An excerpt from my new story, Burning Cotton
“Boom Boom Boom Boom . . . gonna shoot you right down . . .”
The ring tone from my cell phone wrestled me out of a hard won deep sleep. Anger. It really pissed me off, as insomnia had become one of my latest problems on the list of many others. In my groggy mind I calculated the dollars invested in the wine and weed that had produced what had earlier promised be my first good night’s sleep in weeks and envisioned it twisting and twirling as it disappeared down the drain with at least a month’s worth of credibility. I was currently under-employed.
The caller I.D. on my cell phone announced that it was my niece and the clock revealed that it was 12:59 A.M. I knew from that point- that this was not going to be good. My niece Deidre rarely called unless there was a serious problem. She was definitely not the social type.
“Hello” I answered, waiting to hear her voice.
“Aunt Blue?” My niece called just about everyone, relative or not “aunt” or “uncle” whatever their name happened to be, if they were older than she was, which could get confusing, but was her sweet Texas way of showing respect. I was her actual aunt, however. Her voice trembled and I could hear her soft sobs affirming my suspicion that my nap was over and trouble was galloping towards me faster than Secretariat could run a mile.
“I burned the house down.” She stated softly, sighing heavily and I could hear the strain in her voice.
WHOA there, trouble!
“What? You are kidding me, right?”
She burst into tears and I could no longer understand her. She was inconsolable.
“I’ll be right over.”
Words just cannot express how delighted I was.
Poor little thing. Deidre was hefty on body but frail on constitution and devoid of confidence. She was often sick as she spent most of her time in self isolation having phone sex and discussing politics with strangers on the internet, smoking grape cigars and drinking cheap bourbon. She occasionally purchased small pets, but all soon died from smoke inhalation. It was a self created vicious circle which seemed to give an occasional perpetuating spin to her downward spiral into self pity. Alas- she was now 30 and still unwed.
As I dressed in the dark with a small smile and a snicker to myself, I silently and secretly wondered if this fire was perhaps some sort of cosmic payback brought on by the curse of the spirits of a dozen doomed guinea pigs and another dozen cats cursed by the same demise.
The “Cotton House”, as my family had dubbed it, was the home that my siblings and I spent our time growing to adulthood in. Each child left as soon as humanly possible and I as the youngest left at 15. No one made it past 18. We all chose any viable alternative. Bad marriages, wars, communal living- anything but living under the same roof with my angry tyrant of a father.
My father had inherited the Cotton House from a man who had taken up with his mother for a stretch when he was a curly headed little boy. His own father was killed in one war or another. You know- the BIG one. Apparently the man forgot to change his will when he abandoned them, because it said in his last will and testament that the house would go to my father’s mother in the event of his death and in the event of her demise it would go to my father. When he inherited it in 1952, the house was already 50 years old and the prior owner had been through three more wives.
In the early years of his married life, my father felt that children were just a nasty side effect of sex. Parenting was not an activity that he intended to engage in and he sure as HELL was not going to let his WOMAN be a mother. His wife was supposed to look great and give him great sex when he wanted it and he wanted her with him at all times. He would not share her attention with a bunch of snot nosed kids. He did eventually get the hang of it.
Inheriting the Cotton House afforded my father the opportunity to live life as he wanted it. The house was old and he didn’t pay for it, so he did not care about damage or upkeep. It was on plenty of acreage so he could farm it. It was out past the suburbs so he wasn’t bothered too much by neighbors. And he felt that he did not have to worry about the safety of his family because everyone in the sparsely populated community knew each other. It was in his estimation the perfect place to leave unsupervised children as they arrived on the scene eventually totaling four. Boy, girl, boy, girl. I was girl number two, making me the youngest of this model family.
Apparently my father never considered that most people who seek isolation have something to hide and they will not admit that fact even to themselves. And certainly not to him.
So dad hired a housekeeper and he and my mother went on with their lives leaving the care of me and my siblings in the hands of our housekeeper, Bessie; God, and some kind neighbors. And some NOT so kind neighbors.
It was only a twenty mile drive from my house to the Cotton House. (Named the Cotton House because of the street name.) I could hear the sirens and see the flashing of warning lights by the time I was within a mile of the place.
On the lawn in the illuminating spotlights being used by the firemen on the scene, I could see that the firemen were performing CPR on Brut, my niece‘s current cat. They revived him successfully and then the orange striped tom cat took a real good look around and ran for the woods. Smart cat, in my estimation. The front three rooms of the old house- the dining room, kitchen and den were indeed destroyed, but it appeared that the rest of the house- bedrooms and bathrooms could be easily repaired. The fire had not gone through the ceiling or reached the second floor.
