“Jack, wake up.”
Peering through half-closed eyelids, Jack Woods lifted his head and glanced around the room, a final snore sputtering from his lips. He lay sprawled on the couch, still fully
dressed. The eleven o’clock news was wrapping up on the television. His wife stood over him, her brown hair slightly damp and cascading around her face. Freshly bathed, she carried a clean
scent of soap and shampoo and looked snug in a terrycloth robe.
“Again?” he asked.
Jessica nodded. “Again.” She sounded amused.
Yawning, he took her hands, feigning help in getting to his feet. Their nightly ritual. “Sorry, darling. I guess I’ve been deserting you both this month.”
“You haven’t. I know you’re tired, and I don’t mind letting you rest. This way, you’ll have a little energy left for me.”
Jack’s smile matched hers. “Ah, so that’s all I’m good for.”
She laughed, then grew serious. “That and gathering wood. I think you’d better build a fire in the stove. The weatherman said we’re in for a severe storm tonight—rain mixed
with snow and the temperature is supposed to drop. The wind is picking up, and it’s chilly in here.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I swear, Jess, this winter is the last I’m going to fight with that old stove. I’ll get this house converted this summer—no matter what.”
“I know, darling.” She followed him to the kitchen, helped him into his heavy winter coat, and then handed him his hat. This speech became Jack Wood’s special ever since they bought
the old farmhouse for a song nine years before—when Jessica discovered she was pregnant with Jackie.
God knew it wasn’t his fault or hers. When they thought they had enough money saved, he ended up working a second job to make ends meet. And when they had the time, they didn’t have the
money. They couldn’t seem to coincide the two to make the electric heat a reality. And now a new baby to complicate things.
“Jackie in bed?” He pulled the red wool scarf tighter around his neck.
“Hours ago. Poor baby got tired of waiting for Daddy to wake up and tuck her in. She made me promise you would kiss her before you went to bed.”
“I’ll do just that,” he whispered, pulling her close. “Right before I give her mother one.”
A light shone in her green eyes he didn’t notice until now.
“I have something to tell you, Jack,” she said as she slipped from his arms. “Don’t be long.”
He stared after her as she disappeared back into the darkened living room. She’d been acting secretively all week after her last doctor’s appointment. And now, that light flickered
in her eyes. The last time he saw that was ten years ago when he learned he would become a father.
He wondered if he was right as he stepped into the windy night, his breath visible. He would love another child and a playmate for their daughter, but they didn’t need the worry
about the cost of raising another one. Who wouldn’t be worried? Things were getting so expensive these days.
Standing before the woodpile, he gazed up and thought that the weather prediction might be accurate. Currents of cold air forced him to put his head down against the gusts.
Resigned to the fact he had to make the old house warm for the night, he pulled logs from the woodpile. Juggling the logs, he used his foot to push the back door closed. Bracing the stack of wood
with his chin, he turned the lock and headed for the basement.
He held the flickering match to the kindling, waiting for the small flame to take hold. If he didn’t fall asleep on the couch, there would still be hot embers in the stove. As it was, it took
some time and more newspaper to get the fire to burn hot enough. He watched the flame burn brighter until he knew it wouldn’t snuff itself out, then he piled the heavier logs into the stove and
closed the rusty old door. Satisfied, he bounded up the steps to his wife. In his haste, he forgot about his promise to give his little girl a kiss goodnight.
Hours later, the first streak of lightning split the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder. The clouds opened up, and a deluge of rain beat down.
In the basement, a small spark jumped from the old stove and landed on a bundle of old yellowed newspapers stashed beneath the steps. The spark ignited on the dry paper, the flames rising, licking
hungrily at the wooden steps of the basement. One by one, it consumed them, leaving hot red ashes mixed with splinters dripping to the dirt floor below.
The flames devoured the thin cellar door and snaked across the kitchen floor, the tile popping and blistering as the red and white checkered squares melted together. Heat and smoke engulfed the
small kitchen, the fire now attacking Jessica’s new curtains hanging over the sink. A slight breeze from the lack of insulation around the window only fed the flames the oxygen needed to grow even
more in intensity.
On the second floor, eight-year-old Jackie tossed and turned in her sleep. The pink comforter covering her was too warm, and she kicked at it, knocking it to the floor. The sheet twisted
around her ankles. She was dreaming the monster under her bed held her tight.
The sudden cry from her lips woke her, and she bolted upright. Beads of sweat dampened her forehead. Her hair clung to her face and neck. She coughed and gagged from
the smoke in the air.
She sprang from her bed, her fear of the monster lurking beneath quickening her steps, and fled the room, her bare feet thumping on the hardwood floor
One at a time, she descended the stairs. She spied the blaze as she reached the last step. Her feet remained frozen to the spot, her eyes wide with terror.
The sound of glass shattering in the kitchen startled her, and her legs unfroze. She found her voice and screamed for her parents, and she kept screaming as she evaded the fire by blazing
a trail behind the sofa. She didn’t get far before she saw the flames blocking her way.
Moving to the front door, she turned the knob and flung it open. The crisp night air smacked her in the face, took her breath for a moment, then her lungs filled with fresh oxygen, and she coughed
She stood shivering on the lawn, her bare feet cold on the wet grass. Drenched from the rain, Jackie left the front porch and circled the house. She stood on her toes to peer into
her parent’s bedroom. She saw nothing, so she stepped into the hard dirt of the flower bed beneath her parents’ window.
The entire room was filled with smoke. She cupped her hands around her face and leaned closer to the window, but she got too close and lost her balance, falling against the heated glass,
leaving pieces of her skin behind, and her hands raw and blistered.
Fighting against the pain in her hands and ignoring the fresh burns and bruises, Jackie continued to beat on the window, crying out for her parents. Her breath turned into ragged gasps,
and her voice a small, raspy cry.
The shrill scream of a siren split the night. Rotating red lights pulsed against the starless sky. The last thing she remembered was a loud rumbling beneath her feet. Suddenly, the glass bowed out
to meet her, and with a single boom, it tossed Jackie out into the night.
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