The Hottest Party in Town

Submitted into Contest #93 in response to: Set your story at a party that has gone horribly wrong.... view prompt

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Contemporary Fiction Drama

“We need more light in here,” Red said. Her hands flapped around the inside of Verdun’s oldest hall. “Couldn’t you have found a place with windows? It looks so drab—and the front doors keep sticking.”

“This was the club’s cheapest venue for a party,” Jo-Jo said as she arranged the centerpieces on tables filling up half the hall. “Jeff should be back soon—with reinforcements and lights. Karl bought extra booze, in case we run out. The food’s ready. The deejay’s playing some tunes. The early arrivers are due soon, though, so less complaining and more organizing.”

“What about the doors?”

“I’ll see if I can find some WD-40 to loosen the bolts.”

Red studied the hall. Someone needed to tend to the minute details her sister overlooked. 

“We’re not ready. What if Dad shows up early?” Red complained as she fretted. “Nothing can spoil his seventy-fifth birthday. What if it’s his last?”

Jo-Jo pushed an empty wine glass into place before she dismissed her sister’s growing anxiety.

“You worry too much. Uncle Benny arrives with Dad in two hours. That gives us plenty of time to prepare before he arrives. Now, get to work.”

Red huffed as she set up the folding chairs, placing them methodically in front of each set of dishes. The caterers were scheduled to serve supper as soon as Harry arrived because Red and Jo-Jo knew everyone wanted to get the formalities of the party over with. No one came for the food. They desired liquor and music to get bombed with and pretend they were teenagers again, dancing up a storm. 

The family’s actual kids, who were supposed to help, terrorized the room instead, excited and impatient for the celebration to start. 

“Hey, stay out of the kitchen area!” Jo-Jo called out after kids experimenting with the gas stove. “Never play in there! It’s dangerous. Never touch that stove again.”

The kids moaned and rolled their eyes as they dragged their feet, reluctantly leaving the kitchen. Within seconds they were off hassling the teenagers who were forced to arrive early with their parents.

Red remembered being their age, watching the adults get tanked and act out of character. They were some of her most cherished childhood memories. Without fail, a Carroll party meant there was always a night full of singing, several family members not speaking, or outright fighting, and at least one person passing out. Generations of Carroll kids loved it and Harry Carroll’s party would be no different. 

Red reminisced over those days as she finished setting up the chairs and helping the men with the lights once they arrived. 

***

“He’s coming! He’s coming!” Red’s mom, Jo-Jo said as she signaled for the lights to be dimmed and for people to be quiet. The deejay turned off the music as everyone took their positions. 

After three attempts, the doors opened, and six seniors entered the hall, each bickering with glee, enjoying every minute. 

“What’s wrong with that door. The club needs to fix that. So, who are we beating in darts tonight? I’m seventy-five today, boys. I feel lucky.”

The son-in-laws turned on the lights as the crowd celebrated Harry. 

“Surprise!” Everyone shrieked their loudest, thrilled they pulled the surprise off. “Happy birthday!”

Harry staggered back a few steps and clutched at his chest, feigning a heart attack. His face radiated as his family rushed in to greet him. Red, Jo-Jo and their mother, Shelly, stood back as the guests took turns giving him hugs, kisses and pats on the back. 

“Girls, you did a wonderful job. I thought my night out with the guys was my present,” Harry said, giving his wife a peck of affection. “But look at this! Even some guys from back in the day are here. How did you manage all of this?”

“It was all Red’s idea,” Jo-Jo said, pushing her sister towards him. “She’s been working on it for weeks.”

Harry pulled Red into a tight embrace. 

“Ah, my smart Mildred. What would we do without you?”

“I hate when you call me that, Dad. Come on—enough of this mushiness. First, we’re going to have dinner, then gifts and toasts. Don’t worry. It won’t take too long. Finally, we’ll finish the night off with the usual dancing and singing. Sound good?”

“Could we skip the gift giving and get straight to the drinking?” Harry asked, amusement dancing in his eyes. He took Red’s hand and gestured for everyone to get to their seats. “Time for some grub. Someone be a pal and get me a beer.”

It took a while to get the kids seated and to serve the chicken or salmon meals Red had catered. The service was pricey, but the staff’s professionalism proved that Red’s decision to fork over the extra dough for the caterers, bartenders and a deejay was a wise move. They gave everyone in the family a chance to enjoy themselves. Jo-Jo even hired three babysitters to help manage the younger kids so the parents could relax, but of course, half of the children were her own. 

Red sat a few seats from Harry, hoping none of her brothers sat beside her. She noticed Karl was inching his way over with a wide grin, so she grabbed the closest person to her, urging him to sit.

“Jay, come sit with your old aunt.” 

“Why?”

“Because I told you to. Come here, boy.”

The thirteen-year-old rolled his eyes, plopping down in the chair beside her, just in time for Karl to lose the spot. 

“Gotta talk to my nephew here,” Red said to Karl. “Sorry.”

