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She sat in her study reading, her empty cup sat on the small end table by her chair. The room was silent, as was the house. It had begun its road to silence forty-two years ago. It wasn’t until ten years ago that it reached its destination. She loved the silence. Her former life had been so hectic. But there were times she wished it was loud and busy again.
She flipped the page of her book. She had read all the different books in her study many times in her ninety- two years. She would have been playing the piano, but it was a bit hard for her to move and her arthritic fingers didn’t make it pleasant. The sound of piano was one of the most wonderful sounds to her. It reminded her of her childhood, practicing every Sunday with her Aunt Lou.
Her granddaughter, Claire, was visiting that day and she was bringing along her son, Frederick with her. She knew she wasn’t allowed to pick favorites among the family, but the boy looked so much like her husband, it was almost maddening.
At noon the doorbell rang. She smiled, placed her book on the end table, grabbed her cane and walked to the door.
“It’s open!” She called when she was a few feet from the door. Claire opened the door.
“Grandma.” She smiled, met the distance with her grandmother and hugged her.
“It’s wonderful to see you again dear. Do you have everything you need?
“It’s great to see you too and I do, I placed it over by - Frederick, what are you doing son?” He had stayed in the doorway. He was always afraid of coming there.
“Come in the house and give your grandmother a hug.” He looked from his mother, quickly glanced at his great-grandmother and looked at the floor.
“Oh Claire it’s fine. He doesn’t have to. Come I’ll make you two some tea.” She headed toward the kitchen which was off of the hallway.
Claire sighed and helped Frederick with his coat. Before she let him go she placed a hand on his cheek, “It would be very nice if you would at least look her in the eyes for once. You might regret not doing so if she were to be gone.” Frederick nodded but said nothing. Claire stood up and he instantly grabbed his mother’s hand.
“Which tea would you like my dear?” She asked over the screeching of the water.
“Mint is fine.” She was born right- handed but after she hurt her right hip she was forced to become ambidextrous while using her cane. She slid the pot off the stove, placed the packets into the cups and poured the water. Claire helped carry the cups to the table. The three drank in silence.
“When do you want to do this?” She asked, placing her cup down.
“Now is fine I suppose, I’ll go get my recorder.” Claire left the room, leaving Frederick with his great-grandmother. She smiled at him, the one all grandmothers have once they have grandchildren. She received the view of the top of his head as he avoided eye contact again.
Claire brought in her bag, sat in the seat adjacent to her grandmother and placed her recorder on the table.
“May I be excused mother?” Frederick asked.
“Can I play the piano?”
“Don’t ask me, ask your grandmother.” Frederick turned and looked through the window behind his grandmother.
“Can I play piano?” She smiled and nodded. He ran off into the study and began playing.
“Oh that boy, I don’t know what I’ll do with him.” Claire sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“It’s quite alright dear, I’m used to it. Many people have been uncomfortable.”
“Well he was one of the few. Shall we begin?” Claire nodded and pressed record.
“Now what do I say exactly?”
“Anything about it, we could start at the beginning if you want.”
“Alright then, let’s see. . .” Her eyes became glossy, as if she was visualizing the scene in her own kitchen.
“It was in the summer of 2013. I was seventeen and was working in downtown Milford as a waitress. I remember the summer was brutal that year. It was very hot, and dry. As if we had moved to Nevada. For the first time, we had to watch our water usage. Can you believe that! The people of Michigan had to watch their water! I tell you, things were very bad if we had to do that.”
“I was on my break when the fire started. I was down in the park relaxing, enjoying the sun when I heard a woman scream. Well naturally everyone looked at her. She was planted to the ground in fear and was pointing at the sky. A massive plume of darkness covered it. We all thought it was a tornado, but then ash fell to ground. People everywhere were choking. Some were driving off, getting as far away from the town as possible. There were so many that the firemen couldn’t get through.”
“And what did you do then?”
“Well I ran into town. I don’t know why I did. My legs just sort of got me there. There was this one shop, the thrift store I believe, had a family and the owner trapped inside. The ceiling had fallen and blockaded them in.”
“What happened to them?”
