Chapter 4: Tried By Fire
I stared in horrified astonishment. Shock froze both Rachel and me to the spot as we gaped at the thickening gray billows which were now beginning to roll steadily from the lower story windows facing Rachel's house. Fingers of orange flame leapt for an instant in an upward jump. I knew the fire would swallow up the house rapidly if somebody didn't do something quickly.
"Rachel, call 911!" I shouted, the initial shock melting as my reason kicked in.
"On it!" she said. She dashed back inside.
I stared at the house next door. Where was Jefferson? Or Mrs. Varner? And why had Skye still not come out? I felt adrenaline surge through my body as a sickening fear squeezed my heart. I didn't think about it until later, but I subconsciously recognized the strange lack of a fire alarm blaring from within the house. Something was very wrong.
Leaving Rachel still inside, I dashed off the front porch and around to the other side of the Varners' house. The smoke was not as intense over here. Apparently the fire had started on the other side of the house and hadn't spread this far yet, fortunately. I squinted my eyes up at the upstairs windows. I couldn't see any lights on. But Skye had to be in there somewhere, because she sure hadn't come running out yet. Maybe she was trapped. Terror pulsed through me as mental images of Skye's possible peril flashed across my brain in a split-second slideshow.
Cupping my hands around my mouth, I shouted up, "Skye! Are you in there?"
I waited, but didn't hear a thing. I called again. Still no answer.
I sprinted around to the back of the house and shouted up again. Then I raced back to the side facing Rachel's house once more. I shielded my face from the smoke as I peered up through barely open eyes at the second story. I could faintly see the glow of a light in one of the upstairs windows. My heart skipped a beat.
"Skye!" I hollered with all my might. I was met with nothing more than the blackness of the raging smoke as it poured out against the night sky. A crash from inside made me jump hard. I was really scared now.
At that moment, something else rose up within me - an all-consuming awareness that I was going to have to try to save Skye myself. The sense leaped through my entire being like the threatening flames which were dancing steadily from the window. That did it. I had to go in there.
With a speed heightened by adrenaline, I scurried around to the back once again. Right at that very moment, Rachel was coming out the front door of her house.
"Chris!" she called in horror. "What are you doing?!"
"I'm going in there!" I yelled.
"You can't do that!" Rachel's voice was shaky with fright. "Come back here!"
Suddenly, all my inner feelings clashed together in one of the biggest conflicts I had ever experienced. What was I doing? I was about to run into a burning building to attempt to save a random schoolmate who had treated me with nothing but coldness since day one, in spite of all the painstaking efforts I had gone out of my way to make. And if I went in there, it would be against the concerned wishes of the only person I considered anywhere near a friend. If I didn't make it out, would Rachel forever be upset with me? And all over cold Skye Varner? Agony ripped through my mind and emotions. I couldn't bear that thought.
No. It didn't matter what Rachel or anyone else thought. I had to go in there and help Skye. She was a human being with a life that deserved to be saved just as much as anyone else's. Deep down, I knew I wouldn't be able to live with it if Skye burned up and I never did anything about it. If I was going down, I was going down as a hero for someone else, not a coward for myself.
"I'm going!" I called back to Rachel. With that, I threw myself against the back door with all my strength. Fortunately, I didn't need all my strength, because it was already unlocked.
Inside the back door, the smoke pressed upon me even worse. I could hardly see through the thick, gray cloud. I was gripped with the awful consciousness that I wouldn't be able to breathe much in this place. I'd have to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
Getting to my hands and knees to stay low below the smoke, I cautiously edged forward. A doorway to my left was absolutely belching smoke. I couldn't even see into the room for the rolling black haze that boiled in the air and the flames that played in the foreboding shroud, but I assumed it was the kitchen. Something from within crashed again, falling from ceiling to floor. Was the fire burning a hole through the ceiling? If Skye was in the room above, I'd have to act fast!
Salty tears filled my burning eyes as I felt my way into the living room. Breathing was getting harder. Spotting the stairs, I made a dash for them.
"Skye?" I called out, gripping the handrail while carefully advancing up the stairs. A fit of coughing hit me, but I didn't stop. It frightened me that I heard no response from Skye. I prayed for courage with each step.
Reaching the top of the stairs, I discovered that the smoke was no less intense up here. The door to the first room on my left stood open. Peering inside, I saw smoke and flames erupting from a gaping hole in the floor. I had never felt so terrified. Still, Skye was not there.
