I was at Caroline Overby’s house, sewing clothes for her dolls, when out of the blue I heard, “Goddammit, where the hell is Fanny?”
A man wearing a button shirt and a tangled purple tie walked in. His hair was white and he wasn’t wearing shoes.
“Oh,” he said, in this really polite kind of voice. “I didn’t know you had company, Caroline.” He didn’t look at me. “I’ll go find her myself.” He tripped on my book bag on his way out, nearly falling.
“Goddammit!” And he was gone.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
Caroline was concentrating on cutting a piece of green satin fabric with pinking shears and didn’t look up.
“That’s Daddy,” she said.
Caroline’s daddy owns the mill. I know that because practically everybody in town works for him, including my daddy. It’s a cotton mill and they make uniforms for our soldiers in Korea.
That’s when Caroline whispered, “I’m planning to trade houses with you. It’s a secret.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll live in your house and you’ll move here.”
“I like your house better.”
Now that made no sense. Caroline’s house was a mansion, solid white, with marble columns out front. I’d been looking up the hill at that big white house and pretending I lived there ever since I could remember.
My house is little. No upstairs. The living room feels crowded with just a sofa, two chairs and the Victrola. No dining room. We eat in the kitchen. Mama and Daddy sleep in one bedroom; I share the other with my sister Becky. She’s nine.
Caroline was the prettiest girl in my fifth grade class. She had long red hair and she wore a different dress every day.
We sometimes walked the two blocks to my house after school, but she’d never invited me to hers until that day. Linwood, her chauffeur, picked us up from school in a black Cadillac and drove us, like two princesses, up the hill to Caroline’s house. The marble columns were cool and smooth on my fingers as I passed by.
When we got inside, the first thing I noticed was the quiet. Like nobody lived there. And it smelled like lemons.
“Come on,” Caroline said, “my room’s upstairs.” We were in the front hall, as big as my living room. No furniture except for a table where they put the mail. And so quiet.
“Can I look around down here first?” I whispered.
There were three living rooms on the first floor. Three. The biggest one on one side of the hall had four sofas, I counted them, and lots of chairs with velvet seats, like the ones in the museum in Williamsburg. It didn’t look like anyone ever sat in that room. On the other side of the hall was another big living room with black shiny tables and vases with dragons painted on them.
“That’s the Chinese room,” Caroline told me.
The third living room was painted yellow, with lots of windows. All the furniture was white, and there were rows of flowers just outside the glass doors, which were open. It smelled like summer in there even though it was only March.
“This is the sun room,” Caroline said.
Every single room, even the kitchen, had wall-to wall-carpets, which made them so quiet I felt like tiptoeing.
Upstairs you’d go into one bedroom and it would lead to another one and then another one. You could get lost in all those rooms. The beds had fluffy quilts and stacks of pillows. It didn’t look like anybody ever slept in any of those beds, they looked so clean and tidy.
“Which is your mama and daddy’s room?” I asked Caroline.
“Mama sleeps in there.” She pushed open the door, and I got a glimpse of a white filmy bedspread, maybe organdy, and somebody in the bed. Caroline closed the door fast, before I could see more.
“Daddy’s up there.” She pointed to the ceiling.
“What’s up there?”
“His room. Mama won’t let him smoke down here.”
That’s how I found out there was a third floor, but we didn’t go up there. I wanted to, but I felt funny asking.
Caroline’s bedroom was huge. Over the bed was a baby blue quilted canopy, and in the middle of the room was a giant table full of drawing paper and a bucket of brushes and jars of oil paints. Two walls had murals on them. On one, horses were racing, with jockeys on their backs in red caps; on the other, a girl with blond hair was smelling tall blue flowers in a garden.
“Daddy asked some famous artist he knows to paint them,” she said. “It took him forever.”
Caroline had a real kitchen in her room with a stove and a refrigerator that made ice. And there was a Singer sewing machine, just like my mama’s. I wanted that room. I wanted the whole house.
I thought she was fooling, but the very next week when we were at my house, she asked me again, “Wouldn’t you like to trade houses?”
I looked at the scissors and the pot of glue and the colored paper all over my double-decker bed and said, “Who wouldn’t? But why do you want to?”
