The Morning Before the Incident
I wake up and do my usual routine. I snuggle with my little monster, Willoughby (french bulldog, monster for short), give him some kisses, slowly get out of bed and go to the bathroom to pee. This morning, however, I smell something burning. At first, I think Austin left something on the stove, but quickly after discovering everything is turned off in the kitchen, I find this to not be the case. Next, I search near the baseboard heating. As I’m searching, I realize there is no smoke in sight, so my anxiety drops just a hint. I discover a pillow has fallen off of the chair and is leaning against the baseboard heating on the ground.
“Oh my god,” I think. “That could have been bad.”
I look at the pillow and there is a light brown mark across the white front flower pattern where it was leaned up against the heater.
“That seriously could have caught on fire. I’m so glad I saw that before I left,” my stream of consciousness continues.
Whew. Close call.
After placing the pillow back on the couch, I turn the baseboard heating off and drop the thought of what could have happened. I continue about my routine; almost completely forgetting the incident of the pillow.
Before I leave for work, I take Willoughby out to do his business. I have to turn right out the door, walk across the balcony, down the stairs and zigzag back across the front of the apartments to get to the left side of the apartment building. Our last landlord wanted us to have our dog’s poop in the field so it could be more contained. However, since there were no stairs that went to the left side of the building, the act of taking Willoughby out has become a longer, more difficult process.
As I let Willoughby sniff out the perfect place to lay down his goods, the too-high-to-get-my-act-together neighbor walks up through the field with tiki torches in hand. He’s got that goofy smile on that he always has; evidence of waking up and lighting up first thing in the morning.
“Hey John.” I feel it’s my obligatory acknowledgement of his presence. Plus, I can’t really get out of noticing him; we are the only two people in a rather large open field.
“Hey! Me and my friends are having a party tonight for my birthday. I brought these tiki torches out to mark a path for people so they don’t walk in the wet, swampy area.” He gestures to the muddy area where the water from the hill dumps down into the field.
“Happy Birthday John! Hope you guys have a fun time.” I genuinely say this last part and feel a bit guilty about how badly I think of him. I smile to make up for some of the negative undertone boxes I’ve categorized and placed him in. Who knows what kind of life he has had to go through. I still can’t believe he lives in a tiny studio apartment with another guy, but hey, if it works for them, then cool.
My day is as normal as can be at my part time after school job at a nonprofit in town. I spend some time in the office, enjoy the last day in after school for a while since I’ll be heading out just the next day to London to see my sister and her husband! Hooray! I’m leaving this town behind for a lengthy vacation; 5 weeks to be exact. I am so incredibly excited! I am so glad Austin’s uncle called us yesterday night to tell us it would work out better for us to fly standby on Saturday instead of Tuesday. I’ve already got most everything packed and I am planning on just finishing it up tonight so that we can leave early in the morning for Charlotte.
We have our last Jane Austen book club this evening and I haven’t even finished all of Emma, the only book I haven’t completely read out of the six novels. I know, for shame. I came up with this book club, and I am not concluding very strong, but I am just so excited about flying out for the UK tomorrow! Stephen and Greta host the book club and Austin and I bring sweet potato and kale mac n cheese to the potluck style dinner. We have a great last meeting discussing the ever controlling and fascinating Emma. We laugh, talk and eat to our heart’s content, say our adieus and then depart for home to finish up the packing before we get in bed for the night.
We hurry around the apartment, tidying up so that our place is a fresh and clean home to come back to from our travels. I double check that our passports are in my purse and then place it beside the bed and put the suitcases at our bedroom door so we can easily pack the car in the morning. I am the type of person who likes to be very prepared, especially when it comes to lengthy trips out of the country.
Austin takes Willoughby out to the side of the apartment while I finish up inside. When he comes back, he says that our neighbors are being idiots with the tiki torches and that they showed him how one tiki torch burned through itself and fell on the ground, still burning. Austin said that he told them they need to be really careful and watch out for the tiki torches and make sure they put them out really well. They ensured him they were going to keep a close eye on it.
I find myself frustrated yet again with these boys and retort, “They’re going to burn this place down!” The apologetic smile from the afternoon is instantly forgotten.
Austin is out cold as soon as his head sinks into his pillow, and Willoughby is snuggled up against his side. Their heavy breathing creates a comforting rhythmic pattern background while I get ready to go to sleep. My heart is beating a little harder with excitement and a touch of anxiety for the next day when we fly out of Charlotte. I wriggle in bed beside them and try to finish reading Emma. I can’t keep my eyes open, so I turn my bedside light out and check my phone for the time. Yikes, after midnight! Better get some sleep; we have an early morning. I drift into a deep sleep in an instant.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“HEYY!! GET OUT!!”
