Authors: Gary; Devon
The door to her room rasped as it opened and they went through it, with Mamie jogging gently against him. They crossed to the top of the stairs. “Are we going right now?” she said.
“I'm taking you to a safe place,” he said.
The pictures in the stairwell loomed up and passed beside her as they went down the stairs. “One last thing I gotta do,” he said, “then I'll come after you.” He turned on the halfway landing and went on down, and she bounced with him, the top of the stairs receding and curving away with every downward step. “Something smells funny,” she said, “like gas.” Her voice snagged and bumped on his shoulder. “I think I smell smoke.”
“I've got it ready to blow,” he said. “Everything's fixed. It's already started.”
“Why?” she said, still yawning, fighting sleep. “Is Toddy comin' with us?”
“He's all right. He's asleep.”
As they cut through the foyer, he dropped almost to his knees and they moved down and up like climbing a ladder. “Put this around you,” he said, and covered her with a quilt.
“It's wet,” she said.
“That won't matter,” he said.
She squirmed under it, shrinking from its icy chill, and she felt it run wet on her cheek. She wiped at it with the hand she kept around his shoulder and saw a dark stain. It took a moment for her to realize that it was blood. “Oh, Sherman, did you hurt yourself again?”
They went through the kitchen. “It's not so bad,” he said, “just a nick.”
She tried to twist forward and sit on the perch of his forearm, but he held her pressed tight with his hand between her shoulder blades. “But it's getting on me. All over my petticoat.”
“Then we'll have to take it off.”
Later, she would remember him telling her to cover her mouth with the wet quilt as they went through the basement door and he turned sideways in the doorway to swing the door shut with his elbow. The air was mottled dark and hazy in the basementâone lonely cricket chirped along with the methodic grind of his shoes. She peered above her wet mask.
Great swarming coils of smoke hung between the black studs.
In the last few minutes of night, as the warm rising dew eddied and idled on the ground and the Chinaman lumbered from his opened pen, an explosion emptied the air like a massive spontaneous eruptionâit rocked the foundation and shattered the first-story windows of the Abbott house. Old Mrs. Weatherholt, who lived across the street and reported the fire, said she felt the force of the concussion run up the corner posts of her bed and reverberate through her bedsprings so hard they strummed and tinkled for five minutes. “I thought it was an earthquake. I swear I did.” In the beginning, she saw only smoke billowing from crevices in the foundation, then small shooting flames. She said she thought the house looked out of kilter, off plumb, tipped a little like a top hat.
Before she could get back to the window from calling the fire department, the fire had spread to the first-floor windows and a festoon of curling black smoke encircled the broad front of the house. When she came to the second part of her eyewitness account, she broke down; she couldn't tell the authorities what it was like to watch poor Mrs. Abbott tear at the smoky upstairs window that wouldn't openâher soundless, wild face smeared against the glass as her white fists went on pounding against it more and more feebly until she was engulfed in smoke. And all this time, Mrs. Weatherholt yelling, “Throw something! Throw something through it!” But it didn't help, nothing helped. Mrs. Abbott was beside herself with fear, then gone so quick, so unbelievably quick, already gone. When the firemen knocked the front door in, flames shot out of the house in a blast that scorched the geraniums at the end of the walk.
In their nightclothes, bathrobes, and wrapsâsome wearing slippers, some shoes, others in their stocking feet, their faces still puffy with sleepâthe neighbors gathered and were cordoned off behind barricades on the other side of the street. They gathered to pray and wonder and bear witness, finding it unbearable to watch, but even more impossible to look away.
