“Stand in line! Hand each other buckets!” I yell across the crowd as they hurry to get together in a straight line and pass along the water to douse the fire, but it’s not enough. I delegate the helpers to bring the hoses, and for some of them to open the faucets to our emergency tank. This brings down the fire significantly, but it’s still razing in several places, and it’s hard to break through.
Some patriarchs and guards are standing watch to keep the crowd calm so there isn’t a fight and to keep the women and children out of danger. I do my best to keep the fire at bay and to make sure everyone’s working in sync.
Something like this has never happened before in our community.
A fire, yes … but not of this scale.
Who did this? And what set it off?
An explosion is all I heard, and when I stepped outside, the fire was already consuming everything. There was no time to lose and no time to think. I had to act.
But then I see her … the woman in the back of the hut … and my pupils dilate.
“Quick! Get an ax, something to break open the door!” I yell at one of the men.
Smoke quickly envelops her, and I can no longer see where she is, but I know she’s in there. Did she cause this? I don’t see anyone else in there, nor do I hear any screams. There’s no other explanation, but why? Just to get revenge on me? Or is there more at stake?
I left her safe in her room … but what if she isn’t?
I immediately spin on my heels and run across the community grounds. My lungs fill with oxygen as I skid across the grass, shoes covered in mud, my heart racing as I try to run up the stairs as fast as I possibly can.
I don’t care about the dirty footsteps I leave behind. I have to find her … I have to find my wife.
“Natalie!” I yell as I run up the flight of stairs and slide across the hallway to get to her room. “Natalie!”
I burst into her room without warning, hoping she’s there, but there’s no one in sight. “Natalie?” My voice strains at the thought that there’s even a slight possibility that she’s not here … because if she’s not …
“Natalie, answer me!” I growl as I march through her room and open every closet and look under her bed. She hasn’t left a single trace … except for the lights in the bathroom, which are still on.
I march toward it, hoping to find her inside. Instead, there’s the mere ghost of her presence … and a tiny stick lying on the floor.
Frowning, I pick it up and stare at it for a few seconds before I realize what it is.
Natalie … is carrying my child.
When no one’s looking, I slip into one of the empty huts that belong to people who are helping to douse the fire, and I steal a coat hanging from the wall. I quickly cover myself and put on a scarf to hide my long hair. Finally, I borrow a pair of boots that I doubt they’ll miss and put them on.
Some guards pass the hut, and I freeze, hiding right next to the door. A few seconds later, I take a peek around. Everyone’s still busy with the fire, so when the coast is clear, I make a run for it.
I go straight for the fence in the distance to the edge that’s the farthest away from the fire. There’s a small part there not covered by barbwires, which I spotted a long time ago, but it was always swarming with guards near the place.
Adrenaline shoots through my veins as I run as fast as my legs will take me. With no one here to stop me, this is my only chance at freedom. The air is cold and harsh, but it won’t stop me from finding a way out of here.
Suddenly, someone runs into me from the side, and I almost fall to the ground but manage to catch myself just in time. In shock, I turn, ready to fight whoever attacked me.
But the moment I realize it’s Emmy, I freeze and stare at her.
“You,” I murmur. I grab her by the arms and pull her close. “What are you doing here?” I mutter under my breath.
She looks scared. “Take me with you.”
My eyes widen, and I glance over her shoulder and to the side to see if anyone’s listening.
“Are you kidding? You could get killed,” I say.
“I don’t care. I want to see the world,” she replies.
I grind my teeth together and look around again. I don’t have much time. They’ll stop the fire soon, and then they’ll get back to their posts, and Noah will go look for me in my chamber and realize I’m not there … and then he’ll come looking for me.
“I can’t take on charity projects right now, sorry,” I say, and I let her go and grasp the fence.
Right as I’m about to climb up, she says, “I’ll tell on you if you don’t.”
My eyes twitch. I almost want to smack her, but I realize that would probably only make her more inclined to run back and tell them what I’m about to do.
Resting my head against the fence, I sigh out loud. “Fine.”
I turn my head and see her smile from ear to ear. Fuck.
“C’mon.” I hold out my hand, and she grabs it eagerly. “Climb up.” I push her ahead of me and shove her up. She’s slow and not steady at all. Has she ever done something like this before?
“Hurry up!” I hiss.
“I’m trying,” she says. “But my dress keeps snagging on the wires.”
I reach for her long white skirt, and with both hands, I tear a piece off the bottom.
“Hey!” She looks down at me.
“What are you waiting for? Go!” I bark.
And with a foul grimace, she shuts her mouth and continues to climb. When she’s over the edge, I follow her. Before I reach the top, I can’t help but look over my shoulder and scan the horizon. In the distance, the fire blazes … and the hut that has my mother’s body in it is turned to soot.
I swallow away the lump in my throat as tears well up, but I push them back.
No time to cry. No time to feel sorry for myself.
My mother sacrificed herself so I could be free … so I could live.
“Thank you,” I whisper even though I know she can’t hear it. “I love you.”
And then I jump over the fence, grab Emmy’s hand, and run.