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“Mom! Stop yelling! I’m coming!” little 12-year-old Alex shouted from his upstairs bedroom. He was trying desperately to get his little arms through the proper holes in his new long sleeved shirt. Usually getting dressed wasn’t this complicated, but he was late and needed to hurry. Ironically enough, the more he hurried, the more tangled he became, and the more time he wasted. When he finally won the battle with his shirt, he ran out of his room, grabbed his backpack on the fly, and pounded down the stairs for breakfast.
“You’ll have to eat quickly. You’re going to miss the bus,” his mother, Janette, scolded him when he walked in and sat down.
“He’s fine,” Alex’s father, Bruce, defended him while giving his wife a good morning peck on the cheek, “I can give him a ride if he’s late.” Bruce sat down in the chair next to his son and ruffled Alex’s already wild hair.
Janette turned from where she was standing at the counter to smooth down Alex’s hair and give him an apologetic hug over the back of the chair. “You’re right,” she sighed. “I’m sorry Alex. I didn’t sleep well last night. Forgive me?”
“Sure Mom. I know Lydie wouldn’t sleep again.” Alex’s one-year-old sister had been up for the last few nights with an ear infection. Luckily for Alex, he could sleep through nearly anything, so his sister’s cries barely affected him anymore.
Janette dished out the eggs, bacon, and toast, and the family came together to say Grace. Alex ate his food so fast, his parents were sure he never tasted any of it. Their laughter set off little Lydie, who screeched and smiled until her eyes squinted up and disappeared. They were all still laughing, the very picture of a loving family, when Alex’s bus honked from outside. Within a few minutes, Alex was off to school, Bruce was in his truck on his way to his latest construction job, and Janette and Lydie were in the van on the way back to the doctor.
Janette was just waking Lydie up from her afternoon nap when Alex got done with school. “Mom! I’m home!” he yelled, bounding into the house and banging the door shut behind him. “Where’s Beau?”
“Don’t slam the door, Alex! You know better than that,” Janette reminded him, walking down the stairs with a still-sleepy Lydie in her arms. She shifted Lydie over onto her hip so she could give Alex a half-hug and kiss on his forehead. “Beau’s outside in the backyard. Be careful with him, he just got his stitches out. You can go out and see him for a little while, but I want you to come right back in to get your homework done. Okay?”
“Fine,” Alex told her. He dropped his backpack by the door, ran through the house, and rushed outside to greet his little yellow lab puppy he had gotten for his birthday a few months before. Alex was working on getting Beau to sit when Janette came outside to call Alex in to do his homework.
Alex grabbed his backpack from where he left it at the door and meandered into the kitchen. He grabbed his customary after school snack and laid his books out on the table.
“Mom, I’m ready!” he announced, then sat quietly waiting for his mother to arrive.
Lydie went into the playpen that Janette had dragged into the kitchen, and mother and son sat down for an hour to go through Alex’s assignments. When they hit math, Janette started on dinner, since Alex was good at math anyway. By the time he got to his science vocabulary, Bruce was walking through the door and Janette was setting the table for dinner.
Dinner went quickly, with everyone laughing and talking. They cleaned off the table and did the dishes together. Alex took some more time to teach Beau to sit, but quickly gave up when Beau seemed more interested in taking a nap. So Bruce pulled out a new card game for the family to play: Phase 10. It was a long game, and by the time they were finished, Alex, Janette, and Lydie were ready for bed.
“I hope Lydie sleeps good for you, Mom,” Alex told her as she was tucking him into bed.
“Don’t worry about me Sweetie,” she said with a smile. “It’s your dad’s turn to get up with her tonight,” Janette grinned at her husband, who was sitting on Alex’s bed on the opposite side from where she was.
“Say goodnight to your brother, Lydie,” Bruce said, rolling his eyes and ignoring his wife’s grin. Lydie gurgled in return.
“Goodnight Lydie. Goodnight Mom. Goodnight Dad,” Alex told each of them. “Love you.”
Alex’s parents each gave him a kiss on the forehead and quietly left the room. Bruce shut the door to Alex’s room all the way, since Alex had recently announced that he was no longer afraid of the dark, and therefore didn’t need the hallway light on. Beau was lying where he was supposed to, on his dog bed, but crept over to Alex’s bed as soon as the door was shut. Quietly he jumped up, turned a few times, and snuggled against Alex’s back. Alex grinned and stroked his puppy’s fur as he tried to fall asleep.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Janette headed to Lydie’s room, across from Alex’s. When she was tucked into her crib, Janette went to their bedroom with a goodnight kiss from her husband, and Bruce went into the living room to watch the nightly news.
It was right after the weather that he fell asleep on the couch. Two hours later, the unthinkable happened—a spark from the outlet outside of Janette’s room landed on the carpet, and within a few minutes, flames were licking up the wall.
