Morning light poured onto the front porch like syrup. It glowed through the leaves of the sugar maples, setting them afire, though their blaze gave no warmth, and the chilly fingers of night clung in the air. Ghosts of leaves burning a long way off floated and hovered.
Lois Wehre stood in her front doorway, her tuxedo-fronted cat Frankie leaning against her leg, his nose high in the air, sniffing. It was Halloween morning, and, early risers, they read the day’s tarot. Lois sensed a confrontation coming, as surely as her mother’s hipbone would signal bad weather. Frankie felt her unease and nudged her with his silky head.
Down at the end of the weedy gravel drive a car slowed. Its occupants bobbed inside, leering and pointing, before the car squealed away. The maples were hundred-foot signal flares for the gawkers who came each Halloween to see where the spaceship touched down. Twenty-five years ago, the first year she lived in the white clapboard two-story, local kids attached a lighted “flying saucer” to her garage roof. Though her neighbor Alvie Connors helped her take it down the next day, the newspapers resurrected “the Martian house” legend year after year, reprinting pictures and stories in which Lois never appeared.
“Damn that Orson Welles,” she said to Frankie. “Don’t people have sense enough to know there’s nothing here? And never was!” She didn’t know about the fictional past of tiny Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, when she moved there. She chose it because she liked the name.
If interest in the house remained high, what changed over the years was the increasing boldness of the teenagers. They congregated on her front walk. They took photographs with her house in the background. They bothered her rhododendrons and sat on her porch steps—getting splinters in their butts would serve them right—and leaned on her doorbell. “Trick or Treat!” Her heart dropped a few beats if she just pictured a mob of them crowded in her doorway, looking past her into her living room, threatening their own alien invasion. The previous year an especially rude group of hulking older teens cleaned her out of candy and threatened to shoulder their way inside to see whether she had more. She slammed the door on them, but they lingered on her porch shouting insults until the cops showed up. “Never again,” she told herself.
“All in good spirits,” Alvie said yesterday, when she complained. But Alvie didn’t live alone in a house boxed in by high hedges. The rest of the year, absolute privacy suited her, but every October, as the end of the month approached, Lois paced the downstairs, window to window to window, and this year, she and Frankie also patrolled the yard’s green walls. At Halloween, night came early. Sleep did not.
While Lois observed the quiet morning from the vantage of her front porch, the sun disappeared and the wind blew in heavy, fast-moving thunderclouds like the bellies of stampeding elephants. She shivered and stepped back into the house. “Frankie, come inside now.”
“Why’re you moving so far away, Lois Ann?” her Missouri friends and neighbors of 25 years before had asked. “Your people are here.” They meant themselves, because her family died in the fire.
“Too many memories” was the easiest answer.
“Uh-huh,” they said, their tone revealing they knew she’d made out fine in the insurance settlement. And again, “Uh-huh,” and their narrowed, appraising eyes confirmed no man in Mountain Grove, Missouri, would marry a woman with a past bitter as ashes. “That’s right.”
The neighbor women had opinions about Lois and her lost family. Mr. Wehre had been the town’s lawyer, a notoriously mean drunk who picked on his only daughter. “More there than meets the eye,” the women nodded. They called his weak-willed and lazy wife “the Queen of Sheba” behind her back. If skinny Lois needed help in that house, she didn’t get it. “30 and looks 50,” they said, watching Lois struggle another basket of wet laundry out to the clothesline.
They knew the details of the fire, too.
“Electrical,” the chief told Lois, after the volunteer firemen finally extinguished the flames, and they could get inside. She nodded at the technical accuracy of his conclusion. The frayed old space heater cord possibly ran too close to the hall rug, he suggested. Lois held a balled-up Kleenex to her eyes. Right again.
Her parents were asleep upstairs when the fire started. Alone in the kitchen, a pan of milk heating on the stove, Lois hummed along to the radio, Johnny Ray singing “Who’s Sorry Now?” It smelled as if the milk were scorching, but it wasn’t, and she took the pan off the burner, poured the milk into a mug, and reached high in the cabinet to grab her father’s bottle of Jack Daniel’s. She’d never dare do this if he had been going to catch her. She poured a slug into the warm milk and plunked down at the kitchen table.
The scorching smell grew stronger. A wisp of smoke floated into the kitchen and withdrew bashfully to the ceiling. After 15 or 20 minutes, the pall of smoke thickened, and something heavy crashed overhead. Lois finished the milk and set her cup in the kitchen sink without rinsing it.
She strolled to the bottom of the stairs. The hallway above glowed and flickered with extraordinary brightness. She mounted a few steps until she could see the floating ashes that had once been voile curtains, burn marks that skidded across the ceiling, and the floor’s blackened cotton rugs. Now the old wood of the interior burned like kindling, and a window from the nearer bedroom, her parents’ room, burst. The fire roared inside like a devil let loose.
