*This is the winning selection of the Fall 2022 $300 Fall Short Story, Fiction, & Non-Fiction Contest.
The first sound was snow falling from a bough outside her window. It sent a flock of birds off, and when they were gone she could hear the hiss of fire. But the Matron couldn’t be moved. The snow was another blanket, the cabin another, the cold atmosphere another, then time, maybe. Her self was another. The morning was too fine and delicate to move a muscle. Fear buried her under.
Hours later, after profound stillness, she shifted the sheets. Her nerves had awakened with purpose, as they’d felt the fire already, and then she opened her eyes and there it was, a bright orange cutting the white, sharp tips trembling over the treetops. Her heart set on it, there in the distance, and her mind cleared. With an inhuman speed, she bailed her feet into her dirty work boots and closed her nightdress into her overcoat. She didn’t allow a single thought before the door was closed behind her in the white so she wouldn’t slip away.
The icy air blew the dust. She saw a tower of smoke pouring from the west side of the hill where the road curved, and she knew it was Hickory Hollows that was burning. They’d been doing renovations, and the owners were in Japan. She was glad that there could finally be a purpose to her always being home, keeping watch. There was a rare benefit to her lack of fuss. No one else could get there quicker, she thought with satisfaction. They’d be surprised when she called them, even though they’d traded numbers when she’d moved in.
The snow in the road was chopped and sodden, and she decided that the loggers must have driven this way with their trucks and flatbed. The Matron kicked herself a path through, felt her senses coming alive. The sun was still young and the snow glinted like tinsel. Compared to the muffled air of her dark bedroom, the light bird titter and cracking of twigs were loud.
As she drew closer, the fire grew louder. She picked up her knees to trot around the bend and see it. Her breath was sharp in the cold, and when the vapor cleared, she saw the dark silhouette of the gatekeeper’s booth set against the brilliant, burning manor in the back. The fire was ripping healthily skyward, its momentum strong enough to have driven from hell itself. As she stared, the Matron became aware of a strange feeling, a kind of sick, creeping jealousy.
To shake the feeling off she raced to the booth, where her elbow smashed the window and her hand seized the cold plastic telephone. The thrill of shattering glass shook her so much that the ensuing 911 call was lost to her memory, even then. She remembered talking but not what she said, all the while watching the streamers of orange endlessly unfurl from the windows. A lot had burned already.
As she watched the fire through the gate, she saw a slim young woman in threadbare underwear, holding a sweater closed over her chest and in huge boots that weren’t hers. The girl emerged from the back garden with her mouth agape. She circled around the fire, her eyes on it all the time, and disappeared around the toolshed. She hadn’t noticed the Matron. The Matron had wanted to call out, ask her who she was, what had happened. She didn’t know why she didn’t, except that the girl was in her underwear. And she didn’t much like speaking to people anyway.
Once the girl was out of sight, the Matron took up the phone again and, more calmly this time, called the owners, not thinking of what time it would be in Tokyo until it was already ringing. “Who?” they asked many times. Understandably, the news was upsetting, and they talked to each other about money before giving her an “Okay, thank you,” and hanging up. After the call, the Matron was tired again. She stood and watched, craning now and then to catch a look at the girl, before she remembered that the firemen would have to get inside the gate. She looked for the key.
She’d already unwrapped the chain and shoved the gates aside when she heard the fire brigade’s clanging bell, and a truckful of men started unraveling the canvas hose at a pace like they’d seen worse. An older man with a windburned face approached the Matron and asked if anybody was inside. He shouted it over the fire and the siren, but his eyes were on his men, and she wasn’t sure she’d heard him. She said No. He crooked one eye to her and screamed back What?, his irritation already showing. She faltered and tried I Don’t Think So. He didn’t hear that time either. Resenting the demand on his attention, he turned. She met him with enough of a shrug that he knew not to send in rescue. Anyway, the hoses were already on, and once the top floor had gone dark, he leaned toward her, hooked his palm around his mouth. Then, over his shoulder, the Matron saw the girl again, now wrapped in a green tarp, slipping back into the wooded brush at the property’s perimeter. Afraid the man would notice, the Matron tore her eyes away.
