“I’m sorry, miss, but you won’t be able to get in there for a few days. Not until after the fire marshal has completed his investigation and ruled out arson,” the fire chief states, a look of pity mixed with soot smeared on his aged face.
The words strike my heart with the force of an arrow. Arson? Who? Why? What?
Sighing dramatically, I gaze up at the huge two-story, six thousand square foot Southern Colonial house that I’ve considered my home for the last two decades. It has everything. Ground to roof pillars, freshly repainted black shutters, large front porch, six and a half baths, seven bedrooms, and the biggest kitchen I’ve ever had the pleasure of working in. Now, everything is probably soaked and covered in soot as remnants of smoke filters from the back.
Ever since I was a child, I imagined what it would be like to take this beautiful house and truly make it my own. Every day was a step in the right direction. Though my mom is the official business owner, in the last few years, I’ve taken over many of the day-to-day duties, including all of the cooking and reservations, and when we’re at capacity, I help with the cleaning and assist the guests too. Now all of those dreams have gone up in smoke thanks to old, shoddy wiring that should have been updated years ago, apparently.
“I can’t believe this,” I mumble for probably the tenth time in the last hour. The chief gives me a sad smile before he heads over to where a fireman strings yellow caution tape around the exterior of the house.
I gaze up, my eyes instantly filling with tears. We have everything in this house. Well, I guess it’s more accurate to say my mom has everything in this house. Financially, yes, but personally as well. This house holds my memories – both good and bad, and now it looks like a giant crime scene with yellow caution tape strung from tree to tree and big muddy boot prints caking the front walk.
A vehicle door slamming pulls my attention away from the house. My brother, Jensen, is back, his entire body riddled with fatigue. “How did it go?” I ask, and take in his appearance as he approaches. His jeans look clean, but his T-shirt is wrinkled and his boots not laced. I’m also pretty sure they’re on the wrong feet too.
“Fine. The Clawsons took them both in, no problem. They weren’t at capacity yet either,” he replies, a yawn spilling from his mouth.
The Clawsons own one of the other bed and breakfasts in Rockland Falls, and as of a half hour ago, they now house our two couples who were guests in our home. As I gaze back at the mess, I can’t help but wonder if they were our final guests too.
“I’m just glad everyone was able to get out in time,” Jensen adds, pulling me into his tall, lean frame for a hug. “You’re still shaking.”
I wrap my arms tighter around my chest and watch the smoke. It’s almost nonexistent at this point, but I can still see it. And smell it. It smells like someone threw a bunch of trash in a bonfire. There’s a melted plastic stench in addition to the smoldering wood that was once walls used to keep the outside, well, out. Now, there’s a hole in the back of the place, right next to where my mother’s bed used to sit.
“I’ll be fine,” I mumble, turning my head and resting it on his chest. My brother is so much taller than me, a trait he inherited from our father. Both of my brothers are on the tall side, actually. Well, and my sister too. At five foot three inches, I’m the only one of us Grayson kids who got their height from our X-chromosome contributor.
My mind floods with details in a rapid-fire sequence. Insurance, which, thankfully, my oldest brother, Samuel, is handling as we speak. Construction, rewiring. Plus, there’s the pending cancellation of reservations for the ‘foreseeable future, which will mean loss of income, as we head into the busiest time of the year. All those phone calls. All those reservations. Gone.
And let’s not forget that the fire marshal still has to rule out arson. Who would intentionally start this fire? When we have guests inside! Who would do something so horrific, and for what? Insurance money? I’d much rather have my childhood home and the bed and breakfast than money.
My brain starts to hurt.
“He’s on his way,” Samuel says, dropping his cell phone into the inside pocket of his suit. Even now, at two in the morning, he looks completely put together – in that anal retentive kinda way we all tease him about. Who arrives to the scene of a fire in a charcoal gray business suit? My brother, Samuel, that’s who. As the oldest of four, he’s always taken his duties as firstborn to the max. It’s annoying as hell, really, but it’s the way he’s wired and we love him the same (even if we want to kill him half the time).
“Thank you. You guys could probably head home,” I suggest. They’ve been here since I called them nearly four hours ago.
“We’re not leaving until Mom arrives. How far away is she?” Jensen asks, suppressing another yawn. The poor guy is up before the sun every morning getting his day organized. He owns a landscaping business in town and works from sunup to sundown most days, yet still has time to co-parent his four-year-old son, Max.
“She should be here anytime,” my sister, Harper, adds as she joins our little group, two steaming cups of coffee in her hands. She hands one to me and waits expectantly for me to take a drink. When I do, I don’t taste the bitter coffee. I don’t taste anything, actually, but the cup feels warm against my cold, numb fingers.
“Good,” Samuel replies. (P.S. Don’t call him Sam – or worse, Sammy – unless you want to be bored to death with the history behind his name and why he prefers to go by the formal one listed on his birth certificate.)
