The first thing you realize when you’re about to die is that, presumably, the day started out like any other. For me, it began with the taste of honey and lavender.
“Good morning Bugsy,” I heard Henry’s cheerful baritone call out from across the bedroom.
Cracking one hesitant eyelid, I squinted as the thin rays of daylight seeped through the curtains. Stretching, I let out a small groan and quickly noticed the unmistakable scent of bacon and pancakes. Slowly pushing myself up into a half-seated position, I glanced at the clock on the nightstand before collapsing back into a stubborn ball. Shivering, I pulled the duvet up to my chin as I turned over on my side, sleep still clinging to the corners of my mind like tangled spiderwebs.
Although tempted out of bed by the scent of Henry’s breakfast tray, I was still exhausted from last night. We had been trying to conceive for nearly half a year. And according to my calendar, the past 24 hours had been our best shot this month to make it happen.
“Come on babe,” I heard Henry chuckle as I felt him climb back into bed with me. I couldn’t help but smile as he slid underneath the covers and wrapped his strong arms around my waist, his fingers tracing small circles around my bellybutton, “the Carsons are going to be waiting for us.”
Immediately a headache began to pull at the corners of my temples. The thought of having to negotiate prices of various floor varnishes immediately caused a surge of adrenaline to course through my veins. I let out a small, condescending laugh as I realized that even the mention of the Carsons had the ability to trigger my fight or flight response. Even now, a year after getting married and moving into the old manor, I was still fighting them for my flooring and cabinet handles.
Lured from my aggravated thoughts by Henry’s touch, he began planting light kisses on the back of my neck, his warm breath tickling the space behind my ears. Relaxing into his chest, Henry pulled me in tighter, letting out a low, sensual growl as he felt me shiver at his gentle touch. If I wasn’t careful, this morning would turn into a replay of last night.
“Henry, we both know we don’t have time for this right now.”
Ignoring me, Henry turned his lips from my neck to my ear, nibbling on my lower lobe in a way that he knew caused my breath to catch in my chest.
“For Heaven's sake, Henry,” I let the words slip out breathlessly. Inhaling deeply to steady myself, I once again could smell the bacon and pancakes on the tray across the room. Motivated by my own hunger, I turned in Henry’s arms, facing him with a stern look, but was taken aback by the mischievous expression in his baby blues.
“Yes?” he laughed.
Slightly annoyed by his roguish attitude, I was interrupted by my stomach growling before I could respond. Henry must have heard it too, because the moment I felt the rumble, he leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on my lips, ignoring my horrible morning breath, before slipping out of bed to fetch the breakfast tray from the vanity.
Sitting up against the headboard, I couldn’t help but admire my husband as he fiddled with the tray. For a moment, the flickering fireplace in the corner illuminated his frame with such a romantic affect that I found my heartbeat quicken. But the glow faded as he ambled back with the breakfast he had prepared.
“I made your favorite,” he said, setting the tray across my legs. Picking up a small pitcher of handmade syrup, he slowly poured it over the stack of pancakes on my plate. As I watched the golden liquid trickle slowly from the jar, I realized that I had taken it for granted for quite a long time.
“You’ve never told me how you make this stuff.”
Henry cocked his head as a smile tugged at the corner of his lips.
“How about instead of telling you,” he replied, “I take you with me to the hives next Fall and we make it together?”
I nodded in agreement as I eagerly took my first bite, savoring how the cake melted on my tongue, and how the sweet tartness of the syrup replaced any trace of morning breath.
We ate and showered quickly. I threw on a casual pair of jeans and a sweater before brushing my teeth and tying up my hair. Our dalliance in bed had caused Henry and I to run late for our meeting with the Carsons across town.
Running down the main staircase, I was careful to avoid the weak step in the middle. The old manor had been a beautiful find below market value, but it still had some dangerous character flaws that Henry had yet to fix. Grabbing tight to the handrail, I jumped over the step on the way down to the foyer and made my way to the sofa to give Sonya, who was still sleeping on the couch, a kiss on her furry head before calling out to Henry as I grabbed my purse.
“I’m going to wait in the car!”
Without waiting for his response, I stepped outside and shut the front door behind me. The late morning sky hung overcast, heavy with the scent of looming rain. The late autumn wind chilled the tip of my nose, and as I heard the dry leaves being pushed around on the ground by that same bully breeze, I noticed from inside the manor the sound of Henry thumping down the stairs before stepping out to join me on the front steps.
“What’s the rush Bug?”
I had always been outdoorsy. Henry said I was a nature bug, part of why he called me Bug or Bugsy. And this chilly autumn time had always been my favorite.
“No rush, I just wanted some fresh air.”
