Incessant beeping fills the hospital room, sharp and loud and impossible to ignore. Groggily, she opens her eyes.
“Hank?” Sleep cracks her voice. Her head feels as if it’s trapped in jelly. Light from a sodium streetlamp filters through an ice-glazed window. Frost flowers have bloomed along the pane and glow like marigolds against the deep night sky.
“Honey, what’s that noise?” She shifts and realizes she isn’t in a hospital chair. She’s in a bed. The smell of lavender rises up as she moves, the fading memories of the dried bushels she hangs in their linen closet. She’s back at home, in their own bed.
Her left hand searches under the blanket, but Hank’s side is empty and cool. She rolls over and clinks on the bedside light. It flickers a few times before filling the room with a muted glow. A black-and-white picture of Hank stands next to the lamp, a dried forget-me-not stuck into the edge of the gold, baroque frame.
The machine that woke her is still beeping and there’s a strange, un-hospital like smell in the room. She reaches for the fuzzy outlines of her glasses and slips them on. Lying on her side, she tries to blink away the greasiness clinging to her mind.
Home. Not hospital.
“Hank?” She repeats in a stronger voice. The confusion is fading and she sits up. Smoke, that’s the smell. And the beeping isn’t a heart monitor, but the kitchen’s fire alarm.
With a sigh, she folds back the blanket and slides from bed. Her night gown is tangled around her knees, but, despite the December night painting frost flowers on the window, the room is surprisingly comfortable on her bare calves.
Her right knee pops as she stands and she grumbles at Hank under her breath. “What did you do? Sneaking a smoke again, I’ll bet. You know what the doctor said.” She shakes out her gown so the frilly edging brushes the tops of her feet.
On the stairs, her footfalls are cushioned by the thick burgundy carpet. They make soft poffs that somehow emphasize the lateness of the hour.
She slides one hand along the white-rose printed wallpaper. The buds are embossed and she feels the flowers glide by under her finger tips.
Amber light seeps out around the borders of the kitchen door. “Did you forget your hearing aids? Your cigar set off the alarm.” She says, as she pushes open the door.
After the dimness of the stairwell, it takes her eyes precious moments to adjust to the scorching brightness in the kitchen and parse what she’s seeing. At first, she thinks red parrot tulips have sprouted on their kitchen drapes and over their rose-embossed wallpaper. It’s the sizzling heat that burns away the image.
Flames are licking up the Victorianna-lace curtains and spreading across the roses, charring the white blossoms into dry, flaking curls that twist down the wall and leave smoldering black streaks behind.
“Oh Hank! The curtains!” They bought them this summer, at an antique fair out in the country—the fair where Hank had another row with their son about them moving to a care facility.
While they were arguing, she’d wandered off and found the curtains, made from fine Scottish lace in a luscious floral pattern. They’re antiques, possibly handmade.
As she watches, the delicate work, so long preserved, is tumbling to the floor as gossamer embers. She’s helpless to stop the fire racing along the thin cotton threads, destroying in minutes what had taken weeks to make and years of care to maintain.
“What did you do, Hank?” She rushes towards the sink, but the heat of the flames is a physical thing. It scalds her bare skin and she can’t get near the faucet.
Distraught, she spins round, looking for anything to douse the fire with, and spots the source: last night’s soup pot, still on the stove. The metal is blackened and glowing. The wooden cutting board that stands behind it has lit up like a bonfire. Did she leave the gas on? But Hank always tidies up after her, he knows she’s forgetful. He was there when the doctor told her.
Why didn’t he turn it off? Those curtains were expensive. And her cabinets, they’ll have to repaint everything.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” She yells, and turns towards the dining room. “I could’ve helped you put it out.” The table and chairs shift in hues of orange and gray, shadows flowing in waves over the room. Her vision has spots in it from the bright flames and she can’t see Hank.
The fire is making her neck uncomfortably hot and she walks away, stumbling in the dark over the edge of the rug. She catches herself on their flower stand and the orchids Hank had been growing tip over. Her heart jumps and she grabs for the pot, but all she catches is a hand full off dry blooms. The costly glazed terracotta crashes to the floor, spraying chunks of dirt and dead, brown plant across their Persian rug. She brings the brittle leaves to her chest and takes a shuddering breath.
In doing so, she inhales a swell of caustic smoke and her chest seizes up. She tries to shout for Hank again, but coughing chokes her. She’s trembling with adrenaline. Finally wide awake, it registers that the dining room and kitchen are empty. He isn’t here. Behind her, the fire grows louder, beginning to drown out the screeching alarm.
“Where are you, Hank?” She croaks, her throat too raw to make much sound. Did he call the fire department? Is he getting water from the bathroom?
