By Ronnell Kay Gibson
Toby toddles from his spot at the foot of my bed and starts licking my three-day old stubble. His sloppy kisses don’t tickle my skin. They’re not cold, wet, or grainy. I can smell his minty breath—must’ve stolen a mint out of one of my pockets again—but, I can’t feel the warmth of his panting.
I roll over and pull the comforter tighter around my body, up to my chin. Not because I’m cold, but because I want to stay in this cocoon, on my bed, in my meager apartment, forever.
Toby plops in front of my face and rolls onto his back, feet spread apart, his smile wide with hope. I oblige and rub his belly. Closing my eyes, my brain remembers how silky soft his Pomeranian fur is, even if my fingers do not. When I stop my strokes, Toby nestles against my arm. I see him do it, but I can’t enjoy his cuddles. How can I, when I feel no sensations at all?
A year ago, I was hospitalized with an undiagnosed illness. Spent weeks in the ICU, with months of physical therapy. Yet, the part of my brain that controls my sense of touch has never recovered.
Checking my phone, it’s almost eleven a.m. Early for me. I swipe to see if there are any messages, emails, or social media posts directed at me. None. Not that I expect any. My anger, frustration, and self-pity drove away those who cared about me months ago. Everyone but Toby.
When Toby starts wagging his tail and spinning in circles, I sigh. No more hiding. I get up, get dressed, and try to face another day.
Sunbeams stream into my living room. Looks like a beautiful spring day. But appearances can be deceiving. And since my skin can’t tell me when I need to wear a jacket, I consult the weather app. Good thing. It’s only 35 degrees out and windy.
I stick a baseball cap on my mop of brown hair, slip into my winter coat, and wrap a scarf around my neck. After wrangling Toby into his harness and leash, I head outside.
I can smell the cold, brisk air, even if I don’t feel it whipping at my face. Though Toby happily greets people out for a brisk Sunday walk, I keep my head down. They are all part of a glorious world full of vibrant sensations that I no longer share.
After a trip around the block, Toby’s reluctant, but we head back to our complex. We’re just entering in the security doors when I smell smoke. Maybe the Johnstons, the family who lives across the hall, burnt their pot roast again. Always the pot roast. But when I get to their door, black smoke spills out from their apartment. It’s not the pot roast.
I bang on the door and yell. “Mrs. Johnston. Mr. Johnston.”
Mrs. J. appears. “Freddy!” Thick, dark smoke follows, and instantly, we’re engulfed in it. Between coughs she spits out. “Jack… in his room… can’t get to him!”
“Take Toby outside.” I hand her my phone. “Call 911.” She nods, picks up Toby, and races out.
Though I’ve never been inside, the apartment layout is familiar. Like mine. I step into the living room. Off to the right is the kitchen. Through the smoke, the wall of cabinets, stove, and mini island are consumed by bright, red and yellow flames. And so is the hallway leading to the bedrooms.
I’m only feet away, too close. But how close do I dare? I can’t feel the heat of the blaze. My senses may be immune to the ravages of the fire, but my physical body is not.
I reposition my scarf around my nose and mouth, then grab a blanket off the back of the easy chair and wrap it around me.
After saying a short prayer of protection, I leap over the wall of flames. A single flame hugs my jeans. I swat it out with the blanket and turn toward one of the bedrooms.
I twist the door handle, opening it only enough to push my body through and shut it again behind me. There’s still smoke, but not as much.
“Jack? It’s me, Freddie. From across the hall.”
“I’m in the closet.” I hear the closet door shake. It’s one of those accordion-style that fold together. “I can’t get it open.” His voice is full of fear and panic.
“It’s okay. I’ll get it.”
I pull on the handle. It gives, then stops. Something is wedged on the metal tracks. “Jack, get back as far as you can.” I kick at the handle, it bends. I kick again, and it bends more. Enough for me to wrench the doors free.
Jack is sitting in the corner. Tears streaming down his five-year-old face. He rushes into me. I give him a short squeeze, then set him down.
“Jack, it’s time to be brave. Can you do it?”
“Good.” I take off my scarf and tie it around his nose and mouth, then go over and unlatch the window. It doesn’t budge. What is with this place?
I scan the room looking for something heavy.
“Here,” Jack shouts and hands me a baseball bat.
I swing, and the glass shatters. Two men standing nearby come running.
Covering the windowsill with the blanket, I have Jack climb through into the arms of one of the guys. The other offers me his hand.
Jack squeals when he reunites with his mom. I collapse on the ground as firetrucks pull in, surrounding the building.
Men encased in protective gear strategically work together dousing the flames. As the fire inside the building is quenched, a fire of passion ignites inside me. For the first time in over a year, I have a purpose.
Toby runs over, leash and all, and licks my face. “Toby, how’d you like to be a firedog?”