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Fire Drill

Ms. Daisy never wanted to teach kindergarten. She’d always thought of herself becoming a professor one day—back in college when adulthood was four years and a dream away—or at least teaching in high school. Dealing with snotty noses, temper tantrums, and goldfish-like attention spans never appealed to her as much as digging her teeth into literary analysis and enlightening students to the world of Shakespeare. Nonetheless, the only graduate school program she got into was for elementary education, and her college fund ran dry before she could even start looking at EdD programs. So, a teacher certification in elementary education she sought. It wasn’t what she planned, but it was new, she thought. It was exciting. It was fate.

It was awful. She had only reached her third year, but it might as well have been her third decade. At twenty-seven years old, lightning-strikes of silver ripped through Ms. Daisy’s black hair. Her heels ached in their scuffed sandals—heels, at her height, were no fun. It was early September, but school had been in session for weeks. Like they did every year, the open windows—barely compensating for a lack of air conditioning—hauled in humidity that hung over her students’ shoulders and crawled down their throats. Sweat married Ms. Daisy’s back to her chiffon dress and danced down her neck.

On this day there was a new beast to tackle: bloody orange skies at noon. It was wildfires causing the apocalyptic glow, destroying half the state, as they held class as if nothing were wrong. Evacuation orders hadn’t been called in their county yet, but at home Ms. Daisy had her suitcase packed. They would make it to this evening, but not through the night. In the meantime, Ms. Daisy could barely keep her students’ eyes on the chalkboard rather than out the window, and if she were to draw the blinds she’d be deprived of the rare breeze cooling the room. The best she could do was keep pushing through the morning’s lesson and hope they eventually got sick of the tangerine sunshine and ashy snow.

“Alright my friends,” she said, stretching her smile impossibly far. “Today we are going to continue practicing writing our letters. Who can show me what letter we practiced yesterday?” Nobody raised their hand except for Johnny Robinson, who always raised his hand. Ms. Daisy always tried to hide her disdain for Johnny, because she knew it wasn’t good to dislike children—especially her students. It’s just that Johnny Robinson was a total know-it-all in training. Ms. Daisy waited another ten seconds, ignoring Johnny’s wildly waving limbs, praying desperately for another student to raise their hand. Finally, she sighed. “Johnny, can you tell me what letter we practiced?”

“My mommy said it’s bad that we go to school today. Can we go home?”

The smile became a grimace. “No, my friend, we have to be in school to learn,” she explained. “Now, can you tell me what letter we practiced?”

F,” Johnny said, “and is it bad that the sky is orange? Are there aliens?”

“There are no aliens,” Ms. Daisy said. She turned and wrote an uppercase and lowercase F on the board. “So the letter yesterday was F, which means today’s letter must be…?”

Not a peep from the class. She turned, and again Johnny’s hand flapped wildly through the air, as if by its own accord.

“Do any of my other friends want to help Ms. Daisy remember the next letter?” She begged silently for someone else to answer, but half of the children were busy turning in their seats and craning their necks toward the windows. “Lizzy?” Ms. Daisy called, prompting one of the students to whip back around in her chair, eyes wide like she’d been caught stealing a cookie before dinner.

“W-What, um, what was the question?” she asked, voice high. Ms. Daisy widened her smile, trying to appear comforting, but could tell by the way Lizzy Brown’s eyebrows raised ever-higher that her expression was more intimidating than nurturing.

“What letter comes after F?”

“Oh,” Lizzy sighed, “H.”

“No, it’s G!” Johnny cried.

“Johnny, we do not call out answers,” Ms. Daisy snapped.

The class was no longer looking out the windows—all eyes, perfectly attentive, were on her. Even Suzie Johnson took her thumb out of her mouth for a moment to gape at her. Ms. Daisy cleared her throat, and stretched her smile wide again. Lizzy looked like she might cry from Johnny’s outburst.

“Alright, everyone open your workbooks to page three and begin working on your Gs,” Ms. Daisy said. The class obliged, gripping their fat pencils like forks and dragging them across the page sloppily. She walked among them, fixing mistakes here and there. When she got to Johnny’s seat, he tapped her on the arm.

“Are we having indoor recess?” he asked. “And are we gonna get to play with the legos? And can we get the trains out? And will we—”

“Yes, Johnny,” she said, “We will have indoor recess. Say, how about you go to the library to run an errand for me? Your letters look so good, I think you can take a break from practicing.”

Johnny beamed. “Yes, Ms. Daisy! Thank you!”

She produced a book from her desk and he accepted it with glee. “Be back in 10 minutes or less,” Ms. Daisy called as he half-ran out of the room. He probably didn’t hear her, but the librarian would send him back in no time. Besides, an extra couple minutes without Johnny blurting out every answer would be nice. Peaceful, in fact.

Ms. Daisy continued roaming around the room, eventually reaching Lizzy’s desk. Raw red eyes and a sniffly nose greeted her. It broke her heart. Ms. Daisy made sure to give Lizzy lots of praise, despite the fact that her lowercase gs looked a little too much like qs. As she moved to the next student, she couldn’t help but to jump at the sound of a grating beep behind her. Her students gasped, some grabbing their ears and some immediately bursting into sobs. Ms. Daisy whipped around as the fire alarm beeped again.

The fire alarm was beeping. But there was no fire drill scheduled for that day, Ms. Daisy thought to herself. Why would they do an unannounced fire drill this early in the school year?

