Ash fell like snow on the black walnut tree across the street.
Diana peered at it through the kitchen window, but swirling smoke obscured her view. She imagined the ash into snowflakes.
“Silver white winters that melt into springs,” she sang softly. She imagined her father’s nine-hundred square foot apartment into Nonnberg Abbey without any trouble and —
A knock on the door startled her from her daydream of Salzburg, Austria.
Almost without thought, she began rolling her wheelchair toward her bedroom. How did I miss the sound of his car? She pictured her father bursting into the apartment as she fled.
But … her father wouldn’t knock, she realized. She stopped rolling the chair and tried to imagine who might brave the ash and smoke for a visit.
The evacuation orders had only been lifted a few hours before.
In the apartment’s single bedroom, she could hear blankets swishing and the floor creaking. Moments later, her sister Kari appeared at the bedroom door with a bad case of helmet hair.
“It’s just some cult Bible thumper,” she announced in a scratchy, overloud voice. “Useless nuts can’t even let the firefighters SLEEP.”
Kari had been working overtime to fight the wildfires roaring through northern California. Sometime in the last decade, the period from late spring to late fall had become known as “fire season.” Kari often had to work ridiculous overtime hours that left her staggering with exhaustion. Several times, she had been forced to sleep at one of the fire shelters with Di, as their own home was evacuated. They had been staying in a fire shelter for the last four nights.
After working an extra 24 hour shift, Kari had stumbled into the shelter around 2 A.M. that morning. When the shelter announced that the mandatory evacuations had been lifted, Kari drove them back home.
Ever since they got home, Kari had been sleeping, but she clearly still hadn’t recovered.
Di could sympathize with her sister’s grumpiness, but she wouldn’t have minded talking with the visitor. “It is an awkward time to visit people,” she ventured, “but they must be pretty devoted.”
She then turned back to the electric stove and dumped a bowl of scrambled eggs into a frying pan. Impatiently, she turned the heat on high.
“Are they gone, yet?” Kari groused. “I need more sleep before my next shift.”
Di rose slowly from her wheelchair so she could press her cheek against the glass of the kitchen window. A shadowy figure was retreating from the front step.
“Yeah. But they left something on the doormat.”
Kari retrieved the whatever-it-was. “It’s the solicitor’s book!”
Di rolled the wheelchair over to look. The book was thick and had a cracked leather cover that read “Holy Bible.”
The smell of burning eggs suddenly filled the room, making Di gag ferociously. She had to eat eggs every day, often twice a day, as they were a cheap and easy protein; as a result, she could barely stomach burned eggs anymore.
A person could only eat so many scrambled eggs, she felt.
“I wish people would leave us alone,” Kari muttered blearily. “We take care of ourselves, if nobody bothers us.”
Di always warmed inside when Kari referred to “us.” She knew she was the exception to Kari’s generally hostile outlook on humanity. At the same time … she wished her sister were a bit more friendly with the rest of the world. They didn’t actually support themselves very well.
She leaned over one arm of her chair and rummaged through the fast food bags scattered on the floor. “Can we go to McDonald’s?”
“Yeah, I know we need more ketchup. But not if we’re out of eggs, right?” Kari sighed. “I’ll soak some beans and pick up pears from the food bank. We need to stretch a few more meals out of this paycheck …”
A car rumbled into the apartment’s parking lot, then fell silent. A door slammed.
Kari didn’t react, busy with her thoughts; but Di’s mindset shifted instantly. She shoved her eggs into her mouth until she choked.
“Swallow,” she ordered herself. But she couldn’t fight her heightened gag reflex and spat the mess back onto her plate. She threw it in the sink just as Kari exploded into a tirade.
“If only he didn’t spend it all on drugs!”
“But those cops just won’t take him! It’s like, what does a guy have to do to get arrested in California? Does he have to murder you first? Do his kids have to die of neglect?”
Kari continued airing her favorite complaints, and Di ignored her as she wheeled herself down the hall to their shared room. Finally, she shut the door on her sister’s stream of chatter.
Just in time. The front door creaked and slammed.
A second later, her father’s voice boomed through the house. “Smells like burnt egg in here. Did Gimpy waste our last eggs?”
His footsteps creaked toward the kitchen.
Kari’s voice settings were still on “shout.” “Diana has been taking care of herself again, so don’t blame her! Speaking of which, she’ll have to skip school on Monday and Tuesday. Her wheelchair-”
“Would you shut up about that wheelchair?”
