FROM THE WRECKAGE
by Melissa Collins
First, he saved me.
I lived because he was a hero.
And then he was gone.
Uprooted by the fire that destroyed our home, my family moved away and I never saw David Andrews again.
Then, he found me.
Eighteen years later, he rescued me again – in much simpler terms, of course. By loving me, by giving me the fairy tale I’d always hoped for, he provided me with the perfect life.
Now, he needs to be saved.
It’s my turn to be strong, to be brave, to be valiant.
When flames threaten to turn us to ashes, it’s up to me to pull us From the Wreckage.
The cool, crisp winter air whips through the evergreens dotting the yard. Powerful and unrelenting, the harsh winds bend the trees almost to their breaking point. Whirring and howling sounds crack through the night air with an almost ghost-like quality. The black expanse of the sky is speckled with a million points of light, some of which are occasionally covered as the clouds pass by on the whim of a blast of wind. On a particularly gusty howl, the newly hung Christmas lights are loosened from their window clips and they skitter across the frosted-over window panes.
Snow piles up thick and heavy into banks against the McCann’s small Cape Cod-style house. The family of three – Mom, Dad and six-year-old Grace – have just recently been welcomed into the neighborhood. Wanting their daughter to go to a good school, Walter and Meredith fought tooth and nail in the crazy bidding war for the house. Luckily, they won and their daughter started first grade in a new and better school district just a few short months ago.
After her parents tuck her under her frilly pink, princess comforter, they kiss her forehead and wish her sweet dreams. Exhaustion washes over little Grace, who hasn’t quite recovered from her exciting day of getting her picture taken with Santa at the mall. Despite the blizzard brewing outside, Grace falls asleep before her parents softly click her bedroom door closed.
She sleeps so soundly in fact, that nothing short of the tree branch crashing through her bedroom window wakes her from her dream-filled sleep. “Daddy!” Grace screams from her now frigid bedroom. Tears streak down her face as her fear-laden paralysis keeps her from moving a single inch. She calls out for her father again – a tiny, wobbly voice shaking with tremors and chills.
“Hey, pumpkin.” Her father bursts through the door – her knight in shining armor. Scooping her up out of her bed into his strong arms, she nuzzles into the safety of his chest. He kisses the top of her head. “Shh. It’s okay, Gracie. Daddy’s got you.” She sniffles and wipes her tears on his flannel pajama shirt. “Puppy,” she whines, reaching out for her stuffed puppy dog.
Bending down with her tiny body still tucked into his arms, he grabs the raggedy stuffed animal. “Of course. How could we forget Puppy? He can’t sleep in here by himself.” She squeezes her beat-up rag doll of an animal as her daddy carries her into his room.
“Mommy!” Grace squeals with delight as her mom reaches out for her baby girl. Folding back the covers and patting the mattress, Grace practically leaps out of her father’s arms to cuddle up with her mommy. “There’s a tree in my room.” Grace’s voice is a bit calmer, but she’s still fiercely gripping her Puppy.
“I heard it! You’re a very brave girl, Gracie.” Her mom pops a sweet kiss to her cheek before Grace nuzzles into the pillow. Inhaling the sweet scent of her mom’s coconut shampoo immediately helps Grace relax even more.
Standing in the doorway, Walter smiles at his wife and daughter. “I’m just going to go get a tarp from the garage and cover the window up for the night.”
Meredith nods as Grace cuddles closer to her. Her light snoring starts to filter into the room as Walter tiptoes out of the master bedroom. Grabbing his heavy winter jacket and slipping his feet into his slippers, Walter heads out to the garage to grab what he needs to put up a make-shift fix for the broken window.
Twenty minutes later, he crawls back into bed, shivering like crazy from the icy cold air that rapidly filled Gracie’s room. Spooning up behind his wife, she nearly shrieks as his ice cold hands grip her waist pulling her into his body.
“My God! Walt, you’re freezing!” He chuckles into her neck and she feels the smirk quirking his lips.
