The yellow cab came to a stop outside the airport and I climbed into the backseat, pushing my carry-on onto the seat ahead of me. The driver turned around to look at me and inquired, "Where to, Miss?"
"Victor City, please," I replied in a tired voice, and we were off. I leaned my head back against the headrest, and closed my eyes. It had felt like a long trip, even though I'd only been gone for two days. A successful one, though. I'd landed two major accounts, so I'd say that was a trip well-spent. But, I was exhausted, and I just wanted to be home, climb into my own bed, and curl up for a well-deserved nap.
The trip home had been somewhat of a disaster. The wake-up call I'd ordered at the hotel hadn't come through, they were out of coffee, I'd nearly missed my flight, and I'd forgotten my phone charger on the kitchen counter at home, so I felt virtually cut off from the world with no way to be contacted.
As we rolled into town, I gave my address to the driver and watched the morning walkers stroll down the street, so intent on going nowhere and ending right back at home where they started. I just wanted to be in bed. The driver's voice pulled me from my tired stupor.
"Oh wow," he exclaimed. "I think someone just lost a house."
I looked through the front window of the cab to see the smoke from a put-out fire twirling into the sky.
"Oh no," I whispered. "Oh no, oh no, oh no." That wasn't someone's house. That was my house.
My beautiful house with the wraparound porch. As soon as I'd seen it five years earlier, I'd had to have it. It was reminiscent of every childhood book I'd ever loved. It was old and drafty, and probably more trouble than it was worth, trying to keep the pipes in repair. But I loved it and I had spent so much time restoring it.
There were fire trucks everywhere, firemen with sooty, tired faces... and no house.
I jumped out of the car before it even stopped and ran over to a group of them. I recognized Peter, a guy who had gone to high school with me... now a father of three, and coaching football at the school he'd played for. "Peter! What happened??" I asked, the panic rising. "Why didn't anyone call me??"
His eyes widened, "Oh god, there you are, Jennifer. No one knew how to get ahold of you... you didn't answer your phone and no one knew where you were staying. I'm so sorry. We tried to save it, we've been here all night. But, it just went up like someone had poured lighter fluid on it, and..." He gestured apologetically to the ruins and ashes that now sat where my home once was.
I stepped toward where my porch had been, but he put a hand on my sleeve. "Jen, we just got it out... It's not safe yet." But I pushed him away and kept walking. I couldn't just stand there. It was dark and smoky and everything I loved was in there somewhere. The pictures of my mother, my childhood memories, all the letters I'd saved. It was all gone... how could it be gone? I knelt to the ground and ran my hand through some of the ashes that had cooled.
Douglas was behind her.
"Hello, Rachel," I said with a sigh. "Doug."
"Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer... it is just SO TERRIBLE what has happened to your HOUSE!" She spoke in capitals. "I guess you can NEVER be too CAREFUL, can you? I don't know WHAT I would do if anything like that happened to ME. You just NEVER know what could HAPPEN when you turn your back for a SECOND."
"Yes. This appears to be the second time I've had to learn that lesson," I muttered drily, with a glance at Doug. "You'd think I'd have learned it by now.” I’d once had his engagement ring on my left hand.
“WELL,” Rachel moved to head back the way she’d come. “I suppose we’ll LEAVE you to get ON with your clean-up. WE just wanted to come and make SURE that you were alright.” She looked pointedly at Doug. “Come ALONG, Douglas.”
I watched Rachel march pointedly back up the sidewalk the way she’d come. Doug lingered behind.
I turned around and surveyed the damage again, still not quite believing what had happened while I was gone.
“Is there a reason you’re still standing here, Doug?” I asked, tiredly.
He stepped around me and looked down into my eyes. That curl over his forehead kept falling into his eyes. “You’ve got ashes on your cheek,” he said quietly, and he touched his thumb to my skin, slowly wiping it away. My eyes closed of their own volition.
“DOUGLAS! We’re GOING now,” came from down the street.
I drew a breath and glared up at him. “Doug... someday, I hope you really understand what you threw away... and for THAT. I think you’re being paged.” He opened his mouth to say... something, but I stopped him. “Just go. She’s only going to keep calling.”