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Their trailer home was burning down and her daughter wanted to know what it meant. She (the daughter) had recently been convinced by an English teacher that everything meant something.

It got struck by lightning, her mother said. It doesn't mean anything.

Through the windows they could see the flames dancing inside like drunken houseguests. From the outside it was possible to imagine that the trailer might survive, that the flames might settle in and just dance on the furniture and play board games until they got tired, passed out, or went home.

Why isn't it raining?

Thick dark clouds hung slightly out of reach, a heaving ocean just above their heads. They tossed lightning and thunder among themselves, but held onto their water like stingy children. For a trailer on fire they would not share.

I don't know. It's just not.

What does-

It doesn't mean anything.

Some of the neighbors came out to stare through the windows and size up the flames that had moved in next door. By the time the fire department came there was little hope the fire could be coaxed out politely. The sound of breaking glass and snapping joints seemed to indicate that the fire was intent on leaving quite a mess behind. They didn't even manage to get any water on it before the walls fell in, one on top of another like a box being folded closed. The fire was now outside, but only because there was no longer an inside.

Mostly what was left when they'd sprayed it down was a flat smoldering pile and some resilient metal pipes that had too long been hidden in the walls and were now enjoying their opportunity to stand tall and be seen. The daughter thought the pipes looked like punctuation marks, some metal quotes over here, a couple of copper parentheses, an exclamation point where the bathroom used to be. She didn't mention this as it seemed that most things pertaining to English class had begun to upset her mother, but when she looked at the trailer this is what the daughter saw: metal punctuation for a sentence on fire.

No one, not the neighbors, not the firemen, not even the news vans that came and took pictures of the pile, seemed very upset or surprised. Things like this were supposed to happen to people in trailers. Trailers burned down, they washed away, they floated off in a stiff breeze. To live in a trailer was to invite disaster and no one should be surprised when it came to visit. This was the price of living behind walls of fiberboard and tin instead of lumber and stone. This was the price of eating white bread, shopping for jewelry at Wal-Mart, and marrying men who brought carnations instead of roses or wine. Twisters, floods, and fires were nature's way of reminding those who dwelled here that if this was all you had then you really didn't have a thing.

You know what those pipes look like? The daughter couldn't help herself. Something like this really cried out to be noticed, to be discussed. That one looks just like a question mark to me.

The mother reluctantly followed her daughter's gaze. The firemen were now trudging through the ashes and using water to destroy anything that had survived the fire. Almost in the center of the mess that was left behind was a slinking, snaking form, a melted pipe, a bent support, the mother wasn't sure. But yes, if you looked at it right, it could be a question mark. A charred, blackened question mark coming out of the floor of their former home.

The daughter saw that her mother had fallen under the spell of the trailer's inner punctuation. They stared together as if in a trance. Finally the daughter found the courage to ask again.

What do you think it means?

Her mother just stared ahead in silence. It started to rain.

About the author:

Kyle Killen is a fiction and screenwriter and the winner of the 2003 John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story. He's at work on his first novel which promises to be a mess.