Her eyes flew to the orange sky out the window. It was darker than before—ashier, filling with smoke the color of coal. In the distance, she could see the soccer fields where she coached the second-grade team each afternoon. It was ablaze. Ms. Daisy stood stuck in her shock. This wasn’t a drill. There was a real fire. Someone has to call the fire department, she thought, someone has to do somethi—

Lizzy tugged at her hand, and it was only then that she remembered her students. The fire alarm had been going off for nearly a minute already, and she had to get them out of the classroom without them panicking—difficult, when half of them were already in tears.

“Alright friends, we are going to leave the building now,” she called out. “Please line up by the door so Ms. Daisy can take you outside.” Her voice shook slightly on the last word. She wasn’t certain it was even safer in the parking lot than it was in the classroom, but if she broke protocol it could be her last day at McAdams Elementary School.

The students rushed to the door, bumping into one another and arguing over their places in line, but after a moment they settled and Ms. Daisy led them out the door. Luckily, their classroom was close to the exit, but she still had to pull her shirt over her nose to filter out smoke that trickled in from further down the hall. Somewhere, the school was on fire. A few of her students mimicked her action, though their heads were already lower than the smoke.

They arrived in the parking lot and marched over to their designated spot. Ms. Daisy ran a quick headcount—17 kids, not 18. She frowned. Must’ve missed a kid. Counted again. 17.

She almost didn’t have time to feel confused before it hit her. Johnny Robinson. She had sent Johnny to the library. Her hand shook as she fumbled with her walkie-talkie, staring blankly at one window, still open, with flames licking out of it through the screen.

“Jane, do you have Tommy Robinson with you? I sent him to the library, over.”

It was only a moment before Jane Dorsen, the librarian, radioed back. “No, I don’t have Johnny, over.”

Panic rose, squeezing Ms. Daisy’s lungs tighter, but she pushed it back down. “Does anyone have Johnny Robinson?” she asked, nearly begging, then hastily added, “Over.”

Silence. She didn’t know how long to wait, but each second was agonizing, until Jane responded, “We had to evacuate the library so quickly. I don’t know… I don’t know if we got everyone.”

Sirens echoed through the air as they had all morning, but there were no fire trucks in sight. No flashing lights visible through the burning trees. The last time a student pulled the fire alarm accidentally, they hadn’t shown up for nearly ten minutes. Ms. Daisy didn’t know how many minutes it would take for a child to pass out from smoke inhalation, but she didn’t think he could make it that long.

“Jessica,” she said to the teacher next to her, “will you watch my kids? Thanks,” she added before the other woman could respond, and took off towards the building. The sound of her students’ and colleagues’ voices rang in her ears, begging her to stay out of the building, but she ignored them. She ducked down as she dashed through the hallways, at times shutting her eyes to protect them from the smoke hanging in the air—she could barely see anyways, as it was becoming more and more opaque by the minute.

She finally reached the library. Smoke billowed out of the open double doors, forcing her to crawl across the faded carpet. By now, all that running was catching up to her, and the bits of smoke she couldn’t avoid were scratching the back of her throat, forcing a cough. Her elbows dragged against the rough carpet fibers, giving her rug burn. Ironic.

“Johnny,” she yelled. “Johnny?” She rose to her feet, standing nearly in a squat, and ran through the aisles. Not in the history section. Not in sports fiction. Not in fantasy. Not in autobiographies. Not in picture books. She was nearly about to turn around when she spotted something dangling from the window. A child’s foot, clad in red converse. Johnny had been trying to climb out the window.

Ms. Daisy rushed over and felt for Johnny’s throat, finding his pulse. It was barely a hum, but she could feel that he was still alive. He must have passed out from the smoke when he was climbing. Ms. Daisy pushed Johnny the rest of the way through the window to the roof, and hoisted herself up behind him. The effort was draining—the smoke inhalation must be affecting her too, more than she realized. As she swung one leg over the windowsill, her vision went blurry for a moment and she lurched back, falling onto the floor. Her head hit the floor hard—the carpet, thinly covering cement floors, was no cushion. The last thing she could make out as her vision darkened was the sight of a wobbly bookshelf tipping over her body.

Ms. Daisy awoke, immediately wincing as the hot air stung at her eyes. Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could cut through it. Couldn’t, though, read the exit sign anymore, could only see its red glow from somewhere near the ceiling. It didn’t matter anyway. Her shattered leg laid useless, trapped beneath section 920. Half of the shelf was still on fire, spreading closer by the second. She could never get out and reach the door.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the brown-yellow flash of a firefighter uniform searching through the library to find survivors.

“Hey,” she yelled, only it came out a hoarse whisper. “Over here,” she tried again, and immediately began coughing, spitting blood onto the floor by her shoulder. He shined a flashlight down the history aisle, but turned at the sound of another firefighter calling him into the hallway. The double doors slammed behind him. She’d haunt him for that, when she died, Ms. Daisy decided. That bastard.

The skin on her leg was starting to get too hot. Much too hot. Next to her foot, a Jackie Robinson biography was the next to catch flame. What a shame, she thought, he did so much for the world. Now he’s dead, and oh fuck. Oh God oh shit oh fuck her leg her foot her skin oh Jesus the bubbling the boiling the smoke the smell

Ms. Daisy screamed, but could only hear the crackling of the fire eating at her thigh. Where the flame had already spread, her burned nerves could no longer feel anything, but she could still feel the searing pain of the fire feeding on new flesh. Hot smoke poured into the air from her now raw calf. Ms. Daisy tried to fan it away, but it was crawling up her nose and down her throat. She felt herself fading again.

Looking up at the window, she caught the eye of Johnny Robinson. He had woken up, and was watching her, tiny hands trembling at his side, speechless. For hours after Ms. Daisy died, he stayed there, staring blankly, her ashes mixing with the smoke and tangling in his hair. 

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