“Do you ever feel worthless?” the boy asked. He tugged at his father’s coat, the innocence of a young child exuding from his soul. His eyes, brown as mud and easy to get lost in, were drowning in tears, a trail of dried teardrops staining his cheeks. They were met by his father’s eyes, locked in a dazed stare, searching for the right words to answer the boy’s question as though those words were spelled in the boy’s eyes.
The father wanted to say yes because it was the truth. He was there when the fire occurred, standing on his half-cut lawn, sporting a horror-stricken expression, heat consuming his body, thick black smoke staining the baby blue sky. He did nothing when the first roof shingles caught fire, nor did he do anything when flames ate the rest of the house. What could he do? 9-1-1 had already been called, firefighters and paramedics dispatched, and he couldn’t be the hero of the story when he had a family in his own house to look after. So he stood on his property across the street from the scene, emergency vehicles flooding the street, the screams of painful death assaulting his ears, the smell of smoke billowing from the burning house filling his lungs, beads of sweat dripping down his face. When the fire subsided—or rather when first responders killed it—he stood there, his feet stuck like glue to the grass, watching paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses out of what remained of the house.
Little did the father know that his son, only nine years old and still with little knowledge of what the world around him was really like, curious as any child (or any person, for that matter) would be, stood on a stool next to the window, watching in awe as his father did outside, sporting a horror-stricken expression as it struck his father’s, the windows hot to the touch. He couldn’t have known that his neighbors were burning alive in the blaze; his innocence let him believe that the blood-curdling screams he heard were only those of fear and maybe a little pain. But the boy’s interest subsided as the fire did, and as his father stood in the same place and watched paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses from what remained of the house, the boy ran to his bedroom and cried into his pillow.
“Why would I feel worthless?” the father asked.
“We watched the fire, Daddy.”
The father looked toward the altar, where his neighbors’ urns were lined up on a cloth-covered table. The bodies were too charred, burnt enough in the house that it wouldn’t make sense to put them in caskets. Nevertheless, the image of their corpses stained his memory, even at the funeral and especially in the days before. It would probably be long before he forgot what the young couple and their plentiful children looked like before the tragedy, but alas, their remains embodied their legacy.
The father would often spend Saturday nights with his neighbor, and more often than not, they would shoot pool in his garage and listen to music that evoked nostalgia, both men always with a beer in their hand. The boy’s mother—she was probably talking to someone somewhere in the church—shared a similar friendship with the neighbor’s wife. The boy himself would often play with the five young children who lived across the street, enjoying himself and the time he spent with his friends and neighbors despite at times being outnumbered. The house that burned to the ground was the young couple’s first together, and that house was the only home their children knew. The father could still remember when the couple first moved into the house, and he remembered each time they brought a newborn home, but those memories burnt and collapsed as the house did.
“There was nothing we could do but watch,” the father told his son.
A tear formed in the father’s eye. He shook his head, wanting to hide the truth from his son, knowing he couldn’t. “Nothing.”
The father still couldn’t explain why he didn’t turn off the evening news that night. Perhaps he was curious about what the press had to say. The evening news had never been a pleasant thing to watch, and of all the house fires they’d covered over the years, he never expected one would be in his neighborhood, on his street, within eyeshot of his house. But he sat on the couch nonetheless, locked in a dead stare at the television screen as monotonous anchors told millions about the house fire that killed seven. He doubted that anyone cared or bothered to listen to the anchors, and maybe the anchors themselves couldn’t bother to care.
But he cared, as did the boy. He cared when the screaming replayed in his mind, keeping him awake in the darkness of the night. He cared when he finally closed his eyes to sleep, dreaming only of the horror he witnessed earlier that day. He cared when he, the most obvious witness and someone who knew the family well, was asked to identify the bodies at the coroner’s office and relived that day as he tried to recognize the seven bodies lying on a table. The coroner told him it was okay if he couldn’t identify the bodies, so the father walked out of the room. Looking up, he still doesn’t know who is in what urn.
“Do you think they’re alive somewhere else?” the boy asked, his tinny voice beginning to tremble.
“Maybe.” The father hung his head and whispered, “Probably not.”
The father looked down at the boy and met his eyes once again. “Well, maybe they are. No one, not even the smartest of the smart, really knows what happens after we die; it’s the single greatest mystery of humankind. So we make an educated guess, maybe live our lives accordingly, and hope we’re right in the end.”
“Do you think they’re happy now, Daddy?”
The father shook his head. “Why would they be happy?”
The boy shrugged. “Because their pain is over now.”
Looking at the urns again, the father told his son, “They died in pain and long before they were supposed to. Those kids? They deserved to live long, happy, fulfilling lives, and their parents deserved to watch them grow and live out the rest of theirs. They’re not happy, son; they’re the farthest thing from it.”
“So they’re sad?”
“Yes. They’re very, very sad.”
“I’m sad too.”
“Me too, buddy. Me too.”
The father took his son by the hand and walked into the center walkway between all the pews. Together, they walked toward the door, saying goodbye to their deceased neighbors, taking a moment to remember them one last time. All the father wanted was to leave the events of that day behind, but the fire still burned in his memory, the screams still played repeatedly, and the air still smelled of smoke. He had a family of his own to think about, a responsibility that saved his life and kept him from running into the fire to save his neighbors, but something still nagged at him. He wanted to do something to save them and wished then more than ever that he had done something, anything at all, to save them, and as he walked out of the church with his son by his side, he felt more worthless than he had ever felt in his life.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, and Button Eye Review. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.