"Gaass Hall is on fire!" Lizzie shouted as she ran up the steps and into the doorway of my room. "Hulleman's apartment, I think."
This would be perfect, I thought as I grabbed my camera and headed past Lizzie and out the door. She stayed in my room and explained all the details she knew to the others, but I didn't stay to listen. One of the assignments for my photography class was to take and develop a human-interest photo-like the one of the fireman who held the small boy in his arms that was taken directly after the Oklahoma City bombing. A picture that invokes an emotion or tells a story.
I checked my camera to make sure I would have enough film left as I pushed through the doors of Scholte Hall and turned toward Gaass Hall. Gaass was located about a block away, and I could hear the sirens from the fire trucks blaring in my ears. I wound around the other buildings on campus and turned the corner to face the northeast corner of Gaass. There was definitely a fire here. A crowd stood at a distance from the building-close enough to watch but far enough to allow the firemen adequate space to work in. Two fire trucks were parked cock-eyed in the parking lot closest to the windows of the hall director's apartment. Then the pungent, familiar smell of a burning home hit my nose.
* * * * *
I was in the sixth grade at Prescott Elementary, and all eight kids in my science class jumped up and ran to the windows as the fire trucks screamed down the pavement that ran by the school. We watched until the cherry red trucks disappeared over the hill and their sirens faded into the distance. Even when I received a note later that day telling me to go to my grandma's after school, I still did not make the connection that those fire trucks were headed toward my house.
When I arrived at my grandma's, both she and my grandpa did not let on that anything was wrong or out of the ordinary. Grandma stood at the sink washing the dishes that were left from the cookies she had just made, and my grandpa sat in his recliner chewing on black licorice and listening to the Trading Post program on the radio.
Brett and I sat at the oak table in grandma's kitchen contentedly dunking our fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies in the green and white coffee mugs of milk when my sister Wendi came through the front door. She was in junior high, and that meant that she rode a different bus home everyday and arrived home a few minutes later than we did. She had heard on her way home from school that our house had caught on fire and immediately asked grandma for better information.
"Did everything in our house burn up?" she as she paused in the doorway with tears in her eyes.
I stopped with my cookie halfway in the mug of milk and starred at her unable to move or speak. I remembered the fire trucks that I saw in science class and the unexplained instructions to go to grandma's after school, and I knew she was telling the truth. I looked over at Brett and saw that he was also staring at Wendi. Tears welled up in my eyes and spilled onto the tabletop, but I was too shocked to try to catch them. My grandma turned away from the sink full of dishes she was washing and dried her hands as she sat next to me at the table.
"Not everything has burnt," she said calmly. "Your dad saw the smoke coming from the house when he was doing chores this morning, and he was able to run in and call the fire department before the fire spread to the downstairs. Your mom and dad will be here in a couple hours to take you to the house to see. It's not as bad as it sounds."
We were all speechless. This was one of those things that you heard about on the news and never stopped to consider that it could actually happen to you. My grandma put her hand on mine and brought me back to reality. I managed to move my arm just enough to wipe away the tear that had pooled next to my nose, and I looked over at Wendi and Brett. They both had the same look of despair and fear that I was feeling written all over their faces.
During the next two hours before our parents came to get us, I sat curled in a ball on my grandma's living room couch and went over and over in my head all the things that were dear to me at home-my stuffed animal collection, all my Laura Ingals Wilder and Baby-sitter's Club books, my clothes, my newly redecorated room-but mostly I cried tears of uncertainty. Where would we sleep? What clothes would I wear tomorrow? Would we have to find a new house and move off the farm-or to another town?
I heard the front door open and my dad's voice trail through the doorway. I ran to the door and flung my arms around my mom, and the tears started again.
"Don't cry," she said with a smile. "Everything is okay."
For the first time since I had heard the news, I let my shoulders relax and blew out a long, deep breath. If mom said everything was okay, then everything was okay.
I stared up at the blackened corner of our house as my dad pulled the Ford Bronco into the driveway. Debris scattered the yard, the wood on the front porch was darkened with pools of water left from the fireman's hoses, and the whole farm seemed so quiet. The house was still completely standing, and it didn't look as bad as I had imagined. If you looked at the house from a certain angle, you couldn't even tell anything had happened. As I climbed out of the back seat, an odor hit my nose and climbed into my nostrils. It reminded me of a campfire smell, only heavier and grayer.
As we walked through the kitchen door, I couldn't see any noticeable damage. Everything looked normal except for the cardboard that had been laid on the floor to catch muddy and sooty footprints, and the pile of furniture that had been moved from the living room into the dining room. We had been told what to expect. The fire had started in Brett's room upstairs and that everything on the second floor was covered with ash and soot, but most things, besides those in Brett's room, had not been burned. The living room had quite a bit of water damage since it was right below Brett's room and the water from the firemen's hoses had streamed down the walls and soaked the carpet. We were also instructed not to take anything back to grandma's with us. The insurance company would be coming tomorrow to assess all the damages, and we would be able to salvage things tomorrow after they were done.
