“Are you the new cleaning girl?” a voice asked from behind the heavy carved-wood door.
“Yes, I am,” Bobbi Jo responded. She wondered if people here in the Historic District referred to all women of twenty-six as “girls,” or just the ones who cleaned their homes for them.
“Well, next time use the back door. But don’t worry about it this time,” the woman inside told her. Bobbi Jo heard the snap of two deadbolts, and then the door swung open into a marble-floored foyer.
Bobbi Jo’s prospective employer regarded her critically through the gold-rimmed bifocals she wore on a chain around her neck. Then she gasped as if she were choking, and seemed to stare right through her with bulging, horrified eyes. After a moment, Bobbi Jo realized that it was not her that caused that reaction, but something directly behind her outside.
“The Almsford-Hill house is on fire!” the woman shrieked. “Poor Renata! I better call...”
As the woman rushed back into the house, Bobbi Jo turned to look at the mansion across the street. Thick smoke poured from a second-floor window, and flames shot through another at the lower level. A skinny, wizened woman with long black hair, wearing a shining turquoise dress too short for her emaciated legs, ran out the front door and down the stone steps, wobbling precariously in her stiletto-heeled sandals.
“My baby!” she gasped as she stumbled down the last step and onto the sidewalk. “My baby’s in there!”
Bobbi Jo didn’t hesitate. What if it were her baby, and what if it were her trailer that was on fire, instead of this woman’s mansion? That scrawny creature didn’t look strong enough to rescue anyone, and Bobbi Jo was the only other person there! Renata didn’t look young enough to have a baby of her own, but she might be caring for a grandchild, as her own grandmother had done for her. But this was no time for questions. Bobbi Jo raced across the street, leaped up the steps and across the porch, then entered the burning house through the open front door.
“She’s upstairs!” the woman’s quavering voice called after her. “She’s in her bedroom.”
A grand central staircase stood directly in front of Bobbi Jo when she entered the house, its wide steps gleaming from the diligent efforts of whatever nameless "girl" the owner paid to clean it. Although the stairway was wreathed in heavy smoke, the fire itself had not yet reached it.
Bobbi Jo took a deep breath and closed her eyes to prevent their being stung by the smoke. She then felt her way up the stairs, clinging to the ornate handrail along the left side. When she reached the top, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled along the hallway below the worst of the smoke. As she cautiously opened her eyes, she saw that most of it was streaming toward the open window of what appeared to be a guest bedroom to her left. The haze that remained suspended in the hallway still made it hard to breathe, but now she could stand up and still see her way forward.
She opened the next door after the guest room, and nearly fainted as a terrified Pekingese rushed out and jumped as if trying to put its face into hers. She stooped down to get a better look, and it seemed to have a question it hoped she could answer. It found instead that Bobbi Jo had a question of her own.
“Where’s the baby, Poochie?” she asked softly. “Can you show me which room is the baby’s?”
The dog whined, then walked to a room a little farther down the hall. Bobbi Jo opened the door and discovered it was only a bathroom. She looked in it briefly, partly in case the woman had been mistaken, but also to gulp a breath of relatively clean, cool air and give her stinging, tearing eyes a couple of seconds’ relief.
Down below, she heard the fire roaring out of control and a crowd of neighbors shouting incoherently. The smoky hallway was stifling now, and she feared the intense heat would soon force her to abandon her efforts. But nightmarish imaginings of someone’s baby engulfed by the flames, screaming in pain and terror, and then falling silent forever, urged her onward down the hallway.
She opened the door beside the bathroom but found only a study in perfect order. It looked as if the mansion's current resident had preserved it as a museum exhibit of former times, when people used to read books and write letters. Perhaps it had belonged to some legendary businessman or robber baron who had amassed the fortune that built this house, a house that poor folks like Bobbi Jo ordinarily entered only through the back door, if at all.
The dog was whimpering now, and obviously would be of no use. Dropping back to her hands and knees, she led it to the top of the stairway. There she stood for a moment, just long enough to pick up the dog and shove it down toward the open front door of the house.
As she turned back, Bobbi Jo knew the remaining unopened rooms on what was now her right side would be the most dangerous because the fire was directly below them. She felt a little safer as she heard the wailing and honking of the fire trucks and ambulances as they approached. Laying her hand flat against the door of the nearest room, the one she believed was directly above the fire downstairs, she found it was warm but not blazing hot to the touch. She thought for a moment, then opened the door a crack while poised to run for the stairs if the room was already burning.
The room’s wooden floor was beginning to ignite. Orange flickers in the spaces between some of the boards told her the fire would soon reach where she was standing, and an ominous crackling warned her that the floor would not hold for long. But on the other side of the room was an old-fashioned bassinette, covered in lace, ribbons, and white satin, decorated with generous and costly care. Bobbi Jo was sure she had found the baby’s room but wondered if she was too late!
She threw open the door and stepped into the room, then involuntarily drew back as a flame licked at her leg, threatening to set her jeans on fire. She berated herself for her lack of courage, and then rushed across the floor to open the room’s front window, intending to then carry the baby out onto the porch roof where the firemen could rescue them. She saw the ladder truck in the street below, and the porch did not yet appear to be involved in the fire.
She struggled to open the window, its frayed sash cords sticking as she pushed and pulled. Then she turned and took a step toward the bassinette, uttering only a single, half-choked cry as the bone-dry plaster and wood reared up in a dusty, deafening storm of flame and fury, sucking her downward into what was left of the room below.
Bobbi Jo was knocked out by the impact. She didn’t see the shower of dusty beanbag animals, a once-treasured investment now as worthless as old railroad stocks, fall onto her from the bassinette as it overturned and followed her through the floor.
The firemen made several attempts to rescue Bobbi Jo, but the flames and the falling debris drove them back. One fireman was injured when the porch roof collapsed on him, and the paramedics who had been preparing for Bobbi Jo put him on the stretcher they had ready. As the ambulance screeched away, the other firemen saw the result of the earlier rescue Bobbi Jo had affected. There on the sidewalk, Renata Almsford-Hill cradled the Pekingese in her arms, crying over and over, “Oh, my poor baby! Oh, my poor, poor little baby!”
The firemen didn’t know the story and likely never would, but as they returned their full attention to the burning mansion, a chill of revulsion crept upon them like the touch of a restless ghost from an unseen grave. An inexplicable lassitude overcame them, and they stood together in the street, barely moving, as the house and its legacy blazed like the funeral pyre it had now become, pouring billows of black smoke high into the sky. Then with a deep rumble and the snapping of its last structural timbers, it collapsed into its own footprint.
Mary Hickey is an internationally known backgammon champion, teacher and author. Her literary fiction has appeared in The Griffin, Happy, Kalliope, and other publications. She takes breaks from writing to ponder what she might be when she grows up.