“– is so small that she developed another pressure sore. Now she has to homeschool until it heals.”
Di quietly rolled her wheelchair into the corner of the room, past her sister’s mattress to lie down on her own mattress. She lay on her side to avoid her tailbone’s pressure sore. She hadn’t even felt the ulcer, since it was below her lumbar vertebrae; Kari had noticed it when helping Di undress for a bath at the emergency fire shelter, two nights before. They had practiced the bath-check ritual every week since she was born with spina bifida.
She could usually sit up for about two hours before she needed to lie down and let the throbbing sore rest. In a few days, it would heal enough to let her attend half days at school; but her sister and father would both be working — Kari on 48 hour shifts and her father on a construction job hours away. So she would be stuck at home until she could stand to attend full days.
Di didn’t really care. Her teachers had already handed out schedules and chromebooks in case of evacuations, so she could work if she wanted to. But she didn’t want to. She was tired of working so hard at everything.
Outside of her room, the discussion continued. “Why don’t you buy her a new chair, Kari?”
“Sure, with all my extra money.”
“Oh yes … that’s right. You don’t have any money, do you? Because you got fired.”
“No I didn’t!”
“Are you or are you not currently volunteering at the fire department?”
“. . . Yes. The department laid me off two weeks ago. The county cut funds, so the department only has money to keep two firemen on staff at a time. But I’m applying at the tree service!”
“You should be job hunting all day, Kari. Not sucking up to the department that laid you off.”
“It won’t last,” Kari said in a soft voice. “They’ll take us back. I know they will … and right now, they need my help whether they can pay me or not.”
“But until you get hired . . . you’ll be staying somewhere else.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“If you can’t pay for your share, you’re not living here.”
“Who are you going to share rent with?”
“I have friends. Get out.”
“. . . I have to pack. I’ll leave in the morning.” Kari entered their bedroom. Her eyes shone strangely bright in the dim light.
“Diana.” She spoke with restrained intensity. “I swear, I won’t leave you alone with him.” She sank onto her own mattress. “I have a plan. I can’t tell you what it is, right now, but . . . I have a boyfriend.”
Kari didn’t even look embarrassed about this secret.
“I started dating a cop, Officer Brantley. And I’ve been saving up. It’s not enough for a new place, but . . . just trust me. It’ll grow. It’ll grow fast, and then you can live with us.”
Di let her mind wander back to the events of the last week, when the mandatory evacuation was announced. She had carried her chair downstairs by herself, on numb legs, and called several people before finding a ride to the high school shelter.
She closed her eyes. “Don’t worry about me, Kari. I escaped the fire on my own, remember? I can avoid Dad.”
Di lay still until Kari slept, dreaming of life in Nonnberg Abbey. She never dreamed of living with Captain von Trapp and his seven children; it was the peaceful abbey that called to her.
Kari had set the black Bible on the floor, and Di picked it up. Immediately, her abbey daydream came to her.
Inside the abbey, everybody would treat each other kindly. Each morning, they chorused praises and prayers. They split the chores: fishing the lakes for breakfast, fetching firewood for the dining room’s wrought iron grates. In the afternoon, Di would practice with the choir.
Resurfacing from her dream abbey, Di thought Kari’s breathing sounded deep and regular. She rose from bed and crept into the living room, placing her crutches carefully to avoid the creaky spots.
A cocktail of smoke scented the air. What would the air quality index have said about the air inside their apartment? More or less hazardous than the wildfire smoke outside?
Her father snored on the couch, TV light flashing against his face. A glowing blunt dangled from two of his fingers, very nearly resting on his furry chest. His stomach caved in at an unhealthy slant before the rest of his body disappeared beneath a blanket. Her father teased her for being “chunky,” but she felt healthier than he looked.
How could he function well enough to work construction?
The answer lay on the table beside him — a bag of brownish crystals beside a glass pipe with a bulbous end. On weekends, like today, he sought a different kind of high.
Carefully, Di plucked the blunt from his grasp and dropped it onto the floor, a meter from his feet. It could have easily rolled there all on its own . . . and it settled against his chemical-laden work clothes, which began to smoke.
She returned to her room.
A new kind of smoke — mm, burning carpet — was just reaching her nose as she lowered herself silently onto her mattress, heart pounding. Waiting.
