Melanie's House is on Fire
Rhiannon didn't know adults ever cried until she saw Mom crying in the kitchen. When Mom cried, her whole face turned toward its center, all wet and pink. So it turned out adults could cry. It just took something really bad to happen.
That's how Rhiannon knew things were bad for Melanie's mom, because she cried in the bread aisle at Ron and Lloyd's. Melanie's mom had a coat that looked a few sizes too big, with bits of stuffing coming out at the sleeve. She leaned over the table of cinnamon raisin bread, and her elbow squished one loaf in half. Mom walked to her slowly and put a hand on her shoulder. Maybe Melanie's mom had a baby die too, but they weren't talking about hospitals. "So angry," Melanie's mom kept saying.
"Let's keep Mrs. Newman in our prayers," Mom said afterward, and Rhiannon tried to pray right in the car. She looked down at her pink jeans, even though you were supposed to close your eyes when you prayed. She kept locking and unlocking the car door, but Mom didn't mind this time. Every time Rhiannon locked the door, she thought, "Keep her," and every time she unlocked it, she thought, "in our prayers." Keep her, in our prayers. Keep her, in our prayers.
Rhiannon went with Mom to help clean Mrs. Newman's duplex. Melanie would be there, and maybe Rhiannon could do the right thing and befriend hermaybe even encourage her to come to church. That was the kind of thing Mom did all the time. And if Melanie could accept God and not blame Him for thingseven though her mom cried in the middle of grocery stores and she lived in a duplex and had freckles that were wider than normal frecklesthen maybe Rhiannon could take another look at the God situation.
The duplex looked normal from the outside, but inside, someone had painted the walls dark brown and brought in furniture made of fake velvet. Stacks of mail, magazines, and plastic cups with milk rings in the bottom covered the shag carpet. It smelled like wet wool.
Only two of the kids were home, Melanie and her little brother, Billyand the baby, although everyone forgot about him. Melanie and Billy sat on the edge of the bathtub in shorts, dangling their ankles in the water and moving cups around like boats with their feet. The water looked dark against the green tub. Billy took a cup and dunked it into the water, then offered it to Rhiannon to drink. When she said no thanks, he gulped it down himself, dribbling down his orange shirt. Melanie asked if Rhiannon wanted to go outside, and she did, so Melanie put a coat over her shorts, and they went to the front of the duplex, where they kicked pebbles across the icy pavement and Rhiannon wondered what kinds of things Mom would say in this situation. She gave up for a moment to figure out where Melanie's house ended and the neighbor's started.
"Don't look over there," Melanie said.
"The neighbors don't like it. If you look near their window, they'll run up and close the shades."
Rhiannon tried it, not being obvious, just looking in a little at the window on the right. And yes, a woman inside with hairy eyebrows ran up and shut the shades. Then a beater bomb car crunched into the driveway, and there was Melanie's dad, slamming the rusty door and striding across the lawn. One vein on his neck stood out like a worm living under his skin.
"Sheila, you fucking bitch!" he said.
Melanie's face turned white. She yanked Rhiannon's arm toward the far side of the lawn, and Rhiannon felt her breaths coming quick. Melanie's dad threw open the duplex door, and Rhiannon saw small shadows of Mom and Mrs. Newman inside.
Rhiannon heard something shatter and something bigger make a thud.
"I don't care who's here, you fucking bitch."
Nobody talked. The shadows were all sort of huddled together inside. More stuff crashed. Melanie grabbed Rhiannon's hand, and Rhiannon squeezed it, tried to concentrate on the shape of Melanie's fingernails. Where was Mom in there?
"Sheila, you bitch," Mr. Newman said, and he sounded loud and righteous, like Pastor Conroy when he said omnipotence.
That's when Dad's car slid into the driveway, and after a loud creak of the parking brake, Dad climbed out and ran into the duplex. Something else broke. Rhiannon heard the word "police." Then the women were out on the lawn. Mom's wet hands grabbed at Rhiannon, touching her hair, her nose, her ears. She hugged Rhiannon and Melanie in the same hug, and Rhiannon's head knocked with Melanie's. Mrs. Newman came out too, cupping the baby in one arm and towing Billy with the other.
"You're fucking crazy," Melanie's dad said.
