March 2023 short story of the month (super late)
It had been more than two weeks since the fire, but the stink of it was still in her hair, on her skin. She took long showers twice a day, but the smell lingered. When she closed her eyes at night, the images came back to her, images of people screaming as their flesh melted and their body quickly went from solid to liquid to ash.
She didn’t tell anyone she’d been there when it happened. No one knew her part in the disaster, and she absolutely couldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe her anyway.
She was sure her mother would lean in to give her a hug one of these days and smell the fire on her. She explained the extra showers by telling her mother that the warm water was comforting to her.
Her mother didn’t question this because her daughter lost her lifelong friend in the fire. It was perfectly understandable that she would be grieving. And grief is different for everyone. A few extra showers weren’t the worst way to handle it.
Going back to work was out of the question. Luckily her boss, unlike most, told her to take all the time she needed.
At first, she was too afraid to do much more than sit in her room, but she would fall asleep in the middle of the day, and this caused two problems. One, she wasn’t tired at night when she should be sleeping, and two, she would dream about that night over and over again.
After the second time she had the dream, she decided to keep herself awake and tire herself out in the hopes that at night she could sleep peacefully.
She left the house without saying anything to her mom. She was less than ten feet outside the door when her mom texted.
“Do you want me to drop you somewhere?”
“No,” she replied. “Just going for a walk.”
She let the sound of her feet stepping on the pavement lull her into a trance. She kept walking, giving no thought to where her feet were taking her.
After nearly forty-five minutes, she stopped. She let out a deep sigh and looked up. Without meaning to, her feet had taken her back to the scene of the fire.
She looked around at the nothing where a house should have been. The air felt strange to her. The longer she stood there, the more she felt like she wanted to step onto the property and wade through the ashes. There was yellow crime tape flapping in the breeze.
She didn’t let her feet decide this time. She stepped back and then took another step away. As she took her third step away from the yard that used to belong to her friend, a gruff voice asked her, “Do you see anything interesting?”
Interesting? Who would ask that about a home destroyed, burnt down to little more than dust? She couldn’t believe someone would phrase it that way.
“I think the word you’re looking for is horrible,” she said turning around to face whoever had spoken to her.
She looked up at a man wearing the most stereotypical government goon get up she’d ever seen. He was wearing a black suit with a crisp white button shirt, a cheap looking black tie, and ever so slightly too shiny black dress shoes. He had dark aviator sunglasses, and there was a noticeable bump in his jacket where his gun was clearly tucked away.
As she faced him, he pulled a black wallet out of his pocket. He flipped it open revealing his FBI credentials.
Surprise. Surprise, she thought rolling her eyes.
“FBI, ma’am. What’s your interest in this place?” He nodded towards the lot where her friend’s house used to be.
She shook her head. “No interest. My friend used to live here.” She fought off tears. She wasn’t faking being upset, but she wasn’t sure if she was crying for the loss of her friend or if she was afraid.
“And your name is?” asked the agent.
“No one.” She tried to step around him and head home, but he blocked her path.
“That’s not really an answer. And I’m a federal agent. Just answer my question.”
At that moment, she heard the squeal of brakes and then the sound of footsteps quickly closing the distance from a car to her.
“There you are!” her mother shouted. Her mother took one look at the situation and wrapped her arms around her daughter. “We’re going home.” She gave the agent a look that would kill and hauled her daughter into the car.
The agent didn’t object. He didn’t need to. He would find out who the girl was.
As her mother drove away, the agent snapped a quick picture of the license plate and from his phone searched for the information. In less than two minutes, he knew where to find her.
When she got home, she jumped out of the car and ran inside before her mother could say or ask anything. She didn’t know what to say.
Why had she gone there? That was the last place she should have been.
She slammed the door to her room and threw herself across her bed.
She felt like she was losing her mind. As she lay there, images from that night kept flashing through her mind. She saw the flames and could smell the whole house burning around her. She wanted to cover her ears and block out the short-lived screams of her friend’s family. Instead, she sobbed and cried until there was a puddle of snot, spit, and tears on her comforter.
Even then, she didn’t lift her head. She didn’t dare move. She felt her whole body screaming with energy.
She didn’t feel cold. She felt like she was on fire.
She jumped off her bed and looked around frantically. She wasn’t on fire. Her room was the same as it always was. She patted her arms and legs, and then because she didn’t really believe it, she did it again.
She was fine. Nothing was on fire. She scanned around again. The room was fine. She saw the gross wet spot on her bed and let out a sigh. Her mind was playing tricks on her.
That had to be it. She’d snapped. The death of a best friend could so that to someone. That made the most sense.
She slumped against the nearest wall until she was on the floor. She pulled her knees up to her chest.
She couldn’t tell anyone what she thought had happened. But if she didn’t tell someone, she was going to continue like she was now, and she could barely function.
They were sitting in her friend’s room, watching Youtube videos without the sound on. She wasn’t supposed to be staying over, but she hated being home alone. Her mother wouldn’t be home until tomorrow.
Her friend had told her to sleep over anyway; they just wouldn’t tell anyone.
As the video ended, her friend selected another one. It was some crap about unlocking your hidden potential. The guy in the video was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed yammering about mediation and looking within.
Blah, blah, blah. She rolled her eyes.
“You don’t believe this crap, do you?” she asked.
Her friend shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s give it a try. He even gives you a link for mediation music.” Her friend clicked on the link and subtle ocean sounds spilled from her phone coupled with someone plucking a harp.
“Whatever,” she said. She thought it was ridiculous, but she crossed her legs and drew in a deep breath.
“Right, just like that,” her friend said.
Then everything else faded away. She opened her eyes because she felt something tickle her cheek.
“Hey, stop that,” she said to her friend. As she looked around, she didn’t see her friend. Instead, she saw the room engulfed in flames. As she got to her feet, she turned to search for her friend. She didn’t see her anywhere.
She did see her friend’s family through the ashes and beams as the house turned into nothing. In less than a minute from the time she opened her eyes, they too were ash.
She looked at herself. Why wasn’t she burning too? What was happening? How could everything be destroyed but her? She didn’t understand, but she had to get away from this.
She ran home. As she moved through the neighborhoods towards her house, she heard sirens screaming in the night. She didn’t let it stop her.
She was in the shower before the first fire engine arrived at the scene. She stayed in there, running cold water trying to figure out if what she’d seen could be real. It couldn’t, could it? No one can be in a fire like that and come out unscathed?