tagMaturePhoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising


As this is a Valentine's Day contest entry, positive votes and comments are appreciated.

This story is the result of a reader asking me to write in a specific category with just the barebones for character descriptions and a plot. I was given carte blanche with the rest and put my own twist on it. Thank you for helping me push my boundaries.

Enjoy the burn...



Today was one of those few days I wished I'd had kids...or a brother or sister. Someone close who would have an inkling of understanding about what I was going through. I had friends, but they could only be sympathetic to what I was feeling. Kind words and promises to be thinking and praying for someone can only go so far.

The fact that I had been an only child had been the focus of my thoughts more times than I cared to admit for the first twenty-one years of my life. Then I'd learned I could never conceive. But I'd pretty much settled on being okay with both of those truths twenty-eight years ago when I'd gotten married and was no longer alone. David said I was enough for him, and he was definitely enough for me.

My own parents and all of their siblings had been deceased at least a decade ago or more by now. There were a handful of cousins around, but I'd fallen out of touch with them except at Christmastime where some of us exchanged cards. Even those numbers had dwindled in the recent years, though. Of course, I would receive the obligatory sympathy card in the coming weeks. But none of my relatives would make the trek in winter just to offer condolences. We weren't that kind of family.

My husband didn't have any brothers or sisters, either. A couple of years before we'd met, his mother had passed due a bad case of pneumonia. His father had never been in the picture. Many had said over the years that it was a blessing I didn't have any in-laws. I would take one or two of those right now, though, if only to help me through this.

Growing up, I'd always been told getting divorced was one of the worst things that could happen in a relationship. On top of the emotional pain involved, there was always the risk of running into each other down the road. Stirring up all those thoughts where you second guessed if you'd made the right decision by splitting. Not to mention the jealousy of even just hearing about him or her with another person. Then there was the whole other issue if there were kids involved. Messy, messy, messy.

I actually wish that's what had happened to David and me.

They'd all been wrong. Divorce would have been a piece of cake. The absolute worst was being widowed. To know he wasn't out there somewhere with even the possibility of reconciliation, however slim. To live with the guilt that I had survived while he'd endured unbelievable torture.

The Turner house was well over eighty years old and had been in their family for three generations. The most recent owners had records from their parents that showed the old knob and tube wiring had been updated years ago. It had been the initial project that had blossomed into many, the majority of which had unfortunately been left unfinished over the years. The most recent had been the entire HVAC system. Not wanting to take on the burden themselves and go into debt trying to complete all of the renovations their parents had started, the adult children had been happy to offload the house for a low price.

I knew it would be my best flip ever. With the exterior just needing a new paint job, it was the perfect project to start work on this winter. I hadn't been able to hide my glee when I told David about my latest purchase. He'd been so happy for me, too.

Little did any of us know that the old wiring was still intact in the front part of the house where there were three sets of built-in shelving around a fireplace and two bay windows that all had electrical lighting incorporated in the frames. The wiring, of which, was still the old style, according to the fire marshal in his report.

Had it only been a week since I'd gone over to set up the space heater and spotlight in the front parlor to remove the original, ornamental trim around the fireplace mantel? Since my whole world was flipped instead of just the house I was fixing up?


I had been working at the back of the house for the past month with the spotlight in various areas to remove pieces I wanted to salvage. But a recent heavy snowfall had kept the temperatures in the high teens. I was still contemplating if the two layers I had on would be too hot or too cumbersome to work in when David leaned against the bedroom doorframe and crossed his arms.

"Just take the kerosene heater, will you, Meg? It's still too drafty to be working in there for long periods without it. I know you. You'll go dressed like that, and in an hour, you'll be hot and take off a layer. Then you'll be cold but won't want to bother with the extra clothes and you'll end up with a fever or something."

I opened my mouth to disagree but snapped it shut at the one eyebrow he raised. He knew me so well. I sighed and nodded in defeat. "Load it up in my car. I'm leaving in ten."

