Origins: The Fire (MILA 2.0, #0.5)
In the back of my head, a voice urges me to wake up. I fight it off and snuggle deeper under my cozy down comforter. This dream is too wonderful. I’m floating in the ocean without trying, without paddling, just drifting and basking in the heat of the sun that beats down on my skin. A seagull cries overhead, diving so low I can almost touch it. Everything feels peaceful, and even though I can’t see my parents, I sense their presence nearby, twirling in the sand.
Funny. I can’t imagine a single scenario in the world that would involve my two-left-footed Mom dancing in public.
But I know, even as they dance, that they are watching me closely. Just like always.
“You know, my life makes a really lame documentary.” I utter our usual joke while refusing to open my eyes. Over the crackle of the waves, I hear Dad’s rumbling laugh but tune out Mom’s heartfelt sigh.
The ocean roars as it embraces my limbs, which are strangely heavy, but in a perfect, lazy way.
Not only is the sun hot, but the water…the water is so blissfully warm.
Warm, even inside my lungs. Only the air holds a bitter taste. The more I float, the more I feel it slowly, slowly smothering me like a thick blanket.
Bitter. Acrid. Hot.
With a gasp, I open my eyes.
No dancing bodies. No warm ocean.
Just darkness at first. Then, as my eyes adjust, a strange, murky haze, floating like wisps of fog within the dim glow that seeps through my window. I shake my head, trying to clear the remnants of the dream from my mind. Fog? But my window is closed. I can still hear the loud, constant whoosh of ocean in the distance. But that doesn’t make any sense.
My gaze moves from my window to my door, and my lungs seize. Instead of the darkness I anticipate, the door is outlined with a thin, orange glow. A glow that flickers.
Not fog. Smoke.
Not the roar of the ocean. Fire.
I throw back the covers and spring to my feet. “Mom? Dad?” I land on one of my discarded ballet flats, stumble, and smack into my bedside table. A rectangular object thuds to the floor.
My alarm clock, green numbers flashing 10:42. I open my mouth to shout for Dad again, then stop short. 10:42, 10:42. They aren’t home yet.
It’s the first time I remember being thankful for one of their long work dinners.
But it also means… I’m on my own. I have to get out on my own.
With that thought spurring me on, I shove my shoes onto my feet and race for the door, reaching for the handle—
I yelp and pop my fingers into my mouth. The fire must be right outside.
No escape that way. And no way to call for help, I realize as I picture my cell phone where I left it charging on the hallway bathroom counter. No, the window is my only option. I back away, my heart pumping much too fast, my breaths coming even faster. The smoke sears down my throat, hot and foul.
Three times as many people die from smoke inhalation as from burns, and most only have three minutes to get out once the smoke alarm goes off.
I half laugh, half sob as the facts from the last documentary I watched with my parents surface. I guess their weekly geekery of dragging me in front of the Discovery Channel, cozy in our Gumby Snuggies with a bowl of popcorn to share, has finally paid off.
Around me, the smoke glows white like a creeping mist.
My frantic gaze finds the unit on the ceiling in the center of my room. Nothing. Not even a red light. The batteries must be dead. But how is that even possible? Mom changes them like clockwork, every six months.
I cough my way to the window, past the white shelves that hold all my favorite books. My old horseback-riding photos, my baseball mitt—autographed by Dad’s favorite Phillies pitcher.
I ignore the leather glove and latch onto a picture instead. A family photo of Mom, Dad, and me—taken at the beach. My favorite. Mom’s hair is windswept and her smile is bright, and Dad’s hand rests on my shoulder, which is still brown with the evidence of our sand fight. I reach the window and fumble until I unlatch the lock. The photo gets shoved into the waistband of my pajama pants before I straddle the sill and slide down onto the tiny balcony.
Fresh air and darkness rush to greet me—so cold, my already irritated lungs spasm in protest. I double over, hacking. As I fight to regain my breath, the frantic rhythm beneath my ribs calms a little. I’m outside. All I have to do is grab onto that branch overhead, shinny down the tree, and I’ll be free.
Nothing stirs on the street below, and the houses across the way are quiet, lit only by porch lights and an occasional upstairs window. Clearly, no one is aware of the fire yet. As much as Dad annoys the neighbors by allowing the contents of our garage to spill into the driveway like a never-ending rummage sale, none of them are mean enough to turn their backs while those same belongings burn to the ground. No, all I have to do is get down and bang on the Rogerses’ door until they let me use the phone.
I step up onto the bottom rung of the wrought-iron fence that outlines the balcony. But as I reach for the thick, leglike branch of the tree, my gaze snags on something. My hand slips from the limb, and crumpled brown leaves rain down like charred snowflakes. I freeze, a tight band squeezing my heart. No.
Backlit by a full moon, my parents’ silver Volvo gleams in the driveway.