STIRRING FROM HER sleep, Gwendolyn dragged the back of her hand across her dampened forehead. It had been a sultry summer’s day in northern Mississippi that poured mercilessly into the evening. Regardless of the elegant new negligée she wore crafted with sheer material, Gwendolyn fought off the notion that she may be having premature hot flashes. At the age of forty-four, she didn’t expect her body to go through such a change for at least another five years or so.
“Did you turn the air off?” Gwendolyn groggily questioned her comatose husband. “Ken, did you hear me?” She lightly nudged him in the side as her eyelids briefly fluttered, barely allowing enough time for the light from the dimmed corner lamp to penetrate her pupils. “It’s hot in here. Make sure the air didn’t go out.”
Kenneth groaned as he rolled over onto his side.
Spent from the day’s event of entertaining family and friends at their housewarming, Gwendolyn and Kenneth Bentley both drifted back off to sleep.
Abruptly, the quietness of the night was disturbed by a growing noise in the hallway.
Gwendolyn’s eyes shot open as she coughed uncontrollably.
“Oh no!” Kenneth’s sleep haze cleared as he jumped up from the bed and ran to the door.
With a deafening scream, Kenneth snatched his hand from the scorching doorknob that instantly formed blisters on the tips of his fingers. The searing blood coursed through his veins as he hollered in pain. With sweat trickling down his flushed skin, Kenneth’s dread-filled eyes quickly surveyed the room. He searched for a towel, a jacket, a sock, anything that would protect his hands so they could escape the dark, smoky deathtrap.
Having spotted a glimmer of hope a few steps away, his pasty bare feet clamored across the hardwood floor. He hurriedly grabbed the decorative cloth runner from the dresser-top to pad his hand from the fiery handle. Just as he got within inches of the exit again, Kenneth watched in horror as an orange glow blazed beneath the door. With defeat in his eyes, he glanced back at his wife who had fear in hers.
“We have to get out of here!” Gwendolyn shrieked as her eyes searched for refuge. “The bathroom!” The illuminated plug-in from the bathroom shed an additional sliver of light that allowed them to maneuver through the haze in the room.
Just as Gwendolyn rounded the foot of their bed, a part of the ceiling collapsed in front of her and blocked the bathroom door. She screamed hysterically. Kenneth shouted for her to wrap herself in the housecoat he had just yanked from the rocking chair in the corner. The fire was spreading quickly as the air steadily grew thin.
“What are we going to do?” Gwendolyn cried. “I thought you said this would never happen!”
Kenneth tried to calm his wife down as he took another try at breaking the jammed window. “Somebody blocked it from the outside!” He fiercely jabbed a curtain rod that had been torn from the wall against the tempered glass. “Oh my God, oh my God, I never thought he would go this far.” The rod folded in his hands as his mind incessantly repeated his wife’s brother-in-law’s dismissive comment from a casual conversation earlier in the day: What the mayor wants he usually gets … he never lets go without a fight.
Gwendolyn shook uncontrollably as her entire body erupted with beads of sweat from the sweltering heat. The blankets they tossed on the growing fire only seemed to boost the flames. “This isn’t working!” Gwendolyn shouted as she tripped, accidentally ripping the hem of her nightgown in the process.
Kenneth soon realized that the beddings he threw on the fire were laced with some sort of combustible fluid. In suspicion, his mind immediately flipped back to the woman who had laundered two of his wife’s hand sewn blankets. The bedspreads fashioned with straps of fabric, but lots of love, were a housewarming gift to themselves. Gwendolyn had spent a year and a half stitching in between her day job at the bank and caring for her family at night to assemble those covers. Kenneth didn’t want Gwendolyn to know they had been ruined a few days prior when their daughter, twelve-year-old Kara, accidentally spilled grape juice on them. So, he took them to be cleaned before she returned home that day from an appointment at the out of town law office they had previously visited.
After legally finalizing ownership of a sizeable acreage of land where it was rumored that items dating back to slavery may have been located, those suspicions proved to be true. Professional artifact recovery diggers who paid the Bentleys to rent use of their land just weeks before their home was to be built found numerous relics buried beneath the ground. The percentage profited from the found items surprised both Gwendolyn and Kenneth.
During a subsequent visit to the law office while their house was being built, the Bentleys signed off on paperwork that protected their children if anything should happen to them. It was a precautionary measure they hoped would never have to be used. With money in the bank from ownership of that property, they had secured their family’s financial future.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry.” Kenneth clutched his wife in his arms as they cowered in a clearing of the bedroom’s walk-in closet still partially occupied by stacks of unopened cardboard boxes. “I never thought it would come to this.” The sorrow in his eyes barely began to describe the grief in his heart as he wept. “Let’s just pray that the girls got out all right.”
Kenneth regretted the day that he convinced his wife to move back into the small town of Dadenville. His wife was right about the racism, despite their prerogative to buy land available to the public; in that town many unjust benefits came with generations of political clout. Kenneth never thought that securing a successful land bid over Mayor Jenson would cost them their lives.
Gwendolyn sobbed with heavy pants, “Lord, p-p-please watch over my girls.” Her eyes focused on the wooden framed picture of her daughters, Kara and Miriam, which inadvertently tumbled to the floor. Gwendolyn’s fingers trembled as she ran them across the cracked glass overlaying the image of her children’s faces. The reflection of the flickering flame bouncing off the glass caused her to look away. Crushed, she buried her face into Kenneth’s chest.
“God will make sure that they have each other,” Kenneth said, and then yanked the closet door closed. He tightened the grip on his wife as the sound of crackling wood pierced their ears and choking smoke ballooned in their lungs. “Don’t worry,” he fought to say in between violent coughs, “Miriam will be there for Kara.”
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