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by Miriam English

18. fire

The sun was setting as Thora parked the car on the other side of the road, away from the firetruck and the police car. As she got out of her car, one of the uniformed cops came over.

"Detective," he said. "They're over here."

Thora nodded and followed him. Sitting on the lawn, away from the remains of the burned and smoking house was one of those dolls. Most of its hair had been burned off, it had a blanket pulled around its shoulders, and two children -- a boy and a girl, who looked around 5 and 8 respectively -- were hugging the doll. They also had blankets wrapped around them and a doctor was squatting, checking them at the moment. The doll didn't need the blanket for warmth, so Thora guessed most of the doll's clothes had burned off in the fire and the cops had covered it for modesty's sake. Thora figured her questions could wait til the doctor had finished.

Thora asked her guide if there were any witnesses other than the doll and the children.

He indicated a few neighbors. "Some of them say they saw it."

"Where are the parents?"

"They're on their way. Should be here any minute. They'd been working late."

"Thanks, Officer. I think I'll start with the neighbors. Can you let me know as soon as the doctor is done with his examination? I want to question them and the doll before they leave." She took out her notebook and pen and approached the small group of people.

"Can anybody here tell me what happened?"

One woman who was pulling her cardigan about her against the cold, eagerly volunteered. "I saw the doll bring out one of the children, sit him on the grass and go back into the house for the second one. Stupid thing must have forgotten the other. It probably lit the fire. The parents should have their kids taken from them -- irresponsible, leaving them in the house alone with one of those things. They're always out at work." The woman shook her head. "Irresponsible."

Out of the corner of her eye Thora had noticed that the doctor had stood and was talking to one of the ambulance medics. Thora pocketed her notebook, absently thanked the woman, and hurried over to the doctor.

The doctor greeted her, "Hello Thora. How's your father?"

"He's well. Wants you to visit instead of the young doctors from the home help." She guided him away from the doll and kids so they could talk. "How are the kids?" She indicated the two sitting with the doll.

He glanced back at them, "Surprisingly good, actually. No burns and only a tiny bit of smoke inhalation -- nothing serious. Mainly scared."

"Thanks, Alan. Give my best to Bella." She went over to the kids and squatted down before them.

"Hello Detective." The doll's voice was soft and cultured. "This is Wanda and Vance," indicating each with a tilt of the head. It didn't take its arms from around the children, who clung to it. "My name is Yolanda." Up close the doll looked shocking. Most of its hair had burned away, including its eyebrows and eyelashes. The skin appeared undamaged but was soot-blackened in parts, and one shoulder had charred marks on it like it had pushed against something burning.

Thora nodded to the doll and addressed the kids."Okay, who can tell me what happened?"

Wanda was older so she spoke up, "We were playing in the livingroom while Yolanda was making dinner and suddenly there was fire everywhere and we yelled for Yolanda and she told us to lie on the floor and she wrapped Vance in a blanket and she threw a blanket on me and told me to stay there and she took Vance outside and came back for me and took me outside too."

Vance was nodding, eyes big with tears.

Thora asked the doll, "Why did you take them one at a time?"

"I'm not strong enough to carry both. I knew Wanda would lay there and wait, and hoped she would be safe for a few seconds. I don't know what I would have done if the flames were worse."

"Where did you get the blankets?"

"The lounge. The kids often sleep there after watching videos when their parents have to work late."

Thora indicated the doll's blackened shoulder. "Oh yes. The door was alight and jammed. I needed to push it open with my shoulder."

"Thanks." Thora stood again. She walked over to the wet, hissing, smoking remnants of the house. There was nothing left of the front door and the window to its side. The center of the fire seemed to be near the window. There was a deformed metal object there, with a ceramic element holder -- an electric heater. Judging by the proximity to the window a curtain had probably caught in it. She wondered how it had spread so quickly to the rest of the room. Synthetics? Maybe the kids had tried to put the fire out, but had accidentally spread it. She'd have to wait for the fire investigator's report. There was probably no point asking the kids. They probably blamed themselves and were scared of being held responsible.

Thora noticed the doll look off to the side. She followed its attention and saw a young man and woman get out of a car and come running to the kids. They lifted the kids, hugging them. The doll stood, and they hugged it too. Thora walked over to them.

They saw the badge pinned to her jacket and asked her what happened. She said, glancing back to the house, "I think a curtain probably caught alight from a heater. It was a lucky thing you had a doll. You owe your kids' lives to her."

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