Start writing The sound of Harley barking wakes me up. I nudge him with my foot, groaning as the sound echoes through the house. It was three in the morning and I had a big presentation tomorrow. Figures Harley would want to play the night when I needed my sleep the most.
I roll over and put a pillow over my head in an attempt to drown out the noise. But Harley was persistent, tugging at the sleeve of my sweatshirt, earnest that I wake up. I try to ignore him, but he pulls harder and harder until I have no choice but to acknowledge him.
“What?!” I snap. He whines and jumps to the ground, running to the bedroom door and clawing at it like a lunatic. “Harley?” I ask, my frustrations turning to concern as I take in his crazed appearance.
Only then do I notice the murky gray smoke rolling into the room. My stomach drops as the angry wisps spread menacingly around me. The fire alarms start blaring but judging by the thick haze that had already filled my bedroom, they were too late to help me. The wildfires had finally reached my home.
I am wide awake and on my feet within a second, coughing profusely as the putrid vapors fill my lungs. Harley rubs his snout with his paws, the fumes causing his sensitive nose discomfort. I scoop him into my arms and reach for the door handle, knowing we had only moments to get out of the blazing house. But I underestimated the extent of the fire, and the moment my hand touches the bronze doorknob, I cry out. I let go as the metal scorches my skin, leaving my palm red and tingling from the burn.
I look around the room for an alternative route to safety, my heart pounding in my chest. I contemplate the window, but there was no fire escape and it was a risky drop from my third floor bedroom to the hard ground below. I pace back and forth as the smoke thickens, fighting back tears as I consider what option was least likely to get me killed. My breathing accelerates, forcing even more of the smoke into my already raw throat. The intense heat radiates through the room and causes drops of sweat to form on my skin, soaking my pajamas and dripping down my back.
Recalling the fire safety tips we learned in school, I fall to the ground where the smoke was less dense. I grab a blanket from my bed and stuff it beneath the door, hoping this would help keep some of the toxic fumes out, though the room was already filled to the brim with the gasses. They burned my eyes as I search for an exit.
Only seconds had passed since I woke up, but it felt like hours. As I crawl on the overheated floor, I knew I couldn’t contemplate my options any longer. Not if I wanted a chance at survival, that is. As dangerous as the window was if it came down to breaking my neck or burning alive, I would take the former.
With all of the courage I can muster, I open the glass plane and climb onto the ledge, taking a moment to suck in gulps of the fresh air. I refused to look down because I know if I do I will chicken out, and that’s just not an option right now. I take a deep breath to steady myself and am about to jump when I hear a voice calling from the first floor.
“Is anyone in here?” someone asks.
“In… here…” I croak, hoping they could hear my hoarse voice over the blaring alarms.
The stairs outside my bedroom creak and a moment later, the door bursts open. A figure steps inside, blurry in the opaque fog. I squint my burning eyes for a moment and I take a tentative step away from the window, letting out a relieved sigh when I make out the firefighter.
“We’ve got to get you out of here, ma’am. This place will go up any minute,” he says, his voice jumbled through his face shield.
I hear him, but I can’t seem to feel my legs. I am rooted to the floor, staring beyond the fireman to the cause of the chaos that has ensued. There were flames everywhere, engulfing walls and doors and windows, devouring the place I had once called home like it was no more than a piece of tattered paper.
The seriousness of the situation registers in my mind as I realize that we were surrounded by the ravenous fire. I can already feel the intense heat on my skin, paralyzing me with terror. The flames were thriving, like they were a living creature destroying everything they touched. Only this animal was a predator, and I would become its prey if I remained where I was.
“Ma’am!” the firefighter says again with unmistakable fervor. He doesn’t wait for me to respond before grabbing my upper arm roughly, snapping me from my captivated trance as he propels me forward toward safety.
As we step out of the bedroom, my mouth drops open in awe. It was a beautiful sight, the bright amber and scarlet hues of the flames as they intertwined, their tendrils ebbing and flowing like the waves of the sea. If they weren’t destroying my home and threatening to take my life, I would appreciate the inferno’s splendor. It blazed with such intensity, it felt like nothing in its path could survive. The problem was, I was one of the things in its path right now.
