Inferno

The Cartwright family watched their house burn early Friday morning. They stood in disbelief as the flames crawled out of the home’s windows and over the roof. There was nothing the fire department could do. Water from the fireman’s hose shot into the night but fell far short of dousing the blaze.

The next day, Michael Cartwright left his family in their hotel room and checked on their house. He planned to search for valuables but expected to find only wet timber and insulation. When Michael arrived home and stepped out of his car, he slammed the door shut and was overwhelmed with disbelief. It was as if there had been no fire at all. There were shingles and shutters and a new awning above the front porch.

Fumbling with his keys, Michael hurried toward the side door. He let himself in and rushed through the kitchen. He ran through the living room, then upstairs. Everything was where it had been left the day before—all the toys, dirty dishes, laundry, and even his cellphone. He picked it up and dialed his wife, Patricia.

Waiting for her to answer, Michael ran his hand through his hair and scanned the home. He marveled at his unblemished master bedroom as the call went to voicemail. It should have been blackened cinder and two-by-fours. 

Michael rushed inside the closet, grabbed one of Patricia’s evening dresses, and put on one of his polo shirts and some jeans. He’d still been wearing his pajama pants. He ran downstairs. Hesitating at the door, Michael looked back at the foyer and the dining room. He wasn’t sure he could believe what he was seeing.


Rushing into the hotel room with his wife’s dress, Michael cried, “Patricia!”

His wife stood in front of a mirror, drying her hair. The children were glued to the TV, leaning away from their father as he walked past them. Michael’s wife turned and looked at her husband.

He was trembling as he said, “The house is okay!”

“What?” yelled Patricia over the hairdryer.

“It didn’t burn!”

Patricia turned the hair dryer off and looked Michael up and down. “What are you talking about?” She had a sick look on her face, pale from a lack of sleep.

“It’s like nothing happened,” Michael said.

Shaking her head, Patricia stared blankly before mumbling, “That’s not funny.”

“Here, I brought a dress from the closet.” Michael held out the red evening dress. “And look what I’m wearing.”

Patricia took it but frowned. “Were these clothes in the car?”

“No!” Filled with nervous energy, anxious after seeing so much he couldn’t explain, Michael turned to his children. “Turn off the TV.” His kids groaned, but Michael shouted, “We’re going home!”

Sam, the eldest child, looked surprised. His sister looked at him and mimicked his shock as their mother said, “I’m not taking them there, Michael. Are you insane?”

Michael shook his head. “You need to see it for yourself. I know it sounds impossible, but everything is like it was before the fire.”

Patricia shook her head. “Are you feeling okay?”

“You have to trust me.”

She sighed, then backed away. “Okay. You heard your father. We’re going home.”


Michael’s marriage had been on the verge of divorce before the fire. His family wasn’t prepared for that kind of tragedy. He gave up all hope that night. However, he did look down at his children, and thank God they were still alive.

Michael remembered how Patricia had been bathed in the fire’s orange glow. There was an image that stuck out in his mind. She’d had her hand over her mouth, and her gaze was lost somewhere in the flames. He’d only been distracted from his wife by a fireman passing by toting another hose. Then there were the lights coming on inside nearby homes. There were silhouettes of people by their porch lights. Michael walked toward his wife and put his arm around her as she sobbed. There was only the loud sound of the inferno as Patricia looked at him and asked, “How could this happen?”

Michael’s gaze fell as he said he didn’t know.

A second fireman approached them both. “I’m going to have to ask you and your family to stay across the street.”


Standing outside of her house, Patricia said, “I prayed for this.”

Michael unlocked the front door.

She said, “I prayed for another house. Not this one, of course. But here it is.”

It was miraculous, but Michael wasn’t prepared to discuss the way their lives had changed so drastically in the past twenty-four hours.

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Patricia as she moved through the foyer. Her children scampered past, heading to the stairs as their mother searched through the drawers in the kitchen. She marveled at the gleaming flatware and kitchen cutlery then turned to the cabinets and exclaimed, “I cannot believe this.”

Michael walked around the corner, saying, “I told you.”

“I didn’t believe you,” Patricia said as she approached him.

Michael hugged his wife. He put his hand on her hips afterward and looked her in the eye. “What did we see last night? I mean, I saw our house burning.”

“I don’t care,” said Patricia, stepping away and walking toward the fridge. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear and continued, “I mean, I saw what you saw.” She opened the refrigerator and looked over her shoulder. “Everything’s fine.”


Soon after the Cartwrights were asleep, a second fire began. Once again, Michael relayed information to the police. The officer appeared disinterested in how this might have happened twice. It was a different police officer. Michael looked around at the firemen when they arrived, but none of them seemed to question the fact that they had been at the same address the night before. The fire was extinguished, and all that remained of the house was charred lumber.