by Elizabeth Brown

The day the furnace broke, I lost my Pearl. A stench of oil and soot stewed.

"Damn it! I've always hated this house. It's too old. It's not safe here!" the wife complained. She did that all the time. But with me out of work and Pearl liking her teacher, it wasn't the right time to move. Besides, the rent was cheaper in the city.

It was an accident, a horrible accident. Pearl was unconscious. We had to bring her to the hospital. They asked questions. The wife was swearing, belligerent. Child and Family Services got involved. The case worker's name was Heather. "She wants to speak with Pearl, alone," the nurse told us, flat out told us; we had no choice. That was it. Within a few hours, Pearl was taken from us. "She'll be fine. It's for her own safety," Heather said.

Seven months later, and still no Pearl. The wife moved to Tennessee to live with her mother. The few times I talked to her, she was drunk, slurring her words. "Don't you even want to see Pearl?" I asked. She swore at me, called me a coward, said it was my fault, and hung up.

I miss her, my Pearl. I can't bear to leave the house. On the way out to the bus, she always said hello to Tomas —the guy on the steps. He'd smile back at her. Maybe the only time he smiled all day. He's still there now smoking cigarettes, staring mindlessly. Then there was Shania, the grandmother; she walked her grandchild to the bus stop. "Better move your little behind," she'd say. Pearl waved. And the little girl, Diamond, waved back, and the two girls stared at each other until Shania said "Better move it, girl."

One day, Pearl asked "Can I play with Diamond?" And I felt this gigantic lump form in my throat. Diamond lived around the corner, Vine Street, the bad street with the shootings, boarded up homes, where gang bangers strutted, sold drugs, did drugs. Nothing good happened on Vine Street. That poor grandmother, Shania, I thought, raising her grandchild in that hell.

But the day the furnace broke, I was no better than Shania.

"Get that slumlord on the phone, so I can tear him a new one!" the wife yelled.

She was in rare form. It was a cold snap, single digits. We could see our breath. I promised to make cookies with Pearl.

"Now, Daddy?" Cold air snuck out from between her tiny chapped lips. They were red as cherries. God I miss her.

The dough was defrosting, had been all morning. "Not now, Pearl...have to wait, doll." That's what I said to her. Pearl never whined, just slipped away.

"I got him," I told the wife, but I didn't mention being put on hold. A few minutes passed. She knew.

"What's going on? Is he talking? We're freezing for God's sake. I've got another cold. I feel it in my chest. I can't afford to miss work. I'm wheezing. Who knows what we're all breathing! Is he on the phone?"

The landlord, spoke. I could barely hear him. The wife wouldn't shut up. She was impossible. "Yes, yes, I understand. No, it's not working at all. It's been on and off since yesterday."

"Bullshit. Tell that bastard we've been freezing all night!"

Jesus, she really knew how to make a situation worse. "In my honest opinion, I think the unit is shot. There is soot everywhere. And the wife is sick...and Pearl, the baby, she gets the asthma. I understand. Okay, thanks a bunch."

"Well?" The wife glared at me. Jesus, her eyes were daggers.

"Cookies, Daddy, cookies!" Pearl came bursting back into the kitchen, whining.

"Damn it will you stop with the damn cookies!" the wife snapped at her. Pearl started to cry and then cough.

"The landlord said he'd fix it. He has to contact his brother first."

"No, no way. That damn cheapskate. I don't want his shoddy work. We need a new furnace. That's it. I'm calling the fire department. This is an emergency for God's sake. Our baby can't even breathe. Do you hear her?"

She had wanted to call the fire department, initially, said we were all getting carbon monoxide poisoning. But, I told her she was ridiculous, no need.

She called. No surprise there. She never listened to me, never. And while we waited, I sat at the table, asked the wife if she wanted tea, peeked around the corner, saw Pearl sprawled out on the living room floor with crayons and paper.

"I made you a house, Daddy!" she shouted.

"My little Pearl," I said.

God I love her.

Things got worse. It was when the fireman came, took a look, and said we needed a new unit. The wife really went berserk. "See, I told you. That's it. Get back on the phone and tell that son-of-a-bitch slumlord we want a new unit. Go on! Tell him!"

That's when it happened. Pearl ran into the kitchen, picture in hand, and I was distracted, walking over to the counter to get my phone, and we slammed into each other. She bounced backwards, hit her head on the corner of the counter, just the right height, and went down. It was horrific —the blood from her head, the screaming.

"What did you do? She's dead!" the wife just kept screaming.

Now, my Pearl lives with the Wiggins, an hour away, in a small cape in the country. "They have been foster parents for twenty years," the case worker told us. "The Wiggins are experienced with kids."

Not like my Pearl, I wanted to say. Not like Pearl. But I don't do much talking, lately.

BIO: Elizabeth Brown is a native of Connecticut. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, Pithead Chapel, Sleet, HelloHorror, and elsewhere.