The house smelled as it burned. It was a sickly sort of smell, sweet in an unsatisfying way. Like the lollipops at the doctor’s office, too much sugar in an attempt to make up for something painful.
Billie wondered what kind of wood the house was made of, whether that contributed to the wafting smell. Maybe oak burned sweet. Maybe redwood. Or maybe it was the old chairs stacked in the living room, ancient pieces they’d never been allowed to sit in.
Lewis coughed beside her. Billie looked to the side, watching him wipe a shirt sleeve across his mouth. Dirt from his wrist streaked his cheek.
She glanced back at the house. The colors soared from the windows and clung tightly to the frame, shades of red, orange, and brown. It was all brighter than she had expected. Her hair blew across her eyes as the October breeze rolled through, sending the flames in different directions.
Her face felt hot. She’d pulled Lewis far off, so they wouldn’t be right beside the house, but it didn’t seem to have done much good. The heat warmed her cheek as she tried to turn away from it. It was inescapable, the warmth settling into her skin. After a while her legs grew too sore to stand, and she sank to her knees in the grass.
Her brother looked down at her.
“Lazy.” He spat it out like a curse, but Billie told herself he didn’t mean anything by it. He was upset. She was, too. But mostly she was just tired, aching in her arms and legs and down her spine. The exhaustion wore out the anger, and she didn’t have it in her to bite back at her brother.
She ran a finger over the hole in her jeans, where they’d caught on the can of gasoline from the shed. The back of her hand and all the way up her arm had scratches, long red lines crisscrossing over her skin. She’d gotten those dragging the larger bits of furniture into the living room, stacking the ornate chairs one on top of the other. That part had been Lewis’ idea, although she was beginning to question if she should have listened to him. When the flames were extinguished and someone went inside, wouldn’t it seem odd to have all that furniture stacked up?
They should have taken more time. She could have come up with something better, something else to get them away from the Bradys. Or at least they could have made it look more like an accident, like something just went wrong.
But when she thought of the Bradys, their fake smiles that first day, giving way to quick tempers and rules, and then Mr. Brady’s voice echoing down the hall, louder and louder, and how Lewis didn’t even cry that last time-
She wanted them to know she hated them.
The fire was still going strong inside the house. Billie watched the flames over the crest of the hill. She wasn’t sure what to do now. The fire had happened much quicker than she’d imagined. She hadn’t stopped to consider what came after. She wanted to lay down in the grass, but her brother caught her focus once more.
“Bill?” Lewis coughed again, and out of the corner of her eye she saw his hands rub at his chest. “Who’s that?”
He was facing out toward the street, looking down the long, winding path of the Bradys’ driveway. She turned to take a look and almost groaned when her eyes met the figure approaching them.
The woman crept closer with apprehension on her face, as if she was worried she could burn herself if she got too close to them.
“Oh, dear!” Mrs. Hammond’s little voice carried across the wind. “Oh, oh, no!”
Billie pushed herself to her feet. She brushed the dirt from the back of her jeans as the old woman came to a stop just in front of them.
“Oh, no.” Mrs. Hammond wrung her hands, her eyes flitting between the two children in the grass and the burning house a ways off. “Dear! Where are your parents?”
“They’re not our parents.” Billie told her, more out of habit then anything else. All the neighbors called the Bradys their parents, but that was a lie.
We want to be called Mr. and Mrs. Brady, they said on the first day. We’re not here to replace your mom and dad.
“It’s a hiking day,” Lewis wiped at his nose again, his sniffling tone returning. “Claymount.”
Mrs. Hammond’s face grew more and more concerned.
“Claymount,” she whispered in a hushed tone, looking whiter by the minute. She reached out a single, wrinkled hand and cupped Billie’s shoulder lightly.
“How did this happen?”
Billie sighed. She didn’t have time to go through all of it. She was tired enough from the exertion of the whole thing.
The older woman seemed to take her exasperation for sadness, and she drew the girl into her, one bony arm wrapping around her back.
“It’ll be fine. What’s important is that you both are all right.”
Lewis sneezed behind them.
After too long, Mrs. Hammond released Billie from her chest, holding her once again at arms length.
“I called,” she sniffled, and her old hands reached up to wipe at her nose. “I’ve called for the police. And the fire department.”
Billie shrugged a shoulder. She didn’t care either way. It wasn’t any of her things burning, only the Bradys’.
Lewis kept looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She could feel his gaze, but she didn’t give in.
“They’ll want to talk to the both of you.” The woman began to usher them down the hill, stumbling her way along. “It’s alright, now. How did it start?”
