If your house was on fire, what would you grab before escaping?
“It wasn’t her fault! It wasn’t her fault!” the young boy screamed as the medics loaded him into the ambulance. At the end of a long driveway, the roaring blaze of a massive house swallowed the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles. Thick black smoke vanished into the early dark of the autumnal night sky.
Officer Wilson stared straight ahead as the fire-men and -women worked to contain the inferno, the child’s cries fading from his ears as the roar of the town’s oldest landmark burned. With luck, it wouldn’t spread to the woods of the surrounding estate and continue its rampage to the town proper below. Blessedly, there was no wind tonight.
They would be digging through the wreckage for weeks. It was a miracle the boy had even made it out. The youngest child of the Hearst family, Jacob, had been born with a bum leg. He couldn’t walk without some form of support. He had been found without his crutches.
Wilson watched the blaze with a pang of sadness. The Hearst family had lived in that house for more than a century, passed from father to son for generations. They were well respected in the town, almost royalty. No one in town really knew where their money came from, but they paid their taxes and lived modestly enough that rumors were kept at bay.
They were active in the community. Phillip, the patriarch, was on all the town planning boards. Cecilia, Jacob’s mother, volunteered twice a week at the local soup kitchen and always made sure the shelves were stocked. She also made sure her sons did their share growing up. Craig spent his teen years mentoring at the rec center. Ben, at the church. Even Jacob was expected to help out once he was old enough. He enjoyed reading to the younger kids at the library. At least they would still have him.
There was nothing more Officer Wilson could do while the firefighters did their work, so he got in his cruiser and headed to the hospital to check on the boy. He was surprised by just how many lights were on in houses he drove past. It was after midnight and most people were usually in bed and asleep. He could still see the glow from the top of the hill in his rearview mirror. He sighed. The rumor mill would be getting an early start.
Coldwell was a small town, but it boasted a state-of-the-art hospital. The Hearst family had played a big role in that as well. Wilson was almost certain they had a wing named for them. It wasn’t their eponymous wing that young Jacob was in, however. Coldwell General did not have a burn unit, but its critical care wing was well-equipped to deal with whatever injuries the boy had sustained.
“He had minor smoke inhalation and a couple lacerations on his arms, but nothing serious,” the nurse explained. “We’ll keep him overnight, given the circumstances, “for observation” of course, but he is likely to be discharged to social services in the morning.”
Wilson nodded as he peered through the glass at the child lying on the hospital bed clenching and unclenching his fists and staring grimly at the ceiling. “Is it ok if I go in and speak with him?”
The nurse shrugged. “You can, but be gentle. He’s likely still in shock.”
The officer thanked him and entered the room. He removed his hat and held it respectfully in his hands as he made eye contact with the boy. It was not the face of the cheerful boy who made silly voices as he read to the younger children at the library. Jacob’s face was covered in soot, his eyes dark and wide. He looked like he’d aged a decade in the span of a few hours.
“They’re all dead.” He said it with conviction. It was simple fact.
Officer Wilson gripped his hat tightly. “The fire department is still fighting the blaze,” he said. “They might still be able to rescue the others.” He knew he sounded unconvincing, but it was ingrained in him to offer hope.
Jacob’s eyes held his as the boy shook his head. “There’s no one alive to rescue.”
Wilson resisted the shiver that Jacob’s cold tone sent over him. He distracted himself by pulling a chair around and settling into it. “My name is Officer Oliver Wilson. You can call me Ollie, if you like.” Jacob made no motion to acknowledge him. He just turned his gaze back to the ceiling.
Wilson tried to remember being 12 in an effort to empathize with the boy, but he also imagined losing his entire family in a single night and found it hard to relate to. Nothing this tragic had occurred in Coldwell in decades. He cleared his throat. “Jacob, do you know what happened?”
The dark-eyed youth narrowed his eyes at the ceiling, clenching his fists in the hospital blankets once again. “That bastard, Craig.”
“Craig?” Wilson didn’t chide the boy for his language; he’d been through enough in one night, a little cursing could be excused. He was surprised to hear Jacob speak so venomously though, and about his eldest brother. Wilson had dealt with an increasing number of complaints surrounding Craig Hearst recently, disorderly conduct mostly, but he didn’t take the man for an arsonist.
Fresh tears formed in the boy’s eyes. “He wanted the house,” he said. “He was jealous. He demanded Papa give him the estate. Insisted it was his birthright.” The tears flowed freely. Wilson reached out and grabbed the boy’s hand. He said nothing, just squeezed gently. “He said he’d kill her if we didn’t leave.”
“Your mother?” Wilson asked. He knew Craig was a bit of a hothead, but he’d never suspected anyone would go after Cecilia, least of all her own son.
Jacob shook his head. “He had a gun. He was drunk. Said she was a danger to everyone and he was tired of keeping her a secret.” He sobbed. “Papa tried to talk him down. Calm him. But he wouldn’t listen. He hated her. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her fault,” he repeated over and over.
