When the house catches fire you leave, right then, don't stop for anything on your way out. And walk, don't run; touch the doorknobs before you open the door. These are the things the fireman told us today in school when he came in after science, when we had just put seeds between wet paper towels to grow. Leave pets, especially, because if you chase them you might be trapped. Crawl across the floor because smoke rises and so does heat. Stay low, have a plan. Tonight when you go home tell your mommies and daddies that you need a place to meet and count heads. Who has a fire extinguisher at home? Let's see a show of hands.
That night, of course, the bed was danger. A foot, twisted in sheets like a shackle, a burning death; the cat mewling helplessly from its place beside the water dish in the hall, the dogs scrambling to find my mother. If the firemen said not to try to save anything, would nobody save me? Would Daddy come back when he saw I was not at our meeting place (the stone wall, now), and would he carry me from the house like he carries me from the car when I pretend to sleep? Release the blankets from my ankle? Take my sister by the wrist and save her, too? These questions smothered the need to sleep.
In dreaming I saw Candice Quinlan at my birthday party, sitting in my bedroom, slipping a little wooden chair into the family room of my dollhouse. The flames came suddenly. The angle shifted and I could see her face filling my vision, flames licking at her cheeks. She screamed and tried to run but I woke before I could see if she escaped. This is the singular image of all my dreams that has stayed with me through life. The flames cast red light on her face, the mole above her lip contorts as her mouth screams. I do not remember if I had ever touched flame in that dream, only that Candice had and I could only watch as she and the dollhouse my father made for me, a carefully constructed replica of my own house painted with the very same yellow paint as the real thing, burned.
After you learn to crawl from your bed to the front door in three minutes, including the cautious touching of doorknobs and the avoidance of rooms marked as being aflame, concern grows for other things. Not family, no, I know my mother can escape, and my father can (of this I have no doubt), and even my sister can; she has always been stronger and faster and I need not worry. The great fear was to inspect the blackened rubble and find the plastic nose and eyes of Winnie the Pooh amongst the pile of ash where my bed used to be. He was the bear that had been my anchor to home since the earliest moments of my infancy, the infallible icon of comfort and familiarity with the yellow matted fur and red shirt made of cotton. If the firemen said not to save anything, who would save Pooh? I could not take the moments to grab him from wherever he lay on my same mattress. He would burn. So in a moment of clarity amongst the dread I learned to put my wrist through the space between his back and his shirt. From there the shirt could be twisted into a lock that lasted all night, insuring that should I ever need to spring from bed and flee, he would be attached to my arm, protected by my knowledge of fire safety. Though the home would burn, the pinnacle of how it feels to be home would survive in a twist of red that strangled my wrist and made my bed finally safe.