A Fire at Christmas
A Tale from Cutters Notch
By Michael R. DeCamp
Davy was smart for his age. So smart in fact, that he had gotten way ahead of his first grade class at the Cutters Notch Elementary school located down the road, just east of town on Highway 257. He could read on a third grade level already, and write nearly as well. Those skills gave him an idea as he lay in his bed listening to his parents argue downstairs.
The lights were off in his bedroom; all of them except for the closet light which he left on with the door cracked just to give himself a little bit of light. The wind was blowing outside and sleet was pelting his second floor window. The limbs of the huge hickory and elm trees brushed the windows and rain gutters, screeching as they slid one way and then fell back again. The wind pushed against the wooden slat-board siding causing the house to creak and pop, giving it a creepy aura in the cold night. He could hear every sound it made, even above his parents’ screaming, but he wasn’t afraid. He was just sad.
His house was on the main street in the town. At one time, the little village of Cutters Notch was a boom town with funds from the limestone mines filling people’s pockets, but now those days were in the past, the mines were nearly gone, and much of the money had been depleted. At night, the house was shrouded in darkness provided by the trees that blocked all of the bright lights from convenience store down on the corner. Only moonlight seeped through his window, and on a night like this with the sleet, which would soon to be followed by snow, even the moon was kept at bay. There were similar old houses on each side of Davy’s house, but there weren’t any other kids. Those houses were occupied by old people who probably spent their days tending gardens in the summer or huddled up in front of their TVs in the winter. His folks had moved in to their rented home about a month earlier, so he hadn’t even gotten a chance to meet them yet.
He had no friends nearby. He had no siblings. At night, when his mom and dad fought, he was all alone with his thoughts.
Lying there listening to the mean words, that like smoke wafted up the stairs and under his bedroom door, Davy made a decision. He threw back his Batman bedcovers, and then sat up on the side of his bed. Finding his Spiderman slippers with the help of the wedge of light shooting through his cracked closet door, he put them on and stood up. The slippers didn’t quite match his Christmas pajamas, but that couldn’t be helped; he couldn’t expect his mom to get him Christmas PJs and Santa slippers too. With the warm house shoes on his feet, he walked across the hardwood floor, turned on the small lamp on his little desk, and took out a pencil and paper.
He didn’t need to worry about getting in trouble for being up late. When his folks argued, they rarely even noticed that he was around. The previous night, when they started up the nightly battle, he had slipped out on the landing and watched them. They never noticed that he was there as they hurled their insults and accusations. They were so angry and hateful; their faces red and scary. They used words that he wasn’t allowed to use, and he was sure they fought because of him. He had seen their happy faces in the pictures on the fireplace mantel, pictures of just the two of them before he had come along. He had never personally seen that happiness in their eyes, so he figured that he must have caused them to hate each other. It must be his fault. He watched them for a while, crying at the fact that he had caused them so much pain, and then he slipped back down the hall.
Last night, he had retreated to his secret place. At the back end of the hall, away from the front stairs was a closet. Behind the old coats and extra clothes that his mom had stored in the closet, there was a small little set of steps that led up to the attic. Dad was too preoccupied with work to even know about it, and his mom was too creeped out to go up there. So without his mom even aware, he had made the attic his special retreat. It was the one place he could go to escape the battle below, and he sometimes went up there when he couldn’t take the pain of it all anymore.
Tonight, though, was different. Tonight, he had an idea, a plan. Perhaps, he could ask for some help. Maybe, in this special season, there was a special person that could make a difference and help his mom and dad love each other again; maybe this person could make them love him too. Christmas was just over a day away, and maybe Santa could work some magic to help.
Sitting down at his desk, Davy called upon everything his teacher had taught him and he wrote the best, most heartfelt plea that his seven-year old mind could conjure. He had started writing it several times, but messed up and tore out each of the mistaken pages. He had to get it just perfect, so he wadded them up and tossed them in the Superman trash can in the corner. After about an hour, with his parents still fussing below him, he was satisfied that he’d gotten it right and tore out the good page. Folding it in half, he wrote “Santa” on the outside and placed it on the corner of his dresser. He looked at his own sad reflection in the mirror which was mounted on top of the heavy, oak clothing chest where he placed the white piece of paper, and then he went back to bed. Hopeful that he had struck upon the right idea, he rolled over, curled up in a ball, and put his extra pillow over his head to muffle the hurtful noise.
