When we moved into our big beautiful townhome, I never expected to succumb to its terrifying fate.
It was a cold Sunday afternoon, I had spent most of the day doing chores: cleaning, scrubbing, vacuuming, washing and rearranging anything that moved. After providing a clean and safe zone for my little ones to scrimmage around in, I longed to spend the rest of the day relaxing upon the sofa sprouted about in bright floral pajamas as I sipped pints of hot cocoa with toasted marshmallows and nestled between the pages of a good mystery.
Nonetheless, the instant my head sunk into that comfy armrest and the first three chords of ‘Star Trek, the Next Generation’ rung across the TV screen, my eyelids became like anchors on a ship. Abruptly, the calm turned into a whirlwind and I felt as though my body had been tossed overboard. My senses were simultaneously awakened by a faint and mysterious odor which crept into the living room from down the hall and out of the kitchen. I sprung to my feet and headed for the oven door. I thought, maybe it was the leftover lasagna we had for lunch that day over warming in the oven; that was not the case!
Within minutes, the odd stench grew thick; yet I had not found its’ source. I opted to rely on experience, “They must be over there burning food, next door.” I assured myself and pried the living room window open to let in some fresh air.
Since, relaxing the day away, was no longer an option; I walked upstairs to check on my infant son who was sleeping peacefully inside his crib, snuggled up next to his favorite talking ‘Elmo’ doll, while the rest of the characters from ‘Sesame Street’ guarded his room proudly. In another bedroom, my two daughters were gearing up, ready to brave the wintry weather in honor of the first snow of the season; which to them meant you twirled around “really, really fast”, while catching snowflakes on the tip of your tongue.
“Hey girls, are y’all finished cleaning up your room now?”
“Yesss, Mommm!” They sung out, eyes wide, smiling ear to ear.
“Can we go outside now?” the youngest echoed behind her big sister.
I gave their room a once over; all their toys and clothes were neatly put away and Dora the Explorer was spread across each bunk as best a six and eight- year old could.
“Nice job!” I said with hi fives and zipped their snow suits. “Put y’all hats and gloves on too…it’s kind of chipper out there.” Both chuckled at the word chipper as their ponytails and ribbons scurried past me then galloped down the stairs like wild horses in feathery boots.
“…and don’t run!” I bellowed.
I stood there for a second in the hallway smiling, admiring their enthusiasm for brisk Ohio weather; though I folded my arms and rubbed my shoulders at the thought. I was about to walk into my bedroom and grab my sweater off the headboard, when without warning, my oldest daughter called out, “Mom…come quick!”
My heart raced and my mind wondered as I soared down the winding staircase towards their frantic yelps. Once I turned the corner, it was all apparent; the mysterious odor had not been the remnants of “the bad cook” next door, but an unforeseen mishap that would change our lives forever.
White smoke had gathered high, along the living room ceiling, slowly escaping from behind the kitchen corridor. I hesitantly followed the ominous trail leading back to a small ventilation duct on the wall, which divided our home from the neighbors. At first, I thought there was nothing to worry about (the smoke detector was not even going off), but something told me to get my kids and go.
I screamed to my girls to run outside and wait for me on the sidewalk, while I rushed upstairs to get their baby brother. He was still sound asleep; I picked him up and swaddled him in my arms, snatched the comforter out of his crib and tucked him close to my chest. We made it down the winding staircase, past the fumes invading our cozy family space and out into the winters crisp air.
When I banged on the neighbor’s front door, no one answered, but it was slightly left ajar. I shouted in, hoping someone would answer me, only a shallow beeping responded profusely. I thought a fire must be brewing inside by now or maybe someone was hurt. I swung the door open. A cloud of black smoke poured from behind the neighbor’s living room wall.
“Oh, my God!” I called out to my neighbor’s once more. Still nothing. My knees felt wobbly as I cradled my son in one hand and closed the door back with the other.
The girls and I ran across the street to Mrs. Dianne’s house to call 911. As I was telling her what happened, I saw a tall slinky man and a woman with a short bob haircut, walking in the parking lot across the way about to get into a dark blue car.
