Prose Fridays: Conflagration

By John Winn

Flames lick the walls as Anya makes a hasty escape down the stairs of the abandoned department store. She can feel the heat searing her back, pushing her onward with increasing urgency. Not that she needs any reminder to get out. Struggling to breathe as she stumbles down the stairs, her lungs fill with smoke as the room climbs to hot house temperatures.

She remembers waking up to her junkie boyfriend cooking dope on the Bunsen burner in the corner, dime bags lying on the makeshift dinner table. It’s the best they could do after being evicted from their apartment in the dark one Saturday night.  She started out slinging her boyfriend’s product to yuppies on the other side of the tracks, selling death to sorority girls and ravers alike.  The powder was odorless and tasteless, but she knew better.  In any case it wasn’t her problem if they died or OD’d–as long as she got paid.

Why Anya put up with it she’d never know.  But she liked the high.  The days seemed to fly when she snorted the stuff, and when her boo was in a bad mood or a fit she could escape into her own little world.  He was the cooker, and who wouldn’t want free junk?  But the constant moving, the opprobrium, the looking over her shoulder in case the cops came took their toll sometimes.

Stepping over discarded needles, Anya watched the yuppies and college students below as she stared out the third story window, lighting a cigarette to distract herself from the hunger. She listened to her boyfriend’s footfalls as he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Maybe if she was lucky they’d head to the pancake place for flapjacks and coffee.

She always liked strawberry banana. Only later would she recall flicking the cigarette, setting off a chain reaction that led to her running for dear life…

There’s a loud boom as Anya snaps back into the present, landing on the second floor. The floor shakes under her feet as she struggles to keep her head. The acrid smoke tastes like metal on her tongue. Her head pounds as she rushes toward the front door. Within a few minutes the fire engines would be rushing to this corner of Sixth and Main. A part of her wants to run back and rescue her lover, but all she knows is she needs to get the hell out of there.

Glancing over her shoulder one last time, she whispers a prayer for her boyfriend before walking out the door. Sirens blare as she heads in the opposite direction, her eyes searching madly for the nearest pay phone. Choking back tears, she dials her parent’s house and prays she doesn’t get an answering machine. But what could she say?

An hour later her dad picks her up at the Methodist church downtown. Neither venture to talk as the SUV hurtles down the highway towards her parent’s house in the suburbs. Already the conflagration is receding in her mind as pop songs blare over the radio. She collapses on the couch, the sound of her lover’s screams haunting her dreams. When the paper arrived the next day, she caught a glimpse of the inferno on the front page–flames leaped from the window.

The official cause of death is accidental, but she knows the truth.  She excuses herself from the dining room table, running as she covers her mouth.