“It was actually snowing in her room. What do you expect?” He shivers once more as he pulls the fluffy comforter up over his shoulders. Wrapping his wife in his arms, as she tucks their daughter into hers, they fall asleep all comfortable wrapped in each other’s warmth.
A hand slaps across his face. “What the hell?” More than startled, Walt shakes his head and lets out a grunt.
Somehow, Meredith manages to choke out her words through the thick, black smoke that’s billowing under the door. “Can’t breathe. Walt…”
Suddenly, his senses go on high alert. He coughs, lungs like razor blades. His eyes tear as he tries to rub the soot away from his brow. “Mer… where’s Gracie?” he manages through the pain.
Reaching out in front of her, Meredith sighs in relief that Gracie is still curled up against her. “I’ve got her, Walt. We need to get out of here.”
They clasp hands as they roll to the floor. Meredith stretches Walt’s hand up to Gracie’s tiny body. “Take her…. I don’t know if I can.”
His strong and capable arms encircle his daughter’s still sleeping body. Secretly, he prays that it’s actually sleep keeping his daughter so still. Who knows how long the smoke was filtering into their room.
Remembering the most basic lessons of any fire safety class, Walt drops to the floor, cradling his fragile baby girl in his arms, hoping to avoid the thickest of the smoke. Reaching out, he finds Meredith at his side. Lacing their fingers together, he communicates what doesn’t need to be spoken.
They both crawl, army-style, to the door where the smoke is almost unbearable. Again, calling on common knowledge, Walt reaches up to the doorknob and skims it with the back of his hand. Recoiling instantly, he chokes out a “Fuck!”
Pressing his cheek up to the door might be unconventional, but it lets him know that there is most definitely a fire raging on the other side of his second floor room – one which he is not willing to let his wife and daughter withstand.
“The window, Mer…” More coughs and choking, but she understands his instructions.
Crawling back to the other wall of the room, Meredith reaches behind her to make sure that she never breaks contact with her daughter and husband.
If they don’t survive, then I don’t survive.
Though it offers little solace, she repeats the mantra in her head – over and over again –until she rams into the wall that she just can’t see.
Reaching up to the window frame, she tries to slide the lock open, but her fingers just aren’t working. “Help me…” She can’t even finish her sentence. The smoke is so thick and the fire, which was once raging on the other side of the door, is now racing toward them.
With time no longer on their side, Walter pulls off his shirt and wraps it around his fist before using it to break the glass. Precious oxygen pours into the room as Meredith desperately realizes that Gracie still hasn’t said a word.
For all the times she wished her life was a little bit quieter, for all the times she wished Gracie would just grant her five minutes of freedom, she prays for a loud wail, a scream, something to let her know that her daughter is still alive.
But nothing comes.
Walt climbs across Meredith’s frail frame, hefting the weight of his daughter’s limp body across the floor. “Let’s go, Mer.” He manages to hack out those words through the thick fog of soot that’s crushing down on his lungs.
Somehow, she registers his voice through the crash and bang of beams collapsing down in the hallway. The sound of wood splintering sets Meredith into high gear. Curling her slender fingers around her husband’s bicep, she clasps onto him for dear life. Somewhere in the back of her oxygen deprived brain, she registers the sounds of Gracie’s pained coughs.
“Mommy,” she rasps out. Clinging to both Puppy and Daddy for dear life, Gracie is roused from her deep sleep as the bitter winter air bites at her exposed skin and her lungs gasp for precious and clean air. “Daddy,” she wails as she curls Puppy into her chest.
Gracie is alive.
That’s all Meredith is capable of registering as Walt slips from her grasp. Realizing she is suddenly all alone in her fire-encased room, Meredith cries out in fright. “Noooo! Walt! Wait for me!”
Lifting her body up and over the window frame, Meredith gashes her belly on a jagged piece of glass. Clasping her hands over the gushing wound, all she hopes is that the brand-new baby growing inside is still safe and sound.
“Walt!” she cries aloud as he reaches back through the window. With all of his strength, he lifts his wife’s body through the window as he gently lays his daughter down on the deck built to the side of their bedroom.
