Change of Heart

Change of Heart

A Story by Kate
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A firefighter contemplates adoption.

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Pretend, just for an instant, that you had shrunken to half your size, discarding your mandatory morning coffee, an endlessly ringing pager, and black newsprint spread over your fingertips. Place yourself in a dark room filled with mocking teddy-bear eyes, and surround yourself in Buzz Lightyear pajamas. Let the bottom of the flashlight gripped tightly beneath your dirty fingernails fall, batteries spilling across your bed as you are thrust into total darkness.

                This is what it feels like when your child is missing.

                Your hands gently grope the surface of the bed, confidant that the batteries lay just within reach. Slowly, as your fingers crawl over the last square inch of surface, you begin to wonder whether the light is farther than you think. You suppress the whimper inching up your throat, frantically rechecking the sheets, refusing to believe that what you need most has simply disappeared.  And when it does not reappear, you find yourself screaming for help.

~***~

                Angelica Reynolds stood at the stovetop pouring pancake batter into miniature Mickey Mouses complete with chocolate chip eyes and buttons. It was tedious work, no question, but with perfecting his rounded ears and placing within him deep brown eyes came the thought that as soon as Lizzie’s cocooned toes touched the kitchen floor, reeled in by the aroma of food every time unfailingly, her face would glow with the light of a smile.

                “Mickey Mouse!” she’d cheer, grabbing with heavy hands at the plate, arm brushing a cold glass of orange juice just as her mother’s practiced fingers pulled it away. There were some things that you would come to expect from motherhood, and, when it didn’t have you kneeling on the floor with a roll of Bounty paper towels crushed in hand, even enjoy. There was something inexplicably pleasing about bringing the smallest smile to a child’s face.

Shoveling the last pancake onto the plate she set it on the table and slid out a chair, sinking into it as she prepared to count the seconds it took for Lizzie to arrive, appetite in hand. Small sounds gradually began to fill the kitchen, evolving quickly from obnoxious beats to a cacophony of noise: the clock ticked, the coffee burbled, the sink dripped. This just wasn’t normal for Lizzie.

Silently sliding out of the chair, she padded upstairs and creaked open her daughter’s door. Everything was in place. Mounted dolls lined the walls and a box of stuffed animals sat next to a discarded ballerina tutu left in the corner. It had been her husband’s idea to get Lizzie into dance, if only so that he might have a chance to show off her “athletic prowess”. His pride blinded his sense. Sweeping the room, her eyes focused on the bed, sheets tumbling open in billows of blue-white to reveal a pepper cat, eyes closed wearily. Slowly, Smokey stretched on her hind paws and met Angie’s expectant eyes. As she leapt from the bed, her fat belly lolled behind her, catching up with the rest of Smokey’s body seconds after it landed.

 “Lizzie?” She called, fingers sweeping across a family photo. In it, Lizzie was laughing, chin tilted up into the falsetto lights. The photographer had ordered them to say ‘cheese’, and then stood back in confusion when giggles filled the room, wondering what could account for all the laughter. The thing was, it wasn’t funny, and Lizzie had known that. She had had no reason to laugh, and yet she was smiling all the same. Maybe it had simply been the fact that a total stranger could seem so familiar.

Her heart began to swell with panic as she passed through the last room in the house and re-entered the kitchen. “Lizzie?” she questioned in a quiet, measured voice. She would keep calm, be slow to jump to conclusions. Lizzie was here somewhere, because people didn’t just go missing. They aren’t here one moment and gone the next. Not when they hadn’t done anything wrong.

A slight shuffle of feet and a yawn permeated the air. Turning, Angie caught sight of her husband. “Derek, have you seen Lizzie?” she asked carefully, voice level.

“I can barely see anything, Angie,” he joked, rubbing at his eyes, “Those late night surgeries have never been anything less than helpful when it comes to staying conscious.” Blinking awake he took in the slight frown on her face and the feelings running amok behind her eyes. “Why?”

“I can’t seem to find her. I’ve checked the whole house and she’s just not there.” Angie gnawed at her nails, a bad habit she could never seem to break. She winced as she bit her thumb.

