Beneath the Surface.

Note: This story is graphic and may upset you. Please don’t read if you feel you shouldn’t.

Oh God no.

Please God no.

Please, no, no, no!

Fuck! Fuck!!

Not a nightmare- I am standing, no sprinting, and I can’t force my eyes to focus yet.

I have been woken by my mother’s sickening cries of torture and terror. In this instant I know deep inside of myself that I, in addition to my mother, am destined to forever owning this inescapable, horrendous incident.

These moments will forevermore remain a part of me.

As dmy heart falls down through my chest and into the pit of my stomach, it displaces bile that flows from my gut up into my mouth. Bitter. I can barely swallow it back down past the hard knot in my throat. My knees weaken and shake and I am sickened by what I know I will see, before I even arrive. All of this, as I run down the hallway, with my feet barely touching the floor, toward my mother’s unworldly, deafening shrieks of anguish.

My vision becomes crystal clear as the flames come into sight. My mother’s head is covered with angry, orange and yellow fire that is ravaging her before my eyes. Strangely, I can only see her head, but what is left of her kimono, is engulfed as well. “Help!” she yells as she leans over the bathroom sink, fumbling with useless, frantic hands … unable to turn the faucet on to get the water she so desperately needs.

I’m running again; this time to the kitchen. I run opposite the path that my mother traveled to the bathroom. Along the way I encounter bits and pieces of her blue and white kimono, which seemed to have fallen to the floor like burning leaves. They are bright orange just inside of the smoldering blackened borders. Where the edges burn, they fuse with the synthetic carpet and create an assaulting caustic smell.

I am so focused on getting water that I hardly notice the burning living room as I pass through, so I think it odd that I notice this detail of the kimono pieces. I realize that I will never be able to look up what those blue symbols on my mother’s kimono meant. This upsets me.

Now, I am grabbing a juice pitcher. It takes eons to fill with water. Time is suspended for me as I wait for the water. Why has time slowed down like this when I need it to go quickly? It is just like in my dreams when my legs can’t move, but I need to run.

Please, help me God.

I run in slow motion, seemingly without touching the smoldering floor, back to the bathroom and pour the water over my mother’s blazing head. Poof! Her skin is charred black, she has very little hair left, and part of one ear is now gone. I have provided much too little, much too late, as only the flames in her hair are extinguished, but the majority of her body is still burning.

I dash to the backyard and turn the tangled hose on, pleading and bargaining, in earnest with a God I’m sure doesn’t know me, that the hose will reach the house as I move closer towards the open door. I also bargain and pray for my mother to stop screaming as she will surely awaken my sister. She does stop screaming. Did God hear me?

I come through the backyard into the living room with the streaming hose and find her still afire, now sitting in a burning chair. She has phoned her Godmother and is talking to her as she sits in the flames. What the fuck?

“Spray me!” she pleads. I do. First her, then the chair, couch, and carpet with the bits of burning kimono. She wants the cold water to sooth her, but she is not to be soothed. “Please more water!” she cries. As I spray her again, I see chunks of blackened, charred flesh fall off, leaving bloody, raw patches in their place. I have to move on as the water won’t help and I know it.

I do a quick check for hot spots. Got it all – I hope. No time for second guessing now. That will come later.

OK, now running again. Not thinking one bit. I am on auto-pilot. I find myself at the house across the street. Dripping wet, about 2:00 AM, so dark. I ring the bell incessantly until the door opens.

“My mother has been in a fire. Please help!” I have no recollection about who comes back across the street with me. A woman, I think. To this day she remains faceless to me.

My mother is naked, blackened, without hair, and missing the top of one ear. The only thing she has left on are pieces of her burnt kimono that have fused to her skin. I am embarrassed about it all. The smell is nauseating. Bile makes its way, once again, into my mouth. I want to vomit, but somehow hold back. I don’t want to make my mother feel badly about the way she looks. That would be so rude.

Time is fast and slow at once. I leave my body now, and hover above it, watching what happens before me with such a notable lack of feeling, that it should upset me, but as I have no feelings left, I just take note.

The woman takes the phone from my mother and calls an ambulance. She tells me that I will spend the night at her house. What choice do I have?

My mother calls her godmother right back to tell her what’s happening and refuses to get off of the phone once the ambulance arrives. The paramedics take the phone and hang up the call against her will.