When all had been given up for lost, the fire spitting from the asphalt shingles on the roof and flapping in all the windows, when none of the neighbors staring into the gassy waves of heat could understand how the house went on standing, little Mamie Abbott wandered down the path beside the house through smoke and soot and sparks, clutching a wet and smoldering quilt around her shoulders with one hand and swinging a blue plastic purse by its broken strap in the other. Except for her awful retching coughs, she appeared abstracted, almost unconcerned, out for a morning stroll. Her hair, eyelashes, and brow were singed from one side of her head. Under the quilt, she wore only her panties. One of the firemen caught the child up in his arms and carried her to an ambulance. The siren sounded its shrill warning as the ambulance sped away. Some of the onlookers began yelling, “There's someone else in there! In the front room! I see Ray in there!” And everyone crowded to the barricade for a closer look. But it was impossible to tell whether the shape was that of a man or a smoke trick, and it made no difference. The house collapsed into itself in a grating, slow-folding crash. Tossed out in the sudden convulsion of the wreckage, chunks of burning debris were strewn as far as fifty feet away.
The firemen continued to drench the facing sides and roofs of adjacent houses, but the fire had been contained. Later that same morning, as the men collected their implements, they found in the right-of-way behind the Abbott house a bicycle and a pile of newspapers belonging to Jimmy Porterfield, who had been reported missing earlier that morning. A few of the newspapers were freckled with blood. The police were called to the scene.
At approximately five-fifteen that afternoon, it was concluded that four charred and unrecognizable bodies, two adults and two children, had been recovered. Mamie Abbott was admitted to the Nathan County Memorial Hospital in stable but guarded condition, with second- and third-degree burns on thirty percent of her body.
Like a particularly devastating dream, the first night in the hospital would remain in Mamie Abbott's memory for the rest of her life.
She awoke in the night, trying to talk. “Oh, please,” she mumbled. “Oh, please, don't â¦ oh, please â¦” Her lips shaped the same combinations of words again and again. When she eventually stirred and opened her eyes, she stopped murmuring, because she was in a black place, a steep black hole without shadows or limits. Where is this? she thought, and deep shudders shook her.
Blinking slowly, she glanced first to one side, then the other, until she could hold her eyes open. But she couldn't see anything, and she hurt all over. She rolled her tongue on her lips; they were swollen and cracked. The dark was impenetrable.
She tried to get up, but things were stuck in her arms and they pulled and tore when she moved. She felt lifeless and yet her heart was hammering so hard it beat in her ears. Her hands seemed fat as mittensâwhen she touched herself, they had no feeling. She couldn't tell what the things were in her arms or why they were there.
Where's everybody at? she thought, and bits of what had happened began to trickle through her senses.
Where's Toddy? Is he comin 'with us?
She remembered that someone had picked her up and she had glimpsed the burning house. They're all gone, she thought. Oh, Mama! Mama! Mama! She felt raw inside, cauterized with the fearful knowledge that she was entirely alone â¦ forever. They're all dead! I'm sorry, she thought, and said, “Sorry,” as the tears welled and ran from the corners of her eyes.
She was gasping for air when she remembered Sherman's promise, and two thoughts crossed in her mind. They're all dead â¦ except Sherman. He must've got out. Her eyes searched the dark, but only tiny disappearing pinpoints of light met her gaze. Careful of the things girding her arms, she shrugged up, wiping her face against her shoulders. Quietly, she said, “Sherman, are you there?” But with her thick lips and tongue, her voice was so unfamiliar she thought that even if he heard her, he wouldn't know who she was.
She wanted to cry again, but instead she forced her eyes to search the darkness once more. As well as she could, she called to him, “Sherman â¦,” and the fear and anger and longing grew so intense that her teeth chattered. “Why didn't you take me with you?” She lurched up through the dark, betrayed and forsaken. “Why didn't you take me?” Her chattering teeth chopped her words in two. She wanted to get up; she found an edge to the place where she lay. Something metallic crashed to the floor and the scream rising out of her was like that of a trapped animal, a forlorn and vicious bawling.
A door flew open and, streaming in through the light, white shapes flocked toward her like the hosts of God. “Don't take me!” she shrieked. She flailed out against them, still screaming and trying to talk, but they gently pinned her down and gave her a shot with a needle. As the shroud of her loneliness overtook her, she heard one of them say, “It's the medicine making you say crazy things. You shouldn't try to talk, Mamie â¦ You're not making sense. You don't want people to think you're crazy â¦ now do you?”
