A Riddle and a Miracle

A childhood memory

It was kind of handy for my parents to have the only grocery store in our little town – and to have the store be in what used to be the living room.  I guess dad started the store right before I was born in 1943, so Mom would have some money in case Dad got sent to war.  But Dad didn’t get sent and now I’m 11 and we have the first TV in town right in our living-room store.

 Most everyone from town stops in our house every week to get something from the store (while they check out one of the few TVs in town and watch it awhile), and then they catch up on the news. My older sister Marlene gets to help after school. She gets cookies out of the bins and puts them in bags. And Junior – well, he likes to lean on the glass counter looking important until Dad sends him to deliver something on the bike, but I mostly watch the babies while Mom takes care of the customers.  I don’t think my parents know that many times I am on the other side of the swinging kitchen door listening to all the adults talking.  For some time now they have been making plans to get our little town its first fire-house.  Ever since the Larsen’s house burned down last year because it took so long for the volunteer firemen to get there, everyone has been talking about it.  Most everyone is willing to help and pay some money except for two families – the Bolingers and the Nettlers. 

They remind me of stories I’ve read about people in the hills down south who have family feuds and teach their children not to talk to someone just because of what their last name is.  It seemed funny to me that the Bolingers and Nettlers are against everyone  – even each other.   The Nettlers don’t seem so bad to me but they live in one of the big fancy houses on the rich side of town and I don’t see them so much, but right before we’d moved to this house the Bolingers had lived right next door!  One time I took an apple from a branch that was hanging over into our yard and Mr. Bolinger yelled and yelled at me, and called me a thief.  All the kids are scared of him, and one Halloween the big boys put a bucket of water over his door and knocked and ran when he came out and got dunked.  I think even the grown-ups don’t like the Bolingers because I heard Mrs. Kirchman complaining about the Bolingers one day in the store, and then I heard Mom’s voice saying “Hurting people hurt others.”  I heard Mom coming toward the kitchen then and ran outside, but all afternoon I wondered how the Bolingers got hurt, and how it helped for them to hurt others. It was a riddle that kept me up that night.

That was about a month ago, and I still go over and over in my mind what might have happened if that riddle hadn’t kept my imagination going and I was tossing and turning in my sleep.  It was the middle of the night when I woke up all of a sudden.  I just sat up straight like a shot. It was pitch dark and I thought I heard something in the house.  Sure enough as I sat there, I heard a soft thud and then another one.  I got out of bed and tiptoed over the cold floor to my big sister’s bed, but Marlene was fast asleep and I wondered if what she had said was true – that my imagination was always running away with me.  Maybe I had only dreamed it – and I turned to go back to bed, but no – there it was again – out toward the hall.  I edged out of our room into the hallway to see where the sound was coming from and it seemed to be coming from above me – by the big square of wood that Dad sometimes pushed open to put stuff in the attic.

 I stood in the hallway a minute looking up at that square in the ceiling and listened really hard.  I heard some crackly sounds and just about flew downstairs to my parents’ room to tell them, but the door was closed and that meant privacy.  I stood in the moonlight from the big living room window mom just got put in and was so proud of.  My feet were cold on the floor but I was worried – what if I woke my parents up and it was just my imagination like Marlene said – would they get mad at me?  But what if SOMETHING was in the attic?  I shivered and this time my imagination did get the better of me so I BANGED on Dad and Mom’s bedroom door.  I was scared when the door opened so quick and Dad was suddenly right in front of me wearing his white long johns, his hair all messy and, what scared me the most, was that Dad looked scared. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked me real loud.  For a second I couldn’t talk, and then my voice croaked – “Upstairs – there’s something upstairs.  I heard noise”.  “What kind of noise?” Dad asked.  Thumping and snapping sounds, I told him, by the attic door, and Dad just RAN.  He went to the back hall and grabbed the ladder and ran up the stairs with it.  He put it under the big wood square trap door in the hall ceiling and pushed it up.  The whole attic was full of huge orange flames!  Dad shut the trap door and yelled – get your sisters – grab some clothes and get outside. I’ll get your brothers.  I ran to my room and woke my sister up yelling, FIRE!  Boy, you never saw her move so fast.  We each grabbed an armful of stuff, not even looking to see what we grabbed.  She picked up little Marvel and we ran out to the front yard.  That’s when I saw something I will never forget – it did something even bigger to my heart than seeing the fire.

You see our house was at the bottom of town, and most of the houses were up on a big hill right in front of our street.  I could hear the fire bell clang and lights were going on all over the hill.  The Cornings, the Schmidts, Sheriff Renold’s house, and Oh! The Bollinger’s and the Nettler’s places had lit up too!  As scared as we were as we stood there holding hands on the lawn with the fire behind us, we couldn’t take our eyes off the lights on the hill.  Marvel was still asleep over my big sister’s shoulder and I could see Marlene was crying when she turned toward me and whispered,  “They’re all coming – we’ll be OK”.  I felt strange and warm inside to think that we were the hurting people now and all those people were coming to help us – even the Bolingers and the Nettlers. 

It was then we heard our big brother Junior calling us from up in the tree house by the street.  He had Baby Lee up there with him and we climbed up and watched Dad and our two closest neighbors, Mr. Miller and Mr. Jackson break Mom’s new picture window and throw stuff out on the lawn.  Junior was almost 16, and I think he was kind of mad that Dad made him watch the baby, because he shoved the baby at my sister and yelled that it was real interesting how quick she got up there ‘cause yesterday when his friend Gary (that my sister likes) was up there, she acted so scared and got Gary to help her up.  Then he ran down and disappeared into the house with other people who had come to help.  I told my sister what Mom had said about hurting people hurting others and I told her then how scared Dad looked when I woke him up.  I thought nobody’s Dad ever got scared, and if Dad was scared, Junior must be scared too. She said “Yeah, I guess you’re right”, and we got all quiet thinking about it.   

We sat there in the dark and hugged with Baby Lee and Marvel between us until Lee began to cry.  Then we looked down, and it seemed like practically all the men in town were there running in and out of our house.  Finally, the fire was out and there was a big dark hole up where my bedroom had been.  Pretty soon after that Junior came back all messy like he’d been playing in the dirt like a little kid.  He told Marlene he was real sorry he yelled at her before and she looked right past him at the house and whispered, “Yeah, I know”. 

We all got down from the tree house then, and Marlene carried Baby Lee on her hip while we all walked around the house and looked and looked.  The men had nailed boards over the hole that used to be the big living room window and there were big stripes of black (from the smoke I guess) that ran down the front of the house. Mom and Dad came out with a bunch of other people and Mom told us we’d be sleeping at Aunt Angie’s tonight.  Uncle Tony came over and hugged us, and said Auntie was getting the beds ready and we would go with him soon.  I saw Mr. Nettler slip something lumpy in my Dad’s shirt pocket, and then everybody all over our front lawn was hugging and telling us how they could help and everything would be OK. 

I must have had a hundred hugs that night and suddenly there was Mr. Bolinger in front of me.  I didn’t think he’d ever hugged anyone in his life, and I kind of stepped back at first when he leaned down near me.  He cleared his throat and said “Girlie, I’m sorry I been such a grouch. I’ll bring you all the apples from my trees you want, and Mrs. Bolinger will make some pies tomorrow and bring them to your Auntie’s house.  You tell your Mom that, OK?”  I felt all teary and couldn’t answer; so I just stood there and nodded, and then he hugged me real quick and walked off fast toward his house.  I just stood there for a minute, kinda shocked, you know, and then I looked up at the stars all twinkly and peaceful like they knew something wonderful had just happened.  I didn’t know Mom was there until her voice softly whispered, “It’s a miracle!” and her hand closed around mine as we walked in the moonlight to Auntie’s car.

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