I can’t go to the hospital because I need to take care of my sister. She is young. Only seven. Three years younger than I am. She could never understand this as I can. It would scare her and be too shocking for her to see. Although my feelings are gone, I instinctively protect her and I am grateful that she never wakes. She could be scarred by these images that might be seared into her memory if she saw any of this.

I shut all the drapes that didn’t burn and change into dry clothes. I gently wake my sister to tell her that we are going to have a super special surprise slumber party tonight but that she has to keep her eyes closed or there won’t be a surprise. I wrap her in a blanket, and carry her through the back of the house through the master bedroom door through the backyard and out the side gate.

She is good at listening to me. She never sees my mother or the burnt house. She never even asks a question about what is going on that night. She’s learned not to ask, as we have a lot of strange nights.

My mind now wanders from my mother. What about my cats? I hope they are OK. It worries me greatly as I saw one on the arm of the burning sofa, opposite the end that was in flames. Don’t animals run from fires? What’s wrong with my cat?

I am also upset that the neighbor would not let me wipe the water off of the tables! Doesn’t she know they are antiques and will be ruined? It will be entirely my fault for getting them wet and leaving them in such an irresponsible way, knowing full well what the outcome will be. I hate adults. They are so ignorant.


We sleep in the master bedroom at my neighbor’s home that night. Well, my sister sleeps…. My neighbor’s home doesn’t smell like my house and I can’t sleep much at all, even on regular nights.

I spend the night thinking about the cats and the expensive furniture that is being destroyed more with every passing minute. It would have taken just five minutes to wipe the tables down. That dumb-fuck faceless woman!

In the morning I cross the street to gather clothes for my sister so that she can get to school. I walk her to school and walk back home. I have called my grandmother and she has now arrived and is going to help me deal with the insurance and clean-up of the house. The carpet needs to be replaced, the furniture reupholstered, the whole house repainted, and more.

At least my cats are fine and my sister knows nothing. I am grateful for this.

I don’t see my mother for months after the fire except for a couple of visits in the hospital. My sister and I live with my grandparents until she gets home. She suffered third degree burns over one third of her body, and has had numerous skin grafts. Huge slabs of skin are missing from her sides, arms, buttocks, and thighs. Her hair grows back little by little, but the top of her ear has permanently gone as the cartilage melted.

Her face looks like a patch worked quilt, with different colors of skin taken from the various graft sights of her body.

For a while after my mother comes home, a 23-year-old gal named Monique moves in to ‘help’. This pisses me off, because she isn’t a nurse and I am used to doing the cooking, shopping and laundry already. What the hell do we need her for? In addition, my mother gives Monique my room and my bed and I have to sleep on the hardwood floor.

Monique is a bitch and eats all of my Easter candy from my father and incessantly smokes pot with my mother. I detest her. She is immature, stupid and has no idea about how to run the house (e.g., grocery shop, cook, clean, do laundry) or take care of my mother and sister.

I now have to take care of not only the house, my mother and sister, but Monique too. And she gets paid for what I have always done for free!

What the fuck?

BUT, I guess I win the prize for being the most ignorant one of all. I never thought to call the fire department — even once. Worse than that, I knew better than to fall asleep before I put my mother to bed.

She has burned her fingers countless times and has left many holes in her chair from passing out with lit cigarettes.

I know she takes pills and drinks about a gallon of bourbon a day. Heck, I walk to the liquor store every other day with a note from her and buy it myself, with her money!

Why did I give in to sleep THAT night of all nights? This was no accident, as it could have been prevented.

I feel I am a fucking idiot to the core of my being and will be at fault for my mother’s near death until the day I die.

Today, forty years later, I keep one of the water-damaged end tables in my own living room as a reminder of that night. Its top is warped and cracked, yet it is sturdy, well built and beautiful beneath the surface.


I could have it repaired, but I won’t. It would feel dishonest. I keep it as it is, as a testimony to our shared history. Instead, I cover its secrets with a beautiful, bright floral table cloth from France.

No one who comes to my home knows the story of the table. They make good use of it. A place to set their empty glasses when they are finished drinking.

A delicately made, precious item never to be the same. Warped, but not destroyed. Still useful in small ways.

It reminds me of myself.


*First published in Quora on June 21, 2019:

”Apathy is the deadliest weapon of mass destruction.” ~  Laura H. Kutney

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