I stood alone watching the scene for a moment longer before locating my niece. The hair on my arms and on the back of my neck bristled as I felt a strange sensation that I had not felt in many, many years. I sensed a strange and invisible presence. I had talked myself out of believing in this presence many years before when I left this place alone and still a child. I tried to ignore it. Still, I could almost hear it. An almost imperceptible rush of air just like all of those years ago. I rubbed my bare arms in the chilly night air until the hair lay back in place.
I wondered what the ghosts would do with no place to haunt, trying to make a joke out of it, though I was joking only with myself and whatever read my thoughts. But, really, assuming the ghosts were there- where would they go?
There was difference, though, between that night and before when I lived there as a child. For the first time ever I did not feel unwelcome.
I knew as soon as I COULD know that there was something unusual about that place.
And it was mostly good, really. The affect that those . . . spirits . . . had on that place. And our lives.
I can remember one night as a small child-
My parents as I mentioned were not big on parenting. They were not at home. I had a serious fever late in the night. I knew I had to get the fever down to I made it to the bathroom and ran a cold shower. After I felt the fever subside- I took aspirin and made it back to bed.
As I was settling in- I felt my bed just barely disturbed like someone had shaken it, and I saw an apparition, I guess. A woman holding a tray. She asked if I needed anything, but left when I answered, “no”. I often wondered what would have happened had I answered yes, but was just so grateful someone cared and was there- I never wanted to know anything otherwise.
A huge black cloud of smoke enshrouded the old white shiplap house. I saw my niece sitting in a swing that still hung on the good end of what was left of the front porch, wrapped in a yellow duster and smoking a cigar and rocking frantically like she always did when she felt stressed. She began to cry when she saw me. I bent down and gave her a hug.
The sound of her sobs grabbed the attention of the person that the duster belonged to. A brave female fire fighter. She was covered in soot, but I could still see her striking features and strands of straight red hair that had escaped from under her safety helmet. She checked on my niece with a look of concern and then smiled a big, beautiful, dazzling smile at me as she extended her hand in introduction. I was amazed at the contrast between her teeth and the black soot smeared on her square muscular jaw.
I ran one hand over my blond hair as I wondered if I had even brushed it before I left.
“Lt. Johnson, this is my aunt Blue.”
Lt. Johnson was one hot fire . . . woman. I felt a rush that I hadn’t felt lately as I took her hand. A spark shocked us both upon contact. We both jumped. I smiled.
“I’m Blue Sleighty. Nice to meet you. Thank you for taking such great care of my niece and stopping the fire before it burned the whole place down.” I made myself let go of her hand. “What caused the fire?”
I pulled my driver’s license out of my pocket. Blue Blue Sleighty. As I had grown tired of explaining long before then- it was just easier that way, I had come to know.
Lt. Johnson laughed, and pulled back the lapel of her protective coat to expose a name tag pinned above the left breast of her uniform. She filled her uniform out nicely. I reached the tag and turned it so that I could see it in the poor lighting not being able to avoid noticing the softness of the rise of her breast. It said “Lt. Flame Johnson”.
I laughed. “Ah! Another club member”!
Flame began explaining that the fire started in the kitchen, about that time one of her team members shouted at her, calling for her help in their efforts to finish their job.
Bummer. But, then, I told myself- she was too young for me, anyway.
Which reminded me of a time when I sat where my niece now sat. I, too, had started a fire in that old house.
“Grease fire, hon?” I asked sympathetically. My niece slowly nodded her head.
I sat beside my niece and told her all about my similar experience.
Many years before I was visiting my mother while my father was away on business. I was 18. My mother had gone to see my grandmother and help with her shopping and errands and I knew she would be gone all day. I wanted to have a nice visit with nothing getting in the way like cooking dinner, so- I decided to fry some chicken. I still had not learned that fried food will kill you one way or another.
So- I got a huge black cast iron skillet, poured the grease to it, and turned up the flame.
All good Southerners know that it takes some hot grease to properly batter fry (we call it ‘chicken fry’) anything. So I busied myself coating my freshly killed fryer with a nice spicy egg coating dusted in thick flour.
I glanced at my skillet and all looked fine. As I was washing batter off of my hands, getting ready to put the chicken in the skillet, I heard a “WHOOSH” sound as the grease erupted into flames. I was terrified. I grabbed the kitchen phone and dialed 911 and shouted “fire” into the receiver, then hung up.