A couple of hours later, I was toasty warm with just one layer on and making good progress in the front parlor when I saw David's pickup pull into the drive. He trudged through the snow and came up the front steps, stomping his boots on the mat inside the front door.

"How's my girl?" He leaned down to where I was sitting on a footstool and gave me a kiss.

"Perfect." I kissed him back and gathered the five pieces at my feet that had framed the fireplace. "You were right about my clothes and the heater, of course."

"Of course." He held out his hand and helped me to my feet. "Do you want me to take anything back to your workshop?"

"If you don't mind. I've been storing everything in the kitchen."

David followed me to the back of the house and seemed to take stock of the pile I'd created. "I'll load her up, and then we can go get some lunch."

"That sounds good. I'm just about finished on this floor."

"I love you, Meg," he whispered in my ear and squeezed my ass, drawing me to him.

I shrieked slightly and giggled, my fingers gripping his biceps. "And I love you, David."

"See you in a few." He patted my ass and grabbed an armload of trim pieces, heading out the back door.

I just shook my head and returned to the parlor.

The last of the smaller pieces removed, I turned to the hand-carved lintel above the wide doorway leading to the dining room. It was definitely something I wanted to preserve. But there was really no need to take it down. We could cover and tape it up while we painted, and then we could stain it when we were done to match the rest of the woodwork.

I was sweeping up the nails I'd removed from the reclaimed pieces when I thought I smelled something burning. I'd heard the back door shut just a minute ago. "David? Can you come here?"

When there was no answer, I peeked out the window to the side yard. My husband was arranging the pile he'd transferred to the truck bed. I checked the kerosene heater and wrinkled my nose at the oily odor. If my memory served me correct, it had been at least a year since we'd used it, if not longer. David had said there might be a slight burning smell at times, so I just turned it off and went back to sweeping.

But after another few minutes, I both saw and smelled smoke coming from the bookshelf on the left where the spotlight was plugged in. Something was definitely wrong. I quickly shut off and unplugged the spotlight, grabbed my jacket and purse, and ran outside.

"David! Where are you? David!"

I somehow dialed 9-1-1 while circling the house twice, the call of my husband's name changing to a scream when I didn't see him outside or in any of the windows. I knew better than to run back inside to check. David was a volunteer firefighter. He could fight fires better than he fought crime, which was his regular job as a lawyer. However, he didn't have his turnout gear. He had no protection from flames and smoke. So I continued to scream from the safety of a bare elm in the front yard for him to get out of the house.

The sirens from the responding firetrucks pierced through the air, drowning me out while flames licked the windows of the parlor where I'd been working. All that beautiful craftsmanship was mere kindling. It was yanking at my heart to know there was nothing I could do about it. First and foremost in my head, though, was where the hell had David gone?

At the sight of flames now on the second floor and the sound of a loud crash, I started to run toward the house. But someone pulled me back and into a hard chest, turning me away.

Through my tears, I almost didn't recognize Chief Granger. I hadn't heard him pull up. My throat was hoarse, but I managed to get a few words out as I clung to the chief. "David...the kitchen...in back!"

"I got you, Meg. Just hold tight. The guys will be here any second."

I tried to pull away, my boots scuffing at the snow.

"Meg, settle down! You're not going anywhere. You know it's not safe to go back in there."

"But David!"

Chief Granger led me to his pickup that was parked sideways by my car, the driver's side door open and the engine still running. He used the door to shield my back, keeping me from looking at the house.

Behind him, I saw two firetrucks round the bend at the bottom of the hill. They drove up onto the snowy lawn less than a minute later. Six of David's coworkers jumped out and into motion as the chief barked orders. Then he turned his attention back to me.

"Get in my truck, Meg, and stay there. You'll be safe and warm. Let us do our job."

I clambered up into the extended cab and jumped when he slammed the door shut, silencing the sound of breaking glass. Through the windshield, I watched two members of the team go into the Turner house while the four others tried to douse the expanding fire from the outside. An ambulance arrived, adding to the myriad of flashing lights.