Billie’s fingers found a cut on her knuckles. She scratched at the drying blood as she mumbled her answer.
“There’s a bunch of candles in the kitchen. They probably got knocked over.”
“Candles!” Mrs. Hammond sounded as if she’d never heard anything so scandalous.
Lewis nodded earnestly. His hand fell to his side as he ceased rubbing at his nose, and Billie could spot the red mark on the end of his finger tip, the bright pink mark from letting the match burn too close to his hands. Soon it would be a blister, and then maybe a scar, if he was unlucky. More likely than not it would be gone in two weeks time, vanished just like the bruise on his chest. The ache in her arms would fade too, soon enough. Once all that was gone then there would be nothing, no reminder of the Bradys at all. And Lewis would be fine again.
The sky was bright above them, with no clouds to diffuse the light. It smelled only of nature the further they got from the house. Lewis coughed again beside her now, feet stumbling to keep up with Mrs. Hammond’s pace. The old woman shuffled her feet, but for a half-bent creature she travelled fast.
Billie reached out and took her brother’s hand and pulled him back to walk with her. They both knew where Mrs. Hammond lived, they didn’t need to tail her on the way.
Lewis pulled his arm away with a sharp movement, then shoved his hands in his pockets.
“What?” He snapped, as if he had cause to be upset with her.
Her hand fell to her side. It bumped against his as they walked, soft skin against soft skin.
“Don’t say anything.” Billie repeated the same thing she’d told him this morning, much to Lewis’ frustration. “To the police, or anyone.”
“I’m not stupid.” Lewis said, but he didn’t look as sure as he sounded.
“We were way out back. We didn’t see anything until it was too late.” She let the words float away on the increasing breeze, obscuring their confession from Mrs. Hammond.
“You said it wasn’t wrong.” He didn’t sound upset for a moment, and she watched his fingers rub at the spot where the bruise used to hold, just under his ribs. She thought of the perfect circle it made, a solid mark on his flesh.
“It wasn’t.” Billie reassured herself first, and then him. “But don’t.”
Lewis dropped his hand and nodded.
Mrs. Hammond slowed as they reached the path to her house. She started up the steps to her front porch, one foot in front of the other. They both waited until she was all the way up and fumbling for the door keys, before Lewis took the first step.
Mrs. Hammond pushed open the screen door, shuffled to the side to hold it for them.
“Come on in.” She gestured openly, but Lewis only looked back at her.
“Go,” Billie told him, and he moved into the house.
The Hammonds’ home was set up just like the Bradys’. The big, open living room and sloping ceiling. The rickety stairs leading to the second floor. Billie imagined their carpeted hallway, three bedrooms and a bathroom, all the way at the end of the hall. If she closed her eyes she could see the flames engulfing the hallway that used to lead to her room.
Mrs. Hammond puttered over to the sink. It sounded like she kept saying something, but it wasn’t loud enough for them to hear. She washed her hands in slow, careful motions, then turned back around.
“Would you like tea?”
“I’ll make some tea.” The old woman turned back to the cabinets.
Billie heard the clinking of mugs, but she no longer cared to watch Mrs. Hammond move about. Her eyes were on her brother instead, standing stiff against the cabinets. He still had soot on his fingertips, wiping across his arm.
“Wash your hands,” she told him, but Lewis rolled his eyes.
There was a brilliant flash of color, the kitchen illuminated red in an instant.
Billie held her breath. Police, she thought. She wondered if they’d gone to the burning house first. Selfishly, she hoped they hadn’t put it out yet. She wanted to see it again.
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Hammond repeated the words like a mantra, like they would change something.
Billie crossed the tiled floor to take the seat beside Lewis at the table. The lights of the cars still spread through the Hammonds’ front room. She watched them change across the ceiling, until they vanished suddenly.
A knock sounded at the front door. Mrs. Hammond slid over to it, moving slower than usual.
Billie chanced a glance at her brother. He had his arms crossed tight, his fingers poking at the inside of his upper arm.
“Hey,” she whispered, but he didn’t look over. “It’s okay.”
Mrs. Hammond showed the police officer through the living room.
“Hello.” The office attempted a tight smile, but no one in the room returned it. “How are you kids?”
He sounded far too casual for the nerves that were beginning to churn in Billie’s stomach.
“Fine.” She looked over at Mrs. Hammond, the old woman hunched over in the corner of her own living room.
“Can we talk?” The policeman stood tall under the high ceilings of the Hammond house, making Billie feel like she might shrink up beside him.
