Lydia was always the forgiving kind, but the loss of loved ones and the violence suffered by the innocent forced her to consider the unthinkable. Caught between ideals and harsh realities, what choices does she really have? What is her dark, untold secret that she keeps from even those closest to her?
September 5, 11:17 P.M.
As it licked the sides of the house, the fire raged in a storm of colors—red, orange, and yellow. The one-story ranch-style dwelling had light blue trim, matching blue shutters, and greedy flames poking out of the windows. The flames looked as if they were screaming, pushing, shoving, punching, and kicking each other for the prize of destroying her precious home. Lydia watched sadly, tears streaming down her face, as her life seemed to crumble into ashes. It had been the home of her dreams, not because the structure itself was anything special, but because it was where she’d shared life with her family that was no more. She fancied she could see her memories billowing up with the thick smoke and disappearing into the darkness.
Her thoughts moved from one treasure to another, taking stock of what she would have to live without. The most devastating losses were the pictures and home movies of her children. The boys were no longer with her, but the moments they’d shared were at least recorded on film and could be revisited anytime she popped a tape into the VCR. No more. That, too, had been taken away from her. Lydia could no longer watch Stephen’s first birthday party in the middle of the night and pretend things were still okay. She could no longer witness Josh’s first steps and remember it like it was yesterday. Her heart was filled with sadness as she wondered if losing those precious reminders meant the moments would now fade from her memory.
Of course, there were other possessions and keepsakes whose destruction was causing her to grieve. Stephen’s favorite teddy bear—the one he took everywhere. The last valentine Josh had ever made for her—all by himself, too. The locket of hair from Stephen’s first haircut was now gone. Josh’s bronzed baby booties would soon be cinders. She grew sadder with each memento that crowded her thoughts, but her mind kept settling back on those home movies. They were the reason she couldn’t turn her gaze from the fire for even a moment. She stared and waited, hoping against hope, that by some miracle just one tape would be saved. But she knew better.
At least everyone had gotten out alive. If Marsha and her baby had not moved so quickly, they would have been trapped and killed in the fire. But that may have been the arsonist’s plan in the first place. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the plan had been to burn down the house to scare Marsha or to scare Lydia away from Marsha. No matter. Lydia knew exactly who had burned her house to the ground. She knew the person who had destroyed her belongings and nearly killed several women and their small children. Only now did she understand how dangerous he truly was and that he would continue to threaten all of them. Lydia realized she could no longer hope that he would just go away. No, she would have to do something about him—something drastic and very soon.
Marsha and her little girl, Lisa, had been sleeping in one of the guestrooms in the basement. Being downstairs had placed them in the greatest danger because of the lack of escape routes. There was only one door, and all four windows were six feet off the ground and fairly small. If Marsha and Lisa hadn’t been in the basement, Lydia may have been able to fight the fire or save her tapes. But instead, Lydia had to help them get out—thank God the others got out on their own.
Everyone was sleeping—well, everyone was trying to sleep—when the bottle came crashing through the front window in the dining room. With so many babies in the house, there was never a time when everyone was asleep. And Lydia, well, she didn’t sleep that soundly herself.
The bottle had been filled with kerosene. A rag had been stuffed into its neck, and it was lit. The bottle was thrown through the window, breaking both the window and the bottle. The kerosene splattered and allowed the flames to spread everywhere. Part of the bottle rolled down the basement stairs, spilling the fuel as it went. The staircase was located in the front entryway, and the gate to the stairs was always locked to keep toddlers from falling down the steps. Lydia figured that pieces of the bottle must have flown over the top of the gate, and the fire had immediately blocked off the only doorway leading out of the basement.
Lydia wasn’t entirely asleep when she heard the crash of the window. She was lying in bed watching Stephen’s preschool graduation, drifting in and out of sleep. She kept the videos on all night, every night, so that in that time between asleep and awake she could believe they were all with her again. She could feel them in her arms, and she could even smell the sweet scent of their hair after it had been washed with the apple-scented shampoo they liked so well.
