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Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 23

August 12, 2011

The kids were playing in the driveway when Frenchy got home the second Friday in August. They had raked up a small pile of dirt, and were running through it with their toy cars; Peter was with them, batting at the cars and playing along with them, and appearing to have about as much fun. He wasn’t a tiny little kitten anymore; although he was a long way from full growth, he was starting to get a little size to him. A hawk would have a hell of a time carrying him off now, Frenchy thought as he parked the truck a little short of where he would normally have parked it, with the cab just even with the front porch roof. Might as well let the kids play, he thought.

Frenchy was feeling pretty good. Tomorrow would be Saturday, and for the first time in five months he wouldn’t be heading off to waste Saturday doing community service. He was actually a little short of the required hours, but at his last probation appointment on Monday, Derbyshire had been as good as his word, having the remaining time set aside. Those days were now in the past, and they’d hung over him like a rain cloud.

Now, he could do something useful on Saturdays. There were some projects around the house that needed doing, and he’d have some time to do them. He still needed to finish his room, but it could do for now since there were other things that needed to be done. On the other hand, he thought, it might be nice to take Monica and the kids to the beach. There wouldn’t be many chances for that left – in another week or two it would be getting too cool for that for a while. Maybe he could do both, he thought; there were plenty of options.

He stopped off on the way into the house to pick up Peter and give him a little petting. He was sure turning into a nice little cat, he thought as he listened to the little guy purr in reply. It was something else he’d realized he’d missed, like Monica had said, and it was nice to be making up for it.

He headed on into the house. Monica was in the kitchen, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. “Dinner ought to be ready pretty soon,” she announced. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Glad to be here,” he said. “At least today was all firewood deliveries, so I didn’t have to be out in the woods. It must have been hot out there.”

“It’s been hot in here,” she replied. “At least it’s not going to be lasting a lot longer.”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it being a bit cooler,” he said. “Anything special we have to do tonight?”

“Not really,” she said. “I got a couple more DVDs from the library, one for the kids and one for us. I thought about going to the beach again, but I guess I’m really not in the mood.”

“Yeah, it hasn’t been the same since Cody and Jan headed back to college,” he said. “You know, they are a couple of people who I never thought I’d find myself making friends with. I always figured I’d wind up in an ass-kicking contest with him sooner or later.”

“They are pretty nice,” she replied. “You can see she’s still got some problems, but it’s been nice to talk with someone with some of the same problems as I have and has more or less managed to put them behind her.”

“Yeah, I can see it has been,” Frenchy nodded. “Anything else scheduled for the weekend?”

“Well, I’ve got a favor to return tomorrow afternoon, but it won’t take long. Maybe you could take the kids down to the Frostee Freeze or something.”

“If I take them down to Albany River it could take a little longer,” Frenchy offered. “I could maybe drop off a couple deliveries on the way. I’ve still got some wood in the truck.”

“That would help,” she smiled. “If I have to do it, I at least want to be able to take the time to do a good job.”

All in all it was a quiet evening. Frenchy actually enjoyed the Disney movie that they watched with the kids – typically, he had never seen it before. After the kids went to bed, Frenchy and Monica lay back on the couch in front of the fan and watched the other movie, which wasn’t as good, but got them up to the point where they were ready to go to bed. There was no particular reason to sleep together tonight – they hadn’t done that since the night of the fight with Lonnie – so they headed to their rooms, Monica at the front of the house and Frenchy far at the back. On the way, Frenchy stopped off, as he often did, to look at Cindy peacefully asleep with Peter in her arms, sleeping just as peacefully.

As Frenchy took off his clothes and got ready for bed, he put the fan in the window; it would help him sleep better on this warm night by pulling the cool air in from outside. He stripped down to his under-shorts and got onto the old army cot, which he was still using. He didn’t mind; it was more comfortable than his bed had been at his folks, and he’d gotten used to it. He sat on the bunk for a moment, looking at the half-painted walls of his room, thinking that maybe tomorrow he and Monica could go looking for wallpaper or something.

He was tired, and with the fan blowing cool air on him it didn’t take long to get to sleep. This had the makings of a pretty good weekend, he thought.

Sometime later – he wasn’t sure how long – he felt pain on his face, like someone was scratching him, hard. He came awake quickly, realizing that it was Peter, scratching on his face with his little claws. “Peter, what the fuck!” he said while trying to brush the little cat aside, and then realized that he smelled smoke, and lots of it.

“Oh, shit!” he yelled as he sprang to his feet. “Monica! Cindy! Chad! Wake up! The house is on fire!”

“What?” he heard Monica’s sleepy voice from down the hall.

