The cab eased to the curb in front of a brick townhouse. Thanking the driver, Franny lifted the edges of her blankets and hobbled up the sidewalk to Aaron’s front porch. The cold seeped through the cardboard soles of her booties, and she shifted from one foot to the other as she slipped the key into Aaron’s lock. Once inside, she glanced at the security code he’d written and quickly keyed it in.
Toenails clattered across the hardwood floors and a woolly mammoth galloped toward her. Paws the size of baseballs knocked her back against the wall. “Tiny?” she squeaked. He sniffed over her and whined. She scratched behind his ears; he seemed friendly enough. “Only an owner like you’ve been saddled with would name a Sheepdog Tiny.” She ruffled his shaggy fur. “Are you a good boy?” With a woof, he charged back the hall and, within seconds, raced toward her again with a bucket handle clamped in his jaws. His tail wagging like windshield wipers on high speed, he set the bucket on the floor and nosed it toward her.
“What’s this?” She read the printing on the lid: Treats 4 Tiny. “Is this your way of telling me you’ve been a good boy?” He woofed and she opened the lid, tossing him two.
The doorbell rang and she spun to answer. The sudden movement jarred her broken toe and sprained ankle. “Ouch! Oh, ow!” She bent to rub the throbbing areas. Tiny darted behind a chair, dark eyes peering at her from the tan and brown shaggy hair. “It’s okay, big guy. No need to be afraid.” When she opened the door, she found a familiar looking woman on the porch, a winter coat draped over her arm, holding a shopping bag.
“Frances, how good to see you again.” She had one of those sunbeam smiles.
The visitor’s friendly face clicked into place in Franny’s memory. “You’re Drew’s mom. How is he? Wait, are you Jenna, Aaron’s sister?” By donating time to the children's cancer wing of the local hospital, she'd met and fallen in love with many seriously ill children. Drew had been one of her favorites.
“That I am.” She stepped into the living room and petted Tiny. “I can’t stay. My house is a disaster. I’ve even got wrapping paper stuck on a curtain rod. With Drew in remission, we kind of went overboard this year.” She handed Franny the bag and coat. There’s sweat clothes in there, old, but clean. Since you’re coming over for dinner tonight—”
“I am?” When had this been decided? Is this what Aaron was talking about with her hand pressed against his muscular thigh? Who could think then? Not her.
Jenna nodded. “You are. My brother and momma always join us the evening of Christmas Day. This will be our first year without Dad, so your coming will be a blessing. Your presence will help keep everyone’s mind off who isn’t there this year.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t intrude.” This might be too awkward. She shouldn’t barge into a family event, their first Christmas without a parent.
“Nonsense. Thanksgiving was the worst. Aaron, his face pinched with pain, carved the turkey, which had always been Dad’s job. Momma sobbed. I got tipsy off wine. You’ll make Christmas better, believe me. Now, I also packed jeans and a sweater. Shoes and other things you’ll need too.”
Franny hugged the bag. “Thanks. I’ll see you get them back in a few days when I get some things of my own. I don’t have a stich of clothing left.”
Jenna’s forehead wrinkled in question. “Really?” Her gaze took in Franny’s blanket wrapped attire.
“I’m afraid your brother found me naked in the tub with my toe wedged in the spigot.”
A quick hand flew to Jenna’s mouth and her eyes lit with humor. “Oh, that’s just too wild. Of all women to find naked, the one my brother’s crushed on for years.” She snatched Franny’s hand, making no pretense about looking for a ring. “Tell me you’re not seeing anyone.” Her eyebrows waggled. “Oh, I feel a matchmaking spell coming on. Wait ʼtil I tell Momma.”
“Well, no, I’m not but…” My goodness Aaron’s sister was as much a steamroller as he was a runaway freight train.
“Then I’ll tell you. Aaron’s been crazy for you since your junior year in high school. He was so hurt when your father didn’t think he was good enough to take you to the senior prom.”
“So was I, but that was so long ago.”
Jenna waved an open palm as if to erase Franny’s words. “The timing doesn’t matter, only the strength of the feelings. You know, I thought when he saw you reading to Drew in the hospital, he’d make his move. Then Dad had a massive coronary and needed Aaron’s help. Between my brother’s crazy shifts at work, family obligations and fixing up this old place, his love life always seems on hold.” Jenna tugged a Christmas bow off her hair and looked at it as if she’d forgotten it was there. “He dates from time to time, but nothing serious. I think he’s always had his heart set on you.”
“Me? That’s preposterous. After so many years, we don’t even know each other, not really.” Although she did have to admit his demeanor today was caring and tender. “I’m not the person I was in high school. Heck, I’m not even the person I was yesterday.”
Jenna reached out and touched Franny’s arm. “No, after the trauma of the fire and losing everything, I guess you aren’t. Look, I have to go. See you tonight. Come hungry. I’ve cooked for a battalion.” She opened the door and breezed out.