Kari’s firefighter nose woke her quickly and she sat up. “The smoke smells stronger. I hear it. It’s — oh! Jump out the window, Di!” Kari threw the window open and began tossing items through it: her cell phone, her purse, Di’s pill case, and loose medication bottles.
Di opened the door to the living room and saw that her father’s blanket was on fire.
“DAD! WAKE UP!”
He started awake, staring at her.
“YOU’RE ON FIRE!”
He roared and leapt to his feet. She hobbled back into the bedroom and grabbed her books from the bed stand. As she stuck one leg out the window, her father burst out the front door. Di might have laughed as he ran past, buck naked, except that one of his socks was on fire.
He dove head first over the railing into the yard below, trying to tear off his sock without burning his hands.
Di felt as though she were falling, and landing, winded, along with him. Her vision whitened, and she wobbled on the windowsill. She held her breath, willing herself to climb down, but she couldn’t stop shaking. Finally, Kari helped her out.
As Di knelt on all fours, coughing and crying, Kari called the fire department.
Di and Kari crossed the street, away from their low-income apartment. Their father lay on the ground, running water from the spigot over his burned foot.
“I think I sprained my ankle climbing out,” Kari said. She was rubbing one giant, muscular calf through weed leaf-print leggings. “You could have given me a little warning!”
“What do you mean?”
“Stop pretending. I heard you come from the living room. You started the fire.”
Di looked at her feet and noticed, for the first time, that her own socks were soaked. She couldn’t feel the wetness, but she felt cold all over.
“And it would have been a good idea, if we had renter’s insurance,” Kari continued.
“But even if we did, you still should have warned me first. I’d have done it for you.”
Di remained silent for a long minute. “I knew you would say that.”
“Of course you did. Don’t I always take care of you?”
“I want to take care of us, for once.”
Suddenly, something smashed into Di’s back. With a cry, she crawled away to protect her tailbone.
Behind her, Kari swore. “You’re going to make her bleed again, you meth-mouthed moron! She saved your life!” Under her breath, she muttered, “More than I’d have done.”
Di turned around to find her dad’s face inches from hers.
“You did this,” he growled at her, leaning in close enough that clumps of his long, greasy hair brushed her nose. She thought she could feel it leaving a residue on her carefully scrubbed skin. His breath smelled strongly of marijuana and made her start coughing again. “I saw you walking out of the living room. Just wait until I get you alone, Gimp.”
He walked away, swearing, because people were flocking out of the apartments in response to the smoke detectors. Kari started to follow him, but Di called her back.
“Don’t break his face. You need a job, not a felony charge.”
Kari didn’t smile. “I won’t let him hurt you again.”
“Don’t worry. The cops will take me away from him.”
“I’ll tell them he fell asleep smoking, and his cigarette must have set the fire.”
“No!” Kari jumped as fire sirens sounded in the distance. “You leave the talking to me. You were asleep and saw nothing. Okay? If we’re lucky, the cops will take him on a meth charge. I nabbed some of it from his stash, earlier.” She brushed Di’s cheek with the back of her hand. “Let me mastermind this.”
An hour later, Di sat in a police detective’s car, wrapped in a blanket. The detective had left the door open, so neighbors and strangers stared at her.
The detectives directed most of their questions at Kari and their father. Eventually, one brought her a cup of tea to warm her hands.
“Hi, Diana,” he said with a smile. “I’m Detective Bounds. I have a daughter near your age.”
“Could you use a spare?”
Di gestured to the smoldering ruins of her apartment. “I’m homeless. Happy to have a new home.”
He laughed, and Di smiled, but secretly she wanted to just hop into his car and hide from the world — especially her father.
“I have a few questions for you.” The detective opened a miniature flip pad. “When did you smell the smoke?”
“When my sister woke me up.”
“Are you sure you weren’t already awake?”
“We were both asleep,” Kari called from nearby, where a separate cop had been questioning her. “You can talk to me.”
Di suspected that the detective’s notebook already contained many pages worth of information from Kari, but he nodded politely.
“Mr. Coburn says Diana was still awake when he drifted off.”
“My father smokes meth, sir. He should be in prison. I wouldn’t trust his word over Di’s. She’s practically a saint.”
“Mmhm,” he replied, glancing at Di again. “Well, girls, medical here says your father only sustained minor burns. The hospital will probably release him in a few hours, and he’ll join you wherever you’re staying.”
“So he’s not going to jail?” Di clarified.
“No. We found his meth pipe, and your sister gave us the meth, but that charge won’t keep him in jail.”
