Sacrifice, it’s just a word. People throw it around so easily, but I never really noticed it until after the fire. But then, I hadn’t noticed a lot of the things before then.

I have always been a somewhat awkward person, so the small amount of friends that I had were dear to me. I had known Lev since we were toddlers and had never had a relationship as intimate as I had with him. My mother would often joke that I spent more time with him than my own family, her voice always tinted with a sort of bitter sadness. I was staying over his house when the accident happened. We were playing Scrabble, one of those mundane games that people play when they have nothing better to do with their time, but we enjoyed each other’s company and, with Lev stealing tiles and making up words, it wasn’t quite so mundane. So, we playfully yelled at each other, claiming that ‘qwijibo’ wasn’t a word even if it had been used on TV, sipping rapidly warming soda and munching on the Fritos that his father loved so much that we had pilfered from the kitchen. We were alone that night, though I can’t blame his parents for that as they were desperately trying to keep their marriage together by having a night out for themselves. Lev’s apartment was on the first floor, if it had not been, I would be telling a different story.

Lev’s vocabulary was vastly limited, so I won by a hundred points, but my best friend was nothing if not a graceful loser; it was one of his many charms. I excused myself to the bathroom as he pulled out another board game, this one I was unfamiliar with. It always amazed me, the amount of toys and games that littered the apartment. I had holes in my jeans just like Lev, but my mother had never put stock in creature comforts. It was a bitter point between my mom and me, her constant mission to turn me into a cultured, mature individual even as I clung to my vanishing childhood with both hands. It was odd seeing the startling differences between my family and Lev’s, yet these differences did not cause any friction between us, it was just one of those things that made our friendship stronger.

The bathroom was pleasant and comforting like the rest of the apartment. Brightly colored cartoon fish decorated the deep blue wallpaper with a purple sea horse soap disperser next to the copper sink and canary yellow towels. Sponges shaped like green starfish were balanced precariously on the edge of the white tub that had a neon orange shower curtain hanging from red plastic rings, blue, green, and purple flowers stretching cheerfully across the plastic curtain. To an artistic eye, such decoration would seem ugly and disturbing, but it always amused me no matter how many times I saw it.

I washed my hands with the fruity smelling soap, brushed my shaggy, dirtyblonde hair from my eyes, and rubbed the back of my hand across my pale, heated forehead, sweaty from the last few hours. I would have to ask Lev to turn the heat down, I remember thinking. Compared to how the temperature had been when I first arrived, the heat in the apartment had grown to an almost stifling level in the last few minutes, but I was no stranger to faulty apartment buildings. I had only a few seconds to think of my own apartment building and how, every time water was run, the piping would shriek. Then, I heard a loud crack, almost like lightning, but it was right above us.

The fire department said that the fire started in the apartment above us, but they were mystified as to how it had happened since that room was empty. They told me that the crack I heard was a section of the upstairs floor and our ceiling collapsing. It should have been obvious as I ran out of the bathroom and saw the mess that the main room was in, but the brain does weird things when you’re panicked and all I really registered was wood everywhere and what appeared to be a support beam and a piece of piping embedded in the floor from the ceiling.

Small embers heated the wood and, given enough time, the flames would spread, but that fact was somewhere in the back of my mind like an after note. Lev was huddled in the corner of the room, a large piece of wood had fallen on his legs and for one scary moment I thought that it had impaled him, but my eyes quickly noticed that it was merely lying on top of him, pinning him down. I finally realized that fire was spreading through the ceiling and in a few seconds the whole mess would cave in. I also noticed that I could easily make my way around the beam and that the door was not blocked by any debris.

My mind whirled furiously and I felt like I was making connections faster than I should in such a circumstance. All of this occurred to me in matter of seconds. I had thought that it would have taken much longer, but it seemed that I had made the decision a long time ago and that choice had been buried deep inside, just waiting for the right moment to rear its head. I grabbed the beam and screamed. It wasn’t a scream of pain, but fury, as adrenaline raced through me and I slammed myself against the hot chunk of wood. There was a great deal of pain, but it didn’t seem to really register for some reason. It felt like the searing heat was going all the way down to the bone, but all of my efforts were focused on moving the obstacles in my path. The beam cracked under my hands and I felt splinters embed in my burning palms. I gripped the pipe and somehow managed to toss it away, though today I could not tell you how I managed. Grabbing chunks of wood and plaster and glass, my hands became solid masses of pain and raw tissue, but I was determined to make a path. Instead of letting the terrible pain overwhelm me, I used it to fill me and I vented it on the joists of wood and glass.