What a person would do in this situation was scream, and Lois screamed, backing down as the flames reached the stairs and began to descend in dainty progression. A neighbor man and his son broke down the front door, carried her into the yard, and raced back inside. Already the second floor was fully ablaze. They couldn’t go up there. By the time the fire department arrived, it was too late.
“I put my head down on the kitchen table, and I must have … ”Her voice wandered into uncertainty. “I screamed for them to wake up! Why didn’t they wake up?”
“They couldn’t have got through that wall of fire, ma’am,” said the fire chief. “Smoke inhalation, the coroner will say. They never knew what happened.” These words were meant to comfort her.
She nodded. Everything had happened exactly as she expected, until the firemen carried out the third body.
The wind-whipped whiff of smoke in the air, the flame-colored leaves, the shrieks of the children. Lois forgot to smile at the diminutive superheroes and frothy pink princesses who greedily plunged their hands deep into the candy bowl. “One piece,” she said, unheeded.
The night thickened, and the older kids would start arriving soon. They’d gather outside, trapping her in the house. Not this year. She turned off the lights and, clad head-to-toe in black, a dark scarf hooding her face, slipped out the back door. When she stood motionless at the inky corner of the hedge, she could watch over her house, invisible.
Soon a clutch of twelve-year-old boys walked up to the front porch and pounded on the door.
“That old bitch,” one said in a voice that hadn’t changed yet.
They slipped around the side of the house. Giggling and mock-shoving, they gathered in a tight circle, blocking the wind. A match flared, and the tip of a cigarette glowed as a boy sucked on it, then passed it to his friend. The match, dropped absent-mindedly, fell in an arcing pinpoint of yellow light.
“You sure she’s not home?”
“Danny, she’s not. Dare you to go inside.”
“Chicken.” The boy giggled and took a drag on the joint.
“I will if you will,” another said.
As the jostling boys sneaked into the back yard, a cache of dry leaves hidden under the rhododendrons began to flame.
“Wait,” Lois called, her warning carried away by a gust. She shot out of her hiding place as flames touched the base of the wooden porch. “Frankie!” she shrieked and ran toward the house.
Two older teenagers, football players by the intimidating heft of them, stepped in front of her. They were dressed all in black, too. She hadn’t seen them. The taller one wore sunglasses that made his eyes as fathomless as those of the pseudo-aliens decorating her neighbors’ lawns.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“The house is on fire! My cat!”
“What’s your hurry? It’s just a few dead leaves.”
She tried to dodge around them, but with one side-step they easily blocked someone her size. She shoved. They stood immobile, menacing.
“Please let me by. I have to —hurry!” Her heart pounded. They didn’t understand how fast fire could move. One end of the porch was burning, and before long, the flames would reach the front door.
“Cats have nine lives.” The shorter teen snickered.
Lois tried again to shove her way between them, but they stood solidly shoulder-to-shoulder, teasing her. “Let me by!” She panted her words. “My neighbors will have seen the fire by now. You’d better get out of here.”
“Plenty of time. Hear anything?” the tall one asked. The other shook his head and grinned.
And, indeed, it was eerily quiet, except for the crackling flames. The rose trellis at the end of the porch sparkled with raining cinders. Shrieks of hilarity came from inside the darkened house.
“Those boys, they have to get out!” She gestured violently. “They’ll die in there.”
The teenagers glanced over their shoulders. “Hey, assholes!” the tall one yelled. “Get out of there. What’re you doing?”
The only answer was more high-pitched laughter.
“I think your little brother’s with them,” the other said. They turned and in long strides reached the porch, the flames licking toward them. They shoved open the front door. “You kids get the hell out. The house is on fire, you morons. Danny, if you’re in there, I’m going to—”
Lois ducked past them, but the tall one grabbed her arm. A column holding up one end of the porch roof collapsed, and the corner of the roof followed in sagging slow motion. Inside, the kids screamed and raced past her, nearly knocking her down. The teenager let go of her arm.
“Danny? Danny! Where is he?” he yelled at the boys.
The children glanced at each other. “He was with us a minute ago.”
“In the kitchen,” said another.
“No, he wasn’t.”
Lois ran to the back of the house and almost tripped on a still form. She turned on the overhead light. The boy was unconscious beneath an open cabinet door. “Must of cracked his head,” she muttered. She picked him up—heavy for her—and called, “Frankie! Frankie!”
A child where he wasn’t supposed to be, just like her daughter, where she wasn’t supposed to be, the night of that other fire. Kaye had a sleepover, but the girls quarreled after dinner, and Kaye came home while Lois was in the back yard, putting out water for the chickens.
Danny’s weight caused her to stagger a little. Frankie dashed between her legs, nearly tripping her as she reached the open back door. Being allowed outside at night was a rare treat, and Frankie wouldn’t miss this chance. He flew off the steps.
The teenagers arrived at the bottom of the stoop just as she did, and she handed them Danny like a gift. Then they heard the sirens.
Vicki Weisfeld, a West Windsor resident, studies fiction writing through the Sharpening the Quill workshops led by Lauren B. Davis.