Carly sat beneath a big tree in front of her house. She was so absorbed in the book she was reading that she didn’t even look up when the fire trucks flew by, their sirens howling. She was reading a book called The Adventures of Justine. Justine was the heroine of the book, and she was just about to save the day for at least the third time. This time she was singlehandedly stopping a stampede of wild horses.
Carly thought that Justine was brave and daring. No matter what the danger, Justine always found a way out of it, not just for herself but for everyone else too.
“Come on, Carly!” called her brother Sam. He was already on his bike, ready to tear down the street after the fire truck. “Don’t you know that there’s a fire down at the Johnson house? Hurry or you’ll miss it!”
“I’m busy,” she said.
Sam gave her an exasperated look and took off on his bike.
If I were Justine, I’d be down there, Carly thought, and I’d probably be rescuing people—if there are peopleto rescue. But I’m too young to do any real good. They’d never even let me close enough to do anything brave. If only I were as old as Justine and as daring and as beautiful!
She tried to go back to her book, but it was hard to concentrate. Down the street, people were coming out of their houses and flocking toward the Johnson house. “Maybe I should go,” she said, closing her book and standing up. Taking the book with her, she started down the street. She fell into step beside Mrs. Haskins, an elderly neighbor. Mrs. Haskins’ hair was white and her skin was wrinkled, but she surely didn’t act old! She went bowling every Tuesday night, and last winter she’d gone skiing in Colorado. She taught a writing class for children once a week, and she also found time to teach Primary. Carly liked her a lot.
“Ah, Carly,” the woman said, noticing her book. “Doing a little reading, I see. The Adventures of Justine. That ought to be exciting.”
“Oh, it is!” Carly exclaimed, almost forgetting about the fire. “Someday I’m going to be just like her. Someday I’ll be a heroine.”
“Someday can take a long time to get here,” Mrs. Haskins told her. “How long do you suppose it will take?”
“I don’t know. But I have to grow up first. Nobody would let a kid do the things that Justine does in this book. A kid wouldn’t be strong enough, anyway.” After thinking a moment, she added, “Or brave enough.”
“So you think that Justine is brave?”
“Oh yes, she’s brave. Do you know that she saved a whole schoolroom full of children from being swept away in a flood?”
“Pretty impressive. Do you suppose that she was afraid?”
“Not Justine. She isn’t afraid of anything.” They were at the fire now, and suddenly Carly realized just how horrible it was. It wasn’t anything like she imagined a fire would be.
The Johnsons were gathered on the sidewalk, most of them crying. Some of their neighbors were crying too. The house was charred, and the smell of smoke was everywhere. The firemen were racing here and there, not looking the least bit dashing or handsome. They were dirty and sweating, and some of them looked worried and frightened—but they kept moving. Huge, surprisingly ugly flames were licking out of the broken second-story windows, and the roof was smoking.
Suddenly Carly felt like crying too. If only she could make it stop! If only things like this didn’t happen. Tommy Johnson, who was two years ahead of her at school and always trying to act tough, was standing with his arm around his mother, sobbing. Carly didn’t blame him. Everything that he owned was probably in the house. And from the looks of the gutted building, there wasn’t going to be much left when the fire was finally out.
Carly remembered the book in her hands, and now it seemed no more realistic than a comic book. “I’d like to see Justine save the day in this situation,” she muttered under her breath. What could Justine possibly do to help the Johnsons? Carly wondered. There’s no one left inside to rescue. There’s no way to stop the fire instantly and then undo the damage that’s been done. And there’s no quick, simple way to rebuild the Johnson’s home—and their lives.
Carly felt let down. If there weren’t heroines out in the real world to prevent this sort of thing from happening, what was the point in even trying to be a heroine?
“Everything!” Mrs. Johnson cried, suddenly breaking down. “Everything we own is in there—baby pictures, my purse, the dishes … And we don’t even have insurance!”
Carly had to turn away. She couldn’t bear the pain in Mrs. Johnson’s voice. She kept asking herself, What if it had been my house, and all my things were … ?
Turning to Mrs. Haskins, she asked through tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks, “Isn’t there something we can do? Anything?”
“There’s always something to be done,” the woman said quietly. “And it’s up to ordinary people like you and me to figure out what it is and then do it. Do you have any suggestions?”
Carly only had to think for a moment. “They’ll be needing food and clothes and things. Maybe we could get started finding some.” She spotted her brother and his friend Mitch standing beside their bikes and staring in disbelief as the building burned. “Sam! Mitch! Over here!” she called.
When they had walked their bikes over, she said quickly, “We have to get busy. There’s a lot that we need to do, and fast. First, we have to go door-to-door and see if people have anything that they can donate to the Johnsons—clothes, food, blankets, money, whatever they can. Can you guys and some of your friends do that? You could each pick a street, then bring all the stuff you get to our house. Maybe tomorrow we can put up a note at school.”
“You’ve got it!” said Sam, and he and Mitch quickly rode off.
“Sorry to desert you, Mrs. H.,” Carly said, “But I have to get busy. It’s going to be dark pretty soon.”
“You know, Carly,” Mrs. Haskins said, “I have two guest rooms, now that I’m alone. Do you suppose that the Johnsons would care to keep an old lady company until they find another place to live?”
“That’s a terrific idea!” said Carly. “While you talk to Mrs. Johnson, I’m going to call Edna and Jerry. They’re friends of Tommy’s, and I know they’ll want to help.”
As she started up the street, Mrs. Haskins called to her. “Looks like your someday didn’t take so long in getting here, after all.”
“What?” asked Carly, turning.
“To be a heroine. I’d say that you’re getting a good start.”