The kitchen fire had raged while I slept. After being discharged from the hospital, I walked back to see what was left.
Not much. Or so it seems at first glance compared to what I had before.
I once had indoor plumbing and a book collection. Mixing bowls. Stacks of perfectly labelled scrapbook albums.
Now, I have a singed frame, shoddy roof, unsafe staircases.
When I put my foot on the second step to test it, I hear a quiet knock coming from the front.
“Are you Annie?”
I nod at the man who looks familiar but also like nobody I’ve met.
He tells me he’s a neighbor.
“Welcome to my beautiful home.”
He snickers. “It’s not that bad.”
“Where are you staying?”
I look around. “This is it.”
He checks my expression to see if I’m joking and then allows me the grace of space without intrusive questions.
Who wants to admit that you have no friends, no family, no place to stay?
He becomes a fixture around my beautiful home as the weeks pass. Keeping an eye out for raccoons that try to squat in my attic.
We speak to each other in hushed euphemisms. I think he’s shy like me until he makes a confession.
His back is to me. He’s sweeping the fallen leaves from my living room floor (patched together planks over the joists).
“I know who did this.”
Quiet, quiet, so quiet. It makes me think of how I sing softly when I need to keep a tremble from my voice.
He nods, though he still looks away.
I think that is it. I know in my heart he doesn’t know know them.
He drops the broom and crouches low, leaning against a sturdy piece of frame. His hands find his face. He looks heavy.
“Annie, I saw them casing your place. I confronted them. They told me if I fucked with them they would burn it down.”
Almost inaudible in the scratchy silence: “I didn’t believe them.”
I fall to meet him.
“Oh God, don’t blame yourself. Please don’t. Promise me you won’t blame yourself.”
“But Annie, I -”
“No. No. No.”
I cup his cheeks with my hands. I gently lift his face up.
“Listen, I know them. They’ve been stalking me since I left the city.”
His eyes light up, but it’s with hope and not acceptance.
“Hey, they didn’t burn down the place because of you. These are really sick people. They would have tried to kill me no matter what.”
I feel like I’m reading his thoughts, the ones too painful to speak.
“You could not have saved this house. You did not make it worse. Every single thing and every person that haunts me is my shit.”
He starts to stand. When we’re both upright again, I put my hand on his shoulder.
He looks down.