House on Fire

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House on Fire (Women's Fiction, Book Award 2023)
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Logline or Premise
Bernadette Rogers thought she’d do anything to best her perfect sister but when her mother asks her to euthanize her father who’s suffering from dementia, she’s forced to consider just how far she’s willing to go to be the good daughter.
First 10 Pages

ONE - December 25th, 11:00am

My mother asked me to kill my father on Christmas. I remember it was Christmas, because it isn’t the kind of thing you forget. And if I have to pick a beginning for this tragedy that’s as good a place as any. Aristotle was wrong, you know. Tragedies don’t have structure. They don’t line up neatly into three acts. Tragedy prefers the blindside. You’re sitting at the intersection waiting for the light, when Bam! it comes out of nowhere.

I’d just checked on my teenage son, Jax. He’d sequestered himself in the guest room far from his cousins, which given the finger-breaking incident was probably the safest choice. Then, I stopped to look in on my sister’s kids in the living room. She’d asked me to keep an eye on the younger ones while she hunted the Valley for cranberry sauce.

Mom had forgotten this holiday staple and was frantically scolding herself in the kitchen because cranberry sauce, whole cranberry sauce, was my father’s favorite part of Christmas dinner. For fifty years she’d been getting up at the crack of dawn to make turkey, stuffing, brussels sprouts and this weird marshmallow ambrosia, yet my father’s favorite dish came out of a can.

I’d only meant to glance at Colleen’s kids then go help Mom, but something about the scene transfixed me. The floor was littered with bows and wrapping paper, like Santa’s workshop had exploded and these five kids were the only survivors. It was like looking back through a window in time.

Colleen, our older brother Adam, and I had celebrated every Christmas of our youth in that living room. Our parents always made it magical. You’d get something you’d forgotten you wanted or didn’t even know you wanted. You went to sleep on Christmas Eve with this feeling, this luscious anticipation of magic, certain that something totally unexpected was not only possible, but was about to happen. When was the last time I felt like that? Like life could surprise you and it would be good.

A screech shattered the moment.

“Raaaannce!!” Luca howled.

Lance, Colleen’s eight-year-old, had grabbed his little brother’s Thomas the Train and was holding it high above his head, laughing while Luca stood on his tippy-toes desperately reaching for the toy, his bright orange-red hair bursting in all directions as if it were screaming too.

“Lance!” I snapped.

Lance ignored me and kept taunting his brother. Mostly my sister’s kids are saints. She has nine, though only five are still young enough to be at home. They say please and thank you without being reminded, do dishes without being asked. But not Lance. He’s a dick which, when I’m not actually dealing with him, is relatively satisfying. A chink, a lot too late, in Colleen’s otherwise halcyon existence.

“Lance!” I repeated. He turned and stared, his green eyes burning. He wasn’t scared of me. We both knew it. I could trek back downstairs to get his dad, but Liam was no match for this little nightmare either.

The only real leverage anyone had was how much trouble he’d be in with Colleen if she found out. He was sizing up how likely it was that I’d call on my sister to do the dirty work. He scowled, then handed the train back to his brother.

“And tidy up before your mom gets back,” I added before heading out of the room.

The kitchen was sweltering, over-heated from the efforts of the ancient oven to produce yet another family feast. In classic Los Angeles fashion, it was eighty degrees outside, and the kitchen was at least ten degrees hotter than that. I wished I was the one off hunting cranberries. Colleen had volunteered the second Mom mentioned the cranberry sauce, before I even registered it as an opportunity to escape. The house felt more cramped and uneasy every year, maybe because all the kids were getting bigger, or maybe because of Dad and his dementia.

Mom grabbed the oven door and gave it a tug. Her short, grey hair fluttered in the gust of heat that escaped. She slid the turkey out and, with her fingertips, carefully flicked at the edge of the aluminum foil tent covering the bird. Steam rose up from the pan as she got it loose.

“I can’t take this anymore,” she said without looking at me. It was as though she was scolding the bird for its lack of appreciation. She retrieved a ladle from the counter and began basting the turkey with its juices. I glanced around. Every surface was cluttered with bowls and utensils. She’d probably been up since five, preparing this enormous Christmas meal for a bunch people, including me, who really didn’t recognize how much work it was.

“Maybe we should do a potluck next year,” I said teasingly, knowing she’d never go for it. Her disdain for potlucks was legendary. Working yourself to death in the kitchen—particularly on holidays—fulfilled some recondite, motherly obligation handed down from previous generations.

“Bernadette Louise Rogers,” she snapped, letting the oven door slam shut. “You have Christmas dinner and a Christmas tree on Christmas.”

Her sharp tone surprised me. I only got my full name when in trouble, which was infinitely better than Bernie, the nickname I’d been trying to kill for more than forty years.

“I was just kidding,” I said. My nonchalant attitude towards traditional holidays, even before Shayne, always irked her—I’ve never had a tree in my adult life—but her emotion seemed disproportionate to my attempt at humor. “Why do you think I come here every year? I love that everything is exactly the same as it was when I was a kid.”

