The dog’s barking woke Mikayla up. Ted and Helen—she was supposed to call them Uncle Ted and Aunt Helen, but she never did inside her own head—had told her Oscar was really a sweet dog. And it was true, he never growled at her. He was so big, though, with his tail going thunk-thunk-thunk and his long pink tongue and his stabby white teeth. Mikayla didn’t care how sweet he was, he scared her.
Right now his big deep bark was booming, over and over and over again. Mikayla burrowed beneath her quilts and pulled the pillow over her head. “Shut up, stupid dog,” she whispered. She waited for the thud of Ted and Helen’s bedroom door, footsteps on the stairs. It sounded like Oscar had to go bad. She shivered. What if the MacAllens didn’t do anything? She would have to let him out. That was the rule. Then she’d have to stand around in the freezing hallway until he pooped so she could let him back in.
She pushed her pillow away and scooted up. It sounded like the dog was already outside. Maybe Ted had let him out and fallen asleep. Grown-ups could sleep through anything. There had been times Mikayla had to talk to her mom before the bus came in the morning, and she’d shake her and shake her and Mom still didn’t do anything but mumble and roll over.
She climbed out of bed and put on her booties and her robe. The MacAllens had given them to her the afternoon she had come out of the hospital. The robe was pink and woolly and the booties had real sheepskin inside, which was good, because the MacAllens’ old house was always cold. She missed her mom’s apartment. She could spend all Saturday watching TV in her shortie pajamas, it was so warm inside.
Mikayla opened the bedroom door and wrinkled her nose. The hallway stank like a gas station, and the night-light was out. Moonlight streamed from Ted and Helen’s open door at the other end of the hall, and for a second she thought about trying to get one of them to let Oscar in. But they might be mad if she woke them up.
She clung to the railing as she walked down the unlit stairs. The stink was even worse in the front hall. She had her hand on the doorknob to let Oscar in when someone said, “Wait.”
“Shh. Shh. Mikayla. It’s me.”
She caught her breath at the familiar voice. “You scared me!”
There was a clank, like a pail setting on the floor, and then a figure moved out of the deep dark of the living room into the shadowy gray of the hall. “I’m sorry. I’m here to take you to your mom.”
“My mom?” Her heart was going bumpety-bump. She wasn’t sure if it was from her fright or from the idea of seeing her mom. “Really?”
“Yeah. I was just coming upstairs to get you.”
“But—” She frowned. “It’s the middle of the night. Are you supposed to be here?”
“Look, do you want to stay here with them? Fine by me. I’ll just leave.”
“No! Wait!” Mikayla stumbled toward the living room. “I wanna go. I wanna see Mom.”
“I dunno. Maybe I made a mistake, coming to get you.”
“No! No! Just let me—I have a suitcase. I’ll get my clothes, and then we can go.”
“I’ll get your clothes. You go get in my car. It’s in the driveway. I’ll be there in a minute”
It was snowy outside, and she was in her robe and pajamas, but she was afraid if she argued, she’d be left behind. “Okay.” She turned back to the door. “Can I take my coat and my book bag? They’re right here.”
“Yes, yes, yes. Jesus.”
She snatched them off their hooks and opened the door. Oscar’s barking got wilder.
“And don’t let the dog in!”
Mikayla shut the door behind her and ran along the narrow shoveled path to the drive. Oscar, standing in the snow, whined as she passed him, but he didn’t do anything to stop her. She jumped into the backseat of the waiting car and slammed the door. She sat, shaking from excitement and fear, her arms wrapped around her book bag. She was going to see her mom again. It had been so long.
Then she had an awful thought. Her recorder. She had left it in the bedroom, and Monday was music class. If she forgot it again, Ms. Clauson would kill her.
She could run back and get it. She knew right where it was. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. That would be okay. Maybe. She bit her lip and opened the door. Slipped out. She left the door open. That would prove she was coming right back.
She had taken three or four steps toward the house when she heard a whumping noise. Oscar stopped barking and lay in the snow. He whimpered. It sounded almost as bad as the barking. Then there was another whump, and another. In the black, moon-blank windows, she saw something orange-red kindle. It was far back, like something in the kitchen, maybe.
Oscar whined again.
The door slammed, and for a second she thought, It’s Ted, he’s running to stop me, he’s coming to get me, he’s going to save me, but she could see it wasn’t Ted MacAllen at all.
The orange-red glow grew brighter. Oscar sprang up, barking and barking, and Mikayla’s whole body shook. She remembered what she learned on Fire Safety Day: Don’t run back into a burning building, and that was a burning building, and what she had to do was call 911 and the firefighters at the station had been nice and she had gotten a real, hard helmet—
“What the hell are you doing? Get into the car, goddammit!”
She scrambled into the car. The door slammed against the bottom of her boot, like a hard slap. She twisted around to see out the back. The firefighter helmet was up in the bedroom, too, she remembered. With her recorder. She stuck her thumb in her mouth. The car engine firing up almost hid the sound of breaking glass. She sucked her thumb harder. She wasn’t going to think about Ted and Helen. She wasn’t going to think at all. But she stayed facing backwards looking at the snow and the moonlight and the house and the fire, until they rounded the bend in the road and she was gone.
Copyright © 2013 by Julia Spencer-Fleming
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is the New York Times bestselling author of One Was A Soldier, and an Agatha, Anthony, Dilys, Barry, Macavity, and Gumshoe Award winner. She studied acting and history at Ithaca College and received her J.D. at the University of Maine School of Law. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Nero Wolfe, and Romantic Times RC awards. Julia lives in a 180-year-old farmhouse in southern Maine with her husband and three children.