Dad opened the car door, and they all crunched out the driveway. Rhiannon balanced on Mom's bony knees, and they left Melanie's dad standing in the driveway with a beer can dangling from his left hand. Mom said thank God she had Dad's pager number. Who knows what kind of damage this psychopath would have done.
That's when the people at church decided to gather enough money so Mrs. Newman could rent her own house. They had three potlucks and a spaghetti dinner, and Mr. Carver paid for the rest. You wouldn't believe the number of kindhearted people in this congregation, Mom said.
At recess on Monday, Melanie came out in her ugly brown coat and said, "Do you go to church every week?"
Rhiannon said she did. They walked along the fence at the edge of the playground, facing the road on the other side. Melanie wanted to know if Rhiannon thought about God the whole time in church, and Rhiannon said yes. That's what God wants people to do. There wasn't a lot of snow, and when Rhiannon kicked at it, her boot hit the frozen ground underneath.
Melanie paused, then asked what God looks like. Rhiannon said He's invisible. She said He's pretty hard to understand. She was going to change the subject, but Melanie wanted to know more, so Rhiannon pulled at the zipper on her coat and said what God really wants is to have everyone apologize for sinning. Melanie stopped walking. Rhiannon kept kicking at the snow as they stood. Melanie asked why God wanted that, and Rhiannon told her what she learned at church. Mom would have said Rhiannon was witnessing to Melanie. She said what Pastor said, that God can't stand the sight of you because we sin all the time. Apologizing is how to get Jesus to forgive you and that's how you get to heaven when you dieand that's the only way to get God to hear you when you pray. That's how she said it. She could feel her face getting warm, and she wanted to stop the conversation, but Melanie wouldn't let her.
"God hears me when I pray," she said. She was defensive.
"Not unless you apologize first."
Melanie touched a hand to her ear and looked down at Rhiannon's kicking feet. She looked upset, so Rhiannon told her how to apologize to Godhow that was supposed to make everything okay.
"You just tell God what you did wrong and then ask Jesus to forgive you for it," Rhiannon said.
Rhiannon put a hand to the fence to balance herself while she kicked. It felt frozen, and the cold traveled up her arm. Melanie said she was too scared to pray herself, and Rhiannon said okay, she'd do the praying.
"But you have to tell me what you're sorry for."
Melanie stuck her toe into a divot in the snow and kicked at it a little herself.
"For hating my dad. And for pulling Billy's hair. And for telling my mom that I wish she never decided to have me. That made her cry."
"Okay. We have to fold our hands. Like this. And then close your eyes. And put your head down a little."
Melanie looked almost pretty with her head bowed and eyes closed like that. Rhiannon bowed her head too.
"Okay. Dear Jesus, Melanie says she's sorry for all the things she's ever done wrong. First, for hating herher dad. And for making her mom cry. And for"
"Pulling Billy's hair."
"for pulling Billy's hair. She's sorry she did all that. And she wants to ask you to forgive her so Jesus can come into her heart. Amen."
Melanie waited a minute to lift her head. Rhiannon could hear cars in the distance.
"Did it work?" Melanie said.
"How do you know?"
"It always works," Rhiannon said.
Melanie hooked a finger on the fence.
"So I'm going to go to heaven?"
And Rhiannon waited for her to start asking the questionslike if God loves me so much, why did He give me a psychopathic dad, or why did He make my mom sad all the time, or why did He give me these freckles that everyone makes fun of? But she didn't ask anything. She looked happy, even, swinging her braid to the back of her shoulder and trailing her finger along the fence, like any kid who had a nice, normal dad with a normal neck that you could hug. The bell rang.
"Let's run," Melanie said, and Rhiannon ran after her, all the way across the field.
Mom wasn't going home, not after she heard those sirens, not when they were so close to Melanie's house. It was the time of day when the sky was purple and the snow glowed against it, when everything in the world looked frozen and fluorescentexcept here. A bright spot of orange sat on the horizon, where Melanie's house should be. Rhiannon had never seen so much firea million hairs of light growing up into the sky.
Mom made a little sound like a baby cat, and Rhiannon could see a look on her face that adults weren't supposed to have. "Lord, please let everyone inside be okay," she said.
