They say you always remember your first love, but after what happened, I will never be able to forget her.
Back in the late 1800’s, “old money” gave way to “new money” and many rich families lost all that they had. Most lost everything, but some were able to hold on to what little bit they had left and for the most part that meant their homes. Those with large expansive mansions turned many of the rooms into “apartments” and they rented these out to guests. The “guests” consisted mainly of other old money, those who had lost it all. Of those who had smaller homes, they divided them in half and sold or rented the other half.
I grew up in one those homes with a large porch that ran the length of the front of the house with no divider. So every day I saw the beautiful 14 year old girl who lived next to me.
To call Penny beautiful would not do her justice. Fair skin, deep sea blue eyes, a light spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks and the most amazing strawberry blond hair you have ever seen. Depending on the light it would be blonde or red and when the bright sun hit it just right her hair seemed to glow like it was on fire, she looked like what I assume angels would look like. It’s that vision of her that still haunts me to this day.
I guess this all starts on Christmas day 1984. Like any normal holiday with gifts and fun and food. Much of that morning I don’t remember, maybe I’ve blocked it out or maybe my head was filled with thoughts of her. I say this because until then Penny had not paid much attention to me or any other boy for that matter, until a few days before when she stopped me and asked if it was ok that she stopped by on Christmas day because she had a gift for me. I’m sure I said yes because she seemed very happy, but just the fact that she was talking to me and thought about me enough to buy a gift, drove all coherent thought from my young brain.
I was lost in thought that morning when someone started banging on the front door. I heard a scream for help, ran to the door and yanked it open. Penny was standing there, the bright sun making fire in her hair, but something was wrong. A second later she ran past me and headed down the hall. I realized what was wrong. It was not the sun. Penny was on fire. I was so scared for a moment that I could not move. The beautiful girl who had captured my heart was now a flaming shape running down the hall, leaving burnt foot prints in that carpet as she went.. I ran after her. She made it to the washroom at the end of the hall, hit the side of the tub and fell in taking the shower curtain with her. All I could think to do was turn the water on and then I started yelling for my parents to come.
She was looking at me, the water from the shower spraying between us and weakly held up her shaking hand. I wrapped my hand around hers, she screamed and the darkness took me.
After that I can only remember sitting on the porch in the freezing cold, crying and being very angry. I wanted to go to the hospital to see her but they would not let me. I remember one of my parents asking someone if I would be ok and the reply to that being I had just passed out and I would be fine. No one would tell me what happened to Penny.
Still crying and full of hate, though what the hate was and were it came from I don’t recall. Maybe I felt I could have done something more to help her. As an adult, thinking of it now I know there was nothing I could have done, but I was not an adult then.
Time was just a blur until late that night.
I was lying in bed. I had cried for so long that I had no more tears and my body ached. It was then that I heard a voice. Penny’s voice. Not in my room, it seemed to be in my head. “Hey Sweetie, be happy.” I sat up really fast. Penny was standing there looking more beautiful than I ever remembered, and after a moment she just faded away. I tried to stand but my legs would not hold me. I had to crawl to the washroom and lost what little food I had been able to eat. I don’t remember going back to bed, I may have slept on the cold tile floor.
I found out many months later that she had been using the toaster that morning and what they think had happened was that the cuff of her bath robe had touched the element when she was putting the bead in and caught fire. Some time the next summer her mom came to my house. They were moving and while packing things they found her Christmas present to me and wanted me to have it. It was a little dog tag on a silver chain. Engraved on it were the words “Be My Sweetie.” I can’t remember crying as much as I did that day.
I know that I should be happy she came to me that night and that I should hold that in my head and my heart. But when I think of her the image of her standing in my doorway with her hair on fire and the burned footprints on the carpet still tries to creep in. The nightmares are not much better.