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
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.
Posted on Wed, April 1, 2009
by Erin Thorp, Junior, Pine Manor College filed under