Lydia jumped out of bed at the sound of shattering glass and ran down the hall. Babies and young children started crying, and bedroom doors started opening. The smell of smoke was in the air, and she scolded herself for not having a working battery in her smoke detector. Lydia could hear the crackle of the fire, and as she rounded the corner she saw the flames. They had blocked off the front door, basement staircase, and dining room, so escape through those avenues was impossible. But there was still time to run through the doorway to the living room, through the kitchen, and out the garage door.
“Fire! Get out through the garage! Get everyone out through the garage now!” Lydia yelled at the top of her lungs, as women and children raced by her. She wanted to do a head count, but knew Marsha had to be in a lot of trouble and must be helped immediately.
“Marsha! Marsha! Can you hear me?” Lydia yelled, hanging her head over the banister.
“Lydia! Help me! Help me!” Marsha called back. Lydia could hear Lisa crying, which meant that she was still conscious.
“Go to the laundry room and shut the door. Cover the baby. I’ll break the window from outside.”
Lydia ran through the living room and kitchen and into the garage. She snatched up a shovel and hurried to the side of the house where the basement’s laundry room was located.
“Is everyone out?” she shouted at Mindy as she ran by.
“Everyone except Marsha and Lisa,” she called back, worry carved on her face.
“I’ll get them out.”
She stooped down and peered through the window to make sure Marsha was ready. She could just make out the figure of a woman along the far wall with a blanket pulled up to her chin. When Marsha saw Lydia at the window, she lifted the blanket over her head. Lydia raised the shovel over her shoulder and smashed the window as hard as she could. The pane shattered, and Lydia used the handle of the shovel to dislodge any shards of glass around the edges of the window.
“Hand me the baby,” Lydia called.
Marsha laid the baby in the corner and snatched a towel out of the dirty-clothes basket. She wrapped it around her arm and then swept the glass off the washer and dryer. She scooped up the screaming infant, climbed on the washer, and handed Lisa out the window to Lydia. Lydia immediately looked for signs of discoloration. Lisa’s face was a purplish color, but it always turned that color during a screaming fit. So Lydia ran the baby to Mindy, who had seen her coming and met her halfway. Lydia passed off the infant and hurried back to help Marsha.
When Lydia got back to the window, Marsha was stuck at the waist. Marsha had thought that with the help of the washer she would be able to climb all the way through the window, but her legs weren’t quite long enough to push herself out and her upper body was not strong enough to pull herself out. Lydia dropped to her knees, wrapped her arms under Marsha’s, and pulled her far enough that she could crawl out the rest of the way. They hugged each other tightly and, with arms still around each other’s shoulders, ran toward the others. Marsha grabbed Lisa out of Mindy’s arms, clutched her tightly to her chest, and swayed back and forth chanting, “It’s okay.”
The fire trucks and ambulance pulled up to the house, and Lydia hurried Marsha and Lisa to the ambulance.
“These two were trapped in the basement with some smoke,” Lydia told the paramedic.
“Okay, we’ll take good care of them,” he replied as he reached for Lisa.
Marsha gingerly handed Lisa to him, looked at her forlornly, and turned to Lydia.
“I can’t thank you enough. You saved our lives.”
“You would have done the same for me.”
“But this is all my fault. If I weren’t here, none of this would have happened,” she said as tears formed in her eyes.
“Don’t say that. He did this, not you. And if this causes you to leave us from fear or guilt either one, then it worked.” Lydia hugged her and said, “Now you let the paramedics look at you. We’ll talk later.”
Lydia turned, hoping maybe the fire wouldn’t make it to the bedrooms. But one look told her differently. It was too late to make a mad dash inside to salvage anything. It was too late to hope the fire would leave anything untouched. It was too late to do anything but stare at the fire, mourn her losses, and decide what she was going to do about him.