His mother stands at the doorway of the tiny bedroom he shares with three of his siblings. “Paulie, I have to go out for a little bit, okay?”
Paul rolls over in his bed, letting his shoes dangle off the edge, keeping the paperback copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in front of his face.
“Can you watch the kids for me, honey?” Her voice is wheedling, the way his sister sounds when she’s begging for candy.
She coughs, trying to clear the rasp in her throat. “I have something important to do, Paulie. I’ll be back soon.”
Paul knows this is not true. When his mother goes out, she is gone for a long time. He hates Sunday afternoons. When he is at school, this cannot happen. On the weekends, especially cold, sleety, winter weekends, he has nowhere to get away from his mother’s demands. He cannot be with Oscar and Jamal and Luis. Their mothers won’t allow them to play outside in bad weather or stay out after dark.
Because they’re all only eleven years old. Because their mothers do what mothers are supposed to do.
Paul has taken to calling his mother Sharon, not Mom or Mommy.
“Paulie, please–I really need you to help me out.” Sharon leans against the scratched doorframe, her bleached blond hair hanging over one eye, her hip cocked in her skin-tight jeans. “I fed the baby. She’ll sleep for a long time.”
Paul knows this means his mother put Benadryl in the baby’s formula even though the directions he’s read on the package say not to give it to a baby under six months old without a doctor’s permission. The baby is two months old, and she’s never been to a doctor.
Paul can hear cartoons playing on the TV in the living room where Roxy and Gordon and Gus laugh and squeal. He pulls the covers over his head. “Just go.”
“Thank you, Paulie. You’re such a good boy.” Through his closed eyelids, Paul can picture his mother waving at him. “See you later.”
He hears the excitement in his mother’s voice. She is thrilled to be free of them, eager to join the huddle of men in front of the Starlight Lounge two blocks away. He curls into a ball and his passport to Narnia slides off the bed and falls into the tangle of shoes and pajamas and toys and papers that carpets the bare wood floor.
“Paul? Where’s Mom?” Roxy stands next to his bed. Paul doesn’t know how long he’s been asleep.
“She went out,” he mutters into his pillow. Paul had never noticed the sour smell of it until he slept over at Luis’s house, where the sheets and the towels all smell like laundry detergent.
“Paul, we’re hungry.”
“So make some Easy Mac,” he tells his sister. “Make two packets.” That should be enough for her and the twins.
“I can’t,” Roxy tells him. “The microwave is gone.”
Paul sits up. “What do you mean, gone?”
“I think Mom took it,” Roxy explains. “And I don’t know how to make Easy Mac if there’s no microwave.”
Paul lies back down in bed. His mother has taken their microwave to sell to get money to buy drugs.
He is tired. So tired. He pulls the dingy sheet over his head. “Go away, Roxy.”
Roxy leaves Paul in the bedroom they all share. She knows there’s no point in arguing with him when he gets like this.
She enters the kitchen where Gus and Gordy sit at the table waiting for her with eager faces.
“Where’s Paul?” Gordon asks.
“We’re hungry,” Gus adds, as if she’s forgotten why she went to get their older brother in the first place.
“I’m going to make us some Easy Mac,” Roxy says with more confidence than she feels.
“But how?” Gordon points to the microwave-shaped outline of grease on the counter where their missing appliance once stood.
“I can make it on the stove,” Roxy says. She pulls a folding chair away from the table and climbs up to look into the cabinet. Finding the familiar blue and yellow box on the shelf, she studies the back panel. Roxy is not the best reader in her second-grade class. At the beginning of the year she was in the red bird group. Being a red bird made her happy; red is the color of Hawaiian Punch and Elmo and cherry Lifesavers. But then her friend Chelsea got moved into the bluebird group and Roxy was left with Keith and Timmy, neither of whom can read at all.
Then she understood being a red bird wasn’t good.
Roxy has been trying hard to get out of the red birds, but she never makes it. Now she squints at the back of the Easy Mac package. There are many words she can’t read, but there are also pictures–pictures that show how to pour the noodles in a bowl. She already knows how to do that part. When she had the microwave, all she had to do is pour water from the sink over the noodles and put it in the microwave and press the buttons. Easy.
But now she notices the package also shows a picture of a stove with a pot on top. That’s what she must do. She gets a pot out of the cabinet underneath the stove and moves the chair over to the sink to fill the pot with water, not sure of how much she needs. The weight of the filled pot pulls her wrist down, and water sloshes out. Roxy can’t carry it across to the stove, so she gets Gordon to help her.
Now comes the tricky part–making the flames come up under the pot. Roxy has seen her mother do it, but she’s not sure how it works. She turns the knob and flames come out of the back part of the stove.
