I stayed quiet when the people in uniforms asked, “Are you okay?” because eventually they asked, “Do you know what happened?”
I knew. There was uncle Ricky’s fight with the neighbor about the car. Cody and Ray wanted their money back, but the landlord wanted his too. And mom just wanted a man who would “treat her right.”
But they wanted to know about the spark. They wondered if I’d seen that tiny flame spread like milk over the floor and rush up the walls.
It took a while for my mother to make the fire. Her hands shook like her body as she grabbed at the match sticks. Some broke in half, some sparked and fizzled and most flamed out. I could have asked her why, but she was crying, so I stayed hidden in the hallway. Sad is better than angry.
I did see the one that started it. It was a perfect orange tip and she did a new thing and threw it back in the match box. The box went swoosh as she was holding it, and she threw it on Vernon’s chair. I thought it was going to all be done then, as it was more smoke than fire, but then one little flame touched that big hole with the foam that my brother used to pick out.
Mom ran upstairs and I heard her heavy steps go room to room as I stayed in the dark watching our campfire house make as much smoke as flame. I finally heard her frantic shriek. “Crystal!” I ran from the den to the front door and opened it just as she came down the stairs. The fresh, cold air made my lungs hurt and I couldn’t stop coughing.
Our neighbor across the street was yelling and waving both arms when my mother grabbed me and pulled me close. Our faces almost touched.
“You were playing with matches,” she said to me. “You burnt this whole house down.”
“But I. . .”
“Don’t lie. You burned this whole place down playing with those matches from the kitchen.”
And that’s what she said to the people in the uniforms, over and over again, as I stood silent, watching a different kind of spark flicker and then spread in strangers faces.