by Karleen Bradford
Copyright © Karleen Bradford. All rights reserved.
For a moment Jeff lay confused. He couldn’t figure out what had awakened him. He coughed. He coughed again. There was a tight, suffocating feeling in his chest. As he pulled himself groggily from the last remnants of sleep, he became aware of an acrid, burning smell and a shrill, piercing noise. His eyes were watering, the insides of his nostrils stinging. Then, suddenly, he was wide awake. His room was full of smoke! The noise he was hearing was the smoke alarm. The house was on fire!
He leaped from the bed, but collapsed onto the floor, choking. He lay there, trying to catch his breath.
“Stay low.” The words from their school fire drill came back to him. “The smoke is least dense near the floor. Stay low. Crawl. Don’t panic.”
He panicked. His room was on the second floor, there was no safe way out the window. The door was his only hope. It was more of a scrabbling dash that he made for the door than a crawl but, in spite of his fear, he at least remembered to feel the door to see if it was hot. It wasn’t. Cautiously, he stood up and turned the knob.
Fresh smoke billowed in when he opened it, but he couldn’t see any flames. Beside him, he could see the door of his parents’ room standing open. Through the eddying smoke he could barely make out the glimmer of their bedside light. That meant they weren’t home yet. The stairs were just beyond. He made for them, crouching low.
At the top of the stairs he stumbled and half fell onto the top step. Suddenly the smoke was much worse. He couldn’t even see the bottom. He turned to go back to his room–maybe the window was the best way out after all, but the smoke was a solid wall behind him now, black and oily. He slid down the stairs, clutching onto the bannister. The front door was right at the bottom.
He reached the last stair and ran for the door. He couldn’t see his sitter, Tim, anywhere.
He unlocked the door and yanked it open. The fresh, sweet smell of the spring night air rushed in. He breathed in a great gulp of it and staggered out through the doorway. Then he remembered Yank. The thought hit him like a baseball bat connecting right into his stomach. Yank slept in the kitchen. Jeff’s Mom had been shutting him in lately because he’d gotten out and chewed the living room couch up last week. He couldn’t leave him!
More words from the fire drills echoed around inside his head.
“Never go back in. Never! Meet your parents at a predetermined place so you’ll know you’re all safe. Never go back in!”
But Yank...He couldn’t leave him!
He turned and headed back for the kitchen. The door was shut. Frantically, he pulled it open. A wall of flame shot out and engulfed him. He put up his hands defensively. Pain, searing and unbelievable, ripped at his palms and tore at his face. He gasped and inhaled a river of agony into his chest. He fell to his knees and tried to scream, but he couldn’t. Then there was nothing but a roaring blackness.
And he was back in his bed again.
He sat bolt upright, staring around into the darkness. It was cool, everything was quiet. He brought his hands to his face. They felt smooth, dry. No pain. But how could it be? He’d been in the fire! He’d felt it knifing into him. It wasn’t a dream, he knew it! He started to shake. He shook so badly he had to grab onto the bed cover to keep under control. Even then he winced, expecting the raw pain to shoot into his palms as he grasped the blanket. It didn’t come. The blanket felt soft and warm, as always.
Jeff heard the key in the front door lock, then his parents’ voices greeting Tim. Yank barked a welcome.
It must have been a dream.
* * *
His insides still felt hollow and shaky when he slid behind his desk at school that morning. He pretended not to hear when Dave muttered his usual morning comment about Mr. Brown’s brown clothes. Mr. Brown always wore brown. Usually they found that funny. Not today. The dream was still on top of him. If it had been a dream.
“What’s with you?” Dave asked. “You sick? You look awful.”
“Nothing,” Jeff answered. He made a big show of dropping a book and leaning away from Dave to pick it up. How could he tell him he was freaked out because of a dream? No way. He’d never hear the last of it.
“I’m going to talk about time today,” Mr. Brown said. “It’s a fascinating subject and leads into the theme of our next unit on space.”
Jeff was barely listening. He could swear he still smelled the smoke. He sniffed at his arm, ran one finger gently over the palm of the other hand. The skin was smooth. Just a blister from his baseball bat. By the end of summer it would be a callous, he knew. He ran a hand through his hair. Still damp from his shower. His Mom had been surprised when he’d insisted on a shower before school, but he’d had to get the smell of smoke out of his nose. Mr. Brown’s voice was just a far-away echo.