After that night, it would be a very long time before Mamie Abbott again tried to speak of her hope and her terror, her love and her wrath.
She had seen it before in the picture show when the projectionist got the reels mixed up and backwardâthe fragments swooping up, the sloshed coffee flying back into the cup pieces, the teetering cup of coffee restored to perfection on the arm of the sofaâbut she had never expected to have it happen to her. If life could have reversed itselfâif the shattered fragments of a cup lying in a brown spill on the floor could actually reassemble themselves complete and uncracked and full of steaming coffeeâthen perhaps Leona Hillenbrandt could have explained the sensation of fullness and completion she experienced as she stooped by a hospital bed one evening and little Mamie Abbott, still dangerously in shock and wrapped in bandages, reached out and grasped her thumb. The memory of that evening had haunted and held her ever since.
At the age of thirty-four, Leona believed that everything always turned out for the best, and that the least significant everyday events were guided by some unknowable, mystical force. Even in the worst of circumstances, her belief seemed to hold true, from this moment back to that time sixteen years ago, when, soon after her eighteenth birthday, she had had to leave home.
Rather than submit to her mother's arrangements and hide herself away at her Aunt Suid's until the baby came, she had taken the bus as far from home as she could go for two dollars. The day's journey took her to Livingstone, Kentucky, a river town of four or five hundred inhabitants. There, heartsick and alone and losing blood, she stumbled into the office of an elderly doctor named Merchassen. About to pass out, she told the doctor that she couldn't pay him with money; she had taken nothing with her from home except the clothes she wore and a five-dollar gold piece, half of which she'd already spent. She had planned to work and save until her time came.
With unreserved kindness, the doctor and his wife took her in and cared for her when she lost the child. She had stayed with them afterward, in gratitude, but more because of an affection they came to enjoy and, later, because she had promised Dr. Merchassen she would stay with his wife until the end. She often thought how remarkable it was that she had been saved from her destructive self. It was almost as if she had been guided to their door so that she could emerge years later, changed and with a new and better life.
And yet, as much as she believed in the unseen trigonometry of things, she also believed in coincidence, the two almost whimsical forces meshing together like ever-changing, parallel gears. Hardly a week passed that some coincidence was not played out in her life. An advertisement for tires would arrive in the mail and the next day she would have a flat, or she would mention an old friend and that evening the friend would call. Over the years, many of these haphazard events had manifested themselves. There was no way to predict them, no way to use them to her advantage. They happened and she noticed and remembered.
Coincidence had brought her to Graylie, Pennsylvania, to live with her married sister, Emma. A call from Cornelia Dunham, her oldest and best friend, whose tone of voice seemed to imply more than it said, conspired with Leona's imagination to suggest that Emma's health was failing (even if she wouldn't admit it), and Leona thought she should make one last visit while she still could.
The day after she arrived in Graylie, after all the hubbub and excitement of seeing each other for the first time in nearly four years, and while Emma was still hovering about, Leona said, “I don't want you to feel that you have to entertain me.” Emma replied offhandedly, “I couldn't entertain you here in Graylie if my life depended on it. I'm afraid
may have to entertain
,” and they laughed.
But for all the good it did, Leona might have been talking to a box. Emma was determined to include her in her daily routines, and as long as Leona lived there, she never got used to Emma's fluttery invitations to go to church, to play canasta, to visit the neighbors. She understood Emma's hospitality, but she resisted being drawn into a frivolous social life with people she didn't know. She had come to Graylie to spend time with her ailing sister; she could only rejoice that the illness she imagined did not exist, but her purpose had never been to make Emma's friends her friends, or to be jealous of the time Emma spent with them. It was a delicate, difficult balance: to go along with Emma on her excursions often enough to keep from hurting her feelings, and to not go often enough to remain uninvolved.
By the end of summer, she had turned Emma down so many times she was beginning to feel self-conscious and guilty. To make amends, she reluctantly agreed to accompany her sister to the hospital to visit a neighbor Leona hardly knew, Rosie Caldwell, who was recovering from surgery.