“Well in that case,” he said as he put his arms around me, hugging me from behind, “how about we head to the Reserve after our meeting with the Carsons?”
“Yeah. We can grab lunch from somewhere and take it with us. I’ve already got blankets and umbrellas in the trunk.”
“Can we come back and get Sonya first?”
“Sure. While we’re out, we should pick her up a new ball too.”
Excited by Henry’s picnic offer, I turned and kissed him, still tasting the faintest trace of honey and lavender syrup on the edges of his lips. Pulling back and grabbing his hand, I interlaced our fingers and pulled him towards the garage. The faster we met with the Carsons, the sooner we could get to the Reserve.
As Henry pulled out of the garage, I noticed a gnawing thought in the back of my mind; it caused the same uncomfortable sensation one gets when they leave a sweater behind at work. As Henry continued to navigate the busy streets heading towards the city center, I ruminated on what it was that I was forgetting until it dawned on me – I had forgotten the portfolio of varnishes. My stomach sank.
“Henry, turn around.”
“Turn around, we need to go back.”
“Bugsy, I know you hate dealing with the Carsons, but as soon as we get the floors and the cabinets taken care of we don’t have to work with them any –"
“No, babe, I forgot the samples and the files.”
“Won’t Olivia bring samples with her?”
“Yes, she probably will,” I felt myself growing frustrated, “but I need my files. All of my notes and pricing indexes are in there. I can’t have this conversation without them. Please, turn around.”
Henry was silent for a moment. I could feel him deciding whether or not he would be frustrated by my mistake. After a minute, I heard him flick the turn signal before pulling a U-turn at the stoplight. As Henry turned the car around, I pulled out my phone and sent a quick text to the Carsons letting them know we’d be an hour late.
I stayed quiet for the rest of the car ride home, angry at myself for being so eager to finish the meeting that I forgot my notes. But as we pulled into our neighborhood, I noticed a thick, hazy cloud of smoke in the distance.
“Henry, look,” I pointed in the direction of our street.
“What the…” he trailed off, accelerating as we drew nearer to the manor. As we approached our street, the smoke grew closer, darkening in color. Now only a few blocks away, my heart sank as I realized that the closer we got to our home, the closer we were getting to the smoke.
“Henry, is it – ”
“I don’t know.”
Finally, we turned onto the street that housed the entryway to our mile-long driveway. But I already knew that the source of smoke that we had seen from the road had to be the manor.
“Bug, call 911.”
Fumbling with my phone, my hands shook as I tried to press the numbers. Pulling up to the curved drive, Henry put the car in park and took the phone from my hand before getting out. Unfastening my own seatbelt, I stepped out and gazed up in confusion at the entire right tower of the manor that was engulfed in flames. It was the bedroom.
Frozen in horrified fascination, I struggled to understand how I could feel the heat from the fire on my face from so far away. In the distance I could hear Henry’s voice as he spoke quickly to the 911 operator. It took a moment for me to notice Henry’s hand on my shoulder pulling me backwards.
“Bug, get back. You’re too close.”
“What happened?” I felt myself asking.
“It must have been the fireplace.”
I watched as our home began to fall apart. The flames grew as they curled around the side of the tower and crawled across the roof, sending silent tears streaming down my face. Henry pulled me to his chest, my sobs shaking us both. As I buried my face in his shirt, I felt a slight tickle on my nose. Fighting off a sneeze, I pulled back to brush away the dog hair, but upon seeing the red strands of golden retriever fur, I felt myself begin to panic. My cheeks flushed, and my vision grew slightly hazy as my heartbeat pounded in my ears.
“Henry – Sonya’s inside!”
Instinctually turning towards the manor, I broke from Henry’s grasp and made a dash for the front door, ignoring my husband’s shout. Kicking in the weak lock, I was immediately hit by the haze that had taken over the entire house and began to cough. Even though there was no fire in front of me, each room had been submerged into a thick and inescapable layer of smog.
“SONYA!” I cried out. Immediately I heard her weak barking from upstairs.
I turned to see Henry, his shirt pulled up over his mouth. He had followed me.
“She’s upstairs, Henry. She must have gone up to get in bed after we left.” I felt myself slipping into frantic anguish as Henry grabbed me by both shoulders.
“I’ll get her, Bug. Go outside and wait for the Fire Department.”
Nodding, I took a step back and watched as Henry slowly began making his way up the stairs, coughing into his shirt. Casting a glance over my shoulder towards the open front door, I hesitated. I found myself unable to leave Henry alone in the burning manor. Copying Henry and pulling up my shirt over my mouth in a makeshift mask, I turned to follow Henry’s path up the stairs. With every step, I felt the air inside growing warmer as the flames from the hallway began creeping along the banisters and spilling down the wall. We were running out of time.