“She’s probably stuffed in a corner reading a good book,” he suggested. Ever proud of his daughter, he found her success his own, and was constantly pushing her to do her best. He just wanted her to have the best opportunities, the ones she deserved. And if he simply believed that she was exceedingly bright, she certainly would be.

“A 5-year old ignoring breakfast because of a book? She can only just read, Derek, so cut it out and help me look for her!” She was beginning to fume, fear pushing anger out in the form of steam. Didn’t he understand that it was their little girl that was gone? The same one that used to cling to Angie as she strolled into the supermarket, or would refuse to let her parents out of her eyesight to the point where leaving her at preschool became a complicated procedure? Tripping over to the kitchen cabinets, she began to swing them open, scattering pots and pans across the checkered floor.

“Angie, calm down. She’s not going to be " “

“Daddy, look!” a small voice cried, pushing open a glass door and stomping into the kitchen. Relief swept through Angie, like lemonade on a hot day. It was amazing how fast anger could dissipate. Then reignite.

                Inside of Lizzie’s cupped hands rested a small, bald ball, squirming as it waved it’s long, rat-like tail about in a sickening matter. “Can we keep him Daddy? Please?” Angie watched in horror as it attempted to lift its head, too large for the rest of its pink body. She struggled to find her voice.

                “Lizzie, what is that thing?” She lectured, appalled. The last thing she needed was for Lizzie to become attached to pests at an early age.

                “It’s a baby squirrel!” chirped Lizzie, almond eyes shining. “His mommy must have forgotten him by accident, because he was on the ground. I saved him!” To Angie’s horror, her husband seemed just as excited as Lizzie was by this find. Forming a small pool with his hands, he reached down, Lizzie tipping the ball into his hand.

                “It is a squirrel! I told you she was bright, Angie. Not every little girl can save an animal and be able to identify it.” He handed the shriveled rodent back to Lizzie and rubbed her head gently, tossing her golden locks. There was absolutely no way they were going to take care of this animal. Its mother was the one that abandoned it, and they had done nothing to harm to poor animal, so it wasn’t their responsibility. Angie swore up and down it wouldn’t get farther than the kitchen, and that a quick trip to the humane society would follow soon enough.

                “Put it back outside, Lizzie. I don’t want to have that thing in the house,” Angie ordered. Lizzie opened her mouth to object, but Angie caught her mid-sound. “And no, you can’t show it to Smokey. She’d probably eat it.”

                “Come on Angie, let her keep it for one day. We’ll bring it to an animal hospital by dinnertime tonight.” Catching her eye warily surveying the rooms beyond the kitchen he hastily edited his speech. “We won’t let it into any other room beside the kitchen, and I’ll have her wash her hands before and after she touches it.”

                As she surveyed her shining face, she relented. After all, it was too small to really get into trouble, and if her husband wanted to play the Good Samaritan, it was all right by her, as long as she wasn’t involved. As she nodded her head reluctantly, she caught sight of the clock. Profanities began to spill out of her mouth like a waterfall. “I’m going to be late! Great, just great,” she muttered as she raced out the door, sparing seconds only for a kiss to Lizzie’s soft head. What was she going to tell her boss? That a rodent lost her fifteen minutes of valuable time?

                Behind her Lizzie was cooing over the baby, Derek booting up the computer to research the care it would need. On the table sat an untouched plate of chocolate chip Mickey Mouse pancakes.

~***~

                Isn’t it amazing how vulnerable babies are? Lizzie stroked its curled body, her finger twisting around its tail. It was a tail so like Smokey’s, soft and small, yet lacking any hair to make if fuzzy. It began to shiver convulsively, startling Lizzie. Were babies supposed to shake so violently? What if it squirmed out of her hands? She couldn’t let her baby get hurt, not when she was all it had. Not when its mommy was gone. She cradled it closer and began to sing a nursery rhyme under her breath.

                “Old McDonald had a farm "“

                “Lizzie?” Derek called.

                “And on that farm he had a squirrel "“

                “Lizzie?” Derek tried again, peering around the doorway into the living room, where she lay on the couch murmuring to the orphan.

