At 2:27 AM on a Saturday in mid-August, the corner store to the left of my house burned to the ground. I was awake, having been in the beginning of another stretch of insomnia when I decided to go for a walk. Whenever I couldn’t sleep at night, getting outside for some fresh air was always a good remedy. I put my shoes on and stood by the door for a moment, then walked out into the night.
The store, one that I had spent a considerable amount of money at when I was young, had seemed in perfect working order when I’d last laid eyes on it. I passed it each day on my way home from work, and more often than not there was at least one car in the parking lot. If not a car, maybe a family’s worth of bicycles. It was a popular thing, riding bikes to the store to get ice cream.
I stepped out into the darkness and took a breath of the frigid midnight air. It was crisp and thin and reminded me of playing football at the middle school field by the community center when I was younger. I would get up in the morning and go with some people to the field when the light of the day was enough to see. It was fun, but accidentally running into someone full force hurt pretty bad in the cold.
As soon as I stepped out onto the porch, I smelled smoke. I thought at first that someone was probably having a fire in their backyard somewhere in the neighborhood, but after a minute of walking towards the smell, I realized it was more plastic smelling than wood. It seemed artificial, and when I peeled my eyes I could see a faint glow in the distance. I walked toward it with interest.
The closer I got to the smoke, the stronger it was in my lungs. I saw people standing on the sidewalk a few houses down from the corner, and the closer I got the brighter the glow became. I realized quickly that the store was on fire, and not just a part of it. The entire building was swallowed in deep orange flame, flickering in the breeze. The smoke billowed to the west. I reached the first group of people that were standing by and watching, and when they saw me coming they looked solemn and apologetic.
“Sad isn’t it?” said the first man. He turned back to the fire and I could see the glow in the side of his eyes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“No one really knows. The police are up on the corner asking people questions.”
I looked around the back of him and saw flashing police car lights at the corner. It wasn’t a busy corner, so the lights flashed as a four-way stop after dark. People lined the sidewalk for probably forty feet, standing back behind a yellow-taped police line. A female officer worked the boundary, making sure those who were interested in getting closer didn’t cross the line.
I walked toward the fire, weaving in and out of my neighbors and hearing bits of their conversations along the way. Some mentioned how they’d been patronizing the store since they were young, and how they were happy to see their children doing the same. Others mentioned the owner’s family and how they were always willing to help out in the neighborhood. They all had their own stories, but the common theme was a sense of togetherness.
“Do you think it was Arson?” I heard someone ask, and I stopped walking to linger and listen for an answer.
“Could have been,” said an older man holding his dog. “It could either have been some of these kids around here or maybe they did it for insurance purposes.”
“I don’t think Mrs. Jacobs would do that,” said another woman. “I’ve known her since high school and her family wasn’t like that.”
“Yeah, but anyone can change with the market.” He coughed and his dog sniffed around the ankles of people close to them. “Things get more expensive, the wage stays the same and people can’t afford to pay their bills anymore.”
Some of the onlookers just scrunched their faces up and didn’t say anything while others shook their heads. It was true, that things had gotten more expensive as of late. Rising costs of fuel led to the rising cost of food and other goods that were delivered on trucks. A lot of local businesses were failing to make ends meet, but I would have never figured such a well-respected store would be on its last leg.
“I remember my bike getting stolen from this place,” a shorter and younger looking woman said from the back left of the crowd. We turned to face her. “I used to come here with my allowance and get penny candy to take home and stash around my room. Went in one day, got my bag of goodies, and came out to an empty space against the handrail.”
“Bunch of savages in this town,” said the man next to her. I recognized him as the owner of a drain service company in town.
It was too late for kids to be out, but I figured if it was earlier there would be quite a few of them around. Even for two in the morning there was a good amount of adults watching the blaze rise and fall with the wind. One fire truck sat to the right of the store on the adjacent street, and as they watched another approached from the opposite direction.
“What do you think the owners are gonna do?” asked the same woman with the bike story.
Someone else piped up from next to the barricade. “Probably cut their losses and sell the property. I wouldn’t bother with the whole thing if I were them.”
I made my way to the front of the line where the female officer stood with her hands on her belt. The firefighters worked off to the left of us and I could hear their shouts of direction. To the right, they said. Make sure you get that hotspot. I watched as each piece of the store went from glowing to smoldering ash with an incessant hiss. It felt like each time it grew louder, another memory sprang to the surface of my mind.
Superman ice cream and candy cigarettes in the summer. The white ones made of sugar with the red tips and the bubble gum tubes with the powder in the middle, that puffed out like smoked when you blew in the end. Chewy sweettarts and Stewart’s Orange and Cream in the glass bottle. The smell of burning wood and plastic mixed made my stomach turn and the plumes of smoke blotted out the stars. I suddenly wished I could go inside the store for another one of those orange drinks.
“I’m telling you,” someone said from behind me, “as soon as this fire is under control, they’ll demolish the rest of it, haul off the carnage and something else will be built in its place.” The woman speaking sniffled and took a deep breath. “Something else will be here within a year.”
I turned around and headed back toward my house. Some of the other people who were toward the back of the line had started to do the same. The man with the dog was walking across the street in mid-conversation with someone else. I heard more hissing behind me and by the time I reached my driveway I looked back to see the fire was completely out. I knew what the woman had said was true, and that something else would be there within a year.
But it wouldn’t be the store I knew. It wouldn’t have the same charm that I was used to.