“The house is on fire!” He said, realizing that the smoke was very thick when he stood up – the fan blowing in on him had kept him from smelling it earlier. “Get out! Now!”

“The kids!” she yelled.

“I’ll get the kids,” he yelled as he dropped to his knees. “Stay down! Don’t try to stand up, the smoke is too thick.” He crouched down as low as he could get, and finally dropped to his knees as he crawled up the hall to the kids’ room, with Peter at his side every step of the way.

Both of the kids were still asleep when he got there, with Monica right behind him. Like in his room, a fan was blowing cool outside air on them from the open window. He crawled over to Cindy’s bed and pulled her out of it. “Come on, Cindy,” he yelled. “The house is on fire, we have to get out.”

“We can’t go down the stairs,” Monica said as she gathered the sleeping Chad up. “The smoke is too thick.”

“Back down to your room,” he yelled. “We can get out on the porch roof.”

Cindy was still not very awake, but she started down the hall on her hands and knees, while Monica followed right behind, trying to carry Chad. “Let him go, I can carry him better,” Frenchy said in the smoke and the darkness. She dropped him, and he grabbed him as he crawled past, half carrying and half dragging the little boy.

In only a few seconds they were in Monica’s room. The smoke was thick in there, but Frenchy pulled the door closed to try to make it a little better; as in the other bedrooms, there was a fan pushing in cool outside air. “Come on,” he yelled, “We’ve got to get out of here!”

Gathering Chad up in his arms, Frenchy stood up in the smoke-filled air and aimed a kick at the screen. The frame stayed intact, but his foot knocked the screening right out of it. He leaned out the window, set Chad down, and turned to help Cindy out the window as Peter scrambled out the window next to her. He dropped to his knees, and helped Monica crawl through the window, then made his own escape. The last he saw when he left the room was smoke seeping under the bedroom door that he’d closed only seconds before.

The air was better out on the porch, but that was the only thing going for them. He could see the occasional lick of flame coming around the edge of the roof, and realized that the lower section of the house had to be massively afire. “We can’t stay here,” he said. “We’ve got to get down.”

“Frenchy, that’s a long jump for the kids,” Monica said in a worried tone of voice.

“We can’t stay here! This is going to be on fire any second!” He glanced over the side again to get an idea of how bad it was. It was bad, but in that second he saw his truck sitting next to the porch where he’d parked it when he’d come home. “Monica,” he yelled. “I can jump down to the truck roof from here. Hand the kids down to me!”

The roof of the porch was high, and it was a long reach down to the truck. But there could be no hesitation, the flames were too close. He got his hands on the edge of the roof, swung over the side, and was just able to reach his feet down to the cab of the truck, which he’d fortunately left parked close to the house. Flames were roaring out the open window next to the hood, burning through the wall, and he knew he didn’t have much time.

“OK,” he yelled as soon as he got turned around. “Hand down a kid!”

Monica got Cindy by the hands and swung her out over the roof of the porch; Frenchy reached up and grabbed the little girl by the waist, barely noticing that Peter was riding on her shoulder, his little claws holding onto her pajama top for dear life. It only took a second for him to get her down, get a new grip on her arms, and swing her around onto the pile of wood up against the cab. “Cindy, get out of the truck,” he yelled. “Get out to the sidewalk. Hurry!”

He no more than said it when he stood up to take Chad as Monica handed the little boy down. He still wasn’t very awake and aware of what was happening, so Frenchy just set him at his feet on the cab roof, and turned to help Monica down. She swung around on the edge of the roof like he had done and tried to back her way off, but slipped a little on the rough shingles. No matter; Frenchy caught her and swung her around onto the cab roof. “Get on down,” he yelled. “Get away from the truck, it’s going to go any second. I’ll bring Chad!”

In only seconds, they were scrambling down the pile of wood, then across the truck bed. Monica vaulted herself over the tailgate, then turned to take Chad from Frenchy. In only seconds more, he jumped over the side of the truck and was on the ground, running away from the burning house.

By the time they made it to the sidewalk they could turn and look back at a horrifying sight. There were flames coming out all of the downstairs windows, and smoke was rolling profusely out of the upstairs windows, the one in Monica’s bedroom only slightly less than others because of the door Frenchy had closed. Even as they watched, they could see the truck catch fire with flames shooting out from underneath.

“Holy shit!” he breathed, looking back at the fire. “We just barely made it out in time.”

“At least we made it out,” Monica replied breathlessly. She glanced down at Cindy, who held Peter in her arms – even he had made it out.

“What the hell happened?”

“Hell if I know,” Frenchy replied as he heard the city fire siren begin to blow – one of the neighbors must have called 911. “If Peter hadn’t woken me up we might not have made it out. We all made it out. That’s what matters.”

