Bertha slammed the bedroom door as she left Lucinda in her rocking chair, her head tilted up with her eyes closed.
“Give me strength.” She sighed. Her head drooped, and Vernon came back into view. Oh. I had almost forgotten about you, Vernon.”
Standing, she went over to Vernon’s body and sank to the floor. Lucinda could not decide if this were actually happening or was some figment torturing her soul. At this point, she did not care. All pretense was swept away and Lucinda felt as though nothing else mattered but reconciling her spirit with Vernon’s. “I’m sorry, Vernon. So, so sorry. I should have said something kind. Something comforting but I didn’t. And do you know why I didn’t? I didn’t because I loved you so much. I loved you in more ways than is decent for a woman my age to love a young man like you.” Her shaking hand ran down the side of his body. “You see, I didn’t like Nancy Meyers just because she lied and cheated in class and because I knew she slept with other boys. I hated her because she could love you the way I never could. And because you loved her. I was wrong. And I drove you away from me. And I don’t think you ever knew. You were so sweet and innocent. You didn’t know how Nancy loved you so little. You were too good for this world, Vernon. Oh, how I wish I could tell you how sorry I am. Oh, how I wish I could make it up to you.”
Lucinda rose and went to her stacks of books. “Maybe there’s something here that I can read to make me feel better.” She picked up a slender, frayed leather-bound volume. “Voltaire. Candide. This is the best of all possible worlds.” She threw it down. “No, this isn’t! This is the worst of all possible worlds!
“Dickens,” she said in a flat tone. “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” Lucinda hurled it at the window, wishing it would disappear into thin air. “No! No! Only the worst!”
Leaning over at the books in the boxes Cassie had brought to her, she lifted another one, this time a paperback. “Cervantes. Don Quixote. Oh, Vernon, you weren’t a knight on a mission for a pure chaste girl. Nancy Meyers wasn’t pure or chaste. Don Quixote was mad.” Instead of throwing it, she just let it slip through her fingers and drop to the floor. “And I’m going mad!”
“I’m sorry, Vernon. I can’t help you.” Lucinda walked toward her bed which seemed to be calling her to one last long slumber. “I don’t know how to help you. I can’t find anything in my books to help you. Or me.” Lying down, she hugged her pillow. “I have to rest now. I have to sleep. To sleep. Perchance to dream.”
Straightaway she went to sleep, her jaw hanging loose. How peaceful, how sublime, her subconscious reveled in the absolute vacuum. The scent of smoke crept into her nostrils, causing her to jerk her eyes open and sit up. Lucinda decided she must have slept for hours because the sun had set, and moonless night engulfed her. She looked down at the floor and squinted. Vernon was no longer there. The stench of rubber, plastic and moldy wood grew stronger.
“What’s that!?” She stood and sniffed several times. “Smoke!! Oh my God!! The house is on fire!!”
Lucinda ran to the door, opened it and walked into the hall which was beginning to fill with smoke. Her first thought was to save Vernon’s little girl Shirley and her mother Nancy. She felt her way down the hall to their room and banged on the door.
“Nancy! Shirley! Fire”
“Fire?” Nancy called out.
“Yes! You’ve got to get Shirley out of there!”
“I’ll get Shirley! You tell the others!” Nancy shouted.
The next door down was Bertha’s room. Lucinda’s fist slammed into the wood. When she did not answer the teacher opened the door and ran to the bed, shaking the old woman. “Bertha! Bertha! Wake up! Wake up! Fire! Fire! You must wake up! The house is on fire!”
Bertha roused slowly, her eyes fluttering open. As she smelled the smoke she jumped from her bed, her eyes wild with panic.
“My God! We’re all goin’ to die! I’m goin’ to burn to death!”
“No, we’re not!” Lucinda took her by the arm to lead her to the door. “The fire isn’t upstairs yet! We have time!”
“I’m goin’ to die!” Bertha screeched, refusing to move an inch. “I’m goin’ to die!”
“Shut up!” Lucinda slapped her. “Move!”