                “Daddy,” Lizzie asked, looking up. “What sound does a squirrel make?” Derek thought for a moment. He saw squirrels all too often, like any other New Englander, but he couldn’t remember the noise they made. He was certain that the sound did exist, somewhere, but couldn’t replicate it. How could he not have been able to remember such a trivial thing? Maybe he had just never taken the time to notice.

                “I’m not sure, Lizzie.”

                Lizzie was surprised. How could her own daddy not know what sound the animal made? But if he didn’t know, then how was the baby supposed to learn? Concern flooded her features. The squirrel didn’t have a mommy to teach her these things, so it was her job to take care of him. But how could she help him if she didn’t even know what sound he made? How could she do anything? “How are we going to take care of him then? I can’t be his new mommy when I don’t even know anything about him!”

                “We’re going to have to listen to him if we want to know what he needs.” Derek said quietly, soothing his agitated daughter.

                “But we don’t speak squirrel! We can’t do anything!” Tears of frustration pricked at her eyes.

                “Sometimes actions are louder than words.”

~***~

                Alarms were spinning like tops at the station. Pulling on her heavy boots, Angelica rushed to the fire engine, curses stemming from her mouth. Couldn’t these people avoid a screw-up, just for once? Take a safety precaution here or there, remember to actually turn off the oven when they were finished cooking? All these little mistakes would eventually lead up to one huge mess, and when it hit them, we’d have to clean it up. The engine swerved through streets, running its wheels over sidewalks and nearly missing people in an attempt to cross town in a near impossible time. We were threatening lives while en route to save them.

                The smoke billowed into the sky, dark ash lightly dusting the air around her as she jumped off the truck. A raging fire licked angrily at the home before her, greedily consuming wood in an attempt to mock the owners of the home, leave them without a single possession. Angie surveyed the scene for a moment, pausing in the act of attaching a hose to the hydrant. It was definitely a lost cause. Once the flames got hold of something, they rarely let go.

                “Reynolds!” Someone screamed at Angie, forcing her to turn her face from the heat. “Get that house watered down! Come on!” Roy Henderson was pointing at the hydrant, sweat coursing down his rough features in thick rivulets. Letting out one last profanity, she twisted the hose into place, causing water to rain down upon the melting lawn. She didn’t know why she was trying so hard to gain success in a definite failure.

~***~

                Roy Henderson was fed up with the lack of effort in his firefighters. He flung himself onto them, yelling orders over the rising steam. “Bump up the water pressure on that thing,” he directed one blackened employee, ash coating his face. “Pull out the extra hose and see if you can find another nozzle,” he ordered another loudly. Turning back towards the house he saw a lean figure standing still, a statue among the living. Pushing through the clouds of smoke he recognized her at once, anger inside leaping as high as the flames. “Reynolds! Get that house watered down! Come on!”

                The effort with which she threw herself into the task was minute, almost invisible. If the cause of it was fear, Roy could deal with it. If she was afraid to risk her life to save others, she was less than gallant, no doubt, but he couldn’t blame her. The problem Roy found with Angelica Reynolds was the way her eyes shone with disdain, the way her body stood pivoted on one foot, as if she was better than the rest of the world, above taking orders or helping others. That he could not stand.

                A whine came from the house, like a teapot coming to a boil, shrieking just over the roaring fire. Pausing, Roy wiped his brow and listened closer. The sound came through again, this time taking on a more human quality. “There’s someone in there!” He cried over the noise of spraying water. “Reynolds,” He yelled reluctantly, “You’re in command. I’m going to go get the person and I’ll be right out.”

                Strapping on his gas mask he plowed right into the mouth of the beast, avoiding loose beams and listening for the tell-tale crack of a structure taking its last breath. He picked through the rubble carefully, stopping to listen for the human voice at well-spaced intervals. He was practiced at this: in, grab the person, out. Not too hard if you didn’t make any foolish mistakes.