“Are you the owner?” the man asked, and the Matron called back into his ear, “They’re out of town.”
He nodded, glad to be relieved of a usual headache. His work became easier, and so did hers. She hung back, now invisible enough to watch for more signs of the girl. The Matron waited until only cold smoke was left, then gave the Inspector a short report of seeing the fire from bed and breaking the booth window. She didn’t mention the girl. The Inspector was satisfied and left the Matron to chain the gate back up. This time, as she pushed the gate back into place, she was inside.
By now it was mid-afternoon and the sun was setting. The light was splashing against the trees where she’d last seen the girl disappear. The Matron crunched her way there slowly, her eyes triangulating, seeking a human color amongst the green. She felt her long trained patience working, but she didn’t have to wait long. Soon, the stillness was broken by the shuddering of the holly globe.
“I see you. Come on out,” the Matron called. She was gratified to see the bush go still in response. The Matron grew bolder, added, “I know the owners. I’ve just talked to them. I could call them right back.”
The girl, younger than the Matron had first thought, now emerged. With one hand she kept a grip on a branch. She was shaking, but her answer was threatening. “And who even are you? I work here. I could call the owners, too!” She hardened her chin, pulled the tarp tighter around her.
Seeing the girl’s fear and helplessness, the Matron felt a smooth shift into her old self. “Aw, come on now, you saw me talking to the firemen,” she said. “I’m the neighbor, and I’m just worried about the house. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The girl’s grip tightened onto the bush. She didn’t speak.
“Listen, I’m sorry.” The Matron said, softer. She felt an old familiar energy, and held out her hand sweetly. “Look, you must be cold. I just want to help. I’m not going to call anyone. I just live around the corner. Let’s get you warmed up.”
The girl bit her lip, but relief washed across her eyes. She was cold. She let go of the bush.
After the Matron re-chained the gate, they tramped through the slush in silence, the girl a few strides behind, keeping her tarp wrapped tight. The girl stayed ten paces behind the Matron, who led her down the flooded road, and up to her garden, where they followed the path to the door of her cabin. The Matron listened for the girl's footsteps but was careful not to look. She turned the lock, kicked the snow off her boots and stepped inside. She left the door open.
As the girl was leaning in, deciding whether to enter, the Matron found the basket of wood shavings, and in an instant had started a fire in the embers. She filled the tin teakettle and hung it above the fire grate, and then set to lighting the pair of kerosene lamps. She kept trying not to look at the girl, but once the water was boiling, the Matron heard herself saying, “You gotta close the door if you want it to warm up in here,” loud enough that the girl obeyed. She pulled the door closed behind her. The doing of tasks had given the Matron more velocity, and it was addictive. She found some horse blankets in a trunk and brought the girl one, along with a cup of tea. She went to look for some old clothes.
Now the girl was seated and sipping. She was half-smiling around the cabin, her eyes slowly plodding over the tin plates and the dusty floor. She seemed to relax. She looked ready to answer some questions.
“So, you said you work for them?” The Matron asked as she dug through the trunk, striking an indifferent tone.
The girl swallowed and nodded. “Nanny.” she answered. “I’m one of the nannies.”
The Matron tossed the girl some sweatpants. “Were you inside when the fire started?” she asked.
“Of course not!” The girl cried, and they both heard how forced it sounded. She looked down again and pulled the pants on. The Matron waited while the girl decided what to say. “I was supposed to go home when they went on vacation, but I'm from Florida, and it’s so far. So I was staying in the pool house when I wasn’t supposed to. I woke up, smelled smoke, and I panicked. I didn’t want them to find out I was here.”
The Matron let this confession breathe, but the next question couldn’t be avoided. “Do you know what started it?” She sipped her tea, ready to be on the girl’s side.