Karl shrugged his shoulders and searched for someone else to eat with. 

“What was that all about?” Jay asked. 

“Uncle Karl wants to ask me for a favour.”

“Money?”

“You know it.”

Jay laughed. He took a bite of his chicken and a sip of pop. He made a face.

“Why can’t I have a drink, like everyone else?”

“You’re too young still, sweetie.”

“But they’re drinking.” Jay pointed at some of the older teenagers. “How come everyone can drink but me.”

“It’s hard being the only one your age, isn’t it? Too old to hang with the little ones and too young to hang with the older crowd.”

“Yeah, it’s annoying. Tonight’s gonna suck.”

Red frowned. She wanted everyone to have a good time, but there was little chance of that for Jay. He hated family parties. There was never anyone his age around. Plus, he preferred books to music and silence to noise. She watched him as he picked at his food. Even that didn’t seem to please him. 

He moped during the meal, scowled as people said their toasts, except for when Uncle Benny farted in the middle of his. That brought a smile to Jay’s lips. 

“Still not having any fun?” Red asked him as they finished eating their cake. 

“It’s so boring. I wanna go home.”

They watched as Harry opened his presents. There weren’t many because everyone chipped in for more expensive gifts, like a trip with Shelly to Las Vegas. Red hugged herself, thrilled, as she watched her father hug everyone for their presents. She held back, waiting with Jay for the crowd to dissipate so they could get ahold of him without getting trampled. 

“Auntie?” Jay pulled her close. “Can I go home? I wanna go home. This is so boring.”

“The dancing is about to start. Don’t you want to bust a move?”

Jay made a face.

“Alright, run back home and call me as soon as you get there.”

“What about Mom?”

“Don’t worry about your mother. She might make you take some of your siblings home.”

Jay made a face again.

“I know. I know. You want to have some fun, too. Go home and play your video games.”

He cheered and wore his first genuine smile of the night. 

Red laughed as she watched him fight with the front doors as he made his escape. She turned to go give Harry a hug, and tell Jay’s parents he’d left, but Karl was smack in her face. Red groaned.

“Hey sis, I really need to talk to you.”

“What do you want, Karl? And no, I won’t give you any money.”

“It’s not for money,” he said, running his hand through non-existent hair. “I need a place to stay for a few months—rent-free?”

Red shook her head and laughed.

“What’s wrong with your place?”

Karl’s shoulders sagged.

“Fran threw me out.”

“Why?”

“I gambled away our rent money, so she said I can’t come back until I get my money situation under control. I was hoping my big sister could help out her baby brother?”

“Her baby brother who keeps fucking up? Why don’t you get a job, like everyone else?”

Karl opened his mouth to say something when a small explosion came from the kitchen. Kids screamed as they ran out the room. Red and Karl ran towards the noise, stopping dead in their tracks. Flames swallowed the thin walls faster than a vulture eating a carcase. Within seconds, the kitchen was an inferno. Red and Karl looked at each other with eyes the size of saucers. Screams and yelling flooded the hall as people headed towards the doors. The sprinklers started. The sprinklers stopped, all but one, which spewed out water in spurts.

“Red, get everyone out! Call 9-1-1.”

“Karl!” Red screamed as he headed towards the fire. 

“Someone needs to put out the fire,” he said as he grabbed a large punch bowl and threw its contents into the flames. The fire flared up, roaring its anger, slapping the air, reaching for more to devour. Karl jumped back. “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s get out of here.”

A quarter of the hall was in flames, but no one had left the hall yet. Harry’s family and friends crowded, trampling each other for the doors. No one could pull the doors open with everyone pushing. 

“I don’t wanna die!” One teenager yelled, sending everyone into a deeper panic. “Move! Move!”

No one could budge. The people in front of the doors were getting squished as the people in the back pressed the crowd tighter. 

We’re all going to die if someone doesn’t do something. 

Red placed her index finger and thumb to her lips and blew—hard. An ear-piercing whistle filled the hall, shutting everyone up. 

“Take five steps back now! Everyone, take five steps back!” Red ordered the crowd. “We need to open the doors. Take five steps back.”

Some people didn’t listen, but others pulled them back so they could open the doors. Jeff, Jo-Jo’s husband, pulled on the handle. The door wouldn’t budge. Red and a few others coughed as the place filled with smoke. Her nose stung. She knew they should be on their hands and knees, but there were too many hysterical people there. Just getting them to stay back while Jeff and some other men fought with the doors was a chore and a half. They tugged and pulled. Nothing happened. 

We’re gonna die.

A wall by the kitchen toppled over. The ceiling groaned. The Carroll family and friends screamed, ducking, expecting to be crushed. Flames spread across the ceiling, swallowing two more walls. Every part of the hall was aflame except the floor and the wall with the doors. Within seconds the fire would encircle them like a coffin. 

“I got it!” Jeff yelled in triumph. “Don’t push! Don’t push!”

