The wall was glowing as if lit from within. Not the entire wall, just the part of the wall – – lit up and framed like a rectangle of undulating sun – – across from where she was sitting. Theresa was alone in the house, her two roommates having left, like 99% of the student body, to spend spring break at home with their families or out adventuring who knew where. But Theresa’s best friend Shelley was with her fiancé now, so Theresa didn’t have her usual option of spending the break at Shelley’s family home a few miles down the highway. Without sufficient funds to fly across the country to visit her own family, Theresa elected to stay in the rental house on this dead-end street in a residential neighborhood a couple of miles from campus. She’d spent most of the week at the library, working on research for her honors thesis, and tonight had given herself rare permission to read a book of guilt-free fiction. The neighborhood was quiet, as usual, except for the sounds of breaking glass that came from next door, which she guessed was sourced by a party hosted by the neighbor’s kids. She’d never met the neighbors on that side but knew they had a couple of teenagers. Teenagers … ugh. Barely past teenage-hood herself, Theresa wanted nothing to do with them.
It was nearly midnight when she closed the book and turned off the standing lamp next to her easy chair whose back was to the picture window. She turned off the lamp and then – – there was that wall. Glowing. And more glass breaking. Theresa wheeled on one foot to look out the window and…
SHIT! The neighbor’s house was on fire! Just there, not 15 feet from her own house, the entire back of the neighbor’s house was lit with flames, flames that thundered up above the second story, up beyond the chimney, up into the midnight sky, flames swallowing up that house from back to front, a conflagration.
Theresa’s hands were on the phone before she knew she’d crossed the room to pick it up. Never before, even in all the volunteer crisis training she had done, never before had Theresa dialed 911, but there it was, and she gave her own address and told them to hurry, hurry, please god, hurry.
She flung open the kitchen door and stepped across the 2-foot space to hammer with folded fist on the door of the converted garage that housed her friend Carmen. “Carmen!” she screamed, and again, “Carmen!” not even hearing her own voice through the terror. Without waiting to see if Carmen was awake, Theresa ran into the front yard and turned to see the neighbor’s house from the front. Carmen’s boyfriend Luke exited the garage studio apartment, still pulling on a t-shirt, and ran up to Theresa with his own wonder and fury. “Theresa! Theresa, what’s wrong?” Just inches between their faces, yet Theresa was unable to respond, the shock having taken complete command of her mind and body. She was rooted, immovable, catatonic.
Luke turned to follow her petrified gaze and leapt forward, running to the neighbor’s house as the silhouettes of people emerged in the black of night from the window above the porch roof. He clambered up the drainpipe next to the porch while Theresa remained standing in paralyzed terror and the fire trucks came careening down the street, screeching to a halt in front of the burning home. Firemen were everywhere, Carmen appeared at Theresa’s arm, Luke’s form disappeared into the darkness, the whoosh and crackle of the fire unabated. More glass broke as a fireman sent his hatchet through the front porch window and dove inside to rescuing the sleeping, suffocating baby from his crib in the front bedroom.
The two older children, who were only just barely teenagers and whose parents had left them home alone with the baby for the night, emerged from the hellish scene, physically unscathed and engulfed in their own world of shock. Theresa brought them in, suddenly a caretaker, welcoming them to sleep in her roommates’ rooms while the baby went to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.
Years later, many, many years later, Theresa allowed herself the grace of having been a mother in a moment that defied death.
Photo credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash