The fall festival, the lake, her room, it had all been a lie. Khalil had had every opportunity to tell her the truth, every opportunity to come clean, but he had continued to lie to her and she had continued to let him manipulate her into thinking that her friends and her family were the liers, that they were the enemies when it had been him all along. She had let the guise of a pretty face deceive her into turning her entire world upside down and now she was left with nothing but a throbbing heartache that never seemed to subside and an endless stream of salty tears.
“It’s going to be ok MJ” Noah whispered, her arms still trapped around Mina’s torso as they were tossed back and forth in the back seat by Beau’s reckless driving as he sped in and around traffic. “Everything’s going to be ok.” she promised, but Mina wondered how she could throw around expectations like that when they both knew that everything that was coming out of her mouth was nothing more than a lie. Asher was dead, Chris was paralyzed, Beau had almost died, and her parents were surely about to suffer one of the same fates. Nothing was going to be ok, and Mina wished her friend would stop trying to pretend like it was.
“Holy shit” Beau’s voice came from the front seat, the car lurching forward as he spoke.
“Oh no, Mina” Noah echoed his woes in a whisper, both their eyes trained on something out the window behind her. She didn’t want to turn around, she didn’t want to know that this night could get any worse, but she knew she had no choice.
The scene that met her was familiar and she had to force herself not to gag on the pavement in her realization of what was going on. Reds and oranges and yellows lined her vision, the sounds of police sirens and firefighter horns sounded in the near distance as she gazed upon her home in terror. No.
Her cries were vocal and visceral, her hands grabbing at her chest, trying to hold onto some of her control as the world began to move in slow motion in front of her once more and the irony of the situation only made her heart ache even more. “NOOOO!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, straining her throat red raw. She screamed again, “NOOO!” Her hands moved from fumbling with the material of the jacket she was wearing to the small silver handle of the door in front of her, and she zoned out the protestations of Beau and her friend behind her as she began to run straight towards the burning building.
The cool night wind whipped past her face as she ran and the only the crackling sound of the flames and her tennis shoes against the pavement permeated her hearing. She had already lost one person tonight and she wasn’t about to lose any others to Khalil. Head empty and thoughts clear she ran as hard and as fast as she could, her eyes trained on the flames licking the brick of her only home.
“No!” she cried into the air as a strong pair of hands grasped her around the waist pulling her backwards and away from the smoldering structure in front of her. “No!” she screamed, her feet dangling in the air as her hands gripped and tugged at the pair of hands around her waist, though to no avail. They wouldn’t budge. “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!”
“MJ! Stop!” Beau’s voice boomed behind her.
“They’re in there! They’re in there!” he screams slowly began to turn to cries once more. “Please!” she was pleading now. “P-please! I have to- I have to save them. I couldn’t save Asher, but I can save them. I can- I can save them.”
“You can’t go in there” Noah chimed in now. “If you go in you might not come back out Mina, and your parents wouldn’t want you to risk your lives for them. They wouldn’t want you to go in there MJ” Beau had sat her feet back down on the ground now but she was still writhing in his arms, desperately trying to break free of his iron grasp.
“NO!” she screamed into the claustrophobic night air, and she felt as if all the air had been suck from the world, leaving her to suffocate slowly. “NOOO!” And then, as if by a miracle she felt Beau’s arms loosen around her small figure, his fingers lifting lightly from her waist, and she didn’t think twice before pushing his towering figure away from her, her boots clacking up her paved cobblestone driveway yet again.
“Mina!” They both screamed behind her, but she shut out the chorus of their yelling her eyes trained on the dancing flames in front of her. Everything around her slowly seemed to become hotter as she drew closer to the feet tall flames, just the sight of them enough to make her break into a hot sweat, but nevertheless she persisted on until her feet were planted on the doorstep. There was no time to think, only to act, and with that mentality she kicked the broken oak of her front door in until it caved in on itself.
The inside of her house was indistinguishable. The crystal chandelier that had once hung above the door was know sitting broken at the foot of the stairs, encased in a sea of orange and red. The marble floor of the entryway marked and scarred with black streaks, and the stairs were plagued with wide hole after hole that seemed to multiply every few seconds and Mina couldn’t stop the intrusive thoughts from controlling her brain. If she had only listened to her Chris, if she had only listened to Noah, if she had only payed more attention instead of being distracted by a mysterious lanky boy that she knew nothing about, then maybe she wouldn’t be in the situation she was in right now. Maybe her house wouldn’t have been going up in flames around her. Maybe none of this would have ever happened.
