one; fire

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August 4 | day of the fire

For the first time in a while, I wake up to people screaming.

I'm facedown between uprooted couch cushions, situated against floorboards and naked box-springs. Everything smells like vodka and white wine, sticks to my skin and my sleeves like a rough tongue; I'm pulling the rec room out of my hair as I lean forward, straining my eyes to distinguish the walls from the floors. The voices bellow down through the ceiling, shrieking like expired birthday-card songs. It sounds like the party's getting shut down— getting in trouble with the law always sends a recognizable tremor through suburban adolescents— but it's too late in the morning for noise complaints.

Someone rattles down the stairs, only a pale blob in my peripheral— they're grabbing my hand, jerking my wrist like they're checking for a pulse. 

"Ritchie, they're looking for you."

My vision shutters like molding film, trying to make sense of the kid's face; my brain is turning somersaults trying to find his name. It's Owen. He keeps pulling on my hand; his grip is tight and sweaty, burning into my skin. The floor moves like water; my footing is still fragile, each step unsure of itself. He keeps tugging me toward the stairs, toward screaming unfamiliar voices. My insides fold in on themselves— it's like I've just realized his words. Nobody would be looking for me here unless my parents found out. 

Owen ushers me through the back door, into stinging grass and blinding sunlight. I keep swatting him away, struggling to form words. There's a cluster of cops and firefighters in Owen's yard, a few vaguely familiar neighbors. They start orbiting like moths when they see us, talking over each other with varying degrees of concern. I can't distinguish any of the voices, only a few stray words. Fire, explosion, boiler.

 "Your house is gone," Owen blurts out, shaking me like a soda can, "it was the boiler— erupted and blew everything up. Bodies were found, or some pieces I guess, they need you to check and see if—"

I can't make out the rest, can't even force myself to stand upright. My legs crumble into the dirt; chest constricting rapidly, emptying my stomach into the grass. There's only bile now, foraging across my throat and knocking me onto the ground, over and over, as though I've fallen over a cliff— but instead of dropping into the abyss, my body clings close to the mountain and tastes every tumultuous bruise on the way down.

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