When I was sixteen, my house caught fire. Lightning stabbed a pin-sized hole in a pipe in my closet. As my mom backed the SUV out of the garage, our two bichon frises pressing their snouts against the passenger side window, I sprinted back inside the house. I ran like I’d never run before, like my brother and I had never been allowed to run inside the house as kids. My tennis shoes slapped the tile. The lights were off. I didn’t know where my dad was, but he wasn’t in the car.
I took the stairs two at a time. Smoke sifted down through the ceiling, hanging in the air like moisture. I darted into my bedroom and snatched my stuffed bison from the bed, tearing down the stairs holding Leroy by one leg. My heart felt loud inside my body, like when the drums in marching bands pass by you too close and for a second you feel the beat in your gut and your throat.
I landed hard at the base of the stairs, my feet taking the impact hard. The smoke alarms weren’t going off yet. My father saw me standing there, brown stuffed animal in hand, wearing a University of Kansas T-shirt. The house was dark, like we’d yet to turn the lights on after just coming home. The front door was open and tiny smatterings of rain pebbled the windows and pavement, humidity seeping through the doorframe.
“What the hell are you doing?” my dad asked. His arms were full of photo albums—on top were the cloth baby books, mine a Grandma floral print, my brother’s a timid striped blue.
“Getting Leroy!” I said, sliding through the front door and jogging across the driveway to where my mother had parked the car against the curb.
State Farm arrived at the house early the next morning, and within an hour, people were flitting in and out of the house, wearing uniforms from various companies. The claims adjuster declared the event a 75% loss. Someone handed me a plastic yellow hardhat and thick rubber boots.
We surfed on wet mounds of drywall, pink and yellow insulation, tiny bits and pieces of things I couldn’t identify. My bedroom was a jungle of wires. I could see the sky through a hole in my closet. The smell of moist electrical campfire pressed itself inside my nostrils and it wasn’t the kind of smell you got used to. My brother wasn’t present to go through his own belongings, which were submerged under a sea of insulation and debris. He couldn’t see his pastel globe or the plastic toy mat, a winding cityscape for Hot Wheels cars, which we used to lay across the carpet in his bedroom when we were kids. The fire had chomped a jagged hole in the corner of the mat.
I held the banister as I walked down the stairs, something I never did. I clomped past people ripping up sopping carpet and dripping drywall. My mother handed me her cell phone and I pressed it to my ear, feeling detached from myself.
“Hi, Amanda,” my brother said. It was September, and he was at his freshman year of college at the University of Kansas. I thought of his bedroom, of the debris piled high on his desk, on his solar system bedspread, the yellow insulation that looked like the cubed pit we used to jump in at gymnastics parties when we were little kids. I thought of the half melted plastic tubs on the top shelf of his closet, full of Hot Wheels cars and green army men and multicolored blocks.
I didn’t want to say the word gone. My eyes swam in their sockets, and I made eye contact with a tall bearded man carrying a coil of carpet across the tile, dribbling water out of its end like a taco.
Within a year of the fire, my brother would have his first emotional breakdown at KU. I was taking a psychology class at the time, but I never learned anything that could help me with him. Saving Leroy was easy. I didn’t know how to save my brother. I remember the phone call I had with him, after the fire, how my mother, who’d spoken to him first, told him about all the people in the house, her voice steady, calm, matter-of-fact.
I don’t remember what we talked about on the phone the day of the fire, but I remember he didn’t seem upset. He said something about how he wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. I remember all the school days in which we talked about house fires and fire safety, what we would run into our houses and retrieve. Maybe the school system made our words into prophesies, even when I was sixteen and too old to be sentimental about a stuffed animal.
Robbed of the opportunity to gather his own school-sanctioned item, my brother probably crumbled into himself, his mental illness jumpstarting on the fuel of loss created by the fire. I wonder if he thought the word gone when he heard the news, if he pictured a pile of charred rubble, bits of foundation, maybe one solitary wall still standing. I visualize him hanging up the phone the day of the fire, sinking into the wooden dorm chair, trying to find a way to reconcile an extinguished childhood. Maybe he burnt himself up with the ensuing loss of childhood artifacts, of blue childhood paint on the walls and the grief-filled realization that he’d seen the house so many times, and yet he’d failed to really look at it. Now it was gone, torn down to the studs.
Amanda Hays is from Allen, Texas but lives and writes in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is an MFA candidate at Oklahoma State University.