The smell of burnt plaster and carpet fibers infiltrates his nostrils as the smoke-induced vomit rises in his throat. By the grace of a God who he now questions, Walt stands from the slumped form of his family and hacks out the blackest, filthiest spit he’s ever seen in his life.
The clawing at his calf brings him back to the here and now. “Take her…. Please…” Meredith calls as she gasps for air. Hefting his daughter over his shoulder, he claps her on the back, trying desperately to wake her up. “Come on, baby girl. Cough for Daddy,” he calls out almost frantically as Meredith rises to his side.
Curling over the gaping wound at her belly, she mumbles, “Gracie,” before collapsing to the wooden slats, which lie beneath her feet. Off in the distance, Walt hears the screeching sirens of fire trucks and ambulances as they race down the block. Kneeling beside his injured wife, Walt notices the bloodstains on her nightgown. The scarier sight, however, is the fire licking at the window frame. It won’t be long before the fire reaches the deck. They needed to move. Now.
“Come on, Mer. Can you walk?” His question is only met with low groans, which are quickly followed by hacking coughs. When she doesn’t move, Walter scoops her up and over his shoulder. The thick snow makes it difficult to walk across the deck, but somehow, Walt easily manages the weight of the two most important women in his life as he makes the icy trek.
Luck, however, is not on his side as he begins his descent down the stairs. Fire is raging behind him, blasting from the window through which they just escaped. The loud crackling distracts him momentarily and he loses his footing. Before his skull crashes into the step, Grace and Meredith fly out of his arms. As unconsciousness claims him, Walt realizes that both of his girls have slid down the entire flight only to land in a snowdrift piled high against the house. His eyes close, but not before he hears the frantic calls from his neighbors.
When he comes to, he’s laid out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask secured over his nose and mouth. It doesn’t take long for reality to settle in. The house is wildly ablaze. Despite the spray of multiple hoses, flames pour out of each and every window. The entire west side of the house, where their bedrooms used to be, is incinerated and nearly gone. The deck, which used to be visible from the front yard, is no longer there, having been consumed by the fire. That’s when the panic sets it.
Walt tears the mask away from his face and with strong arms levels the paramedic, who was just taking his vitals, down to the ground. “The girls…where are they?” His voice is thick with emotion even though speaking feels like swallowing razor blades.
Righting himself beside Walt once again, the paramedic replaces the oxygen mask when Walt begins coughing in frenzy. “Please calm down, Mr. McCann.” The paramedic drapes a blanket over Walt’s chest, but it does nothing to warm the bitterness blooming in his heart.
Clenching the collar of the paramedic’s navy blue uniform in his balled-up fist, Walt stares pleadingly into the young man’s eyes. “My wife and daughter were with me. I dropped them…. My God, I dropped them.” Overtaken by sobs, he barely hears Meredith’s small and broken voice call out to him.
“Walt…Gracie?” she cries out as her stretcher rolls alongside his.
“Mer…” he gasps her name, but he only feels partial relief at knowing that his wife is okay. He needs to find Gracie.
That’s when the sweetest sound in the entire world rings out through all of the chaos. “I found her!” David Andrews, their ten-year-old neighbor calls out, but before Walt can look up to see where he is, he’s gone. The only sight he catches is that of the paramedics racing away from him and his wife to the side of the house where the deck used to be.
Needing to feel contact with him, Meredith wiggles her hand under the blanket on Walt’s stretcher and laces their fingers together. “They’ve got her, Walt. It’s going to be okay.” Her last words are barely choked out past the lump of emotion clogging her throat.
“I dropped her…” he repeats over and over again as guilt sits heavily on his chest. Grace has to be okay. She has to survive. He won’t be able to….
Pushing down any thoughts of a life without his daughter, Walt squeezes his wife’s hand as they wait for Grace to emerge from behind the wreckage that used to be their home.
