When I was almost 12 years old my house burned down. A spark ignited in our white and black, 828 square foot bungalow home and spread like wildfire, engulfing everything in her path. She started in the kitchen, moving quickly and quietly into the living room. She began erasing our footprints on the carpet, our pictures hanging on our fridge, my poncho thrown on the back of our living room couch and the comfort of my parents’ bed. She took everything. One by one, she stole the remnants of my childhood. My home was gone in less than an hour.
It was April 15, 2003. All the snow had melted but the chill of winter still lingered after hours. My dad was away for the evening, working late on a contracting job at a nearby bar, while we had our typical Tuesday night. My sister and I kicked around a soccer ball in our backyard after dinner. Times like these always had an expiration. We were baking soda and vinegar, as children. It didn’t take long before someone was crying or tattling on the other. We washed up, my sister, my brother and I, then lay naked in our towels on our parents’ bed, staring up at their 10-inch TV — our evening ritual. Bed came shortly after. The next sequence of events were told to me, but I’ve had to retell them so many times that my brain has carefully constructed detailed imposter memories.
My dad pulled his white Ford truck into our driveway around midnight. The house was dark and still as he moved toward the kitchen, where my mom had plated leftovers for him. Not wanting to wake my mom, he took his meal and headed down our two sets of stairs to the basement living room. Our basement had a cozy, cottage feel. The walls were lined with wood panels from the ‘80’s, the carpet was worn, and our sectional couch sat in the corner of the room, stretching across both walls. It faced our entertainment centre and opposite to that was my favorite part — the bubble-shaped fish tanks my dad had made in the walls. From the bottom corner of the wall, stretching towards the ceiling, my dad made four bubble-shaped fish tanks and ten smaller bubbles with mirrors inside to simulate an underwater scene. Behind this wall was our laundry room, where we could feed the fish, and where our cat Shyster’s eyes, patiently pierced the surface of the water. I loved hearing the fish tanks at night. Mine and my sister’s rooms were in the basement, so I was soothed by this sound as I drifted off to sleep.
My dad said it was a popping sound that woke him. Laying on the basement couch he turned from his side on to his back, when suddenly something out the window caught his eye. The ornamental apple tree in our front yard was glowing, as if someone was frantically using a flashlight to look for a lost kitten in the bare branches.
What are those kids doing? He thought. The springs of the couch exhaled as he got up and made his way to the stairs to see what we were up to.
My dad ran his own business as a contractor. He put a lot of effort into making our home uniquely ours. In addition to the fish tanks, he had also put in three skylights around our home. One above our front door, in our living room, and in our kitchen. I have fond memories of my dad’s booming voice saying Ready?! as he swiftly picked us up, not waiting for our reply, and lifted our small bodies towards the kitchen skylight. Our bottoms would be planted on his giant palm, as he stretched his arm upward as far as it would go. Our tiny fingers would cling to his calloused hand as our lungs released the highest squeal we could muster. Once our heads were in the concave skylight, he would plunge his arm forward and let us fall, like we were on an amusement park ride, catching our bellies at the last second.
My dad headed up the stairs towards the living room, expecting to catch us red-handed with flashlights at our front window. Instead, the living room was motionless, filled with the furniture that would soon be ash. He doesn’t remember what drew him to the kitchen, but it was that decision that saved us all.
My dad could see the white cupboards brightly lit as he neared the kitchen doorway, not noticing that the light switches he passed were not turned on. Thinking he finally found us, he rounded the corner, and sleepily groaned
“Kids?” Nothing. The kitchen was empty, but unlike the living room, not motionless. On the tile floor flickered a perfectly shaped rectangle of flames. Before lunging to put out the manageable yet unusually shaped fire he was seeing, he immediately yelled, “Donna! Get the kids out of the house!”
Startled and panicked, my mom jumped from her bed and without thinking ran to my seven-year-old brother’s room across the hall. My dad’s voice darted from room to room “Get out of the house! Fire! Get the kids out!” I remember the stairs, the cool air and the damp concrete on my bare feet. Erin and I made it outside on our own, and before I left my house for the very last time, I remember turning and looking behind me. All I saw was a bright light coming from our kitchen, and my Dad’s silhouette.
Once my brother, sister and I were on the lawn, my mom piled us into her van, parked in the driveway and we all looked at our home in disbelief. Our roof was on fire. A laugh escaped my throat, an early sign indicating I had trouble processing hard emotions, but what else can you do when your house is in flames?
My dad returned to the kitchen to find the rectangular fire had vanished, and instead was replaced with broken plexiglass everywhere. Confused, he was now realizing that the skylight that once hovered over our heads as we wobbled on his palm was scattered all over the kitchen floor. The rectangular, small, manageable fire he thought he saw was actually the reflection of the skylight that was engulfed in flames. The fire crept through the now open skylight, and began to consume the contents of our kitchen.
My mom, in a state of shock, heroically ran back into her room to get us robes to ensure we were comfortable and warm. Later, she would list all the priceless, sentimental items she wished she grabbed instead.
