The fine white facade of the mansion is lit an eerie rose. The smoke tumbles off the mountain overhead, ends curling, evaporating against the smothered sunset. I can hear the fire advancing through the underbrush, unseen—toward the village, away, I do not know. I only know in my gut I shouldn’t stay here.
Gen would have known the same. And yet, she came here to find me.
I drop gracelessly through the basement window and onto the floor, rubbing my shin where it scraped, and hurry to the library where I am sure I will find Gen.
“I’m here,” I call down the bookshelves. “Gen, it’s Pari. I’m here.”
Gen stands lightly leaning against the glass case filled with treasures, her back to me, her elbows turned in. She is in her work clothes, fingerprinted apron and plaid dress with the torn hem, one ankle tucked behind, her toes tapping an idle and inconsistent time. Unbothered, almost bored. Like when the teachers used to set an egg timer and have us practice handwriting.
“Gen,” I say, beside her.
She does not spare me a look, gaze moving steady from one item in the case to another.
“Gen.” I put my hand on her shoulder.
Her fingers twitch a little before her eyes flick up, questioning. Too long a moment passes before she recognizes me. “Pari,” she says.
“Let’s go,” I say.
She stands rooted in front of the glass case. “Why,” she asks.
I am baffled, fighting panic. “The fire,” I remind her. “We have to leave town.”
“That’s right,” she says, and then, taking me by the shoulders, eyes wide: “We have to save everything.”
“The treasures,” she says, rushing to the wall, yanking off her apron, piling trinkets in its center. “You gather the books.” She pulls me over to the shelves, shoves a book directly into my hands. “Hurry.”
Many questions rise to my mind, but holding the book she has forced at me, I feel them die on my lips. It is the first book I picked up here—the first one I read in this library. The one that started all my other discoveries. Is it important to her too?
Or does she know it’s important to me?
These books, these riches—Gen wants them. Did I not promise myself to give her whatever she wanted?
Gen returns to her work. The book is heavy, cool, in my hands. The time that felt so limited now expands, fills my chest; I am relaxed, I can breathe. It is good to take the time to save the books, to save the valuables stored up here. They are ours as much as anyone’s. We must consider carefully what we take. They are, maybe, the only thing worth saving.
From the mountain comes a wrenching sound as something wooden warps, twists, and finally snaps, the collapse total, resounding. An outpost, maybe. I examine my pile of books on the leather-top desk. There is history, geography, ancient culture, and a few folios of Le Jeune’s own papers that I feel should not be parted with. He has a science section, most likely outdated. Still, for completion’s sake, I should rescue some science books. The good ones.
“What are you doing here?” demands a voice very close to my ear.
My first thought is it’s the owner of the mansion, come back to find us trespassing, and this should terrify me. Instead I feel a close and focused calm. “I’m gathering the books,” I say, though it should be obvious from the chemistry volume lying open in my hands.
The person takes my wrist and jerks me around. It is my mother. My mother is here.
“Mom?” I say, trying to process it—how she got in, from where, and when. It does not seem to me that she is supposed to be here. Then I remember: She lived here. This is her house more than anyone’s. “There’s a fire coming,” I tell her. “We need to save the books.”
Her face is flushed and her eyes wild. She is out of breath. She has been running. “No,” she says incredulously. “Where’s Gen?”
“Gen,” I repeat. Slowly, the memory of Gen forms itself in my mind. “She is doing the same as me,” I say. “Over by the treasures.”
“Treasures,” she says. “What is wrong with you?”
“They’re valuable,” I say. “I’m going to start another library when this one burns down.”
Outside, something else snaps and falls. A tree. It is not an unfamiliar sound. Same as when the men chop down pines for timber.
“Cut it out,” my mother says, pulling me away from the stack of books I’ve made. Her fingernails dig into the skin of my wrist.
“Your fingernails hurt my skin,” I tell her, trying to focus past it, to not lose my concentration on the noble gases, on the chemical properties of argon.
She drags me over to where Gen stands placing valuables into careful stacks by size and shape. “I need a box,” she says, looking at her collection.
“Come on,” says my mother, and grabs Gen’s arm too.
“She needs a box,” I remind my mother.
“They’re too fragile. I can’t carry them out the way I came,” Gen laments.
“How did you two get in here?” says my mom.
Gen points vaguely to where the basement window would be through the walls. “I just have to figure out how to get the ones in the case,” she says. She slips herself free of my mother’s grip, and seeing her, I realize I can do the same. Gen goes businesslike to the glass case; I stand aside, flipping to the next page in my book.
My mother snatches the heavy book from my hands, lifts it over her head and throws it down in the center of the glass, which shatters over the treasures, over Gen’s hands, which she snaps up to her ears in sudden, visceral distress.
Fragments of glass sparkle on the carpet. I feel my fear rise in me, remembering where we are, what is happening. I feel the strange and ominous heat, my scalp dripping sweat.
“Pari’s mom?” Gen barely has time to stammer, before my mother grabs her hand, grabs mine, and marches us out of the library, down the hallway, up the spiral stairs.
There is hardly room for us all on the narrow stairs; a wrong step and we would trip on each other’s heels. Yet we move in concert because my mother wills us to. I can hear us growing tired, out of breath, the heat pressing in as we climb higher and the lightbulbs overhead more scarce, the dark more total. I can just make out, at the top of the stairs, a crack of light beneath a familiar, heavy door.
Mom roots through her pocket. “I have the key,” she says, checking her blouse, her cuffs, the floor. “I got in here,” she says, “I had it,” but all her searching turns up nothing, and she delivers a closed fist to the door.
Gen rushes forward, slams her palms to the door as well, screams: Help. Help. Her voice resounding in the stairwell.
“Stuck,” I say, the memory of dream flooding over me. This awful house of his, treacherous and inescapable as a dream.
The door doesn’t budge. Gen’s voice grows hoarse and desperate. I am paralyzed, hearing it. The knowledge that we will be gone soon, she will be gone, and I can’t help her.
Gen gives the door one more smack, yells through with all she’s got: “Help.”
Stand back, comes a voice through the door. Mom ushers us behind her. In moments, the door splinters, buckles, is wrenched away piece by piece, and a small group awaits us, reaching out their hands for ours. It is three of the men.
They pull us free through the broken door, my mother, then Gen, then me, delivering us forward into the half gloom of a massive room, high ceiling, spare furnishings, musty and still. For a moment, all of us stand there in the open, uncomfortable, feeling how much nobody lives here, how much we don’t belong.
Beyond the big front windows, the mountain is in full view. It glows with a crown of fire. Black smoke streams down the slope. One of the men picks up the axe, set aside when they pulled down the door, and we take it as a cue to go.
Out of the mansion, across the grounds, we are heads down, moving fast, shirts drawn up to cover our nostrils. Tired as we are and frightened, we keep our feet. We do not stop until we reach the edge of town.
When we arrive, only a few are left awake. The children and most elders are asleep in carts, huddled close beneath big blankets, loose bundles of clothing for pillows. The people keeping watch take care of us quickly and quietly, bringing water, dried meat. They don’t ask us questions, and for the first time in a while, I feel like I am getting just what I need.
Gen falls asleep not long after eating. Her body sinks in the barrow. Her eyes draw closed. “I know I was rash,” she says. “I thought you would be there.”
I tuck a blanket over her. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
It is three mornings the people of our village wake to see the mountain still on fire. We spend them digging a fire break. The wind is quiet now, but no one is sure the fire won’t still carry. When the smoke stops climbing, when it hangs still over the mountain like a veil, we venture back to town. Everything is wrecked, blown apart. It is hard to tell which house stood where.
There is no reason to go—we know what we will find—but Gen and I do it anyway. The mansion is a stone pit burnt clean. Everything it held inside it is gone.