Smoke stings your eyes and nose when you push open the back door. A cinder burns a hole in your chenille robe and several more cling to your hair. The smell frightens you, and your belly cramps.
Gus, your neighbor, trains a garden hose on the eucalyptus tree between the burning building and your fence. Because of the smoke , you can't see anything, but you hear voices shouting, and above you, on the top floor, you hear a dog barking. Static and intermittent words from the police radio mingle with voices from the street.
You step off the porch and stumble, knocking a jade plant onto the concrete below. The dog barks and barks. The only light comes from the flames and the pulsing red of the police car. Blackberry vines along the fence look like chain against the smoke.
Nelda comes around the corner of the building. Stepping out of the smoke, she looks like a frail ghost in a white prom dress. She asks, "Gus, are you sure Mama ain't home."
An impatient Gus shouts, "I told you three times; she ain't here."
You untangle your garden hose and turn on the water, but a gash near the nozzel sends spray in all directions soaking your robe. You direct the water dribbling from the hose at the fence separating you from the flames. Upstairs the dog barks twice and is silent. In the distance, a siren whines.
First published: July 1996