“The most usual way to think of time is to think of a straight line.”
The words barely got through to Jeff. Usually science was his favourite subject, but today he couldn’t concentrate.
Mr. Brown drew a line on the board.
“We’re here right now,” he said. He drew an X at the beginning of the line. “In ten minutes we’ll be here.” He drew another X farther along the line. “And then in another ten minutes we’ll be here, and so on and so on, stretching on forever.” He drew a series of X’s along the line.
Jeff rubbed his forehead. He never got headaches, but there was the beginning of one right now behind his right eye.
“There are other theories, however,” Mr. Brown said. “One of the theories that I particularly like is to think of time as a spiral. Like a coiled spring all stretched out and us travelling along the coils.” Mr. Brown picked up a shining metal spring from his desk top and started to stretch it out. He lost hold of one end and it snapped back, nipping his fingers. He let out a kind of yelp, but got back hold of it and stretched it out again.
The class snickered. Dave reached over to nudge Jeff in the ribs.
“He’s really lost it now, man,” he said.
But Mr. Brown got the spring under control.
“You can see that we could make our way along the coils, just as if we were following along a winding road,” he said. “But what happens if I bend the spring a little?”
In spite of himself, Jeff began to get interested. Mr. Brown moved his hands closer together and bent the spring back on itself so that some of the coils touched.
“See the coils touching?” he asked. “If this were a model of time, and we were walking along this coil here, and then the next coil suddenly touched it, maybe we could skip across from our coil to the next and walk right into the future! Or the past, if it was the coil behind that touched ours. How about that?” He beamed at them.
You had to say one thing about Mr. Brown, he certainly was enthusiastic.
The rest of the day seemed to drag by. Jeff couldn’t concentrate on anything. He was one of his team’s best players, but at baseball practice after school he made one mistake after another until the coach finally ended up yelling at him and he quit in disgust. It didn’t help matters to find a note from his mother on the kitchen table saying that she and his dad were working late again tonight and Tim would be over to make his dinner and keep him company until they got home.
When Tim banged into the house an hour later, he brought a pizza with him. He and Jeff shared it, then they both settled down to homework. Jeff walked Yank, watched a little TV, and finally went to bed. It had been a bummer of a day.
The screaming of the smoke alarm woke him up. He coughed. He coughed again. There was a tight, suffocating feeling in his chest, an acrid burning smell in his nostrils. His eyes were watering.
It was happening again!
He rolled out of bed and lay on the floor, gasping for breath, then crawled frantically for the door. This time he didn’t even bother to check, just yanked it open. He looked toward his parents’ room. As he had known it would be, their door was open and their light glimmered through the smoke. He bent over nearly double and made for the stairs. The smoke was getting worse. He stumbled, but finally reached the front door. He unlocked it and almost fell out into the cool, clear air outside.
Then, again, he remembered Yank. He couldn’t leave him! He turned around and started back in.
The pain was suddenly back. The searing, raging memory of the fire swept over him. If he went back...That’s what would happen.
But Yank...! A sob tore through his chest. He forced himself to turn away and stumbled down the front steps. He reached the bottom and turned to look back.
Flames broke through the roof at the back of the house. He staggered clear, then sank down onto the grass at the foot of the maple tree on the front lawn. He leaned into it, his head down on his knees and his eyes tightly closed.
Vaguely, he heard sirens. There was noise and a confusion of people shouting and milling around him. Then a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Tim standing there. His shirt was black with soot and he had a bruise on his forehead.
“I tried to get to you, man,” he said. “I couldn’t make it!”
“Yank,” Jeff said. “He’s in the kitchen.”
“No, he’s not,” Tim said. “He got out with me.”
And there Yank was, leaping up at Jeff and nosing him wetly. Incredibly, he had his favorite toy in his mouth.
Jeff began to laugh. Then the laugh died in his throat.
This time it hadn’t been a dream. This time it was for real. But if it hadn’t been for that dream the night before...If it hadn’t been for that he would have gone back. He would have died.
What had happened to him?
And then Mr. Brown’s words came back to him. He saw again the stretched out spring in his teacher’s hands, saw how he made the coils touch. What if...? What if that was what had happened? What if he had touched the future last night? Just enough to show him what would happen if he went back for Yank?
It was impossible. Of course it was.
But, what if...?