My eyes pop open. What did I just hear? Another loud yell and some bangs occur once again and remind my brain of why I am awake. I shoot upright in bed.
“Do you hear that?” I ask Austin.
“Yeah," he says.
The yelling I at first thought was a drunken party noise, begins to grow more desperate.
“GET OUT!!” I hear.
I jump out of bed and run to the front of the apartment. A large cloud of smoke is quickly passing by our front windows. OH MY GOD.
My step quickens as I walk across the balcony, shortening the distance between me and the entrance to my safe haven. I kick my boots against the outside wall so I don’t track in snow; I would hate to dirty my beautiful home’s floors. As my hand wraps around the door handle, twists and opens it, I am overwhelmed with the sweet aroma of home escaping out the door and draping over my body. The warmth I feel when I step in is like a blanket wrapping around my chill body. Pushing the door closed behind me with my foot, I survey my kingdom and say, “Hi home! It’s so nice to be back. I missed you.” The door closes on the rest of the world, and I am transplanted to my protective nest. The weighted burden of today’s events or what tomorrow may hold is lightened as soon as my nest welcomes me home.
I deeply inhale the scent that Austin and I have created in this small paradise. My little monster, Willoughby greets me with snorts. His whole body jitters with excitement of my arrival.
“Hi, my baby! Want to take a nap with Momma?” I ask him.
After I strip off my cold outer layer of clothing, I scoop Willoughby up and carry him to the bedroom. We crawl under my favorite quilt from my mom and snuggle; his warmth against my chest makes me relax, and I am filled with happiness. My home has a way of wrapping me up in its arms, and I in turn do the same to my puppy. I wake up as Austin crawls into bed behind me and holds me holding Willoughby; I feel complete in my heart.
“Austin! There’s a fire! What do we do?! Should you call 911?” I yell to Austin as I run back to the bedroom.
He is already half dressed and asks me, “What’s most important?”
“We have the suitcases packed,” I quickly reply.
It was the most practical thing I could think of.
He runs to the front of the house to grab our hard drive and laptop while I throw on my oldest, dumpiest pair of shoes: my 7th grade pink pumas. There is no time to think. There is only time to act on instinct. At first, I put the left shoe on my right foot and have to switch it.
30 seconds have now gone by since we first awoke.
I grab my Anthropologie jacket, put it on, grab my purse and the little and big suitcases and run them to the front of the house. I drop the suitcases off at the front of the door and run back for the backpack. Austin is running to the front door ahead of me and opens it.
He walks out onto the balcony with the stuff he’s gathered and yells at me, “Rachel! We are leaving NOW!!”
The tone of Austin’s voice tips me off that we are in real, immediate danger. Fear is now flowing through my veins.
I’m running back to the front of the apartment with the backpack when I hear this. All the while, Willoughby has been cautiously following me, and as I lunge down to put his collar on, he slinks away because he does not understand our unusual frantic behavior. Now I have to chase him in order to grab him, clasp his collar on and hook his leash onto the collar. I don’t want him getting away from me. I don’t want to lose him.
As I’m securing Willoughby, Austin is getting more desperate to save anything. He throws a pair of boots, a hoodie and any other items that were in arms reach of the front door over the balcony, into the parking lot. This act is done in vain, as all of these items will later be ruined by smoke and water from the fire hose.
At the last second, I spot my favorite sweater. I know in an instance, that if I don’t grab it now, I’ll never see it again. I reach out and grab the sweater off of the couch as I am running toward the door. The first thing that happens when I step onto the balcony is I inhale a large amount of smoke and start coughing. I look to the left and see the biggest flames I’ve ever seen wrapping around the balcony. OH MY GOD.
In a strange act of habit, Austin closes the door behind me. I have the backpack on, Willoughby in one hand and the little suitcase in the other hand, as well as a big sweater and purse somewhere in it all. I feel helpless for about 2 seconds as I watch Austin struggle to hold onto everything he has. He gets a grip on it all and grabs the big suitcase, and then we take off running down the balcony. As we begin our descent down the stairs, Willoughby, still clueless to the urgency of the situation, tries to stop for a pee break at his regular spot, but I pull him down the last flight of brick stairs. I realize I have just been dragging the suitcase instead of rolling it, but there was no time to do things the “right” way.
In a matter of 60 seconds, my protective nest that I put my heart and soul into is being scorched to death, leaving Austin and me vulnerable and weak like we had never felt before.