When a fire rips through Leila’s home one night, she loses her one remaining asset as a single mom: her home. When she is hospitalized with severe lung damage due to smoke inhalation she has no one to look after her daughter, Kensie. She has no choice but to temporarily trust Ben, a handsome fireman, but as her health worsens, Leila fears for her daughter’s future. Is a home with Ben feasible? For her and Kensie both?
Age Rating: 18+ (Content Warning: Assault, Child Abuse, Kidnapping, Rape, Sexual Assault/Abuse, Stalker, Violence Against Women)
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“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Somebody please come quick! Our house is on fire! It’s…”
I choked and started to cough, because of all the smoke that welled up from downstairs. I had no idea when it started, or how big the fire was, but it was getting really warm on the floor underneath my feet.
“What’s your name and address, ma’am?”
“Leila Montgomery. 1339 Laurdale Avenue, Edison. Please come quick!”
I coughed again, and tried to calm my terrified daughter that was sobbing into her teddy bear.
“How many are there inside the house, ma’am?”
“Three! Me, my daughter and our dog. Hurry! We are trapped in her bedroom upstairs.”
I thought about how Molly had woken me up, already before the fire alarm had gone off, by barking and scraping at the floor with her tiny paws.
And I didn’t really remember much else before I was sitting in Kensie’s bed, with Molly between us, calling for help, minutes after.
“Shhh, baby. It’s gonna be all right. Don’t worry.”
I tried to calm her, but the panic of being stuck in a life-threatening situation without being able to do anything, was numbing. I wanted to scream in terror, just like her, and hide under the covers, but I couldn’t.
And even though my words were meant to be soothing, I knew they were worthless if we didn’t get out of here in a matter of minutes.
The smoke was already seeping in through the keyhole of the closed door. And I could even see smoke coming up between some of the floorboards.
“HURRY!” I screamed, feeling the smoke fill my lungs, making me cough again.
“They’ll be there in one and a half minute,” the man on the phone said, but he might as well have said seven years, because right there and then, even seconds felt like an eternity of despair.
“Hold the line until you see the firetrucks, okay? Keep talking to me. This is very important.”
I didn’t answer. My head was too filled with horrible scenarios to think straight.
“Ma’am? LEILA!” the man shouted, and pulled me back to reality. And after I answered, he kept giving me instructions on what to do.
“Stay on the floor. Do you hear me? Get down on your hands and knees and crawl toward the window. Not the door, the window. Okay?”
“Yeah…,” I mumbled, while trying to get my daughter to do what I did. But it wasn’t easy to get a five-year-old with a panic attack, to listen.
“Do not open any doors or windows until I say so. Not unless you really struggle to breathe. Because when you do open, you’ll fuel the fire with oxygen, and everything will escalate rapidly.
“Okay? Are you on the floor next to the window now?”
“Yeah, we are,” I answered hoarsely, and pulled Kensie and Molly as close to me as possible.
“Are there any outdoor fire escapes outside the window?”
“No… I was supposed to fix that last year, but…”
I couldn’t hold my tears back any longer. The thought of how I’d failed as a parent, for not making sure we could get out safely in situations like this, hit me with full force.
But there simply wasn’t enough money after my husband’s funeral last year, to do it. I couldn’t even afford to fix the heating in the bathroom.
So every time my daughter was having her bath, I used the old zinc washbasin I’d found in the garage, filled it up with warm water in front of the fireplace, and made sure she didn’t get cold.
But now…? We wouldn’t even have a house to live in. Everything we owned was going up in flames around us. Even Kensie’s Christmas gifts.
“It’s okay. Just stay where you are, ma’am. Do you hear the sirens now?”
I didn’t. I just kept coughing, trying to shield Kensie’s face in my nightgown, to protect her from the worst smoke.
I felt tired and dizzy, and I started to wonder how badly I would have to struggle to breathe, before I could open the window.
“LEILA! DO YOU HEAR THE SIRENS?”
