One Last Look Before We Leave
In only a matter of hours, I have decided that I am done with this town. I have been ready to leave since I arrived in it six years ago, but even that wish to be gone could not stand next to the desire and need to be rid of this town for good now. I feel as if Boone has personally robbed me of my most prized possessions. As if it were giving me a big, “Fuck you, Rachel. You rejected me and I don’t want you here either.”
The next few hours fly by in a blur. We make it to Austin's work and make our way into the building through the light, weeping rain that has begun to fall; matching the mood perfectly. We walk up the stairs to his loft office where I collapse on the ground. Austin grabs the trash can and begins throwing up whatever is left in his stomach. I scream out and slam my fist on the ground. We look at each other with heavy eyes and hearts.
Willoughby, meanwhile, can be heard running around the cubicles downstairs exploring each person's work space, completely oblivious of the fact that our home was just scorched to the ground and that we almost didn't make it out.
Austin's voice as he talks to his mom on the phone is soft and assuring; a stark difference from the conversation I had with my mom.
"We are fine, we are not hurt, but our home burned down," he tells her.
He puts his parents on speaker and when it is my turn to talk to them I just start to cry. There seems to be nothing else for me to do.
My two older sisters call from England next, after receiving a weird text from my dad that had them concerned. They are already up for the day, preparing for their Saturday adventures hiking on the Southwest Coastal path. Just hearing their voices and feeling comfort from their words is incredible. My heart aches to see them and wrap my arms around their necks, which is supposed to take place just later that evening, but now I am not so sure what we should do.
Should we still hop on the plane and escape to London? Everyone encourages us to do so right from the first conversations after the fire.
On my drive to Austin's work, my mom said, "You guys still need to go to London. You need to leave for a while."
I had my doubts in those first moments after the fire, but as I began to think more about it, I make the decision that it might be just the thing we need. Almost perfect timing in the most unfortunate way.
We need family around us like we need the air that we breathe in these first few moments and days post fire. It is essential to recovering. So we get back in our cars and drive over to my brother, Stephen, and his wife, Greta's apartment. Although Austin is now phoneless, my phone is in my purse, so we try to call Stephen and Greta. They don't have their phones on so we cannot forewarn them of our early arrival to their home.
We knock a few times, but no one comes to the door so I go to their bedroom window and begin calling out, "Stephen! Stephen!"
He swings the curtain open and is freaked out to see me standing in his window.
"Hey, it's me, Rachel," I say.
"Hey, I'll go to the door."
The door opens. Willoughby lets himself in first. My brother stands there, shirtless, with scruffy hair and a bewildered face.
"Well, our home burned down," I begin.
"What?" He asks taking a step back.
Greta comes rushing into the room. She is wrapping a sweater around her body; comfort.
"What?" She echoes.
"Yeah, our home burned down." I repeat as we make our way into their home.
"Oh my god. Seriously?" Stephen asks.
My brother hugs me and I feel my burning hot face rest against his shoulder. I let myself cry as I hug him and then Greta. They are crying too. Their stunned faces do not shock me further than I already am, instead, it mirrors my own heart.
"I'm so sorry Rachel and Austin," they both say many times to us. I can feel how much they mean it.
"Can I have a glass of water?" I ask. "I'm just so thirsty."
"I think we inhaled quite a bit of smoke, Rachel," Austin says with such logic and level headed thinking.
"Oh, I guess you're right. I just didn't even realize it."
I try to drink as much water as possible, but the adrenaline rush that keeps coming in waves, even though I am away from danger, makes me feel nauseous and I can barely stomach much. My body continues to go into shock and I shake all over uncontrollably in spurts. My parents call to let us know they are making their way up the mountain.
“Could two hours really have passed already?” I wonder.
"Oh, my baby," my mom says as she pulls me into her arms.
She kisses my head and holds me there for a long while, letting me soak her shirt with my tears.
Austin's parents arrive a couple of hours later and the decision is made to drive to Charlotte. Our family urges us to still make the trip and get away from our town that held such devastation and leave it behind for a while. So, that’s exactly what we do.
Austin is using my phone to text some of our friends and family. The phone rings and his own face pops up. How is this possible?
Our neighbor who was roping us into hugs was on the other line and explains to Austin he has no idea how, but he has Austin’s phone. They agree to meet at Walmart to return the phone. Austin mentioned later how bizarre it felt to see his own name and face show up as the incoming call.
