From Chapter 1
A fire truck siren jolted me awake from my daydream adventure with Arwen and the other elves in Rivendell. I jumped up from the mossy cushion under the massive dogwood trees and scrambled toward the sound. Is it coming to our farm or passing by on the highway?
The screeching grew louder.
A blackberry vine snagged my sweatshirt and a thorn jabbed my bare foot as I picked my way through the thicket, and wiggled under the bottom wire of the electric fence. Near the top of the hill I got the first whiff of smoke. When I rounded the corner of our weatherworn barn, I saw the fire truck. Beyond it, black smoke streamed from the vacant, farm workers’ housing.
I stumbled against the barn, willing the firemen to kill the fire. “Put it out! Save my house!” I whispered the words over and over as if I were chanting a spell. A splinter from the barn poked through my blue jeans. I inched away from the rough wall, my heart pounding to the rhythm of the words, “Put out the fire! Save my house!”
Long ago, during harvest season, migrant workers lived in the long, narrow building which was divided into four homes. For as long as I could remember I had used apartment A as a playhouse. I thought I was the luckiest girl alive. I suspected most twelve-year-old girls didn’t still play house --- but most twelve-year-old girls didn’t have a real house in which to play. And maybe they didn’t need one.
Maybe they weren’t like me.
At a sharp tug on my braids, I whirled around to see my younger brother Aaron with Joel, his friend from across the highway. Joel grinned at me, but Aaron only glanced my way before focusing on the fire. He sniffed and shook his head, muttering, “Boy, am I gonna get it!”
I stared at him. “Did you do that?”
He didn’t answer, but gaped at the fire. Joel slipped away.
Hands on hips, facing Aaron squarely, I repeated my question. “Did you start the fire? Why would you do that?”
He still didn’t answer, but wiped his nose on the back of his hand, a cigarette clutched between his fingers. A cigarette? I looked from his hand to his face. It took only a second for everything to become
He was gonna get it and get it good.
“Aaron! Roberta!” Mom’s frenzied call reached beyond the roaring engine and crackling flames.
“Bertie, get out of the playhouse!” Tami, our older sister, puffed along beside Mom. As a fireman approached them, they pointed toward the burning structure and tried to run past him.
“Mom! Mom, it’s all right. We’re here!”
Mom and Tami spun toward the sound of my voice. I grabbed Aaron’s arm and dragged him with me. As we neared her, Mom smiled, the relief in her eyes a sharp contrast to how I felt. I glanced at the fire. Smoke poured out of doors and windows. Tears streamed as I watched the blaze dance along the roof. Pleeeease save my house! Mom reached out to hug us in one big embrace, but Aaron pulled back, his guilt as plain as a black cow in a green field. His shoulders slumped as he kicked at a dirt clod.
“Look at me, young man.”
He kept his head down and his hands behind his back.
Does he still have the cigarette? Why didn’t he get rid of it? I knew once caught he wouldn’t lie. The last time he had fibbed resulted in a trip to the woodshed, and that took care of that. I’d never heard him lie again.
Mom grabbed his arms, forcing them out from behind his back. He opened one hand, revealing a grimy cigarette.
“Oh, Aaron! What have you done?” Mom’s hands dropped to her side. She raised them to cover her face, then planted them on her hips. “I don’t know what to do with you! I don’t even know what to think! Whatever possessed you to . . . Oh, Aaron, I’m so angry!”
She took the cigarette from his hand, pinching it between her fingers as if it were a nasty bug.
Aaron fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out a half-empty book of matches. He glanced at Mom’s face, but looked down again as she took it from him.
“Come on. Back to the house. Now.” Mom spoke in her no-nonsense voice. I sucked on the end of my braid as I watched the flames attack the porch railing. “Mom, can I stay and watch?” I took a deep breath. “It’s my playhouse.”
“No, I’ve got bread in the oven and you can’t stay alone. I don’t want to worry about you getting in the way.” She nodded in the direction of the firefighters.
We trudged toward home. I knew she thought the building was an eyesore; I’d heard her and Dad talking about how it wasn’t worth even a coat of paint. Maybe not to them. I looked back as we neared the porch steps. A cluster of trees hid the fire scene, but smoke rose above them in huge, balloonlike puffs.
Mom placed the cigarette and matches on the table, washed her hands and went to the stove. The smells of beef stew and homemade bread made everything feel normal, as if nothing bad had appened.
The feeling lasted only a moment.
I sat at the table by Aaron where I could at least see the fire trucks. A plume of smoke announced to all of Thurston County, Washington, “Fire at the Thorne’s!” I could see the headlines in the next Dale Valley News: April 25, 1962, Marks Day Thorne Homestead Burns. Aaron kicked his feet back and forth hitting the chair leg. Thud. Thud. I waited for Mom to tell him to stop, but she didn’t. Thud. Thud. I looked away from the window at my brother. He was small for his age and looked more like Tami than me with his sun-streaked blond hair and spattering of freckles. A deep dimple appeared on his right cheek whenever he smiled, but he wasn’t smiling now.
He quit kicking the chair leg and picked up the cigarette. He broke it in half and tiny pieces of brown flakes floated onto the table. How can you sit there touching that nasty thing after all the damage you’ve done? I scooted my chair away from him. This was his fault, and there he sat fiddling with a filthy cigarette.
My playhouse had always been there for me, a refuge for fantasies. Sometimes I was a mom taking care of my babies; sometimes a secret agent on a dangerous mission. In my make-believe worlds I always did and said the right things; there were no Communists or Cubans or threats of nuclear war; my dad never frowned at me; and there was no woodshed, no punishment.
An explosion rattled the windows. Is that my playhouse? No one jumped but me, and I should have known better. Nearby Fort Lewis often practiced maneuvers this time of day and their detonations regularly shook the windows, a ready reminder of the probability of war.
“Roberta, get your hair out of your mouth.”
As I obeyed, another detonation rattled the windows. A tiny squeal escaped before I covered my mouth with both hands. Tami snickered and Aaron rolled his eyes, but I ignored them.
When Dad’s old Studebaker rumbled up the lane, Mom shooed Tami and me from the kitchen. It took awhile for Dad to come into the house; I supposed he had stopped to talk with the firefighters. The screen door banged shut before I heard his footsteps.
Tami and I crouched near the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room. I couldn’t make out Dad’s words, but his voice was angry.
Tami pushed slightly on the door and we peeked through the crack. Aaron slouched in his chair at the kitchen table, a glass of water in front of him. Dad lit a cigarette and handed it to him. Aaron took it, puffed, coughed.
“I don’t want it, Dad.”
“Take another drag.”
Dad never raised his voice, not at us, not at Mom, not at anyone. It was a terrifying voice nonetheless, deep and gruff and coldly calm. I ached for my little brother as he exhaled a wisp of smoke.
“Take a deeper puff.”
Aaron sucked on the cigarette and coughed. Mom handed him the glass of water. When he tried to drink it, he sputtered and gasped.
“Ron, he’s only ten. Remember, he’s only ten.” Mom sat down at the table, her back to us.
Aaron looked up at Dad, his blue eyes wide. “Can we go to the woodshed now, sir?”
Go to the woodshed now? I couldn’t believe he said that. I looked at Tami, but she just shrugged. Both Tami and Aaron had been to the woodshed for disobeying or breaking rules. I avoided it by doing everything as right as I could.
Neither my brother or sister talked about what happened to them there, but everyone knows what happens in a woodshed. Once I asked Aaron how much it hurt, but he just shook his head and walked away. I didn’t ask him again. As long as I obeyed, as long as I always did the right thing, I’d never have to know.