The night air was that awkward spot between warm and cool, still ridding itself of the heat from the day. Crickets chirped rhythmically as the breeze gently rustled the leaves of the towering oak tree of the side yard. Inside the bedroom, Charles was fast asleep. The light blanket provided just enough comfort and warmth to keep him resting peacefully.
Three hours earlier, Charles had been finishing laundry from the week. A large series of loads that had gotten away from him, piling up for the past week, and hanging on the back of his mind while he busily worked and concentrated on other things. Whether it was work, which had increasingly become more frustrating, or playing with his young children after school, he was busy.
Being an only parent was it’s own challenge, but balancing work and homelife was something that he’d become good at balancing in the past year since his wife had gone missing. Laundry and dishes ran overnight. Food got prepped for the following day after the kids went to sleep. If he was efficient, he may even have enough time to open a beer and watch a movie for a bit before falling asleep with the family dog, Tucker, curled in a ball at the foot of the bed.
Tonight was like each of those previous days and weeks. He had thrown the last load into the dryer before going to bed and started the dishwasher on the way through the kitchen while going back to his room. So, it would come as a big surprise when smoke slowly began to fill the hallway ceiling a few short hours later.
The smoke alarm, a recently upgraded one, blared loudly upon smoke reaching the sensors. “FIRE. FIRE. SMOKE HAS BEEN DETECTED.” BEEP. BEEP.
Tucker was the first to wake up, yelping at the loud alarm piercing the night air. Charles ripped out of bed, startled and jolted awake from a deep sleep. He grabbed his shorts and the nearest shirt he could find and stumbled to the bedroom door. Touching it, he felt no heat and opened the door to a hallway filling quickly with smoke. Panic set it.
“Tucker! Outside!” he shouted, keeping low and peering to the backdoor, cleared from flames, but filled with smoke. Charles ran to the door, unlocking it quickly and left it opened. Smoke followed the new pathway and escaped where it could.
Ducking back inside, Charles ducked down, running fast to his children’s bedroom. It was already open. Clay was holding his sister, Stacy, both of them crying and screaming for their dad.
“Clay, hold your sister’s hand – don’t let go and follow me!” Charles said, grabbing Clay’s hand and pulling them in tow.
They ran to the backdoor, Tucker was outside barking at the house. Charles got his children to safety and to the covered trellis and outdoor dining area.
“Are you both alright?” he asked with fear rattling his voice.
They were both crying, scared but alright.
Charles turned back to the house. The roof over the kitchen was smoking intensely. He could see flames lapping the walls through the kitchen window.
He looked at his children, then around the yard listening carefully. No sound of sirens.
“Clay, don’t you move a muscle. Hold onto your sister, I’ll be right.”
Charles hugged them both, told Tucker to stay and ran back inside. The smoke was spilling out the backdoor now, allowing the room to not gain any additional smoke. Charles ducked low and ran back to the bedroom, ripping his cell phone from the charger and dialing 9-1-1.
As he spoke to the dispatcher, he ran back outside to his crying, scared children, hugging Tucker and shaking with fear.
“It’s ok, Daddy’s back,” he said reassuringly.
Stacy was screaming for her monkey and Clay was crying for his bear. That was when Charles dropped the phone in realization.
“I’ll go get them. Don’t move! Stay together and hold onto Tucker!”
Charles turned and sprinted back to the house, faster than he’d ever run before. The smoke was getting worse. He had to hunch down awkwardly, coughing slightly as he retrieved monkey and bear for his children. He then ran to the living room, opening the media cabinet and pulling out a shoebox.
He shuffled, hands full, back to the door. He heard sirens in the distance. Handing bear and monkey to his kids, he set the box on the table, opening it. The photos were fine. Tears welled up as he quickly thumbed through them, ensuring they were all there.
“Daddy, what is that?” Clay asked.
Through tears and a caught throat, Charles answered. “Mommy’s pictures.”
Image credit: https://goo.gl/MJNIfM