By Amber Baird
Samantha told him about the Russians. Her parents told her not to, of course, but she had to tell someone, and Charlie was her best friend. He sat beside her, under the tree in her backyard, and squinted at her through the sun filtering through the leaves.
The remains from their picnic lunch were scattered around them — empty store-brand yogurt cups, the leftover crust from Charlie’s sandwich, half-full cans of pop. Samantha used her spoon to dig a hole in the dirt idly. She liked the feel of the dry groundbreaking and crumbling as she forced the spoon in.
“Aren’t you scared?” he asked.
She shook her head. “They don’t know I’m the princess they’re looking for.”
He nodded. “That makes sense.”
It was Charlie that found out about the guy on the corner first. His grandmother had warned him not to go near his house because something nasty had happened. He’d agreed, as always, but discarded her instructions as soon as he was out from her watchful eye.
He wasn’t going there without Samantha, though. No way. She was a year older than him — eight, rather than his seven — and usually knew what to do when the situation got complicated.
He waited for Samantha to walk home from the private school she attended, which got out later than his public school. He sat on the stoop of her porch, his chin in his hands.
The sound of a plane flying overhead shook him out of his thoughts. It must be the Russians, looking for Sam.
They didn’t usually go that far down the street, anyway. If Charlie’s grandmother hadn’t mentioned it, they probably never would have, but now they knew there was something to see, some reason to be there.
Honestly, Samantha avoided it when she was with Charlie because she didn’t like to pass the empty lot where his old house used to be before his mama blew it up making drugs. Charlie pretended it didn’t bother him, but she knew better.
They had to take care of each other.
They were only a few houses away when a kid called out to them from a well-manicured yard that didn’t really fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. He was maybe four or five, just a little baby. “Hey! I know you guys. Can you play with me?”
“No, you don’t!” Charlie exclaimed because it felt like something he should refute, though there was really no reason the kid didn’t know them.
“I’m Jacob,” the kid said. When neither Charlie or Samantha introduced themselves, he just kept talking. “Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?” the kid asked.
“None of your business!” Samantha shouted just as Charlie said, “No!”
The kid was playing with a yellow truck. He made vroom-vroom sounds as he moved it back and forth in the grass. As if the sounds were merely part of the conversation, he continued, “You know about Buck?”
It wasn’t the Russians that burned her up, her parents said. That was an e-lec-tri-cal fire. She liked to pronounce all the syllables, to really feel them in her mouth. The word felt like make-believe. How could a house just decide to burn?
How could a house just decide to burn a little girl?
It was no one’s fault, that was the main thing her parents wanted her to remember. It was no one’s fault. Samantha thought that was silly, though, because it was obviously the Russians’ fault. Houses don’t just decide to burn.
They moved to Dayton after, put her in the fancy school with Jesus to remind her that someone was looking out for her. No one knew she was a princess there, they just knew her as the girl-who-still-smoldered, her skin giving away her history.
“Did that hurt?” Jacob asked, pointing to the overly-smooth patch on Samantha’s cheek. He stood with Charlie and her outside Buck’s house at the end of the street, a tall Victorian painted puke-green.
Charlie didn’t want Samantha to answer. Sometimes when they talked about what happened she got really mad, and other times she got really sad, so he changed the subject. “What happened to Buck?”
Jacob shrugged his little shoulders, barely covered by the oversized Dumbo t-shirt he wore. “Melissa said he had a gun and ate it.” He mimed a gun with his finger and stuck it in his open mouth. He didn’t mention who Melissa was.
Charlie let that settle over him.
“Why?” Samantha asked. She looked very serious, her eyebrows knit in concentration.
“I dunno,” Jacob said. “Melissa said he put out his brains.”
It was the next day when Samantha and Charlie decided to go back to Buck’s house. Neither one of them could explain why they felt like they had to go, and neither one questioned the other’s motives.
Samantha felt like she needed to be close to death, to sit beside it. It wasn’t something she wanted to talk about, though.
There were people on the front porch of the ugly greenhouse, coming in and out, so the kids decided to go behind it, to see it from another angle. Behind the house, in the alley, was a pile of furniture. An old writing desk, missing drawers. Tables. A couple of beat-up dining chairs. And a mattress, bright white and yellow and red all over.
They stood there together, looking at the mattress, the evidence of Jacob’s story. Charlie grasped for her hand, and Samantha accepted him readily. She would try to forget what she saw that day, but she would always remember the feel of Charlie’s hand in hers, as they both shook.
Amber Baird is a writer whiling away most of her days in the IT industry. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her wife and two cats.
Photo Credit: © gabe9000c / Adobe Stock