The Fire

Posted: February 9, 2014 by Cat Reyes in Other Thoughts, Stories, Survival
Tags: , , ,

This was a paper I wrote for class a while back, too. I hope that maybe it will help someone who’s been there and gone through it.

The Fire

In 1996, there were over 400,000 house fires across the United States, resulting in more than 3,500 deaths, 18,000 injuries, and over four billion dollars in damages. That year, my house was among those ranks. I remember the scent of smoke and the dark haze that floated up to the ceiling, but more importantly, I remember the cause of the fire, and the fact that we lost everything but a few animals in it.

It was January. There was snow on the ground, arranged in clumps, but it wasn’t especially cold. We lived in a triplex, a house that had three separate living areas sitting side by side. Ours was the center abode and it was the only one that was in livable condition. The apartment on the left was missing the bathroom floor in its entirety. The apartment on the right had several holes in the floor. It wasn’t hard to get into either house if you crawled under the floor. The holes in the right apartment were easily large enough for a thin teen to pop through. My brother, myself, and our friends did so on a regular basis.

My room and my parents’ room lay against the divider between our house and the house on the right. The far wall in my parents’ room was the divider between their room and the living room in the right apartment. The fire started there, in the living room of the right apartment, but I was the first to notice it because my parents’ room was several steps lower than mine.

We had all gone to bed that night kind of early. I was sitting up reading because it wasn’t that late. The smell was what first attracted my attention. My family goes camping around once a year so I am familiar with what the various scents of smoke are. I knew that the sweet smell was the burning of wood. But it was mixed with other scents. The scent of burning paper and the bitter tang of plastic were also there.  Combined, it was wrong. I was out of my room within seconds to see that a faint shadow of smoke curled against the ceiling, creeping into the rest of the house.

I burst into my parents’ room, startling them both. “Smoke!” I shouted at them. My dad was instantly out of bed, pulling on his pants in the same moment. He shoved past me as he started shouting orders. “Get out of the house! Everyone, get out. Grab the animals!” His voice sounded as though it came from behind a wall, even though I was only about a foot away.

My mom bustled past, not bothering to grab pants to cover bare legs. She only wore her nightgown as she raced through the hall into the kitchen before turning to the back of the house where my brother was. By the time I hit the kitchen, my dad was coming back in the front door.

“The fire is next door!” He shouted, at the same moment, my mom came back into the kitchen. “I can’t wake Pol!”

“Get Chrys out of here!” My dad told my mom, striding past us to my brother’s room. My mom grabbed my hands and we made for the living room. Once there, I broke her grip and grabbed the bird cage, remembering my father’s words. Only later, I would learn that the birds were already dead. My mom saw what I was doing and threw the front door open wide and started calling the animals. It didn’t help that panic and smoke tore at our throats and nothing more than a few shrill shrieks got past our lips.

I did not hear much. Everything sounded muffled as if a blanket covered everything that would make sounds. The sounds that were made, besides being muffled, were distorted. Smoke curled and burned in my throat making my voice sound almost heavy.

This had only taken a few seconds, but already the smoke was covering everything, dimming our view. I could see, dimly the door that lead outside and ran through it, calling for my mom. She was already outside, waiting for me along with my dog, who was barking shrilly in fear. I turned back in time to see my father and my brother break through the smoke behind me. Pol was dragging one of the dogs along with him. My dad held his turtle, being the only thing he could find in the blinding smoke. Dad shoved me ahead of him and the three of us burst through the smoke into the chill night air. As the fire-trucks pulled up, a cat shot out of the house and tore into the bushes that lined our yard. It was the only cat who survived.

I remember standing there holding the bird cage and staring at the house as the fire began to lick my parents’ bedroom windows. I could feel the cold air around me, but I wasn’t cold. I knew I should have felt some kind of chill, some kind of emotion for that matter. But there was nothing. I was empty staring at the black smoke billowing out of the house from windows and eaves. The door we had emerged from had becoming a billowing cesspit of acrid smoke. The fire-trucks’ red lights would light the smoke in an ominous flash before letting it return to its dull black color the next second. To me, the smoke was obvious against the dark sky, but maybe that is just how I felt.

