I say to myself, damn, that house is on fire, and I pull my car over next to a couple of others, at the wide end of a gravel driveway. It’s 2003, about twenty miles southwest of Lancaster, and the house is the middle of three, sitting side-by-side on one acre plots in the wooded hills.
Of the three houses, this one is the largest. The two flanking it look like they started out as double-wides and were fitted with additions by someone who knew what they were doing, but this one has two stories and an elaborate system of decks wrapping around it, and a balcony off an upstairs bedroom.
No stairs coming down from the balcony – it’s more like a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing.
Smoke billows out from under the eaves of the roof, and out the attic windows – a lot of smoke. No flames, no noise, just the dark gray tendrils boiling out of the cracks in the structure, like someone’s overcooking a ton of ribs in there.
The drivers of the two other cars are already out of them, two teenage girls and a bearded guy my age. His clothes suggest he’s a painter on construction sites, and I’m wearing a shirt and tie.
“Anyone know whose house that is? Do we know if anyone’s in there?” I ask.
Everybody shakes their heads.
The girls look at us – we’re definitely the adults here. The bearded guy says, “These two flagged me down when I was driving past. I’m from Chillicothe.”
I start motioning around at the porch and the yard, all the colorful plastic toys and slides and tricycles, and I tell them all, “There could easily be kids inside there. Nap time, grandma or something with them, then a fire starts, carbon monoxide knocks ‘em out…”
“I ran up and beat on the door,” the guy says. “No one answered.”
“There was another lady here,” says one of the teenagers. She’s a red-haired girl with a voice like her nose is plugged. A close talker, too – I have to back up a step and cock my head at her as she goes on. “None of us could get a cell phone signal, so she drove home to call 911. She says she lives right down the street.”
I stand there silently doing the math with the bearded stranger from Chillicothe. Even if she got the call off by now, the nearest fire station is either Kingston or Sugar Grove.
“At least another ten minutes,” the bearded guy says.
We look at each other another moment and then realize the same couple of things. There are only two of us here who aren’t teenage girls, and maybe there are kids inside.
“Let’s see if it’s unlocked.”
So I drop my wallet and my cell phone on the hood of my car as if I’m about to jump in a swimming pool and not the exact opposite. Me and the painter from Chillicothe approach the eerily quiet building, looking up warily at the smoke hissing out of the eaves.
There’s a plastic garden just like my daughter had when she was two. I whisper, “Son of a bitch.”
The painter slaps the palm of his hand against the door, checking it for heat. I saw Backdraft, too, so I know what he’s doing. He tries the doorknob, and the door swings open.
There is nothing unusual about the bottom floor, except for sharp, popping sounds up in the ceiling. It sounds exactly like a campfire crackling, except enormous and hidden away. We look up at the ceiling and imagine it coming down on us.
Meanwhile the rest of the house is Christmas morning quiet.
Screw it, I’d rather not have nightmares about toddlers cooking for the rest of my life. I take a few steps into the house and then jump about a foot when the painter – right behind my left ear – yells, “Anyone home?”
The air isn’t even warm down here, it’s like a normal house. In fact, I think the air conditioner is still running. The popping sounds grow louder as we push further into the house, like a construction site full of hammering and clattering.
“Let’s find the stairs,” I tell the painter. He looks like someone painted him – green.
I figure, there will come a point where we can’t proceed. Where it’s a wall of fire or something. I grab a dish towel off the counter, run water over it – I’ve seen in movies how they hold those over their faces.
There’s the staircase, right off a corridor that leads to a den. There’s fire up there now, we can hear it, crackling and popping. The heat gathers here, too, like an invisible, sinister cloud.
Then suddenly two more guys show up, one wearing jeans and a Harley Davidson tee shirt, the other wearing bib overalls. They lumber in the same door we did.
“Hey,” I tell them. “The door was unlocked. You guys live here?”
They look at us like we’re irritating them. You’d think there would be some cool music playing, but no, there’s just the campfire popping noise, and now these two guys, acting like we’re in the way.
They don’t answer. They start moving an antique china cabinet from the dining room out the door.
“Hey,” I holler at them again. “Are there any kids here? Do we know if anyone else is here or not?”
“There ain’t nobody here!” One of them shouts, again, like I’m some kind of pain in the ass who keeps asking that. First time I asked them. “It’s my mom’s house! Nobody’s here!”
Well, saving kids from a burning building would be a cool way to go out, but saving furniture – not so much. Me and the mysterious painter get the hell out of there, while the two angry knuckleheads continue carrying furniture out of the joint, and staging it in the lawn.
A couple extra cars out there now. The two teenage girls still wringing their hands, watching. The painter says, “Watch, we’ll get arrested for break and entering, or sued or something.”
Holy Christmas, he’s right – that’s the kind of bonkers crap happens all the time.
So we get in our cars and get the hell out of there, the only time I’ve ever gone into a burning building looking for kids to save, and also possibly one of the most boring and uneventful stories I have.