Soon, he was asleep. With his back to his dresser, and his mind drifting off into an anxious dream where he was running with uncooperative feet from something he was afraid of but couldn’t quite see, he didn’t notice the odd little hand that emerged from his mirror. At first, it was just like finger tips poking through plastic wrap, but then an entire hand and arm popped into his room through the glass at the same spot where his face had reflected just a few minutes earlier. The hand reached in, picked up Davy’s letter to Santa, and then slipped back through the surface, taking the letter with it.
Hours later, Davy’s mother shook him awake, rustled him into the bathroom, and then rushed him through breakfast. He had barely finished his Captain Crunch, when she hustled him to the car. His dad was at work, but his mom had plans for them to visit family in Muncie. He was so busy with all the driving, eating, presents, and laughter that he forgot all about his special letter. He played with cousins, sat on his grandpa’s lap, and ate his grandma’s yummy food. It was such a full day that he fell sound asleep on the three hour drive home.
It was dark outside when he felt the engine shut down. He opened his eyes and found himself in his own driveway, and his dad’s Impala was right beside his mom’s Taurus. Snow was starting to fall in huge flakes as they hurried up the sidewalk to the back door. The boy was so full of joy from a great day and excited to see his dad that he ran off ahead and banged through the back door. He found him sitting at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich and sipping a Coke.
“Dad!” he said with joy. “We had the best time!”
“Where’s your mother?” the man asked gruffly.
“She’s comin’,” the boy answered. “Dad! It’s almost Christmas and it’s snowing too!”
Davy’s dad ignored his son’s excitement, and stared over his head to watch his wife come through the door.
“I’ve worked all day while you’ve been playing, only to come home to a dark house with no dinner!” he said. “So, here I am sitting alone, and you’ve given no thought to me at all. Thanks a lot.”
“I just took Davy to my folks to celebrate Christmas!” she replied. “I told you last night we were going!”
“And I told you that we couldn’t afford the gas.”
“That’s crap and you know it!”
And, they were off to the races with another fight. Soon, they were oblivious of their own son on Christmas Eve as they fussed, fought, argued, and cussed. Hateful, thoughtless words filled the house, echoing off the cavernous walls. Their shouts and anger filled every crack and crevice. Davy’s excitement over his day with his grandparents, the snow, and Christmas quickly evaporated and was replaced by a heaviness, a depression that pulled on his spirit like an anchor tugs on the bow of a ship.
The boy escaped the kitchen, through the dining room, and stopped in the living room in front of the Christmas tree. The tree lights were twinkling off and on against the various shiny bulbs and ornaments, and he thought the tree looked wonderful. There were electric candles in the windows and along the fireplace mantle that illuminated the stockings. His mother had even strung electric lights around the window frames and the one mirror that hung on the north wall. The entire room was aglow creating the impression that the old walls themselves were giving off light. Wires snaked down the walls and wiggled together into a series of extension cords that were themselves connected into the three ancient wall sockets scattered at various points above the baseboards. It was his mother’s Christmas room. The rest of the house was his father’s, but this room belonged to his mom.
“You and the boy go play all day, and I get nothing!” his father boomed in the kitchen.
“Are you crazy?” his mother responded. “It’s Christmas for God’s sake! It’s a special time for him!”
“Him! Him, him, him! Is it all about him? What about me? Do you save anything for me?”
Davy trudged up the steps toward the second floor, waves of anger passing over his head. He decided that he couldn’t stand to listen to it tonight, so he passed his room and entered the hallway closet. Sliding past the old coats, he could smell his mother’s perfume and his father’s cologne lingering on the worn fabric. He liked that smell. It smelled like happiness.
Stepping over a couple of cardboard boxes, he mounted the first step. There was a light in the back, so he clicked it on, revealing the darkly stained, small wooden steps leading steeply toward the ceiling. At the top, he opened the door and entered his sanctuary.
It was a little chilly up in the attic because there weren’t any heat ducts providing any furnace air, but he didn’t mind if he could get away from the noise of hatred below. Between the two doors and the old coats, his secret place was fully insulated from those words that felt so hurtful. Scattered around were relics of another age. Boxes of pictures detailing some unknown family’s history. Old trunks full of clothes that seemed like the costumes they sometimes used in his school plays. He had explored it all. Over near the back wall, just to the right of a four-pane window that didn’t open, was a large, stand-alone mirror. It was so big that Davy could see his whole body, head to toe. It was nearly as big as their front door. He liked to stand in front of it and make funny faces.
