Neptunia B. Cooper
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Somebody, please, come quick! Our house is on fire! It’s…”
I choked and started to cough from 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. Address, 1339 Laurdale Avenue, Edison. Please come quick!”
I coughed again and tried to calm my terrified daughter, who 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 before the fire alarm had gone off by barking and scratching 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 minutes,” the man on the phone said, but he might as well have said seven years because even seconds felt like an eternity of despair.
“Hold the line until you see the fire trucks, 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 having 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 one, 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 much effort, I got up on my knees, grabbed the handle, and pushed the window open. And the cold winter air felt brutal as the fire sucked it in past me.
I tried to scream for help, but my voice came out as a choked squeal, and my body collapsed 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 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 was lifted from the floor by two strong arms that carried me out through the window into safety.
“No! My daughter! And my…!”
Another fit 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 on me, but I wouldn’t let him go. I needed to see the man who had risked his 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 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 lie 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 at this magnificent man who 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 was on full display, making a significant contrast to the soot on 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 with? Friends? Is your husband—”
“My daddy’s up in heaven,” Kensie interrupted.
“You shouldn’t talk about him because Mommy gets sad.”
Ben and I 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 about 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 lie down.
They raised the stretcher to a seated position to ease my breathing and placed an oxygen mask over my mouth, a little different from the one Ben had put on my face before he carried me out of the fire.
I looked at him and was met by a pair of depthless, 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 fit 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 that I was trying 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.”