In those brief moments when the wreckage had obscured my view of Lev, I knew what Hell would be like. It was the smell of my own charred flesh, something like the smell of rotting meat and burning leaves, the feeling of smoke in my lungs and my breath panting out, trying to get some purchase of fresh air that wasn’t there. It was the horrible idea that I would finally get to my best friend only to find that he was long dead, that I had failed him.

When I was six, I fell out of a tree at a playground. I skinned my knees raw, and like any child would, screamed and cried in pain. What I remember most about that, however, was not the pain or the fear of the fall, but how everyone, children and parents alike, had just stood and stared at me as though they had no idea what to do with me. I remember how Lev had screamed at someone to get help and how he had poured water over the wounds, performing some sort of child triage, though he didn’t really know what to do. That hadn’t mattered, he had done something. He had even held my hand and tried to soothe my cries, despite the threat of teasing by the other boys he would no doubt get for holding another boy’s hand. I couldn’t have left him in that burning wreckage if my hair were on fire. Then, I could finally see again and his green eyes pierced into me.

“Alex,” he said in a choked murmur, his voice thick and weak from the heavy smoke. His dark hair was bright as flames started to pick up behind me, giving the brown hair red highlights. I tossed the piece of wood off of him like it was nothing, his eyes widening at my display of strength, or perhaps it was my display of madness, I could never tell. I grabbed underneath his arms and started to drag him out of the apartment.

The doorknob almost proved to be my undoing as the metal bit into the tender flesh of my hands, but I wrenched it open. I have no doubt now that if we hadn’t been on the first floor, I wouldn’t have been able to drag him onto the grass. He was safe. That was the only thought I had at that moment. Then, the cool air hit me and I threw up. The pain finally came to me and I fell to the grass. My hands pounded to the frantic rhythm of my heart. My vision became grey, everything muted and grainy like a poor reception of a TV, yet I could still hear the sounds of Lev crying and the sirens of fire trucks coming closer and closer with the murmurs of people I didn’t recognize. I don’t remember much after that, just a lot of screaming that I couldn’t figure out if it was just in my head or not.

I vaguely remember people surrounding me and a sharp beeping sound. Someone was holding my hands, but I couldn’t feel anything. My hands were a mess of weeping liquids and reds and blacks and punctures from glass and wood splinters. The skin was stretched and swollen to the point that for a moment I thought I was looking at someone else’s hands. Then, someone was cutting away huge chunks of the skin, peeling it off in a move that should have made me scream in pain, but I still couldn’t feel anything. Then, I was gone once more.

I hate morphine. It blurs everything and for the first few days in the hospital, what I can remember makes so little sense, I can’t consider it fact. When I finally got off of it, the first thing I remember is Lev visiting me. He took one look at my bandaged hands and fell apart. He flinched and his eyes got this hard, closed off look that I knew I could not remove. He was bound to beat himself up for what had happened, regardless of whether it was his fault or not and I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could fix that. Instead of lecturing him on his irrational feelings, I smiled at him and hugged him the best I could.

My stay at the hospital was boring. Mostly I just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what I had done. No matter how many times I rolled it around in my head, I couldn’t see myself doing anything different than what I had. The day that I was discharged, my mom came with a sweatshirt and gloves to hide the hideous burns. I sent her back home for a t-shirt. The burns are ugly. Because of the nerve damage, I can’t feel anything and have to be careful when using them. It’s hard to pick something up when you can’t feel how much force you’re using. Lev got out of that apartment without a scratch, just a bruise on his leg, shock, and some smoke inhalation, something that tears him up inside, but I’m not bitter, I’m happy. I have no reason to hide the scars. They don’t make me feel ugly or handicapped. That was my sacrifice, my hands for my best friend. It didn’t seem a fair trade to either of us, for different reasons. My mother doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t understand why I don’t hide my disfiguration from the world and I doubt she ever will. Like I said, sacrifice is just a word, one that a lot of people throw around. Not me, not anymore.