| The smell of smoke comes from nowhere.
I am sitting on my bed, reading a book, when I first breathe in the sooty odor. I’m not concerned; in fact, I smile. Joshua has a habit of sneaking out of bed for late night snacks. He probably just made some toast and burned it. Not wanting to interfere with his nighttime excursion, I focus again on my book.
After a moment, however, the smell is stronger. I look up, and see that the air is a smoky haze. I sigh exasperatedly, standing and heading out of my bedroom. That boy is so disaster-prone, I think. He should have asked me for help. Too bad that by age five he believes he can do anything.
When I reach the top of the stairs, I suddenly realize the situation is much worse than I first thought. Smoke fills the stairway, limiting my vision to only a few feet. I inhale sharply in shock. It takes me a moment to react. When I recover my senses, I hurry down the stairs, more by habit than sight. I begin to cough. Hurriedly, I pull the front of my shirt over my mouth and nose, trying to filter the air. When I reach the ground, I grope for the wall. The smoke is thicker here. I feel my way down the hallway, and suddenly through the haze I see flickering light coming from the kitchen.
Panic hits me. There is a fire in my house, and my son is not with me.
“Joshua!” I shout. Is he in the kitchen, where the fire is? I dash through the chaos, blinded by smoke and by my fear. The light grows with every step, and I can hear the crackling of flames.
I reach the doorway to the kitchen, the heat unbearable. The entire room is ablaze. My burning eyes scan the small room, but the familiar form of my son does not appear. Trembling with relief, I duck back into the hallway, and return to the stairway.
“Joshua!” I shout again. A moment passes, then two. Why doesn’t he respond? I dash up the stairs, calling his name again and again. I reach his room, and my heart stops cold; he isn’t here. I check all the rooms on the second story. They are all empty.
Tears come to my eyes, from the smoke and terror. He must be downstairs, I tell myself desperately. I must have missed him when I was running back upstairs.
As I run down the stairs a second time, I can hear sirens in the night air. Someone must have seen the smoke and called, I think.
I comb the entire downstairs, not missing a single corner or shadow. There is no sign of my son. As I’m about to search again, the front door is thrown open, and two men in firefighting gear appear in the doorway.
“Thank God!” I gasp, dashing towards them. They see me, and gesture for me to go outside. The sound of the fire is louder now, and I can see the flames have spread to the hallway.
“My son!” I pant, trying to catch my breath. One of the men, grabs my arm and leads me to the door. I fight him. “No, my son!”
He takes me firmly by the arms, and I am forced to give in as he walks me out the front door. Once we are outside, he quickly flips up the visor shielding his face from the smoke.
“Where is your son, ma’am?” he asks urgently. I am vaguely aware of other firefighters running to the house. There is an engine pulled up beside the curb and there is a flurry of activity as the fire hose is prepared.
“I don’t know,” I say desperately. “I couldn’t find him.”
“We’ll get him,” he says. “Stay outside. If you run in trying to help, you’ll only be in the way.” Without another word, he disappears through the doorway.
I back further away from the door as firefighters rush in with the hose. I hug myself to try and keep control. I haven’t given the damage to my home a second thought; my only focus is my son. They’ll find him, I tell myself. They’ll find him and everything will be alright.
I wait. Long seconds pass, and then minutes. Despite the desperate fighting, the fire rages on. It roars like a wild beast, ready to devour my child, and all I can do is watch. As more time passes, I become frantic. I search all the windows for movement, any sign that they have found Joshua. I see nothing but the smoke and flickering flames.
The tears begin to come, and I wipe angrily at them. Crying won’t help my son. My patience is gone; I’ve waited long enough. I run towards the door, determined to save my son.
A figure appears at the door: a fireman. And in his arms….
“Joshua!” I cry, my relief overwhelming. He sees me now, and his tear-streaked face is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. He squirms to be put down, and the fireman concedes. As soon as his little feet touch the ground, he runs to me. I kneel and catch him in my arms, my body a barrier to the chaos around us. I feel nothing but his small body against mine, and I hug him close, crying, knowing how easily I could have lost him forever. He is wracked with sobs, and I rock him gently, whispering soothing words. He is safe; my joy, my life.
As I hold him, I watch the battle for my home. The fire struggles fiercely, but the firefighters persist, blasting a continuous stream of water directly at its source. Eventually, the flames begin to shrink, and the heat lessens. At last, the danger is past.
We are given blankets and an assurance that paramedics are on their way to inspect us for burns and smoke inhalation. The bottom story of my home is blackened, and men walk over every inch, wanting to be certain there are no smoldering remains.
Joshua’s crying has quieted. I pull him away from me and look him in the face. His eyes are red from the tears, and his cheeks are streaked with soot and grime
“Joshua, where were you?” I ask gently, trying not to upset him further. “Why didn’t you answer when I called you?”
He sniffled. “I thought you were mad at me. I was hiding.”
“Oh, darling,” I say, wiping away the soot from his face. “I’m not mad. I’m just happy you’re safe.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, miserable. “I just wanted something to eat. I didn’t mean to.”
“I know you didn’t, sweetheart.”
He looks over the blackened shell of our home. “Is our house gone, mommy?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know, Joshua. But I know you’re safe, and that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
I enfold him in my arms once more, close my eyes, and say a prayer of thanks.