I wrote this fictional piece (of...) for a contest
Word max: 2,500
Contest Result: Loss
The call came, curiously, from behind the bathroom door. In my brother’s voice. Having just come in, I began to bombard the door with fists and Nikes and to shout in return. If I was evacuating, it was going to be to the sight of his heels.
“Stephen! What’s the matter?”
“Hey! I’m using the bathroom here!”
My panic waned to concern.
“What’s the matter?”
“I didn’t know anyone was home.”
My concern changed to confusion.
“Then who’re you shouting at?”
My confusion ignited to anger.
“You’re a shithead.”
“Probably. I’ve been constipated for like a week.”
My anger dissipated to contempt. I walked away.
Kicking off my shoes in the direction of the door to the garage, through which I’d entered, I went up to my room and sat down in the last of the good midafternoon sun, before it became just grayening orange illumination for couples in sweat suits walking their dogs through the shadows. I sat on my bedroom floor and attended to the half-finished (in space, for who knew about time, as it’d been sitting in approximately this state for the past – what? – two months now) miniature construction kit that had begun to look like an elaborate, multi-turreted castle. My consciousness was quickly melted by the warm light, and, as I lay on my side, perhaps to get a different take on the structure, I asked myself, again, why it is that we don’t have siestas.
The next thoughts I remember were, 1.) Why am I awake? 2.) Why is the sun still in the same place, and 3.) Why won’t the feather duster let me be?
In a strangely asymmetrical resumption of consciousness, I pegged the relative passage of time before I realized it was our dog’s tail that was buffeting my nose like a belligerent cloud.
However, it was rare that I would awaken to such a fate, as 1.) I rarely slept on the floor these days, and 2.) our dog hadn’t been allowed up the stairs since he’d wagged goodbye to puppyhood, at which point Dad had stated that he wasn’t “going to raise another worthless slug like the two of you,” meaning that, unlike Stephen and me, Gus had to earn his keep by sleeping at entry level.
In practice, this came to mean that, instead of sleeping on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, as he had as a puppy, Gus had the choice of three different couches as his bed. His preference usually tended toward the short-but-plush model in the den, though, on nights when thunder rang out in the distance, he would move to the longer one in the family room so as to provide a place for repose for whomever descended to staunch his whimpers.
I realize I may have digressed from my main task, which was the relation of the manner in which the eventual evacuation was effected. The point to be made here is that the presence of Gus’s tail in my face as I lay in my room was quite unusual and sparked in me, half-asleep though I was, and fully though I wished to be, a certain unsettlement of thought. Following the imaginary line from Gus’s raised tail to his upturned nose, which usually led one directly to a plate of brownies or a turkey sandwich, my gaze sidled through the crack in the window and followed the color gradient of the smoke I saw outside until it ran smack dab into the neighbors’ window.
The boy known as Stephen was downstairs blending food in the mixer and loudly.
“Hey! Steve?” I shouted, when the aural carnage recessed.
“I’m blending!” came the reply.
I stumbled down the hallway and the stairs as I regained full consciousness and avoided the helpful, anticipating form of Gus doing his best to lead me wherever I was going. We reached the lower stairs as Stephen once again took up blending.
Gus, torn between the terror that was for him the blender and the uncompromising law of inertia, borne on by the low-friction tile at the stairs’ landing and his eagerness to track the smoke, managed to skid into the wall next to the opening to the kitchen, turn himself 80 degrees to the right, and sneak, head down, over to the door to the garage, seemingly undetected by the blender.
“I think the McPherson’s house is on fire.”
He shut off the blender.
I followed Gus to the door, collecting my shoes on the way. I opened the door to the garage and then the automatic garage door. Gus led. Stephen followed.
We ran through the hedgerow into the neighbors’ yard. We looked to the street and saw it as vacant as ever. I had a vision of the house going up in a blazing orgy of black smoke and remorseless fire and everything outside this plot of land continuing on untouched in sunny afternoon suburbia.
