Right now, Ms. Atkins' was calling out the words whose definition we had to memorize for the current chapter. "Diaphragm" she called out. I raised my hand to answer when someone knocked at the door. It was the front office secretary, Ms. Bates. Ms. Atkins' spoke in hush tones to her for a few seconds and then called me over. "Daisy, get your things. You'll need to go with Ms. Bates."
I had never been called to the office before and I could feel my face suffuse with color. All the other kids called out, "oooooooh, you're in trouble" and I wished the ground would open up and I'd slip through. But of course that didn't happen.
Ms. Atkins said, go ahead and take your books and purse with you." I quickly closed my notebook and scooped my books into one hand. I reached out to grab my purse but Ben, who sat behind me, slipped the strap over the side so that it fell to the floor. I looked over at him and he pretended to be studying the chapter. I bent over to pick it up and quickly made my way to the door amid a cacophony of hoots.
Ms. Bates was quiet was mostly quiet as she walked me to the office. Except to say that Mr. Reason, the school Principal, would explain everything when I got there.
Mr. Reason was standing just inside the office door.
"Darling, I'm sorry to tell you but there's been an emergency at your house. Is there someone you can call to come pick you up? An Aunt or Uncle?" I couldn't think of anyone to come so I shook my head. I did have Aunts and Uncles in town, but I couldn't think of them at that moment. I just stood there with my mouth slightly open trying to process what was happening.
"What happened?" I asked.
"Well, it seems there's been a fire. It's best if your family talks to you about it." Looking back, I guess Mr. Reason just didn't want to have to deal with an emotional child. I sat down ain the chairs, not knowing what to say when in walked Mr. Shanks.
Mr. Shanks was my band teacher. He was also one of my favorite teachers. He walked in and opened his arms for me. I walked over to him and let him hold me. I was trembling and afraid. I was normally very quiet and tried my very best to not attract any attention and he knew it. His family went to the same church as my family did.
"I'll take her home." he said. "My wife is on her way now, we'll just drive over to her house and see what can be done. Ms. Faulkner will be taking over band class today." Mr. Reason seemed as if he would argue the point, but then he sighed and nodded his head.
"Okay. Let us know what's going on."
At that moment, Mrs. Shanks walked in and pulled me into her arms. "You okay, hon?" I nodded my head.
"Come on Richard, let's take Daisy home." I wiped my palms on my jeans, grabbed my books and followed Mrs. Shanks out the front doors. I let myself into the backseat of their car, careful to put my seat belt on.
When we arrived at my house, it was only a dark smoking shell of a home. The tears had been quietly falling for a while, and I was hiccuping now. My elderly aunt's car was in the driveway so we had to park on the side of the road.
Mr. Shanks got out of the driver's seat and came around to help me out of the backseat. Mrs. Shanks took one hand while Mr. Shanks took the other. They squeezed my hands to give me courage.
As we walked down the driveway, I could hear my aunt yelling at my mother. "My brother worked so hard to be able to buy this house and you burn it down! You no good for nothing piece of trash woman!" her mouth was twisted in an ugly snarl. Every word she said drying my tears and stabbing my heart. She was not my favorite aunt, but I disliked anger because I had never been exposed to it.
My mother was soft spoken and even-tempered. Never had she spoken with such hatred as my aunt was now doing.
"Angela, please, keep your voice down, Daisy is here." my mom entreated. "She's going to be upset by all this anyway."
"I don't give a damn! You can all just go to hell for all I care. You do not deserve my brother!" She reached out as if to strike my mother and I loosened my hands and ran to my mom. I grabbed my mom's soft hand and stood in front of her as if to protect my mother. Reversing the roles.
"I'm sorry Aunt Angela. You look so very pretty today. Did you buy a new dress?" I called out calmly. I knew how to distract my aunt, I had had plenty of practice.
"Daisy, your mother burned your house down. She's crazy and should be locked up!" Already her voice was coming down an octave.
"I'm sorry Aunt Angela, you're probably right." I had learned to just quietly agree with Dad's family. It was no use arguing, they were the best at it and I would never win.
"My brother should have never married your mother!" she went on as if I wasn't even there. This is what I wanted, for her to forget that we were here.
I pulled my mother behind me and we went to stand next to Mr. and Mrs. Shanks. They both embraced my mother, not knowing what to say after the spectacle they had witnessed. My mom patted them gently as they hugged her. Her eyes looked dazed and troubled at the same time. I knew she was upset but not how to comfort her.
"Mom, it'll be okay." I held onto her hand tightly.
"I know baby, I just don't know how it happened. The firemen questioned me as if I had started the house on fire, but I didn't. I just walked into the kitchen and saw all the smoke billowing out of the laundry room." She quietly cried and my heart wanted to burst. "I just don't know what your father is going to say."
Dad was not a bad person, but since he worked out of town a lot, I wasn't sure. Sometimes I would not see him for more than two weeks. Then he would show up with presents and hugs and smiles. I loved him very much and I hoped that he would smile and wink at me and say everything would be okay. I felt sure that he would. My heart was comforted by that thought and I squeezed my mom tight.
"Mom, everything will be just fine. Daddy will take care of everything! He will make sure that Aunt Angela stops yelling and then she'll go home." I smiled up at my mother and she looked down at me, her eyes hopeful. All the while, my Aunt's accusing voice kept up its tirade.
"Sweet Daisy, I should be the one comforting you!" she laughed. She kissed me on the top of my head and released me from her embrace, keeping hold of my hand. I heard her intake of breath and saw her look over to the road. I followed her line of sight and saw my dad pulling in behind Mr. Shanks. They also watched quietly as Dad parked. My Aunt noticed too and her voice rose in volume spewing out it's excrement.
I ran over to where Dad was just getting out of his truck. I embraced him tightly. "Daddy, help us. Please don't be mad. Momma didn't do it. The house just burned." He said nothing, barely noticing that I was embracing him.
The air blew my hair across my eyes, smelling of the salty Gulf; his shirt, old and worn, smelled of him and sweat; the fabric soft against my cheek. My hands touched around his narrow waist but they clenched his shirt and not each other. I heard the noise of the firetrucks putting away their hoses and preparing to head back to the station; my heartbeat; his heartbeat. All this I noticed while my child's heart was breaking.
"Daddeeeee" I said again. "Daddeeeee, look at me." He still had not put his arms around me. My voice became higher and higher and my heart seemed to close in on itself. "Daddy, Daddy, please hug me back."
He didn't even acknowledge me. He just pushed my arms from around him and just walked away. I thought that maybe he hadn't heard me but as I was about to follow him, he threw back, "Go with your mother and get out of here. I don't want to see ya'll again."
I couldn't talk. The tears poured down my eyes and my heart broke into a thousand pieces as I watched my Dad walk away. My mom had somehow appeared behind me. She was crying, too. She wiped her tears away and she guided me to Mr. and Mrs. Shanks' car. They had waited patiently as my heart broke. We loaded into the backseat and drove away.