“You’re mother died in a house fire. Do you want to start there?” Haden prompted when Alex remained silent.
Alex nervously chewed a corner of his lip. “What do you want to know, exactly?”
Brad exchanged a look with the police chief. “You said something about a dirty mattress. Is that what caught fire?”
Alex’s lips thinned in anger. “You read the report, Brad. You know as well as I do that she passed out on the couch and dropped her cigarette.” He folded his arms across his chest. “God, you must really think I’m a fool.”
“I don’t. But damn it, Alex, you’re not being overly cooperative, are you?”
Alex shrugged ruefully. “I guess not, it’s just very hard to talk about. I thought I’d left it all behind me when I moved out of that house.” He absently rubbed the ragged scars at his wrists. “I’ll never escape, will I?”
Haden shifted impatiently in his chair. “If you mean your past, then no, none of us can do that. But we can help with your future.”
Alex straightened in his chair. “Thank you.”
Brad met his glance when he turned to him, ready to stop the narrative if it grew too painful for the young man. He wasn’t out to torture the boy.
Alex swallowed. “It wasn’t the mattress that caught fire, though it easily could have been. Mama smoked all the time we were down there, and after she’d spilled her bottle on the mattress I thought she’d burn us both alive. I think she went upstairs that last time to get another bottle of something.”
“Why were you down there?” Brad asked, then swore, disgusted with himself. “I’m sorry. Don’t answer that question.”
Alex gave him a fleeting smile. “It’s all right. I don’t remember what I’d done that particular time. Something to make her furious. I was a clumsy child. She liked the basement. It was more comfortable than the garage.”
“Anyway,” he picked up the story, leaving Brad as much in the dark as before. “I tried to sleep while she was gone. She never let me sleep very much, down there. I remember wondering where she was, and dreading the answer. Her surprises were terrible.”
His voice dropped to a husky whisper, drawing Brad closer. “That’s when I smelled the smoke. I tried to reach her, I swear! But my feet were taped, you see…” His face twisted with pain. “I hear her screaming in my dreams. She’s calling my name but I can’t help her.”
At his desperate words Brad rose to his feet and jabbed a finger at the open file on his desk. “It’s not true, Alex. The coroner stated that she died of smoke inhalation. She was dead long before the fire reached her.”
“I don’t know that for sure.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Brad said, incredulous.
Alex covered his eyes. “If I’d been a better child we wouldn’t have been in the basement. I could have helped her.”
“Alex! It’s not your fault your mother drank till she passed out with a lit cigarette in her hand. Alex?”
Brad slammed a fist on the desktop when he didn’t answer.