Securing the lock, Franny slowly climbed the steps, her feet getting caught in her smoke-filled bedspread a time or two. What appeared to be Aaron’s bedroom was done in red and brown. A King-sized bed took center stage while the air was heavy with the leather and pine based cologne she’d caught a whiff of when he lifted her from the bathtub.
Farther down the hall, a door hung open to a small tan and green office. Three guitars on stands lined one wall. So he still played. Framed sheet music hung above the instruments. Some were signed, while one was—her hand flew to her throat; it couldn’t be—decorated with a red lipstick print in the corner. A memory sailed back on a quarter note. “Here, Franny,” he’d implored. “Kiss this song I wrote. For luck. Maybe I’ll sell it one day.” He’d titled it “Love is Red.” Don’t go reading anything into this.
Over the desk hung a huge poster of Shrapnel, Aaron's high school band, playing for a Valentine’s Dance. Aaron's long hair was pulled back in a ponytail as he poured his soul into the music coming from the strings of his guitar.
She stepped closer. Was this taken their junior or senior year? She leaned in and noted the two rings at his eyebrow. Senior year. He’d gotten those piercings over Christmas break of their senior year. Why do I remember that? Her gaze drifted to the dreamy-eyed girl standing at the edge of the stage, peering around the blue curtain. Busted by the camera, Franny. I did love hearing him sing. Was that why he had the poster made? Because her feelings were so obvious while she secretly watched him? She was supposed to be in charge of instrument repair if a guitar string broke; he’d patiently taught her how to restring a guitar. Frankly she’d have done anything to be near him until her father made it clear Aaron Brenner was persona non grata.
She shook her head and turned away. So long ago. Her father had sent her to grandma’s place for the summer after graduation. Cherished teenaged dreams were eventually replaced with collegiate experiences. Life moved on, even as a hollowness she couldn’t name formed within her soul. A hollowness that shaped her life. Depression, her mother called it. Franny looked on it more as a quiet desperation.
The room at the end of the hallway was navy and sky blue. Spaceships decorated the bedspread and curtains. She slowly turned and smiled. Was this Drew’s room? Did he come visit his uncle? A photo on the dresser caught her eye. It was of a skinny, bald Drew sitting on her lap during story time in the children’s ward. He was the sweetest kid when he’d been in the children’s hospital—all five times. She could never forget how he’d beg to hear her read about firemen? Now she knew why.
She called her parents and wished them Merry Christmas, never once mentioning the fire. Why ruin their holiday by making them worry? In a couple days she’d tell them what happened. She also phoned the hospital to tell them she wouldn’t be in to read to the children today. After she ended the call, she locked the bedroom door and hobbled into the bathroom. Hot water…soap…shampoo…heaven.
Jenna’s clothes fit, except for the bra. Nature had handed Franny tangerines instead of grapefruits. Surely no one would notice she was going braless under the navy sweatshirt. As for the sweater she was to wear tonight, she wasn’t so sure.
Tiny sat outside her door when she opened it nearly an hour later. He dropped a ball at her feet and practically smiled at her.
“Oh, I see who runs this household.” She tossed the ball back the hall into Aaron’s bedroom and Tiny bolted like a hairy lightning rod on steroids. After five or six throws, Franny limped toward the stairway. “I’m starved, Tiny, how about you?” He shot around her, headed for the feed bowl. She gave him a handful of kibble before making tomato soup and a grilled cheese—comfort food. Dark cherry cabinets, black and grey granite countertops and chrome appliances were a modern combination conducive to cooking. Two holiday art projects, obviously made by a child, held places of honor on the refrigerator door. A miniature pine tree adorned with tiny ornaments decorated the end of the bar. Electric Christmas candles were on the windowsills. She sat at the bar eating in utter contentment; the room had a homey feel to it.
She rinsed off her dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Two yawns, a couple Tylenols and she slowly hobbled into the living room where Aaron had an artificial tree simply decorated in red and silver bulbs. “Tiny, the least you could do is turn on the Christmas tree lights. They might help lull me to sleep.” She pulled the red, white and blue afghan off the back of his red sofa and stretched out. Tiny jumped up, too, and lay across her feet as if he knew they were still cold after a hot shower.
Christmas, and she was homeless, lacking a boyfriend and adrift in her life. At twenty-six, she owned nothing, and her job was in question. She swiped at more scalding tears. Nothing in her life was permanent. Tiny crawled up her body and licked her face. “Aren’t you a sweetheart?” His tail thumped her thighs. Sweetheart. Aaron had called her sweetheart. Could his sister be right? Had he truly cared for her in high school? Her fingers enveloped the golden heart at her neck, a movement she’d done whenever he came to mind or when loneliness crept into her soul. Did those feelings of long ago still exist? She couldn’t think about that right now. Other more pressing problems loomed. She yawned and darkness slowly took over.
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Come back tomorrow for the final installment of "The Fireman's Flame."
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Visit Vonnie at www.vonniedavis.com
Come back tomorrow for the final installment of "The Fireman's Flame."