Working quickly, I turned off the stove burner. I grabbed a large tablecloth that was always folded neatly on the sideboard and wet it down from the water standing in the sink, snatched the flour from the counter where I had been working- threw the flour in the general direction of the burning contents of the skillet and flung the wet tablecloth on top.
As I was running out the door- I could already hear the sirens from the fire truck that was racing to save me. Man. Was my dad going to be pissed.
The firetruck pulled up to the fire hydrant on the corner. And then things got busy!
As three firefighters began connecting hoses to the hydrant and to each other in sections, extending the length, two other firefighters ran into the house carrying extinguishers.
And, then- out of the truck, carrying a camera and a clipboard, a woman firefighter approached me. She had on a safety helmet with the face shield thrown back. I could see that her hair was auburn and she was a little taller than I was. The closer she got the more intrigued I became with her features, until soon she was right there- face to face and I was kind of stunned. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She would have to be completely oblivious not to notice the way I devoured her every curve. Her eyes and lips had to be studied, but with every newly noticed detail of her, my excitement grew with no hope of hiding it. I was as obvious as an inexperienced idiot could possibly be. I was like a teen aged boy getting his first view of a naked female. Although you couldn’t see the bulge in MY britches- it was definitely there. I mortified myself.
Lt. Aidenne Cole was trying to get a report out of me, but I was so struck by her that I was tongue tied and could not answer her questions at first.
“Miss Sleighty?” she blushed while I mumbled and stumbled upon my words.
Then I blushed, too, and collected myself. I was so embarrassed. I backed off a few steps to widen the distance between us and attempted to answer Lt. Cole’s questions behind a newly, but, amateurishly constructed boundary. After all- Lt. Cole was at least ten years older than I was and I doubted seriously that she would even consider any involvement with an 18 year old. Which was in a way a relief.
“Aunt Blue. Could you please leave out that part of the story. I feel better that you, too, screwed up. But I don’t need one of your lesbian erotica stories right now. ”
“Sure, kid.” I guess I was getting carried away and had somewhat digressed. Great looking women firefighters did that to me.
So- I didn’t tell her that the firefighters that had first entered the house back when I had to call the fire department, found the fire had already been smothered by my efficient response. A call on their radios alerted them to an out of hand brush fire a couple of miles away, and that as my predicament was under control and the house had only suffered smoke damage and a burned upper cabinet- they decided to leave Lt. Cole there to write the report and take pictures while the rest of the team responded to the brush fire.
Of course- Lt. Cole had to inspect the entire house. I quietly followed her from room to room, answering her questions and handing her things– tools, flashlight and some sort of meter- as she made certain that there were no possibly overlooked problems between the walls, in the attic, or in any of the upstairs rooms.
There was a strange tension building between us when we got to the bedrooms. By the time we had gone through three bathrooms and four of five bedrooms, I was so excited that I was having trouble controlling my breathing. I hoped that Lt. Cole either did not notice, or contributed it to stress and I tried to stay far enough away so that she could not tell.
She opened the door to the last bedroom and looked around. I was behind her, but could see the reflection of the front of her in the cheval mirror, and she could see mine still studying her on the sly and almost imperceptibly moving with the quickness of my breath. I think we were both surprised at what we saw in each other’s reflection.
I couldn’t move. Lt. Cole removed her helmet as she turned around. “you know what ‘Aidenne’ means?” as she moved closer to me.
My heart leapt as I realized what was about to happen and I slowly shook my head “no”.
She put her arms around me and whispered in my ear, “Little fire”, and her lips found mine.
“Ms. Sleighty?” It was Lt. Johnson drawing my concentration back to the matter at hand.
“My team is pretty much finished with their work, except for me. I still need to fill out this paperwork. We have the fire out, the cat is alive, and as far as we can tell- your niece is fine and your structure is sound. Deidra refused to be taken for a check up”
I heard a car coming up the road.
“Douglas!” I heard my niece shout as she practically leapt from the porch swing.
“Who is that?” I asked Deidra.
“My new boyfriend,” my niece answered as she ran to the car pulling into the driveway. He’s taking me to a hotel. I’ll call you tomorrow, Aunt Blue.”
I nodded my head, smiling as I thought “well good for her! It’s about freakin’ TIME!”
I turned to see Lt. Flame Johnson smiling at me in a whole new way.
I recognized that look in her eyes. I had the same look in my eyes years before when I met Aidenne.
I smiled as a ghost from the past reminded me .
“Well, Lt. Johnson. Let me show you upstairs.”
Behind me, I heard Flame removing her coat.