I must have zoned out and gotten lost in my own guilt and sucked into my own vortex of blame, as usual, because the next thing I knew, Asa had my quivering hand in his and was pulling me from my stupor into a flat-out sprint. He had long-ass legs and I did not, so I stumbled after while demanding to know what kind of bug he had gotten up his very fine southern ass.
“Hey, Opie … what the fuck?!” I barked out the words as he sped up even more once we hit the block my dad’s house was on.
“Don’t you smell the smoke? It’s so close.” He sounded legitimately concerned and as we rounded the corner the acrid and pungent smell of something burning hit me full in the face. I’d been too worried about the role I was playing in running my father’s life to notice the sirens were practically on top of us, or that there was a thick cloud of black smoke floating over our heads.
I was short, but I managed to pick up the pace and keep up with him, even as dread settled like a lead weight in my gut. It was pretty clear the closer we got that there was a small army of police and fire trucks parked in front of my dad’s house. It was also pretty clear that the cloud of smoke was coming from the beautiful brick building being entirely engulfed in flames that seemed like they were reaching up towards the sky.
The heat was air stealing and intense. So was the spectacle of neighbors and passersby that had gathered to watch everything I owned, everything my father had collected over his life, turn into ash and memory. I was shaking so hard that my legs couldn’t hold me up and I fell to my knees on the sidewalk, clutching my chest. I couldn’t see anything beyond the blur of tears in my eyes and I felt like the fire was hot enough that it was scalding me all the way to where I had crumpled to the ground. It was going to melt me on the spot, turn me into nothing more than a boiling puddle of guilt and remorse. A police officer came by and told us to back away, that it wasn’t safe, and when Asa told him I lived in the home, I saw the pity and an apology on his face.
He helped Asa pull me to my feet and ushered us over to where the fire trucks were parked in front of the house. Waterfalls of water streamed out of high-powered hoses as men outfitted to battle the blaze rushed to and fro. A man that had on navy pants and a crisp button-up shirt with a badge that looked a lot like a police badge pulled me away from the other two men and started peppering me with questions I struggled to answer.
Was anyone home?
No. My dad was at the bar since I was with Asa, and Rome was out for the day.
Did I remember leaving anything on or candles burning when I left for the afternoon?
No. My dad was a certified badass … we didn’t even have candles in the house.
Was anything unusual when I left the property?
Was it possible I left something on like a curling iron?
No. I always double-checked everything when I left.
Did we have a gas or electric stove?
Gas, and no, I hadn’t smelled propane or anything else that would indicate a leak.
Was the electrical in the home up to date?
Yes. Dad had had Zeb redo all the electrical a few years ago, after the toaster shocked him enough to knock him on his ass.
My head was spinning and there were a couple times I thought I was going to throw up on the man, because no matter how much water hit the house, the flames seemed to keep climbing and climbing. The house was being devoured by furious streaks of orange and red and I realized Asa was right. I’d thought being arrested and sitting in jail was as low as I would ever go, but watching everything I had, everything that mattered to my father, disintegrate in front of my eyes, I knew that jail was a false bottom and I was still falling … lower and lower. I couldn’t even see the top anymore.
The guy continued to drill me, more questions that I didn’t have the answers to, and eventually Asa came over and put his arm around me and pulled me to his wide chest.
“Called your old man. Both he and Darcy are on the way.” He pressed his cheek to the top of my head and I squeezed him for all I was worth.
“How did he sound?” Heartbroken? Angry? Terrified? That’s how I sounded when I asked the question.
Asa muttered something over my head and let me go. He set me away from him but kept both his hands on my shoulders and gave me a hard shake. It made my head snap back and had my teeth clicking together.
“He sounded scared out of his ever loving mind that his daughter might be injured. He sounded pissed as hell that he wasn’t here to console you as you lose everything you own right before your eyes. He’s worried, like any good parent would be, that this is tied directly to those creeps that were watching the house.” He shook me again. “How did you think he would sound, Avett?”
I pulled away from him and buried my hands in my face. “Mad. I thought he would sound mad. If this is tied to those guys that were watching the house and me, then this is my fault. It’s always my fault.”
He growled a few ugly words at me and then crossed his arms over his chest as he glared.
“Did you start the fire, Avett?” His drawl was usually so silky and sexy; right now it was ragged and mean.
“Of course not. I’ve been with you all afternoon, and I know I didn’t leave anything on. I always check.”
“Exactly.” The word snapped out like a whip. It was so sharp I jerked my head back like it smacked right across my tearstained cheeks. “And even if you did leave something on, it would’ve been an accident, so still not your fault. If you think I can’t recognize someone actively searching for punishment, for a penance they think they have to pay, then you are sadly mistaken. I saw it in myself and sure as shit can see it in you, Avett. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that whatever it is you are trying to atone for doesn’t care how many shitty things you do to make yourself feel bad, and it also doesn’t care how those shitty things affect other people. In fact, it doesn’t care about you at all, because it’s still going to be there, existing in your rearview, and none of the crap you do to yourself is ever going to change the view. What you do now regardless of how good or bad it may be won’t change what you did then and that’s something you have to live with.” His eyes darkened and the gleaming gold dimmed. “That’s why I’m still climbing and may never reach the top. That’s a heavy weight to haul around.”
I wanted to tell him to get the hell away from me. I didn’t want his acceptance and comfort to soften the rawness and ravages of what I was feeling. I didn’t want him to see through me like I was made of glass. I didn’t want to hear from someone that knew exactly what I was doing, that it wouldn’t work. I had convinced myself over the years that if I hurt enough, disappointed enough, lost enough, my penance would indeed be paid, and I could eventually go back to living a life where I didn’t feel like I deserved every single bad thing that came my way.