We stood at the bottom of the stairs I'd run up and down so many times and took in their blackness. They'd been carpeted, in beige; now they were charred and looked as if they might collapse at any moment.
"It's OK," said my friend. "We've already been on them." She started up.
Tentatively, we followed her. Her room was on the left -- how many hours had I spent in there? She'd had to jump out the window at 4 in the morning. I'd been sleeping, completely unaware as the fire trucks blasted past our house down the street and the neighbors gathered on the street outside. Her younger sister's room was next. Then we peeked inside the oldest daughter's room. I dared say nothing. It was as if the fire had also consumed all that I had ever wanted to say.
In the kitchen, my friend asked, brightly, as if she were about to have the dogs do tricks, "Want to see something funny?" She pulled open the blackened freezer. A carton of ice cream sat inside, reduced to a blob - but still there. I laughed along with others, dutifully.
The dogs hadn't survived the fire.
Later, my friend told me the story she'd gotten from her parents. They'd been preparing to move to another town, where her father had found a new job. But he hadn't liked the real estate agent they'd contracted and had told her he was firing her. She hadn't taken the rejection well. That night, she'd crept onto their screened back porch, deposited a bag of dog turds inside and set it on fire. She must have thought that, surely, one of the adults would notice the intrusion immediately and stamp out the bag. It was such a classic prank. No one ever suffered any harm other than embarrassment and a smelly shoe. But the family had long since gone to bed. So, unnoticed, the flames spread and consumed the house that was my friend's mother's pride and joy, the shining showcase at the top of the street.
With their home gone, their new house in the new town already purchased, my friend's family had no reason to stay. Within a week, they were gone.
My friend sent me her new address and we began writing to each other. At first, her letters were full of affection and pining -- she missed me, she missed her other friends, she missed her house. How was So-and-so? Did the teachers ever mention her? How about that cute boy?
I wrote back, spending hours picking out stationery and fussing over my handwriting. I'd been the lonely new kid only a year or two before, and she'd befriended me - she of all people, one of the golden popular girls whose father was the most respected man on our street. Over the little wisps of compassion she'd initially offered, I'd hovered desperately, settling all my hope of social survival on them. Somehow our friendship had caught on and had bloomed into a sturdy blaze. But now she was miles away and I didn't know how to keep the fire going.
Miraculously, she wrote one day, "Come visit. I miss you." There was so much to do in her new town, so much she wanted to show me, she wrote. I looked up her new home on the map - it was only two hours away, straight down the interstate. But it might as well have been on another continent. My parents had never become friendly with her parents; they had no logs in this fire. Nor had her mother ever really approved of her daughter's friendship: My family was too unstylish, too socially awkward, too foreign. We were granted one phone conversation and then told to stick to letter-writing.
Her letters began to change. She was meeting new people, igniting new friendships. Anxiously, I wrote more, so she wouldn't forget me. I noticed she was writing less. In desperation, I lashed out: Why did she use chintzy notebook paper for her letters? Why did she write so much about people I didn't even know? Why didn't she come visit me?
(Why didn't she want to be my friend anymore?)
She became defensive. She couldn't afford expensive stationery; the fire had singed her family's finances. I should be happy she was making new friends. If she could visit me, she would have already. Why wasn't I supporting her in her time of need?
Why was I putting out our friendship?
By the time my own family moved out of town a couple years later, we had nearly stopped writing to each other. I dutifully sent her my new address, and she obligingly replied, but after that, we both let it go. I found myself much happier at my new school; friendships came easier there, and I had more of them.
One day nearly 10 years after the fire, I was sitting in a journalism class and opened up a newspaper from the state where my friend and I had once lived. I turned the page and saw a picture of a woman being led in handcuffs. I read the caption.
For a moment, the world stopped.
It was a picture of the woman who'd set my friend's house on fire. My friend had written in one of her letters that the woman had eventually been ruled mentally unstable and had been institutionalized, then escaped, causing my friend and her sisters much fear that she'd find them again. But she had simply disappeared - until now. She'd been caught and would have to finish her penance.
I wondered where my friend was, and whether she knew about this turn of events. For a moment, the embers blazed again, then died down. I had no way of finding her.
Perhaps another decade later, I was killing time on the Internet one day when it occurred to me to search for my friend. By then I'd heard many tales of long-lost loves, friends, family members being reunited, and it didn't seem far-fetched to think that I could succeed, too. I typed in her name. Nothing. She could have married, of course, and changed her name. I remembered her sisters' names. Both had had names with unusual spellings. I tried her younger sister, and was relieved to get nothing - we hadn't gotten along well. Then I tried her older sister. Up popped an e-mail address.
Her older sister had always been distant but civil. She remembered me, and sent her good wishes along with her sister's e-mail address.
My friend seemed happy to hear from me, at first. Quickly, we updated each other on our lives. Then I asked, out of politeness, how her parents were doing.
It took her a few days to write back. Then she told me that the fire had consumed their marriage as well.
I wrote back, hesitantly, to say I was sorry. She didn't reply.
Maybe, I suddenly realized, she'd thought all this time that I was the lucky one.
I sent her a couple more tentative e-mails, which got no response. I decided not to bother her anymore.
This year, I tried one more time. I found her on Facebook - she had a fairly common name now, but the photo confirmed it was her - and sent her a friend request. Even as I went to click on the button, I worried she might think I was stalking her and wondering why I didn't just leave her alone. But I couldn't stop myself.
I just had to fan the embers one more time.
So far, I'm still waiting.