Tuesday night I was driving home from work. I’d only moved and started my new job a month back and was still getting used to the area. Being January, it was already dark before I left and the streets were not yet familiar. I’d been a security guard for most of my adult life and this new job was the first time working in an office. To say I was under-stimulated would have been an understatement. Though a salary bump of almost 100% was enough to convince me my shifts prowling the night were over.
I had decided to make my way home without the help of the GPS. I find that if I rely on it, I never really learn the route. So instead, I keep my eyes open for street signs and before I knew it, I was seeing road names I didn’t recognise. I was about to give up, pull over and get Google to show me the way home, when I saw flames flicker in the distance. Curious for excitement, I decided to head straight for it.
The streets began to narrow as I moved further and further away from the heart of the city, the roads snaked, following the Roman roads that preceded them. My heart began to race when I saw the house ablaze. I drove onto the pavement a couple of houses down, got out and ran. A woman was on the lawn outside. Her blonde hair a mess, her face covered in soot.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My husband,” she panicked, “he hasn’t come out.”
I peered up at the small townhouse, the stonework was doing its best to keep the fire inside. Plumes of jet-black smoke rose from the roof and gently leaked through the single-glazed window frames.
“Please help him,” she pleaded.
I don’t know whether it was bravado, adrenaline or my general feeling of inferiority that caused me to run shoulder first at the door, though when it gave way with a satisfying crash, I wasn’t turning back.
“Is anyone in here?” I shouted.
I could see the smoke hang from the ceiling, escaping up the staircase that acted as a chimney. I took off my sweater and held it over my mouth, a makeshift ventilator, and stalked the downstairs rooms. The place was a mess, chairs and tables haphazard on the floor, as if someone had left in a hurry. I wondered how long the woman had been trapped before she escaped.
In the kitchen, the table was set, or at least it had been. The half-eaten food now decorated the floor.
All the rooms were clear as far as I could tell, my eyes began to sting. With that, a loud bang signalled the end of the electric lights, darkness fell.
“Is there anybody there?” I shouted one last time before heading for the front door.
I heard a cry from above. It sounded like a child. The woman didn’t tell me about any children. But I couldn’t leave them, if there was anyone still alive in there. The next few minutes or so seemed silent as a slideshow played out in front of me. I sat back in the mental armchair and watched myself run courageously towards the stairs. Briefly I stopped, hesitating to press on. My lungs begged me to turn around. The smoke cut through the sweater as if it wasn’t there. My eyes watered, the pain like pepper-spray, unable to keep them open.
The cries continued, I made my decision. I felt for the walls and gingerly ascended.
On the landing I cringed from the heat. I opened my eyes to see a wall of fire proudly stand, like a row of riot police stopping me from progressing. Disheartened and scared, I was out of my depth. Like a coward I began to slink away. Before I could, I saw something on the landing. A rough outline of someone or something. I got down on all fours and crawled over. I felt for a hand. When I found it, it gripped mine.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” I spluttered.
With absolutely no grace, I pulled the unknown person along the carpet. At the top of the stairs I lifted them by their shoulders and descended, hearing their legs thump on every stair.
At the bottom, I felt I was going to pass out. I pushed open the front door and stumbled out.
“He’s… in… there,” I gestured to the woman.
I felt the cool rush of air as she raced past me.
I coughed hard. The icy breeze soothed my eyes.
“Are you okay, honey?” the woman asked.
I rubbed my eyes, and through blurry vision I saw a man, slumped against the wall, looking at me.
“He came in after you,” the woman said apologetically.
“That was fucking stupid!” the man scolded.
“I didn’t know what to do, I was scared I’d lose you. Did you get the all the valuables?”
Unbelievable, I thought, I got no thanks for risking my life. Instead all they were worried about were their god damn valuables.
By now I could hear the sirens. From the grass, I could see others had gathered on the threshold of the property. A fine mist of water began to rain down as the firemen tried their best to douse the inferno.
“Sir, is there anyone else in the house?” a man asked, I could just about make out his paramedic uniform.
“I don’t think so,” I said, before I burst into an involuntary coughing fit.
I hung my head and pointed to the right.
“I was stupid enough to try and rescue someone, the man and woman over there live here.”
“Where, sir?” the paramedic asked again.
Stunned I looked up. They were gone. As if they didn’t exist.
“Huh, would you look at that,” I said, somewhat shocked.
“How’s your breathing?”
“Let me get this mask on you,” he said, leaning over to place the elastic around my head.
“Hi, I’m Edward, I live next door,” another voice said anxiously.
“Can you give us a minute?” the paramedic asked, “now breath normally. How many I help you Edward?”
“I saw that man and woman he was talking about. They don’t live there. Mr and Mrs Plymouth do, with their small boy Sean. Did you see any of them inside mister?”
An eerie panic enveloped me.
“Mister, did you see the boy?”