I woke up to the sudden high-pitched screeching of the alarm, bouncing off the stone and plaster and echoing through the room. A few eerily still seconds passed, and the door to my bedroom swung open and hit the wall hard enough to leave a dent. In stepped my uncle, a deflated duffel bag thrown over one shoulder. My aunt peered around him, her bottom lip swollen and red between her teeth. “Hey, get up,” he whispered, one corner of his mouth turned up into a vaguely apologetic smile. “We gotta go. Now.” He disappeared back into the main body of the apartment.
I stumbled out of bed as quick as I could and kicked on the nearest pair of too-big flip flops, one tiny arm wrapped harshly around my teddy bear. With shaking hands, Aunt Amy pulled a fleece jacket as tight as she could around me and led me into the living room. My uncle was sprinting at this point, from one end of the room to the other, tossing everything of sentimental or monetary value into that duffel bag. Through the window I could see the outline of the city against a dark inky sky, the trees across the parking lot strangely illuminated by a faint orange glow. The flashing red lights and deafening sirens of fire trucks sped down the street.
Something thick was seeping into the air, clogging up my lungs and stinging my eyes. Outside, in the hallway, someone was shouting.
Uncle Ryan finally stopped himself on the dining room table, breathing heavily, a small pile of kitchen rags in his spare hand. He handed one to his crying wife and another to me. “Hold this in front of your face,” he instructed. I did as asked, though I didn’t quite understand that he meant only the bottom half until my aunt fixed it for me.
My aunt kept a white-knuckled hand on my left shoulder, and a death grip around my uncle’s wrist. It made the trek through the hallway and down the stairs more difficult than it should have been, but eventually we found the proper pace to get us to safety (step down, step down, pause for one heartbeat, repeat).
The main hallway was hectic. It seemed like pure adrenaline leaked into the air to remind us of our fight-or-flight responses. Parents lugged behind them massive wagons full of bags and boxes, much more than any human should have been able to carry. The younger children sobbed into their stuffed toys, but their older siblings swallowed their own fears to drag them to safety. There was one woman, old and hunched and frail, clutching nothing but a whining lapdog to her chest as she wobbled onwards at the speed of a snail who realized he missed an important appointment. One man leaned far out of his apartment, his fingers hooked on the wood of the doorframe, shouting an ominous warning to the rest of the building: “Fire! Fire! Everybody get out,” pausing only to allow for the periodic blare of the sirens to reaffirm his point. He was almost like a vocal lighthouse, warning those with a less advantageous viewpoint of the fast approaching danger.
The outside world was strangely calm compared to the sheer terror that swelled just through the glass door; there were no rushed goodbyes to old sentimental possessions, no wailing sobs on this side, just a grim determination to keep what had been saved as close as humanly possible. One firefighter, a young redheaded woman who looked like she had yet to grow into the suit she was wearing, ordered us to the line of massive red fortresses with wheels and hoses on the opposite side of the lot. We all obeyed without hesitation.
My aunt collapsed against the side of one of the trucks, her shoulders heaving with every labored breath. I turned and for the first time saw the wall of unrestrained fire and fury that had burned a path of ruin from the far end of the building to where I had been sleeping not ten minutes earlier. It gave under the force of the hoses that assaulted it, but roared to life again once they moved to fight another flame. It was a long battle, and the enemies kept reviving themselves, though weaker and weaker each time. By the time the fiery beast had finally been vanquished, the sun had risen over the city and I had formed myself into a blanket cocoon in the driver’s seat of one of the fire trucks. The original driver snored away in the passenger seat, his helmet resting just so that it covered his eyes. My aunt and uncle dozed off in the back. It didn’t take me long to find my own sleep, either, one tiny arm wrapped harshly around my teddy bear.