I started to realize how unclean the neighborhood looked only when faced with the opportunity to leave it behind forever.
Before the sirens could be heard a mile off, before they got close enough where you could make out the squeal of rubber tires on the boiling summer asphalt, and before the better part of the neighborhood had all showed up to watch this happening, I stood there alone in the drive port without shoes on, glancing nervously across the yard and up the street and then up at the house—my house—shivering like a dirty little weed in the breeze. Still holding a worn out Number 2 pencil. Paper pages blew across the lawn, sticking against trees like bulletins. My feet itched on the gravel and glass of the driveway cement.
I looked underneath my feet; the soiled shadow soaked into the skin there was not just from the cement and dirt and dust from outside, it was from walking barefoot on the carpet in the house all morning.
Everything was a mess.
When the house first started to collapse, I was the closest to the front door, sitting on the sofa doing summer school homework. The numbers on the page in front of me were crawling around each other, pressing up against each other and doing somersaults. Sixes pretended to be nines; the pages laughed at me, and word problems spoke little conundrums that aimed to confound me.
I could practically hear the Music-teacher-filling-in-as-Geometry-teacher-for-a-summer-job failing me, and doing it with pride.
In the middle of a problem I could not get past but was half there to giving up on it entirely, the whole house squealed and then seemed to moan like a thousand hurt dogs, and I looked up from my homework to see the living room was now filled in with rafters and clouds of plaster dust, and from inside all of that I heard one of my sisters crying in the rubble. And so I ran out of the house, coughing, feeling good that I made the right choice, that I solved this problem in real life when the shocking decisiveness of the words in the summer course manual only looked like age-old mysteries nobody needed to bother about.
Whatever happened in there, I got out before it happened to me. If the A stood for this, and the B stood for that, the C it equaled was safety.
As a mathematic equation, this held little to no reality. But the summer course book was inside, after all, so what did it matter? Under heaps of plaster dust. Under the bones of my sisters and the neighbors.
And those guys . . . a couple wide-shouldered, perfect-faced neighbors from across the street had come outside almost instantly because I guess it was so loud you could hear it everywhere. Total impressive-faced heroes, they’d dropped their beer cans and ran inside to try to get my sisters out, but they haven't come back out yet and more of the house has since collapsed.
The whole house looked like a failed sandpit fort. Or a broken tree house in the woods grown over with the dust clouds of its passing.
Pretty soon the whole block will be filled with people and fire engines. Police cars will turn the wide front lawn into a frantic, brightly lit parking lot. Eventually I'll be pulled out into the street to make way for a wrecker or something. Someone will put a blanket over my shoulders when the sun starts to set. Maybe Mandy will come from down the street and hang out with me. It’s a Sunday night; she’ll be just out of Youth Group soon.
I might never have to do homework again. Or see this town again. If my parents are dead in there I could be shipped off to my aunt’s place in Harlen. With nobody to take care of me here, this homework scattered across the ebbing afternoon sunlight of the lawn will become obsolete.
Inside the house, there's still screaming, but it sounds so far away.