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The World on Fire
“Hey, I’m home.” I say as I force open the rusty door of my pathetically small apartment. It sticks, the door, so I have to lean on it with all of my weight when I turn the handle. I don’t know what exactly inspired me to speak out loud, it’s not like there’s anyone inside to answer me.
The walls of my apartment are a chipped and all together uninviting shade of white. There’s a gas stove in the corner, a space heater, bed, desk, and mountains of paper. I’m a writer you see- or at least, an aspiring one. When you’re twenty-three with little motivation, terrible grades, and no college degree to speak of, it’s either that or bussing tables, and the diner fired me last week.
The phone is plugged into the jack that is situated next to one of the largest stacks of paper. The answering machine holds no messages or missed calls- not even from my parents. At this point, just go ahead and say it; pathetic. My life is pathetic. It’s my mother’s favorite word when it comes to me. My father on the other hand, being the sweet and sensitive man that he is, prefers the word failure. Jesse, what a failure he turned out to be. Jesse, such a failure compared to his brother. Jesse, where did we go wrong with that boy?
Great guy right?
Anyways, these days I’m starting to feel like a failure, so failure me, I hit the sack even though it’s only eight o’ clock and Saturday.
I wake up and the world’s on fire.
Ash climbs up my throat and crawls into my lungs.
Smoke burns my eyes.
At first I think I’m dreaming, but when I hear sirens in the background I start to panic. All around me my life’s work is going up in flames. What took years to create is destroyed in seconds. But do I care about my life’s work? No, right now I’m more concerned about my actual life. So I run. Fully clothed with the exception of my shoes, I wrench open the door, which for once doesn’t stick, and run for it.
Outside, the sky tastes like ash and burned bits of paper. Like broken dreams and crushed hopes. When I turn around the whole building is suffocating in a blanket of smoke. People are gathered in the streets, and everyone- fire fighters, police officers, and passersby- rush around me with such commotion I wonder if they even see me standing there. The tar is warm and rough against the soles of my feet.
A Latino woman from my building is close by and in hysterics, clinging onto the arm of a fireman who is trying to brush her off. “I’m sorry Ma’am,” He’s saying, “I don’t understand.”
“Mi Hija!” she shouts, “Mi hija esta encima!”
“I’m sorry,” He says again, pulling his arm out of her grasp and rushing into the building.
Tears grapple down her cheeks; it doesn’t take a genius to understand what she was asking for. I wrack my brain for any traces of those Spanish classes I failed in high school. “Cuantos anos tiene su hija?” I say with a terrible American accent.
She looks at me, her tear-flooded eyes stinging with hope. “Cuatro.” She says.
Her daughter is four years old.
“Piso dos, cuarto diez y seis.” She tells me before I have a chance to ask.
Floor two. Room sixteen. Then, like the idiot I am, I run back into the building.
The fire has not yet reached the stairs but black smoke is flooding my lungs. I pull my shirt over my nose and mouth and try to breathe through it. My eyes water with effort- it’s like trying to breathe through a pillow.
Two flights of stairs later I am on the verge of collapse. Ash sticks to the inside of my mouth and all down my throat into my lungs. Sweat drips out of my every pore; I can feel the radiating heat of the fire even though I can’t see it through all the smoke. Room sixteen is four doors away, which may as well be four hundred miles. But I keep going.
Coughing and panting I reach the door. It’s unlocked but like mine it sticks. I press my weak self against it, but it doesn’t open. I ram into it, with what little strength I can muster, and finally, it gives way.
The windows have shattered, broken glass coats the floor like icing, and flames have engulfed over half of the room.
“Hello?” My voice sounds dry as sand paper- which is a lot better than it feels. I can barely hear it over the sirens and crackling fire. Then I see her. Hidden under the bed I see a black haired head and two brown eyes. Glass sticks to the bottoms of my feet and, like footprints in the sand, I leave footprints of blood. The fire is lava hot against my skin, I can feel it burn and blister. The girl is in my arms, kicking and screaming for her mom, but she is weak, weaker than me even.
Next we are outside again. My first breath of fresh air- it doesn’t help at all. The girl slides from my arms and lands softly on the pavement.
The world spins around me like I’m on a merry go round.
My lungs are drowning in smoke and ash.
Then I collapse, the pavement warm on my cheek. Maybe I should regret it. Tell myself it was a stupid, even if heroic thing to do, but I don’t. I can’t help thinking that this is a pretty cool way to die, and that I died with success instead of failure. I can’t help thinking of tomorrows headline in the paper; Local twenty-three-year-old dead beat saves little girl from certain death. I close my eyes.
When I wake up I still taste ash. Some sort of breathing mechanism is covering my mouth. Breath goes in, and out. It’s never felt so good. The walls of my hospital room are white, but not like the ones of my apartment, and there’s a man standing at the end of my bed. He stands with his hands in his pockets. “I’m proud of you Jesse” He tells me. That’s the first thing my father says when I open my eyes. I realize it’s the first time I’ve ever heard him say it.
While in the hospital I start to write again. I start a new story; I woke up and the world was on fire. That’s all I’ve got so far, but mark my words, it’ll be a best-seller.