“Your house is small. I like it. It’s cozy.”
“But you live in a mansion and you have a kitchen in your room and a sewing machine.”
She was staring out the window. “I know. But here’s what we’ll do.” Her voice sounded far away. “You will live there, and we can cook and sew whenever you ask me over after school.”
“Your daddy won’t like it.”
“I bet he would if he could see your house.”
I tried to imagine the owner of the mill, barefoot with a purple tie, in my little house.
“So. We’re going to trade,” Caroline said.
“You’re making fun of me,” I said.
“No. I mean it.”
I didn’t believe her, but I wanted to. I wanted the room with the red ceiling and the one with big ocean waves painted on the wall and her mama’s room with the organdy bedspread. Wouldn’t Mama love that room? It was crazy how much I wanted that house.
The next time Caroline came over, she told me her daddy was picking her up.
“I asked Daddy to come after me today.”
“I better tell Mama.”
But I didn’t have time, because it was already five o’clock and the doorbell was ringing.
Caroline ran to open it. He was wearing a gray suit this time with a vest and shiny black shoes. I almost didn’t recognize him.
“Well, hello,” he said with a big smile. “You must be Lorna.”
“Won’t you come in, Mr. Overby?”
It was my mother and I’d never seen her so jittery. Her hair was tied back with a scarf and her apron, which she was pulling over her head, had grease stains. The whole house smelled like ham.
“Thank you ma’am,” Mr. Overby said in this really polite voice, “but I’ll just collect Miss Caroline here and be off.”
“I’m not ready, Daddy,” Caroline said. “I have to get my stuff. You come in.”
He looked like he didn’t know what to do.
Then Mama said in a polite voice I didn’t recognize, “Can I get you something to drink while you wait, Mr. Overby?” She’d taken off the scarf and was trying to smooth her hair into place.
“No thank you.”
He just stood there for a minute, staring at the blocks my sister had spread all over the living room floor, like he’d never seen blocks before. Then, very carefully, he picked his way around them, trailing after Caroline. We all crowded into my room. Caroline sat on the lower bunk bed, picking her drawings out of the mess and sliding them into her book bag. Mr. Overby stood in the doorway, holding his hat. My room had never seemed so small.
Caroline smiled up at her daddy.
“Isn’t this a cute house?” she said.
“Yes indeed,” he said. “Now let’s go.” And he headed out.
Just before he reached the front door, he stumbled into the three-legged footstool Becky had used as the base of a tower of blocks and fell smack down on the floor.
“Oh, Mr. Overby, I am so sorry.” Mama took his arm and tried to pull him up. I thought for a minute she might cry.
He pulled himself to his feet, breathing hard, his white hair in his eyes. There was a funny smell I didn’t recognize.
“Don’t worry,” he said to Mama. “It’s my fault; I’m so clumsy.”
Before that day, Caroline had been mostly a school friend. But suddenly, she was asking to come play at my house after school at least twice a week. We painted and played Monopoly, like other kids, but more and more Caroline harped on the subject of changing houses. Like all the time. Like it was really going to happen.
“I’ll bring my easel to my new room,” she would say, “but none of the other stuff. I can play with that when I visit you.”
“Won’t you miss your kitchen?”
“I won’t have to. Fanny will give you stuff, and we can make brownies.”
She was so serious about it, she pulled me right in. But it wasn’t hard. All I had to do was imagine myself in that sunroom.
“What will you do with the mirror room?” she asked.
“I’m going to keep my clothes in there,” I said. “Then when I try them on, I can see exactly how I look.”
“You’ll have lots of clothes to try on,” she said, “because I won’t be bringing many dresses to my new house. I want you to have them.”
“Really?” All those dresses, a different one every day.
“And you’ll have Fanny.”
“What about Fanny?”
“She’ll be there,” she said. “She’ll cook you anything you like for dinner.”
“Steak and French fries?”
“Every night if you like.”
“Won’t you miss having a cook?” I asked.
“She’s an old grump,” Caroline said. “You’re welcome to her. Besides Mama will cook for Daddy and me. And we’ll eat together in the kitchen. And afterwards, we’ll go to the living room and watch TV together.”