“Mom!” she cupped her hands around her mouth as she screamed as loud as her scratchy throat would allow, her voice hoarse and barely distinguishable over the crackling and tearing of her home around her. “Mom!” she called out again, hopping over stray planks of wood and around pools of red flames as she made her way slowly through the entryway and into the living room, where the silk curtains were being eaten alive. “Dad! Da-” she broke off mid yell in a fit of coughs, the smoke in the air slowly beginning to fill her lungs. She only had so much time, and it was running out quicker than she thought.
She coughed into her shoulder, shutting her eyes tightly as they began to pool with water. “Da-” she tried to call again, but the gray smoke in the air was making it hard for her to speak, let alone see anything mere feet in front of her. “Dad! Mom! Where are you!” This was all her fault. This was all her fault and now she and her parents were going to die because of what she had done.
She continued to slowly tiptoe through the first floor of her home, using the walls that wee still standing to navigate her way through the thick fog and calling out into the suffocating air when she could. “Mom! Dad!” she cried, but she wasn’t sure how much strength she had left in her before she gave in to the flames licking at her heels.
“Where are you! Where are y-y-yo” she was doubled over coughing once more. “I’m sorry” she whispered out into the empty house. “I’m so sorry” More tears escaped the corners of her eyes, but these were cause by the billowing smoke around her and in seconds she was coughing, crying, and dry heaving all at the same time. Her body felt like it was going to explode in on itself.
“MJ?” a voice called out, and she paused where it was, listening intently for the sound again. “MJ!”
“Mom?” she turned on her heel. The sound was coming from behind her, the way she had come. “Mom?” she called out again, her voice rising steadily as she pulled the jacket she was wearing above her nose and began to excitedly trek her way back across her house.
“MJ!” the voice was so close she could feel it, she was right upon them.
“I’m here! I’m right here!” she called out, dodging stray burning support beams and debris that had fallen from god knows where. “Mom! Mom I-”
“MJ, there you are. You scared the hell out of us, we thought we had lost you in here. Did you find them?” It was Noah’s figure that stood before her and it had been Noah’s voice calling out to her, not her mom’s. Her jacket fell once more and as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, a fit of coughing erupted from her lips instead and both Beau and Noah were at her sides in seconds.
“We need to get out of here” Beau was shaking his head as he examined the mess around them. “There’s to much smoke and this entire place is going to collapse in less than a few minutes. We need to go guys!”
“No” Mina managed to protest through her coughs, her eyes squinted as water began to pool in her tear ducts once more. “No” she shook her head again as she felt Noah’s hands on her back, attempting to guide her back towards the burning entryway. “I’m not going anywhere until I find my parent’s.”
“If you stay in here for any longer you won’t live longer enough to find them” Noah snapped “Besides the firefighters have better equipment for this type of stuff, they can probably find your parents a lot faster than we can.”
“Noah’s right.” Beau agreed “We need to get out now MJ!”
“They could be dead by the time the firefighter get here.” Mina reproached. “They don’t have a chance unless we find them now!” She knew what they were both thinking, she was thinking the same thing herself, but she had to believe that her parents were still in this mess of burn’t brick and wood somewhere. She had to believe that there was hope for them, or else she had nothing left at all.
“Fine!” Beau yelled over the crackling flames. “Fine. I’ll-I’ll look for them and you guys make your way back outside ok?”
“Ok” Noah agreed at the same time that Mina protested “NO!”
“No! I’m not leaving until I find them!” Mina screamed at the top of her lungs. “Dead or alive!” she continued.
“Dammit MJ!” Beau groaned into the cool night air. “Fine!” he conceded, running his hands through his dark curls in anxiousness. “Fine, but we’re not leaving you in here alone! And hurry the hell up!” he complained “I hate to think your friend went through all this trouble to save you for nothing.”
“I’ve checked everywhere but upstairs” Mina wasted no time beating around the metaphoric bush, pointing to the destroyed oak staircase behind them and she was sure she heard an audible “Shit” escape Beau’s lips. “If they’re here they have to be up there.”
“Of course they-” but Beau’s nagging complaints were drowned out by the distinct sound of wood creaking above them.
“Watch out!” Noah screamed, pushing all of them forwards as a heavy wooden beam crashed to the floor where they had stood seconds before, the ground completely caved in where the beam had hit. “Oh my god!” she was heaving now, her hands clasped over he chest as if she couldn’t believe what had just happened, and neither could Mina. “Is everybody ok?” she whispered, her voice shaky as it escaped and Mina nodded her head in silence.