“That’s my neighbor!” I pointed her out to Mrs. Dianne. She volunteered to watch my children and get them out of the cold while I tried to catch the elusive couple.
“Linda! Linda!” I called out jumping up and down, waving my hands in the air like a mad woman. Luckily, I caught their attention before the two pulled off to who knows where.
Linda walked towards me with her eyes wide open, “Melody, what’s wrong?”
“Hey, Linda!” I panted. “There’s a bunch of smoke coming from inside your house!” Before I could say anything else, she bolted towards the back patio and opened the sliding glass door entering the kitchen.
“Oh Jesus!” What was I thinking?” she said.
A black iron cast skillet had been left on the eye, atop the stove, burning at volcanic velocity as it canvassed the entire kitchen with its black fog-like rupture. Linda grabbed the fire extinguisher that hung on the wall beside her stove, she tried to squeeze the lever, but could not get it to function properly.
“Hang on! I’ll go get mines!” I told her. I flung my patio door back and stepped onto the sparkling black and white kitchen tile I had mopped by hand a few hours earlier. The furry pink bunnies that cradled my feet left a trail of melted snow and grit as I grabbed the extinguisher running to and fro’. I returned two minutes later with my giant red aerosol can, only to find out, I was too late.
The small flame had grown into an enormous fire; it had eaten its way through the wood and plastic that surrounded its habitat. There was nothing else we could do, except to sit back and wait for the cavalry to arrive.
“I’m so sorry, Melody!” Linda said over and over.
As day grew into night, the firefighters, as brave as they were, were no match for the row of four townhouses sweltering like dry brush in a wildfire. I stood there, wide-eyed amongst the onlookers watching our livelihood go up in smoke, anticipating the moment when each of us (families) could walk back inside our cozy little nooks. Instead, I was redirected to a Red Cross truck parked across the street from our smoldering abodes, canvassed with a blanket and asked if I had a place where my kids and I could stay. I called my sister.
The next morning, I went back to my townhome alone; walked through my shattered patio door, stepped onto my black and white kitchen tile blackened with soot and littered with glass, then walked from the kitchen into the living room where my sofa was dripping wet and the air tasted as though I was stuck in the center of a chimney. I was amazed by the fact that we only had smoke and water damage to tackle. So, it seemed.
Not knowing what or who I might find, I treaded lightly up the carpeted steps with each watery squish to gather some of our personal belongings to take back to my sisters house. I walked into my bedroom, my sweater dangled untouched on the headboard. When I tiptoed across the hall to my daughter’s room, I clutched my chest. Rain and snow sprinkled down onto their neatly made bunk beds, from the damaged roof ruptured like a rotting oak tree. Scorched debris filled the room where my girls once roamed like wild horses.
I opened the door to my infant son’s room and simultaneously felt the devastation that laid before me. The wall where my son’s crib nestled against, was gone! I could see straight into the neighbor’s whole bedroom every damn thing they had in there was burnt to a crisp…. and so was my son’s crib. I thanked God right then and there that my children were safe and no lives were loss. But in the back of my mind, I wondered how something so tragic could have easily been prevented by the flick of an oven switch.
I wiped my eyes, raised up from the floor and felt something plush under my knee, “My name is Elmo!” it giggled. I smiled, picked up my son’s favorite toy and carried it down the winding staircase, past my cozy living room and out the front door of my big beautiful home.
Years later, whenever I hear a fire alarm going off repeatedly or smell wood burning in the fireplace, I still think back to that cold Sunday afternoon when I spent the whole morning cleaning only to have our home in ruins by the end of the day. Yes, you never know what God has in store for your life or the changes He may put you through -for the better. Now, in our new home, my husband and I, regularly check the batteries in our smoke detectors and inspect the fire extinguisher to make sure all is working effectively and safely. In case, of another unforeseen mishap.
In hindsight, if I could go back to that day it started in the kitchen, I would only change one thing (besides the fire). Instead, of spending most of that day worrying about chores, I would have zipped my coat, put on my feathery boots, my hat and gloves and enthusiastically braved the wintry weather with my little ones (who are all grown up now) as we twirled around “really, really” fast while catching snowflakes on the tip of our tongue.