There was nothing else she could do, here among the ashes. The fire had come suddenly, out of nowhere in the middle of a quiet night, and now everything had been charred through, disintegrated down into gray dust.
The gray dust lay everywhere, in heaps here and there among the property, in a thick layer over the car parked on the street, blanketing her skin as though it were makeup powder she had applied carefully in the morning to cover her blemishes.
She sat on the curb, her back facing the remains of what had been her home for almost all her life. She had come to this house as a young child — before she could even remember — and had grown and stayed in it throughout the years, even when the rest of her family had chosen to go elsewhere, to more comfortable and modern places.
But she had always stayed. This was where she had come to know herself as herself. This was where she had lived her happiest memories and had mourned her greatest sorrows. This was where she had met her God, and had left him, and had found him again. Now with the fire, it seemed he had been the one to leave.
She sat carefully holding a picture, the only picture she had managed to pull off the wall on her way out of the falling beams and the thick smoke that choked her lungs and reminded her of the asthma attacks she frequently had as a child. This home had seen her through many nights fighting for breaths that brought pain. It was almost fitting that her last night in it would be spent fighting for breath once more.
But her lungs had held, like they had back then, and now she was out in the bare open on a clear night. She could feel the smoke being filtered out of her lungs by the cool air.
She fingered the back of the picture frame and examined the cardboard back. It was smoked damaged at the bottom where the flames had started to reach it as they crept up the walls. She sighed and her lungs ached just a little. She pulled at the little tabs and lifted the cardboard and the white paper that lay against the picture. She placed them on the ground and then carefully lifted up the picture. She flipped it over in her hand and stared down.
There she was. She was five. Her black hair hung long and straight, a piece of it laid carefully over her shoulder. Even draped in front it reached almost to her belly button. Her tank top showed the smooth, light brown skin of her arms, still unmarred by the many self-inflicted scars that would decorate it in adulthood. Her face was just as smooth and brown and unmarred except for a small scar at the top of her forehead from when she had tripped at the fair and split open the skin the year before. Her cheeks were chubby and her lips were full. Her eyes were a deep brown that complemented her skin. They were small and framed by short lashes, but they were deep. Her mind had been full, even at that young age, and the fullness showed clearly through her eyes.
She thought back on the day the picture had been taken. It had been summer and she had awoken extra early. When they had first talked about going out to take pictures she had felt excited, but now, as she got dressed in the dark, she didn’t feel so sure. What was there about her that should be taken a picture of? Why did he all of a sudden want to capture whatever it was he thought he saw? Still, she was young and, more importantly, she was obedient, so she wouldn’t protest. And, she had to admit, there was a part of her that felt special at the gesture. It wasn’t her brother who was being taken out to have his picture taken in the special morning light. For once, it was her.
And so she had gone out mostly willingly, and part of her had enjoyed the attention and the unusual-ness of the situation. They had spent a good morning, just the two of them, and had returned home in time for breakfast with her mother (who couldn’t wait to see the pictures) and her brother (who couldn’t care less).
A week later the pictures had been developed and were ready to be picked up. She waited eagerly for him to come home with that little paper packet so she could examine its contents. There were many pictures — they had taken a full roll — but this was the picture that had stood out. This was the picture that had captured who she really was at that young age. Her body, her face, her arms placed timidly at her side and her eyes full. Her small, full mouth unsmiling. This had been her.
And this was all she had now, the only possession that had remained of almost an entire life’s-worth of living. It was now just her and an image of her five-year-old self. She looked back at the heaps of ashes behind her and suddenly felt cold. But then she looked back down at the picture in her hands. She smiled.