Six-year-old Gretchen Martindale couldn’t see her hand when she touched her nose. The closet was so dark, so hot, so smoky.
“Mama, help me,” she whispered then coughed. Heat seared her cheek as she scooted closer to the space under the door to see if her mother was coming. As much as she tried not to, she coughed again. She grasped her knees and pulled her legs closer to her chest. If she hid under her mother’s clothes, like in that magic wardrobe her mom had read in the Narnia book, maybe the fire and the bad man couldn’t find her. He had burst in the front door right after her mother had placed Gretchen’s favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs on the table.
How long had it been since Gretchen had fled, spurred by her mother’s order to hide? The man had yelled her mother’s name, other words, too. Words that shouldn’t be said. Bitch, whore, slut, you stupid cunt. Words her mother said didn’t mean anything when he uttered them. But Gretchen knew those words meant her mother wasn’t like her friend’s mom who sometimes helped at school. The few times she was invited to Dinah’s house, no one used those words, not even Dinah’s dad. Maybe dads didn’t use those words, only other men.
The clothes in the closet smelled bad, but Gretchen detected hints of her mother’s perfume. When she plunged her face into the clothes, they made her feel safe, like when her mama hugged her. But then the man’s shouts escalated and she heard her mother scream. So many times. Then they stopped. Gretchen burrowed under the clothes and waited for her mama to tell her she could come out, that the man was gone.
But her mama didn’t call. Other sounds took over. A strange crackling noise, louder even as the closet where she hid grew warmer, almost too hot to bear. “Mama,” Gretchen murmured, trying not to cough. “Is it safe now? Can I come out?” She coughed and coughed.
No one answered.
Gretchen wasn’t sure how long she’d been in the closet before the door burst open and a huge paw grasped her ankle and hauled her out from under the clothes.
Muffled words that sounded like “found her” emerged from the monster’s head. Other words, too, that Gretchen didn’t understand. Her heart jumped in her chest. Had the bad man come? Is he a monster now, like Mama once said, when she was crying? I have to get away. Gretchen wanted to slap him, but she felt woozy, like when she’d just waked up from a nap. He held her tight to his chest. Only her legs were free. She kicked and kicked to make him let her go, like her mama had told her.
The monster was hard to see in the smoky darkness. The paws holding her were scratchy against her neck and the back of her legs. Gretchen couldn’t stop coughing. She wanted to tell him to let her go, but she was afraid to take another breath. She kicked at the monster again, desperate to get away. He gave a funny kind of oomph. But it just made him reach for her legs. His other arm clutched her tighter, pressing her face closer.
No! Let me go! She wanted to yell, but she couldn’t get a breath.
The monster mumbled something. She squinted at the shield that surrounded the monster’s face and neck. The heat from the nearest wall caused her to jerk when the flames reached out and touched her, burning her leg, singeing her hair. The monster’s big paw pressed her face into his shoulder as he worked his way past the wall that used to have a window. But the window wasn’t there anymore. It was a sheet of fire that curled up and over the wall, shooting along the ceiling. So hot. Then the monster lifted her to his shoulder. In the light from the hellish flames, she realized she was no longer in the house, her body still pressed against his scratchy coat, protected from the heat that was eating the house. Whooshing noises and crackling accompanied the collapse of the roof in a shower of sparks and smoke as she was carried away from the flames.
The monster removed his mask. He transformed into a man. “It’s okay, honey. I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice was kind, reminding her of Dinah’s dad. Gretchen squinted at him. No monster. A fireman. She coughed as he held her, the fiery heat from the house bathing everything in red. She watched as ugly black smoke swirled into the night sky. Where was Mama?
When the fireman set her down on the sidewalk, another man peered at her. “Can you talk, little girl?”
Gretchen tried, but her throat burned, as if the fire was inside her. She nodded, but no sound came out.
“We’ll take her in,” the new man announced before picking her up and carrying her to a white truck. He talked to another man who leaned over her. “Severe burns on her left leg and right cheek. Probable smoke inhalation. Let’s get her on oxygen. I’ll start an IV.” The man placed her on a bed inside the truck and covered her cheek and her leg with white squares. He pressed something against her chest and seemed to listen. “You take it easy. We’re going to give you extra air and medicine so you don’t hurt. Your neighbor told us about you. Good thing, too.” His voice trailed off and he gazed at her with eyes as blue as her mama’s favorite dishes. She remembered when the bad man had broken them, every single one. Her mama had moaned and cried. “Not my Delft dishes!” But he had just laughed and reached for another dish until they were nothing but tiny pieces on the floor.
“Nooooo,” Gretchen managed to gasp. But she could say no more when man held a thin tube close to her nose. It blew air against her skin and then into her nostrils. She closed her eyes and sucked it in, wishing she could stop tasting smoke.
~ ~ ~
Gretchen opened her eyes. She was in a bed in a strange room with pale green walls and a window, the curtain pulled across, dimming the light. A blank television screen sat across from her bed, hooked onto a shelf on the wall. She brought a hand up to her face and felt bandages on her right cheek and chin. Her hair felt greasy and thick.
A woman wearing a dark blue smock with bright-colored cartoon characters on it stood in the doorway, her back to Gretchen. “I don’t know. Did they find her? Only person the firemen brought in was the girl. Any relatives we can call? If not, I guess we need to alert CPS.” The woman’s words weren’t directed at Gretchen, but she sensed the woman was talking about her.
“Mama?” she said, her throat sore, her voice raspy.
The woman turned and approached the bed. “You’re awake. Good. I’m your nurse. Can you tell me your name?” The woman grasped Gretchen’s wrist and looked at the wall clock near the window.
“What’s your last name?”
“How old are you, Gretchen?”
“Six. My birthday was last week.”
The woman nodded. “What about your grandparents? What are their names?”
“Parents of your mom and dad?”
“I don’t have a dad. Just my mama.”
“Do you know your mother’s mom and dad?”
Gretchen shook her head.
“Aunts or uncles, cousins?”
“We just moved here.” She couldn’t remember how many times they’d moved since Christmas. Gretchen squirmed in the bed, and the nurse cranked up the head slightly.
“Is that better?”
“Where’s my mama?” Gretchen’s lids felt scratchy, like she had sand in her eyes.
The nurse’s eyes narrowed. Her slight smile flattened. “I don’t know.”
Gretchen pressed her head into the pillow and brought both hands up to her face. She covered her eyes, not wanting the woman to see her cry. “I need her. Really bad.”
“I’m sure you do,” the nurse replied gently and patted her hand.
Gretchen shifted in the bed and buried her face into the pillow, unable to stop the tears that burned the backs of her lids and then ran in hot rivulets down her cheeks, soaking into the bandages on her face, stinging. “I want my mama,” she begged. “I did what she said. I hided, just like she told me.”