“I…,” I started, but I only ended up coughing even more.
“LISTEN TO ME! THE FIRE TRUCKS ARE THERE, AND YOU CAN OPEN THE WINDOW. OKAY? OPEN THE WINDOW, LEILA. NOW!”
With a large amount of effort, I got up on my knees, grabbed the handles and pushed the window open. And the feeling of the cold winter air felt brutal, as the fire sucked it in passed me.
I tried to scream for help, but my voice only came out as a choked squeal, and I felt my body collapse like a sack of potatoes.
My knees hit the floor so hard that it should’ve made me scream, but instead I fell over to my side and curled up in a limp fetal position.
The only thing I registered before I passed out, was the flames that were about to eat their way through the floor next to the door.
“Leila! Do you hear me?!”
The voice came from far, far away, and I couldn’t comprehend what was going on for a moment. But then I tried to inhale, and started coughing like mad.
A mask was suddenly covering my face, and I got lifted up from the floor by two strong arms that carried me out through the window, into safety.
“No! My daughter! And my…!”
Another series of coughing took over, but I could hear the calming, deep voice of the firefighter in my ear.
So few words. So overwhelmingly important. They were safe. It didn’t matter what happened to me, as long as my daughter was safe.
But when the fireman gently put me down on a stretcher, with paramedics wrapping me in warm blankets, ready to start with oxygen treatment and whatnot, I knew I wanted to live too.
I needed to live for my daughter. I was the only one she had left. And I had to stay alive.
The firefighter was about to release his grip of me, but I wouldn’t let him go. I needed to see the man who had risked his own life to save us. So I started to pull weakly at his mask, while still holding on to his arm.
“No…” I panted.
“I need to… See…”
My voice was hissing and strained, and almost too quiet to hear. But I tried again.
“Please, Sir… Let me… See your…”
I saw the name “Ben Cavanaugh” on a tag on the side of his chest, and felt somewhat relieved to at least know his name.
But I needed to see his face too, so I pulled at his mask one more time, and made him take it off. And for a moment, I stopped breathing.
For a moment I just blinked my eyes, and looked into the most caring, brown eyes ever. And for a moment I felt more lost than I’d ever been.
“Mrs. Montgomery? You need to lay down. Mrs. Montgomery!”
But I didn’t hear the well-meaning orders from the paramedics. In my world, only Ben existed. Ben and his gorgeous eyes. But then…
My daughter came running with our little chihuahua in her arms, and I immediately jumped off the stretcher, and got down on my knees to embrace them. We were safe, thanks to little Molly and…
I looked back up at this magnificent man that had carried me in his arms. His smile was genuinely warm and loving, and it seemed like it got even bigger when he saw my daughter clinging around my neck.
My throat hurt when I talked, but this was important to me.
“Can you…say thank you…to the nice man?”
I loosened her grip, and turned her around to face him, and her shy appearance made him giggle.
“Oh… No need to thank me, ma’am. I was just doing my job.”
Still, Kensie stuttered a little “thank you,” and took Ben’s hand when he reached out to her. Then he sat down on his heels in front of her.
“Do you know what? I think you are the bravest little girl I’ve ever met. You took care of your mom like a true hero, until we could come and get you out. I think you must be a super princess in disguise.”
Kensie giggled, still a bit shy, but now she dared to look at him.
“Molly helped too,” she said, and lifted our dog so he could pat her, and I was amazed when he actually could stroke her head without her either barking or growling.
She was normally scared of men, but obviously not this one. Maybe she understood that it was him that had saved us?
“Really? She helped? That’s such a good dog. It looks like you two are close friends. Am I right?”
He smiled at her, so widely that his row of pearly white teeth were at full display, making a big contrast to the soot in his face.
“Yes. She’s the bestest friend there is,” Kensie said, and returned his smile. Then, Ben got up and looked at me.
“I’m very sorry about your house, Mrs. Montgomery. Do you have family to stay at? Friends? Is your husband…”
“My daddy’s up in heaven,” Kensie interrupted.