Red, Jeff and Karl were the last ones out of the hall. Neighbors were staring at their businesses along with the party’s guests. The fire spread to both adjoining buildings. One was a restaurant and the other was a clothing store. Crying, coughing and sirens filled the street. 

Red greeted a firefighter. Words spilled out of her mouth faster than a race car could drive a lap. She was about to tell them she didn’t think anyone got hurt when she heard screaming coming from somewhere in the crowd. 

“Jo-Jo, no!”

Red searched her sister out. She caught a glimpse of her running back in the building. 

“Jo-Jo!” Red screamed, plowing her way through the others. 

Jeff tried following her, but the firemen stopped him. Two chased after her, hose in hand, water spewing into the flames. 

“Why?” Red asked Jeff, shaking him. “Why did she go back!”

“We can’t find Jay. We can’t find Jay.”

Red’s heart dropped.

“He’s not here. He went home.”

Jeff’s emotions were written all over his face. His relief and fear mirrored her own.

“Please, sir. You’ve got to save her!” Jeff screamed. 

The roof caved. There was no way in or out of the building. 

“My baby!” Shelly shrieked as she pushed through everyone. It took three firefighters to stop her from throwing herself in the fire. “No, not my Jo-Jo.”

Shelly crumbled to the ground, sobbing. Red bent over, hugged her and cried for her sister. What were we going to do without her? Jo-Jo had five kids and was a staple in the Carroll family. The idea of never seeing her again hit Red like a freight train. Soon enough, Shelly was comforting Red just as much as Red was comforting her. 

“I have to see about the kids,” Shelly said, rubbing her face with her hands before brushing them through her hair. “I have to make sure they’re okay.”

“I’ll come with you,” Red said, helping her mother to her feet. “Shit! I have to call Jay. He doesn’t know what’s happened.”

“Don’t call. Tell him in person. I can handle the little ones.”

Red nodded, gave Shelly a hug, and headed towards her sister’s house the next street over to shatter her nephew’s life. 

Jay was lying on the floor of his room, propped up against his bed, playing a video game with his tongue stuck between his lips. He didn’t notice Red standing in the doorway, watching him. She hugged herself, taking a mental photo of him while his life still made sense. She coughed gently, but he was too engrossed in his game.

“Jay.”

He jumped. 

“Oh, Auntie, you scared me,” he said, glancing at her before returning to his game. “Did Mom make you come get me? Sorry, I forgot to call.”

“Jay, turn off the game.”

He paused his game and looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time. His face dropped.

“What happened?”

Red opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Her lips trembled. Her eyes watered. 

“Auntie, what’s wrong? Tell me.”

She shook her head and straitened her shoulders. 

“I’ve got bad news, sweetie.”

“What? Did you beat up Uncle Karl?”

Red’s heart broke at his attempt to make her laugh. Bless his heart. She sighed and sat on the floor beside him. 

“There was a fire at the party.”

“Really? Shoot. I missed it. Did anyone get hurt?”

“Yes.”

Jay waited for Red to tell him who. She couldn’t speak.

“Who? Auntie Red, who? Tell me what happened.”

“We got everyone out. Everyone was out, but your mother couldn’t find you. I hadn’t had a chance to tell her you went home—”

“No…”

“She thought you were still in there—”

“No…”

“So she ran back in, hoping to find you, and she never made it back out.”

“No…”

“Yes.”

“No! It’s not true. It’s not true. You’re lying. Why would you lie like that?”

“I wish I was lying, baby. She’s gone.”

“Why?” Jay screamed. “Why’d she go back?”

“To save you.”

Red leaned over to give him a hug, but he pushed her away.

“Why didn’t you tell her? Why?” He glared at Red. He shook from toe to fingertip. “Why, Auntie, why?”

“She loved you, Jay. She truly loved you and I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”

She forced him into her arms and squeezed. The boy burst into tears and hung onto his aunt. They stayed in that position, sobbing, until the well ran dry. 

***

It took four hours to put out the fire. Several people went to the hospital for smoke inhalation and minor burns. 

Jo-Jo and the two firefighters never made it out. 

Red never forgave herself. She had wanted to throw the party of her father’s dreams. It ended as their nightmare.

The Carroll family never threw another party again. 

May 13, 2021 13:40

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2 comments

Cole Lane
18:26 May 31, 2021

Wow, when this started I was worried about Harry, but then the fire happened and people were all pressing to get out, so I thought this could be it. They finally got out, and a sigh of relief ... then the worst happened. :0 Wow what an ending and then having to tell Jay on top of all that - this story was packed with emotion. The foreshadowing was all there and I missed it! There were the door issues and the discussion about the kitchen, but then Harry faked the heart attack at the surprise and that threw me off lol! Excellent story!

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19:11 May 31, 2021

OMG! Thank you for such a thorough and encouraging comment! I'm grinning from ear to ear. I'm so happy I threw you off! 😊

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