4 min

Damage deposit

'The fire had devoured almost everything I owned'

On Mar 31, I left my house just before noon to run some errands. The day was colder up close than it had seemed from inside, so I ran back upstairs to grab my coat.

On my way out the door for the second time I decided to take the dogs with me, figuring it was cool enough that they could wait in the car and we’d have a romp on the beach when the chores were done.

About 30 minutes later, my cell phone rang. It was one of my neighbours, calmly explaining that there were giant flames shooting out of my roof, and the firemen were kicking my back door down at that very moment. He suggested that maybe I should come directly home and tend to my house fire.

I could see the smoke from blocks away, and then the disco of lights on the fire trucks, six or so of them parked all kinds of sideways in the middle of my street.

Then there were the blossoming clusters of neighbours with arms crossed, shaking their heads and staring solemnly from the safety of their square lawns.

For some reason I thought the firemen would let me run in, just for a second, just to grab a few things I might need for later.

My aunt tells me she nearly swallowed her own bottom lip when she saw the news; how unbelievably there was me on TV with a fireman stuck to each elbow, being dragged across the grass backwards in the opposite direction of my burning house.

How all the while she can hear me yelling “my laptop, my laptop” even over the sirens and the hoses and the neighbours; still there is my voice screaming through the surround sound.

How it shot a hole in her stomach and shook her by the spine.

The fire raged behind my windows for over an hour before they could get a fireman inside to fight back, and it wasn’t fully out for three hours. It poured rain the whole time but the flames were unfazed.

One of my neighbours grabbed my left hand and wrapped it around a bottle of whiskey. The conceptual artist from up the alley brought hot coffee. Foam from the fire trucks ran in a white river down the sidewalk and I shivered under a soggy blanket.

The front door on the main floor was kicked open from inside and a grey flood gushed down the stairs. There was a hole in my floor that opened up into sky where my roof should have been.

I could hardly look at Charlotte, who had lived downstairs for over 14 years.

I had moved into the upstairs in 1993, almost twelve years ago, when I was 24 and could still fit everything I owned into one carload.

We had both lived in this little blue house longer than we had anywhere else. I dreamed up almost everything I ever wrote down under that blazing roof.

I watched as two men in gas masks aimed a stream of water through my window into the corner where both my computers had been, and wondered why I wasn’t crying.

I realized later it was because all I could feel was lucky.

My dogs were safe in the back seat of my car. Charlotte’s dog bolted when the firemen kicked the back door open, and a neighbour corralled her and kept her in his yard until it was all over.

Both cats were scooped up later when they slunk back and meowed at the plywood the city workers had nailed up to cover the holes where the doors and windows had been. No one was hurt, and neither of us was alone. We had neighbours and friends and family. We both had house insurance.

Later that night I emptied the pockets of the only pair of pants I owned. They were full of phone numbers-if I needed anything at all don’t hesitate to call. The Fed Ex woman I sometimes see in the park insisted I take her only house key, saying not to worry about it, she could just crawl through the dog door. It took me a while to find her and return her key because I wasn’t exactly sure which phone number was hers, as I didn’t even know her first name.

The firemen let me into my charred and steaming apartment for five minutes before they boarded it up and went home.

The corner where my desk and computers and back-up files had been wasn’t really a corner anymore, being as the walls and roof were gone, along with all my writing. I had prepared for my computers to crash, not burn.

But a stream of water had knocked over the old bureau where I kept my papers. It had landed front first on the floor, in three inches of water. Inside its charred shell, behind melted glass under six inches of still-smoking library books, I found my grandmother’s journals, an envelope full of baby pictures and old family photos from when everyone was still alive, and the one and only hard copy of my novel, barely wet and only charred around the edges.

The fire had devoured almost everything I owned, but inside a water-logged cupboard or beneath a burned bed frame I would come across something that been unexplainably spared; half a love letter, a bone-dry box of matches, a lone book left on a shelf now empty except for ashes.

Things I’d had for years became gifts I had just unwrapped.

Seven days have passed since my house burned down. People keep telling me I’m still in shock, that any minute now the reality of what happened will set in and I will crash and cry and mourn what has been lost.

They tell me I will wake up in a borrowed or rented bed in an unfamiliar room and I will feel vulnerable, and alone.

They tell me it will take years before I stop reaching for a book or a shirt or a bowl that I forgot was gone.

Me, I’m just happy everyone made it out safe, that I am unburdened by that drawer full of unmatched socks, and that I never have to defrost that wheezing old freezer again.

Deciding what I’m going to wear is a whole lot easier now, plus I finally got rid of my landline and all those jeans that don’t fit anymore.

I lost a few stories, but stories breed like bunnies and grow like weeds, and I heard somewhere that ashes make great fertilizer.