Elizabeth could smell the smoke as soon as she walked through the door behind her friend Jenny. The fire had happened months ago, seven to be exact, but the renovation had not done anything for that smell. The tang of smoke and wet paint permeated the air. Her contractor Jose had assured her that the house was nearly ready for her family to move back. Elizabeth did not check up on the progress in person frequently enough to know for herself. However, she had agreed to show Jenny the house today before picking the kids up from school.
“Elizabeth! Come in! It’s your house, remember?” Jose called with his thick accent and broad smile. She grinned faintly and stood with him in the middle of the hallway. “Finally, the almost-finished product is here. Whatcha think?”
“Oh my God, Liz it’s fabulous!” cried Jenny.
Elizabeth glanced down the hall at the new granite floors. “It’s lovely, Jose. It turned out better than I hoped.” She remembered running down that hallway after she had gotten the kids out of the house. Towards the end of the hall, underneath the spiral staircase was a closet that housed the fur coat her husband had given her when they were still newlyweds. She had returned to put on her coat before going back out to that cool February evening.
“I just want to walk around for a while, Jose. I’ll be sure to check in with you before I leave.”
At the end of the hall, the brilliant light of a southern California afternoon shone through the glass windows into the empty kitchen. Tools and ladders littered the back lawn. Elizabeth could see her daughter’s untouched playhouse in the back yard. The clock on the microwave read 1:28. There was still another hour before they had to leave.
“This is so amazing. The hard wood flooring in here is divine,” gushed Jenny.
Elizabeth looked down at her new expensive flooring and thought of the cheap wood laminate that had been there before. The refrigerator and dishwasher had both flooded the kitchen on more than one occasion, destroying the cheap flooring. Elizabeth gently nodded her head in agreement.
“Liz, I can’t get over how great all of it is. I mean, since it was an electrical fire the insurance company pays for all of this, right? It’s just unreal,” Jenny rambled excitedly.
The house was barren like the day her family first moved in. It was nicer now, with all of its upgraded flooring, freshly painted walls, and shiny new countertops. All of the lavish details that made a house complete had now been added to Elizabeth’s specifications.
“It’s weird to see it so empty,” Elizabeth whispered solemnly.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s a bit odd, but just think how great it’s gonna be once everything is moved back in!”
Elizabeth looked out at her back lawn again. They had not been running the sprinklers while they were out of the house. Beneath the clutter of the yard, she could see the yellow and brown where there once had been healthy grass. She had thrown her husband a big surprise party with confetti out there. John hated big parties.
“So when do you think you’re going to buy new furniture? Now that the house is almost done, you really have to start thinking about those things. You can’t move in here without any furniture.”
John had said the same thing when they came there. Elizabeth was so eager to get out to California and into their gorgeous new Mediterranean home that they arrived two days before the moving trucks. They slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
Ignoring her friend’s question, Elizabeth climbed the spiral staircase and went to the master bedroom. Up at the top of the walls where they met the high ceiling she could see errors in the paint job. The line was not quite even.
Standing in the doorway, she remembered the room the morning after the fire. All of the furniture and paintings had been pushed into a pile in the middle of the room covered by a large tarp. It was remarkable that the firefighters had been able to do that in all of the second floor rooms. Her friends assured her that because the fire came from the attic, the damage would have been far worse if they had not. When the insurance company inspected all of the furniture, however, the majority of what had been upstairs had received irreversible smoke damage
Down the hall were three more bedrooms all belonging to her children. In the middle of the hall was her son’s room. He wanted his new carpet to be bright green. John had tried to say it was a bad idea because it would make the house hard to sell. Elizabeth decided to let him have it anyway. Walking through the house the morning after, her kids joked that he now had a skylight from the big hole in his ceiling and the red tile roof above it. Elizabeth never did find out whether the hole was from the fire itself or if that was how the firefighters entered.
Elizabeth stared at the ground in the doorway to her son’s room. The line between the gray hall carpet and the bright green carpet was not parallel to the door. It was a little crooked and had clearly been cut wrong.
“Liz, sweetie, its 2:20! We should probably get going!” shouted Jenny.
Elizabeth quietly returned to the downstairs hallway and brushed past Jose and Jenny to the door to the closet beneath the staircase. She opened the door and stared at the backside.
“I told you not to replace this door! One door – I asked you not to touch this one door!” Elizabeth screamed.
Jenny cocked her head to the side and responded evenly, “Honey, it’s just a door.”
“We didn’t replace it, we just painted it,” Jose interjected hastily.
“I specifically asked that nothing be done to this door.”
“We just painted it – I didn’t realize it was so important.”
“If it wasn’t important I wouldn’t have told you not to touch it,” snapped Elizabeth. She hit the door with the soft side of her fist and leaned her forehead against it. Her fingers grazed the edges of the door. With her faced pressed into the door, she could faintly see the lines they had painted over. She could almost see the little markings with the names and dates written after them. She looked just above her head in search of the line marked, “MOMMY” that her kids took as a challenge. It was less important how tall they were than how much closer they had gotten to that line.
Jenny quietly hugged her friend and whispered, “It really is time to go now. The kids are out already.”
“If there is anything that I can do to fix this, please let me know. I am very sorry, Ma’am,” Jose pleaded.
Elizabeth stared at the ground and shook her head lightly, offering a faint smile, “It’s fine.” She reached into her purse and dug around for a pen. Buried in the bottom of her bag was a Sharpie. Jose and Jenny looked at each other and then back at Elizabeth as she took the marker and began to write on the door. She diligently traced whatever markings were still visible. Then, when they were all in place, she stood back, put her marker away, and evaluated the result. Smiling, she said again, “It’s fine. I’m just fine.”