“Yeah” Beau responded, though his voice was just as shaky as hers. “You?” An audible gulp escaped Noah’s throat as she opted to nod her head in silence, mimicking Mina.
“Let’s hurry this up, yeah?” Mina wanted nothing more than to be back outside in the cool night air, her feet sinking into the soft and muddy grass, but it seemed as if the entire world was against her today and she found herself feeling more defeated than she ever had as she stared at the nonexistent stairs that had once characterized her living room. She wanted to curse like Beau now. She wanted to curse, cry, and cough all at the same time.
“Here” Beau nodded, pointing to a hole in the ceiling above them. “If we can climb up the railing we can get up there.” Suddenly Mina was wishing she had opted to go outside instead. “I’ll go first and then I can hoist you guys up.” He said matter-of-factly, not giving them any time to oppose his ridiculously dangerous and dumb idea, but Mina couldn’t even be mad. She had asked for this.
Beau’s tall, lean, 6′3 build climbed onto the last of the oak wood that was the stairs with ease. The middle of the stairs had been completely burned out, filled with flickering flames that threatened to eat him alive if he slipped even the tiniest bit, and yet he still seemed unfazed. He balanced his way to the middle of the rail with ease, before jumping up to grab the broken ledge in his hand with a loud grunt, and in seconds he slowly began to pull his body weight up until he was high enough to take a seat on the second story of Mina’s house.
“Come on!” he cupped his hands over his mouth as he yelled down to the two girls still looking up at him awe and of course, Noah was the first to take up the impossible challenge. She followed in Beau’s footsteps, shimmying up the shiny oak railing of the stairs in her black combat boots, all the way to the middle where Beau sat above her, his arms extended and waiting to pull her up. He grasped her hands tightly in his, pulling her up slowly until she was sat right next to him. “Come on MJ” she called down, and it took Mina every ounce of self-control she possessed not to turn around and go running back out the front door.
“We can’t let Khalil kill anymore people” she whispered Beau’s words under her breath. This wasn’t a time to think, only do, at least for the sake of her parents. Stepping exactly where both Noah and Beau had stood, Mina made her way to the foot of where her stairs had once stood, and slowly pulled herself onto the oak railing. She took a moment to steady herself, before she attempted to stand to her feet. Just one foot in front of the other. Taking a deep breath, Mina forced her eyes straight ahead where Beau and Noah sat watching her steadily, both their eyes trained on her feet as she took steady step after step.
“AHHHH!” Mina screamed as her foot slipped, sending her toppling back down to her butt on the railing, and she was grasping the oak in her hands so tight that she could see the whites of her knuckles gleaming in the firelight.
“MJ!” Noah screamed in unison with her. “MJ, are you hurt? Are you ok?”
No. No, she was everything but ok at the moment, but now didn’t really seem like the time to reflect on everything that had gone wrong in her life. Instead, she nodded her head silently, her voice barely above a whisper as she croaked out, “Fine.” Of course she was lying, and she was sure they knew it to, but she stood up regardless, regaining her footing on the oak railing once more. “I’m fine, pull me up” she called above her head, and Beau grasped her arms in his as he slowly hoisted her up to the second story of her burning home.
“I’m fine she repeated” yanking her figure from underneath Beau’s grasp as her eyes began to travel the unfamiliar halls of the burning second story around them. The muted green wallpaper that had once clung to the walls was peeling off in patches, revealing the rough dry wood and insulated walls underneath, and the carpet was completely obliterated, black and indistinguishable on the floor.
“We should split up” she suggested, her eyes already trained on the long empty hall to the right of them. “I’ll go down this hall and you two can go the other way.”
“Yeah” Noah nodded her head in agreement, though the discomfort she felt at Mina’s words didn’t go unnoticed. Splitting apart probably wasn’t the best idea in a burning building that was threatening to collapse down on them all at any moment, but there were only three of them and they had to many nooks and crannies to search in so little time and Mina had meant what she had said. She wasn’t leaving from within the flames around her until she found her parent’s bodies, no matter what state they were in, she couldn’t give Khalil the satisfaction of knowing that after all his lies and betrayal he had gotten away with it all.
“Yeah ok” Beau mimicked Noah’s words with a heavy sigh that casually began to turn into a heaving cough and he quickly moved to place his arm over his mouth in an attempt to stop the smoke from entering his lungs. “Seven minutes.” he said matter-of-factly. “Seven minutes tops before I drag you both out of here.” Mina nodded her head that she understood.