“You shouldn’t talk about him, because Mommy gets sad.”
Me and Ben stared at each other in shock for a moment, before Ben cleared his throat to speak.
“I’m so sorry!”
“It’s okay!” we exclaimed almost at once.
“No. I shouldn’t have…” he started, but I cut him off. I really didn’t want him to feel bad for our situation. It wasn’t his fault.
“Honestly! It’s okay. You didn’t know. And none of this is y…”
I started to cough again, and two of the paramedics lifted me back up onto the stretcher and forced me to lay down.
They raised the stretcher to a seating position to ease my breathing, and placed an oxygen mask over my mouth, one that was a little different from the one Ben had placed on my face before he carried me out from the fire.
I looked at him, and was met by a pair of depthlessly sad eyes.
“CAVANAUGH?! TAKE THE HOSE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE HOUSE!”
Ben nodded toward the unit officer, and turned to continue his work. But then he stopped, and walked up to me.
“Your daughter. Does she have someone to take care of her while you’re in the hospital?” he asked, with his soul-searching brown orbs piercing straight through me.
I swallowed and tried to talk, but ended up in a series of coughs. But instead of asking again, he did something that I believe no other man would ever consider. He sat down on one knee in front of Kensie.
“Your mom needs to go to the hospital now, princess. Do you and Molly want to come and stay at my place tonight? And then we’ll visit your mom tomorrow morning, after you’ve had your breakfast?”
Kensie nodded and beamed toward him like the sun itself.
“Is it okay with you, Mrs. Montgomery? If not, I will make sure someone…”
I reached out for his hand, and squeezed it. And the way he looked at me, showed that he understood everything of what I tried to say with my eyes.
“I’ll keep her safe,” he said and gave me a reassuring smile. He was a stranger. He was a man. And I literally placed my heart in his hands. But I knew I could trust him. How? I don’t know, but I just knew.
“She’ll be safe.”
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I looked at the little girl in front of me. She was tucked up in my clean bedsheets, and with her little dog coiled up on top, right next to her.
She had been scared when I brought her here. She had been scared when I went to the toilet and left her in the living room alone for a few minutes. And she had been scared when I told her that she could have my bed.
But after we’d eaten a bowl of Cheerios each, I promised to sleep on the floor right next to her, and she wasn’t scared anymore.
Now I was sitting on the edge of the bed, with her tiny hand in mine as protection against all the dangers in the world.
She was exhausted, and she missed her mom, but she was so brave to trust me, a complete stranger, that any firefighter would envy her spirit.
It felt strange to have a little child to take care of, like this. But it was a good strangeness. The kind that warmed my heart in a way I’d never felt before.
This girl had lost her home, her dad and almost also, her mother. If Mrs. Montgomery had been inside that house one minute longer, it would have been too late. I knew that.
I’d seen it way too many times before. And now she would be hospitalized for at least a few days, and her most precious little jewel was here with me.
And she could be here for as long as necessary too. Of that, I was sure. And just the thought made a spontaneous smile pull on my lips.
The only thing I worried about, was how damaged her mother’s lungs were after inhaling all that smoke.
I lay down on the floor next to Kensie, just as I promised, with my arms folded behind my head, staring at the ceiling. This was going to be a really sad Christmas for them, no doubt about that.
But I had so many questions… Where would they stay until they found a new place to live? Was it true that they didn’t have any family? That can’t be! At least friends.
They probably had lots of friends. Would their insurance cover the rebuild of their house? And would Mrs. Montgomery be okay? Mrs. Montgomery… Leila.
“Ben! Ben! Can we go see my mom now?”
I jolted awake by the unfamiliar sound of someone squealing into my ear. And it took quite a few seconds to comprehend what happened last night.
I didn’t get much sleep, either, but looking at the eager five-year-old in front of me, made me forget all about it. And now she sat down on my lap and poked my nose.
