The yellow cab turned onto the short cul-de-sac. Brie leaned back, slightly buzzed, and thought of how the dark street looked much the same as it did when she was a little girl.
Deep horseshoe drives, towering trees and well-kept yards framed the pavement. Like her parents’ home, many were classic Victorians with small, square porches setting between towering white pillars. An occasional Colonial or English Tudor was thrown in the mix, yet the familiarity of the ancient road gave her a sense of serenity. She smiled even as the smell of stale cigarettes and dirty carpet mats filled her nose.
She and Liz had spent the evening at their favorite hole-in-the-wall pub. Her faded blue jeans and NYU collared shirt fit the nonexistent dress code nicely. Together, she and her sister celebrated the keynote speaker address Brie had landed for their district conference.
Stopping at the curb, she noticed her parents’ Lincoln Town Car. They weren’t due home until the next day, and she had parked in their spot. She felt a twinge of guilt, realizing they couldn’t fit in their own garage. After paying the driver, she stepped out into the balmy, upstate New York night.
The house was, indeed, a classic with decorative latticework framing the awning of the square front porch and windows. It was clear that night, and the air hung stagnant. Brilliant moonlight shone on the bold color of the low-lying dianthus blooming red along the walk that led to the square porch. Her mother preferred bushes, mostly dark green and thick to adorn the length of their home, but always maintained a row of color.
As she meandered up the path to their house, she felt queasy, like she’d done this before. Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder through her mass of wavy brown hair as she kept moving toward the front door. Two people were walking along the street. She stopped and wondered what reason anyone would have to take a walk at this time of night in such an early bird neighborhood.
It was then she heard the shrill of the smoke detectors. Chest tightening, she bolted for the door.
For too long, she fumbled with the keys in one trembling hand before trying the knob with the other. Damn it, it was already unlocked. “Mom! Dad!” she screamed and tumbled inside, spotting them almost immediately as they ran down the long upstairs hallway.
Not again. Please not again, she begged, as she fought her frozen legs to make them move up the stairs. The smoke detectors shrieked in her ears. Or was that the shrieking coming from her lungs?
Her parents yelled her name as they reached for the bedroom door. She couldn’t stop gasping for air long enough to tell them to stop. She wasn’t in there. Didn’t they know? If she hadn’t taken her damned sweet time getting in, she could keep her parents from opening the door. They needed to get out of the house. Couldn’t they smell the smoke?
Just like each time, her viewpoint from the middle of the stairs showed her the yellowish air sucking under the door to her bedroom. Although trying to use the railing to give her momentum, every part of her felt like it was in molasses. She cocked her head to the side, drawing her eyebrows together. Her gaze locked on the eerie breeze.
Almost simultaneously, her mother rotated the knob as her eyes turned and met hers. For that fraction of a second, her mother understood the fear on Brie’s face, but it was too late. It was always too late. As she opened the door, Brie had just enough time to witness her parents engulfed in flames before the explosion blew her back and everything went dark.
• • •
“Brie, wake up. Wake up, Brie. You’re dreaming.”
She opened her eyes to Brian as he shook her gently.
Sitting up with a start, she took three, quick gasps of air, her tank damp with sweat.
“It’s all right now,” he said, pulling her toward him.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed. “I just need a minute.” Rubbing her hands over her face, she headed down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the side of the vanity. She looked in the mirror at the dark rings under her eyes and thought of how her mother should be the one standing there.
Although the night of the fire was long ago, the dream’s vividness had yet to fade. The taste of the smoke. The crackle of the fire. The rush of the water hoses. The piercing sirens. She splashed water on her face, rolled her head from shoulder to shoulder and put on her running gear. She shook her head twice and headed back to the master bedroom of the home she grew up in.
With her hair tied up and her dog’s leash in hand, she found Brian waiting in her bed, slouched with his back against her headboard. He ran a hand over his short crop of hair; the man who had been a good friend to her, the man who helped put out the fire.
His eyes turned to her as she noticed the single, deep rise and heavy fall of his chest.
“Got a minute?” he asked.
“Sure. Will you need a ride to work? I should get Macey out for a run first.”
“One day on and two days off, Brie, same as always. You picked me up from the station yesterday. Sit down, will you?”
She sat on the crumpled sheets, faced him and crisscrossed her legs. “I guess you’ll need to take me to work then.” Forcing the corners of her mouth up, she folded her hands in her lap. “Today’s going to be a busy work day.”
Brian sat up and faced her. “You were dreaming about the fire.” It wasn’t a question.
Shrugging, she looked away.
“You were amazing, you know.”
She jerked back to face him and felt her face scowl.
“With the back of your head bleeding, you came to, still strapped to the gurney, and started shouting orders to the crew. The guys at the station still razz the rookie who forgot to secure your legs and ended up with a face full of your foot. He may have bled more than you did.”
He paused long enough to make her uncomfortable.
“You couldn’t have saved them.”
She stiffened. “I know that.”
She concentrated on his eyes. They were acorn brown, framed with a short buzz of blond hair that stood straight up. Why did he look so sad? It wasn’t like this was a new dream.
His shoulders fell forward as he reached for her hands. “You won’t let me in.”
She paused, keeping her focus on his expression. “I can’t give you more, you know that.” Although she knew he wouldn’t be surprised, the quick wince of his face caused her to drop her gaze to her folded hands.
Brian took a breath, cupped a hand under her chin and slowly lifted. “I know and I’m sorry, but I can’t keep chipping away at this ice. I need to be done.”
