This story starts with a house fire in 2013, then takes readers on a journey from the 1970s to the present, tracing the parallel yet wholly different existences of Todd Brunner, the landlord of the property, and Angelica Belen, the woman who lived there with her four young kids. Riveting and infuriating, Raquel Rutledge and Ken Armstrong’s work has been nominated for a 2023 National Magazine Award for feature writing:
There are two stories to the house. The top story is covered in stucco, the bottom in brick veneer. Angelica Belen lives in the house with her four children, the oldest 5, the youngest a toddler. In between are twin boys, 4 years old, one with cerebral palsy, the other with autism and epilepsy. Belen is 24. She’s a renter. The landlord, when she moved in, was Todd Brunner. Known around Milwaukee as the foreclosure king, Brunner collects properties others have lost to banks. He’s a familiar figure to building-code inspectors for his long list of violations.
Neighbors gather, drawn by the smoke and sirens. A battalion chief, the commander on scene, sees people watching from a nearby porch. He yells to them, asking if anyone is inside the smoking house. Their car is gone, no one is home, a man answers. The chief returns to his command car, gets on the radio and gives the all clear. The house is vacant, he says.
When firefighters go in, the smoke layer is so thick they can hardly make out anything. On the ground floor, in the kitchen, they see the fire. Flames roll across the ceiling, burning a hole 2 feet wide.
Embers from a bedroom above fall into the kitchen sink.