“Well amongst the chaos, I tried to find a way in. I eventually did around the back, and thanks to my height I was able to squeeze through.”
“Then what happened?”
“I remember it was dark, hot and ash was everywhere. I couldn’t breathe but eventually I reached them and brought them over to the opening where I came through. The three kids went through without a problem, but the mother and the shop owner had trouble. I started kicking the opening and after yelling and kicking more, two men eventually tried to help make the opening bigger. They were able to get through alright.”
“What about you? I’ve heard what happened to you but I don’t know the full details.”
“Well you know how I told you a part of the roof caved?” Claire nodded.
“As the shop owner went through, it fell again. I tried to get away but I was hit in the side by a plank of burning wood. It stung pretty bad, and I smelt this awful, foul stench. Then I rrealized my skin was burning.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Well what else would someone do if they were on fire? I screamed in agony and dropped to the ground. I was in so much pain I couldn’t extinguish the flames.”
The light from the window peered through the slightly drawn drapes of the kitchen. Claire could see the scars of the fire clearly on her grandmother’s face. She tried to imagine them after the fire; red, blistered and cracked. Now they were just white marks that were very bright in the sun’s light. Claire could only see the scars from her grandmother’s left eye and down to her neck. She figured it extended further, but the ones visible were enough for her to get the picture.
Frederick had stopped playing and returned to the hallway halfway through his great-grandmother’s story. He sat on the bottom stairs, listening. He felt guilty now for being afraid of her. Frederick had always thought that his great-grandmother was a demon, disguised in an old lady’s skin, the scars being where the demon entered the skin suit. Frederick looked at his shoes, hating himself so much, his great-grandmother wasn’t a demon, but a hero.
“How did you escape if you were on the ground then?” She turned and smiled at her granddaughter.
“One of the men was able to make the opening bigger and rescued me.”
“That was grandpa wasn’t it?”
She smiled. “Yes it was. He was a regular at the restaurant I worked at. He and the other man extinguished the flames. The paramedics finally got to the town as the firefighters battled the flames. They whisked me away in an ambulance, your grandfather stayed with me all night. My mother and brother were out of town on a Boy Scout camping trip. They were there the next morning.”
“Did anyone ever find out how the fire started?”
“Oh yes they did. Some delinquents from my high school started it. They were angry with their boss so they were hoping to burn some of their boss’s building. They weren’t very smart.”
They sat in silence. She stared blankly at her cup. Her arthritic finger traced the rim of the cup. Claire went to turn the recorder off.
“Twenty-three people died, more than double were severely injured, myself included. They really weren’t smart.”
“What happened to them?”
“They were arrested and charged of course, of both arson and murder. I think they may have gotten life sentences.”
Claire shut the recorder off. She had gotten everything she needed. The two chit chatted for two more hours, catching up with each other from the last time they saw each other. Frederick had joined them, and still couldn’t look at his great-grandmother but this time out of shame.
As Claire and Frederick began getting ready to go she gave them a batch of cookies.
“Grandma you don’t have to do that.”
“I know, but I wanted to. It has been years since I made something for someone else.” Claire smiled and gave her grandmother a hug.
“You two will visit me soon?”
Claire walked out the door and again for the second time, Frederick stood in the doorway, but this time he was facing his grandmother.
“You better run along dear, before she leaves without you.” She chuckled.
Frederick quickly ran up and hugged his great-grandmother around her knees, mumbling something into her dress.
“What was that dear?”
“I-I’m sorry! I’m sorry I never hugged you or made eye contact I was just afraid!” He wanted to say more but he was lost for words. She smiled and patted him on the head.
“It’s alright dear, better late than never right?” She smiled. He hugged her again and she patted his head.
“I promise I’ll visit you soon grandma.”
“I know you will.” She smiled.
Claire was in the doorway and Frederick took her hand. Katelyn walked to the door and waved goodbye as they drove off. Feeling tired, she went into her room to take her afternoon nap. But this time she didn’t wake up at three like she usually did. Instead she saw all those twenty-three people again, her long lost relatives and her husband, who looked the same as he did ten years ago.