Outside of the chief's truck, two paramedics stood by the chief and waited. Inside, I wrapped my arms around myself and prayed, shivering despite the heater on full blast and my coat zipped up.

Billows of blackish-gray smoke oozed out the broken windows, playing hide-and-seek with the flames that continued to dance inside under the streams pouring in from the trucks. Something dark appeared where the front door had been, and I held my breath.

At the sight of two men hurrying out the front door and carrying a third, I stumbled out of the cab and fell to my knees. That's as far as I could muster enough energy to move. So I just knelt there, rocking on the snow-covered gravel. Mindless of the sharp rocks biting into my knees. The wetness seeping through my jeans. The numbness settling into my bones while paramedics leaned over a gurney in the distance.

And then I felt nothing but the ice reaching into my heart and lungs as Chief Granger approached me, his head downcast.

To the backdrop of red and orange flames hungrily eating up my dream investment that crumbled floor by floor, I barely heard him speaking. Telling me that the ceiling had collapsed on David, trapping him in what was probably a dining room. By the time they had gotten him free, it was too late. A busted extinguisher had been nearby. It looked like he had tried to attack the fire from the inside.

I sobbed and retched like I'd never known before. If I'd had the strength to get up, I would have...and run into that house to die along with David. The other firemen probably knew that, too. I could see it in their eyes when they knelt around me in their matching uniforms covered in soot and water, reeking of smoke. But no amount of surrounding arms or consoling words could chase the frigid pain away.

In the end, I was left with less than nothing. The house was gone. My husband was gone. And my heart continued to break every blessed day since.

Ever since the accident, I spent most of the time just sitting in our house on the other side of town staring at the TV I kept on for white noise. My friend Trina stayed with me constantly, but I never spoke to her. I didn't eat any of the food she put before me. And I refused to sleep in my bed because it smelled too much like David.

Any sleep I got was fitful while I curled up in my easy chair in the den, a heavy blanket wrapped around me. Despite that and the three layers I was wearing, I couldn't get warm enough. The one time she tried to turn on the gas fireplace, I ran screaming from the room. Once coerced back to my chair, I rarely left that spot except to the use the bathroom. Even then, Trina was close by to make sure I wasn't going to do something stupid.


Trina had driven me to the funeral home to make arrangements. And she'd dressed me this morning. But once she'd gotten me situated in a chair with arms at the front of the viewing room, she'd left me alone. A brave and risky decision.

I'd been given thirty minutes to be by myself with David. Despite him fighting fires, there had never been a time that I'd imagined what it would be like to be at his funeral. I'd always stupidly thought I'd go first, for some reason. But in the days since the tragedy, I'd expected him to be in a casket. It was strange to sit staring at a podium with an urn on it.

Ashes. That's all that was left of my beloved. The funeral director had said the burn damage on David's face was too severe to have an open casket. The coroner had said David had been unconscious from the pain before he'd stopped breathing. While somewhere inside of me I knew he was trying to provide some comfort, the news did little to ease my own suffering.

In the end, I'd signed off on having David cremated. Trina had convinced me that it would allow me to keep my husband close by. I'd thought it would help. But staring silently at the silver urn with the firefighter's emblem attached to the front, I'd never felt further apart from him.

"Meg, we're going to open the doors in ten minutes, if that's okay with you."

I slowly lifted my head to see the director standing solemnly near what appeared to be a mini-floral shop arranged in an alcove across from where I sat. Normally with a casket, it wouldn't have looked so bizarre all by itself over there. But today, it was disproportionate with David's remains.

Somehow, I managed a nod, and then I settled into my chair, preparing myself for the onslaught of community members who would come to pay their respects.

The longer I sat there waiting, the more I began to detest being in the building. Funeral parlors and death had been associated with the sight and smell of flowers for me ever since the first time I'd stepped foot into one at the age of five after my first grandparent had died. There had been all these stiff, gray-haired men in dark suits whispering to each other in clusters around the large room. The women had been dressed all in black from head to foot, their hair coiffed just so, and one hand preoccupied with a tissue that occasionally dotted their eyes. I'd not known a single soul.