“And Di still has to live with him?” Kari demanded.
“We called Di’s social worker, and she promised to visit next week.”
The detective leaned against his car, as if to shield Di from his inevitable words. “But yes,” he said, directing his comment back to Di.
“I . . . think Child Welfare Services will want to keep you with him. California likes to keep kids with their parents.”
Di looked past the detective and met her father’s red-eyed stare. The emergency medical technicians were still strapping him to the gurney to take him to the hospital.
“Officer,” Kari complained, “our father is so wasted, he can’t even see this was his fault. He was actually threatening Di just before you got here-“
“NO! N-n-no he wasn’t.” Di nearly choked on the lie. “He was just worried.”
Kari sighed through her nose, glancing at Di’s expression.
“Diana set the fire,” her father shouted, making one of the EMTs wince. “I saw her do it!”
“He’s lying!” said Kari. “Don’t you think I’d have woken up if my little sister was tottering around on her crutches?”
The cops separated the family members, and Di ended up back in the apartment’s parking lot with Detective Bounds. Most of the building appeared undamaged, except for their unit and the rooms belonging to their neighbors.
“Listen, Diana,” the detective told her. “I have eyes. I know your father isn’t taking care of you, and I know you’re probably angry about that. I also know that you probably still love him.” He sighed. “I worked in the juvenile division before I became a PD and I still see this stuff all the time. It makes me sick. But I just want you to know . . . if you did set that fire, you shouldn’t try it again. Don’t do it. It’ll just get you sent to a juvenile hall somewhere out of county. It’s a pain. You and I know that you didn’t mean to hurt him; you just wanted him in jail. I sympathize — because he definitely belongs in jail. But others won’t see it that way, when they review your case. Now let’s get some breakfast, and I’ll bring you wherever your sister and father are staying.”
Breakfast, Di thought with a sigh. I couldn’t care less about breakfast. I just want to be somewhere, anywhere else.
She thought about what he said, as she rode with him to the only diner in town that was open at this hour. It took less than a car ride to dismiss his words as irrelevant. He was basically saying, “It sucks, but there’s nothing either of us can do about it.” And that just wouldn’t work for her.
They ended up in a shoddy trailer provided by Kari’s boyfriend. Di and Kari watched television from sleeping bags on the floor.
Their father snored nearby on the only bed. After taking him home from the hospital, Kari had plied him with alcohol against the strict prohibition of the burn unit doctor. Eventually, he’d fallen into a fitful sleep, just as dawn light began filtering through the windows.
Kari had rolled a blunt from his stash. The hits barely affected her, and Di wondered how often her sister smoked and partied. Kari kept her life private from Di — even, apparently, that she dated cops.
After Detective Bounds left, the cop who had spoken with Kari earlier introduced himself as Officer Brantley, “Kari’s boyfriend,” and invited the family to stay in his backyard trailer.
But the three of them couldn’t stay in his trailer forever. Kari would leave Di alone with their father eventually.
Di tried retreating to Nonnberg Abbey, which had always welcomed her home. Tonight, it looked hazy when she struggled to visualize it.
She eyed the Bible, which made a distinctive dent in her trash bag full of scavenged belongings. The heavy book kept drawing her attention …
Someone had cared enough to bring it to her in the midst of the evacuations.
She pulled it from the bag and hugged it to her chest. Finally, the abbey rose in her mind and she walked up the hill toward the gate.
But she smelled smoke, instead of the usual garden and fresh night air. She followed a thick trail of smoke toward the great wooden door of St. John’s Chapel.
Nuns silently huddled in the glow from the open doors. She pushed past them, despite the deafening roar and crackle of the fire. But she couldn’t see. She coughed, as she breathed in the ash of aged artifacts and wonders.
She ran into the chapel . . . and woke up in Officer Brantley’s trailer. She lay very still, trying to interpret and think her way out of panic.
Eventually, she stood again and began to gather tools: the smoldering blunt, a bottle of tequila from the dresser, and a pile of clothing from the floor.
Before she finished, Kari’s phone screen lit up beside the ashtray, and Di froze until it went dark again.
Finally, she brought her tools into the tiny trailer’s tiny bathroom and had to stand over the toilet to shut and lock the door after her. A shower stall stood beside the toilet.
She sat on the toilet seat, lay the clothes on the floor, and poured tequila on the pile.
“God?” she whispered. “I’m sorry about this. But it can’t be worse for my soul than arson, and I won’t let him kill me.”