The front door was closed. We could hear the fire alarm inside. Stephen went to open it, then withdrew his hand as if realizing he’d mistaken the handle for a viper. I pushed him back and felt the door. It was only slightly hot.
“The key!” he shouted and ran back toward our yard. I took off my shirt and made it into a hand turban. I got a grip on the handle through it and rotated it, confirming its lockedness.
Stephen was back with the key. He unlocked the door with a bare hand. I turned the knob and pushed it open.
The powerful, shrill whine of the smoke alarm shot out at us on the heavy, particulate air. Immediately, my eyes began to burn, and Stephen and I both began to cough. Gus sneezed continuously.
I stepped inside. The air was caustic. Even just inside the front door, I felt I could barely breathe. I coughed uncontrollably. I looked behind me but Stephen wasn’t there. Then he came around the corner, holding his shirt, balled up and dripping, over his mouth. He motioned around the corner and I saw the water spigot was open.
“The fire department!” I said.
“I hit the button!” he said, pointing back to our house.
I took off my shirt and held it under the spigot. I turned to follow him in, then thought again and went back to the spigot and did my best to wet my pants from the knees down, as well as my shoes. Then, following Stephen’s lead, I put the shirt over my mouth and entered. Amazed I could breathe, I followed Stephen to the foot of the stairs and began shouting.
At the door, through thick tears, I could see Gus barking and continually entering, sneezing, and leaving.
“Gus, no! Stay!” I shouted.
As usual, he didn’t.
I ran to the door to push him away, but he wouldn’t give up.
“Suit yourself,” I said as I stepped outside and tore my T-shirt in two. I encased his muzzle in one of the sleeves and tucked another piece of the shirt over the end, covering his nose.
He ran straight for the stairs and began to climb them until his head was level with ours. At that point, he sneezed, backed up a step, backed up some more, almost to the floor, then stood barking.
“Steve! I think…”
He said, “I think he thinks there’s someone upstairs!”
He looked up the stairs, then back at me.
Then he motioned toward Gus.
“But he’s an idiot!”
I shrugged acknowledgement mixed with uncertainty.
He said, “Yeah, I know!”
He started up the steps, then turned and said, “If I don’t come back, tell them where I went!”
I froze in indecision and responsibility. I should have gone first. But now, I couldn’t follow him – if neither of us came back, no one would know we’d gone.
I waited and looked at Gus, expecting accusation. Instead, I saw he’d turned his head and was now barking directly at the opposite corner of the second floor.
I focused on the ground, trying to think. My gaze fell on the shallow plastic trough my mom had given Mrs. McPherson when our parents had given up trying to train us. Every time she came back from visiting Mrs. McPherson, Mom would then tell us, disappointedly, that it always held one pair of shoes for each member who was home with that jealous gleam in her eyes that backlights the reflection of a utopia one knows one deserves but whose gates one must stand idly by as one watches another enter.
Now, it was as empty as it had always been at our house.
I ran out to the garage. I looked through the glass panes in the door. The smoke was less here, and the garage was clearly empty.
I ran back in the front door. Gus was still barking in his new favorite direction.
With Gus’s barking and the smoke, I couldn’t hear or see Stephen. I started climbing the steps. Halfway up, even the T-shirt-filtered air was too harsh. Coughing, I knelt down and began to crawl, then realized I needed both hands for that. I wrapped the shirt around my face and made to tie it in the back. I only had enough slack to make a perilously loose knot, but it held.
Summiting the stairs, I saw Stephen fifteen feet ahead of me, moving down the hall, the sleeves of his shirt sprouting in opposite directions from where they were knotted at the back of his neck. He was moving toward the darkest of the smoke.
“Steve! I don’t think anyone’s home!”
He didn’t turn.
Moving a foot in there felt like ten yards. I pulled off my shoe and threw it at him. It hit him in the backside and he flipped around as if it had been a falling beam or a red-hot poker.
“No one’s home!” I said.
He crawled closer to me.
“No one’s home!” I repeated, shaking my head, and, pointing toward the door, “The shoe tray’s empty!”
His brows communicated confusion, then comprehension, then – was that judgment?
“Gus! Stay!” Stephen said, and I looked to see the barking dog halfway up the stairs, still turned as if he were trying to scratch his back with his chin.
“Gus! No one’s home!”
Then I heard a meow from the other end of the hallway. So did Stephen. He began to follow me toward the noise.
“Get him out of here!” I said, pointing to Gus.
“OK!” he said.
“One cat – that’s it, right?”
“I think so!” he said as he took Gus’s collar and rose up into a crouch near the bottom of the stairs.
I crawled toward the room at the far end of the hall. Entering the master bedroom, I finally got a visual on the cat. I headed straight for it. It was near the far corner of the room. I felt my pace quicken as I got close.
I made to crawl the final six feet between us as quickly as I could, and it shot back into the corner. It felt as if the heat had just increased, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up – I had seen myself emerging in a few seconds, cat in hand, as the house crumbled in the background. That picture changed – I was going to die trying to rescue a suicidal cat.
I decided I had to give it one fair chance. I forced myself to inch toward it, then I remembered that I had seen this cat once before, along with how it had only allowed me to pet it after I’d followed the McPherson’s girl’s instructions to lie on the floor a painstakingly long time, just calling it.
I figured I’d give it a shot. I lay down with my hand out, palm up, and called.
“Come on, Bisquick. Come. Come on. It’s OK, Bisquick. Come on.”
He inched his way out of the corner, performing practice retreats with his nose every other second. Still, he was making progress toward me. The smoke seemed to be getting heavier, but I forced myself to stay there, trying to exude as calm a demeanor as possible.
“It’s OK, Bisquick. That a boy…” I said, waving my fingers toward myself as I looked back down the hall and for the first time saw actual flames. They were making their way toward the stairs.
“Come on, Bisquick! Come on!” I said, staring at the flames, trying to will the fire into stasis.
Feeling the rough flame lick my fingertips, I whipped my hand back to my body and looked up to see the cat move from where he had been rubbing his sandpaper tongue on my hand almost all the way back into the corner.
“Son of a…Bisquick. Sorry. My fault. Come back. Come on. It’s OK.”
Strained now by the additional irritation at myself, my patience ran out. I moved toward the cat, figuring I’d either corner it or chase it into oblivion. Either way, I’d take the sweet tumble down those stairs any second.
Bisquick flattened to half his already-insubstantial height, but didn’t run. I moved closer. Making myself believe what I saw in his eyes was a look of waiting to be directed, I reached for him. Magically, I felt my hands close around his torso. I pulled him to my chest like a running back with a golden pigskin and slithered across the carpet like an earthworm.
I made surprisingly rapid progress, as, before I thought to check in again with the flames, I saw the banister at the top of the stairs at the edge of my vision. Realizing any flames in my path wouldn’t affect my route, I pivoted, cat brushing banister, and began what was shaping up to be a head-first descent.
My hip left the top step for the second with a thud, whipping my head into the stairs. The T-shirt dropped from my face. I didn’t think to hold my breath until I’d already breathed. At that point, I couldn’t do anything but cough. Trying anything else just made me convulse with each stifled cough.
I began to stand up, figuring I just needed to make it to the door. I stumbled down the steps and into someone’s bare chest. Stephen pulled me down the steps and pushed me out the door, where the air was the best thing I’d ever felt, like a combination of water and air and food and freedom.
I lay on the grass for a while, then retreated to the side of the yard when I heard the sirens.
Stephen had brought Gus back on a leash. He sat wagging his tail, sneaking glances at Bisquick.
“All right, Bisquick,” I said, looking at my stockinged foot. “We made it.”
Stephen looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Man, the cat’s name’s Biscuit.”