At 6:20pm on Tuesday the 18th of October, Max and I took Chick for a walk. We cut through the apartment building complex parking lot off of 27th street (around the corner and visible from our house) to walk through the Rite Aid parking lot. Max’s choice route. We were talking about a Harry Potter Minecraft mod that Max thinks someone should create.
At the same time, two little girls were setting fire to toilet paper on their bed using a lighter.
At 6:30pm Max and I had circled around to the parking lot again, still talking about what cool Harry Potter items should be included in the imaginary Minecraft mod. Just as we both said (simultaneously) “Dragons!” a tiny chihuahua made a big fuss over Chick from behind the chain-link of the apartment buildings to our right. Chick whined pathetically to be allowed to play (or eat) the tiny chihuahua but we kept walking. Just as we passed the next block of the apartment building we noticed thick black smoke pouring like acrid deadly vaporous water from the end ground-floor unit. We stopped in our tracks. Completely stunned.
Then we heard the windows of the apartment explode and a giant wall of flames shot up towards the second story. I think we watched it for about two stunned seconds and then took the few steps to reach the sidewalk where a woman was shouting hysterically. We asked urgently if everyone was outside. She said both her kids got out safely but she was wailing that two of her pets, a rat and a weasel, were still inside. I asked if she had already called 911. Other neighbors were beginning to gather. We heard sirens in the distance. She was holding a small animal to her chest yelling about the animals left inside.
Max shrugged, looked up at me and said “Well? Should I go in and get them?” I looked at the front door of the apartment where black smoke was pouring out and I don’t know what I was thinking, I looked at how low it was to the ground in the apartment, as though considering Max’s request, and said “No, it’s much too dangerous.” I would never have let him go in there. It was curious to even be contemplating the logistics. He asked me why he couldn’t go in, he may have said something about the fire being at the back of the apartment. I told him that he didn’t know where the animals were and just breathing that smoke could kill him really fast.
We asked if there was anything we could do but the lady was just freaking out, the fire department had arrived. We walked home. Which took two secconds. We made wishes for the trapped animals. We felt very grave.
I got an idea. Her little animal, whatever it was (I think it was a guinea pig) would eventually have to be set down. We know what it’s like to have your house on fire. You can’t stand around all night holding your pets. You need a place to keep them safe. We have pet carriers and I asked Max if he would come with me to bring them one of our pet carriers. We grabbed Ozark’s carrier and ran back to the scene around the corner, which was now completely chaotic with neighbors watching and firemen filling hoses and cutting traffic off. We headed for the woman with her pet and asked her if she could use the carrier for her pet. We just wanted to help, we explained. She waved wildly, she spoke incoherently, as one tends to do when fire is destroying your home, and eventually let us understand that her girls had their little dog over there (hazy waving in general other direction) and the dog was much more likely to need the carrier.
So we located the two little girls and then everything got surreal.
A drunk neighbor woman was attempting to soothe the scared crying girls. She slurred and spoke somewhat wildly. No one seemed to understand why we brought the carrier. We kept trying to explain and then none of the adults would answer us, they kept asking us to repeat what we were doing and why we had the carrier. It seemed they spoke a different language. The drunk kept asking me where we lived and made a bizarre request for me to leave my name and phone number. I got the feeling she wanted me to give them money later. I explained that I was in no position to make “donations” to other people and once again explained that we were just trying to help out with the pets. She continued to insist on me going into her apartment to leave my vital information. The two other adults standing around (apparently not drunk) were completely unhelpful until at last the drunk insisted I follow the tattooed latino man named John into the apartment. I was definitely not going to do that.
I picked up the case and said that if they didn’t need the carrier, that was fine and we made to leave. Finally the other woman said “No, please, we can use that later” and so I stood back up. Max asked what he could do. He even told the two girls that he knew what they were going through because we’d been through it too. When I made to leave Max asked me if he should stay with them.
As though I would leave him in such a situation!
The man named John followed me towards the sidewalk and told me not to mind the lady, that she was just really “emotional”. No names and addresses required. He then launched into paranoid speech about how no one had a right to ask questions about that fire. In my head I felt that shrinking resignation that I always feel when listening to paranoid people, of which there are a lot in this little town, talk about what is and isn’t anyone’s business (nothing is anyone’s business, ever, obviously). It makes me so tired and sad.
I don’t know what provoked it but at some point I patted the tattooed paranoid muscled stranger on the back and told him not to worry. Later I wondered at my uncharacteristic behavior. I never pat strange men on the back. Ever.
Max and I walked home with the same sense of gravity and worry over the animals we worried would still be in the fire.
A sudden awful splitting headache tore my brain to pieces.
The emergency lights flashed through our windows for two hours.
Then I remembered that my son had seriously offered to go into a burning building to save a rat and a weasel. I realized that I had to explain to him why he couldn’t do it because I knew he would do it if I didn’t give him a concrete and definite reason not to. Just like the time when he was three and he didn’t want to hold my hand crossing the street. He asked me why he had to do it. I told him “Because it’s dangerous” and he kept asking “But what would happen?” and no answer I gave was enough reason for him to obey. He wanted the truth. Nothing less would do. I didn’t want to tell my three year old that if he crossed the street by himself he could be hit and killed by a car. I wouldn’t say it.
So he said “Is it because I’d be smooshed by a car?” That told me a lot about my son.
The fact that my son’s first instinct on assessing the whole situation was to save the animals at his own risk, that if I’d said “Yes! Let’s go get them!” he would have been game to rush into a burning building for those pets, that tells me almost all I need to know about the person I’m raising. I am very proud of his instincts and the calm way he spoke with everyone and the way he so freely offered his help.
And that when I spoke of the incoherency of the drunk woman he pointed out that she was a very nice lady. He’s right, it is more important that the lady was a kind neighbor to those frightened girls than that she had obviously been drunk before the fire even started.* I agreed with him, she was a very kind soul.
I read the report of the fire and have since found out that ALL the animals were rescued and that the fire was caused by the two little girls (ages 5 and 7) burning toilet paper on their bed using a lighter.
*It was not just the incoherency of her speech but the smell of old and fresh alcohol rising from her skin that tipped me off, if you’re at all curious.