Unsure what else to do, she turns back to the blaze and edges for the phone across from the stove. She’ll scold Hank later for sneaking a cigar at night; he knows what the doctor said and now look what his smoking caused.
The fire is snaking over the wallpaper, but hasn’t yet reached the wall-mounted phone. She holds up her right arm to shield her face from the growing inferno. Blindly, she reaches for the phone. As her hand closes on the receiver, pain shrieks through her hand and she reels, falling against the china cabinet.
Some of the decorative plates at the top topple and crash beside her feet, spraying her with chips of porcelain. Tears spring to her eyes and she fights down a whimper. Her palm is red from the overheated plastic and she’s not sure if she still has all her skin. The only thing she feels is a mindless, blistering pain.
“Hank, help! Wake up!” When she stands up, the cupboard rocks forward and another plate tumbles down, hitting her shoulder before shattering on the floor. “My plates,” she moans. Shards of Strawberry Hill Wedgwood glimmer in the flickering light and make her want to cry. They’d been a wedding present, unmarred for nearly fifty years.
She cradles her burned hand against her chest and gingerly picks a way between the fragments, a lump in her throat. Spluttering and fighting tears, she flees back to their bedroom to wake Hank. They need to get dressed and leave.
Her breath wheezes with each step and her unburned hand grips the bannister, white-knuckled. She’s dizzy when she reaches the landing, silver and black spots blossoming before her eyes.
Back in their room, she sinks down on the edge of the bed. The spots in her sight pulsate nauseatingly. She slaps the blanket, trying to draw Hank’s attention. “Wake up,” she gasps on an exhale. No response. She smacks harder. “Hank,” she wants to shout, but it comes out on a cough instead.
Slowly, slowly, the spots subside, but there’s still no movement behind her. Her heartbeat is loud, almost drowning out the alarm that reminds her uncomfortably of his heart monitor in the hospital.
She turns to him and sees the empty bed. Remembrance dawns; Hank was already up. Maybe he’s in the bathroom?
Her body complains when she stands. Her breath squeaks, but she almost cannot hear it over the lumbering of her heart.
Shuffling, she enters the ensuite. With her uninjured hand, she flicks on the light. The brown tiles gleam and the scent of patchouli soap briefly floats by, before the acrid fumes that have penetrated her hair and clothes follow her in.
Her reflection startles her. Her face is red, eyes bloodshot. Pressed tight to her chest, her aching hand looks raw. Streaks of ash mar the gentle periwinkle of her nightgown and soot has gathered in the creases around her nose and mouth.
She opens the cold faucet to a trickle and hesitantly holds her broiled palm under it. The water stings and she bites her lower lip until it bleeds. With her other hand, she opens the cabinet below the sink and pulls out the first aid kit. She struggles to undo the top one handed, tears tracing lines in the smut on her cheeks.
A final yank pops the lid, but she fumbles the box and half the contents spill out. The roll of gauze she needs bounces off the counter. She bends to grab it and when she rises, her blood pressure can’t keep up. Teetering, she leans on the sink. Her breathing is ragged as she waits for the world to settle, eyes closed.
Upon opening them, her vision is worse. Fuzzy. It’s like there’s a film over her glasses. She looks into the mirror to inspect the lenses and in the reflection she sees thin tendrils of smoke coiling around the bathroom light. With a shock, the fire downstairs floods back to her mind. There’s no time to bandage her hand. Why is she in here?
“Where are you?” She whirls and slaps open the shower curtain with her good arm. The cubicle is empty. He isn’t here.
Heart thudding painfully, she returns to their bedroom.
In the middle of the room, she pauses. Where is she going? What should she do?
Disoriented, she holds a palm to her forehead. Pressure is mounting behind her temples, blood rushing in her ears. Her mouth tastes like charcoal and blood, every breath stings. She wants to throw up.
What is she supposed to do? Where is Hank? Could he have slept through all this?
Once more, she goes to their bed. Clumsily, she pulls the blanket down all the way.
And so is Hank’s bedside table. His dentures and glasses are missing. Did he leave? Did he wake her?
The room is growing hotter. The frost flowers have wilted and are dribbling down the window in rivulets of condensation. She has to sit, she’s too dizzy.
“Hank?” She whispers, her throat tight. He wouldn’t leave her. He wouldn’t.
It takes effort not to hyperventilate. She focuses on drawing in air and forcing it out. Her lungs don’t want to cooperate, but with every wheeze she’s calmer, her heartbeat a little quieter.
A new sound cuts through the beeping and the wheezing and the ever-growing roar of the flames: sirens, strobing in the distance and quickly growing louder.