“No!” the girl swore, as if already on the stand. “No. I was so scared of getting caught, I didn’t even light a candle. I wouldn’t cook! I’d just been taking stuff here and there from the cupboards and the garden. I’ve been living off apples for a week. It was the renovators, I swear to God.” She looked down at her cup. “I know they’re gonna blame me. I’m definitely getting fired.” Her face broke and dropped into her hands.
A dark feeling was approaching, enveloping her like gas. The Matron shook it off and came to the girl’s side. “Don’t cry. I believe you,” she said gently. “That happens a lot. Builders always overload the outlets. It was probably an electrical thing.” This idea dried up the tears, and the girl’s face set. When she raised her head again, her eyes had iced over. The Matron saw her strength.
“Are you going to tell them?” the girl asked, searching the Matron’s eyes.
The Matron swallowed a gulp of tea and shook her head. “I don’t think so. But we’d better figure out what to do, because they’ll probably be back soon.”
They both went quiet. Thinking was torture, so the Matron put an end to it fast. “Let’s just say you can stay here until you figure something out,” she said. That seemed to relax them both. The girl nodded her thank you.
Together, they contemplated their own courses. The girl was chewing her lip and looking out the window, when a sudden gasp made the Matron look, too. “Sorry,” the girl said. “I thought I saw a cardinal.”
A light went on inside the Matron’s mind. She smiled. “You like birds?”
The girl shrugged, “I guess. I like bright colors.” The stupid sound of it made her laugh. Again the Matron wondered how old she was.
“Well, come on, then,” the Matron said, smiling. She’d almost transformed back into the person. “I’ll show you something.”
The Matron gave the girl a wide berth as she gathered her keys and took the lamp, stepped outside again and walked around the house. The sunset was blisteringly orange, and they both took in the color while the Matron found the key to open the old basement door. When the girl finally tore her eyes away, the Matron was already partly down some stone steps, half in shadow, motioning for the girl to follow.
A nervous laugh sputtered out. “Are you sure you’re not gonna kill me down there?” the girl asked, her eyebrows raised.
For only a moment, the Matron’s eyes became glass. Her gentleness grew hot and hostile. She shrugged, sneered, turned back toward the tunnel. “Fine. Stay behind if you want,” she said.
With her only ally leaving her alone, the girl followed, but her eyes widened as she descended. Where she expected a moldy basement or cobwebby crawlspace, the Matron was already yards away at the terminus of a metal storm shelter, the kerosene lamp illuminating an orb around her. The girl caught up as the Matron was cycling through her key ring to open the next lock.
They emerged into a dark museum. Wood cases went all the way up to ceilings, each one holding an array of stuffed birds behind glass, each species marked with a gold plaque. The girl stepped forward. The lamp threw shadows, and the birds appeared to lean and shudder. There were snow owls and broad-winged hawks, even little wrens and sparrows, all frozen in motion, one pecking, one with its wings outstretched, one rotating its head in curiosity.
The Matron was afraid the girl might think it was scary, but she didn’t. Her mouth and eyes hung open in wonder. The girl, having had her likes both guessed and fulfilled, no longer looked at the Matron like a suspicious stranger. “This is so cool,” she said, her voice achingly childlike.
The Matron nodded but withheld comment. She handed the girl the lamp so she could read the plaques in the ever darkening room.
“I think that’s the exact one I saw.” the girl said, pointing. “ It’s not a cardinal. It’s a tanager. I guess if it’s here, that means it’s native to this area. They’re probably not that special to see.”
The Matron came to look over the girl’s shoulder. The stuffed bird’s back arched in preparation for flight, its button eye peering up at an invisible predator. “Yes,” the Matron agreed. “But they really shouldn’t be around when it’s this cold.”
“I heard that!’ the girl laughed, crossing her arms. “That reminds me of something my mom used to say. In Miami, there are these really pretty green parrots everywhere. They perch on, like, phone lines and shit. They’re supposed to have been brought there from Central America, so my mom always said they were transplants like us, and probably hated the cold days as much as we do.”