Bruce wiped at a bead of sweat dripping off his forehead. “Why is it so hot in here?” he thought to himself, still groggy with sleep. Finally, alarm bells went off in his head as his brain registered the smell of smoke. Jumping to his feet, Bruce started yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Fire!” he screamed to his family over the roaring of the flames. “Get up! Get out! Janette!” Frantically, he grabbed the heavy blanket covering the back of the couch and beat at the flames. The smoke burned his eyes, his throat, his nose. He desperately wished he could get to his family, but there was no penetrating the wall of flames. Slowly the fire continued to spread into the living room, the heat driving Bruce back until he had no choice but drop the scorched blanket and run—out the door, down the steps, out onto the lawn. He could already hear the fire trucks coming, as his eyes searched frantically for any sign of his family and his voice grew hoarse from his screams. Three times he tried to rush back into the house for his wife and kids, but it was no use. All he could do was pray that they would find a way to get out on their own. Tears streamed down his face as he waited.
Janette awoke with a jump when she heard her husband’s shout. She ran straight to the door and grabbed the handle, intent on getting to Alex and Lydie. Hissing in pain, Janette snatched her hand back as the handle burned into her skin. The fire was right outside her door, and there would be no getting out. “Alex! Lydie!” she screamed. But no one could hear her over the crackling of the flames. She stood in the middle of her bedroom for a minute, brain frantically searching for a way to get to her children. But it was no use. The smoke was pouring under her door and filling up the room fast. It seared her throat and burned her lungs. She was already crying but the smoke stung her eyes like a thousand needles. Finally she had no choice but to find a way to escape. Janette went to her bedroom window, opened the glass, and took out the screen. Sending a silent plea to Heaven, she prayed her family would make it out alive.
She hit the ground on the right side of the house and came up running. She went around the back first, to see if either of her children made it out, but there was no sign of anyone. Miraculously, she heard Bruce’s screams coming from the front of the house. Blindly, she picked herself up from where she had collapsed on the ground, and ran to her husband.
“Come on, Beau!” Alex pleaded. He was lying with half his body under his bed, trying to coax his terrified puppy out of under it. “We have to go! Come on!” Grabbing the whimpering puppy around his belly, Alex dragged him inch by inch out of his hiding place. Beau still refused to move, however, so Alex had to pick up the not-so-little-anymore puppy and run. His door handle was warm, but not hot, so he hesitated before opening it. Finally he flung the door open and stepped out into the hall. The fire was in front of his mom’s room, and heading towards him fast. Smoke poured down the hall to sting his nose and make his eyes water. Beau was suffering too, and wouldn’t stop whimpering. The only option Alex had was to crouch down and run—down the hall, into the mudroom, and out the back door. He fell to his knees and dropped Beau as soon as he made it outside, coughing in a vain attempt to stop the burning in his lungs, rubbing his eyes to stop their stinging. Alex heard his parents screaming from the front yard, and knew from the wail of the fire trucks that help was on the way.
“Mom! Dad!” he screamed back. Eyes still watering and lungs still on fire, Alex picked Beau up again and stumbled toward the front yard.
Alex came around the side of the house about the same time the fire trucks arrived. By this time, the fire had basically consumed most of the first level of the house.
“Alex!” his parents yelled in relief when they saw their son emerging out of the smoke.
The horrible realization dawned on each member of the family at the same time—no one had Lydie.
“No!” Janette screamed, the sound ripped from the depths of her soul. She collapsed right there on the lawn, face contorted into lines of pain as she screamed and sobbed for her lost child. Bruce grabbed a passing fireman and by the arm and wrenched him around.
“My baby’s still in there!” he told him. The grim look in the fireman’s eyes as he looked from the house to the broken, sobbing woman on the ground next to him was a clear indication to Bruce that there was no hope left. But the fireman gathered a crew and went in anyway. When they came back empty-handed what seemed like hours later, Bruce knelt beside his grieving wife and rocked her gently back and forth, burying his face in her hair.
Neither one noticed the silent Alex standing a few yards away. “This is my fault,” he was thinking. “I went right past her bedroom door. I could have saved her! She’s dead because of me!” When a young fireman went up to him and asked if he was okay, Alex merely stared at him. His eyes weren’t filled with pain or even sorrow. They were empty. Void of any life and emotion.
The family never truly went back to normal after that. Alex didn’t talk for months after the fire. He confided in a friend years later that all he was thinking about was Beau. “She was right there, in the room across the hall. But all I did was save my puppy. She never even crossed my mind.” He would always feel responsible for his sister’s death.
Bruce tried to pick up the pieces of the family as best he could, but Janette sunk into a depression after the fire. She tried to be strong for her husband and son, but would inevitably sink into periodical relapses of depression. The family went to numerous counselors, trying to learn to deal with their grief. No one realized that Alex wasn’t only dealing with grief at losing his sister—he was dealing with the guilt he felt at saving his puppy, and leaving his sister to die.