Today would be different. Primarily because the men and women who were coming to pay their respects were my age. They would be friends and coworkers of both David and I that I'd met over the years. They would, for the most part, be more relaxed in their dress than what had been considered socially acceptable five decades ago. Their manners would reflect their normal activity around their respective professions. I knew this because, unfortunately, I'd been to similar funerals in the past. Except this time, it was my own husband who they were gathering for.

I had been given a good thirty minutes before it all began where I could be with David by myself. I'd planned to use the time to reflect on our life together. How it had seemed so short despite all we'd done together. But I'd wasted most of it, focusing on that single day last week. And even with a reminder that the minutes were quickly slipping by, my thoughts turned to a time before David. I regressed back to the day forty-seven years ago when I'd first stepped foot in a funeral home.

How could I have known that one little incident would affect the rest of my life?


I dutifully sat in an easy chair near the casket, all prim and proper in my Sunday best with stockings and shiny-black Mary Janes. Watching every person who came through the receiving line, which was parallel to the temporary floral shop that had been set up on the opposite side of the room. The scent that filled the space was pungent, heightened by the fact that it was July 1967 and the air conditioning window unit had conked out just after we'd arrived.

With sweat dripping down the back of my neck under the plait my mother had painstakingly arranged that morning, I wondered what happened to the flowers after the funeral was done. I had my eye on an arrangement of red roses and white daisies from the moment I'd been told to be a good girl and take a seat after we'd silently looked at Grandfather Edward. This morning before we left the house, my mother had explained that he would look like he was sleeping. What a liar. He looked nothing like my grandfather, and I couldn't see his chest moving like he usually did when he was napping in his recliner. I'd wanted to touch his waxy-looking skin, but my mother had grasped my hand tightly when I'd tried to lift my arm. So I sat, spending several hours glancing back and forth between the casket, the people, and that bouquet.

After all was said and done, we left the funeral home with a large selection of the arrangements in the back of the station wagon. My favorite had gone home with my Grandmother Natalia, Grandfather Edward's wife and my mother's mother. Among several potted plants, we had adopted a drab-looking group of flowers in a white, textured, milk glass vase, which my mother promptly put in the front window on the table behind the couch. The same couch that we sat on to watch the evening news and one prime-time show on television each night. Being the child, I sat directly in the center of that couch with the smell of those flowers right over my head every blessed night.

My father insisted on moving the plants outside after a week, but my mother kept watering the flowers indoors. Now, I wasn't all that knowledgeable about the lifespan of flowers and such at my age, but I would have thought they'd last only a couple of days, just like the ones I brought in from the garden that my father let me pick. A week later, though, my mother was still taking care of that arrangement as though it was another child. Weeding out the drooping and dried-up ones. Changing the water. Rotating the vase so that all of the flowers had full access to the sun. But no matter how well it was maintained, the flowers were still ugly, and the sight and smell always brought about the thought of misery—not tranquility—to me.

One night after dinner, I heard my father tell my mother to throw the flowers out. She cried and said something about him killing the plants on purpose; that those flowers were all she had to remember her father by. He argued back that her reasoning was absurd because there were boxes of photographs and mementos in the basement from when she'd grown up that she refused to part with, many of which she'd mentioned her father had given her. Plus, the flowers were just as dead as her father was, and we were better off without both. There were a few more choice words exchanged followed by two slamming doors. I just kept on coloring at the kitchen table, knowing my place.

But a couple of days later, I came home from school to see that the flowers were gone. There had only been a couple left that morning. God knows how they'd survived this long. I was overjoyed—as my father surely was—until my mother came home from the store the following day with groceries and a small bouquet of "winter" flowers, as she called them. They were white and red—which was better than the previous "dead leaves" colors (my father's description)—but nowhere near as pretty as the red roses and white daisies my grandmother had taken. I suddenly wondered how long she'd kept those alive.

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bysecretsxywriter© 8 comments/ 21307 views/ 26 favorites

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