Bertha whimpered as the teacher guided her out the door and to the top of the stairs. “Now. You go downstairs and out the front door while I get Cassie!”
“No! Don’t leave me!” Bertha clutched her. “I’ll die if you leave me!”
“You won’t die walking down the stairs and out the front door!”
“If I git confused and go wrong, I’ll walk right into the fire! I’ll die! You must guide me!”
“Very well. But hurry!” Lucinda ordered. The two women carefully walked down the stairs and out the front door. “Here, now you’re safe on the front lawn.”
“Thank you. I guess I was silly. I could have gotten out by myself.”
“No time for that. I’ve got to go back to get Cassie and Mrs. Lawrence!”
“Oh no! My foolishness cost time!” Bertha rebuked herself, bawling. “They’re already dead! I killed them!
“Oh shut up!” Lucinda went back inside the house and started up the stairs, but Cassie was already limping down.
“So it finally happened. Mommy caught the house on fire. Let’s git out of here!” She clasped Lucinda’s hand. “Come on, Miz Cambridge!”
She stopped as she thought of Emma. “I’ve got to get your mother!”
“Don’t worry about her!” Cassie replied with brutal honesty as she tugged on Lucinda’s hand, dragging her to the bottom of the stairs.
“No! I must save her! Where’s her bedroom?”
“Back by the kitchen.” She quickly pointed down the hall before going through the front door. “I’m gittin’ out of here!”
Lucinda only made it partway down the hall before being repulsed by smoke and overwhelming heat. Flames peaked through the door to the kitchen. She ran back to the front, out the door and down the steps.
“Where’s Emma?” Bertha asked frantically. “Where’s my sister? Oh God, she’s dead! My sister’s dead!”
“Oh shut up, Aunt Bertha!” Cassie ordered her impatiently.
Lucinda reached out to hold her hand. “I’m sorry, Cassie. I was too late.”
“I understand.” She looked at the house. “She was probably smoking in bed again. This time she fell asleep and the cigarette set the sheets on fire.”
Bertha put her arm around Cassie’s shoulders. “At least we’re all safe.”
“Oh! There is one more person!” Lucinda jumped and ran back up the steps into the house.
“No! Don’t!” Bertha screamed. “You’ll be killed!”
Lucinda barged through the front door and saw that the blazes headed down the hall toward her. She kept her eyes on the steps as she went up the stairs. She yelled, “Vernon! Vernon! Wake up! Fire!”
Rushing into her room, Lucinda went to the bed and jostled the sleeping body. Rolling over, Vernon sat up, looking sleepy and disoriented. But he was young and fresh again, no battle scars, no emotional pain etched his face. To Lucinda, he looked like a lovely angel, unravaged by the harsh realities of life. She heard a crackling, as though the flames were scorching the stairs.
“Hurry! Fire!” The sound of a loud pop followed by fracturing, collapsing of the wood staircase. “Oh my God! The flames are already up the stairs! We’re trapped! What can we do?” She looked at the window and remembered what Cassie told her about the drain pipe. “The window! Quick! Out the window!
Lucinda pulled Vernon from the bed and almost had him out the window when he hesitated.
“Go ahead, Vernon! There’s a drainpipe outside my window! Crawl down it!”
“You go first.” He tried to push her in front of him and out the sill.
“No! Vernon! We don’t have time! The flames are at my door!”
“I’m not leaving without my little girl.”
“Shirley!” Lucinda thought she had escaped with her mother. She turned around to see the little girl in her pajamas, smiling as though unaware of the flames.
“Here I am!” Shirley ran straight to Vernon and hugs him. “Daddy!
Another loud crackle draws Lucinda’s attention by to the bedroom which had just popped open from the unbearable heat. The blaze, now glaring white with tinges of orange, yellow around the edges advanced on its prey.
“You don’t have time! The fire!” Lucinda urged them through the window.
