Right in the middle of trying to keep the schnitzel from burning and the broccoli from becoming a waterlogged mess and while Lucy fed the goldfish and the guinea pig and the rabbit out the back and gave the three-legged dog a couple of Tux biscuits, and right as the skinny stray cat nursed her five new-born kittens in a cardboard box jammed up against a stack of newspapers eight fingers deep, and in the middle of Spencer shoving his stinky gym gear into the washing machine and accidentally knocking the rubbish bin over on his way to the shower, and right as Jody filled out a Pak-n-Sav application while asking for a lift to the mall plus twenty dollars to spend on KFC, and twenty more for a movie, and maybe a lift home later on, and oh! some bus money to get to school in the morning, and right in the middle of Matt arriving home with his friends from basketball practice, the front door banging five times as five sets of size 13s stomped down the hall to his room followed by the sound of videogame gunshots and the spattering of grease in the pan and the barrage of message alerts arriving from Seth saying he’d be home late from work again, the fourth night in a row, something urgent with Melissa, something that might keep him until at least 10, maybe 11, sorry, and right in the middle of remembering herself at 22, full of dreams and endless hope, the entry-level job filling her days and bank account, saving for a neat and tidy house with two neat and tidy kids and a partner who gave her flowers even after seven neat and tidy years.
Right then. That’s when it happened. The switchboard began to smoulder.
And when the smoke alarm went off, she assumed it was the burning schnitzel while Jody kept asking for more and more, but then the smoke became too strong and even though she couldn’t see flames, she turned off the stove, banged on the bathroom door, yelled FIRE! FIRE! and rang 111, collected the cat and the kittens and the guinea pig and the rabbit and shooed the dog outside, picked up their phones and tablets, her wallet and keys, and they all stood right in the middle of the front yard watching the sinister smoke seep out from roof, listening to Lucy cry about the fish left inside, enduring Matt’s friends streaming live on Facebook and Spencer wishing he’d grabbed something more than a towel and Jody Snapchatting what she called the ‘epic event’, and right in the middle of the water gushing from the hoses, she wondered if the schnitzel would still be okay to eat and if there’d be something to salvage for Seth, and as she began to sink under the thought of just how long it would take to clean up the mess, the first responder told her to call her insurance company, told her that they were leaving, that the fire was out, that she should really try to find somewhere else for them to stay but if they couldn’t at short notice, it would be okay for one night, that the damage was in fact minimal, that they were lucky, it could’ve been so much worse, and right in the middle of their good fortune, the fire trucks rolled away and Matt’s friends’ parents arrived to collect their kids and gawk and collect Matt, too, and as Lucy ran out to say that the fish were fine and Jody asked if she could still go to the mall and Spencer said he’d go to a friend’s house, and right after arranging for Lucy to spend the night at the neighbour’s and making sure the kittens were still nursing and the guinea pig and rabbit had water, and right as she finally sat down in the middle of the smelly, damp, dark house, she texted Seth about the fire, saying that they needed to find another place to rent, telling him there was leftover schnitzel and broccoli on the stove and after not receiving a reply even an hour later, that’s when it really happened.
She left her phone on the kitchen bench, locked the front door, tied the three-legged dog to the tree out the back, and walked out into the night, right down the middle of the driveway, turned left and never looked back.
Jenna Heller is an American living in New Zealand with her partner and their two teens, two cats, and a dog. More of her writing can be found in Star 82 Review, Takahē and The Wax Paper.