Ignoring the screaming voice in my head telling me to do as Henry instructed, I pressed forward, cresting the top of the stairs and turning the corner only to find the end of the hallway completely engulfed in flames. Henry was nowhere to be seen.
Fear gripped me as only the intense roar of the cackling, burning wood of the old manor answered my desperate shout.
Pushing forward, I felt as if my scalp was beginning to melt, and I tucked my hands under my arms to keep the skin on my fingers from burning. Ignoring the pain, I pushed down the hall towards the bedroom. I had to get to Henry. As I neared the flaming bedroom doorframe, Henry burst through with Sonya on his shoulders.
“GO, GET OUT,” he screamed. His tone – a mixture of pain, fear, and urgency I had never heard before in my husband’s voice – scared me.
Retreating to the top of the stairs, I ran down ahead of him to ensure the front door was still open before a scream stopped me in my tracks. Spinning, I turned to see that Henry had fallen through the bad step on the staircase. The same one we made sure to skip over each morning.
With Sonya still on his shoulders, even through the haze it was easy to see that he was in terrible pain.
I scrambled as quickly as I could over the debris of the collapsed staircase to his side, ignoring the searing pain in my lungs and my watering eyes. His right leg had fallen completely through the stairs to the waist. He was trapped. Coughing, he lifted Sonya off his shoulders and set her down gently, letting out a roar of pain before taking both of my hands in his.
“Get her out and stay out! Wait for the fire department!”
“Are you crazy Henry? You’re hurt!”
“Go, Bug. There’s no time!” Henry lifted his burnt hands to my face and caressed my cheek, pulling me closer and leaning his sweaty forehead against mine, “I love you”.
Gently pushing me away before descending into a coughing fit, Henry pointed at Sonya who had collapsed on the ground, panting. Crawling down to Sonya, I picked her up and dragged her out, gasping and hacking as the fresh air outside hit my singed lungs. Carrying Sonya as quickly as I could down the drive, I set her gently by the car before turning back to the manor, my eyes widening in horror. The entire roof was now engulfed in flames, and thick smoke poured out of every window.
I sprinted back to the manor. I’d be damned if I let that stubborn man die without me.
Pulling my shirt up over my mouth once more, I dropped low to the ground, and moved slowly back towards the stairs, using my hand to feel the way as I could no longer see through the thick black smoke. My eyes stung and my lungs burned. I flinched, feeling the heat from the foyer walls that were now on fire singeing the hair on my arms and face. Finally feeling the edge of the first step, I crawled up until I felt Henry. I reached around his chest and beneath his shoulders and began to pull.
“Wait! I think my leg is broken.”
I could barely hear him over the scream of the fire and the shattering of glass from somewhere nearby.
“Come on, Henry. On three, give me whatever you’ve got left, okay?” I shouted. Nodding as he coughed, Henry braced himself.
“One, two, THREE!”
Pulling as hard as I could, I felt Henry’s body shift as he strained to lift himself, letting out pained cry. Slowly, I felt him slide from his position wedged between the boards of the collapsed staircase until finally he was free of the debris.
As we both coughed and wheezed, I pulled Henry beside me, putting his arm around my shoulder. Grunting, we crawled side by side, Henry leaning on me for support until we reached the bottom of the staircase. Finally, we could see the outline of the open front door through the smoke.
Suddenly, a loud metallic bang caused me to glance up just in time to watch as one of the two rods securing a massive iron light fixture snapped as flames licked its chains. As I heard the final rod above us shatter, I closed my eyes and thought about the taste of that honey and lavender syrup as I pushed Henry as hard as I could towards the open door.
The first thing you realize when you’re about to die is that, presumably, the day started out like any other. For me, it began with the taste of the syrup Henry makes each Fall, but since the fire we’ve both lost our desire for honey and lavender.
The first weeks of recovery were difficult, and I don’t remember much. But I do remember the first time I woke up in that hospital bed, because the moment I saw Henry staring back at me I knew that although Death had wanted to greet me, Love wasn’t done with me yet.
Now, nearly three months later I’m finally back in my own bed in our new home, and I’m comforted by the warmth of his body pressed against mine. Feeling his hands cradling my stomach, I gently pass my thumb over the scars on his wrists and fingers, recalling once more the taste of honey and lavender. Allowing the memory to fade, I focus on Henry’s rhythmic breathing and let out a relieved sigh, causing him to instinctively pull me closer in his sleep. I smile and allow myself to fade into my own drowsiness, desperate for a bit of rest before the morning sickness forces me out of bed at sunrise.