As if on cue, headlights illuminate the tree line that leads to Grayson Bed and Breakfast. The four of us turn and watch as Mom’s car slows just outside of the yellow caution tape, the passenger door flying open before the car comes to a complete stop. Even in the dark of night, I can see the tears streaming down her face as she approaches.
“Oh my word,” she whispers through a sob as she runs up and pulls me into a tight hug. “You’re all right? Everyone is okay?” she asks, pushing me back and giving me a once-over, Mom-style.
“I’m fine. Everyone is fine,” I choke out over my own emotion as she pulls me into another lung-crushing hug.
“I can’t believe this,” she mumbles, turning and giving the home her attention.
Samuel steps up beside her, wrapping our mom in his long arms. “The insurance agent will be here soon, and the adjuster first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Samuel.” Mom sighs deeply, worry lines creasing her sad green eyes.
The five of us stand together, our arms wrapped around each other as we watch the firemen come out of the house we’ve called home. I may be the only one who still lives on the property, but there’s no mistaking the look of pure sadness reflected in the eyes of my three siblings.
“Oh, Mary Ann,” a woman says behind us. We all turn at the sound of an unfamiliar voice and find a petite older man and woman, their eyes both filled with unshed tears and their hands entwined together.
“Oh my goodness, where are my manners,” Mom says, sniffling and taking a step toward the couple. “I’m so sorry. Kids, I’d like you to meet my brother, Orval, and his wife, Emma.”
Now it makes sense. Mom left today to drive about three hours north to see her half brother that she hadn’t spoken with in nearly forty years. It was a shock when we all learned about our extended family recently, a secret she kept, not out of spite, but out of distance.
They were never close, according to Mom. In fact, there’s a twenty-five year age difference between them. Apparently, Grandpa was married before. He and his first wife had a son, Orval, and lived in Virginia. When his first wife passed away, Grandpa remarried quickly to a much younger woman. A woman who was almost the same age as his son.
Grandpa Samuel and Grandma Phoebe moved to North Carolina, where my mother, Mary Ann, was born. She grew up not knowing her half brother, not even when Grandpa passed away when Mom was twenty. For forty years, she moved on with her life, not really knowing the man who shared her blood.
Then, one day a few weeks back, Mom received an invitation. She didn’t recognize the names printed on the beautiful document, but the handwritten note that accompanied it explained. Emma, Orval’s wife, had written to Mom and invited her to come meet her family. She explained that it was far past time for the two siblings to get reacquainted. Life was too short to not know your family, and neither one of them were getting any younger.
Mom had showed us all the note, the delicate handwriting of an elderly woman, and contemplated on whether or not to go. For me, it was an easy decision. They were family, and I was intrigued. Samuel, being the sole voice of reason, and often opposition, argued that it wasn’t the appropriate time for a three-hour long drive to surprise family that may, or may not, be happy to see her.
In the end, she decided to go, which is why she was gone when the fire started just a few short hours ago in the en suite bathroom of her bedroom at our family bed and breakfast.
“It’s lovely to finally meet you,” Aunt Emma says, taking a few steps forward. She steps up to my brother Jensen first, and as he extends his hand toward her, she pushes it aside and brings him in for a tight hug. The image is almost comical since she’s half the size of my brother.
Suddenly, he jerks back a bit, his eyes as big as saucers, and turns toward me and mouths, “She just patted my ass.”
The shock and fear in my brother’s eyes causes laughter to bubble in my chest. My first bit of emotion that isn’t sadness, and I can barely keep it contained. I actually have to cover my mouth with my hand and fake a cough, which draws a bit of attention from my other siblings.
“Emma, Orval, this is Jensen. He’s my third child,” Mary Ann introduces as my brother gives the petite old woman the stink eye.
“Sorry about that, Jen. Old habits die hard. Every day is like a locker room to me,” Emma says sweetly, drawing everyone’s attention. She also doesn’t release my brother.
“You coached?” Jensen asks, a look of shock on his face.
“Of course, back in the day. Dan was such a troublemaker when he was younger, and a real charmer with all the ladies. I knew he’d make it professionally, though. Miami was a great choice for him. No Super Bowl ring, but he played with passion and intensity, just like in high school, on and off the field, if you know what I mean,” Emma adds, everyone’s eyebrows pulling together in question.
“Wait, you coached Dan Marino?” my oldest brother, Samuel, asks.
“He was definitely rough around the edges, but he shaped up to be amazing at handling his balls,” she replies casually, as if she didn’t just tell our family she used to coach high school football…and Dan Marino!
“And this lovely woman?” Emma asks, changing the subject just as quickly as she started it. She releases my soldier-still brother and makes a grab for my sister, Harper.
“This is Harper. She’s the second oldest,” Mary Ann boasts proudly.
“What a beauty, you are. Come give Auntie Emma some sugar,” Emma says, pulling my sister into her arms and squeezing tightly. “You know, Uncle Orvie and I know some people, if you’d like to model. Your hips and boobs are fabulous,” Emma croons, making my shell-shocked sister choke on air.
