PROLOGUE: 15 years ago
“I got him!” he screamed as he staggered out of the garage, coughing violently to clear the choking smoke from his lungs. Flames were now spewing out of the first floor windows of the split-level house, lighting up the summer night sky. Red-hot embers danced and swirled skyward, like millions of drunken fireflies cavorting about. In his arms he cradled their trembling chocolate Labrador retriever, Brownie. He heard the sirens of the fire trucks, pretty close now. His wife, Marie, just stood there in the driveway looking at him or the house, eyes wide with panic. Her mouth worked but nothing came out.
He gently laid Brownie down on the cool asphalt, knelt beside him and smoothed his fur while trying to console the dog. “I found him cuddled in a ball under the laundry room sink. Poor thing—” Suddenly, he stopped talking and whipped his head around, searching. “Where’s David?”
No response. His wife began to shake badly, head to toe. He stood up, walked over to her and quickly put his hands on her shoulders. Screaming into her face now, “Marie, where is he?” However, seeing her up close, he was scared to death he already knew.
“H-he went after you to look for Brownie,” she finally managed to get out between fresh, hysteria-laced sobs. “He moved too fast—I couldn’t stop him.” She pointed in the general direction of the garage, her arm swaying wildly.
He didn’t hesitate, ignored her sobs and ran back into the garage. The metal door leading into the house radiated heat. He reached out and put his hand on it. Yow, it was hot—definitely hotter than it had been five minutes ago when he had come out with Brownie. He didn’t have time for this safety drill. He opened the door, ignoring how the knob burnt into the palm of his hand.
Flames burst out of the doorway, growling like some alien beast. The intense heat and flame bowled him backwards and he lost his footing and went down hard, hitting his back on his John Deere tractor. The hair on his right forearm was singed off. “David,” he yelled from the cement floor, “Come on out! I got Brownie!” No reply other than the roaring of the flames and the crackling of the wood that used to be the frame of his house. Entry, here, was not an option.
He scrambled to his feet, ran back out of the garage and around to the front of the house. He heard the lumbering fire trucks coming up the street, sirens blaring so loud it was hard to think. Flashing red lights played on the trees in the front yard casting strange shadows, lending a sense of unreality to the scene. He noted that the flames were spreading quickly to the second floor. Not much time. He approached the front door. He knew without checking that the front door was locked—Marie was a stickler for these things. He grabbed a key under the thick bristly doormat with WELCOME printed in bold letters on it. It struck him as absurd. Welcome to hell, maybe. He unlocked the front door and opened it. Again a wall of flame greeted him. Although this time he was ready; he took two steps back,. careful not to fall down.
“David, come out!” he yelled. “I have Brownie!” He paused to listen—he thought he could make out a faint scream. But, from where? He was about to leave when he heard a peculiar sound coming from the living room. Was that someone playing the piano? Again, the unreality of the situation washed over him and for a split second he questioned his sanity. Then, just as quickly, he realized the piano wires were simply twanging randomly as the flames set them free.
He ran around to the back of the house almost slipping on the dew-slicked grass. He peered in the kitchen window. The flames were not as intense here, but smoke was everywhere. He thought he could make out some movement through the smoke. Please God, protect him. Save my boy.
He tried the handle—for once it wasn’t burning hot. However, it was locked and he didn’t have the key. He kicked at the door, high near the lock. He heard cracking but the door held. He took several steps backwards, then ran toward the door and leapt off the ground. He hit the door squarely with both feet. The door and frame splintered, crashing inwards. He fell backwards onto the flagstone patio, smacking his right elbow in the process. Smoke billowed out of the ruined doorway, but no flames, thank God.
Just as he made for the entrance, he was tackled from behind knocking the wind out of him. “I can’t let you go in there,” came a deep voice of authority. He turned over and looked up at a large firefighter standing over him. The man was outfitted with all the latest gear, complete with air tanks strapped to his back and helmet; the firefighter resembled a cross between a spaceman and a sumo wrestler.
