way. But when she lifted a paw to shake, Joey pushed back, his arms straight out again.
“She won’t hurt you,” Marian said, failing to hide her irritation. “She just wants to shake hands.”
Joey didn’t move. “She doesn’t have any hands.”
“Of course she does.” Marian put out one of her hands and Sheppy delicately placed one paw on her palm. “See? She’s very gentle. Just an old, friendly lady.”
“Is that why her fur is white?”
“No, it’s always been white. She’s a Samoyed. Pure bred. Meant to be a show dog.”
“Like on TV?”
“How do you know that?”
“Mom lets us watch the Westminster Dog Show when it’s on.”
Marian raised an eyebrow. “Really.”
“Yeah. Mom likes the little dogs. The short ones with the stubby legs. She says they’re royal.”
“The Corgis,” Marian said with surprise. “They are good dogs, too. Loyal.”
“Did she win any trophies?”
“Sheppy? No. She never competed.”
“Well, they’re very particular. And Sheppy, well, when she was born, something was wrong. One of her legs turned funny. They thought it would interfere with her gait – you know, her walk. So they sold her cheap. But she grew out of it.” Marian ruffled Sheppy’s ears. “Now she’s just an old lady who sleeps in the sun.”
Joey had unclenched slightly again. He put one hand out slowly. Sheppy was patient and didn’t move towards him. He reached out one finger and lightly touched the fluff of one ear.
“Will it come off?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She looks… sort of pretty.”
Marian contemplated her lavender dog. In the afternoon sun, it didn’t look completely unattractive. There were slight variations in the coat, fading to white on her legs and face.
“You’re right,” Marian said at last. Now she had him. She made her voice low and mournful. “Still, think of how scared she must have been. A stranger in her house, who cornered her and then dumped a bucket of heavy paint all over her. When I found her, she was hiding under the table and her head was stuck to her paws.” Marian paused and shook her head slowly. “And now, now I’ll have to cut all of it off. Shave it all the way down.”
“Really?” Joey’s voice sounded choked and when Marian looked up, she saw tears in his eyes.
Perfect, she thought.
“Yes,” Marian sighed. “And it might have even stained her skin. But I won’t know until she gets cut. She had such pretty hair.”
Joey started sniffing. Marian waited.
“My dad…” Joey said. “My dad made me cut my hair.”
What now? Out loud, Marian said, “He did?”
“He said… He said I looked like a girl. That I had to man up. So he took me to his barber and I asked him… I said I wanted to keep some, not to make it too short. But he just buzzed it. All the way down. Mom was really mad. They had a fight.”
“They fight a lot, but usually it’s about Kyle or money or Dad being out. But Mom was so mad, saying ‘You had no right.’ Over and over. ‘You had no right.’ I try to… Well, I don’t want them to yell. But…”
Joey touched his head again, the bristles glinting in the sun. “But I liked my hair.”
Marian nodded. “I bet Sheppy liked hers, too.” She looked straight at Joey. “Joey, is there something you want to tell me? Something about Sheppy?”
Joey’s face crumpled. “I didn’t want to.”
“I know. It’s hard. But you should tell the truth.”
“They made me. They promised.”
“My brother and his friends.”
“What did they promise?”
“That if I… if I helped them, I could be in the gang.”
“What do you mean ‘helped them?’”
“I didn’t take anything,” Joey said, his nose running and mixing with his tears. “They did. The older boys. Kyle was the one who found the paint.”
“So it was him.”
Joey shook his head. “No. Me. I did it.”
“Don’t lie,” Marian said harshly. “Your brother is a juvenile delinquent. He doesn’t deserve your protection.”
“No! It’s the truth. He was going to but I thought, if I did it, they would know… that I was tough. So, I did it. I painted Sheppy. And now she’s going to lose it all. I thought it would wash out. It said water based on the can. I checked.”
Marian sat there, dumb. The little shit. How dare he? Run through her house with his nasty feet and scare her only friend half to death. The little shit. He was no better than the rest of them.
“You are not a good person.” Marian was ashamed at how shaky her voice had become.
Joey hung his head.
“I know,” he said. Sheppy took another step toward him and before Marian could pull her back, Sheppy laid her head on Joey’s knee.
Joey leaned down to Sheppy and placed his hands on the top of her neck. “I just wanted them to like me,” he whispered into Sheppy’s fur.
The fire in the salon had started gradually. Marian hadn’t noticed that the candle had tipped over until she smelled smoke. There were so many things that were combustible in a beauty parlor: the polish remover, the straightening solutions, the bleach. Marian hadn’t left right away and she didn’t run for help, though she knew she should. She watched as the flames curled up the wall paper and caught on the gauzy drapes over the front window. Then the flames roared up with a whooshing sound, and Marian scrambled out the shop’s backdoor. She stood in the street in her bare feet and nightgown until the fire department came, clutching the gold lighter in her hand. By the time her mother had returned home, the salon and their apartment was a damp pile of wood. The police were never sure how the fire started.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Joey whispered, over and over again into Sheppy’s purple fur. “I’m really sorry.” As if in response, Sheppy began licking his face. Joey but let the dog’s rough tongue clean his snot and tears until his face was pink. Marian kept her hand on the leash but this time let it hang slack on the patio pavement.
About the Author:
Melissa DosSantos Sullivan is an attorney, mother of two and recipient of the 2016 Parent-Writer Fellowship in Fiction from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her family.