The Matron liked this anecdote, but felt the conversation treading into territories she didn’t understand and ought not comment on.
After a few more minutes of pointing out some of the best birds she’d noticed, the girl’s attention broadened further. She took in the room, and then the ceiling, and then the staircase. “So, what is this place?” she asked.
The Matron answered as she had a thousand times. “It was an all-girls science academy founded in the nineteenth century. It was committed to a naturalist approach,” she said by rote.
The girl realized. “We’re in that old abandoned building up away from the road, aren’t we? The front is all boarded up. That’s why we had to come in through the basement, huh?” She wasn’t looking at the Matron, so she didn’t see the flinch.
The Matron didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, so she answered quickly. “Yeah, that’s right. There haven’t been students here for a long time.”
The girl was stepping out of the bird room and leaning into the hallway. “Not a lot of people come in here, huh?” she offered carefully.
The Matron shook her head. “No, just me. But I could just tell you were rattled. I come here when I want to feel safe.”
The girl smiled, noticed that the Matron was being kind on purpose. “It does feel really safe. I’m so glad I came.” She looked up to take in the ceilings. “It’s so big. What else is in here?”
The Matron relaxed into this easy-to-answer question. “There’s a library down the hall,” she said, gesturing like a tour guide. “And a huge kitchen and cafeteria, though there’s not much left in there but tables. And there’s a lovely greenhouse out back.” She stopped. The greenhouse reminded her of something. Then, as if a hypnotist had snapped, she returned, and said in a livelier tone, “I think there’s still some sherry in the teacher’s lounge.”
The girl was pleased by this suggestion and followed her out of the bird room and past the staircase, into a smaller room where tattered armchairs had been pushed up around a coffee table. On the table, there was a pack of cigarettes and matches, and some dusty, fanned-out magazines. The girl saw through the grime that the one on top was fifteen years old. The girl sat in one of the chairs while the Matron bent over the little liquor cabinet and turned a key. She pulled out a bottle and two crystal glasses that tinkled as she shook off a spider web. The girl could tell the Matron was happy as she unscrewed the top and poured. She put her lamp on the table between them like a campfire, and they clinked their glasses together.
The girl already felt transported, a welcome escape from the bare panic she’d been in that morning. She wondered whether one day she could be a teacher at a place like this. She imagined herself in a wool skirt and pointed glasses.
“So are you the owner of the building or something?” the girl asked, but when the Matron’s face prickled, she regretted asking.
The Matron, not wanting to upset her, worked her scrunched nose left and right like she was fighting off a fly before she found composure enough to answer. “Yes. I also used to run the school. It was,” she was tired, and had already gone farther than she liked. “It’s been defunct for a while now,” she finished.
“Oh,” the girl said. “It must have been so tough to run it. I went to an all girl’s school. Girls can be terrible.” She wanted to steer things to pleasanter place, but the Matron had already slipped back into her memory.
Soon, though, she dragged herself out of it. “Yes, it was hard,” the Matron finally admitted. “And then everything sort of went sideways, and it had to close.” She noticed the girl’s empty glass. “Are you feeling better?” she asked, brightening.
“Yeah. Thank you.” the girl said. Her cheeks were rosy and shiny. She looked the Matron in the eye and declared, “You’re the nicest person I’ve met since coming to this town.”
“Oh?” The Matron smothered her flattery. “I guess the neighbors aren’t that nice, huh?”
“Not really!” the girl replied with a laugh. “They’re assholes actually. I mean, I understand you have to have all these strict rules for nannies. And I’ve been around rich people before.” She checked to see if the Matron was offended, and since she wasn’t, the girl went on. “So I know they’re gonna be really demanding. But their rules are insane. You know, the kid has to clean his fingernails everytime he comes inside, he can’t wear a pair of jeans twice, whatever. I have to comb his hair like ten times a day. Also, I don’t know.” She faltered, but the urge to tell was simmering inside. “You know, the wife accused me of flirting with the husband. A lot. All the time.”