I have never seen my dad run like he ran that night. Bursting through our front doors he sprinted to our neighbours, throwing his fist on their front door, banging and shouting “Fire!” Then, took off, in the opposite direction to the next neighbour, “Fire! Help! Fire!”
Our landline was already ash and my parents’ flip phones were not yet essential devices in 2003. Our neighbours, an elderly couple, called the fire department and gave us shelter as we waited to see if our home could be salvaged. I don’t remember hearing the sirens, but I remember the blinding red lights. The crescent we lived on was littered with fire trucks. They woke up our entire neighbourhood, who came out to watch in awe as the fire rose like a sunrise on a darkened horizon.
Firefighters grouped together chatting and laughing as they hooked up the fire hydrant. It still fascinates me that a chaotic moment that is life altering and devastating for one, is just a day at the office for another. My dad, who I think by this point found pants, took one of the firefighters aside to tell them if they found a carcass of a cat to discreetly place it alongside our home, so we could bury him later, and so us kids wouldn’t see him like that. With nothing left for them to do, my dad held my mom as he watched the home he made uniquely ours disappear under the billowing fire and smoke.
The next moments, although not seen with my naked eye, I saw in photos the next day. While my siblings and I were taking refuge in my neighbours home, my neighbour, a tall, lanky man threw on his very short wife’s robe, slung his digital camera around his wrist and took off into the night to capture our childhood home being throttled by flames.
As the firefighters positioned themselves on their hose, evenly spaced out and ready to charge, they approached the front door with caution and purpose. Every window in our home was glowing a fierce papaya orange. My neighbour headed further down the street to get a wide-angled shot of the fire trucks and men in front of the burning house. As he did this, his fingers fumbled and accidently began recording the scene. In that very moment an explosion burst fire and embers from the roof of my home up toward the stars.
From the images he captured my home looked remarkably fictitious. It was strange to see something so familiar and comforting contrasted with something so evil, yet beautiful.
Back inside our neighbours’ home my mom and dad joined us in the living room where we were huddled together. My brother, too young to truly know the severity of what was happening, looked to us to make sense of how he should be reacting. My sister was frantically crying over our missing and potentially dead cat. I was emotionless. I knew I should be sad but felt that same awkward feeling I still encounter as an adult —when I should be crying but can’t show emotion in front of people.
We were quiet. Outside, men were yelling. The air smelled of burnt insulation. The flash of red from the now silent sirens rotated around the living room. We were exhausted and helpless. Fifteen-minutes lasted hours.
Our silence was broken by the front door swinging open and heavy boots stomping on my neighbour’s front mat. A large firefighter stood in front of us, the smell of smoke wafted from him, his legs were damp and his arm was tucked inside his open jacket.
“I think I found something of yours,” the man said in a gentle, sensitive way. He slowly pulled his arm from inside his jacket, revealing our large, grey, fifteen-year-old and very damp cat, Shyster. A cry of relief came from my sister as she cradled him into her small body.
It was now 3:00 a.m. The fire was out, the fire trucks were gone, and my family and I laid together on a double futon in our neighbours unfinished basement. All five of us. My parents on either side, everyone quiet, unable to sleep. We were houseless.
The next day we walked through our home, which was now an urn. The outside intact and standing, the inside hollow and filled with ash. The dead remains of our life. The kitchen was nothing but an empty room. No cabinets, no fridge, no kitchen table. All the appliances melted away. My brother’s room was a mountain of ash in the centre of his room, nothing salvaged. The chief of the department said if we had been in our home a few minutes longer his roof would have collapsed completely.
The stairs to mine and my sister’s room had caved in and I was unable to get one last glimpse of my childhood bedroom. The only two casualties were our fish, Harley and Davidson, who inhabited the bubble-shaped tanks that were soon to be smashed in by some neighbourhood hooligans who would break into our boarded up home.
The fire trucks that littered our street only hours before were replaced with friends and family bringing us garbage bags of clothes, meals and bathroom essentials. It was humbling and overwhelming to see the kindness and generosity that came from our family’s tragedy. Eventually my mom had a sign posted on our rental house door giving thanks but pleading, “No more clothes. Thank you!”
We lived in a hotel for two weeks and a rental home for a year. All three of us children shared a room. My dad had our new home sketched on his notepad only days later. If you were to hold it up to the house that now stands on our old foundation you would have difficulty spotting the differences.
We were lucky, but not immune to the impact this loss had on us years later. We survived, but we lost a piece of ourselves that was never fully restored. I continue to find sentiment in the undeserving, holding the false belief this will resurrect what I lost. I grieve an irreplaceable comfort and I long for a home I still am searching for.
Jessica Jones is a teacher living in the Manitoba prairies. For the past year she has been actively writing and sharing her experiences with co-dependency, alcoholism, and the impact it’s had on her and her relationships. Her interests include psychology, photography, and her brand-new podcast called Mulch. For more stories and articles by Jessica follow her on Instagram @from.mulch, listen to her podcast Mulch or visit her website frommulch.com.