                A sudden groan swept through the building, causing him to stop in his tracks. In front of him the room was ablaze, beams snapping downwards and falling like crystals during a spring thaw. A crack split through the air and the floor above him fell inward, collapsing in on itself. There was one second suspended in between the crack and Roy’s sudden exit, one in which his eyes darted about and focused in on the one thing that could save his life. Taking a deep breath, he leapt backwards, through the window and onto the littered grass.

~***~

                It wouldn’t eat.

                Poised at the kitchen table, Derek sat with the baby squirrel pressed between his chest and a syringe filled with a formula he and Lizzie had picked up from the pet store. He had removed the needle only after Lizzie had asked him why he was sticking such a sharp object in the baby’s tiny mouth. Once again, Derek had been careless enough to forget the advice given to him by the pet shop employee. But still, the animal would not eat. Sighing, he studied the letters in front of him, picking three and placing them on the board.

                “I’m placing ‘stagger’ off of ‘stamina’.” The letters clicked as they hit the board, soldiers marching in line.

                “What does ‘stagger’ mean?” Lizzie questioned, curious.

                Derek cuddled the baby to his body tighter, attempting to force the food down its throat. It would die if it didn’t let Derek take care of him. It had to understand at some point that its mother wasn’t coming back. “It means to stumble, to trip, to fall.”

                His daughter placed several tiles on the game board, spelling out ‘hello’. Thoughtfully, Derek plucked several more letters off his rack and dropped them on.

                “Strive, S-T-R-I-V-E. I’m going to put that off of ‘vile’.” He announced to his daughter. She looked at him blankly, then sighed.

                “Daddy,” she said routinely, “What does ‘strive’ mean?”

                He paused for a moment, looking down at the little life clutched against his chest. “To try.”

~***~

                Angie watched him fall. The window was shattered into jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the property. Already, several of her colleagues had reached the crumpled fire chief Henderson. As he stood up, he leaned heavily on their shoulders, hopping quickly to escape the inferno with only an injured leg. Watching the scene unfold around her, she paused, uncertain of her duty. Inside the voice still screamed, teetering as it lost power. Outside Angie had her family, her life, everything she was not willing to risk while saving a complete fool from their own mistakes.

                Grabbing a gas mask, she tumbled into the home.

                Reaching out at the walls, she stepped around the beams that had fallen just as Henderson had pushed through the window. Past the broken glass was a beaten staircase that echoed the screams from above in a terrifying pitch that dug right into her heart. The screams were so small, so tiny. Could it be possible they originated from someone of equal stature? Thoughts of Lizzie flooded her mind. What if that was her up there? How could you make the pain, the fear, stop? Throwing aside all precaution, Angie took the stairs by twos, deeply aware of the clock that ticked down the life of the house like a time bomb.

                At the top was a small alcove, branching off into three small rooms. One appeared to be a scorched bathroom, while the queen bed in another was ablaze. Her breath caught, and even in the gas mask she struggled to find air. Shocked, she turned into the third room and saw fire climbing the curtains behind a barred crib. Face red, eyes ablaze, a toddler screamed in fear; for the fire, for his life. For her.  In the gas mask she was just another alien to the child, another stranger out to hurt him. Ignoring his protests, she snatched him from the grip of the flames and flew down the stairs, taking care to sidestep the debris. She burst out of the house, child in hand, but not before she could banish the thought of who had been in the first bedroom.

~***~

                “Have you seen Smokey?” Derek asked Lizzie as she feasted hungrily on a lunch of peanut butter and jelly. The cat had been missing all day, and though Derek was thoroughly preoccupied with the newborn, he was beginning to wonder.

                “No,” she answered between bites, a milk mustache painted above her lips. “Maybe she’s scared of Baby.”

                “I think it’s the other way around, Lizzie.”

~***~

                Angie looked through the doorway desperately, the terror in the child’s voice clawing at her frayed nerves. A wave of heat rose to meet her as she entered the blazing room. Inside, a queen bed was consumed by flames, all evidence of life being destroyed before her very eyes. But it hadn’t done its job well enough, or fast enough. For staring back up at her were two still, blackened faces, no longer of flesh and blood but of burned bone. Turning from the sight her stomach lurched, eyesight swimming. It took a minute to set herself straight again, before she was able to head off to find the newly orphaned child.