Painfully and with effort, he sucked air into his squashed lungs, so he could speak. “You don’t understand,” he pleaded hoarsely while climbing to his feet. “My boy’s in there!” He pointed to the doorway.
Another fireman, smaller than the first, ran over and helped restrain him. The big one said, “Take it easy! If you go in there, you’ll never come out alive.”
He looked over into the face of the man who was speaking—wanting to gauge the extent of his cruelty. After all, who could possibly forbid him from trying to rescue his son? And what would such a monster look like? He could just make out his eyes through the breathing mask. Amazingly, the firefighter had kind, bluish eyes and when he spoke next, he did so with compassion. “We have equipment—we’ll go in and get him.” Blue eyes turned and shouted in the direction of the driveway, “Bill, bring the hose and gear around back here! Hurry!”
He purposely stopped struggling and felt the arms holding him relax a bit. He also knew time was running out. Kind folks or not, he couldn’t wait for their equipment to be ready. He broke free of their grip and ignored the cries of “Shit!” and “Don’t be a fool!”
He leapt through the doorway into the kitchen, his sneakers crunching on broken glass. “David—it’s Dad—I’m in the kitchen.” Coughing spasms prevented him from saying anything further. The black smoke was so thick he couldn’t see a thing. Breathing was a nightmare. He quickly dropped to all fours, managing to cut up his hands on the glass debris. But at least here he could breathe in little gasps and see his hands clearly enough on the vinyl brick flooring.
“David, I’m coming for you, son,” he screamed. More coughing fits. Again, he imagined he could hear faint cries coming from upstairs, but he couldn’t be sure because the roar of the flames was so loud. He crawled out of the kitchen into the foyer to the base of the stairway headed to the second floor. He began to ascend the stairs. As he went up, the heat quickly ratcheted up and the smoke thickened, if that was possible.
Coughs racked his chest again. He knew he wouldn’t be able to breathe much longer. He suffered his first moment of indecision. Going further upstairs might surely kill him. The firefighters had been right. If he turned around now, he could probably make it out the way he had come, to the cool, fresh air outside. Then he heard the sound of his boy crying—no imagining this time—a horrible, high-pitched keening that pierced his very soul. He pressed upwards—now, he had no choice. Dear God, I pray for a miracle. Deliver my son.
He paused halfway up the staircase and lifted his sweat-soaked T-shirt to cover his mouth and nose. He took in several deep breaths through it, and then held the last one. He clambered up to the top of the stairs. He reasoned that if he went fast, he might have enough air to make it to David’s room, at the end of the hallway. Getting back would be another matter. The smoke burned his eyes like someone had poured acid in them. He could barely see—but it really didn’t matter. He knew the layout in his sleep. He made it to the top of the stairway and looked down the hallway.
What he saw filled him with a sickening dread. Midway down, the hallway was blocked by a hellish inferno with no obvious way to pass it. The heat pouring off the flames was roasting him alive. He put one hand up in front of his face, to shield his eyes so he could see. And still he advanced. As he got closer, he noticed that the wall of flame wasn’t quite as thick as he had first thought. There was a spot clear of flames at the end of the hallway, near David’s room. Perhaps if he jumped through the flames, he could make it to the other side alive. God will protect me—I have faith.
His air hunger was becoming unbearable. His surroundings started to swirl and his vision dim. No—got to hold on to consciousness—can’t black out now! So close. He started to run toward the flames but tripped on some unseen debris and went down hard. The air was forced out of him and then he reflexively sucked in a lungful of thick, burning smoke. Immediately, he began coughing painfully. It felt like he was ripping his lungs to shreds—soon the bloody remnants would be spilling out of his mouth. No air was getting in. The hallway dimmed again and he realized he would not make it—he had failed. His last flicker of consciousness caught a glimpse of his boy through the smoke and flame at the far end of the hallway. The wall of flame separating them had grown huge. David was reaching out to him and it sounded like he might be saying, “Dad, I’m here! Please help me!”