I awakened because I cannot breathe.
I’m stirred to consciousness by my desire for oxygen.
I open my eyes to find smoke in the room.
All I can think is one thing.
My lungs burn with the effort to inhale oxygen tainted by smoke and flame. Coughing, constantly, as I push myself into a sitting position, I turn my head first left, then right, desperate to locate the source of the smoke.
It is only when I turn my head toward the door that I realize the fire is outside my room.
“MOM!” I scream. “DAD!”
I throw myself from the bed and toward the door and latch my hand around the doorknob, only to scream as an immense pain burns into my hand.
I jerk my wrist back.
I look down.
See smoke ebbing in through the crack at the bottom of the door.
I scramble to consider what is happening. Thoughts bombard me, paranoia assaults me. I wonder: where are my parents? Are they outside? Are they safe? And how, I wonder, could this have started?
My thoughts beat against my skull like jackhammers as I spin, desperate to find a way out of my room.
Then a thought occurs to me.
“Belle!” I cry, rushing toward the bed. “Belle!”
A small meow sounds from under the bed.
I crouch down to reach for her, then stop.
You can’t take her in your arms, a part of me says. She’ll shred you and run into the woods.
I thank God that she is safe—that she is secure, and that smoke rises rather than falls—but I cannot for the life of me figure out how I’m going to secure her.
I turn toward my closet.
Her carrier, I then think.
I dash toward the closet, throw its door open, and lift my eyes to the highest shelf.
Belle’s pink taxi is in arm’s reach.
I don’t hesitate.
I pull it down.
I throw it open.
I crouch down and take hold of the scruff of Belle’s neck.
“Come on!” I cry as she struggles against me. “Come on, Belle! COME ON!”
The cat yowls as she fights against me, desperate to free herself from the oppressing nature that is the smoke and my hand. She is almost too strong, I too weak. Yet somehow, someway, I’m able to haul her into the taxi and slam the door into place.
“Okay,” I whisper, coughing, taking the taxi into my arms and turning toward the window. “I gotta get out of here.”
I spin, desperate to find something—anything—that might aid me in my escape.
A flicker of movement crosses my peripheral.
I turn just in time to see a figure outside my window.
“HELP!” I scream. “PLEASE! SOMEBODY—“
The figure lunges at the window—
Strikes their hand against it—
Recoils as the glass explodes—
I throw myself forward, ignoring the sting of glass as it cuts into my bare feet, and push the taxi out the window. “Take her!” I cry.
Belle’s carrier is pulled from my grasp one moment.
The next, I’m throwing myself out the window, and landing on solid, grassy ground.
I cough—desperate to inhale fresh air. I claw at the ground. I pull myself aside. I struggle, then scream.
A hand latches against the back of my shirt and then hauls me to my feet.
That is when I hear his voice.
“Oaklynn!” he says. “Oaklynn!”
“I’m here!” I gasp, lifting my eyes to find Jackson standing beside me—one arm grasped around Belle’s thrashing carrier, the other holding me in place. “Jackson! My—my parents—“
“I don’t see them!” Jackson says.
“I gotta go back!”
“They might be out front!” he cries, taking hold of my shirt. “Oaklynn! STOP!”
I turn to face him—see the carrier thrashing back and forth, left and right—and reach out to take hold of Belle’s cat taxi.
“It’s okay,” I manage to cough out. “Belle! Belle! I’m here!”
“We gotta get away from the house,” Jackson says, turning toward the road. “Come on! Hurry!”
A part of me wants to ignore him—to shove the pet taxi back into his arms and go barreling back through the window. So many things are inside that home. My life. My purpose. My parents.
They’re out front, I tell myself as I tighten my grip on the pet taxi—as I begin to haul myself toward the road. That’s where they are. They got out. You know they did.
But the fact is: I don’t know, and that is what terrifies me.
I know I can’t turn back. I know I can’t stop. I know I can’t go back in. So I do the next best thing I can:
By the time we reach the road, flames have engulfed the house. Glass explodes from windows as they superheat. The roof of the porch collapses. Flames lick toward the cars.
“GET BACK!” a voice screams.
I lift my eyes to find Zachariah Meadows waving to us with his cell phone in one hand while he grips his cane with the other.
Jackson darts forward.
When we reach the Meadows family front porch, I collapse to my knees—coughing, wheezing, desperate for air.
“Dad!” Jackson cries. “Did you see them?”
“See who?” his father cries.
“Mister and Missus Smith!”
I lift my head. Center my gaze on the man. Wait.
I see, in his eyes, a desperation—a need to explain, a need to speak, a need to tell.
But he doesn’t have to say anything.
My parents are nowhere in sight.
Which means only one thing.
As a scream rips through my throat—as my ears ring, my heart pounds, my lungs ache—I bow my head to the ground and wail.
The sound of sirens making their way down the road is the only thing that overpowers me.
“Come on,” Jackson says, lifting me to my feet. “We can’t stay here.”
“Wha-Where?” I manage.
Zachariah Meadows turns toward the road just as the fire truck pulls up across the road. “There,” he says.
I take Belle’s carrier into my arms.
Then, slowly, I begin to walk.
It feels like a dream. A nightmare that has become real.
But it isn’t.