“Aw, fuck,” they heard a voice behind them. “Guess I’ll just have to try again.”

Frenchy turned around, to see Lonnie standing there in the light of the fire, and it was clear in an instant what had happened. He had to have set the place on fire, and used a lot of gas to do it. Frenchy didn’t take time to think about it, though; despite being in bare feet and wearing nothing but his under shorts, he took off after him as hard as he could go.

He caught Lonnie at the edge of the street, grabbing him by the shirt, spinning him around and laying the hardest punch he could on him, then held onto him so he could hit him again. Slowly, Frenchy became aware that Lonnie smelled of gas; there was no doubt that he was telling the truth. Just by sheer goddamn luck and Peter’s waking him up they got out, all of them could have died in the fire and he wasn’t about to let Lonnie get away with it.

Lonnie was unconscious but Frenchy was still beating him when a city police car driven by Sergeant Piwowar arrived ahead of the first fire trucks. “Frenchy!” he yelled as he got out of the car. “What the hell happened?”

“Fucker set the house on fire,” Frenchy replied, landing another punch on general principles. “You can smell the fucking gas all over him. I don’t know what the fuck he’s even doing here, he’s supposed to be in jail down in Camden.”

“Better let me take care of him,” Piwowar said. “Did everybody make it out OK?”

“Yeah, just barely,” Frenchy said, coming to his senses a little. “I don’t know if any of us would if it had been another couple minutes.”

“Quit hitting him, unless he tries to get away,” Piwowar said. “I’ll get cuffs on him in a minute.” He pulled out his portable and called the fire department to report that it was a major structure fire, but that everyone was reportedly out of the place. “We’re gonna need an ambulance, though,” he added.

By then, Piwowar was over to where Frenchy stood over Lonnie’s motionless form. “What the fuck is he doing here?” the officer asked.

“Setting the goddamn house on fire, that’s what,” Frenchy snorted. “Like I said, I thought he was in jail down in Camden.”

“I thought he was too,” Piwowar said as he rolled Lonnie over to get handcuffs on him. “I thought we were going to get him back the first of the week. You better get back over with Monica and the kids. I’ll take care of him.”

Still more than a little pissed, Frenchy stood back for a minute as the first of the fire trucks began to pull into view, and then walked back over to Monica, who had Chad on her hip on one side, and Cindy still holding onto Peter on the other. The kids were wearing their pajamas, but Monica was only wearing the panties she’d slept in. He bent over to give Cindy a hug, and noticed that inexplicably she was holding her treasured copy of Peter Rabbit. He reached down and gave Peter a good petting; he responded with a purr, and an attempt to lick Frenchy’s hand. “Peter, you’re a good little kitty,” he said. “You saved all our lives a few minutes ago. I may have to go hungry, but you’re going to eat the best cat food there is for the rest of your seven lives.”

“Uncle Frenchy,” Cindy said, “I thought cats had nine lives.”

“He’s used two of them,” Frenchy told her gently. “One when I rescued him from the hawk, and now tonight.”

“Is that what happened?” Monica asked. “He woke you up?”

“Yeah,” Frenchy replied. “He must have known to come to me when there was trouble.”

“Well, I’m glad he did,” she shook her head, “but I’m right with you. I’ll starve before he goes hungry. He deserves that. You deserve more than I could ever give you for getting us out of there in time. God, I can’t believe Lonnie could be that sick in the head.”

“Well, now we know what happened,” he said, trying to bring his temper under control. He could keep it under control when he was talking to Cindy, but every time he glanced over at Piwowar and Lonnie he wanted to go over and pound him some more. Pounding that sick fuck senseless had taken care of part of Frenchy’s anger, but only part of it.

As it was, all they could do was stand there by the sidewalk, and look at the house engulfed in flames. Even the upper story was going now, and flames had burned through the roof. Firemen had unrolled hoses and hooked up water lines by now; they were playing water on the flames, but all of them could look and see that it was a hopeless cause. Even the truck was fully on fire now; Frenchy couldn’t tell if the gas tank had ruptured or what, but the firewood in the back of the truck was going hard. Smoke was still rolling out, and more fire trucks were coming in to do what little they could.

After a while, Frenchy took Chad from Monica and put him on his hip like she had done, and put his free arm around her. Almost immediately, she buried her face in his chest. “God damn it, Frenchy,” he heard her whisper. “I know we didn’t have much, but now that asshole has even taken that away from us. What are we going to do now?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “We haven’t lost everything. We still have the kids, we have Peter, and Cindy still has Peter Rabbit. And I still have a little money in the bank. It’s not much, but it ought to be enough for us to get started again.”

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To be continued . . .

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