Maria should have known it was too good to be true. She had allowed her hope to override her good sense. She’d learned, sitting in the emergency room, trying not to look at her mangled leg, that a little hope is dangerous thing. Getting used to having one leg wasn’t so hard. She had her prosthesis for special occasions. A large collection of single shoes, all left. Lauren was afraid. She kept to the corners, her liquid brown eyes full of confusion. Zeke said it was her war wound and made up stories about how she’d lost her leg across enemy lines, or in a spaceship crash rather than under a motorcycle on a slick highway.
The house had been a lucky find, at least she’d thought so at first. Enough space for the kids, and she even had a room to herself for once. It was old, with exposed wiring she and the landlord pretended not to notice. The kids bounced around the backyard, planning a tree house. It wasn’t perfect, but there was nowhere else for them to go besides a tent on the beach that was not, and never would be, home.
She put Lauren to bed. She knew the girl would be up, under the blanket until all hours reading. Zeke had passed out on the living room floor. Maria draped his small form with a blanket. The old trick of carrying him up the stairs on her shoulder was no longer an option in her new, one legged existence.
Repairing to the lounge chair out back, she watched the sun dip below the horizon, smoking one cigarette after another until the fireflies came out. Trees thrummed with cicada song. She let her mind go still, dared to believe that maybe, just maybe everything would be all right, closed her eyes and dozed.
Small, pelting feet. Her boy running to her, and falling onto to the grass. Zeke’s small face was drawn, tight and gasping. She could get no sense out of him. He was wheezing. One word that came through, his sister’s name. She swung onto her crutches, damning her inability to move with any speed. Heat was coming off the house in waves hot enough to knock you over. Smoke was billowing from the roof. Flames licked up the siding, turning it black. The back door was hot to the touch. Too hot to do anything but blister her hands.
Lauren was upstairs. Lauren who liked to read, and dig holes to china. Lauren who was looking forward to third grade because they were going to teach her “real math”. This was the price. The price for allowing herself to think that maybe things might be better from now on. She let the crutches drop to the grass and her with them, unable to find her breath.