Several firemen came to pull us away from the fire, leading us through the gate, into the road. I could feel the icy chill of pavement against my bare feet, but it didn’t seem important. My throat and lungs burned, but the pain also wasn’t important. We watched as the firemen battled the fire, trying to save what they could. In the end, almost everything was gone. Out of all the animals we had, we lost three cats, the birds that I carried in the cage, and a dog.

Two days later, we were allowed to go back to the house to see if we could find anything. My brother and I skipped school to do so. I remember clutching the flashlight that I had been given as its beam of light swept over the charred remains of my bedroom. The smell was muted because of the cold and I didn’t smell the damage as I should have. The only sound that followed me into the bitter blackness of my room was the crunching of my shoes on the burned remains of my material world. I remember moving some stuff from a corner and seeing a glowing coal. It still lived after two days of cold weather and being drenched by a fireman’s hose.

Outside my room, I heard someone talking to my dad. Now I know it was a fire marshal, but at the time, I just heard voices. I heard the word arson, which, I learned when I went home, meant someone had started the fire, and later I would be told that the fire originated in the living room next to my parents’ room. The man told my dad that it was probably some homeless person trying to get warm during the cold night. But a couple weeks later, we would learn the truth.

One of my brother’s friends had turned on him for some reason or another, a few days before the fire. During a later argument, the guy told my brother that he started the fire. No charges were pressed against him, even with his admission. He denied it to the police and had a supposed alibi: His ill father claimed he was in his room all night. We knew how many times that he snuck out of his bedroom window to hang out with my brother, while his father thought he was in his room doing homework or such. But we had no proof that he did it that night, other than his admission to my brother. However, he was later caught for starting a fire in someone else’s house. Luckily for that family, they caught him in the act. Unfortunately for us, he was still not charged for starting the fire in our home.

It wasn’t until I was staring at the coal that I felt something. An aching sadness that seemed to both pull my gut lower and squeeze everything inside of me with an icy grip. I threw up because of it, right there. The acid taste almost crippling me in that darkened room of things that I once had. But out of the bile came another emotion. Anger. I was angry. More angry than I had ever been in my life. All of my things had been destroyed. The stuffed animals I had collected, my Barbie dolls, my clothes… my cat. Even worse, my family could have died.

I know that I can replace the things I lost, that material items aren’t important in the broad scheme of things, but I also know that no one should lose so much in one night. Nothing of mine or my parents’ was salvageable. A lot of my brother’s things were destroyed. Pictures, books, musical instruments, paintings, drawing, toys, clothing, stories written by myself or my father . . . All these things were burnt to ash or melted into indecipherable shapes twisting in agony… and worst was the animals. I didn’t understand about paintings and pictures, the significance that they meant on my life until I was much older and realized that they were a part of our memories. But the animals . . . To me and my family, animals are like people. They aren’t just toys or pets. They are our family. My cat had been a birthday present who, I intelligently named “Meow”, would stand and wait for me to come home every day. Meow was found behind the stove where she tried to hide. Two other cats had been with us for years and were found two feet from the door. The dog we lost had been in my life since before I could remember. I felt her loss the most, because to me, she was my sister. The dog was found hiding under my brother’s bed, apparently having followed my mother when she went to wake my brother.

We lost so much in that fire, but we also learned a lot about ourselves. We learned that even though we lost almost everything we owned, we still had each other. That together we would make it. It was at that time that I knew love would see people through even the worst of times. I knew that love is the most powerful emotion in the world, and where there is love; there is life and a way. I continue to live by that creed. We weren’t killed that night as my brother’s friend intended. We survived and rebuilt our lives.

Things have never been the same since that night. We live as if we will lose everything in a moment’s notice. We don’t trust others, either. I have a hard time making friends because of the fear that one day they will turn and destroy my family, maybe not as literally as my brother’s friend once attempted, but that thought still resides in the back of my mind. We know that life is precious and it has made us a stronger family. We have learned the value of people assisting those in need and we have tried to help others. In the end, sometimes that is the best that anyone could do for someone in a bad situation: Try to help them in any way that we can.

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