As we climbed the stairs of the house, the smell got stronger and I slowed my pace. The woodwork was blackened and warped from the heat. The carpet was wet and made a squishing noise beneath my tennis shoes. When we came to the top of the stairs, I looked first in Mom and Dad's bedroom. Everything had turned shades of black and gray, but nothing looked like it had been on fire. I turned and looked across the hallway in the direction of my own room. The soot made dark streaks down the new, pink wallpaper on the walls. The tiny blue flowers and light pink hearts that striped down the pink background could hardly be seen. As I walked inside, I closed my eyes and tried to remember what it had looked like one month ago when the wallpaper had dried and we had just finished hanging all the new pictures on the walls.
The light pink hearts in the wallpaper matched the pink canopy above my bed. I had always wanted a canopy bed. It made me feel like a princess. Mom and I had gone through the magazine together to pick out the pictures to hang on my walls. My favorite was the painting of a girl with soft, brown curls who held a basket of daisies in one hand and patted the head of a sleeping, white lamb with the other. I thought this girl looked like me.
I opened my eyes and looked up at this picture. I chose to hang it above my dresser so everyone would see it as soon as they walked into the room. Now the glass was tinted gray causing the picture to look dreary. Suddenly the girl didn't seem so happy and sweet. I turned to look in the mirror above my vanity and noticed through the gray haze that I, too, had smudges of black soot across my face. The clock my grandparents had given me for my birthday ticked above the mirror-I looked but couldn't tell the time. The blue, plastic had curled in the heat of the fire. I stared at it for a moment amazed that it continued to work when nothing else in the house seemed to be left with any life. How was it that this clock could continue to tick when my life was at a standstill?
My eyes fell on a picture sitting on my night stand. It had been taken a few weeks earlier when my friends Brooke and Nichole had come over for the day. In the picture, we were all standing in front of my dresser-just below the picture of the girl and the lamb-making faces and giving each other bunny ears. I picked it up and wiped it clean with the sleeve of my shirt. I knew we weren't supposed to take anything with us, but surely this one picture wouldn't matter. I slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans. I needed something to take with me that was mine-something that reminded me that I hadn't lost everything.
I turned to walk out of my room and shifted my head to look through the doorway of Brett's room. His walls were completely black, and his baseball posters were singed and curled up the side of the walls. All the windows were broken out from the pressure of the fire, and plywood now covered the empty holes. There was virtually nothing left of his mattress. He was already inside-his eyes searching for his belongings and hands itching to sift through the wreckage. I walked into the room just as he spotted something recognizable. I followed the direction of his pointing finger with my eyes. There, curled up on the floor, was his four-foot rubber snake. He had gotten this for his birthday and loved to use it to torture our youngest cousin who was convinced it was real. Now its dark green back and red tongue was tainted with a darker film, and it looked even more malevolent than before.
Dad reached down and picked it up. The tail of the snake bounced up and coiled in the air as it left the floor. "The fire didn't hurt this thing at all," he said with a laugh.
Dad's laugh made me laugh, and our laughter made Brett laugh. Suddenly I wasn't so worried anymore.
* * * * *
I pressed my camera against my face and zoomed in as the firemen began tossing things out the window of the Hulleman's apartment and hosing them off-a chair, a couch cushion, the curtains that were draped around the window. I pulled my camera slowly away from my eye. For a split second I could see my own belongings being tossed out my two-story bedroom window as it did when we cleaned up after the fire. The sadness of the situation dropped onto my shoulders and caused my arms to let my camera fall against my chest. This scene was more than just an opportunity for a photography project. I remembered the tears that streamed down my face when my blackened dog Butchy joined my thirty-seven other stuffed animals in the oversized dumpster that was parked under my bedroom window.
I developed and turned in the picture of the firemen hosing off a smoldering couch cushion. One fireman stood just outside the window with the hose, and another hung out the window as he tossed smoking possessions from the apartment. The picture was black and white, and the sadness it reflected created just the right emotion for a perfect human-interest photo.
I am currently a student at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where I am a senior English major and communication minor. This piece is a slight adaptation of my favorite story I wrote for my Nonfiction Writing course last semester. The assignment was to write a story using a style characteristic found in Barbara Robinette Moss's book Change Me into Zeus's Daughter. I chose to use the "flashback" style when retelling my own childhood experience with a house fire. After graduation in the spring of 2002, I would like to stay close to home (the midwest) and find a career in editing or copy writing. I also plan to continue with my creative nonfiction writing in my spare time.
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