Mom stopped the car, closed her eyes, and said it again. Rhiannon wished she wouldn't say it out loud. She wished Mom would put on a different expression, one that said everything would be okay, whether God wanted to help or not.
Mom grabbed Rhiannon's hand so tightly that even through the mitten, Rhiannon's knuckles bent into a curve. "No matter what happens, you stay in this car," Mom said.
Rhiannon nodded. When Mom opened the door, Rhiannon could feel the heat out there not hot like summer but like the air that blew from the vents when the furnace kicked in. The flames made rushing sounds in the background, and Rhiannon watched as Mom walked against the hairy glow of the fire and turned into a shadow as she stepped across the street. Rhiannon tried to keep track of the shadow as Mom moved closer to the burning building. Then more shadows came, and Rhiannon lost track. One shadow waved its arms, holding a bundle of something. There were shadows of taller people and people who were shorter. Rhiannon put her hand to the window, and it felt warm, like in July. Bits of gray dust pushed against the glass from the outside, and Rhiannon imagined them dancing and praying as they danced. Was Mom okay out there? Rhiannon pulled her knees to her chest and counted to 10.
Then she saw a mannot a shadow, because he stood right here on this side of the street. He put his hand on the windshield, and when his skin flattened against the glass, Rhiannon could see the dirt etched into the tiny lines of his fingerprints. The man kneeled. His face showed at the window, and she could see that his hair was wet, that he wasn't wearing a coat. She didn't recognize him until she saw his neck.
"What're you doing?" he said.
Rhiannon's hand shook as she raised it to lock the door.
"What're you doing staring at my house?"
Rhiannon wished she could pray like Mom did. She tried to pretend to focus on something in her lap. She pretended to pray.
"Open the door," he said.
Rhiannon looked across the street, hoping to see Mom turning from a shadow back to herself, jingling car keys, maybe bringing Melanie with her. Even if only Melanie came, things would be okay. Melanie knew what to do with him.
"You're spying on my house," he said, and he pulled at the car's handle.
Rhiannon reached over to lock the driver's side door, but by then, he was opening the back. She could smell something like gasoline, and when he reached in, she saw a hairy arm, wet and muddy. She scrambled to the driver's side, her legs falling when she wanted them to move. She pulled at the door, unlocked it. Then she yanked at the handle and fell out onto the gravel.
He said something behind her, and she could hear noises from the car, but she didn't stop. She ran across the road, toward the shadows. She didn't look back until the shadows turned to people, until she got to Mom and pushed her arms around Mom's waist. She couldn't see even a shadow on the other side of the road then, only darkness.
"I told you to wait in the car," Mom said.
Rhiannon didn't move. The fire in the background sounded like a quiet waterfall. Rhiannon put her face in Mom's coat.
"Go on home," another voice said, a man's voice. "We've started the phone tree."
Mom's fingertips dug into Rhiannon's shoulder. "Did you run across the street?"
Rhiannon looked around Mom's waist again, but she couldn't see anything. Maybe he was still in the car. As they walked back, the sounds of the fire turned to silence, and the heat turned to warmth. Rhiannon scanned the side of the road. Maybe he was in the bushes. But there was nothing. When Mom opened the car door, when Rhiannon looked through the window into the back seat, he was gone.
"It was very dangerous, what you did," Mom said.
Rhiannon nodded. "It was a sin."
Mom touched a hand to her knee, and when Rhiannon looked up, she could see the reflection of the fire happening in double on the lens of Mom's glasses. Mom closed her eyes, and the fire moved on the other side of the glass.
"Lord, please help Mrs. Newman and her family get through this," she said.
Rhiannon didn't bow her head this time. Not even God could keep people safe from Melanie's dad.
On Sunday, Rhiannon saw a cardboard box marked Sheila Newman in the church coat room. People gathered around it, the women's flowered dresses swaying into one another, the snow from their Sunday boots melting onto the doormats.
"Burnt right to the ground," Mrs. Schneider said.
The conversation seemed safe, when it happened here, with the slippery sound of coats and with pianos playing in the background.
"And this family's already been through such hardship."
