It was the noise that alerted her. Adrienne was keenly aware of the changes in rhythm and sound, even as she slept.
Her eyes flew open when she registered the smell – smoke. She could see the fire in her mind; like a creature of the night it crept forward in search of prey. Behind it, the heart of the beast and the cackle of dancing flames.
Her first thought was for her brothers’, Derek and James; her self-appointed guardians. The very fact they weren’t in her room, fighting over who was in charge, meant only one thing. They were still sleeping. She wondered fleetingly why the smoke alarm wasn’t singing like a canary. It was her job now; to wake the others.
She made it half-way across the room before the coughing began. By the time she reached the hall her eyes and throat were raw. It hurt just to breathe.
Covering her mouth with the cuff of her night-shirt, she turned left. It wasn’t a conscious decision – she didn’t make a choice. But later she would wonder if she’d sealed one of her brother’s fates by not turning right.
“James, Jamie, wake up,” she called, and would have tripped over a discarded trainer in the doorway if she hadn’t known him so well. It was fear that had her racing forward and yanking back the covers.
James woke slowly, disorientated by a dream. He’d dreamt of fire. It wasn’t until he saw Adrienne that his head began to clear. “Addy…what?”
She would have admired the way he jumped into action if she hadn’t been so scared.
“Where’s Derek?” He was out of bed and pulling her with him before she could blink.
“In his room, I came here first. The house, oh, James, the house is on fire. We need to get Derek… please we need to help… oh god, what about Donna and Christopher, and Sam? I can’t believe I didn’t…”
“Stop it.” His gaze shot to the hall. “We’ll get to Derek and then figure it out. Stay here and phone for help. I’ll be right back.” He rushed over to the window and flung it open. “Get some air.”
Adrienne watched him walk into the hall, fighting against the fear she would never see him again. She stamped down on it and moved to James’ desk. Amidst the mountain of paperwork she spied his phone. Plucking it from beneath a tower of books, she didn’t wait around to see them fall. The sound of James’ favourite volumes hitting the carpeted floor followed her to the window.
It was deathly quiet outside. She had the sudden desire to fill that silence, to call out to their neighbours. How could they sleep when her whole world was falling apart? She made the important call instead, choking out the information as her lungs fought to draw in clean air.
“Addy, I can’t wake him. I need you.”
She looked to her left and saw James hanging out of Derek’s bedroom window. It took her only a moment to process what he was saying. Then she was moving.
On legs numb with fear she ran back into the hall, hell-bent on reaching her brothers’. She could see the fire now and though the dance of flames was mesmerising, she didn’t fall for it; she knew those flames would devour her in their deadly embrace.
The smoke was dense and stifling in Derek’s room. She slammed the door shut behind her, wanting to buy them as much time as she could. They didn’t have long.
James was holding Derek in his arms. He was shouting for her to climb onto the roof and help to get him outside.
She glanced briefly at Derek’s sleeping form; he looked like an angel. It was hard not to think of his parents’ at the other side of the hall. They were beyond the wall of flames – unreachable. She knew they would walk through fire if they could.
The house felt different. It was normally so light, so happy and alive with laughter. Now it was being destroyed by a monster so destructive it would take everything in its path.
As she climbed onto the flat roof and braced herself to pull Derek out, she struggled with the knowledge they were lost. Donna and Christopher may not have been her biological parents, but they were hers – pure and simple.
“Stay with Derek,” James said, climbing out of the window.
He didn’t wait for a response. He was already climbing the trellis so he could swing across to Sam’s room.
Adrienne glanced at Derek and felt her heart clutch. He looked so pale in the moonlight, so still. Part of her wanted him to go on sleeping so he wouldn’t have to face the reality of the fire. The other part, the part with the loudest voice, wanted to shake him until he opened his eyes. She was afraid of what it meant – the fact he was still unconscious.
“I can’t see anything,” James said from somewhere above her. “All I can make out is the bed. It’s empty.”
There was an explosion somewhere in the house. They both felt it and braced themselves against another blow.
After a moment or two of silence James began to hitch himself onto the window ledge.
“No, Jamie, stay there.” Adrienne felt the hysteria building.
He turned to look at her briefly and then down at the street where the first fire engine was pulling into view. “Okay, I’m okay, Addy.”
She nodded, letting the tears fall. There was nothing she could do to stop him. But that didn’t mean she could watch him go back inside their dying house.
The reality of what they had already lost made her heart ache. If it hadn’t been for Derek, and the fact he needed her, she would have slipped quietly into shock.
It helped to concentrate on the action below them. She stared as two fire-fighters climbed onto the ledge and moved towards them.
The younger of the two knelt in front of her. He had eyes so vast and blue that she was reminded of better, sunny days. The very thought made her want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Somehow she made it to the ground. She couldn’t remember how; everything was hazy. It was like the smoke had entered her body and sent her system into turmoil.
James joined her at some point. He swung a supportive arm around her shoulders, leaning in a way that made her wonder who it was supporting – him or her. He looked exhausted.
“What do we do now, Jamie?” she asked, resting her head against his.
“What we’ve always done – survive. We have each other, Addy. We’ll always have each other.”
“Hush now.” He turned to kiss the top of her head. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Adrienne shut her eyes, wishing she could believe him. It was so easy to pretend, to imagine it was all just a dream and she was still safe in her room.
James was doing the same thing. It didn’t fool either of them for long.