She stood up slowly, but Mrs. Hammond rushed forward ahead of her.
“Shouldn’t you wait until their parents are home?” She asked, still wringing her hands in front of her.
“They’re not our parents,” Billie said again, her voice rising. But no one seemed to listen.
The officer glanced among the three of them: Mrs. Hammond, Lewis, and finally Billie herself.
“Do you want to talk now or later?” He directed the question to Billie. “We can wait for your parents if you’d like.”
Billie no longer had the effort to correct them.
“Now,” she answered him, and in the edge of her vision she could see Lewis sink down in his chair. He was afraid. He had his hands down at his sides, his chest puffed out, so she almost couldn’t even tell. But then he still kept rubbing at his arm, pinching the skin red. Nerves.
“Can my brother come?” she asked the officer.
“We usually do one at a time.” His voice was deep and raspy, but not severe. She wondered if that came from talking to children a lot.
Mrs. Hammond led the three of them out back onto the porch. She pulled out a pair of lawn chairs and hovered in the doorway, until the officer asked if she’d bring them both something to drink. The screen door swung shut behind her, and they were left alone.
“Billie.” The officer cleared his throat.
Mrs. Hammond must have told him her name. Billie wondered what the old woman had said when she called, how she had described the fire, and the house, and the two of them, standing out there watching it.
“Billie,” he tried again, cutting through her thoughts. “Are you okay?”
All things considered, that was probably a pretty ridiculous question.
“Yes. We’re okay.” She thought that if she said it enough times it would be real, like when she told Lewis she would get him away from here. That one had come true, and this would too.
The officer knit his eyebrows together, but the rest of his face seemed immobile.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay.” His voice sounded softer out here. “Can you tell me what happened with the fire?”
Yes. Yes, it was just like telling Lewis, wasn’t it?
“We were out back.” She swallowed the dryness in the back of her throat. “We were out back, and we didn’t realize until it was too late. It was probably a kitchen candle.”
“A candle, you think?” He leaned forward, just an inch. “You guys leave candles lit a lot?”
Billie shook her head.
“Not us. Mr. and Mrs. Brady do. They think it makes the house smell better.” She picked at the skin around her nails as she answered, her focus directed at her hands in an attempt to ignore the twisting of her stomach.
“When will Mr. and Mrs. Brady be back?”
The deep voice returned, carrying sharp and direct over the space between their chairs. He leaned forward as he asked the question, hunching his shoulders over.
Billie shrugged. They’d said later. It was always later on their hiking trips. She always wondered if they even went hiking at all, or if it was just an excuse to abandon Billie and Lewis for a day.
“No idea? Maybe dinner time? Soon?” He prompted her, but Billie only shrugged again. “Your neighbors are very worried about you. Mrs. Hammond called us, she thought you might have been inside the house.”
“We weren’t.” Billie promised.
The officer leaned back again, the chair creaking under his weight. They both stayed quiet, and she thought she could hear Mrs. Hammond moving around in the house. Billie thought of Lewis back in the house, probably rubbing his skin raw instead of speaking to the old woman.
“Are you going to talk to my brother?” she asked suddenly.
The officer’s neutral expression didn’t flinch, not even a movement in his eyebrows this time.
“If he’s alright with it.”
Lewis would say he was, of course, but she didn’t know if he could really stand up to even the gentlest inquiry.
“He’s shaken up.”
The man nodded slowly, his big bald head shining in the late afternoon sun. “Of course he is.”
He smiled again, but he still sounded like he didn’t completely agree with her. They fell back into silence, and Billie didn’t bother to try and break it. The ache was back in her legs, just like she was still standing up on that hill with the warmth bleeding onto her cheek. She wanted to go upstairs and lie down, to take Lewis with her and never let him out of her sight again.
“Billie.” He popped the B of her name, snatching her attention back. “I think we’re finished for now.”
“Okay,” she said. Only it didn’t seem like the end of the conversation.
“I have to make a call.” He wiped his hand under his nose. “Can we talk some more later?”
Billie drew in a breath. There it was.
“I’d like to talk to you and Lewis together.”
She nodded. Her insides were folding in on themselves again, twisting her up.
As they rose to their feet he held out his hand to her.
“Thank you, Billie.” He smiled kindly, but she still didn’t really want to shake his hand.
When they came back into the living room, Mrs. Hammond had joined Lewis at the table. Billie stepped up beside her, lingering above a pulled out chair.
Across the table, Lewis coughed. A second passed and he did it again, only it sounded wet and forced and not like a real cough at all.
