The fire engine races as fast as my heart through the dark, snow-banked streets, sirens shrieking.
Still I see his blackened shell, red eyes pitted inside a face twisted with madness and malice. Still he is with me. But I couldn’t tell the shrink that because I have to keep going. If I don’t get back out there and do this now, my career is over. And the memories will be there to haunt me just the same.
“Maddy?” says Peter, leaping from the truck—a jolt to reality, and I hurry after him, already sweating inside my uniform despite the frigid air.
Behind the ground-level windows of a two-story home, a powerful inferno blazes bright against the stark white backdrop of a moonlit winter. Smoke pours off the roof like a swarm of lost spirits escaping into the night. And behind a second-floor window, two bodies—small and pajama clad—press against the glass, sobbing and banging.
Amid the chaos of hoses and floodlights, the wail of an ambulance, bouncing red lights, Peter and I run with the ladder. Snow crunches under our boots in an off-beat rhythm. The crisp night air morphs into the acrid stink of liquefying plastic. We throw the ladder against the house; I fasten my headgear, and pull the crowbar from my belt. Peter takes the ladder base. I’m the smallest and fastest in our unit, so I clamber upwards, as I have always done. Only this time, the pride-induced bravery that usually fuels me is gone. And now all I feel is dread at how this night might end.
I pry the screen from the window, and a third figure materializes behind the children, barely visible, charred, red eyes—not now, not on the job, not with children…
“You can’t save them, Madeline,” he says. “You can’t even save yourself.”
“You’re not real,” I whisper into the shield covering my face, and scrunch my eyes shut to erase his image.
A humorless laugh—the same vile, seeping sound that has plagued me since that night—echoes in the claustrophobic space around my head. “I am real,” he breathes, cold in my ear. All the protective gear in the world can’t keep him out, I realize, and an icicle of fear drips down my spine.
But the children are screaming—”Our baby brother’s in there!”—and I’m helping them out the window and down to Peter, barely aware of my actions amid the turmoil of my mind.
“Where’s your parents?” says Peter. As I climb inside the house I hear, “Gone out,” between coughs and cries.
I trudge through the clutter and haze of a bedroom with bunk-beds, breathing heavy behind my mask… enter the hallway into a menacing block of white smoke… feel the walls for a door…
Trapped behind the door; the children I couldn’t save.
… look inside, and find a bathroom. Empty.
The next door I try releases the squeals of the baby boy; I exhale a breath of relief. But the figure creeps into view. His shrivelled hands clasp the rail of the crib, and as he leers at the baby, he sings: “Burn little baby, don’t say a word.” A sickly-sweet smile stretches over his ash-grey teeth, and then he fades once more.
I can’t let this baby die. I’ve got to hold it together.
I force my shaking legs across the room, open the window, pry off the screen, and double-back to the crib. But before I can reach it I hear his laugh, the same taunting echo, and the crib slides and scrapes across the floorboards, away from me.
Ice cold fear prickles and hardens in my veins. Because now I know, and maybe I knew all along: the boy who haunts me now is more than a memory infecting my mind.
He is here.
The boy who locked his friends in the basement of his house, set them alight, then burned in the flames of his own hell. Maybe Hell is where he came from…
That day, he stood in the shadows of his hallway, before a door, closed shut. I didn’t know the door was locked. I didn’t know what horror lay on the other side of the door. A magazine, twisted tight, burned at one end in his hand. His eyes were wild with pleasure and power, his face a twisted grin. He had no intention of leaving his creation behind; that much I knew. Yet it was still my job to save him, and I advanced toward him, my arm out, beckoning. But he held the burning magazine like a weapon, thrashing the air, forcing me back. He used the flame from the magazine to light a stack of discarded newspapers; then dropped the magazine into an open air vent and kicked it down the shaft with his foot. He began to shriek with laughter. I thought I heard a distant scream, but it drifted away with the sound of his shrieking and the flames roaring in the basement. If I had known the door was locked—that the children were down there, dying, dead—I would have barged past him and kicked the door in. But I didn’t know. And as I stood there, hesitating, the door to the basement crumbled to ash, the children with it. The boy howled before the orange blaze, directing his red-eyed gaze upon me. Then the floor beneath him broke apart, and the fire swallowed him whole.
I was the last person to see him alive. Now I’m the one who sees him still—through me his evil lives on.
But I can’t let him win. Not this time.
I charge again at the crib and drive it against the wall, then scoop the bawling infant into a bundle of baby-blue blankets. Books and toys strike my back as I sprint to the window and lower the bundle into Peter’s outstretched arms.
I stand, gloved hands straddling the window, staring into the chilly abyss, and consider my fate.
I can leave this house behind, but I cannot leave him. Every waking moment, every nightmare, every child and fire that I face, he will always be there, growing stronger, more dangerous. And I will be his prisoner, his vessel, his weapon, as he seeks to destroy the very life I am sworn to protect.
Beyond the window, slivers of snow have begun to fall in the velvet moon sky, swooping and swirling and finally melting within the tentacles of smoke engulfing the house. And like wildfire spreading from a single spark, I begin to see clearly what I must do.
I turn around. I go back inside. There is only one way to end this, one way to stop him.
“No more children,” I say to the boy, the empty room. “No more.”
The crib spins past me and smashes into pieces against the wall, as though he already knows my intent. But I don’t stop. I keep going, like I always do, following my instincts and my heart.
Courage to face and conquer my fears… silently I pledge the firefighter’s oath, as I work in a trance-like state to remove my headgear and air-pack, and loosen my uniform. Then I storm downstairs. I throw myself into the seething heart of the fire, blistering, boiling, screaming, “Burn in Hell!”
The boy rages in my face, a screeching mask of fury and disbelief, red eyes stretched wide, his mouth a vulgar chasm as empty as his soul. Yet beyond the fear, the searing pain—the pulling and the tightness and the numbing of my flesh—a feeling of calm rises within, cool and clean as a crystalline lake on a summer’s day. And the boy is taken, like a snowflake in the smoke, swooping and swirling and finally melting. Consumed by the fiery beast; returned to Hell.
I close my eyes, and pray that he doesn’t take me with him…
© 2014 by Carrie Martin
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