But the pot is in the front. So she turns that knob back again and tries another knob, and the flames come up under her pot.
Roxy feels the way she does when Miss Samuels says her math worksheet is all correct. The twins watch in fascination
“Paul says we’re not supposed to play with the stove,” says Gus.
“We’re not playing. We’re working. And Paul’s not here, is he?” Roxy is mad at Paul. She knows he’s not going to come and help her. If she and Gus and Gordon want to eat, she’s got to make this Easy Mac herself.
“How will we know when it’s ready?” Gordon asks.
Gus and Gordon are only four, but Gordon always asks smart questions. The twins have the same dark hair and brown eyes, but they are not identical. Gordon is smarter and Gus is faster.
Roxy is not sure how she will know when the noodles are done. She looks at the box again and sees the number three. She thinks it might mean to wait for three minutes. Luckily, the clock on the stove says six-zero-zero now, so she tells Gordon and Gus to watch until the numbers flip over to six-zero-three. Her brothers are as riveted as if the numbers were Sponge Bob chasing Squidward.
Roxy stands on the chair and looks inside the pot where the noodles dance through the surging bubbles. The wet heat makes her blond hair cling to her cheek.
“Six-zero-three!” Gordon shouts. “It’s done!”
Roxy touches the handle of the pot, but quickly pulls her hand away. She bites her lower lip contemplating the problem. She knows she has to take the pot over to the sink to drain out the hot water and get the noodles. She has seen her mother do it. And Paul knows how to do it, too. Briefly, she considers going back to the bedroom to beg Paul to come and help her with this part, but Paul will tell her she’s a baby.
No, she can do this herself.
When she plays at her friend Chelsea’s house, Chelsea’s mother has big, padded gloves that she uses to pick up a pot. But Roxy knows their kitchen doesn’t have these things. So Roxy does what she has seen her mother do. She takes the gray dish towel from the counter and uses it to hold the pot handle.
The towel is long, and the edge of it dips into the flame. The fire races up the towel, and Roxy drops it on the counter amid a stack of unopened mail.
Gus and Gordon watch the flames with round eyes.
Roxy grabs a fork and tries to move the burning towel. Paul will be mad about this. Maybe she can carry the towel to the sink. But the flames grow taller, and she is scared to get too close. She can feel the heat on her hand.
Now the flames spread to the tattered curtain that hangs on the window over the counter. The curtains go up in a whoosh.
Roxy is afraid.
The twins scream.
“Go out in the hall,” she tells her brothers. Then she starts to yell for Paul. At the same moment, the smoke alarm goes off.
Paul appears at the end of the hall. “What–?”
His eyes widen, and Roxy sees that he understands what happened. “Get out of the apartment,” he shouts. “Go tell Mr. Figueroa.”
Roxy hesitates. She doesn’t like knocking on the building super’s door herself. She wants Paul to come with her.
“Go!” Paul shouts and turns his back on her.
And then Roxy remembers. The baby is sleeping in their mother’s bedroom.
Paul runs down the hall to the back of the apartment. The baby sleeps soundly in her crib beside the large bed where their mother often brings men they don’t know.
Paul picks up his sister. The baby is limp, her head lolling as he lifts her from the crib. He wraps her tiny body in the pink and yellow handknit blanket their mother bought at the Saint Sebastian Church Thrift Shop. It’s cold outside and he doesn’t know where they’ll be spending the night, but it won’t be here.
Then he heads toward the front door of the apartment, the only way out.
A wave of smoke meets him at the threshold of the bedroom.
When Roxy and the boys ran, they left the apartment door open and the breeze from the hall has fed the flames. The kitchen is engulfed; the hall filled with black smoke.
Paul’s eyes fill with tears. He pulls the blanket over the baby’s head and shifts her on his shoulder before his body doubles over in a coughing fit.
Paul knows he is supposed to crawl in a fire—they had an assembly about it in school. But he can’t carry the baby and crawl on his hands and knees, so he tucks the baby under his right arm the way he carries his soccer ball to the park and edges down the hall toward the door. Outside he hears people shouting. “There’s two kids in there.”
Black smoke billows around him and he can no longer see the door. He extends his left hand in front of him, keeping the baby tucked against him with his right.
With a loud crack, the wall between the kitchen and the hall gives way and flames shoot toward him.
Paul sees a faint halo of light ahead. The hall, his goal. There’s only one way to get there.
He stands and wraps every inch of the baby in the blanket.
Then he steps into the flames.
Find out what happens to Paul and his siblings twenty years after the fire. Follow the twisty path that leads from this dingy Brooklyn apartment to the luxury Manhattan hi-rise where a beautiful woman is murdered.