In this space, he could pretend. He could pretend that he was someone else, somewhere else. He could be Spiderman slinging webs around the from rafter to rafter. He could be Superman flexing his muscles of steel. But on this night, he just sat down on the floor with his back to the huge mirror and fiddled with some tiny Hot Wheels cars that he had found in an old shoebox tucked into a corner. He pretended that the lone light strung from the highest point above his head was the sun and the shadows it cast around him were the forests that surrounded this little town in which he was imprisoned. He pulled out two cars, one for his mom and one for his dad, and began smashing them together; making the sounds of screeching wheels and the booms of crashes.
Downstairs, Davy’s mom and dad carried on in the kitchen. He claimed that she “always” did this or that. She claimed that he “never” did that or this. Was she seeing someone else? Was he married to his job? Accusations disguised as questions flung with animosity and aimed at the heart were fired back and forth. Neither took notice of the time. Neither considered where their boy had wandered off to keep himself occupied. They were so consumed with their mutual fits of rage that nothing else in the world penetrated their little vocal boxing ring that doubled as the kitchen.
They were still so preoccupied with their fussing at midnight that the electrical fire that erupted from the overloaded circuits in the living room had fully engulfed the front end of the house and had begun to crawl up the stairs before they noticed the smoke. Davy’s mother noticed it first and screamed for him. His father sprinted through the dining room but was blocked by the flames and smoke and was forced to retreat. He turned and grabbed his wife who was screaming for her son!
“DAVY!” she bellowed. “DAVEEEEEY! Oh, God! DAVEEEY!”
Somewhere in the house, a smoke alarm began to screech.
Grabbing the cordless phone, he dragged her out of the house and called 911. Once outside, he left his distraught wife on the front walk staring at the flames that were blooming in all of the front windows, and then ran around to the rear where he stored his extension ladder. Leaning it on the side of the house, he scrambled up to Davy’s window. In the distance, he heard sirens sound. Being a small town, he knew they would be here very quickly, at least the guys on duty would be. The rest of the volunteers would show up from their various homes as quickly as they could. He couldn’t wait!
When he reached the window, he tried to muscle it up, but it wouldn’t budge. Blowing snow assaulted his face and ice numbed his fingers. Using his hands to shield the sides of his face, he tried to look inside, but couldn’t see anything. With no other option, he used his elbow to break the window. Inside, the new source of fresh air caused the fire to leap forward fully onto the second floor.
The thick, black smoke rushed through Davy’s bedroom door and billowed past the boy’s father making it impossible for him to see anything. Reaching inside the broken window, the man unlocked the glassless frame and pushed it up.
“Davy! Davy! Can you hear me?”
There was no answer.
“Davy?! Where are you?!”
The distraught father tried to duck under the acrid smoke and then crawled into his only son’s room. Staying low, he went to the bed. Empty. He checked underneath. Nothing. He did a belly-crawl to the closet. Again, empty. By now, he was choking and was forced to retreat. He didn’t know where his boy was, and he was powerless to help! Without any clear idea of where else to look, and with poisonous fumes eating at his consciousness, he struggled back through the window and onto the ladder. He slid down the aluminum extension ladder, and ran back around to his wife.
She looked at him with hopeful eyes. He looked back with despair. For the first time in months, they embraced one another as firemen raced past them dragging hoses and various other pieces of equipment.
Davy had fallen asleep on an old quilt in front of the great mirror. He had found it in a box labeled “grandmother” and it made him feel good to pretend that it was from his own grandma, so he made himself a little bed and eventually drifted off. The fire had been going for quite a while before the smoke began to penetrate his attic retreat. Eventually, it began to seep under the door and up through cracks and crevices that otherwise no one would ever notice. Hugging the floor like a snake looking for a mouse, it drifted back until it found the boy’s nose.
Roused by the unpleasant smell, Davy sat up and was immediately alarmed. He was old enough to remember the stories of house fires on the news, and he’d already been through several fire drills at school. Jumping to his feet, he ran to the door leading through the closet back to the main part of the house, but when he opened it, smoke had filled the small area inside. It immediately plumed into the attic, making it hard for him to see and catching in his throat. Scrambling over the boxes and past the coats, he gripped the doorknob to the second floor. It was hot to the touch and burned his hand.
He knew he was trapped.
He retreated back to the attic. Closing the door, he used the quilt to stuff into the space at the bottom to try to block out some of the smoke, and then he just slowly stumbled backward until he felt the smooth glass of the mirror against his butt. There he stood, alone and afraid, watching the smoke slowly fill the room; hoping with all his heart that his mom and dad were safe because he knew that he would never see them again.
