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Fire Diaries - Part 6

Rachel Saylor

This Town Doesn’t Feel Like Home Anymore

Five weeks go by too fast. As we drive back up the mountain, I do not feel as if I am going “home.” What home do I have? My sister and brother-in-law’s place in London feels more like my home at this point. London is where I went confused and aching with pain from the fresh heartache of the fire. This is where I learned to breath again, to live again, and leaving London feels like I am leaving home. My heart begins to speed up as we come into town. My vision feels blurry and it seems as if I am in a dream. Boone feels like an estranged hole that is under a thick cloud of fog. It feels as if the town will swallow me whole and pull me deep down into an unknown abyss. I am grasping at the air around me to find something to pull me out. All the while it snatches me from around my stomach; plummeting my fall faster. The breath is being sucked out of me and I am drowning in the abysmal hell of a town I was supposed to call home. Hot streams flow down my cheeks as I silently take in the landscape during our drive through our small mountain town nightmare. How will I make it here ever again? One day at a time. I have to keep telling myself this each day for the first weeks to come after returning to Boone.

One day at a time.

The fire was caused by one of the two boys that lived in the studio apartment together. One of them threw their burning cigarette (or joint) into the trashcan in the apartment. Both boys were drunkenly passed out as the flames crawled up their walls. Their dog, Scout, is the only reason any of us are still alive. He woke them up out of their drunken stupor.

John has voiced to other neighbors that it was his roommate that started the fire, but I think there is no way to determine who actually threw the cigarette in the trashcan. To me, they are both at fault. However, I hold John as the more responsible perpetrator. This in part is due to my lack of respect for him, but I especially despised the way he spoke of the incident to others afterwards. John spread the tale around town that he ran into one of the apartments and saved children; claiming to be the hero of this story. The memory of intoxicated John stumbling in the parking lot, slurring nonsense, watching the complex burn down, and not even coming up to knock on our door to make sure we got out is brought to the forefront of my mind and I cannot accept that he is a good guy. An anonymous source gave me information that one of the first things he made sure to do, post fire, was refill his fifty plus pill prescriptions he had lost. John was always high, and witnessing the friends that came in and out of his apartment, I couldn’t help but speculate that he sold drugs. I had the impression John’s roommate, Graham, who started living with him several months before the fire, was not even supposed to be living there. Graham did not give off the same negative vibes as John. In fact, Graham had at times been very kind and was able to hold genuine conversations.

I have no idea how either of them can live with themselves, knowing they destroyed twelve other people’s lives and homes, and killed a number of animals. They were in no way held responsible by the law for the incident.

We are settling into our new home rather well and it takes me by surprise. Of course I cried a lot when we first moved in here and everything was emotional to me since my daily routine no longer looked the same or held many of the normal items etc. that it did in the past. The freshness of our trauma more openly affected me in the first weeks and even first couple of months to follow the incident. The affects began to set in deep, not just touching the surface of my skin all over, but piercing through the outer layer and sinking into my flesh and bones. I feel more than ever now how much this event has become a part of who I am, down to my core. I can control myself better now when things come up to remind me of this part of me. I like feeling more in control of this; it gives me a sense of stability.

A number of weeks after living in our new apartment below a lovely family, they invite us to join their bonfire one evening. I feel just a tinge of anxiety thinking of being around a fire.

"It can't be that bad and I'd rather get my first encounter with fire, after the incident, done and over with," I think.

We get home late this evening because we went on a date to the movies and part of me is hoping the fire would long be put out so we won’t have to be by the fire tonight. As we round the bend on our street, the little fire comes into sight.

"Oh well," I think, "Best to get it over with."

Thankfully, there are a lot of new people to meet and faces to try and get acquainted with around the fire, which distracts me for a while from the actual element in front of my eyes that I was so anxious about being near it. Eventually though, the crowd begins to thin and conversation dies down. It was then that I just stare straight into the fire for a long time, feeling the welcomed warmth it drapes over my chill body. I feel strange to be happy about the warmth it brought me, since it caused so much destruction only a couple of months prior. I remind myself that this particular fire was not to be held responsible for that. Rather, this fire was created by this welcoming group of people, on this beautiful mountain evening, with care and purpose; nothing like the way the other fire was produced by accidental carelessness.

At one point, I feel my emotions bubbling up to my throat and my eyes start to water, but someone's joke brings me back to the group I am surrounded by and I am able to swallow that feeling back down to my stomach and it dissipates. Instead, I am able to laugh and relax even in the midst of a blazing fire. Austin of course goes out there after everyone went up to bed and dumps enough water on the coals in order to ensure that no fire would reappear from the ashes.

Now that the first encounter has taken place, being around fire has become a bit easier. It is still emotional at moments, but I feel more comfortable and confident being around and even creating and nurturing a fire, crazy enough. This element that I have viewed as destruction and my enemy, has become something I have a deeper relationship with than I could have imagined to be possible. The connection I feel with it runs deep. I have been changed by it, and it somehow understands who I am. The power it has to give and take from life is baffling. My respect for fire’s strength and abilities is beyond measure, and I yearn to better understand it.

After the initial shock, devastating pain and realization that we lost everything and almost lost our own lives, I started to panic about the things that other people had in our apartment or things that I had borrowed, but not yet given back. I didn't want to have to deal with that guilt and pain that others would feel. My sister, Abbi, who had been living with us for over a month had moved out just a month prior to the fire. At first, we anticipated her leaving all of her stuff in our apartment while she went on her backpacking journey in England. All of a sudden, before Abbi left for her adventure, she decided to take absolutely everything out of our apartment. Including her hard drives (which we encouraged her to leave with us, since my parent’s home is like a black hole; leave your things there at your own risk), her banjo, all of her clothes, pictures etc. I couldn't believe she trusted my parent’s black hole home, but it was what she wanted, so I figured, why not? Well, after the fire, I was so damn happy she did that. I couldn't have lived with her having lost everything in our home that was supposed to be a protective place for her things.

At first, I thought she hadn't gotten her hard drives out of our place and I was dreading delivering that news to her. Especially since her livelihood is photography, and all of her photos were on those hard drives. I was so relieved when I heard that that was not, in fact, the case, and that everything she had was taken out. Whew. Well, besides a tea kettle, coffee and frother machine, and toaster oven. All things that I have put in a little list of things we owe them. I had to add another item today to their list. Abbi, Eddie and I went on a run together and Abbi mentioned her running water bottle holder and then I realized that that was in our apartment. My thought? Dammit. I'll add it to the list.

Eddie, Abbi's husband, had just visited and stayed with us the night before the fire. He left his laptop at the door of our apartment, which we promised to take over to my brother, Stephen, and his wife Greta's place so he could pick it up after a camping trip he was taking on the Appalachian Trail. Thankfully, since the laptop was in its case right beside the door we were able to grab that and run; one less, rather large item I didn't have to add to the list.

I was so worried about other people’s few items left behind in our apartment even when all of our things were burned to a crisp right along with those few things. Not just a couple, but almost every single thing we owned. Nothing left recognizable. I guess I just didn't want to have that on my hands, so to speak, but it is what it is and I have to let it go.

The memories are not as frequently replayed in my mind so I'm spending less time reliving the worst day of my life. Lately though, I've been feeling really anxious.