“Actually, Harper owns a business in town,” Mom adds, trying to gloss over the weird compliment.
“What kind of business?” Orval asks, stepping forward and giving my sister a friendly hug.
“A lingerie store,” Harper brags proudly.
Emma’s eyes light up. “Tell me more later, dear. I have six granddaughters who I love to shop for,” she says, excited in a way that I’ve never seen when an elderly woman talks about lingerie. Most of the old biddies in town frown upon my sister’s store. In fact, when she opened it, the mayor and aldermen gave her way more grief and trouble than anticipated. But in the end, Harper followed their rules to a T and was still able to open the store of her dreams.
No one seems to be complaining now that they’re seeing a huge influx in tax dollars.
“This young lady is Marissa, my youngest,” Mom says, drawing our attention away from Harper (and the awkwardness of Emma shopping for lingerie for her granddaughters), waving a hand toward me.
“Oh, from the website. I recognize you, dear. You help run the bed and breakfast,” Emma says, not really asking a question.
“I do,” I reply, my eyes instantly tearing up again as memories of the last few hours slam back into my chest with the force of a tire swing.
“And finally, my oldest, Samuel,” Mom says, all eyes turning toward my brother.
“Samuel,” Orval says quietly, almost to himself.
“Yes,” Mom says, shifting her weight. “I named him after Dad.”
Everyone is silent as Orval takes a step forward, then another, until he’s standing directly in front of Samuel. “It’s a strong name, a good name. Even if he was a stubborn jackass,” Orval says boldly before a warm smile spreads across his face. We all chuckle at his comment, at the way he breaks the unspoken tension. Well, everyone but Samuel, who rarely laughs.
“I’m honored to be named after my grandfather,” Samuel states, his shoulders square and his eyes on our uncle.
“Yes, well, I’m happy someone is,” Orval grumbles before reaching out and shaking his oldest nephew’s hand. Samuel watches with a cautious eye, but eventually puts his hand into Orval’s and shakes.
“Mom, we’re not going to be able to get in tonight, and probably not for a few days. They have to conduct an investigation,” Jensen says, bringing our attention back to the reason for our impromptu family reunion.
“Oh. Of course,” Mom says, turning and looking at the house.
“Why don’t you come stay with me?” Harper says, wrapping an arm around Mom’s shoulder and pulling her in for a hug.
“Umm,” Mom starts, glancing over at her brother and sister-in-law.
“I have two guest rooms. You can all stay with me,” Samuel offers.
“What about Marissa?” Jensen asks, all eyes turning my way.
“I’ll just stay at my place,” I say, my voice still a bit shaky from emotion.
“I don’t think they’ll let you yet, Riss. Not until the investigation is finished,” Jensen says, insinuating that I might not be able to go back to my own home tonight. Not until they rule out arson.
“Do you really think so? The fire didn’t touch the back cottage, did it?” Mom asks, giving her full attention to me.
“No, it didn’t,” I confirm.
“I’ll go find out,” Samuel offers, turning and walking toward the fire chief.
Conversation happens around me, but I’m unable to focus on anything other than the mess in front of me. The house is being cleared out, but the damage remains. What they’ll find from their investigation is beyond me, but I know it wasn’t arson. It couldn’t be. Everyone loves this house, and no one would ever think to cause damage, especially when there are guests inside.
“It’s as we thought. Riss, you won’t be able to stay in the cottage until after the fire marshal and insurance adjustor finish their investigations. He said he could arrange for someone to accompany you inside so you could gather some of your personal belongings such as clothes, but nothing else. Mom, unfortunately, you can’t go inside the house for any of yours. Not until it has been cleared,” Samuel confirms.
“Since Mom, Emma, and Orval are staying with Samuel, you can stay with me,” Harper offers, a sad smile crossing her beautiful face. Unable to speak, I nod my head in agreement.
About thirty minutes later, Jensen is loading my bag into the back of Harper’s car. A few items of clothing and some of my toiletries was all I was allowed to take, but at least it’s something. There’s no way I could fit into my sister’s clothes – not by a long shot. Our height difference alone would make that practically impossible, let alone her subtle curves and leaner frame. Throw in our hair colors (her red to my blonde), and we’re as different as night and day.
“I’m not sure I could sleep yet, and I’m dying to find out what happened,” Mom says, her attention focused on the house.
“Let’s all go back to my place. We can all fill you in before trying to sleep,” Samuel suggests, then turns and looks to me for confirmation.
“That’s fine. I’m not sure I could sleep either,” I add, my voice sounding distant and hollow.
I climb into my sister’s car, and glance back at the now-empty house. Everything is in that place: my heart and soul, my passion, my financial stability. We slowly make our way down the lane, the house fading and eventually disappearing from sight. As we head toward Samuel’s house, I try to close my eyes, but all I can see is the spark. All I can hear is the zap of electricity. All I can smell is the burnt plastic and molten wiring.
It’s going to be a long night.
One I’ll never forget.