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The Fire Escape
The fire escape is going to be my only option.
The realization makes me scowl to myself at my brother’s raging stupidity as I stare at the empty spot where the key usually is. But that is just like him, to take the shared extra key from its hiding place and then forgetfully lock it inside when he’s done with it. My anger flows toward my mother, who is too cheap to provide us all with our own copy. All of this on a freezing December evening, when no one will be home until much later.
I clunk down the stairs in my grubby old black boots, the only shoes I own that still lasted all this time. My coat, however, wasn’t as lucky and is already full of little tears and loose buttons. I huddle it around my flimsy t-shirt and jeans ensemble a as a burst of cold air grips me on my way out the door. Snow is already beginning to pile on the frozen ground, one quick flake after another. I remember the blizzard warnings I heard earlier, and curse my brother again. Thanks a bunch, Andy. You couldn’t have decided to forget to leave the key on a summer day?
I haven’t used the escape in at least a year. It’s old and rusted, and sounds way more fun than it actually is. I circle around the building angrily, wishing my mother wasn’t working a double-shift tonight, wishing Andy wasn’t staying over a friend’s house, and wishing I had somewhere else to go. I reach the left fire escape, which is frozen over and looks dangerously slippery.
I pull my jacket sleeve over my hand and grip the skinny metal banister, pulling myself onto the step, trying to avoid falling and splitting my head open. I count how many flights up I have to go, and try to think how fast the time will disappear. I pull myself onto the second step, then the next, and then the one after that.
Snow is falling harder now, making it difficult to see the flights above me. The sun is sinking lower and lower as well, being replaced by an ominous dark sky. I shut my eyes against the cold air, and slowly pull myself up to the second flight. Two more of these to go, and I’ll be at my window. My window has the hot air balloon decal on it, the one that was there before we moved in.
The more I think about my window, the more I begin to wonder when the last time I unlocked it was. Oh, no. What if it’s locked, too? I frantically ignore the notion, figuring at this point, if there is a God, it might as well be open already when I get there. The cold is beginning to make my fingers hurt, and I slowly touch my cheek, feeling the warmth vanish. The window will be open, I tell myself. I’m going to climb in, grab a flannel blanket, and drink hot chocolate while I watch Comedy Central. It’s going to be a wonderful Friday night.
A gust of wind compromises my balance, and I reach for the banister to steady myself. Its icy texture causes me to let go abruptly, and stumble again. I squeeze my eyes shut and climb another step bravely, trying not to think about how cold it is, or how much snow is falling, or how slippery these tiny old steps are. Flannel blanket, hot chocolate, Comedy Central.
I make it up another flight, and then another, all with my eyes closed against the wind. I open my eyes now, looking for my window, the hot air balloon decal, but I don’t see it. I squint hard, knowing I should have reached it by now. Panic begins to thump in my head, and I whirl around and try to see through the snowy wind across the street. It’s impossible. I’m surrounded by white, and only white.
But then I think about the left fire escape again and realize something awful. I’m on the wrong side. My apartment is on the other fire escape, the right one, on the other side of the building. I gasp at my own idiocy. It must run in the family. I want to scream now, knowing I’m trapped up here.
The snow is blinding, and I can’t even see the ground below me anymore. Everything is white. The sky is almost fully dark now, and I know no one will be home for a while. I turn back to the window I’m at, which is dimly lit with its own decal of a lion, and probably leading into an apartment with lots of blankets and cocoa. I sit down in defeat, deciding I might as well just freeze to death right here. I peer inside again, wishing I could be on the other side of the glass.
I hate my older brother that doesn’t ever consider my existence. I hate my mom that’s never home, even when she isn’t working. I hate that the only family I have, the two people I’ve known my whole life, don’t value me enough to remember to leave a damn key. Or to provide me with a spare. I wonder when they’ll realize where I am, or if I’ll even survive long enough for them to do so in time. How long does it take to die in weather like this?
I slump against the chilly window, wanting to cry. Wishing that just for a moment, I’d know what it was like to be inside a warm little room, with people that care about me, people that I can relate to, and people that are actually home at this hour. I wish I knew what love really felt like.
The cold is numbing, and I hardly feel it anymore. But I’m tired, and I nestle in the small area I’m curled up in, feeling the snow begin to lighten up. The pressure decrease is comforting, and sends me into a faraway lull, one where I’m warm, one where I fall asleep contently.
- - -
When I do wake up, it is warm. There’s no snow anymore. Heat is pulsating like steady breaths on to my face, but I’m alone. I’m lying on a couch in what looks like an unfamiliar living room, with daylight streaming in. I sit up, pushing the fleece blanket that covers my body away and onto the floor. Even that looks strange. Where am I?
“Hello?” I whisper. I have no idea where I am, or where all the cold went. Did I die out there? Is this… the Afterlife? I look around again. It’s certainly plain looking to be Heaven. But it’s too cozy to be Hell. Maybe I’m in purgatory.