The Matron gave the girl the disgusted look she was hoping for. “It’s such a bummer,” the girl said, “because I don’t have my brothers here or my dad to back me up. They’re all in Florida. And she doesn’t want to fire me, because then she’ll just have to find a new nanny. I can’t quit, so what can I do? I don’t even have enough money to go home. And here they are, with enough money to redo their living room for the third time.” The girl rolled her eyes, sipped a little. “She’s gonna find a way for this to be my fault. I wasn’t supposed to be in the house.”
The Matron’s eyes stung with sympathy, but she forced a shrug. “Well, we’re not exactly supposed to be here either,” she said. The girl appreciated the solidarity, but didn’t ask any questions. The Matron was already pouring them another round.
“Listen,” the Matron said, “you don’t have to work a job you hate. There’s money elsewhere. You don’t even have to stick around here to tell them you quit.”
The girl’s eyes swam with sherry. She nodded. The Matron loved to see resilience in kids. “You decide what you really want to do,” she said, seriously, “and I’ll help you do it.”
This kindness shook the girl, and she didn’t know how to answer. “Can I smoke one of these?” she asked, reaching for the pack of cigarettes. The Matron nodded, and the girl lit one. It must have been stale.
After a moment, the girl ventured further. “I think I’ve heard about you around town,” she said. It was unclear what made her finally say it.
The Matron took a short silence to prepare her delivery, wanting to show it didn’t bother her at all. “Oh yeah?” she asked, “So what do the neighbors say about me?”
The girl answered, but this time with tact. “Oh, nothing. Just that the school was losing students and had to close a few years ago. They always talk all kinds of shit about the neighbors. You know, somebody bought this thing they don’t like, this person didn’t have a background they could approve of.” She avoided the Matron’s gaze and diverted. “You know, the husband used to tell me all kinds of personal shit. Like one time he asked me to stay late and have a drink with him. Then he told me he thought his wife had emotional issues and needed, like, a psychiatrist or something. So when his wife would get pissed off about something stupid, like one time it was because the silverware was stacked wrong, he’d give me these eyes, like I was the only one who could understand. It used to make me feel smart. Like a grownup, like I was good at my job. But now that I’m thinking about it, that’s probably what made her think we were fucking. He was flirting with me. It was probably driving her crazy.”
The Matron nodded with recognition in her eyes. Her mouth almost watered to talk about the unfair ways women are treated and how the girl should be careful. But she reminded herself of who she was now, and how little most girls wanted to hear stuff like that from older women.
Instead, she cleared her throat. “I totally get it,” the Matron started slowly. “You know, I actually inherited this school. When I was running it, they all called me Matron. Not just the students, but the people in town. And I felt like a good teacher, and a good boss, and I knew my girls were smart and doing well. But I had to answer to a whole board of old guys who had never taught anyone in their lives, and I had to swallow all their ideas. They didn’t like the way I dressed, or how I talked. And they saw that I had these connections to the kids, like I really cared about them. So they pried into my private life, and they decided that what they found was unprofessional. It got so out of hand they hired a monitor to oversee everything I did. They took the parents aside and made them all agree that I was, like, a weirdo or sick or something.” She stalled for a moment before admitting. “I did get upset, a lot. I was messy. I think I even started to become what they said I was. I couldn’t stop showing how bad I felt.” Matron was embarrassed, but also relieved after saying it.
If the girl had more information than she let on, she didn’t say so. She smiled at the Matron with sympathy. “Fuck them!” she declared, and the Matron laughed and held up her glass for a toast.
“Come on, let’s go back to the fire.” she said to the girl, pointing out that the last of the sunlight had already disappeared. “Bring the sherry.”
Woozy after so much drinking and open talking, the Matron was glad that when they returned to the cabin, they were both tired. She knew how to play rummy and won a couple tricks. Then the Matron offered her the bed, and the girl climbed in and thanked her, even as her eyes were closing.
