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Did it hurt? I ask David and Crystal, three and two, who were three and two twenty-four years ago and will be three and two forever.
“Eiman Ejelat, 31, the mother of the two dead children, David, 3, and Crystal, 2, said she had had no disagreements with Ms. Valcarel, who rented the ground-floor apartment until she was evicted about a month ago,” said the New York Times, Feb 24, 1996.
The two little ones, such little ones, don’t answer my question, but their laughter bubbles, crisp, cool water in a clear mountain brook. We play hide and seek, David, Crystal and I, when they sneak into my thoughts.
“Mrs. Ejelat escaped the blaze, as did her oldest son Essa, 4.”
We visit Essa’s dreams, David says. Watch! He grabs Crystal’s hand and they dance on grey, silky ashes, sinking within them somewhere deep inside. I don’t know what I’m watching but I keep my eyes glued to the fine drifts of dust. I’m scared for the kids, just three and two and for Essa who’s now twenty-eight. (Essa was pulled from a second story window by a member of the film crew who witnessed the flames. The crew was shooting The Preacher’s Wife with Whitney and Denzel—look it up if you don’t believe me.) I think of Essa now, sleeping, I guess somewhere still in Yonkers, not many people make it out of Yonkers, and I imagine their mother who cannot sleep, never sleeps, probably has not slept a wink in twenty-four years and I begin to cry.
Wha’th a matter? says a lovely, lisp-y voice, and I feel a soft, small hand on the small of my shoulder. I feel what I think is a tear on the back of my neck, but it could be a rain drop. The sky most suddenly looks like rain.
“Vilma Valcarcel, a single mother of four, was charged with criminal solicitation and held without bail. … A law enforcement official said investigators believed Ms. Valcarcel asked one of two teen-age boys to start the blaze …”
I wonder was it worth it and if there’s a special place in hell, but I know better because the hell was there in Yonkers, a special place on its own. I also know Christian, the other of the two teen-age boys. Fifteen at the time, he swears he left as soon as his friend put the pillow to the burner in the kitchen because even for him, for Christian, who roamed Yonkers’ hard streets, who weathered beatings from men visiting his home, whose young, troubled mother had her own monsters to slay, even for Christian, it was all just a little “too freaky.” Christian, who went down to the station after his mother signed his Miranda rights away, should have been charged as an accessory—he swears he left before the shit went down—but got hit with a full murder rap and arson in the second degree. Christian’s court-appointed attorney, who wore a cowboy hat in Yonkers, for God’s sake, and “twirled his pen, I remember how he twirled his pen,” decided not to put Christian’s mother on the stand because you can’t put her on the stand. Christian, who has the same birthday as his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eisner who still thinks of him warmly—she told me so—Christian, who still to this day wishes Mrs. Eisner had been “my mother,” went in for questioning and came out nineteen years ten months later at thirty-four, six years older than Essa is today. But that’s all true and this story, the one of me talking to dead children, is not—not in the way people usually think of truth.
Nothing’s the matter, I answer Crystal, who’s transparent as quartz and has the heart of a rose. Nothing’s the matter at all. It all works out the way it’s supposed to, doesn’t it? I ask. A funny question to pose to a two-year-old and she laughs because she knows it’s funny because she knows many things. And she puts her soft quartz arms around me and tells me to tell her mother hi and to tell Christian she wishes him well and there are no hard feelings and I’m the one who laughs this time because feelings are so very hard.
Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in The Manifest-Station, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, The Hedgehog Review Blog, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her bi-weekly musings on her website.