“Your hair looks funny.”
I giggled at her straight forwardness. Kids…
“I’ve never seen a man with that long hair before.”
“Really?” I asked playfully, and poked her nose back.
“Mhm,” she hummed as the matter of factly.
“My dad had short hair, not black and curly as yours. His was light.”
I smiled at her, but couldn’t help but to feel a sting in my heart.
“Same as you then?” I said, and twirled a lock of her hair between my fingers.
She might have inherited the hair color from her father, but I was absolutely amazed by how similar her eyes were to her mother’s. They were beautiful.
Dark blue, with long eyelashes framing them so perfectly. Oh, this little one should definitely have a dad to keep the boys away when she gets older, that’s for sure!
I blushed a bit. Why did I get all these thoughts? What made this girl, her mom and her dog any different from other people I had saved in fire? Truth is, I didn’t know.
“Molly needs to go pee-pee. Do you have a yard?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Oh. Of course! I… Yes. I’ll show you.”
I lifted Kensie off my lap and got up.
“Molly likes you, you know,” she said out of the blue. And I looked at the little furball sitting in front of the bedroom door, then back at Kensie.
“She does?” I giggled, thinking of how I didn’t really like dogs. But when I got to where she was sitting patiently and waited for the door to open, I couldn’t help but stroke her little head.
Man, she’s smaller than a cat!
Molly got to do her business, and Kensie and I had another bowl of Cheerios. Then, I helped her brush her teeth. But she didn’t have any clean clothes. Only the green pyjama she was wearing.
And she stubbornly refused to shower without me helping her. So I decided to postpone that to later, and drop by the mall to buy her some clothes before we headed to the hospital.
“Kensie? Do you like this?”
I held out a pink dress so she could see, but she only shook her head. She seemed shy again, just like she was when we first talked yesterday.
And even though I showed her several cute dresses, she kept shaking her head, tugging at my jacket.
“Hmm… I don’t think uncle Benny knows what he’s doing here. Maybe you can show him what you want to wear?”
She giggled a little.
“Who’s uncle Benny?”
“Me.” I pointed at myself with a goofy smile, but sighed when she shook her head again.
“You’re not uncle Benny. You’re Ben,” she stated with a frown, and then she pulled me over to a rack of boy’s clothing. Ahh. So she’s a little tomboy, huh? I would never have guessed.
I let her pick out a couple of outfits, a pair of shoes and a winter coat, and prepared to go pay. But she had other plans.
“Now we need something for my mom.”
For her mom?! I… She…didn’t have any clothes either. Kensie was right. Leil…Mrs. Montgomery only had her nightgown too, just like Kensie.
She would need something decent to wear when she got home. Well…to wherever they would go when she got discharged from the hospital.
I let Kensie lead me toward the women’s department, and blushed nervously when it looked like she was heading straight to the underwear section.
Luckily, she walked right passed it, and over to a table with women’s sweatpants with matching jackets.
And together we picked out a nice purple set, that I could imagine would look good on her. Or at least… Until she could buy her own clothes.
Oh, my God… This is sooo foreign territory to me!
But Kensie assured me that purple was her favorite color, and I prayed to God that I picked the right size. And with that, we paid and left.
Kensie ran toward her mother, as soon as I’d opened the door to her room.
“Oh, baby!” Mrs. Montgomery exclaimed, and tried to hold back a fit of coughs. She managed…almost. But her nose catheter fell out because of how tightly they embraced each other.
“Mom? Ben and I went shopping.”
Mrs. Montgomery held her at arm’s length, so she could look at her, and I saw confusion written all over her face.
“Shopping? Oh, my. You have new clothes! That’s… Oh, wow.”
She looked at me, partially relieved, and partially embarrassed.
“I…” she started, and swallowed. “Thank you so much, Mr. Cavanaugh. I will pay you back as soon as I get out. I will discharge myself after…”
She struggled to hold back another series of coughs.
“I have talked to the doctor.”