“Can I blow out the candle?” the Matron asked.
The girl nodded, but once the room was dark, her small voice called out. “What am I gonna do?”
The Matron couldn't help herself. There, in the dark, she presented the girl with a plan. The girl ought to go home, she said, and think about what she wanted to do in a nicer climate. There was no need to be involved in this headache with the fire, that was her employer’s job. In the morning, the Matron would give her some money and buy her a bus ticket to Miami.
The girl could only exhale slowly, but the Matron could tell she had already agreed. In a contented whisper, she said, “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,” and submitted to the pull of sleep. The words were still playing on the Matron’s mind when she pulled the armchair up to the fire and fell asleep.
In the morning, when the Matron came home alone from the bus station, her mind had already begun to frost over again. The cabin was quieter than ever without the girl. The Matron didn’t bother to take off her jeans before returning to her mealy, creased sheets.
Not long later the fire Inspector came calling. He held his hat and told the Matron that on behalf of the local volunteers, he was grateful to her for alerting them to the fire before it’d had time to spread. He reported that their investigation had determined the fire was not, in fact, an accident, that it had originated in the owner’s bedroom where no renovations were taking place, likely from a lit cigarette. He asked her if she’d seen anything,
“Like what?” asked Matron, her mind pinging. She wondered too late if she’d sounded suspicious.
“Well,” the Inspector said, frowning, “You know, the owners say they had a couple employees who may have been on the property. You didn’t see anyone, did you?”
The Matron shook her head. She’d already chosen the girl. There was no need to wonder if she should have.
The Inspector sighed. “All right, well, please let us know if you do.” He turned away, then pivoted back. “I hope you don’t mind my saying,” he started. He paused, uncomfortable.
The Matron went still. She knew what he wanted to say, and she wasn’t going to help him.
“Well, you know, it’s standard procedure.” He shuffled his feet. “As I was writing up the report, I needed your name, and I only knew that you lived next door. So I looked you up.” His eyes found her. “I learned about your history.”
The Matron closed her eyes. She was dizzy. The Inspector saw and took her elbow.
“Are you OK?”
She nodded and pulled her arm back. He looked at her with real concern.
“Have you had anything to drink today, ma’am?” The Inspector said.
Threatened, the Matron found enough voice to say, “No.” She peeled her eyes open, but he was already looking past her at the half-empty bottle of sherry on the table. She watched as he noticed the two glasses, saw him squint for clues, like some red lipstick on the rim or a lit cigarette, the way police do.
“Are you sure you haven’t seen anyone?” he asked, returning to look at her, his eyes sad and disgusted.
“Not lately.” she answered. Desperate, she found the old voice and turned it on. “Are you telling me if I see anyone I should consider them dangerous?”
This was his cue to return to protocol, and the Inspector shook his head. He put his hat back on. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. If you see anything suspicious, just call this number.” He produced a business card.
Seeing a clearing, the Matron spread on her most impenetrable smile. She pretended to be grateful, said Thank you, you've been so kind. I'll be sure to do that in a daze that felt like the savage mania rising in her brain, and he hurried away. Her mind kept boiling until he was gone, and then she panted to find her breath, as if released from a chokehold. She thought of the poor, baby-faced girl, who’d smoked a pack of old cigarettes and fallen asleep with her mouth open. The Matron hoped she was OK, that she was halfway to Florida already.
As the hours passed in the cold quiet of her cabin, the Matron found the familiar grooves of her old thoughts. She wondered whether what she’d done was right, whether she was a bad person. She saw the sun had already started to set. To take the edge off, she took the rest of the sherry back to bed with her.
Daryl Ellerbe has taught English as a Foreign Language in New York, Moscow, and Melbourne. She completed her Master of Applied Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Drexel University, where she works as an academic advisor. Her last short story appeared in The Showbear Family Circus, and she wrote the curriculum for the English-from-Russian lessons on Duolingo.