“I’m sorry,” she said but she didn’t sound any less upset. “It’s just…” She stopped, then stood there, her cheeks flushed and shiny with sweat. She seemed to be focusing on something internal, gathering up all her emotions and stuffing them away in some sacred hiding spot like she had my whole life. She picked up a stack of plates from the counter and handed them to me. “Go set the table.”

Confused, I went through the other door of the kitchen to the dining area. She was probably just tired, that heat could give anyone a crispy edge. I laid out the plates, the same everyday dishes we’d had as kids. When I came across the chipped one, I deliberately set it in my sister’s spot, then felt guilty and went back and switched it to mine. Mom was working on the brussels sprouts when I returned, slicing an X into the bottom of each one then tossing it into the pot of boiling water on the stove.

“You have to do something,” she said, still not looking at me.

“Do you want me to make the stuffing?”

She turned. Her face tightened, and the section of skin between her eyebrows gathered together in furrows of disappointment.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said.

I was failing her, not deciphering subtle expressions the way I was supposed to, the way I’d been able to when I was little and well-versed in this language of looks, where the slight shift of an eyebrow meant she’d seen through a fib and was about to deliver a spanking. I replayed the holiday in my mind trying to find the Rosetta stone that would help me translate the conversation we were having into usable information. I couldn’t.

“Mom, I give up. I don’t know what we’re talking about.”

“If he knew this was going to happen to him, he would have gone out in the backyard and blown his brains out.”

Aha! We were talking about Dad. I nodded. Whenever the subject of Alzheimer’s or terminal cancer came up he’d say those exact words: “Don’t let me get like that. I’d rather go out in the backyard and blow my brains out.” It was stupid really. Something people say but don’t think will never happen. He didn’t own a gun. I’m not even sure how well he could use one. He’d been a radio operator in the Navy in a time of peace. I’d never seen him touch a firearm.

“What can I do?” I asked. We’d tried having someone stay with him at the house, so Mom could get out once or twice a week. A home health agency sent a sweet, middle-aged Hispanic woman named Magda. Mom was only a few blocks away driving with Colleen’s daughter Laura to the mall when a terrified Magda called. Dad had accused her of stealing and locked her outside. The next time they sent a tall, muscular guy named Walter. Dad punched him. The agency told us not to call again.

“Do you want to try an adult daycare place?” I said, when she didn’t respond.

“They won’t take him because he’s aggressive.” The word caught in her throat. My dad would never have been described as aggressive by anyone before the dementia.

“A nursing home?” I said, even though I knew better.

“No, no, no,” she said, getting a little louder with each word.

“Then, what? What am I supposed to do?”

“You could help him go peacefully,” she said, her voice a hopeful whisper. “You know how to do that.”

I stood there waiting for her to say more, to explain, because she couldn’t possibly be saying what I thought she was. But there was no more.

“Mom? What do you mean help him go peacefully? It sounds like you’re asking me to kill Dad.”

She stared, her expression hovering somewhere between blank and quizzical, like I’d come out of nowhere with this idea and she was trying to figure out what I meant instead of me trying to figure out what she meant. But then she gave an almost imperceptible nod, as if by not saying the words she was doing something less than committing, was somehow retaining plausible deniability.

“I thought things were okay,” I said, even though things hadn’t been okay in years. But I thought they were as okay as they could be under the circumstances. She turned back to her salad, opened a jar of disconcertingly bright red cherry halves and laid them in the shape of a flower on the white bed of marshmallows, something I’d seen her do so many times it was reassuring.

“You have to tell me what’s going on,” I said. “I can’t do anything if I don’t know what’s going on.”

“He’s getting up in the middle of the night and going for walks. He keeps asking me to take him home. When I tell him this is home, he gets angry. When we were driving last week, he told me to take him home then grabbed the wheel. I had to scream at him to get him to let go. I thought we were going to have an accident.”

“Grandma?” The voice came from the doorway behind me. I turned to see my nephew Logan, who although the same age as Jax, seemed more child-like, innocent. “I can’t find Grandpa.”

My mother took a deep breath, her shoulders and chest rising as her rib cage filled with air. Her small-frame, thin limbs and tiny hands, had always made her seem delicate, bird-like, which only became more pronounced with her shrinking. When I was sixteen, she and I were the same height. Now at forty-seven and seventy-two, I was still five-three but she was barely five feet. The big inhale made her seem like a diminutive creature puffing itself up to look bigger so as not to get consumed by a predator. She let the breath out in a huge sigh.

“We’re not done, okay?” I said to my mother, then turned to Logan. “You check the TV room. I’ll check the workshop.”

He nodded and left. We all knew the drill.

TWO - December 25th, 11:15am

I walked through the dining room and out to the back balcony. I made a quick survey of the empty yard below, then stepped back into the house.

“Is the workshop locked?” I shouted to my mom who remained in the kitchen, apparently not intending to join the search for Dad.