I take a step back from the partition of flames devouring my upstairs hallway, crackling too close for my comfort. Entire walls and rooms were filled to the brim with fire, its unforgiving assault decimating the structure in the blink of an eye. In the mere moments since I woke up, the flames had escalated tenfold. If it had spread that quickly, we had to go, and we had to do so now.
I force my legs forward but the smoke is so thick now. I try to catch my breath, but can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. My head is light and I am too dizzy to walk in a straight line. I can feel the life leaving my body as I slowly suffocate on the poisonous vapors.
The smoke inhalation and ensuing panic cause my legs to give out. I sway to my left, almost falling into the inferno burning in my guest bedroom. The fireman grabs my hand to steady me at the last moment, but not before the flames catch on my long, curly hair. I scream as I realize what had happened, and the man swats my hair with his glove, defusing the fire before it could spread.
He senses my panic and takes my shaking hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze to help me remain calm. He doesn’t hesitate to lift me into his burly arms, carrying me the rest of the way down the hall as I cling to Harley. My free hand clutches to the fireman’s suit, ardently gripping to my savior for dear life, for he was the only thing standing between me and death right now.
I knew that my weight was slowing the fireman down, but the man doesn’t say so aloud. Any normal person would have left me behind long ago in an effort to save themselves, but I suppose he didn’t go into this profession to be selfish. As I stare into his dark brown eyes, I know that he won’t leave me behind. His fate had become tied to mine the moment he walked into a burning building to save a stranger. If I died, he was going down with me.
Just as we reach the first floor foyer, I hear a loud noise from overhead. The man halts in his tracks for just a second, but quickly picks up speed when he hears the clattering with more frequency. I can sense his alarm when he realizes that the flames had eaten through the foundation of the upper floors. The ceiling above us bows and quivers as we near the bottom of the stairs and we are close, so close, to the exit. I can see the front door and the safety that lies beyond it, and I pray that the building can hold just a moment longer. But my plea goes unheard.
I scream as the roof of the house collapses with a thundering boom. The fireman doubles over, taking the full force of the impact as he shields Harley and me from the residual debris that continue to reign down on us. My heart drops when I look through the bellow of ash and see that the door that was my consolation mere moments ago, was now barricaded by an impenetrable wall of flames that were blocking our exit.
The fireman glances at the backdoor, but the fire was even thicker that direction. The stairs we were just standing on were gone, collapsing with the rest of the house, so upstairs was no longer an option. The only way out was through the front, the way that had just been closed off by the raging firestorm.
I watch the man’s eyebrows furrow in thought as he racks his brain for solutions to our dilemma. A sense of resolve comes over him as he stares at me, his eyes softening as he puts me on my unsteady feet. He steps forward until his face is an inch from mine, and puts a hand on either side of my face so that I am forced to look at him.
“I need you to trust me. Can you do that?” he asks, staring into my eyes.
I nod, unsure if I would be able to form words right now.
“When I say so, you need to run. Run faster than you ever have before. Run as though your life depends on it, because I can’t hold this thing for long,” he says.
I stare at him in confusion, not comprehending the meaning of his words. Without further explanation, the man takes a deep breath and squats down, gripping the large piece of infrastructure that was blocking our path. He stands with shaking legs and, as though he were some superhuman creature, lifts the blazing wreckage just high enough that I could squeeze through.
“Go…” he murmurs, his voice strained from effort.
“What about you?” I ask, tears streaming down my face as the realization dawns on me.
“GO!” he yells, startling me into action. I tighten my grip on Harley, holding my breath as I run from the raging house.
Just as I clear the threshold, an eruption resonates behind me, sending Harley and me sprawling to the ground. I look up just in time to see the flames engulf the doorway I had been standing in just a second earlier.
I watch in horror as the man who rescued me is lost behind the fiery backdraft. I can just make out his distorted silhouette as he falls to his knees and begins thrashing on the ground. Other first responders run inside the burning house to help him, but I know in my heart that they are too late.
I can’t wrench my tear-filled eyes away from him as the man’s body is consumed by sizzling flames. Through the smoke his brown eyes meet mine. I see pure agony in his face as he pleads for me to do something, anything to make the pain go away. To see his terror and know that I was the cause of it was too much for me to handle. I feel the world spinning around me as my vision goes black. The last thing I perceive before fainting were the excruciating wails coming from the man’s mouth as he slowly burned alive. here…