She couldn’t hold back anymore, and croaked over, gasping for air. Kensie walked over to me, and grabbed my hand. And firmly, she pulled me toward her mother, so I could sit on the chair next to the bed.
“Mrs. Montgomery… You are in no shape to get out of hospital yet.”
“But I need… *cough* …to take care of… *cough* …Kensie! And Molly… *cough* …where is Mo… *cough*.”
“Molly’s in Ben’s car,” Kensie said, and climbed onto my lap. And I got surprised to find myself wrap my arms around her, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“I mean it, Le… Mrs. Montgomery. Kensie can stay with me until you get better. No need to w…”
“Leila. Please call me Leila.”
Oh, thank God…
“Okay. Leila. I really…”
But Kensie interrupted me.
“We bought clothes for you, mom. And it’s your favorite color.”
I blushed like crazy, feeling like I’d stepped over every possible boundaries between two strangers. This was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.
It was just weird to buy clothes for a woman I didn’t know. She will think I’m some creep or…
Kensie picked up the bag, pulled out the purple sweatsuit and placed it in the hands of her mother.
She looked at me with the same deep blue eyes as her daughter, and a strike of electric impulses shot through me. She… Was beautiful.
“Thank you, Mr. Cavanaugh.”
She held up the pieces of clothing and studied them, and a faint redness brushed over her cheeks.
“Ben,” I said, wanting things to be less awkward. Because the tension between us was intense. Almost unbearable.
I’d never felt like this with anyone before, and I couldn’t quite understand what was wrong with me. But then…
“Ben is so silly! He told me to call him uncle Benny. But I can’t do that. He’s not my uncle. He’s just Ben.”
That’s right, little girl. I’m just Ben.
“Really? He said that?” Leila exclaimed enthusiastically, but she couldn’t cover the redness in her cheeks. And she sent me a look of gratitude, that made me relax.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to buy those clothes after all?
“Yeah! And you should have seen his hair when he woke up this morning. He looked like a troll!
“Haha! Oh! I forgot to tell you! I got his whole bed for myself. And Molly, of course. And he slept on the floor and kept the monsters away. And his bed is really, really soft! And he…”
Kensie rambled on, telling her mother about how things went since they parted last night, but I zoned out.
I was too deep in my own thoughts, and too lost in those blue eyes, to follow. But then Leila waved at me, and brought me back to reality.
“Uhm… Yeah?” I shook my head to focus.
“I asked if it was okay if she could stay another night? I haven’t…”
“Of course! Yes! Kensie! Uhm… Do you want to borrow my bed for another night?” I looked at her, and she cheered loudly while nodding frantically.
Then she hugged me. If I wasn’t red enough in the face from before, I sure was now.
And this unbelievably good feeling I got when this little princess showed me with her entire being, that she trusted me, left me out of breath.
“I will pay you back tomo…” Leila started, but I didn’t even want to hear.
“No! Please! Just… No. Think of it as a… A Christmas gift!”
The emotions in her eyes said it all. And I actually felt my own eyes water, because of everything that was said between us, without uttering a word.
And to really make her understand that I meant it with all my heart, I placed my hand on hers as a shield against everything bad.
“Please let me. I promise you everything’s gonna be all right. Everything.”
Her eyes glazed over, and I saw her bottom lip quiver. Lord, if I only knew her better, I would hug her.
She’d been strong for so long! Now it was time that someone took care of her. Them. And it was right there and then, that I knew.
I wanted to surprise them. I couldn’t give them their house back. Nor Leila her husband or Kensie her father back. But I could make sure they had the best Christmas possible.
I could make sure they had a nice warm bed, roof over their heads, lots of food, Christmas tree and decorations. And Kensie? She was going to get a serious amount of gifts, that’s for sure!
But the greatest gift would be the one I got; the privilege to give it to them and to be a part of their joy.
I squeezed Leila’s hand one more time, and said, more determined than ever:
“Everything’s gonna be all right.”
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