It takes forever, but finally, the paramedics round the corner of the yard. Grace is wrapped in a thick, grey wool blanket. Her lips are blue and her skin pale, but she’s alive. She stretches out her tiny arms when she catches sight of her parents next to the ambulance.
“Mommy…Daddy…” Grace’s teeth chatter and her body shakes with chills, but she practically leaps out of the paramedic’s arms to go to her mom.
Wrapping her arms around Grace, Meredith buries her face in her daughter’s hair. Though it may be singed a little, she can still smell traces of the strawberry scented shampoo she’d used on her earlier in the night. “Shh…it’s okay, Grace. We’re all okay.”
Tears well in Walt’s eyes and stream down his cheeks. His girls are safe. He’s safe. Nothing else matters. Through the fog of everything going on, Walt hears some of what the paramedics say. Grace has mild hypothermia so they wrap her in heated blankets and let her lie next to Meredith, hoping that her body heat will help as well. All three of them suffer from smoke inhalation, but it seems as if they will all recover just fine.
“Puppy!” Grace cries out.
“It’s okay, baby. Puppy will come in another ambulance. Don’t you worry.” Meredith presses her lips against her daughter’s cold skin. Her little white lie will go a long way to keep Gracie calm.
Walt goes in one ambulance, but the paramedics promise that his wife and daughter won’t be far behind. Meredith and Walt exchange a brief, but relieved smile as they unlace their fingers. When a paramedic begins wheeling Meredith and Gracie to their ambulance, a giant ball of nerves forms in Meredith’s belly – the belly in which she hopes her baby is still alive and well. She hadn’t even had the chance to tell Walt yet, wanting to wait until Christmas next week to give him the present he would never forget.
Meredith grabs at the paramedic’s arm. “It’s okay, Mrs. McCann. We should be at the hospital in ten minutes.” Her calm voice does nothing to soothe Meredith’s concern.
Turning away from Gracie, so that she doesn’t hear anything, Meredith faces the paramedic, whose arm she still hasn’t let go of. “The baby…I’m…pregnant.” Meredith registers the look of surprise on the woman’s face. Quickly checking her reaction, the paramedic gently pats Meredith’s hand and readjusts her oxygen mask.
“We’ll get you all checked out when you get to the hospital,” she reassures.
“But the cut…the glass. There was so much blood.” Meredith’s words fall to a whisper as Grace squirms beside her.
“We looked at the wound, Mrs. McCann. It should only require a few stitches, but the injury is far from where the baby would be positioned at this point.” The paramedic’s kind eyes crinkle at the corners as she conveys this information to Meredith. Relief washes over her. Maybe things will be okay. “We’ll do an ultrasound and some blood work when we get to the hospital just to be safe, okay?” She brushes Meredith’s soot-covered hair out of her eyes and Meredith nods in response.
Meredith pulls Gracie to her side as a few other paramedics help load them into the ambulance. The bumping and shifting causes Grace to stir at Meredith’s side. Gracie pulls at the child-sized oxygen mask strapped to her face. Her lips are less blue and as she coughs up some of the smoke she inhaled, some of the color returns to her plump cheeks. “It’s okay, Gracie. We’re going to be okay.” For the first time since this horrible experience started, Meredith actually believes those words.
The McCann’s spend the night in the hospital for observation – just as a precaution the doctors tell them, but Walt knows the real reason. They’ve got no home to return to.
The next morning, after Meredith is wheeled out of the room for a few tests, Walt and Grace watch some cartoons and wait for her to return. He’s concerned that they still need to run tests on his wife. Maybe her smoke inhalation was far worse than his and Gracie’s. Or maybe it was the cut to her side that has the doctors worried.
A half an hour later, Meredith returns with tears streaming down her pink cheeks. “What’s wrong, Mer? What’s the matter?” Walt stands from his bed and practically runs over to his crying wife.
“The baby…” is all she can work out past the lump in her throat. Walt’s initial worries instantly morph into elation and then raw fear.
“What did you say?” he whispers, shocked by this news. Unable to speak past her sobbing, Meredith cries into the blankets. Walt looks up to the doctor who came in with Meredith, hoping that she can offer some small sliver of information – something to make his mind stop racing.