Rhiannon pulled a bulletin from the table and walked toward the Sunday school rooms. The sun came in blocks of bright white through the windows, and she squinted as she walked through them and into the third room. Melanie sat on one of the blue chairs, the ones for the little kids. She held the end of her braid in her hand. Rhiannon couldn't tell if she'd been crying.
"I'm sorry about your house," Rhiannon said. She tried to sound like Mom in the grocery store. Melanie didn't say anything.
"My mom always says that God has a plan." Rhiannon hadn't seen one plan of God's that worked out for anyone, but she didn't say that.
"I know," Melanie said. She pushed at her sleeves.
Melanie's dress didn't fit right at alltoo big in parts and too small in others. Rhiannon wondered where Melanie's dad was right now, if he knew that Melanie didn't even have clothes.
"God will get him," Rhiannon said, because it seemed more comforting than God having a plan.
Melanie's face changed. She sat up in the chair and dropped her braid.
"I saw him there, at the fire," Rhiannon said. "And I guess he's pretty mad that you moved into a real house without him and stuff, so I guess he decided to burn it." She said it like an apology, as softly as she could.
The silence that happened next felt bigger than anything. Rhiannon wrapped her ankle around one of the rungs of the chair, hoping Melanie would say something, anything. When Melanie finally spoke, her voice sounded low, like when people pretended to growl.
"God's going to have a bigger house for us, and one day, we're all going to be in heaven, in the biggest, best house of all."
Rhiannon looked into her lap and tried to nod like she agreed.
"And I don't think God's going to let you in," Melanie said. "Not when you're saying stuff like that about people's dads."
Rhiannon could think of a bunch of things to say to that, but she didn't. Melanie was probably right. God couldn't stand the sight of Rhiannon. That's why all this stuff happened in the first place.
Mom went to the burnt house with some other women to see if anything useful survived, hopefully some pots or pans, maybe clothes. Nothing was left, she said, except one pot, half of the telephone, and the Bible next to it. The fire hadn't touched the Bible. Mom's voice got strange when she said that, because it proved that God existed and that He didn't want His Bibles burnt. But why did He want all that other stuff to burn? Melanie didn't even have pajamas now. When Rhiannon asked stuff like that, Mom always said everything happens for a reason.
The next day, Rhiannon sat alone during recess. The picnic table, made of smooth cement, turned her skin cold while the sun warmed the top of her head. She glanced over the playground. Melanie stood at the far end of the field, walking alone along the fence. Rhiannon felt sick. God didn't forgive stuff like this.
But nobody died. Melanie's landlord built a new house, right where the old one had stood, and it looked exactly the same. And when summer came, the psychopath, who still lived in the duplex, decided to go swimming in the river and dive off a rock into shallow water. Rhiannon imagined him wearing his belt with his swimming trunks, standing on the edge of the rock and swan-diving until his head landed right on a rock just below the surface of the water. Smack. That thick neck broke, and he became a paraplegic just like that. Rhiannon had seen paraplegics on TV, and usually they sat in wheelchairs, but sometimes they had to lie in bed with their necks in some stiff collar, moving nothing but their eyes. That's how Rhiannon imagined Melanie's dad, his neck covered, his marble-sized eyes looking at the floor all day, maybe the ceiling. When Melanie went to visit him in the hospital, she told him about Jesus, and that's how he came to know the Lord. At least that's what Mom said.
"You have to admit that you've sinned," Melanie would have said. "And you have to feel guilty for hitting Mom with a belt and getting drunk for my student-teacher conferences, and for calling Mommy a bitch and for threatening to shoot us kids with your gun. Then you apologize to Jesus and God, and you ask for Jesus' forgiveness. Then Jesus will come into your heart, and you can stop doing such bad things."
That's what Melanie would have said. And her dad would try to lick some spit out of the corner of his mouth, and Melanie would have to wipe it for him. And then he'd say let's pray, just like Pastor Conroy did, and Melanie would bow her head and say the prayer for him, and then that psychopath would officially be one of God's favoriteswhile Rhiannon, who had meant well, sat at the cement picnic table during lunch every day with her social studies book and her Sunday school papers and her cold buttall while Mom cried in the kitchen and Helen, who weighed less than six pounds, sat under the ground in the cemetery, rotting like something left in the back of a refrigerator. God could be a monster sometimes, no matter what people said.