He lived in the burning house, frantic, for fifteen years. He kept trying to tell his parents the whole place was on fire.
“The house is on fire! We’ll be burned alive. For god’s sake!” He flailed his arms at the smoke edging beneath a closet door, at the kitchen counter where dishtowels blazed in a small bonfire. “My baseball cards. Your stamp collection, for god’s sake. Your recipe files! Your Chatty Cathy doll,” he told them, depending on whether it was his father or mother or sister.
“Somebody call the fire department!”
“Go right ahead,” his mother said. “You know what’ll happen.”
“Take some responsibility,” his father called from another room.
Desperate, he turned to his younger sister. “Susie, just pick up the receiver. It’s easy.”
“If it’s so easy, why can’t you do it?” She was combing out a tangle in her doll’s hair.
“Dammit. You know why.”
“We all know why.” His mother shrugged. She was rinsing her stockings in the bathroom sink. “Your ‘emergency’ is gone as soon as the firemen get here. What makes you think this fire is so real?” Then she hung her stockings to dry near the licking flames.
His father called out again from Susie’s bedroom. “Susie? Come here.” The door was cracked open and he could see his father’s bare feet, crossed at the ankles as he lay on the narrow bed. Susie would be asleep in there soon and then his father wouldn’t answer at all.
No one ever spoke unless it was a request for something.
Save some hot water for the rest of us, will you? You’ve been in there half an hour. Don’t reach for the potatoes, tell your brother to pass them, he’s good for something. Get those bangs out of your eyes. Stop eating so much, you’re getting fat. Here, take the umbrella, it’s sure to rain. Better yet, get a decent haircut. Help me out here, would you, she’s your only grandmother, for god’s sake. Hand me a tissue. Fix my doll, she won’t talk anymore. Cover your mouth when you cough, you want to make your sister sick? Show some respect for your mother. Would you fucking call the fire department! Don’t you dare curse at your father. Get a job, a good one, then get the hell out. Make some money. Give me more potatoes. Do you have to bring your creepy doll everywhere you go? Don’t even ask, it’s your third helping of them. Give me a proper kiss. Come out of Susie’s room, it’s time for you and me to go to bed. You’re so stuck on your mother, then go live with her in that nursing home. Shut up about my doll! Oh stop whining. Quit smoking so much. How many’s that today, a pack already? If you’re going out, bring some tissues back.
He stored his baseball cards in the garage, a safe distance from the blazing house.
No one knew who called the fire department. The sirens circled through the night like buzzards nearing their feast. Oddly, though the entire house went down, the flames never burned their skin. They all escaped with one of their requests at last fulfilled.
His father kicked through the smoldering embers in search of his stamp collection and uncovered the brass ring that once allowed Chatty Cathy to speak. It was the only surviving item.