~***~

                Lizzie had big plans for her baby squirrel. Opening the latch on her closet she began to run through her Barbie’s wardrobe in her mind, mentally picking the one in which she would dress the infant. The door squeaked open and light flooded the enclosed space.

                She nearly dropped the baby.

                At the bottom of her closet, nestled in a pile of discarded stockings and dresses, was Smokey. But she was not alone. Snuggled against her tummy were four little kittens, furry paws reaching blindly for their mother. They waddled about the closet, unsteady on their feet and uncertain about their new surroundings. Securing Baby in her left hand, she reached down to stroke one of the kitten’s with her right.

                “Daddy! Come here! Fast!” she called excitedly.

                Derek, hearing her voice, pounded up the stairs and into her room, scared by her tone. “What is it? Is everything alright?” Following Lizzie’s eyes he peered into her closet and emitted a small gasp. “Kittens? So that’s why Smokey seemed like such a fat cat.” Squatting down he reached out for the smallest ball of fluff, touching one just behind its folded ear. Smokey was purring contentedly, as if having four kittens latched onto her was her life dream.

                Lizzie set the squirrel on the floor and began to jump in excitement. “Can we keep them, Daddy?”

~***~

                They removed the child from Angie’s arms and placed him in an ambulance, leaving her to watch as it rolled him away. She struggled to force sound out of her throat, shock and smoke closing the small passage of air into her body.

                “Good job Reynolds,” Roy said, limping up to her. “For a second there, I didn’t think you would do it.”

                Angie stared into space, wishing herself as happy as Roy looked. But no matter what she did, there was always something nagging at the back of her mind, enveloping the adrenaline rush of becoming a heroine. If everyone who loved you disappeared, where did that leave you? Did you have the chance to start over? Or, no matter how small, did you carry that feeling of loss inside of you, even when you had tried to reconstruct yourself anew?

~***~

                When Angie stumbled in the door, smelling of smoke, she dropped onto the couch in exhaustion. The day kept replaying itself through her mind like a broken record, always ending just as the boy was taken from her arms and placed in an ambulance. She had been unable to lower her arms, but instead had left them outstretched, as if ready for the care of a life to be thrust at her any moment. Was she really prepared for that kind of commitment, another soul, another body? Someone to look up to you through successes and failures? Or would accepting the child of a foolish family only bring shame to your own?

                But what if it wasn’t their fault that the fire raged through their home, stealing away possessions and lives as if they were nothing? What if it had been a true accident, what if the reason they were not alive today was only because of bad luck?

                No. There are no such things as accidents. No such thing as bad luck. It was entirely their fault, and it could have been avoided through careful procedures. God, then why did this gnaw at her so?

                “Angie?” Derek called from upstairs, sliding down the banister like a child. Lizzie followed afterward, stumbling down the steps. As he entered the living room, he hesitated, smelling the smoke and taking in her blackened features. Her face, pouted downward in a small frown, puzzled her husband. Lizzie, however, leapt straight onto her lap.

                “Mommy! Guess what? Smokey had kittens! Come and see, mommy. Come on!” She tugged at Angie’s hand until she relented and stood upright, beginning what seemed a mile long traipse up the stairs. Swinging open the door to her closet grandiosely, Lizzie announced the birth of four tiny kittens. Angie leaned over, intrigued by the unexpected pregnancy. Slowly she counted the heads, making sure that these lives, at least, were safe. Four were kissing Smokey’s stomach, gently breathing against her warm presence. A fifth one was being gingerly licked clean by the mother. Five. She recounted. Five again. Nuzzled at the end, covered in cat tongue with its face pressed up against Smokey’s belly was a bald kitten. Someone from outside of the pack. Someone who had lost their family, and adopted a new one. A stranger that somehow managed to belong. A baby squirrel.


© 2010 Kate



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Added on January 21, 2010
Last Updated on January 21, 2010
Tags: Love, mother, child, children, save, fire, kittens

Author

Kate
Kate

Norwalk, CT



About
Just a 16 year old girl writing in my spare time. more..

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