By John Glass
The pain had been excruciating, more than I imagined possible. It was marginally better now– still agonizingly sharp and dizzying, but better. The array of green monitors on my right beeped repeatedly. “Blood Oxygen Levels Low” blinked across one of the screens. A child’s whine drifted through the curtain. “I don’t want to!”
“It’s going to be alright honey,” came the soft reply.
Up until now, I really hadn’t been able to think since I had woken here. The pain was too encompassing. My nostrils felt as if they were still filled with smoke and fire. Even breathing hurt. I raised my head an inch and asked for water in a hoarse whisper. The nurse, just out of my view complied, squeezing a wet cloth into my open mouth. “Amy?” I asked. “Is she here?”
The uniformed man sitting directly opposite me looked up from his paper. “Can you talk? …about Amy now?”
“He won’t be able to speak at length for days yet,” came the nurse’s voice from the void to my left.
I had to know. “Is she alright? The kids?”
The officer replied. “We don’t know where they are. That’s why I’m asking.” He moved closer, and compassion showed on his face. “I think the kids are probably okay though.”
“He can’t talk yet!” the nurse said as she moved into view and opened my IV drip wider.
When I woke again the officer was still there. Amy and the kids weren’t. “How’s your pain on a scale of one to ten?” a nurse asked.
I hurt everywhere. My face and right side in particular stung and burned at the same time, but compared to when I was last awake, it was much better. If she had asked this last time we spoke, I would have said fifteen.
Before answering, I pushed against the cool steel rail of the hospital bed to reposition myself. It took more effort than I expected and I found myself panting, breathing in the smell of ointment and my own burned flesh. My arms and face were still shooting with pain, but my back felt better this way.
I looked up at the lady in scrubs and replied: “The pain? Seven.” My voice sounded normal and my throat didn’t rebel at the attempt to speak.
The uniformed man scraped his chair across the tile floor as he pulled closer to my bed.
“There was a house fire.” I told him, stating the obvious. “Amy? The kids?”
“Tell me about your children. How many do you have? Names?”
I smiled–or tried to. The right side of my face crackled painfully as muscles tried to change its shape. Even in pain talking about the kids is the next best thing to being with them. “Peter, Rebecca, Tom, Valerie, Hanna, Joel, Josh, Melanie, Jennette, and Doug.”
“That’s a lot of kids.” the officer smiled back. “All yours?”
“Yes, they’re all ours–but none together. I already had five children when we were married: Peter, Rebecca, Tom, Joel, and Josh. Valerie, Hanna, Melanie, Jennette, and Doug are Amy’s biologically.”
“What’s your address Mr. Gillespie?”
“129 Fox Meadow Lane, Orange Virginia.”
The man smiled, like I had gotten something right. “And your parent’s address?”
“1432 Allen Street, Fayetteville WV.“
“Good. The oldest eight are safely at their grandparent’s house. Rebecca arrived there first, but the rest made it soon enough. We think Jennette and Doug are safe too, but we need your help okay?”
My IV continued to drip in the silence providing me with needed pain relief, fluids, and antibiotics.
“Tell me how you met Amy.”
‘Tell you how we met?’ What does that have to do with anything? I wondered. I didn’t have the energy to argue this out loud. Okay . . . .
“We met online a few years ago at mormondate.com. We both were single and raising children on our own. She moved out here from Owingston, Kentucky, and we were married soon after.”
“I take it you were both married before.”
“Yes. I don’t believe in divorce, but sometimes it isn’t your choice. Jane was going to leave me no matter what I did. Amy’s first husband left her for a sixteen year old boy.”
The man nodded as if he knew the story. “What’s Amy’s educational background?”
“Bachelor’s in Family and Consumer Sciences and a Master’s in Biochemistry from the University of Kentucky.”
“Would you say Amy has a problem with hoarding?”
The steady beeping of the pulse monitor picked up pace. Did one of her never ending piles shift onto the water heater or the furnace and start the blaze?
I looked down at the man’s shoes, the rough weave of the sheets rubbing raw against my wounds as I moved. The noises of people passing in the hall were suddenly distracting. It’s true. No avoiding it, I thought, and looked back up into his eyes nodding.
“Yes she does. I should have realized it before we were married but I really didn’t. Too much ready to be in love I guess. Yeah, she buys one of everything whether she needs it or not. I couldn’t tell you how many shoes are in the house, most of them never worn. Kids have more clothes than they need–or want. And running low on milk is an unspeakable crime–we need two refrigerators just to hold it all. Honestly sometimes you can’t get into our bedroom for all her stuff, and you don’t even want to hear about the basement. Things aren’t perfect, but there’s love and loyalty. The kids all love each other and are doing well in school. What more could you ask for?”
“She collect virtual reality terminals too?”