He called the fire department! Bless his heart. He must be outside to flag them down. She jumps up, heart speeding up again. She needs to get outside, she needs to tell him how bad the fire has gotten. He doesn’t know.
When she opens the bedroom door, however, hot, dense smoke billows into her face. It's overwhelming and she stumbles back, gagging. Within seconds, the room is filled and she’s forced to her knees. Despite the pain in her lungs and hand and arthritic right knee, she crawls towards the stairs.
The air in the hallway is oppressive and to fight the rising panic she counts her shuffles.
At edge of the landing, she freezes.
The dim stairwell is gone and she’s looking into the mouth of hell.
A roiling mass of magma and tar undulates before her. Thick clouds boil over the stairs, churning up the walls to burst against the ceiling, exposing insides of molten metal. Even on her knees, she can’t see farther than the top two steps.
The air itself is burning and it sears her lips and nose. A miasma of burnt plastics envelops her and she retches, bile splattering with a sizzle. The frilly lace on her nightgown smolders, leaving blisters on her wrists and neck.
Terrified, she retreats to their bedroom and slams the door behind her with a foot.
Hank, help me. Save me. Where are you? Her eyes are too dry to cry.
Shaking with fear, pain, and exhaustion, she somehow makes it to their bed. She leans against the soft mattress, too exhausted to pull herself up.
The sirens are close. Their whine barely audible above the howling blaze. All around her is noise and smoke and pain. She cannot hear the hammering of her heart, but she feels it beat her ribs.
She’s only been this afraid once before, in the hospital, when Hank’s machines started screaming.
With her slightly-less burned hand, she grabs his picture from her bedside. It's one of very few photos she has of him. He doesn't like cameras. Despite the sinking smoke, she can still see his face if she holds the frame close.
Her grandson shot when Hank wasn’t looking. He printed it for her, with two dates underneath. The first is Hank's birthday, the second is three weeks ago. She doesn’t want to think about that, about the hospital and how his breath had sounded the way hers felt now.
Instead, she traces the pressed forget-me-not that’s stuck into the corner of the frame. A miniature bouquet of faded blue blossoms with white stars at their heart.
He planted these for her when they received her diagnosis. A bright border of cerulean in their front garden to keep away her fears. In full bloom, the forget-me-nots seemed to glow. When she stared at them, she briefly forgot her dread over all the doctor had said she was going to lose—all she wouldn't even know she'd lost.
Pressed and faded, the flowers still retain some of their magic. By tracing them, she spells the terror. Hank is coming for her, he’s getting help. He’ll save her. He always saves her.
Despite it all, she smiles, cracking her lips.
The increasing smoke pushes her to the ground and she lies face down, sucking air from the floorboards, eyes sealed against the pain. She’s being boiled from her lungs outward. Her life has come unhinged, but the picture frame digging into her chest anchors her. Hank will get her soon.
She hears her name and opens her eyes. The smoke is behind her glasses and all the world is ash. But, something filters through; a flickering of red, then blue, then red. The sirens are louder than the fire, right outside the window.
Through the swirling gray, a figure approaches.
Hank stoops down before her. Her heart stops hammering. I couldn’t find you. The thought brushes her lips, but nothing more. You came back.
He holds out his hand, but she can’t lift hers. She tries to tell him.
Her eyes slide shut again. She has to see his face, but her eyelids don’t obey. In her mind, he smiles at her, no longer black-and-white, but in vivacious luminescence.
She feels him sit down next to her. A kind arm wraps around her shoulders and his scent, sudden and oh-so-missed, cuts through the bitter smoke; that spicy mix of cedar and cigar and something she could never put her finger on, but that always made her feel like she was home. She exhales deeply and relaxes. The last of her fear dissolves.
His hand presses into her neck. The picture frame is heavy on her breast. There is a rushing in her ears, like a tall wind.
Hank is here and all her hurt has gone.
She’s small in the firefighter’s arms. A fragile bundle, barely bigger than a child, curled around a hidden treasure.
He places her on the gurney with care, gently sliding his hand out from her neck so her head doesn’t thump. The night is cold and fog steams off her. She’s cooling down.
The paramedic runs his checks quickly. He picks up one of her hands and sees the picture. It's a candid shot of an old man, smiling at someone partially out of frame. The person is covered by a dried stalk of forget-me-nots. He shifts the flowers and sees half of a woman’s face, a single piercing eye, a sweep of gray curls.
The real woman’s curls are blackened now, her eyelids shut.
The medic replaces her hand on the photo, careful to keep the man visible, and slides the white sheet up.
First over Hank’s eyes, then over hers.