The screaming started about a month before the sky burst into flames. Her voice came out full, fevered, shrieking in response to seemingly nothing. Betsy and Robert first marveled at the sound of it. Even as a baby, wrapped in a singular blanket alone in Woodland Park, the officers heard no protest or complaint as they brought her to their station. And then into the group home. And finally into the arms of a retired school teacher and her equally retired husband.
Hopi. It was embroidered on the back of the blanket. A singular loving act presumably from her birth mother. Those four letters were the only clue to her past. They figured she was around one year old when she was found. They figured her mother had abandoned her, although any imagined scenario was equally true. Betsy told herself Hopi’s mother had been in trouble. That no one would leave such a perfect example of innocence to the whims of the outdoors given any other choice. Whatever her past, her present was healthy and hopeful. An even-tempered baby turned into a laconic toddler turned into a mute child. Expressed emotions matched the frequency of words. Betsy thought she noticed a smirk once as the child slept. She assumed she was mistaken. By the time she found her voice, Hopi made it five years without so much as a grunt.
It wasn’t a nightmare. Or an injury. She was standing near the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. Betsy was putting the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. Robert was reading at the table. Over the next month, they would try to figure out the moment of incitation, but you can’t find a reason for nothing.
Her young body had seemingly saved the last five year’s worth of speaking energy for this singular performance. Inhalations were the only break. One sustained note grew more distorted as the day went on. Once the sun had set, Hopi’s body became wracked with exhaustion. Betsy was able to convince her to chew a few crackers and drink half a cup of water before she fell asleep for the night. At dawn, it started all over.
Betsy and Robert called every doctor in town. They were told a variation of the same thing every time: Speak calmly to her, she’ll tire herself out.
They were wrong.
This went on for weeks. Betsy and Robert began wearing earplugs around the house and communicating through hand signals. The neighbor’s complained, but what could be done?
And then, on day 29 of continuous screaming, the sunshine filtering through the windows changed color. Yellow became a dancing orange. Betsy and Robert were too busy trying to make sense of a sky filled with flames instead of clouds, and didn’t notice the return of silence.
Mouths agape, they stared into the sky. No sun. No wind. Just fire spreading to the horizon. They were close enough to see individual spires of flames licking the atmosphere, but far enough that the heat was only a suggestion. For now. Betsy turned from the window and pulled the plugs from her ears.
She looked at her husband of 42 years and slapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and dug the yellow foam from his ears.
“Robert, where’s Hopi?”
They looked around the house made sinister by dancing shadows in the orange light. No sign of her.
It grew warmer. The open windows blew furnace heat through the car as they drove around the neighborhood. Betsy called Hopi’s name from the driver’s side window as Robert stared into the sky. The road didn’t require much attention as all the other cars had either pulled over or stopped where they were. Occupants craned their heads out of their windows and stared above. People on the sidewalk did the same. The constant movement was hypnotic. Betsy avoided debilitating amazement by focusing on Hopi. Most likely scared. Maybe lost. Hell, maybe already dead.
“Hopi!” she continued to call.
They zigzagged through the neighborhood until they passed Woodland Park. The playground was empty. The baseball field and basketball courts were abandoned. One person-shaped object appeared toward the back of the park near the tree line. It was the exact spot a couple officers, responding to a distressed 911 call, found a small girl with no history wrapped in a singular blanket. Betsy stopped the car and got out.
“Hopi?” she said tentatively as she approached. The child was lying on the ground with her hands behind her head. She was looking into the sky as if it wasn’t crawling with flames. As if it was filled with fluffy clouds waiting to be interpreted as animal shapes. Hopi briefly shifted her gaze to Betsy, motioned her head to the ground next to her, and returned her attention to the sky.
Betsy looked back to the car where Robert continued craning his head out of the window and looking up.
“Hopi? What’s going on?”
Hopi again motioned to the ground next to her.
Betsy sighed and did as she was told. It took a couple moments to get her 64-year-old frame supine on the grass, but soon she felt the grass tickling the back of her neck. She glanced to her right at Hopi. Betsy felt the child’s hand wrap around her own. Earlier that month she heard the child’s voice for the first time. And now, underneath a wall of flames, the heat drawing beads of sweat from her forehead, she saw another first from the child that has shared her home for the last four years.
Hopi was smiling.
Betsy found herself doing the same.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has since had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, The Satirist, Corvus Review, Inwood Indiana, and elsewhere. He currently eats sandwiches in Nashville, TN. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.