The fog of sleep was thick that morning when my nine-year-old niece’s voice cut through it. She was yelling as she came up the stairs to where my room, one of three on the top floor of our house, was at the end of the hallway.
At first, I was annoyed, being hungover and planning to sleep for a few more hours but, then, one word cut through the haze: FIRE. She was screaming it and saying that everyone had to get out. I sat up quickly, along with my girlfriend, eyes wide and suddenly feeling very sober and alert. The door was right next to the bed and I pulled it open and saw smoke. Holy shit. This is real, I thought, and we hustled to get dressed.
I can’t remember if our shoes were downstairs or in the room but we didn’t have any as we hurried through the hallway and down the stairs to the second floor as the smoke got thicker. We could hear others yelling. Besides my niece, my parents and five other siblings were in the house.
We ran down the second floor hallway, to the front door and down the front steps, gasping as the cold air shocked us. We got clear of the house and I stopped briefly, at the top of the small stairway that led to the street. I did a quick visual check to see if anyone was missing and then, once all were accounted for, I looked at the house to confirm what I already knew: it was gone. No chance that it would be saved.
I joined the others across the street, where we went to make room for the fire truck and firefighters. It wasn’t everyone. Some had stayed up on the walkway.
At one point, one of my brothers had to dash back in to get my mom, who he found sitting on the couch, disoriented, and muttering about forgetting something. It was as if she had decided to go down with the ship.
Once everyone was accounted for, we all huddled together and watched in shock as the place that we called home for 20 years burned and crackled in protest. It was like a living thing, that had held us in its arms for so long, given us comfort and joy but was also the setting for many horrors. All we could do was watch it die. I wanted to tell it I was sorry.
Due to the cold, it took awhile for the fire department to get the water going from the hydrant but there was little that could be done. We stood on the freezing ground in our socks for about 15 minutes before the family in the house next door kindly invited us in. We knew them well; two of the girls were good friends of mine and they made us hot chocolate and fed us. While we warmed up, I heard from my brothers that the fire had been caused by our dad.
It was a very cold day and our pipes were frozen. My dad and the oldest brother were trying to fix it. At some point, my brother was sent to the store for something and my dad was supposed to wait for his return, but he didn’t. He decided to start without him and took a blow-torch to the pipes on the ground floor. Well, our house was old and filled with cobwebs, and flames were shooting up through the house in no time.
A common theory among the siblings was that if my dad had just waited for my brother to return and they had taken whatever alternative action they had discussed, the house would have still been there, that my dad wouldn’t have used a blow torch near the downstairs ceiling. I’m not sure it would have mattered.
My dad was not the kind of man who took blame easily. He saw faults in others far easier than he did in himself. And so, he took a defensive stance, even suggesting that my brother had taken too long, although his tone was half-hearted. Some of my siblings cast my dad as an old fool and they held a grudge for many years. I saw no point in that as I was certain that no one felt worse about it than him.
I don’t believe in signs, messages of fate, but I felt that this one was hitting me over the head. Yes, I was planning to go to school but it still wasn’t one-hundred-percent firm due to the good money I was making at the fish plant. I knew that most reporters were making considerably less and was considering putting school off for a year or two, which could have easily become three or four or …
No. I was heartbroken and I needed to get away. It wasn’t just the house going; it was the negativity and anger that followed, coursed through the family for years, and that could have pulled me down. I was going and I called my sister in Calgary, who said she could put me up until I found a place of my own.
Before I went, though, I would enter my house, my room, one last time. It was alcohol-infused idiocy and one of numerous such moments that I was lucky to survive.
A few days after the fire, I went back to the property to look at the skeleton of 124 – 4th Avenue East. It was gutted but remained standing. With the temperature still below zero, ice created by the fire hoses covered much of the building, making it look like a giant, melted doll house. To go inside it, let alone up three stories to my room, would be very dangerous.
But I had to go in. One last time.
Next on THE WRITE ROAD: Farewell to my home and onto Cowtown.