She took a long draw from the blunt, just as someone knocked on the door. “Di? Why are you talking?”
“Um . . . praying.”
“Why? Di open this door right now.”
Di took another quick drag on the blunt, then shook some glowing ash onto a thin t-shirt. It immediately lit with a blue flame, and she set the blunt on the tequila-soaked clothing.
“I’m fine, Kari. I’m just smoking.”
“I’m going to break down the door.”
As the bathroom grew hazy, Di inhaled the scent of marijuana. Lots of people had died this way in the California fires. Maybe if she burned out all the bad, she would wake up in the abbey. The nuns would welcome her . . . they would understand.
I’ll just wait for the fumes–
The bathroom door burst open, landing at a slant on top of her head. Her teeth clacked together and her head suddenly felt too heavy for her neck.
The door pulled away as quickly as it had fallen on her, and Kari jumped inside. She was crying, as she tossed the burning clothes into the shower stall.
“Did the door hurt you? Are you okay?”
Di couldn’t speak. She could barely breathe. She held her head in her hands, realizing she hadn’t thought of Kari’s reaction to finding her body.
“It doesn’t matter,” Di finally replied, and her voice broke. “Dad is going to kill me.”
“No, Di. He’s not going to touch you. Brantley and I are going to take care of you now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I was afraid you would talk about it. You’re a terrible liar.”
“What . . . ?”
“I told you, I have a plan.”
“Right.” Di sniffed. Her neck was starting to ache, as the shock wore off. “You’re never going to find a job in California. There’s nothing in this stupid town. You’re going to have to move, and I’ll be alone with Dad.”
“No. I have a really good plan.”
“Tell me, then.”
“Will that keep you from swan-diving off the roof?”
Kari put her hands on Di’s shoulders. “ . . . Home insurance isn’t the only kind of insurance we could live on.”
“Dad has life insurance from his work. So if he dies … we get the money.”
“So . . . ?”
“We’ll just say he ignored the burn unit doctors and took way too many pain pills — and then drank. It could kill a horse, what he downed tonight.”
“You mean you gave him pills?”
“I crushed them into his drinks. The cocktail will kill him ‘accidentally,’ so we’ll be worry free and rich before long.” She sighed. “This is why I needed to get you out of that house. I was so afraid Dad would scare you or you would try to hurt yourself . . . Just go sleep in Officer Brantley’s house. I’ll take you.”
Di followed Kari out of the bathroom. As they passed through the small living area, she threw all of her weight on top of her father and pounded on his chest.
“Dad! Wake up!”
But Kari pinned her arms to her sides and Di struggled to find her feet, until Kari lifted her over the shoulder and covered her mouth. A minute later, after Kari had crossed the backyard and knocked, Officer Brantley let them through the backdoor of his house.
“She’s just upset,” Kari grunted to him. “We’ll be fine. Thanks for letting us in.”
The officer nodded and left, as if Kari wasn’t assaulting Di before his eyes.
“If you promise not to scream, I won’t tape you up,” Kari told Di, once he’d gone.
Kari removed her hand. “Don’t worry. He’s out and he won’t feel a thing. Now I’m going to go to sleep, and you’re going to stay here and sleep. Got it?”
Di nodded again, eyes downcast.
Kari left, muttering to herself. “Dammit, where’s my phone?”
Di waited until they disappeared into the smoke. Then she pulled Kari’s phone out of her sweatshirt pocket, where she’d stashed it during the tussle. She stared at it, thinking of the words of Detective Bounds: “Don’t do it. It’ll get you sent to a juvenile hall somewhere out of county. It’s a pain.”
She dialed 911.
She had to be quick. Kari usually outsmarted her.
When the operator answered, she said, “My name is Diana Coburn and I need to report an arson. Two arsons. I . . . set them both. One is getting out of control right now and my sister is trying to put it out.”
After giving the address, she hung up the phone even though dispatch was still asking questions. She closed her eyes and retreated to her abbey.
Officer Brantley arrested her a few hours later.
Christy Luis has worked as a library assistant and currently runs a YouTube channel called “Dostoevsky in Space,” where she reviews books. She has an Associate of Arts in Humanities and graduated cum laude from Regent University with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Regent University.
Christy Luis, “My Favorite Things,” An Unexpected Journal: Image Bearers 4, no. 1. (Spring 2021), 95-118.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/my-favorite-things/