“VR terminals?” We have five of them. It sounds like a lot, but when you look at the number of people in the family . . . Really that’s one thing it would be helpful to have more of. Kids can’t get through high school anymore without their own online access for homework–especially when you have four kids taking online AP courses at the same time.
“Full body interfaces or gloves and helmet only?”
“Four of them are Glove and Helmets running MS Virtual World. We got a LinX Full Body for the family last Christmas.”
“I’ve wanted one of those for a year now. What do you think of it?”
“They’re pretty good. The advertising hype really isn’t that far off. Puts out an excellent simulation of whatever you throw at it, real or otherwise. Kid struggling with cellular biology? Forget the microscope–he can literally walk through a functioning cell. Need to improve your batting? You can be coached by Hank Aaron. Get good enough and you can practice against Roger Clemens at the height of his steroid days. Like they say, it feels real.
“Like any other technology, it makes things easier–both the good and the bad. It’s all in what you choose to do with it. You better have really good parental controls installed whether you have kids or not. The advertisements thrown at you in there make the pop up porn video ads of twenty years ago look like Dr. Seuss. One in the house is more than enough–and it stays in the living room.”
A wistful smile faded from the officer’s face as he moved back on topic.
“Does Amy hoard anything else?”
“If you’ve been over to the house, you know about the animals. She had five horses when we got married. She’s up to fourteen now. Don’t even know how many cats there are. Add to that four dogs, goats, chickens, lizards, birds, snakes, and sugar gliders: yeah, I’d say she hoards animals. We’ve had a few discussions on that one and I’ve never won once. ‘They’re for the kids–helps them learn responsibility.’ or ‘She was SO cute. I just couldn’t pass her up.’ My favorite was: ‘If I get just one more horse, we can start making money off of them.’ It’s just an unavoidable part of living with Amy.”
“So, your wife is a hoarder and you can take it in stride. I’d say she’s lucky to have you.”
“Well, everyone has their faults. You haven’t asked about mine.”
“Look, Josh, to your knowledge that’s all she’s been hoarding?”
“All?” I chuckled. “Where would she put anything else?”
He paused, silent for a moment, then took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. “Mr. Gillespie, I hate to break this to you. Your current address is 115 Brookstone Road, Owingsville Kentucky. You haven’t lived in Virginia for a year now. Your house was sold last October. Your retirement is gone.”
I stared at him in consternation. “I KNOW where I live!” I screamed jerking up my arms and pulling the IV stand with them.
The officer didn’t flinch, but calmly continued. “I’m not calling you crazy. It’s got to be tough to believe me.”
“Darn right. You’re nuts.” I said quietly, pain making me regret my outburst.
He punched his smart phone and called up a video on the room’s holo display. “This is the footage from the fire department’s rescue efforts.”
I watched as fire trucks parked outside the house where Amy lived before we married. Smoke poured from the house, but no flames were visible.
The kids were outside–all except Rebecca. Josh and Valerie were yelling at their mom who was cursing everyone as firefighters rushed inside.
The inside of the house was a wreck as I knew it would be. This was Amy’s old house. What was anyone doing there?
Firefighters stepped around stacks of junk and pushed their way through the smoke and flame calling for Rebecca. Clearing room after room, still no one could find her.
Smoke poured out from around the shut basement door. Two men worked on opening it. It was a useless effort. I knew what Amy’s basements looked like. No one would ever get through the piles.
They had to break the door down in the end–probably junk jammed in behind it. The room was packed, but not with anything I would ever have expected.
Hospital beds! There was row after row of men in hospital beds. The fire burned hottest here, a roaring noise filled the room and heat roiled the air. Those closest to the furnace in the back of the room were hardly visible for the smoke and flames.
I counted bodies in the beds. At least sixteen. Sixteen! One of them had a face just like Doug’s!
Suddenly there I was, fourth one from the door, wearing our FB, an IV dripping into my veins. Flames blazed around me, licking up to my right arm as my mattress caught fire. I didn’t even notice.
The sight paralyzed me. Everything! Everything I’ve ever had and everyone I care about is lost, stolen, gone. How? How could she . . . . The movie must have finished but I never noticed. I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t move.
The officer sat with me in the silence as I stared uncomprehendingly at nothing whatsoever.
Finally he said. “The kids.”
“The kids.” I repeated numbly, snapping out of my trance enough to look at him.
“They thought you left them. Rebecca apparently found the hoard and walked to your parents for help. We think Amy set the fire when she realized Rebecca learned the truth.”
“She walked?” I whispered in consternation.
He stood and walked to the door. “All but two of them are safe with your parents. We’ll find the other two. Get better; you’ll want to see them again.”
John Glass is the father of a passel of adult children and currently lives in Palos Heights, IL. He can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/johntglass. This is his first story sale.