As I sit on on the edge of the ambulance, breathing deeply through the oxygen mask that has been strapped to my face, I can’t help but watch my family home burn.
“Are you all right?” the female paramedic says.
“I’m fine,” I manage, even though I’m not. “My cat—“
“She’s just fine,” the paramedic replies, turning her head toward the back of the ambulance. “My partner has her on a leash and on oxygen as we speak.”
Thank God, I think.
I struggle to see through my burning eyes and the tears that come as a result of them. However—it’s easy enough to see the flames as they scar the sky, the smoke as it drifts into the air.
What’s not easy to see if how I’ll go on without my parents.
I lean forward—desperate to stand, to see if there’s something, anything I can do.
The paramedic leans forward to stop me. “Oaklynn,” she says.
“I can’t stay here,” I say. “I can’t watch—“
“We’ll take you to the hospital in a moment,” she replies. “We just need to wait for the vehicles to be moved out of the—“
Police Chief Ronson steps out of the shadows before the paramedic can finish. His sad eyes, and the frown on his lips, indicates what I knew to be true all along.
“Miss Smith,” Police Chief Ronson says.
“My parents—“ I start. “Are… are they—“
He offers me a sad, confirmatory nod. “I’m sorry.”
I expect to scream again—to wail as I did before. But with my lungs burning, my throat throbbing, and my emotional reserves all but gone, I find myself unable to do anything but nod.
“I’ll get my officers to move their vehicles so you can be taken to the hospital now,” he says.
“What about my cat?” I ask. “She needs to be seen by someone.”
“I’ll take her,” a voice says.
I lift my eyes to see Jackson.
“Jackson,” I say.
“There’s no way you’ll be able to pay an emergency vet tonight,” he says. “Especially not with… well… your home—“
“Where’s your dad?”
“Talking with one of my investigators,” the police chief says. “Don’t worry yourself over this, Miss Smith. We’ll get everything taken care of.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Two men step out of the back of the ambulance. One carries Belle in his arms, secure and snug in a towel with an oxygen mask still fixed to her face. The other carries her pet taxi.
“How is she?” I ask.
“She’s a little shook up,” the paramedic says, “but I think she’ll be okay.”
“Sweet Belle,” I say, leaning forward to press a hand to her head. “Sweet, sweet Belle.”
The back of her head buzzes with a purr.
“Someone’s taking her to a vet?” the paramedic asks.
“I am,” Jackson says.
“All right. Give us a moment.”
In less than a minute, Belle is disconnected from the oxygen, placed in her carrier, and offered to Jackson, who takes her carefully and holds her tight. “I’ll go now,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “I’ll pay you back somehow.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he replies.
He leans forward, then, and kisses my cheek, before pulling away and making his way around the ambulance.
“We’ll head out now,” the female paramedic says.
They load the stretcher into the back of the ambulance—and though I am bristling with tension, I force myself to relax as much as humanly possible.
There’s no way for me to comprehend what has just happened.
A fire, started—
My parents, dead—
Well… there is little to say, beyond the insufferable pain I feel, the intolerable darkness that stretches forth like a monster creeping from the depths of time. It wants to swallow me, but the female paramedic keeps talking, asking me questions, squeezing my hand. I know she wants me to talk, but I can’t find anything to say.
“Oaklynn?” the paramedic says.
“Yes?” I reply.
“We’re almost to the hospital now. Okay?”
I close my eyes, then, and take a long, deep, oxygen-filled breath.
The moment I let my guard down, I pass out.
I awaken in a hospital room an untold amount of time later. Connected to an IV, and hooked up to fresh oxygen, I open my eyes as I sense a presence in the room, then tilt my head until I find who it is.
“Mister Meadows,” I manage.
Zachariah Meadows lifts his eyes from where he sits watching me in the corner, and nods after a moment. “How are you feeling?” he asks.
“I’m… fine,” I say, then frown and ask, “How is Belle?”
“She’s okay,” Mister Meadows says. “Her lungs are a bit enflamed from the smoke she’s inhaled, but she’s sleeping in an oxygen tank as we speak.”
“Thank God,” I whisper, then tilt my head up to the ceiling.
Zachariah Meadows stands, and carefully makes his way over to the side of the hospital bed. When he comes to stand beside it, he looks down, waits, then settles himself at the edge of it before lifting his eyes and saying, “They think it was someone from your school.”
“What?” I ask.
“The arsonist. Probably a friend—or at least an acquaintance—of someone who set the flower shop on fire.”
“Did they catch them?” I ask.
“They’re matching tire treads and making casts of footprints leading away from your home. I also turned over my security camera footage.”
“You—“ I start to say, then cough, swallow “—had security cameras on your house?”
“I was always a paranoid man,” Mister Meadows says.
I don’t know what to say to that, so I simply don’t say anything at all.
Sighing, Zachariah turns his head to regard me and says, “I’m sorry, Oaklynn. I wish there was more I could say, but… just… just know the Meadows family takes care of their own.”
“What’re you—“ I start to say.
He presses his hand to mine, nods, then removes it a short moment later before standing and saying, “Get some rest. You need it after everything that’s happened.”
“Yeah,” I say, and close my eyes. “I… I guess I…”
Do, I want to finish.
But once again, I slip into sleep.
The last conscious thought I have is of Easton Wells.