I feel helpless a lot more than I wish. When I see someone I love struggling with the same things that I struggled with in the past (or still do), it’s easy to feel helpless. I can’t take their hurt away. I can’t rescue them. I can’t do anything to force their pain away. This is a short story that I wrote about that.
The pungent smell of smoke and burning plastics invades my nose and jerks my senses to life. I sit up in bed while a cold sweat runs down my back. The fire alarm screeches its death wail again and again. The noise buzzes in my throbbing head. My eyes dart around the darkened room and try to make sense of the shadows and the swirling, swaying smoke that burns my lungs with each panicked breath.
Instinct or fear takes control over my limbs and forces me out of bed. Down on my hands and knees, I struggled towards freedom. Adrenaline is surging through my veins; giving me strength to fight the darkness that is confusing my mind.
My pulse throbs in my ears, louder than the fire alarm. Louder than the crashing and creaking of the burning home. Louder even than the shouts and the screams that come from outside. The only thing louder is my ragged breathing and the fear that cries over and over in my brain.
“You’ll die. You’ll die. You’ll die.” It wails in its deep, somber tones. “No hope. No hope. No hope.”
Ahead of me, orange and yellow blur together and dance high over my head. Like a starving man with food set in front of him, the flames lick up everything in their path. They come closer to me, reach for me. They call me to join them in their dance of death.
A guttural scream breaks from somewhere deep in my throat. A cry for help that I fear no one can hear. The smoke reaches its cruel, clawed fingers into my lungs. It steals any life giving oxygen that is left to me. Under its dark power, I crumple to the ground. I try to use my arms to crawl forward, but any strength has abandoned me. My will power is not enough. The flames come closer, closer with each moment. They beckon me.
“Join us. Come burn with us.”
The combined forces of smoke and fire are nearly enough to pull my eyelids shut. Forever, I believe. My vision blurs and shock after shock of pain racks my body. Just when I fear that the flames will claim me, a strong voice shouts my name.
Louder than the fear. Louder than the wreckage. Louder than the shouts and screams that echo on and on outside.
With the last of my strength, I try to yell back. I must defy the call of death and its burning embrace. But I have no voice left. Blackness twirls before my eyes.
“Welcome to the Pit of Sorrows.” It whispers in my ear. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long.”
“She is not yours.” It is the strong, thundering voice that I had heard moments earlier. He is beside me, shielding me from the claws and the fiery grasp.
He lifts me. I feel small and fail in his arms. What I could not accomplish, he finishes. He carries me towards life. Towards the oxygen that my lungs are desperate to receive. Step by step, he defies the dance of death and gives me back the life that I thought was lost to the consuming flames.
We burst through the doorway and cool, fall night air envelopes me. I choke on mouthfuls of life-giving air. I cough, I breathe, I live. He sets me down on the lawn opposite the burning house and wraps a quilt around my shoulders. I tremble, but not from cold. I look up to thank him, but he has vanished.
I turn my gaze back to the building that was once my safe sanctuary and what I see turns my stomach and fills me with renewed dread. I see her, my friend, my sister. She is not in my arms where she belongs. No, she is standing at one of the third story windows. Her face twists in agony and she raises her voice and screams for help, for someone to rescue her before it is too late.
I jump to my feet and run back towards the place that I had just been pulled from. I stumble towards the door, but they grab me. I fight them. I fight for her. But their grip is too strong. They hold tight to my arms and drag me away from her. I scream and struggle, but still they refuse to let me help my friend.
“You’ll die.” They caution. “You can’t go back in. You won’t be able to help her.”
Tears prick my eyes and I kick at them. “I don’t care! She’ll die if we don’t help her! “
They do not respond. I feel voiceless once more. Tears spill from between my singed eyelashes and splash down my dirty cheeks. I turn my eyes up to my friend and a sob breaks loudly from my throat. She stands alone. Her face is in agony. She pleads for help with unheard cries and wails.
Where is the man who had saved me? Why didn’t he save her? I rail against the injustice. I scream against the darkness. I fight to save her.
Those eyes, those desperate, broken eyes. The flames dance in their reflection. She is trembling with sheer terror as the flames call to her, just as they had called to me.
I can hear their taunting voices still reaching my ears. This time their words are different.
“Helpless. You are helpless. You can’t save anyone. You couldn’t even save yourself.”
The flames have found her. They lap up her clothes and put their mark on her face. My friend crumples to the ground. She is out of my sight. She has succumbed to the dance of death. I cry and an inhuman shriek of grief, like a she-bear mourning for her cubs, breaks from the depths of my soul. I slide from the arms that hold me, and melt into a heap on the ground. The fresh grass cools my face and hands. I thank it by watering it with my abundant tears.
From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of the man who had rescued me. He is sitting on a stump with his back to me. I run to him and slam my fists against his body.
“Why?” I screech wildly. “Why did you save me and not her? She was ten times better than I was! Why would you let me live and allow her to die?”
He turns to me and I see wet tears carving channels between the dirt and dust on his chiseled cheeks. His face mirrors mine, full of agony and pain. His eyes swim and he bows his head.
“Why?” I demand. “What did she ever do to deserve to die?”
He speaks no words but slowly opens his hands, as though he is releasing something. I look down at my own and see that they are clenched and my muscles are taut and strained. I squeeze mine tighter, scared that if I open them, I will be admitting that she is gone.
“One day.” He whispers. “One day this will make sense.”
With bent shoulders, he stands and melts into the shadowy darkness. I raise my hands to my face and grit my teeth in rage. I beat my fists over and over against the stump on which he had sat. Pain shoots through my arms, but I don’t care. They failed me. They should have fought harder. They failed to save her.
As I watch the house continue to go up in a fiery blaze and see sparks shoot high into the sky, the weight of my own helplessness crushes my soul like a millions stones. I fall to my knees once more and beg for sleep, for anything, even death, to take me away from this nightmare.
Just before I close my eyes, I think I catch a glimpse of a strong figure once more stepping into the flames with his shoulders back and head held high. When I look again, all I see is the flames laughing at me with hollow, empty eyes and mirthless grins.