Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sixty-three Seconds

Red light flashing and buzzer blaring like an air raid, the fire alarm forces you awake. In that first instant of consciousness, your body stiffens as your brain tries to determine the correct response. Fight, flight? Just shock for a moment, and then clarity as you recognize the fire alarm for what it is and what it means. Couldn't they have made that thing just as conspicuous but with a more calming tone? Maybe one of the female computer voices you hear on sci-fi shows, some girl with a hint of a British accent calmly saying, "Alert: your house is on fire, please proceed to the nearest exit. Thank you."

Now you hear another sound, and you realize it's your own heartbeat. Funny how you don't normally hear your heart, even when it's working hard, aside from when you're laying there in bed and your ear is pressed against the pillow so its own little pulse echoes in the auditory canals. Even when the elevator at work is out and you have to climb a flight of stairs and your heart pumps like it will burst from driving your obese frame upward, you never actually hear the sound. You feel the pounding through the bone and fat and you vow to get back in shape, as if you were ever in it to begin with.

But then your house catches on fire and suddenly it's there: the sound of blood roaring like a rhythmic freight train in your head, as loud as the fire alarm but marginally less annoying.

False alarm? No . . . that's definitely smoke you smell and through the din of the alarm there is a crackling sound like crumpling paper and you know it is the death of your faux oak dining room table, or maybe one of your overstuffed blue Ikea chairs. Did you leave something on the stove? You don't think so. Maybe it's just a freak electrical fire.

This is an emergency, isn't it? A hot, flaming emergency is eating its way through your home and the heat is already making you sweat. Beads are forming across the corrugated expanse of your forehead and slipping down your fleshy jowls. Stop thinking about that irrelevant crap and get out of bed! You can't let your mind wander again, not now, when you need it most.

Remember second grade? Social studies class. Miss Clarion was at the overhead projector with a transparency of . . . what was it? Your mind was wandering at the time, of course, so you can't recall. You were looking at Jennifer Hind's hair. It was the color of a new penny and it smelled like flowers, and that reminded you of your grandmother's garden. Grandma planted all kinds of flowers in her backyard, but you always liked the sunflowers. Some of them stood as tall as you, when you were five, with their thick green stalks and yellow petals. You would sit back there in that warm, dewy garden, and you'd stare at the sunflowers. For some inexplicable reason those sunflowers held your attention in a way that nothing else could match. But even the flowers couldn't beguile you forever and eventually you'd pick up a stick and poke the anthills that dotted the yard.

And then you were back in the classroom, jolted into what was then the present by a pencil poke in the back and a halfheartedly suppressed giggle from your peers. Miss Clarion had stopped her lecture and she was staring at you. Had she asked a question? She was pointing to the picture of Alexander Graham Bell being projected on the white screen that hung at the classroom's forward wall. You asked her what she had said.

Miss Clarion shook her head and sighed. "Never mind," she said. "You'll have to pay attention one of these days, or you'll get--"

Killed! You knew it then and you know it now. You'll be driving one day and get distracted and drive off an overpass; the car will collide with a supporting pole and shear into halves, your fat body driven through the shattered windshield by the force of the impact. Or maybe you'll lean over the rail of a thirteenth-floor hotel balcony and lose yourself in the twinkling cityscape before you, not feeling the lack of equilibrium in your ears, and you'll fall in front of eleven identical balconies and then through an old-fashioned green awning to crush the hood of a white Cadillac.

"--into trouble," finished Miss Clarion.

You never guessed it might be fire. You've now been daydreaming long enough for the flames to blacken your bedroom door; you can smell burning wood and plastic and the acrid smoke makes your eyes water and your nose run. Why haven't you escaped? You've had more than ample time. You finally drag yourself out of bed and the sweat dribbles from your thinning fringe of hair, down your back, and continues unimpeded over the prominent curve of your butt. You've been trying the sleeping-in-the-nude thing for the last few days and it's right, what they say. It really does feel kind of refreshing to have nothing between your skin and the cool cotton sheets, especially on a nice summer night.

But now you're naked and flame is encroaching into your cozy bedroom and you're going to be rescued by a burly fireman while bare-assed. That won't do at all, but the only article of clothing you find in your immediate field of vision is a pair of blue cotton shorts. They're encrusted with salt from the sweat of a half-mile jog. You have to wear them, though. Your mom keeps teasing you about that copious layer of blubber you have jiggling around your midsection. It's not your fault she fed you like a linebacker when you were eight and now you can't go to McDonalds without super-sizing your double cheeseburger with extra pickles. Damn it, you're not fat! You're not, really, you just got in the habit of eating a lot.

Consuming twenty-five hundred calories a day has nothing to do with the raging inferno that has by this time consumed most of your worldly possessions. Your bedroom television is little more than a smoldering mass of curdling plastic that smells like burning tires. With no fanfare, the alarm stops its buzzing chatter and sputters a few times before it too is engulfed by the fire. Your heart beats faster still. It looks like it's going to be the window for you and a climb down the fence outside but you're still as naked as a Sphynx. Are brittle, putrescent shorts better or worse than a naked ass? No, there! By the nightstand, it's your charcoal gray dress pants. They still lay in a pile where you discarded them last week after your date, the only date you've had in recent memory. At least this time she left you with the unspoken hint that there might be another, and you attribute that to your skillfully managing not to dribble some form of sauce on any article of clothing.

You can only marginally see those gray pants in the gray smoke that has you coughing in a hacking fit. Shouldn't you be more panicked? You'll die here if you don't get those pants on and crawl out that window. You start to pull them on, left leg first, and you're back in the locker room at the South Hampton Park soccer field.

You were twelve, a pudgy, freckled little thing, and you were putting on your shorts for practice. The proverbial big game was coming up, the District 5 Championship against the Brighton Badgers. You slid the red-striped socks on, laced up your cleated black shoes, and hurried out the door onto the field. You were late arriving, and the team was out there going through drills while you scampered up the steps and out into the heat. And there across the field were sunflowers. Tall, majestic sunflowers, swaying in the breeze, and you lost yourself in their golden petals.

You don't even feel the flames.


The above was the first story I wrote in my first creative writing class. As I have no real intention of publishing any of them, I may post some more of them as time goes on. Needless to say, they're not all as experimental as the above -- nor are they anywhere near as short -- but I managed to never get lower than an A in any writing class I took.

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