Fire in the Blood

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Ruthie propped her dusty broom against the wall and made quick steps toward Iva's room. An acrid, creosote smell, like hot tar on a new roof, tickled her nose. When she arrived at the door, her blood chilled. "What the devil!" She cried as she rushed inside, stopping short of the bed. Bunt pushed past her to the footboard, smothering the flames with an old rug.

"What you standing there for?" He yelled. "The girl!" With caution, Ruthie approached the side of the bed, where Iva sat curled up against the headboard. The scent of whiskey clung to the smoky air as she reached for the frightened girl.

"It's all right," she said, taking her niece's trembling hand in her own. "Everything's all right now." She gathered the girl in her arms rocking her gently while exchanging a troubled, but knowing, glance with Bunt.

After clearing the smoke from Iva's room, Bunt volunteered to sleep on the sofa. He gathered their extra bedding and set off for the living room in silence while Ruthie guided a still shaken Iva to their bedroom.

"Go on, hop in," she instructed the girl, folding down the blanket on their bed, and tucking her inside. She quickly left the room and returned with Iva's favorite stuffed toy, a bear named, Mr. Redding. "I found a friend to keep you company," Ruthie said, placing the toy beside her." Now get some rest," she whispered, but as she turned to leave the room again, Iva called to her. "Is uncle Bunt gon' whup me?" There was a slight tremor in the girl's voice that wasn't there before.

Ruthie paused, surveying Iva's world-weary brown face. Her cavernous eyes conveyed more than any words could communicate. She pressed her lips to Iva's forehead, hoping the gesture would offer some comfort and reassurance.

"Don't you fret," she told her, as she sat on the edge of the bed. "No spankings today."

"But..." Iva began, her gaze heavier than any child her age should possess. "Uncle Bunt said if there's one more fire. He gon' find out who doing it and...and..." She took a deep breath, her eyes now wet with tears. "Ain't he mad?" Ruthie shook her head, shushing the girl, and swaddling her tighter inside the blanket.

"Is he mad," Ruthie corrected. "Don't you worry. None of this is your fault," she said wiping away Iva's tears. "Your Uncle Bunt say a lot of things. It'll be all right in the morning." She leaned in and kissed her forehead again. "Come on now, get some sleep. Wouldn't want you to miss that church picnic." She hummed a soft tune and stroked Iva's thick hair plaits that had long come undone. As the lullaby wound to its conclusion, Ruthie spied the girl's struggles to keep her eyes open until sleep overtook her. Instead of joining Iva in bed, Ruthie made a soundless trek through the hallway toward the living-room with hopes of catching Bunt before he turned down for the night. Along the way, her niece's words replayed in her thoughts, encasing her in a cloud of doubt.

Uncle Bunt said if there's one more fire...

She paused in her tracks, leaning against the wall to gather her nerves. The events that brought the girl to them were present in her mind. She remembered the muggy afternoon the child arrived on their doorstep. They had just returned home from church services, when Bunt spotted the frail girl sitting on their porch steps with enough misery in her eyes to fill a lifetime. Stood beside her, was a wispy young woman with a small huddle of children from teen to toddler in tow. Equal in dishevelment, they all possessed the same sunken-eyed stare, as though they had peered into the future and found it to be an infinite nothingness.

With the children pacified with sweets in the kitchen, the woman sat on the sofa in the parlor sipping lemonade. She told them her name was Nellie, and that she was from Greeley, the same town as Bunt's eldest and only living brother, Butch. After cordialities were exchanged, Nellie finished her glass of lemonade and let out a weary sigh.

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