His distress set the machines off. A couple of nurses poured in and shooed the officer out to the waiting area with stern admonitions. He obeyed their orders and let them attend their patient.
The café was closed, but there was a coffee pot in the common area. He poured himself a cup of hours-old coffee and waited.
A surly woman in scrubs came out to the waiting room and glowered at him. “He’s calmed down and is asking for you, but I don’t think you should bother him.”
Wilson inclined his head to her. “I’m just here to hear his side of the story.”
She sniffed and returned to her station as he got up. He crumpled his cup and dumped it in the waste bin on his way back to Jacob’s room.
The boy was much calmer now. His eyes were glassy now, the sedatives doing their job. “I’m sorry,” Wilson said. “I understand how tough this must be for you.”
Jacob’s head lolled from side to side. “S’ok. ‘M sorry for gettin’ so upset.”
“We can do this later, Jacob. It doesn’t have to be tonight.” Wilson knew the evening’s events would never be clearer, but he didn’t want to push the boy either.
“It wasn’t her fault,” Jacob said again, this time without the panic. “You hafta know it wasn’t her fault.”
Wilson sat in the chair again. “Who’s fault was it, Jacob? Craig’s?”
Jacob nodded. “He wanted her gone. He believed Papa loved her more than him. She couldn’t inherit the house. She wasn’t a son. But Craig knew Papa had been talking with his lawyers. He and Papa had been fighting a lot. Papa wanted to change the tradition, change his Will. Craig was jealous. He shot at her. It wasn’t her fault.”
Jacob was consumed with racking sobs. Wilson needed to ask the question. “Craig shot your mother?”
Jacob shook his head. “Mama jumped in front of the bullet. To save Scarlet.”
“Scarlet? Who’s…” Wilson froze in his seat. Fifteen years ago, the Hearst family lost their only daughter. A sweet-tempered child with hair of scarlet. The townspeople had whispered that she was a cursed child. Women were not born into the Hearst family. And there were odd occurrences surrounding the girl. Strange burns on children who teased her for her appearance, small fires cropped up in places she frequented.
The family grieved when she passed, but the townspeople were relieved. No one asked how it happened, they were simply glad she was gone. Things returned to normal. And then the third boy was born and the town rejoiced.
Jacob continued as though there had been no interruption. “Mama fell on Scarlet and Scarlet screamed. Papa cried and lunged for the gun. Craig shot at him too, but Ben pushed Papa out of the way.”
Wilson stroked the boy’s dusty brown hair. He did not want to hear anymore, did not want to make the boy relive his nightmare, but it was his job, his responsibility, to listen to Jacob’s tale.
“Scarlet’s eyes glowed as red as her hair,” he went on in a whisper. “Fire came out of her body and spread across the sitting room. Craig tried to turn the gun on her again, but it melted in his hand and he just erupted in fire.” His eyes stared unblinkingly at the ceiling, the image clear in his mind. Wilson wished he could erase it for him.
“Papa told me to get out. I couldn’t get to my crutches so I just crawled, but the fire had already spread and it was hard to breathe. I turned around to ask him for help, but he was trying to calm Scarlet. He was burning as he hugged her. She didn’t mean to burn him. She was just in pain. Mama, and Ben, and Craig. She couldn’t bear it. He understood. He told her it wasn’t her fault. He loved her. He would always love her. She was his firecracker.”
Jacob finally turned to look Officer Wilson in the eyes. A scared twelve year old boy gazed at him through watery eyes. “The last thing I remember is her crying. Then I woke up outside.” He swallowed a sob. “She was my sister. It wasn’t her fault.”
Officer Wilson returned to the estate several days later. The blaze had finally been put out and the recovery begun. Autopsies would find that two of the bodies had bullet wounds. But the rumor mill would still be churning. There were only four bodies.
Notes: This is a story I’ve had in my head for yeeears. I’ve started and stopped it a handful of times. Scarlet was an early incarnation of Kita, by which I mean her name was originally “Kita” because I liked it and only just came up with the name Scarlet on the fly since I already have a more developed Kita. As far as I know Kita doesn’t have any pyro powers. That would be sweet, but I’m pretty sure the only thing these two have in common is the color of their hair.
It’s a story I might like to explore in the future. Something to expand on. The weird family history thing might be an intriguing prospect. There was certainly a lot more behind the scenes with Scarlet and her family that I didn’t get to touch on with this particular telling but have the ideas for. The way this all fit into the prompt is that Scarlet saved Jacob and got him out. He was the thing she grabbed. Where she went afterwards is a mystery.
This one turned out a lot longer than I expected. I hope you enjoyed it. I’m sure I’ll reread it a few days from now and cry over all the things I did wrong/opportunities missed, but I’m feeling pretty satisfied on the word count at the very least. Little worried about tomorrow’s, to be honest. The next prompt is a pretty weak one and the one after that I have another standalone scene/story planned. Maaaybe I’ll combine them? Or “skip” a few prompts and grab another weak one for a Twofer Tuesday? Well, tomorrow will tell. Until then! Have a great Tuesday!