Last month, I hosted my first-ever Meaningful Moments Writing Contest (the winners will be featured on the blog over the next two weeks). Inspired by those who contributed to the contest, I wrote about one of my own meaningful moments, “Flames in the Night.”
Remember, I’m a writer just like you, striving to improve my craft. Part of the writing process involves putting my work out there to the public – something that isn’t always easy for me to do. Nevertheless, I value constructive criticism (feel free to post a comment below!) and I hope that this short story will help raise awareness about an often-overlooked hazard.
Flames in the Night
Even with my eyes closed, I recognized where we were as the station wagon’s tires rumbled over the aged metal grating of the one-lane, double-decker bridge. Tired from an evening shopping trip, I used my hood as a make-shift pillow against the hard, cold window and attempted to doze in the backseat. My body gently swayed side to side as dad maneuvered around the sharp S-curve that led up the steep hill to our small town.
“Why is the sky that color?” mom asked.
My interest piqued, I forced my eyes open and saw an orange-yellow glow above the tree tops on the opposite hill.
“It’s a fire,” dad stated definitively, leaning over the steering wheel to get a better look. “It’s a big one if we can see it from here.”
He reached down to turn on the scanner he had installed below the radio. As a volunteer fireman, he relied on it – as well as the tabletop scanner that sat in our living room – to notify him of accidents and fires, often minutes before the town’s fire siren sounded.
“It looks like it’s near our house,” mom said, a note of fear in her voice.
I slid forward to the edge of my seat, gripping the headrest in front of me, peering intently at the glowing horizon. My stomach clenched involuntarily as fear settled deep into my being.
Please, God, don’t let it be our house, I prayed.
Dad went as fast as he dared around the remaining twists and turns and then sped down Main Street toward home.
“It’s not our house,” dad declared. “It’s still too far away.”
Relief washed over me and my stomach relaxed. But then, suddenly, I realized that although it wasn’t our house, someone else’s property most definitely was being ravaged by flames. Worry once again washed over me as I listened to the voice on the scanner dispatching every available fire truck to the scene.
Dad parked in our driveway and quickly helped us carry our shopping bags into the house.
“Are you going?” mom asked.
“Of course!” dad exclaimed. “If they need every truck, they need every fireman, too.”
“Daddy?” I asked tremulously, unable to give voice to my fears.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” dad said, stopping to scoop me up into a big bear hug and wipe away the tears that were cascading down my cheeks. “Go to bed – you have school in the morning. I’ll be back. Everything will be okay.”
After putting me down, dad sprinted up the street to the volunteer fire department where I knew he would suit up and roll out on the ladder truck. Standing on our front porch, I watched as the men arrived and scrambled to gather their gear. Within moments, I saw the engine roll out onto Main Street, its lights flashing and siren blaring.
I didn’t want to go to bed, but mom insisted that I brush my teeth and crawl under the covers. I stayed awake as long as I could, straining to listen to the scanner downstairs. Despite my best efforts, I drifted off to sleep before my dad returned.
Sunlight filtered through the curtains, but I couldn’t shake the unease from my memory. Padding to my parents’ bedroom, I gently knocked on their door.
“Is Daddy back?” I asked, peeking around the corner.
“He came back in the middle of the night and already left for work,” mom replied drowsily. “Go get ready for school.”
Satisfied that my father was okay, I proceeded to get dressed. When it was time to leave, I attempted to ask mom about what had happened, but she hurried me out the door.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I knew something was wrong.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dinart, had red, swollen eyes and a big box of tissues on her desk. Several of my classmates were sniffling and huddled together, whispering. The boisterous revelry customary at the beginning of each school day was replaced with subdued children almost afraid to speak.
Before I could ask anyone what had happened, Mrs. Dinart instructed us to take our seats and pay attention. Squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath, she began speaking.
“Class, something terrible happened last night.” She stopped to blow her nose and her tears started anew. “There has been a house fire.”
A sense of dread overcame me. I looked around the room and noticed the empty desk. Realization began to sink in. No, it can’t be. Not Charlie.
“Your classmate Charlie and five of his siblings…” Mrs. Dinart looked down at the floor a moment in silence and then looked back up at us with intense sorrow in her eyes. “They all died in that fire.”
There was a moment of absolute silence in the room before sobs arose from some of the students.
I don’t know about my classmates, but I suddenly felt intense guilt. Guilt that I had been relieved when I learned it hadn’t been our house on fire. Guilt that I had been able to go to sleep last night and wake up this morning. Guilt that I hadn’t taken the time to get to know Charlie better. Guilt that I hadn’t stood up for him more than I had.
Charlie was kind, with a warm smile and a shy personality. We got along, but I knew how he had been picked on by others because his family was poor. His clothes were always baggy and his pants an inch too short. His shoes were dirty and his hair was always askew. But he didn’t smell, and he was smart. Nevertheless, he was frequently on the receiving end of jokes and pranks.
We didn’t do any schoolwork that day. Instead, we were given opportunities to talk about Charlie and share what we remembered about him and his siblings. Mrs. Dinart also read passages of Scripture from her Bible throughout the day. Even though I didn’t go to church at that time or understand half of what she read, I found the words comforting.
That night, I learned the rest of the story. A babysitter had been doing laundry in the children’s singlewide trailer and had stepped outside for a short period. During that time, lint in the hose of the dryer overheated and caught fire, trapping Charlie and his siblings in their shared bedroom adjacent to the laundry room.
My dad continued to serve as a volunteer fireman for many more years, but he never spoke to me about that night. I can only imagine the horror, sadness and guilt that he and the other firemen endured when they realized they could do nothing to save those children.
This event has carried with me into adulthood. It was an accident, yet it could have been avoided simply by cleaning the lint filter regularly.
I encourage you to become aware of potential fire hazards in your home and apply fire prevention safety practices. Perhaps most importantly, establish and practice emergency escape plans with your children and grandchildren. It could save a life.
For more information, visit the National Fire Prevention Association’s website.