I arrived home after work around 5:45. Jesse would be home already; she got off at 4 o’clock. Not to imply that I’m one of those husbands who expects dinner to be cooking when I get home, but she’d said she was going to cook homemade chicken pot pie tonight–one of my favorites. It’d been a long day, and the anticipation of that pot pie was about the only thing that kept me from screaming at Michael fifteen minutes into the “team building” meeting, which was scheduled to start at 10 AM, actually started at 11:15, ended at 1:39 PM, and didn’t include a lunch break. During the twenty-minute drive home, my mind and nose conspired to recall Jesse’s pot pie, and I’d have sworn that I could smell it by the time I turned onto our street.
The cacophony of two smoke alarms empowered the stink of burning pastry and meat such that I was nearly beaten to my knees a moment after opening the door. In an instant my panic turned and I was in emergency mode. I covered my nose and mouth with my necktie, and swatted the smoke from my eyes as I fought my way to the oven, where I doused the burning casserole with the sprayer attachment from the sink. I opened the window above the sink and turned on the ceiling fan. I called out, “Jesse!” There was too much smoke. She must’ve known the food was burning. Panic returned ten-fold, and as I called once more, I didn’t hear my own voice for the sound of my heart’s beating.
“Jesse!” I kept screaming, perhaps without breathing, as I ran upstairs toward the bedroom. I passed the bathroom, but couldn’t see in for the smoke, which was thicker upstairs. “Jesse!” I screamed again. I came to the bedroom door, which was open, and turned in, blind. I hadn’t made two strides before my foot struck a plastic laundry basket and I was falling head first through the impenetrable cloud of smoke. I heard thunder crack, and in the same moment my head went cold, my face went hot, and I couldn’t feel the rest of my body.
I felt myself stop suddenly, and realized I was on the floor. The hardwood was cold on my left cheek. I could see a ball of dust on the floor beneath the bed, but then it became blurry, and water was dripping into my eye from somewhere. My entire head was getting doused, and it was warm and red and it was blood. I tried to orient my palms to the floor to lift myself from the floor, but I couldn’t feel my hands, and I couldn’t move my neck to look and find them.
I screamed again, “Jesse!” Against a lack of strength and maybe consciousness, I kept trying to stand up. I struggled against total numbness, insisting to my brain that the muscles were still there, despite their non-responsiveness. The effort paid off, and I found myself rising up–slowly, at first, but then I was on my feet and lighter than ever.
I had to find Jesse. As I looked down at our neatly made bed, I realized the smoke had cleared. How long had I been on the floor? I looked around the room; Jesse wasn’t there. “Jesse!” She wasn’t in the bathroom, and she wasn’t across the hall in the computer room.
Suddenly, I could hear someone speaking downstairs. I called again, “Jesse!” I ran back down the stairs, and my father was there. Confused, I asked him, “Dad? Where’s Jesse?”
“I’ll call you when I’m done loading the truck. I love you. Bye.” Dad pressed a button to end his phone call, and dropped the phone in his breast pocket. He didn’t answer me, but bent down to pick up a box from the living room floor.
“Dad?! What’s going on? Answer me!” He didn’t. He set the box, labeled KITCHEN, back on the floor, and stared at it. As I moved to look him in the face, I saw that he was crying. He sat on the floor, and began to weep.
“Jesse!” I called again. I had to find her. Why hadn’t she noticed the food burning? What was wrong? I began to panic. I went downstairs to the den, calling again. She wasn’t there, either. I went into the second bathroom, and then the laundry room. Nothing. I stood in the den, looking all around. I didn’t know where else to look.
“Dinner’s ready!” I heard someone call from the kitchen. Jesse? It didn’t sound like her, but it was a woman’s voice. I ran back up the stairs.
“Who are you?!” I demanded of the strange, portly woman standing in my kitchen.
“I told you not to change until after dinner.” A child in a Superman costume ran past me, toward the woman cutting a frozen pizza on the bar of my kitchen. “If you get grease or sauce on your sleeves, it’ll be no candy for a week, understand?”
The boy nodded and proceeded climb into a chair at the bar and shove pizza into his face. The front door opened, and a teenage boy walked through.
“Oh great. I need to go; I’m already late for the party. Lisa should be here at 6:30 to pick up Benji for trick-or-treating. Remember what I told you?”
“Only Candace, Aaron, and Tim are allowed to come over. No drinking, no drugs, no sex. I got it.” The woman kissed the teenager on the cheek, and the child on the head, then picked up a red purse from a bar stool and headed for the still open door.
“Who are you people?! What are you doing in my house? Get out!” The tiny Superman started to cry.
“Hey, Benji. What’s wrong? Mom’s just going out to a Halloween party. It’s okay. You’re going to get to go trick-or-treating with Tommy in a couple of hours. Think about all that candy!” The boy cheered up, and resumed his feast of pizza.
“Okay, I’m gonna tell you a story. You gotta be tough for this one, no crying allowed. Ready?” The child nodded.
“Two years ago, before we lived here, something terrible happened. See, there was this married couple, who had just bought the house, the same house we’re sitting in right now, when tragedy struck.”
“It means something really sad.”
“I don’t like this story.”
“You’re not supposed to, it’s a Halloween story. Now be quiet and listen up. So, the woman was at home cooking dinner, and the man was still at work. Then, this burglar broke into the house. According to the police, he thought the house was empty. Apparently, since the man’s car was gone, because he was still at work, the burglar thought nobody was home. So this burglar, he breaks in through the back door, thinking he’s just going to rob the place.
“Of course, the woman hears him break in. She’s upstairs, putting away laundry in her bedroom, when the burglar comes in.”
“She was in Mommy’s bedroom?”
“No, actually it was your bedroom. Now let me finish. So the woman, she hears the door break, and she knows her husband wouldn’t have had to break the door to get in, so she picks up a pocket knife, and hides. The burglar doesn’t go upstairs right away. He figures the TV and electronics are downstairs, so he heads down to the den first. Thing is, when he’s down there, he hears the floors creak where the woman is standing.
“Now this is an old house, and you know it makes noises sometimes, but the burglar figures he better check it out, just to be sure. So he pulls out the gun he brought with him, just in case, and slowly creeps upstairs. Like I said, the floors are creaky, so the woman could hear him coming. She hides behind a dresser, ready to strike. When the burglar comes through the bedroom door, she lunges at him with the pocket knife. The burglar panics and shoots her in the chest, and she falls dead, landing on the bed. Of course, then the burglar ran away.”
“That’s not true!”
“It is true, but that’s not the end of the story. See, the woman’s husband wasn’t even home yet when all this happened. He got home a couple of hours after the woman was killed.
“So, he gets home, and the house is full of smoke, seeing as how the woman had been cooking dinner when she was killed, and it just burned in the oven since she, being dead and all, couldn’t much take it out when it was done. The food just burned up, and the smoke filled the whole house. Anyway, the man is walking around the house, but he can’t see anything for all the smoke. He goes upstairs, and he trips over a laundry basket in the floor. Crazy thing, he hits his head on the bedpost and cracks his skull and dies right there at the foot of the bed.
“What’s really tragic, though…”
“Sad. What’s really sad is that the guy didn’t even find his wife’s body, even though she was right there on the bed in front of him, on account of not being able to see her through the smoke. They say he died looking for her.”
“Uh-huh. As a matter of fact, they say that, when it’s really quiet, you can still hear him calling out, ‘Jesse! Jesse!’”
“Jesse!” Where could she be?