“He has a million extra keys,” Mom said, which only sort of answered the question but was completely clear to me. Colleen and I had suggested she change the lock, but she refused. Every time Mom took away Dad’s keys, he managed to find them or come up with yet another spare set. It was like he had a collection stashed somewhere, as if he suspected people in the future were going to conspire against him and he’d planned ahead.

Mom said if she changed the lock, they’d be in a constant battle, which since she was the one living with him, we had to respect. But a man with no short-term memory and access to power tools felt like a recipe for disaster. Logan was coming up the stairs from the TV room, as I was going down. Even without the head shake, I knew from his face that Dad wasn’t in the TV room.

“Can you check out front?” I said.

Logan nodded.

I crossed through my parents’ room to the back balcony. As I opened the sliding glass door, I kicked off my clogs. Bare feet were safer on the ladder-like, wooden steps down to the backyard that Adam, with his penchant for naming things, had dubbed the “death stairs” when we were kids.

My parents’ modest two-story house followed a common design of hillside homes in the San Fernando Valley. It was inverted. The top story, with the kitchen, living room, and garage, was at road level. The bedrooms were on the story below. You got to the backyard, which was relatively flat because the house was at the base of the hill, via the death stairs or by walking down around the side of the house.

As I went down the steps, I tried to will the future into existence. Dad would be in the workshop when I got down there. I’d walk in, promise him a cold beer, and we’d go back up into the house. It wasn’t far-fetched. A lot of the time when you couldn’t find Dad, he was fiddling with tools and shuffling boxes in the workshop, his body and hands remembering old skills and knowledge that his brain had long forgotten.

My hopes dwindled when I got to the bottom of the stairs however. The workshop door was closed. He never closed it when he was in there. But you couldn’t count on things that used to be certainties, so I treaded along the crunchy, dry grass to check.

The half-finished story under the house contained Adam’s old bachelor pad on the side and dad’s workshop at the back. The workshop was this wedge-shape where Dad had put in a floor and shelves. If you were facing the door, it seemed like you were in a square room. But if you turned around, you were looking into the ever-shrinking space where the dirt of the hill rose to meet the bottom of the house, an area Adam had christened the Bermuda Triangle.

I opened the door and turned on the light, glancing around as if Dad’s presence wouldn’t be obvious, as if he might be hidden amongst the muddle of worn boxes scattered across the shelves, a microcosm of his mind: things slowly drifting out of place until all that was left was a jumble.

My dad had crafted under-appreciated masterpieces here while us kids played in the yard—chicken coop for Colleen’s 4-H project, jungle gym for Adam, playhouse for me—but at some point, the three of us always ended up in that strange, shadowy angle under the house, daring each other to go farther and farther into the Bermuda Triangle, searching for the invisible portal we imagined there. A spot where you could cross into another dimension.

“One day something’s going to pull you in,” Dad used to say, which always made me dart back out certain I felt something reaching for me.

Every time I came in here looking for him, I checked that dark space under the house, as if I might catch him returning from another plane. But, of course, there was no Dad. I turned off the lights and headed back toward the stairs.

Logan was standing in the center of the kitchen when I returned. He frowned and shook his head. Mom stayed unduly focused on the meal as if she were more concerned about the mashed potatoes than my Dad, which was weird. Normally, she’d already be out the door.

“I’ll go pick him up,” I said and grabbed my keys.

If Dad wasn’t in the workshop, it was a good bet he was somewhere on the three-mile route he used to jog after his doctor told him he was going to have a heart attack if he didn’t stop smoking and lose some weight. When his knees refused to run anymore, he and Mom walked it together. The route was hard-wired into his brain and for some reason it was set on repeat while other things were on delete. Sometimes he’d announce that he was going and after about five minutes Mom would go pick him up. More often than not, however, he’d leave without a word.

I drove up around the hill behind the house. Boxy, white-washed mansions loomed from the inclines; absurdly massive homes only accessible via twisting veins of asphalt so narrow they should all be one-way streets but aren’t. No sign of him. He couldn’t have been gone that long. I remembered him going down to the TV room with Liam and Adam to hook up the PlayStation. But I didn’t remember seeing him after Colleen left for the cranberry sauce.

I got to the top of the hill, then slowed on the steep decline. The turns were sharp. I didn’t want to run over my own father. After each corner I expected him, and each time when he wasn’t there the pit of my stomach dropped another level, an elevator plummeting to a new bottom.


Stuart Wakefield Thu, 31/08/2023 - 14:45

Killer opening line aside, the part I felt the most connection with was the description of Lucy's emotions as she searched for her father. I felt that the you did an excellent job in communicating her anxiety and dread as she drove around the hill. The sharp turns and the expectation that her father might be around the next corner were effective in conveying her fear and worry. Good job!

Katja Kane Mon, 04/09/2023 - 15:26

The premise really grabbed me, and then the writing did not disappoint. Nice details, descriptions, and easy to follow. I loved the little details and nuances that said so much about them and the situation. Nice work!

Pramudith Rupasinghe Wed, 13/09/2023 - 10:05

From the moment the reader encounters that "heart-stopping" opening line "My mother asked to kill my father on Christmas" the train does not stop: well paced, well written. Wanted to read more.