By Riley Faust, TIWP Student
I heard it before I saw it.
Not the crackling, lively sound of fire feeding on wood, but the screaming. The agony conveyed in loud, harsh sounds from the back of someone’s throat. The sound of panicked footsteps running over creaking planks. A name shouted from safety, begging its owner to emerge from the rabid flames unharmed.
Then I tasted it.
The smoke weaved its way through my closed lips, telling its story with each particle. Among the expected acrid sweetness lay lazy hints of alcohol, abandoned by reckless kids to fuel the flames. Then an earthy undertone of the forest. Smoke with a distinctly meaty taste brushed my tongue, making me gag once I realized what it was.
I could feel the heat emanating from the floor below me, the ground floor. The smoke began to rise up and fill my nose and lungs. The smell contained none of the elaborate notes that the taste did. I had already reached the stairs when I saw them, the orange-yellow flames crawling up the walls, ready to consume the second floor. As I ran down the worn steps, the rest of the fire came into view. The outside blended from orange, into yellow, into a blinding white center. The smoke filled the air not occupied by the fire, making suffering inescapable. The tendrils of flame crept up next to me, up the stairs, embers threatening to burn me alive.
I saw the door across the room, the cool blue night laying just beyond reach. In the distance, there were mountains shaded by the light of the moon, trees reaching up to the stars, dewy grass, all unaffected by the light of deadly mistakes. It looked like a paradise.
My breathing grew labored by the heavy smoke, and my shirt was dark with sweat. Slowly, I made my way towards the door, towards freedom, carefully watching above me to avoid falling wood. That’s when I heard her voice.
“Alice! Alice, where are you?” It was panicked and tearful, and it came from right outside the door. The frame of the door grew heavy and unstable with burnt wood. The top shifted slightly downward, and I ran. Ran towards her pain-filled voice, towards freedom, towards survival. One last chance.
I was on the ground.
My left leg ached, and pain spread up it, slowly but surely. I heard her call my name again, pleading, begging the fire to let me live. I looked behind me to find a heavy wooden beam on top of my leg, burning quickly. The wooden frame of the door collapsed, plummeting down with a deafening crash. Tears dripped down my cheeks, but never reached my lips, the heat bringing them into the smokey air. I tried to call her name, to tell her all the things I never said, but nothing came out, my voice suffocating under the deadly smoke. The fire reached the top of my left thigh, preparing to consume it all.
The floor underneath me creaked in defeat.
I fell, sweet, clean air filling my lungs once again.
A hard floor rushed up to meet me, breaking my body. Pain shot through my veins, leaving both of my legs and my right arm screaming. My chest hurt, but whether that was from the smoke or the fall remained to be seen. I felt a warm trickle of blood flow from my temple down to my ear before everything went black.
It was silent when I woke up. No crackling flames, no agonized screams, no shouts for help. It was dark, too, and when I looked behind me, my leg was extinguished. Everything still ached, broken or bruised or burnt. My head and vision were fuzzy, every thought occurring through a warm haze before drifting away. I found my eyes closing once again. I let them, desperate for an escape from the pain and the fog in my brain. Slowly, my brain shut down again, and reality disappeared.
I’m not sure how long passed before I woke up again. This time, everything was clear and sharp, including the pain in my body. It progressed from a dull ache to a stabbing pain that occurred every couple of seconds. However, the fog in my head had dissipated, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. A bit of light filtered through the ceiling, and I could see the room around me. It seemed to be made of pure stone, and it was fairly small. The fire hadn’t reached it. A couple pieces of burnt wood laid on the floor, but other than that it was empty.
That’s when I heard the voices.
Above me, a woman spoke. It was faint, and I couldn’t quite make it out. Her footsteps followed, and I could hear more people walking behind her. Finally, they were above me, and their words were clear.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else here.”
Another voice started to speak. “But ma’am, there’s still one girl missing. Shouldn’t we keep looking? After all, she has to be-”
“Maybe she escaped into the woods. Poor thing was probably scared to death. If she’s here, she’s definitely not alive.”
“But I am!” I tried to scream. My throat was dry from the smoke and lack of water. “Please, I’m down here!” My voice was nothing more than a whimper.
The woman spoke again as she walked away, but I couldn’t make it out.
Outside, I heard vehicles rumbling. Were they leaving? Before long, I heard more voices, more footsteps, all bleeding together into a catastrophe of sound. Then, the familiar beeping of construction vehicles filled the air. Slowly, I watched as something came down on the hole in the ceiling, onto my only source of light. Only one more sentence made it through the hole before it was sealed.
“Alright, let’s seal up this floor, guys!”