Outside, driven together by the terror of potential loss, Brian and April stood holding one another like never before. A veil had been lifted from their eyes and they could recognize one another again. More so, they could see themselves with clarity, a clarity that only guilt can restore.
More equipment arrived every few minutes, and a large tanker truck with shiny chrome panels like large mirrors came to a stop just behind them. They watched as men in heavy tarp-like jackets broke their windows and sprayed streams of water inside. Other men knocked open their front door and did the same. The local chief approached and asked if everyone was out.
“Our son is missing!” Brian yelled above the noise of the truck’s big engine. “We don’t know where he is in the house! I checked his room by crawling up my ladder, but I couldn’t find him!”
“Please save our son!” screamed April. “Please! You’ve got to find him! Oh, God!” She repeated, “Oh, God.” And then, she slumped against Brian’s chest.
Turning away, the fireman lifted his radio and spoke with urgency. Around the house, men moved with what seemed to be more diligence than before; careful, but with measured speed. Two men hurried past them with a large fire ladder. Flames were breaking out of the upstairs windows.
The husband and wife who just a few minutes before were intent on outdoing one another’s hurtful words were now huddled together; each saying a private prayer. Each was promising God that they would change if only he would save their little boy, their little boy that meant the world to them. After all, he was their bright light, their joy amid the chaos of life!
In the attic room, Davy was coughing uncontrollably. The light above his head had gone out, and the smoke was so thick that he could feel it enveloping him. The only thing he could see was the jumping yellow of the flames as they worked their way through the cracks around the door.
He sat down on the quilt, the quilt that he imagined to be his own grandmother’s; trying to get low enough so he could still breathe. He knew the end was near for him, so he asked God to do what Santa didn’t get to do, he asked God to find a way to make his folks happy again.
That prayer made him feel safe despite the smoke and the flames. It almost seemed to him that God was giving him a hug, and that he was drifting off. He was safe and drifting off in someone’s strong arms; away from the smoke and through a tunnel to a nice place. There was a face there. A nice face, warm and soft. Friendly eyes.
Then, all was dark.
Standing in front of the tanker, Brian and April watched as the firemen seemed to fight a losing battle with their house. The fire was shooting through all of the second floor windows and was curling up over the roof line. The flames illuminated the surrounding trees causing shadows to dance in the underbrush. Flashing lights, alternating red and white, added to the spectacle, and sirens sounded as other fire departments sent crews to assist.
With each passing moment, the parents’ hopes sank deeper and deeper. They watched the men moving into and out of the house; wishing Davy into each man’s arms to no avail. The grim look on the firefighters’ faces spoke volumes, and they felt the loss of their son with each passing moment; the loss and the guilt of knowing it was their own fault.
From behind them, near the mirror-like chrome panels of the red tanker boomed a voice:
“Here is your son!”
Brian and April turned together to see a large, older man with bright, friendly eyes and a short white beard holding their son in his arms! Without hesitation, they took their son from the man, but gave him up to the paramedics who put an oxygen mask on his face and hustled him off to their truck. Assuming the old man to be a neighbor who had come to their boy’s rescue, they said “Thank you!” and turned together to follow the medics.
“I suppose your presents have all been lost in the fire,” said the old man.
“Yeah, yeah,” answered April. “But, we don’t care about that now.”
“We’ve got our boy back,” said Brian. “That’s all that matters.”
Undaunted, the man followed and said, “But, you can still give him what he wanted, you know.”
At that, both Brian and April stopped. Frustration and a touch of anger welled up in them at his interest in something so unimportant, and they turned on the man. “What are you talking about?” asked April with an edge in her voice.
“In fact,” the fuzzy-chinned man said with a sly smile, “you two are the only ones who can truly give him what he really wants.” Extending his hand, the man gave them a folded slip of paper.
April took the piece of paper, and with Brian looking over her shoulder, she read it in the bright lights of the fire trucks. On the outside, there was one word: Santa. On the inside it read:
I don’t want any toys this year. I have tried real hard to be good, but I must be bad because my mom and dad are so mad all the time. I am sorry. I love them very much. Could you bring them something to make them happy again?
When they looked up from the letter, the old man was gone. Behind them, Davy stirred, and then pulled off the mask long enough to say: “It was him! It was him, wasn’t it?!” Then, he fell back again, and the medics put the mask back on his face.
Brian and April looked at one another in astonishment. Unable to find the words, they hugged one another. They had never felt such joy in their entire lives, yet it was enveloped in a new determination to bring genuine happiness into their home. And somewhere in the distance they heard the slow, rhythmic tinkle of jingle bells.