“Is anyone here?” I ask again, a little louder. Footsteps sound somewhere in the back, maybe down the hall. I look the other away, noticing a window that leads to a fire escape. I gasp, realizing this must be the apartment I was sitting at. Did I break in during my sleep? I start to panic, but the footsteps are getting louder.
I jump up, ready to escape out the window, but I’m impeded when my pants slide off my waist to the floor. Looking down, I realize these aren’t mine either. They’re pajama pants, and they’re way too big. I don’t remember changing. My head is spinning with all the confusion and I yank the pants back up and reach for the window.
“Hey!” A boy’s voice calls before it. “What are you doing?”
I whip around, one hand holding up my pants, and the other pressed against the window. “I—who are you?” I blurt out. He stares at me, a bit surprised, with wide green eyes and messy brown hair that reveals he just woke up. His shock makes me decide I’ve broken in. I want to run away, but I’m locked in place.
“My name’s Kale,” he says finally. His voice is calm. I partially relax. “And you… I don’t know your name. But you were freezing to death on my fire escape.”
I blink, not sure how to respond. I guess I didn’t break in. “Well,” I huff, “I didn’t know it was yours, okay? It was supposed to be the way to mine since my stupid brother was too much of an a** to remember—” He raises an eyebrow and I instantly regret freaking out. “I mean… I was trying to…”
“You were trying to get into your own apartment?” he suggested. A small smile is creeping up on his lips, but he’s obviously doing his best to avoid it. At least he’s amused, and not petrified.
“Exactly,” I mutter. “So I must have really been out…” I hoist up the loose pants again, which his eyes flicker to. My mouth drops as I suddenly wonder if this was his doing. “Hey, you better not have…” I sputter, but he interrupts me.
“No! Of course not. You were soaked, though. My sister, Lizzie. She’s the one that—got you new clothes. She’s still asleep is all. Don’t worry.” He looks away sheepishly, causing me to half-smile.
“Oh.” I feel guilty now, for being so accusative about everything. “Sorry.” He shakes his head and chuckles under his breath in response.
“Well, if my clothes are dry now, I’ll change.” I feel awkward being here, realizing I’ve spent the night in a stranger’s house, in a stranger’s clothes, all because they found me passed out by their window. I must seem insane. Or just really dumb. Either way, I have the strong urge to leave and never mention it again.
“Uh,” he says, looking lost. “Oh. Yeah. Lizzie dried them. I think they’re okay. I’ll get them.” He heads off down the hall, rapping at a door as he goes by. “Get up! She’s awake!” He calls.
I smile again, at the hospitality of two random people, but feeling like I’ve imposed. Lizzie emerges from her bedroom a minute later, smiling when she sees me. She looks younger than Kale and I, maybe about twelve or thirteen years old.
“Hi,” she says brightly. “You’re okay!”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I say, laughing nervously. “Thank you so much.”
“Sure,” she replies, adjusting the waistband of her tiny cartoon character pajama pants. The ones I’m wearing must be Kale’s.
He returns a moment later, holding my jeans and t-shirt. “Your coat… that didn’t get completely dry.” He looks nervous, like I might lash out since it’s not ready. I laugh and say it is fine, and his eyes dart to Lizzie’s in relief.
She shows me the bathroom, where I change and then come back out, to find only Kale sitting uncomfortably on the couch, with my coat next to him. “It’s pretty much dry now,” he says. I smile and look around for Lizzie. He notices and says, “She went on the computer. Sorry. She’s a kid; she loses interest in things fast.” He then adds, “Not that she doesn’t care that you’re okay or anything. Just now that you are, he work’s done in her mind, you know?”
I laugh. “It’s you I should be apologizing to,” I say. “For imposing like this.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Kale says. “Besides, I’m glad that I—” His mouth stays open for a second, but he changes his mind and shuts it. I wait for him to speak again, but when he does, I don’t think he’s saying what he was planning to. “Your name. What is it?”
“Kristine,” I say quietly. “With a K.” The second part I add without thinking, only because I hate when people spell it with a C.
“Really?” he laughs. “Kale’s short for Kaleb. But mine’s with a K, too.”
I smile, happy we have some common ground, and surprised that I actually care. Usually I’m not too friendly and little things like that don’t interest me. Something about Kale does, but that might only be because he saved my life.
“Well, Kale with a K, it’s really great meeting you. But I should go home; my mom has no idea where I am.” He stands up quickly, but I pause. “I wonder if she even noticed.”
“What?” he asks.
I look at him and open my mouth to speak again. But I hesitate like he did. “Kale,” I say finally. He looks at me eagerly. “Thanks for noticing.” He smiles genuinely and touches my arm. I don’t jerk away like I usually do. Maybe this is what being cared about feels like. The funny part is that Kale and Lizzie are strangers.
But care and love, I realize, doesn’t always result from the people you’ve always known. It’s just where you find it, like inside a window with a lion decal. I say goodbye to Kale, knowing it won’t be the last time I see him, and I disappear out into the new day, feeling warmer than ever.