“We don’t have a TV,” I reminded her.
“Daddy will buy us one.”
Sometime that spring, Becky started complaining that blocks were missing.
“Look under the bed,” Mama said.
“I did. It’s the short ones that I really need. Somebody’s stealing them.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mama said. “Who’d steal blocks? I’ll help you look.”
But the blocks weren’t anywhere. And Becky’s favorite paper dolls also disappeared. And a Mary Poppins book.
Then one afternoon I saw Caroline putting my Anne of Green Gables into her book bag.
“You want to borrow that?” I asked.
She smiled. “I’ve read it. I’m just helping you move.”
“Helping me how?”
“I thought it would be nice for you to have some of your things already in your room when you move.”
That’s when I knew. “The blocks. That was you.”
For a minute she just stood there staring at Anne of Green Gables, like she’d been caught. But then she giggled and dropped the book in her bag.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“Why not? We’re changing houses really soon.”
“It’s just pretend,” I said.
The way she said it scared me.
“Okay,” I said. “You can take my things, but don’t take Becky’s.”
Why didn’t I tell Mama about all this make-believe? She’d have nipped it in the bud for sure. That’s why I didn’t tell her.
The next time Linwood came to pick Caroline up, he was carrying a bag with Becky’s blocks. Mama thanked him, but after that she told me I couldn’t invite Caroline to our house any more.
“But she’s my best friend.”
“She took Becky’s blocks without telling you. What kind of friend is that?”
“She brought them back.” I didn’t tell her about the book.
“That’s not good enough.”
“Please,” I begged. “She won’t take anything else. I promise.”
“I should call her mother,” Mama said. But she never did. I think she was afraid of Mr. Overby.
So after that we went to Caroline’s house. And that suited me just fine.
“Let’s play in a different room every time I come over,” I suggested.
She kissed me on the cheek. “That’s a good idea. Then you can tell your mama about every room. That will make her want to move here.”
It made me feel like a cheat, letting her go on that way. But I wanted really badly to see those rooms.
So we roamed the house.
“Sit here,” she’d point to a chair. “Isn’t the velvet cushion dreamy?”
She dragged me to a large picture window. “Look out there, Lorna. Did you ever see such pretty daffodils?”
We played Old Maids on the dining room table in the red room and scattered Monopoly money all over the blue velvet lounge chair in the room with violets on the wallpaper.
One time she took hold of my hand and rubbed it all over a soft, soft bedspread in one of the empty rooms. “Try it,” she said. “It’s like sleeping on a cloud.”
So I climbed up on that satin smooth bedspread and lay there, smelling the lemon smell that was everywhere.
We never went up to the third floor.
Sometimes I heard somebody walking around up there, but I didn’t ask.
Mrs. Overby showed up every once in awhile, dressed in a pastel dress and wearing hats with a veil.
“You girls having fun?” That’s what she always said.
“Yes ma’am,” I’d say. But Caroline would just watch her mother and not say a thing.
After a few minutes, Mrs. Overby would disappear out the front door.
I was dying to spend a night in Caroline’s house, to lie in her canopied bed and whisper secrets, to eat breakfast together. So when she invited me for a Saturday night, I couldn’t wait.
She met me at the front door. “Close your eyes,” she demanded.
I could feel her hand tugging me forward, through the front hall, up the stairs to a flat soft carpet. I remember hanging onto one of Mama’s shopping bags, stuffed with my pajamas and toothbrush, and trying not to stumble. Finally I heard a door open.
I peered through the dark. All I could see were lights. Tiny lights.
“Where are we?”
“Ghost Hollow.” Her voice was all quivery.
All of a sudden I wanted to go home.
“I can’t see.”
“Come in,” she whispered.
I took a step and bumped my shin on something sharp.
“Come on, Caroline. Turn on the light.”
“Hush! Wait a minute.”
I smelled something familiar, but I couldn’t figure out what.
“Turn on the light!” This time my voice was loud.
And there we were, in Caroline’s brightly lit bedroom. The curtains were pulled tight. And there were candles on the sewing machine, the stove, the refrigerator, tall red ones in silver candleholders. All burning.
