The first short story I ever submitted for publication. It’s the story that launched my career into super stardom back in 2007. It was such a huge success, that my University creative writing newsletter paid me 35 bucks for it. It’s been read literally dozens of times.
Even from across the road the heat is intense. People are everywhere, staring in horror. I walk toward the burning house. A girl screams into a cell phone. She is telling someone that one of her roommates is still inside. Next to her a girl about the same age stands wrapped in a blanket. I tell her to give it to me, and she woodenly obeys. I ask where the other girl is. She points to a window on the second story above the garage. I walk toward a man who’s hopelessly trying to fight the blaze with a garden hose. I yell for him to hose me down. He stares at me for a second, and then turns the water on me, soaking me from head to toe. I put the blanket around me and he douses that too. I move toward the front door.
The heat pummels me as I kick the door in. I enter the house and walk up the stairs, my feet moving me down the hallway. Flames lick the moisture out of the blanket exposing me to their hot tongues. A door at the end of the hall is ajar slightly. Smoke blinds me but I know where to go. The room appears empty, but somehow I know that the girl crawled under the bed when the smoke and fire came into her room. I throw the mattress aside, revealing the girl. She looks dead, but I know she’s not. I wrap the wet blanket around her, and my skin immediately begins to burn. I throw a chair out the window and a million glass shards reflect the red-orange fury closing in behind me. I pick up the girl and step out the window onto the roof.
The cool air feels like paradise, the room behind me feels like hell. My skin continues to burn as I make my way across the roof to a point above a Jeep in the driveway. I hold the girl in front of me and I fall backwards onto the roof of the Jeep, which collapses to absorb the impact of our fall. People rush over to help us off the Jeep. I tell them to take her to the safety of the neighbor’s lawn. I collapse on the lawn next to her as I hear the sound of sirens coming down the street. I know I have third degree burns and few broken ribs, but I also know that I have saved the girl’s life. That’s when I wake up.
Dr. Fields looks up from the account of Cody’s dream. “How long have you been having this dream?” she asks.
“Every night for eighteen months,” Cody answers. He looks haggard. This is the third shrink he’s seen in a year. Somehow he knows she can’t help him either.
“Have you tried altering your sleeping habits?” she asks.
Cody rolls his eyes. “Of course. I’ve tried everything,” he answers. “It’s all in my file.”
“Alright, alright,” she says. “Well I have a few ideas. I’m going to do some research and work them out. For now I want you to keep taking the medications Dr. Saunders prescribed. We’ll go over a strategy next time.”
Cody mutters something resembling gratitude as he gets up from the chair and walks out of the office. He can’t stand his medication and the headaches that accompany it. As he gets in his car he lets out a sigh. Once again, he asks himself why he keeps doing this, why he pays some quack to tell him that there is something wrong with him, only to prescribe more worthless pills. He puts the car into drive.
The idea of going home is almost as bad as his sessions. Home is where he sleeps, and sleeping is the most exhausting ordeal in Cody’s life. As he leaves the parking lot he decides to turn the opposite direction from his apartment. Anywhere is better than his dreams. Besides, it’s been a while since he just went for a drive.
As he drives he enters unfamiliar neighborhoods. He isn’t paying attention to where he’s going or what he’ll do when he gets there. The car makes one random turn after another, going who knows how far, until it brings him to a familiar site. It’s then that Cody realizes he must have gone home at some point, and now he’s asleep.
The scene is the same as it has always been; the same people gawking at the same burning house. He steps out of the car and approaches the girl with the blanket while her friend screams into the cell phone. The man with the garden hose douses him and the blanket before Cody turns towards the house. Just before he kicks the front door in, he pauses. Something is different. It takes only a fraction of a second for him to realize what it is: he’s not asleep, and he doesn’t have to do this. He doesn’t have to walk into that inferno. Then his thoughts turn to the girl upstairs under her bed, the smoke suffocating her and burning her lungs. Cody knows she’ll die if he hesitates. A second later he’s in the house.
He runs up the stairs, down the hall, through the door and to the bed, just like always. His instincts have been fine tuned for this moment, and like a machine with a single purpose, he does what he has been conditioned to do every night for a year and a half. He throws the bed aside, wraps up the girl, and throws the chair out the window. Just like his dreams he feels his skin melting, but just like before he doesn’t let it slow him down. He carries her out the window and jumps down onto the Jeep, her small body only breaking a few of his ribs as they hit the vehicle’s roof. Neighbors help them across to the cool grass of the lawn. Above the clamor, Cody can hear the familiar sirens approaching. Waves of exhaustion sweep over him, but just before he blacks out a thought crosses his mind: Dr. Fields is never going to believe this.