Vernon and Shirley crawled through the window, looked back, smiled and each one kissed Lucinda on the cheek. They disappeared down the drain pipe and into the darkness of the night. Lucinda stood stunned by the kisses, held her cheek and smiled. The withering heat entered her lungs; she felt scorching pain inside her old wrinkled body for only a split second before she collapsed; and the flames overwhelmed her.
Bertha knocked at Lucinda’s door. “Lucy? Can I come in? I have to apologize. Lucy?” Coming through the door, she saw the teacher on her bed. The late afternoon sun spotlighted her limp body, her eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Bertha’s hand flew up to her mouth. “Emma! Cassie! Come here quick!”
Emma and Cassie rush in. The mother goes over to the bed while the daughter comforted her aunt.
“What on earth is goin’ on here?” Emma peered at Lucinda’s face. “What a stupid look.”
“She’s dead, Emma,” Bertha said softly. “I kinda got into a fit with her, just a few minutes ago. The last thing I ever said to her wasn’t very kind.”
“Don’t worry.” Cassie hugged her. “You didn’t know she was goin’ to die.”
“But you should always treat people like you was never goin’ to see them again, so that if the last thing they ever hear in life is from you, it’s somethin’ sweet,” Bertha replied, as though in a revelation.
“Don’t worry about it,” Emma told her sister. “At least she was paid up a month ahead.”
“We better call the hospital,” Cassie said.
“You call the police when you find somebody dead.” Emma spoke with a weary tone. Cassie should already know things like that.
“I never could figure that out,” Cassie said as she followed her mother and aunt down the staircase.
Nancy came in the front door but stopped short when she saw the three women coming down the steps. Bertha was wiping tears from her eyes, Cassie shook her head and Emma puffed deeply on her cigarette.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“We jest found Miz Cambridge dead in her room,” Cassie replied.
“Oh no.” Nancy turned to look through the screen door at Shirley who was playing with a couple of neighborhood friends on the front lawn.
“I know you didn’t care for her much,” Emma said bluntly as she went toward the kitchen.
“I’m so sorry.” Nancy put a hand to the screen.
Bertha patted her on the back. “Don’t worry about it none. You didn’t know she was goin’ to drop dead.” She followed her sister down the hall.
“You goin’ to be all right, Nancy?” Cassie wrinkled her brow.
“Well, if you need us we’ll be in the kitchen callin’ the cops.”
Nancy hurried up the stairs to Lucinda’s room. Hesitantly she went to the bed and was surprised to see a smile on the old woman’s face. She looked around the room until she found the college yearbook from the year she and Vernon were in school. She picked it up and turned to the page with Vernon’s picture. As she left the room, Vernon’s memory appeared again, as though evoked from dreams long abandoned. Going over to the bed, he lightly touched Lucinda’s shoulder.
“Mrs. Cambridge?” he asked softly.
Lucinda’s eyes fluttered open. “Vernon?”
“Thanks for coming back to save me, Mrs. Cambridge. And thank you for Shirley.” He helped her to her feet.
She looked back on the bed to see her body, the serene smile still on her graying, cold face. “Then I’m dead?”
“Just like me.”
“Then if we’re still here, that means we must be someone else’s memory now.”
“As long as somebody thinks about you, you’re never really gone.”
Lucinda hugged Vernon. “Oh, whoever you are, remember us. Please remember!”
Nancy went out on the porch and called out, “Shirley! Come here!”
Shirley stopped talking with her friends to look at her mother. “What’s wrong?”
Nancy smiled at Shirley’s friends. “You girls need to go home now. Shirley can play later.”
The children walked away slowly, looking back a couple of times. Shirley hesitantly climbed the stairs. Nancy pulled her close, and they sat on the top step.
“Mrs. Cambridge, she’s dead,” she whispered.
“She was old, Shirley.” Gentleness entered her voice. “It was her time.” Nancy held up the yearbook and opened it to the right page. “You know that yearbook you wanted to look at? Well, here it is. Let me show you a picture.”
“Vernon Singleberry?” Shirley asked.
“Yes. A very sweet, wonderful man. He looked a whole lot like you.”