“You spoiled it,” she said. “It was going to be so much fun, sitting here in the dark, telling ghost stories. I’ve been planning it all day. But you spoiled it.”
“I’m sorry. I’m scared of ghosts.”
She laughed. Her old laugh. “Then I guess it worked.” And she hugged me.
We blew out the candles and started working on the jigsaw puzzle that was half finished on her drawing table. We never mentioned the candles again.
In the meantime, Caroline kept asking to come to my house.
At first I made excuses, “Mama’s taking me shopping,” or “Becky has a friend over and Mama says the house is too crowded.”
But finally I had to tell her. “Mama doesn’t want you to come to our house anymore.” We were on the playground during recess, off to ourselves.
Caroline’s face went white. “Why?”
“Because you took Becky’s blocks and stuff.”
“But you know why I did that.”
“Sure I do, but they were Becky’s.”
“I am going to move to your house.”
“That’s all pretend,” I said.
She was staring at me in a way I didn’t like. “It’s not pretend. I want your little house. We made a deal. You promised.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew I hadn’t made any deal, but I had led her on.
“Why don’t we skip rope?” I finally said and headed off to join some girls in my class.
“Traitor!” she yelled.
I acted like I didn’t hear her. But I felt just awful.
I woke up to sirens. And the smell of smoke.
I shook Becky. I was sure it was our house, the sirens were so close.
We ran to the living room and out the front door. Mama and Daddy were standing out on the sidewalk.
“Where is it?” I yelled over the screaming sirens.
Daddy pulled me close and pointed to mountains of gray smoke against the sky. You could see the smoke even though it was night because of the big red flames shooting up inside it. And my eyes were burning.
“Is it . . .?” I couldn’t say it.
Suddenly our street was full of people, some in bathrobes, some barefoot, some zipping up their jackets over pajama bottoms. I could hear them yelling at each other over the sirens.
“Is it the old man?”
I felt sick to my stomach.
“Sure looks like it.”
“You think they’re in there?”
“Caroline?” I was crying.
“Let’s go inside.” It was Mama’s voice in my ear.
But I wouldn’t budge. I kept staring at the red flames and smelling the smoke and hearing the sirens and crying.
The next morning we all turned up to gaze at what was left of the house. The walls looked like big hunks of charcoal with sooty marble columns in front. The inside was full of water and there was this awful smell. I stood there looking at the black, smoky mess and thought about the sun room and the organdy bedspread and Caroline’s sewing machine and all those quiet, quiet rooms.
“Don’t cry,” Daddy said. “I heard they got everybody out.”
But I just kept crying.
That afternoon the Fire Chief drove all over town yelling through a megaphone that the Fire Department had saved everybody. The family was in the hospital recovering. Daddy took me to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me see Caroline. I sent her a card, but she didn’t answer it.
There was a lot of gossip about the fire. But the rumor that Mr. Overby’s leg was cut off turned out to be true. It had been so badly burned they had to amputate. Mrs. Overby was in seclusion, they said; nobody knew where.
I didn’t see Caroline again. Somebody said they were sending her to some place down in South Carolina.
Everybody in town has a theory about what started the fire.
Some blame the electric wires. Some claim grease caught on fire in the kitchen. There are also rumors.
–The old man was smoking in bed.
–The old man was drunk again.
–Serves him right, the old bastard.
Mr. Overby told the newspaper, “I don’t smoke in bed. Period.” He said it was arson and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.
That’s what scares me. Because they’ll start looking around. And maybe they’ll look in Caroline’s room. And maybe . . .
I keep telling myself it was an accident. Of course it was.
But then I wake up at night, and I’m back in her room with those candles. And I ask myself, suppose it wasn’t an accident. Suppose . . .
But she wouldn’t. Would she? She was mad because I wouldn’t trade houses.
She called me a traitor.
I want to tell Mama. I want to tell her everything. About Caroline’s plan. About how I led her on. About the candles.
But suppose I tell her. She’ll say she has to call the Fire Department. I know she will. And then something awful will happen.
And it will be my fault.
Nancy Bourne’s stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Forge, Persimmon Tree, MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, and Shadowgraph. One of these stories was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize.