Gabriel, my older brother, cheered as the front door of my house swung open to let me in. I stepped inside, glowing with anticipation. I was beginning to think that my eleventh birthday had been forgotten altogether. Sure, one of my friends at school remembered to wish me a happy birthday, but that was hours ago and the school bus had only just dropped me off at the edge of our property. After walking a ways, or really sulking, I stopped to feed the horses and other critters that my family had collected over the past couple of years.
We had a lot of animals, including two horses, four dogs, six chickens, and one very large pig who was about to give birth to piglets. My friends said it was a lot, but my family had plenty of room, seeing as my dad also loved living off the land.
“How can you live off the land if you don't have any?” he would say, though I think he just didn’t like having neighbors knowing what we did day in and day out. His need for extra space ended up working out for everyone in the end. After all, animals were the coolest, and perhaps I could become a veterinarian someday… Oh, right… my birthday.
Once the animals were all taken care of, I dragged my feet a half mile down our driveway to the front door. I didn’t even get my hand to the door knob.
My 18 year old man-child of a brother stood in the doorway of our house, practically shaking with enthusiasm. He was seriously like a big puppy dog, and if he had one his tail would be wagging. Gabriel stood in the doorway with his six foot three frame, his dark chestnut brown hair and his pale white skin. He’d been told he got his looks from my dad. Gabe, as I affectionately called him, was a college boy who lives at home and commuted to the local community college. Despite my parents’ prompting, Gabe was a carefree kind of dog. He still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, so currently he was just taking General Ed. Besides, he loved that he could go to school and still come home every day to enjoy our mom's cooking.
Gabe swung the door wider to reveal the variety of decorations strewn around the house, all purple and white, which were my favorite colors. From the front door I could see Mom and Dad in the dining room looking a bit frantic and flustered by my sudden arrival; Dad was struggling with a small digital camera while Mom lit the candles atop a beautifully decorated homemade cake.
My mom was my hero, she was everything I could ever hope to become as a person. She was kind, patient, loved taking care of her family and had a faith in God that I envied. She was a stay-at-home-mom too, my momma bear and I was her cub.
Dad was pretty cool too, more of a great eagle than a big bear. He was a former Marine and he took the phrase “God, Family, Corps” to a new level. To be honest, they were both perfect parents.
“Here, let me take that,” Gabe beamed as he removed my backpack from my shoulder. With a grin I made my way into the dining room, my stomach doing flips about the treatment I was receiving.
“Hi, Princess,” Dad chirped enthusiastically, placing the camera down and reaching out to give me a big hug. As I melted into the arms of my daddy I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey, what about me, don’t I get a hug?” Gabe begged teasingly.
As much as I loved feeling safe in the arms of my dad, hugging or being touched normally kind of bugged me. However, he did his sad puppy face, all giddy and excited, so I relented this time and reluctantly embraced my older sibling. As I put my arms around him, I couldn't help but notice how big Gabriel really was. Sure he was technically an adult, but even then, he was six feet tall and still growing.
“Rachel, look!” Gabe whispered, releasing me and directing me towards the cake. As they all in unison began to sing:
“Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you!”
My face went hot as the blood rushed to my head as they continued, “Happy birthday, dear Rachel!” they all yelled in unison.
As I inched closer to the table, I began to feel warm. Though I barely felt it at first, the heat was a little more intense than it should have been, and it was getting warmer. Soon the heat was so intense, it smothered me from head to toe. That’s when I noticed the candles were extraordinarily bright. It was like standing before a bonfire, as opposed to small flickering lights. The heat continued to grow until it was almost too much to bear. I recoiled, trying to escape it, though I felt no change as the discomfort persisted.
“Happy birthday to you!” as their song ended, I no longer cared for my wish. All that was on my mind was the unbearable heat. I covered my face and without hesitation I took a deep breath and blew.
I half-expected my efforts to be in vain, but to my short-lived delight, the candles flickered out.
“Yay!” everyone shouted with approval. I couldn’t share their enthusiasm, for the heat still lingered.
“Why is it so hot?” I asked, looking around, but no one seemed to hear me. I looked at the smiling faces around me and was shocked to see their apparent obliviousness to my discomfort. It wasn't that they were ignoring me, it was more like they didn't even hear me.
“Time for gifts,” Gabe cheered, practically jumping up and down with excitement. I turned around and saw his hand in his pocket. As he pulled it out, I caught a glimpse of a small golden box as he handed it to Mom.
No sooner had she taken the box, clouds of smoke began to pour from the top of the cake. The smoke filled up the entire room until I could no longer make out the faces of those around me. Searching frantically for my family, I tried to cry out, but my voice would not respond.
“Rachel!” my mother called from behind me. I turned to face her, but the smoke hid her from me. Suddenly the delicate hands of my mother emerged from the smog and rested softly upon my shoulders. She revealed a small silver cross which she draped against my chest and fastened it around my neck. Looking at her, despite the confusion, I felt a love that only a mother can give.
As she latched the necklace she whispered to me, like she would always tell me: “Never forget, Rachel, God loves you and you are never alone.” My vision started to blur, and everything around me melted away into nothing.
“Rachel, wake up!” my brother’s voice rang in my ears. His voice was desperate, and I could smell burning. Frantic, I emerged from my dream as though I had been holding my breath underwater. My eyes filled with tears from the smoke, stinging as I tried to orientate myself through the dark plumes. All along the ceiling I saw a blanket of smoke that seemed to crawl from one end of the room to the next. Trying to climb out of bed, I ended up breathing in a lungful of the black fog and started choking.
From out of nowhere a pair of large, strong hands grabbed me by my arms and dragged me out of bed to the floor. My lungs were on fire and I nearly gagged from the intense coughing.
“Come on, Rachel!” screamed Gabriel. “Get up now!” He took me by my hand and pulled me to my feet. “We need to get out of here!”
My throat was so sore I didn't respond, and neither did I fight him. With his hand tightly clenched around my wrist, he led me through my door into the hallway. The walls were on fire, and the flames seemed to pour from every open doorway. Gabriel didn’t stop; he just kept on going until we hit the stairs.
"Wait!" I choked. "What about Mom and Dad?" Looking towards their room, I pulled back from Gabe. Without slowing he tightened his grip and dragged me down the stairs.
The fire had not reached downstairs, but the smoke was still thick and toxic. As we hit the front door we found it locked. My brother struggled to get it open. A low creak sounded from the ceiling. The roof was giving way. Fighting with the lock and the heat, Gabe jerked the lock into the open position. The living room was visible from the door. The ceiling above it caved in. Hot embers were kicked up at us. Desperate, he twisted the door knob, digging his shoulder into the door. It opened and we spilled through. As we did the section of the ceiling above us caved in, throwing sparks and flame at our heels as we stumbled out into the night. Out of breath and now on our front lawn, the crisp coolness of the night washed over us like a waterfall of relief.
Letting go of my brother’s hand, I turned to face the inferno that was our home. I gasped from the sight of it. Before I could do or say anything, Gabriel scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the edge of the street. Pulling away from him, I stood, staring in awe at what was happening.
The entire roof was on fire and most of the top floor was engulfed in flames, bursting from every window. The sound of glass shattering and beams crumbling echoed through the night.
“What is happening?” I quaked. “How could our house be on fire?”
Taking a couple of steps closer, I noticed something strange about the roof, where my parents’ room was: a huge chunk of it was gone. Just gone. It was as though our house was made of cheese or some other kind of food, and giant had taken a big bite out of it.
As I scanned the scene around us I noticed several large, smoldering craters the size of beach balls which dotted across our lawn. “What happened?” I wondered in disbelief.
Suddenly it hit me.
"Where are Mom and Dad?” I stammered, turning to Gabe. He now sat on the curb with his head in his hands, muffled sobs escaping him. Stumbling alongside him, I asked again, this time louder, “Where are Mom and Dad?”
As he lowered his hands, he shook his head. Black soot lined his nose and mouth. A look of hopelessness filled his eyes as I desperately tried to find any comfort in his face. My eyes darted around the yard again, seeking any movement or any sign at all of our parents’ whereabouts. As I did, Gabe finally looked at me. His eyes seemed to glow, as their hazel green color caught the reflection of the inferno before us.
“I… I don’t know,” he stammered. Catching his breath, he looked down at his hands. My gaze followed his, and though it was night it might as well have been midday. The blazing from our house was giving off enough light to plainly show the bright red burns on his palms. It looked so painful, yet he seemed not to care that much. I couldn’t understand how he was able to remain so calm.
He continued, “I smelled smoke, and I tried to get to Mom and Dad first, but I couldn’t even...” He stopped, out of breath. He took a deep breath and looked back at me. “They weren’t there, Rachel. They were just gone.”
“’Gone?’” I cried. “What do you mean, gone?”
“I mean gone; there was no sign of them,” he sobbed.
I swallowed hard. “Maybe they got out and they’re looking for us in the backyard.” I stood to look around. “Or maybe they went somewhere last night and didn't come home.” I turned toward the driveway. Their car was in its place as usual.
“Where would they have gone?” Gabriel grunted to himself, starting to sound angry. “And if they did leave us, why didn’t they…” He paused to look back at the fire. “They wouldn’t have just left us…”
I heard the faint sound of sirens in the distance, so someone must have seen the fire. However, since we lived in a rural community with no real neighbors, it would take the firefighters about twenty minutes to even get to our driveway.
A crisp wind blew in against our backs, carrying no comfort but the faint scent of morning. “What do we do?” I asked as I started to shake, the cold night air penetrating my charred pajamas.
Gabe looked down at me. “I don’t know, Rachel.” Noticing that I was cold, he pulled me in for a hug.
Grateful for his embrace and warmth, I hugged him back. I could hear him start to softly cry again. My brother was the strongest person I’d ever known; I had never heard him cry. He had always been an outdoors kind of guy; he and dad would do a lot of crazy stuff like go on camping trips, go rock climbing, and they would even take their bikes out every weekend for hours. Almost every time they went out, they both came back bruised and bloody. He would always say that if he didn't come back with some injury that it wasn’t worth remembering. He had even broken some bones on one of his trips and never shed a tear.
Worse still, when he was a teenager his best friend Taylor came down with cancer. Gabe sat by his bed for hours, and even when he passed away Gabe was stoic. Not a single tear. Yet now I heard him crying like that; it really frightened me.
The emergency vehicles arrived just as the roof started to collapse. What could be done now? Everything I had ever known was gone. The tears were now streaming down my face as I began to sob. To think that just yesterday I had turned eleven. The dream that I’d woken up from had left me a bit confused about yesterday's events. However, from what I did remember clearly was mostly about me and mom.
We had spent the bulk of the previous morning together because my birthday fell on a school day. Afterward we even did some shopping and then had lunch at my favorite restaurant. It was quite the surprise last night once I finally got home from school and found cake and presents waiting from me. Or had that part been the dream? I reached my hand up to my chest to find I still wore the necklace Mom had given me. At least some of what I remembered had been real.
Clutching it tightly in my hand and, still holding my brother close, I started to pray. “Dear God, please help us."
Gabriel heard me and echoed it: "Yes. Please, God, help us."