My breathing was shallow and choked now. I looked around and saw that the room right next door was closed. I started for it, the temperature in the house rising all the while. It almost felt as if the hairs on my arms were being singed just from the sheer heat in the building. I threw open the door. My heart jumped into my throat at the sight which met my eyes. The plaster was beginning to melt and crumble on the wall that adjoined this room to the one where the fire had already burned through the floor, and against that wall, a girl lay motionless on the bed, copper hair spilling out behind her.
"Skye!" I shouted. Oh no! Is she alive?? my panicked mind tortured me. I rushed to her side. She stirred sleepily.
Seriously? She can sleep through this?! I thought.
"Skye! Wake up! Your house is on fire!" I shook her.
Her eyes flickered open.
"Huh?" she moaned groggily.
"Come on!" I choked. "We've got to get out!"
At that moment, flames shot through the crumbling wall. I jumped back instinctively. But Skye's eyes were closed again, and she just rolled over away from the source of heat, completely oblivious.
"Skye! Get up or we'll both die in here!"
"Go away," she muttered. Flames leaped dangerously close to her head. Something was wrong, very wrong, with this picture.
Suddenly, a wicked looking flash of fire grabbed for Skye's long hair, and I watched in horror as it caught and began to burn. Panic surged through me. I grabbed a pillow and smothered it frantically. That was it. I was going to get her out of here if I had to carry her myself. And that was looking like the only option right now.
Leaning over, I slipped my arms beneath her body and struggled to find the best position to carry her. She was small, but so was I, and I knew this was not going to be easy. I felt like I was melting from the incredible heat in the room. My eyeballs stung worse than ever, and tears were now pouring steadily down my face. It was like onion crying times a hundred.
No sooner had I dragged Skye off her bed than the fire caught the covers and the bed burst into flames. I stumbled backward and almost fell over. I started for the door as quickly as I could with Skye in my arms.
Dear God, please get us out of here alive! I prayed.
Just then, something else caught my attention. I don't know what made me notice it in the panic of the moment, but as I scanned the room once more before making a run for it, I noticed a paper on the desk. For an unknown reason, my eyes were drawn to it, and in a fraction of a second, I recognized poetic lines written on it in pencil. Next to it was a thick notebook lying open and revealing pages similarly filled. That had to be Skye's own works, I thought. It looked like a whole notebook was nearly filled. Surely she'd want it saved. But was there time?
I almost did it. I almost turned and walked away. But something about that notebook gripped my mind and wouldn't let me go. Shifting Skye's weight in my arms, I freed one hand and grabbed the book. I threw it on top of Skye and made a run for it. Flames chased me out of the room.
Heading back toward the stairs, I saw the first room vomiting more smoke through its doorway. Again, my heart slammed against my chest in panic. The way to the stairs was almost blocked!
I took a deep breath, gulped, and then plunged forward, keeping as low as possible. The two or three seconds of passing through that smoke felt like hours. Pain seared through my chest with the lack of oxygen. I felt like I was going to pass out.
I stumbled down the stairs clumsily, trying to be both cautious and swift. Time was running out. I tried to shield Skye's body with my own. She still lay limp and out of it. I tucked the notebook between her and myself to protect it from the hungry flames.
My eyesight blurred with tears, I misjudged where a step was and slipped, landing on my butt and bumping awkwardly down the last few stairs. With my fleeting strength, I struggled to my feet again. I was practically dragging Skye by now. The living room spun around me as I gasped for breath. I couldn't pass out now! I had to make it out of here.
My first thought was to exit through the back door where I'd first come into the house, but then I remembered that was closer to the kitchen where the fire had been the worst just a few minutes ago. I should look for the front door instead. Feeling delirious, I staggered in that direction. My foggy brain hoped I was going faster than I felt like I was as I reached for the doorknob in seemingly slow motion. It took all my strength just to push the door open.
I tottered down the front steps, now only halfway grasping Skye's limp form. With the last ounce of my energy, I dragged her out onto the front yard, gulping in the cool night air. Flashing red lights penetrated my fading consciousness, and I heard voices that sounded far away. The fire department had arrived. I let go of Skye and collapsed on the grass next to her. That was the last thing I was aware of before I slipped into oblivion.