Billie glanced up. Lewis was staring straight at her with widened eyes. He nodded his head in an exaggerated motion towards the kitchen door, and she fought the urge to roll her eyes.
“You’re obvious,” she said as he tugged her into the hallway, his hand closing around her wrist.
“What did you say?” Lewis held onto her tight, his fingers pushing into her skin.
“Nothing.” Billie tugged at her wrist but he kept holding. “Get off.”
“They’re coming. Mrs. Hammond called the Bradys.” Lewis was looking at her with intent in his eyes, the same way he looked at her when he showed her the bruise on his chest for the first time.
“So, what if they get here before the police take us away?”
Take us away. It sounded bad, almost like he had already resigned himself to being caught.
“You don’t have to say anything. Just act sad, or something.”
Lewis loosened his grip but didn’t let go. He kept looking at her with those same piercing eyes, like he was trying to pull something out of her.
“You said—you said it would be fine.”
Billie hated that tone in his voice. Even more than she hated the ache in her body and the fear that kept building in her gut.
“It is fine. We’ll be fine.” She tried to sound confident. When she’d thought of the fire, she always thought she’d be confident. And she was, when they were moving the furniture and lighting the matches. That bit was easy. She’d even put Mr. Brady’s mirror, the one hanging above his desk in the study, straight in the center of the living room. She didn’t think that would burn with the rest, it wasn’t wood. But she’d stuck it there anyway, made a fist the same way she’d seen him do after Lewis ruined the painting. She hit the mirror and her knuckles bled and she’d told her brother it was an accident.
“Billie?” Mrs. Hammond’s voice was calling from the living room once more. “Lewis?”
“Come on.” Billie moved back into the kitchen. After a second she heard him follow, the footsteps echoing in the hallway. He came to stand beside her at the head of the table, peering down at Mrs. Hammond as she took a seat at the opposite end.
“How are you holding up?” The old woman asked.
The officer must have left, Billie thought. She hadn’t heard the door, though. Maybe he snuck out the back. Maybe he was going to take a look at the house before he came back.
“Fine.” Lewis answered for the both of them.
Mrs. Hammond hunched down in her seat. She had one hand still holding her tea, and she brought the other one to her mouth. She kept peering at them, but it didn’t seem like she had anything else to say.
Lewis took his seat back at the table. He didn’t appear much reassured by their conversation, but Billie knew he wasn’t going to show that in front of Mrs. Hammond.
He used to, Billie thought. When they went to their first foster home he cried at night, she could hear it through the walls. The Bradys toughened him up too much.
“What’s going to happen now?” Lewis looked up at her as he asked the question, but it was Mrs. Hammond who answered him.
“The Bradys will be back soon,” she said, her whisper almost swallowed up by the distance.
At least she wasn’t calling them their parents anymore.
“No,” Lewis glanced up for a split second, then looked quickly back at his hands, folded on the table top. “After that. Where are we going?”
Billie wound her fingers around the top of a chair. She wanted to say they would go back to the center, and then to another family. That’s what she’d told him before. He’d believed it then, and she had too.
“We’ll see.” Mrs. Hammond cleared her throat. She looked like she wanted to say something else, something else she really shouldn’t.
“See what?” Lewis spread out his hands, palms flat against the table. He had a cut along his wrist too, Billie noticed, but his arms were pale and untouched.
Mrs. Hammond dropped her gaze. She stared down at her mug of tea, like she would rather talk to it instead of them. “It’s a shame.”
“What?” Lewis raised his voice, calling across the table. “What is?”
Billie tried to force her voice to be louder, clearer. Stronger. “Are we not going to go to another place?”
Mrs. Hammond let out a sigh, and the kitchen seemed to go silent.
Billie wanted to ask her again, but the words couldn’t come out.
Lewis stood up again. He stepped beside her, his hand bumping her as he crept closer.
“Bill?” he asked. “What’s going to happen?”
The feeling in her gut had escaped and began to slide up her spine, into her cold hands and aching legs. She didn’t have an answer for him, she realized.
Out of the corner of her eye Billie saw another flash of light hit the kitchen wall. The crunching gravel of another car pulling up the driveway sounded outside.
Lewis grabbed her hand.
Meredith Sullivan is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in English Writing. Currently she lives in Baltimore with her dog, who is infinitely more talented than she is.
Alan Nelson is a writer, actor, photographer and lawyer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Commonline Journal, Convergence, International Poetry Review, California Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, Illya’s Honey, Manhattanville Review, and elsewhere.