Extending her slender hand to him, Dr. Meyers introduces herself. “We performed a routine ultrasound this morning to check on the baby, to make sure everything is okay.”
“What baby, Mer?” He skims his knuckles across his wife’s cheek, brushing away the flow of tears. “Please talk to me,” he begs and she wraps her fingers around his hand. Bringing his hand to her lips, she plants a soft kiss there.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I wanted it to be a surprise, but I’m…Walt, I’m pregnant.” Giving herself over to her emotions, she wraps her arms around his neck and hugs him as tightly as she can.
“So then the tests came back okay?” His words are muffled by her soft, brown hair. He sees the doctor nod as she steps away from the stretcher to give them a minute of privacy.
“Yes, everything is okay, for now. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you.” Her chestnut-colored eyes beg for forgiveness, but there’s nothing to forgive. They’re going to have another baby.
“Shhh, sweetie. There’s no need to apologize.” He kisses her temple.
Before she leaves, the doctor goes over a few last minute instructions – no heavy lifting, drink plenty of water and see her regular doctor in a week or so for a follow-up ultrasound, at which they should be able to hear the heartbeat.
Grace is too entranced by the television to even notice that her mom has returned, so Walt and Meredith decide not to mention anything about the baby to her, just in case.
The rest of the morning is spent making arrangements to move in with Walt’s brother until they can find an apartment of their own. Meredith calls Penny Andrews, her neighbor and newest friend, who promises they’ll be up there shortly with some new clothes. Hating to rely on others for support, Walt almost tells them not to worry about it, but they’ve got to rebuild everything. Somehow, refusing a few new items of clothes when they don’t even have a roof of their own seems somewhat foolish.
An hour later, the Andrews come to visit and in addition to the clothes they’d promised to bring, David beams with pride as he hands Grace her ragged and charred Puppy.
Grace leaps out of the hospital bed. “You found Puppy!” She squeals with delight as she tears the precious stuffed animal from David’s hands.
“Sure did. It was right next to where I found you.” He’s grinning ear to ear, utterly pleased with himself for being such a huge help last night.
“You found me?” Grace asks, disbelief lacing through her words. When David simply nods and smiles, she says, “Wow. You’re like a hero!”
Wrapping her tiny arms around his waist, Grace squeezes David. The two sets of parents watch in silence as the happy exchange occurs before them.
Letting go of David, Grace tips her chin over at the TV that she was just watching. “Wanna watch Frosty the Snowman? The nurses just put it on for me.” Grace doesn’t even wait for David to respond before she pulls him over to the bed. She’s determined never to let her hero move from her side
“We really can’t thank you guys enough, especially David. He really is a hero.” Walt shakes hands with John Andrews as Penny and Meredith squeeze the life out of each other – well, as best they can with Meredith’s still-sore wound.
“We’re glad to help out,” Penny says as she hands over the bags of clothing and toiletries they’d picked up on their way over. “So what will you guys do?” Penny asks cautiously, not wanting to upset Walt and Meredith.
Pulling his wife to his side, Walt kisses the top of her head. “We’ll be all right. We’re going to go stay with my brother for a bit while we figure things out.”
“Will you come back to the neighborhood?” Penny and Meredith have hit it off pretty well and she would hate to see them leave for good.
Shrugging and fighting back tears brought on by uncertainty, Meredith looks over at David and Grace watching TV. “I’d like to, but we’ll just have to wait and see.” She swipes a tear away from her cheek and looks up at Walt – her rock, her savior.
“Come on, Pen, let’s leave them be for a while.” John extends his hand to Walt, who thanks him for helping them out. “It’s time to go, Dave.” Penny calls for her son and smiles warmly at the sight of little Gracie staring in awe at him.
“See you around, Gracie.” David ruffles her hair as she holds Puppy tightly at her side.
If she would have known that was going to be the last time she’d see David Andrews, she would have done more than wave lamely at his retreating back as he exited the room.