The halls were bare, dark and eerily quiet as they always seemed to be and yet she still found herself spooked by the stillness of it all. Maybe it was the creaking of the floorboards under her feet as she crept her way from room to room, or maybe it was the crackling and popping sounds of the red hot fire raging around her, but she was on the verge of an impromptu panic attack.
The bathroom was the first room door on the left, but one glance at the flames licking the edges of the door frame with insatiable hunger, and she continued tiptoeing her way down the hall, praying and hoping that her parent’s bodies weren’t somewhere in the burning mass. The next door, a few steps down, was her father’s office, the door wide open and practically falling off its hinges as she pushed it as far open as she could, and her eyes grew the size of hubcaps at the image that met her. The room was completely indistinguishable.
“Mom?” she called out into the eerie gray clouds of smoke that hovered over the room. “Mom! Are you there?” There was no answer, only silence. “Dad!” They weren’t there.
She continued on in this way until the heat around her was becoming so unbearable she thought she might faint, and she had to use her white and scarred bedroom door to keep herself upright. Her heart was beating out of her chest as she heaved, gasping for clean air that didn’t seem to be there, and that’s when she heard it. It was so low at first she thought she had imagined it, but then it echoed through the electric air yet again, a low muffled groan muffled coming from behind her scarred bedroom door.
“Mo-mom?” The low groan resonated through the door once more. “Mom!” Mina repeated again, this time exclaiming at the top of her lungs as she forced her bedroom door open to reveal her mom, bound and gagged on her white wool rug in the middle of her bedroom floor.
“Mommy!” Mina rushed to her mom’s side in seconds, kneeling down beside her and pulling the thick piece of cloth from her mouth, her own tears and saliva running down her face. A choked cry escaped her mouth.
“It-it was t-th-that b-boy. K-K-Kh-” she couldn’t even get his name out.
“Khalil” Mina nodded her head. “I know. I know. I know” she whispered out, her throat threatening to clog with her own tears and she quickly used the sleeve of her jacket to brush them away, but they kept falling regardless. “I-I’m-I’m so sorry mom. I’m sorry.” she cried in apology. “But I’m going to get you out of here ok? I’m going to get you out.” She quickly rushed out. The flames around them grew larger and larger with each word she spoke, and she moved to pull her mother to her feet in to time at all, her hands still bound together in restraints. “Come one.” she grabbed her mother’s hands, leading her through the burning debris of her room and back out into the collapsing hallway to find Beau and Noah standing right outside the frame.
“Where’s my dad?” Mina’s face fell as she noticed their empty arms. “Where is he?” her fingers dug into her mother’s skin beside her.
“MJ” Noah breathed.
“We checked all the rooms.” Beau shook his head. “He’s not up here.”
“Well-well he-he has to be u-up here some-somewhere.” she stuttered out in disbelief. “I’ve already been to all the rooms downstairs so-so he has to be up here. He has to be up here. Are you sure you guys checked all the rooms? Maybe you missed one, maybe you overlooked an area. We can- we can look again and-” Mina rambled on, unable to contain the tears cascading down her cheeks now, and she cringed at the looks of pity that characterized both Beau’s and Noah’s faces and she desperately prayed for all of this to be a dream. Maybe she would wake up in a cold sweat, surrounded only by the warmth of her comforter around her.
“MJ” Noah reached out to touch her arm, but Mina quickly yanked herself away. “MJ we don’t have time to look anymore. We have to go.” A soft “No” escaped Mina’s lips as she shook her head, her grip on her mother waning as her head began to spin and she rocked back and forth on the balls of her toes. “No” she whispered out again.
“MJ, we don’t have time for this. We need to get out of here!” Beau’s words were harsh and gripped in fear and anxiousness, but no matter how hard she tried, Mina couldn’t bring herself to move in the slightest. “MJ!”
Mina couldn’t distinguish the bodies hastily moving about her anymore, Beau and Noah’s voices, though right in front of her, sounded miles and miles away and she felt weightless once more. A tug on her arm was the only indication that she was still alive, her heart physically stopping in her chest as she heaved for air that was clouded by gigantic grey clouds of smoke, and she watched her burning house whiz by her in her peripheral: the second floor hallway, the broken stairs, the shattered chandelier in the entryway, everything was gone, including her capacity to feel any kind of emotion.
Outside, a hoard of nosy neighbors had gathered on the concrete street among crowds of police cruisers and ambulances to gaze upon the burning mass that was turning into the remains of her childhood home and Mina found herself crumpling to a heap in the ground as she felt the ground rumble underneath her, a dozen yells and screams reverberating into the cool night air.