Snuggling into my pillow, I tried to keep the day at bay.
“No! Send – ” something, I couldn’t make out what- “now! I don’t know! Yes!…”
Struggling to wide awake status, I tried to process what, and why, my husband was yelling. This must be some huge work related disaster I thought. See, he fields literally hundreds of calls from all over. Some very important, others not as much, but in all the years with all those calls, I’ve never heard him like that. Then it occurred to me it might be an accident or death in the family. I stumbled down the hallway, meeting him halfway to the living room.
“Betty’s house is on fire!” he said, wide eyed.
Running to the window, I watched entranced, as flames rose well above the trees. Oh shit. I pulled on the nearest shirt and pair of shorts I could find (inside out I discovered only hours later) and ran over to Betty’s. I fully expected to see her standing out there, barefoot in her nightie, crying. Upset, scared, heartbroken-yes, all of that-but standing there.
Betty’s car stood guard in front of the house on this June morning. Two dogs ran around the yard, scared. But no Betty.
We live in the middle of nowhere-not the end of the world, but you can see it from here as the saying goes. No one walks to the grocery store, or the library, or to visit a friend. We drive. We pretty much have to. Betty’s car parked in front of the house at 6:15 AM meant Betty, in her 70’s and retired, was in the house.
The fire had so consumed the structure that I could see through it. Support beams remained, but the walls had all but disappeared. Radiating heat withered surrounding trees and shrubbery. Thirty seconds later the first of the responders arrived-a young guy in a pick up truck. He approached the house, or tried to, but could not enter. He asked me if anyone was inside. Sickened, I nodded. He managed to secure the smaller of the two dogs a little white poofy thing, which I took to my house for safekeeping. The other dog remained loose until family members arrived and caught her.
A confusing barrage of people began streaming down the driveway. Firemen, police, inspectors, grief- stricken family members, neighbors. A whirl, a parade. Smoke, ash, and questions. I don’t know. At the time it was difficult to sort out. About 10 AM the ambulance left with Betty. No lights. No sirens.
Nothing compares to the helplessness I felt in those first moments. The horror of watching someone die. Watching the sheriff walking around behind the house, checking to see if she made it out and lay there hurt, or burned to death in the back yard, rather than inside the house.
As the nearest and the closest began to talk, compare notes, and answer questions, a menacing picture emerged.
Betty had stopped to chat one morning, her smiling face framed by the driver’s side window as she told me her daughter, grandson, and her daughter’s boyfriend planned on living with her. Her loving daughter, she explained, wasn’t comfortable with her living alone.
The morning of the fire the couple left for work early, rolling down the driveway about 5 am. The boyfriend, I discovered quite by accident, is listed on the sex offenders’ registry. Betty had told a neighbor that she didn’t like him, didn’t trust him, and wanted him out of her house as Betty thought he abused her daughter. A few months earlier, this daughter had talked Betty into purchasing a large life insurance policy. Betty struggled financially and could ill afford the purchase.
Very early on the morning of the fire something rattled our two dogs. Yes, we live in an area where there are all kinds of animals for them to bark at, but usually the furry natives will run off, and all will be well again. Not this time. At 3 am my husband had to go out and carry one of our dogs back into the house. This had never happened before.
By now, the general neighborhood feeling was “This ain’t right.” The stunner though, came with the release of the coroner’s report. Cause of death: Carbon monoxide poisoning. Time of death: 11 AM the day before the fire. In other words, Betty died 19 hours earlier.
How does one die of CO poisoning on a warm morning in June, with all the windows open and fans perched on the sills? If you lived with your mom in the boondocks, returned from work and saw her car parked out front, wouldn’t you expect her to be home? If she didn’t make an appearance by dinner time, would you look for her? How about by 9pm? Bedtime? Maybe even the next morning?
Her grandson a college student, only planned to stay the summer. A quiet kid, he was at his dad’s the night of the fire. Coincidence? How about the dogs-both belonged to the daughter…Betty had a dog. It died with her.
Tragedy often brings people together. Not always in good ways either. Various memories and stories traded in the weeks that followed described a woman who, like most of us, lived with complications. Failed relationships and financial problems existed alongside loyalty, caring, and love of family.
I don’t claim to know everything there is about Betty. I do know she didn’t deserve this.