Sharp rays of light angled through the old school’s windows, slivers of winter brightness illuminating the dusty wooden floors. Outside a brisk wind swept up the remaining leaves into twirling dervishes and sent the clouds speeding through the sky on wispy fingers.
A normal cold day but dry, the persistent drought pushing toward a snowless winter, a situation the region hadn’t seen in years. Stories of wildfire devastation littered local history, a constant weight on the minds of the villagers.
The wind whistled between the window seams and under the doors, the building unable to keep the cold at bay. Inside, most everyone dressed in double layers, one layer short of a trip outdoors.
Students and faculty are gone for the holidays, except me, my mother and father stuck in some ski resort in Europe. It’s that way every year. “We can’t make it, son. You understand.” The usual excuses, dripping with feigned sincerity but failing to mask the background of music and laughter. I’ll see them next summer—maybe.
Although Christmas is only a week away, I bailed on any invitations to stay with others for the holidays. I’d get pissed off watching them celebrate, and me, an afterthought.
So, I walk this place, filling the hours, counting my steps, circling the hallways and stairwells. Tonight will be especially quiet. I’m the only one here. The maintenance man and his wife live in a bungalow on the back of the property and are going to a Christmas party in the village. The Headmaster, his wife, and I eat together most of the time. They live in an apartment next to the library but are in the next village visiting friends. It’s no problem. I’ll be eighteen in six months and they don’t mind me staying in this—dungeon—for a few hours alone. I like it. Nobody bothering me. I like to watch the village from the third-floor window .
That’s where I am now. It’s pretty from up here. Quiet. I can sit here for hours, planning my escape—six months and I’m outta here.
The place sits on a small hill above the village, a hundred acres of trees surrounding it. Built in the shape of a cross, the north and east wings are dorms, the south wing a long entry hallway with offices on both sides, and the west wing is classrooms, kitchen, library, and a basement. It can get creepy. Everything creaks, twists, and moans when a storm hits. Sounds like someone howling in the halls. Scares the younger kids. I live in the basement. Dank, cozy, but home.
Remnants of sunlight fading below a hazy horizon, I sense a change. Sniffing the air, there’s a hint of—smoke.
“Hmmm. Better check the building.” I huffed, simmering at the interruption.
Nothing appeared to be awry until I noticed a change in the night sky. From the second-floor window at the end of the east wing a faint glow of red outlining a distant ridge stopped me in my tracks. The wind howled out of the east. Thin strands of smoke wound through the treetops. Embers, tiny fireflies, floated past the window. Stunned, my feet frozen to the floor, I stood there watching the ridgeline brighten. I’d read stories of fires but had never seen one. A large gust punched the window and startled me. My stomach knotted, my hands shaking, I glanced toward the village. No one rushed into the streets.
Surely they saw it, or at least smelled it . . . can’t they?
With only a volunteer fire department, it relied on the next village, fifteen miles east, for the serious fires. From the corner of my eye, I saw the flames lick at the treetops along the ridge.
Sweat gathered under my arms, my hands damp and clammy. I glanced around the floor, running my fingers through my hair.
Phone’s useless. No signal up here. Evacuation plan? Maybe I should . . . do something?
I ran to the basement, pulled a large bag from the closet, and threw in several changes of clothes, a couple of books, my laptop, candy bars, and a toothbrush. The smoke seeped into my windowless room. My throat burned; I coughed and hacked. My eyes stung. I climbed to the first floor for a soda.
On the landing, my jaw dropped. Out a west-facing window, fire engulfed the entire hillside less than a mile distant. Smoke swirled in lazy circles at my shoe tops. The flames devoured a maintenance shed, leaving a pile of glowing embers. I ran toward the front hall and the main exit, stopping next to the windows. A dense cloud hovered above the village roofs, obscuring the lights. Gasping, I watched the fire crest the ridge above the village. Everywhere I looked, fire swirled in tornadoes above the trees, the devil’s fingers reaching for the sky. It hadn’t been an hour since I’d seen the first glow, and now I’m surrounded.
Somewhere above me, a window shattered, then another. The heat warmed my face. I ran for the front door, not knowing what I’d do once I got there, and reached for the ornate brass handle. Too hot to touch. Another crash. I gaped at the flames eating the roof of the east wing.
“Where do I go!”
The flames danced along the window sills. Choking, I crawled along the hall toward the north wing. Engulfed, the north wing’s walls collapsed with a roar and a shower of sparks. Flames spun and weaved, tiny snakes slithering along the carpet. My skin burned. I crawled for the safety of the basement.
I grabbed a towel and jumped into the shower. Turning the shower’s spray on full, I squeezed into a corner, tucking my knees against my chest and wrapping the towel around my head.
Flames crackled and spit, embers burning holes in my pants. The ceiling shuddered under the crumbling walls, heat searing the hair on my arms. My skin blistered. The shower glass exploded, but water continued to flow—and I could breathe.
I don’t remember whether heat or smoke or choking fear caused me to pass out, but when I awoke the sun was shining. The wind whipped through my legs and up my back. The towel, a frozen turban, chilled my face, but only my face. My hands stiff, I fought to break the towel free. It crackled when it opened and fell against my shoulders.
Coated in soot, the basement’s concrete walls opened to a gray winter sky and a layer of snow covering the charred remains of the school. The occasional hiss of an ember broke the silence, a puff of smoke twisting up from the rubble.
I glanced at my legs, still tucked against my chest. The fire burned away my clothes. My arms and legs scorched and blackened; my flesh torched, exposing muscle and tendon; my shoes melted to my feet; and my hands retracted into claws.
No feeling, except around my head. I’d saved my head—and my eyes, which I quickly closed.
Why didn’t I die? How long before I die? Please let me die?
I heard the gasp but didn’t see anyone, then feet shuffled along the concrete wall above me. I waited for them to wander into my sight. They stood there, mouths open, dirty, stained except for the whiteness of their faces behind their oxygen masks.
“Who . . . who are you?” one stuttered. His face twisted, confused, as if he weren’t sure the words were his own.
“I . . . I don’t know. I don’t know. I think—” The words crumbled from my mouth like sawdust. “I think I was waiting for my parents, but I can’t move. I can’t feel anything.”
Feet clattered atop the concrete and shouting filled the air. The firefighters rushed down the concrete steps. I could see their faces if I rolled my eyes up and looked at them from under my lashes. One knelt next to me.
“How’re you doing?” he asked. His hands hung in midair, searching for a place to touch me.
“I don’t know. I see snow but only my face is cold.”
With his partner, they tried to straighten my legs, but they were fused together from my ankles to my thighs, muscles contracted, stiffened, skin peeling away. They rolled me onto a stretcher in the fetal position and covered me with a blanket.
“Have you seen my parents?”
“Ah . . . no. Were they supposed to meet you?”
“No. They’re skiing in Europe.” My eyes drifting shut, I murmured, “When can I see them? Will I get to ski in Europe? I can’t wait ‘til I turn eighteen. Then I’m outta’ here.”
One firefighter glanced at the other, his teeth pinched between his lips, closed his eyes and gave his head a gentle shake.
“Yeah, I’m almost eighteen and then I’m—”