Austin and I immediately have hopeful thoughts stream through our exhausted and confused minds. What if the phone survived the fire and firefighters hose? Is it possible? Maybe we will be able to save some things in our apartment if the phone, which Austin swears he threw on our bed before exiting, survived. We don’t know how it all ended since we left before the fire was put out. Neither of us voice these hopeful thoughts in fear of being wrong or just feeling stupid, but we both anticipate going back to discover if we might be right. Maybe we can salvage some things and not have to completely start over.
Just before we escape this dreadful town, we go back to take in the destruction. As we drive up, I clench my hand around my neck in an effort to keep myself from losing it. I step out of the car into the rain and gaze up at the frame that remained of our home. Everything has turned to ash. We climb the hill to the side of the crumbled mess and look down into the framed rooms we called home just a few hours earlier. One of the strangest feelings comes when I look into where the bedroom was and see not one thing remaining. Where the fuck was the bed I was sleeping so soundly in five hours ago? There was nothing left for us here, and I wanted to run away as far as I could. The hopeful thoughts of repairing some of our life we built together in that home were shattered.
15 hours have passed since we first woke up to find our home on fire. Austin has been cool, calm and collected not only as we maneuvered out of our burning apartment, but as we recounted the event to others many times that day, and with making the decision in regards to our next move. His military style reaction didn’t slow down, that is until that evening as we prepared to go to sleep for the first time post fire.
That night in my parent’s guest bed, Austin and I go back and forth telling the story of the fire like it was the first time we were telling someone else what happened. As we go through the events and each tiny detail, both of us feel the adrenaline rush sweep over our bodies and send us into shaking fits. We hold each other as we sob, not the beautiful tears streaming down your faces kind of cry, but the full out wailing sobs, until we pass out.
The next day, my parents drop us off at the airport with the entirety of our belongings in hand.
As the plane rumbles and we prepare for take off, I look over at Austin and squeeze his hand. We smile at each other with sad eyes. I lay down across the seats and think to myself, “We are still here, alive, and getting the chance to experience life.” I feel the pressure of Austin’s hand resting on top of my head and his touch makes me feel grounded and safe. I drift into a deep unsettling sleep with my hands balled up together, pressed against my ribs in attempt to hold my heart in my chest. I’m scared it will explode out of my body otherwise.
While I was still in the UK, and Austin had returned to the US, Austin came back to our old home and stood on one of the melted, abandoned cars in front of the complex to get a better view into what was left of our home. At first, he thought he saw one of his leather cutting boards, but then he realized it was one of my kid photo albums. He knew he had to try and get it for me, so he borrowed a ladder from a co-worker and came back for the album.
This task was pretty sketchy since the whole place was barely holding on, but since the walkway outside was entirely burned away, he was able to stay on the edge of the second bedroom and reach in to grab the treasure. Not only was there the one album he first saw, but there were all four of my photo albums piled together there. Sure, they were melted shut, but they were still remaining. Austin recounts that the only things he could see when looking into our home was a square, about 1 foot in diameter, left of a pair of jeans and most of his circular saw near the photo albums. This is a strange phenomenon in itself, but that was literally all that remained.
The idea that I still wanted to return and scavenge through our burned home, even though Austin claims to have seen nothing else remaining may seem quizzical. However, I tend to be the type of person who needs to see it to believe it. Even though Austin tells me he didn’t see anything else up there, I still have to wonder if there could be other things left untouched by the fire that he just didn’t see. Plus, since he didn’t get all the way up in the apartment, I think there could have been things missed in the bedroom or kitchen, which is why I have the deep urge to later return to climb up into the apartment and put the questioning to rest.
I received texts from Austin holding up some of my baby and childhood pictures. One in particular stuck out to me. I was standing in front of a waterfall in 7th grade in Peru with the happiest smile spread over my face. In the picture Austin sent me, he was holding this scratched, yet saved picture of me up proudly beside his own beaming, smiling face in front of our burned down home. His sweet pride in recovering this gem for me, even in the midst of the ugly aftermath made me so happy to call him mine.
As I sat in a rental car outside a cafe in a small town in Isle of Skye, Scotland looking at this photo, I began to silently weep. My tears flowed continuously down my face and I held that picture in front of my eyes for a long time; I was taking in my life at that moment. My gratitude for my most incredible husband took over my heart and I was overwhelmed with happiness that he chose me and I chose him to spend our lives together. My sister, Abbi was sitting in the car crying with me. I felt so lucky to be with my amazing sister in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, where we got to explore, learn from each other and build an even closer sisterbond. In this moment, I thought, “Life is wild and sometimes it shits on your head, but then there are these redeeming moments that make it all worthwhile and gives you something to live for and strive to become a better person.” In that moment, with my heart pounding in my chest, I chose to live like every day is my last and spend time loving others and exploring the world with those I hold so dear.
The next five weeks go by too fast.