Looking back up, she turned her head away slightly. “Ice? Are you serious?” Instinctively, she pushed at his hand.
“Sorry … sorry. I didn’t mean you’re ice, just that … come on, Brie, we’ve been friends for too long. I don’t want this to end badly.”
“It won’t. I’m okay.” Picking up the leash, she walked toward the hallway.
“Brie, we swore if this didn’t work, it wouldn’t end the friendship.”
She stopped when she reached the doorway, placing one hand on the jamb. She didn’t face him. “It’s really okay. I’ll bring some food by the station the next time the Giants play.” She let out two short whistles, and a golden retriever followed her down the stairs and out the front door.
• • •
“You fucking idiot,” Rob repeated to Brian as they pulled up to the fire station.
“How many more times you gonna need to say that?” he grunted.
Rob slowly shook his balding head. “I’m not sure. You idiot.”
“Should I have stayed with her after six years of being friends and months of dating that weren’t any more than us being friends?”
“Were you having sex?”
“You picked me up from her house this morning, asshole. You know we were sleeping together.”
“Sex with a low-maintenance brunette who has a great rack. Sounds like more than friends to me. You idiot.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right.” He stepped out of the car.
“I guess that just clears the way for me to move in.”
“You even think about it and I’ll kick your ass. Friends don’t move in on friend’s ex’s.” He dug uncomfortably for his keys out of the pockets of yesterday’s wrinkled work pants.
“I laid off for how many years while you figured out how to get her to go out with you? Now, I still have to lay off? Well, fuck me. Who made up these rules anyway? Just kidding, man. Come on, cheer up. I’m only going to give you shit about this … well, always.”
He opened the door to his car as Rob walked up to the station. “I’m just going to go in and tell the B-shift what a fucking idiot you are before I head on home and go back to bed.”
• • •
She sat in the drive in her seasoned truck, enjoying the look of how everything lay covered with a fresh blanket of snow. Brie wondered why she wasn’t pouting in her bedroom, but she simply didn’t feel sad. Worried, definitely, at the fact that she couldn’t even make it work with nice-guy Brian McKinney, but not sad or really even disappointed. Maybe she was ice, she conceded.
She looked up at the west side of the home she had rebuilt. The two stories included rows of windows on each level. The pillars had been salvageable after the fire. They were painted with a fresh coat of white each year just like when she was a child. White shutters framed each of the windows as well as miniature balconies for the ones on the second story.
Only the landscaping had been altered. Inkberry holly and spring-blooming viburnum stood leafless in the fresh snow. The upright junipers that grew at the corners of the house were the only winter green. She carefully chose an array of plants that alternately bloomed throughout the spring, summer and fall, yet presented an organized, sophisticated look that blended with the appearance of the house.
Putting the car in gear, she tried to prioritize the list of things she had to do before the end of the work day. She still had enough time to arrive a full two hours before her first meeting. Between that and the appointment with the assistant superintendent after school, she needed to find time to finish the comments on her report cards by the four o’clock deadline.
She took in one fast, deep breath, let it out slowly and pulled out, noticing she made only the second set of tire tracks in the morning snow. The sun was just coming up, the evergreens and naked oaks casting long shadows over the white. The wind was calm, but the air bitter cold. She didn’t mind the cold. However, the drive did little to settle her.
Ice. Get over it, she convinced herself. So, she wasn’t interested in love and marriage. She had always been honest about that.
Thinking of the upcoming winter break, she considered how nice it would be for her students to have some time to spend with their families before the demands of second semester began. She, too, could use the break, take some time for herself and get ahead on work. Her sister, best friend and fellow teacher in the same building, called it detox time, and they christened each with a night at Mikey’s Pub and Grill. She probably should have called Liz before work to tell her about Brian, but she wasn’t ready to go through that story with her just yet.
After eight years of working at Bloom Elementary, Brie moved toward more district projects rather than keeping her focus solely on her classroom. The staff seemed to trust her ideas, for the most part, and her research. However, not everyone admired her knack for teaching adults as well as children. She’d been asked to give a handful of presentations on the research regarding society’s preconceived opinions of students’ academic abilities based on social and economic backgrounds. It was no secret she turned down offers to move into administration. She simply wanted to work with children.
She was one of the first to arrive, so the hallways were quiet and some still dark. As she walked past Susie Phillip’s second-grade classroom, she noticed the light on and popped her head in the doorway. “What are you doing here so early?”
Susie turned and leaned back in her chair. “Report cards. How about you? I figured you’d be done days ago.”
“Every time I’m done, I think of more comments to add. Will you come for New Year’s Eve?”
“Of course. Wouldn’t miss it. You know we used to have staff Christmas parties around here until you came along with your New Year’s Eve deal. I heard our favorite boss is going to make an appearance.”
“Ouch,” Brie grimaced. “At least she never stays too long. No television cameras or news crews.”
Susie shook her head and turned to her computer. “I’d better get back. Deadline is looming.”
She continued down the empty hallway. Her sensible, low-heeled pumps echoed as she turned the last corner. Purposely, she always dressed for work conservatively in slacks and basic-colored blouses with an occasional blazer. The feeling of cool air blowing from her classroom caused her to wish she’d chosen the blazer that morning. The noises from portable radios and the voices of men caused her to hesitate. They were speaking to her principal, Sandy Finley. She considered stopping to listen but understood her shoes had likely given away her presence in the hall. Instead, she walked in. Her eyes went first to the shattered wall of windows, then moved to the same two officers that had come the last time this happened.