by Serenity Ringwood
I sat on the cold concrete across from my apartment, wrapped in a blanket from one of the firemen. Even under the blanket I felt ice cold. The night was oddly chilly, for the middle of August. I watched the apartment complex flicker bright shades of orange and yellow against the dark sky, and hoped I was dreaming a very dark, messed up dream. I watched as each of the apartments slowly caught fire. I watched as everyone filed out. Down the stairs, around the corner, everywhere. I watched the red tail lights of all the cars leaving. Slowly, everything I’d worked for in the past month–moving out, showing I could be a part of society, being on my own–all went up in flames. The fire department sprayed all the water they could at the apartments, while I just sat here. I should have been helping my neighbors, but how could I help people when I felt more helpless than ever? I could hear the sirens of the police cars and the firetrucks, but they sounded like they were farther away than they really were.
My head swam with thoughts. How did this even happen? What caused the fire? Or, who? Could I have prevented it? The weirdest thing to think about, is how it had all been okay just a few weeks ago. I had finished high school ready to take on the world, or, realistically, college. I had planned on going to the University of Kansas since my freshman year. I even started a dream board with a picture of the campus at the top. It was my dream, and when I got in, nothing seemed real. I remember reading the letter, and immediately searching for cheap apartments in the area.
When I left, it was my mom who waved me off. She had always been there for me when no one else was. I remember both of us crying while packing my car. Crying because I was leaving, because I was heading into the world, and because I was moving on with my life. I cranked up my music and let the hot tears stream down my face while I drove the ten hours from New Mexico to Kansas, stopping every so often for gas. The drive seemed so long, knowing I’d be alone.
About a week before this drive, I came into town and set up my student loans, and readied the apartment. I had everything set up and waiting for me to come and knock over the first domino. I had also saved enough money (on top of college funds) to buy furniture. I had it all planned out, I was going to the furniture store after I unpacked. I was going to get a couch, a coffee table, utensils — all of it. I could see it.
I arrived in town about mid-afternoon. The sun shone on my face, and I pulled into a gas station. This was my fifth fill up on my way to my apartment. I was so close now, I could practically see the sea-sick green roof, with the baby-blue exterior of the building. It looked so ugly, yet so amazing all at the same time. I couldn’t wait to have something of my own.
I finally reached my third-floor apartment. The black, rusty iron railing of the concrete stairs, the faded yellow of the plastic siding. They had clearly tried to make it look updated, but who knew how long ago that was. I put my silver key into the dulled, silver-grey keyhole of the grey door. What only took seconds to do felt like it took minutes. My first step into freedom. I had the best feeling of peace wash over me as I walked in. My flop-flops touched the beige carpet and I felt at home. The yellow light from the afternoon sun shone bright in the empty home that was mine.
I went down to the Uhaul attached to my car and started moving stuff inside. One box at a time, I eventually got my cardboard castle set up inside. By that time, I had carried everything inside. It was too late to make a trip to the furniture store, so I went to the closest chinese takeout place and parked my car for the night. I went in and set up my wifi router and TV and called it good. I scrolled through Netflix to find a decent show to watch while I ate, and, inevitably, fell asleep on the floor.
On my way to the grocery store this morning, there was an older couple who looked like they needed help getting their groceries from their car to their little apartment. One of the things I was taught from an early age to help people where possible. I walked over to the woman who was trying to reach the bags in the back of the minivan they had.
“Would you like some help?” I asked as I walked over. She looked over with a very frustrated look on her face, but it softened after she saw me.
“Well that would be lovely dear,” she replied as she moved out of the way, with visible difficulty. I walked over and grabbed a couple bags and followed her inside.
“Where would you like these?” I asked. She pointed to the counter and I set them down. I went out and grabbed the last couple bags and set them next to the first round I had gotten. I turned to her while she sat at the counter. “Alright, that’s the last of them,” I said with a smile. She returned my smile.
“Thank you very much. Your mom raised you right,” she nodded. I laughed awkwardly.
“Yes ma’am, I guess she did.”
“In that jar behind you are some cookies, if you’d like one,” she pointed her fragile looking finger at the jar behind me. I looked at the jar and debated on turning it down and accepting.
“Thank you,” I said as I took one. It would be easier in the long run to take the cookie than to decline.
“Go ahead and sit at the table,” she said as she poured a glass of milk. I walked over to the closest chair at the table and sat down. She followed behind me, one hand holding the milk, one hand operating her cane. She sat down next to me, and placed the glass in front of me. Her husband walked out from behind a wall and joined us, sitting next to her.
“It’s not often a nice girl crosses our path,” Garry –her husband– had said to me.
“It’s not often a nice girl moves in here,” Gurturide –the woman– corrected him. As we sat there, they told me stories about their lives. Some funny, some life lessons, but all of the stories made them who they were. Turned out they had three kids, but they all lived too far away and didn’t visit very often.
After a few hours, I was finally able to leave. Gurtuide sent me off with a plate of cookies and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I took the plate to my apartment, and looked at the time. I was there for three hours. I forgot how easy it was to listen to older people. After unpacking a few boxes, the stuff that goes in my closet and kitchen, I decided it was too late to go to the store. I decided to finish off the take-out I had last night and have a full repeat of last night, minus the setting-up.
A couple weeks passed and I had gotten all of my things set up, and all of my furniture was delivered, mostly because I didn’t trust that I could get it in my apartment by myself. I face-chatted with my mom almost every night. It felt strange not having her on this journey with me. But, I had to be happy with what I have to work with. I was ready to take on the world. I had already been on my own for about a month, so I felt like I had made progress in the world.
Fast forward to my first week of college. I had taken so many notes, people started relying on me to pass most classes. I was happy to help, as always, so I made a few copies of my notes in the library after class. Everyone seemed grateful for them, so I made copies everyday. It was part of my daily routine now. I had justified it as they would probably help me out too. It wasn’t too difficult to make a copy and pass it on to another person anyway.
I had been studying when the smoke detectors had gone off. I stood from my chair and looked out into the kitchen. Then the living room. Then, just to be safe, the bathroom. Everything appeared to be fine. There was someone vigorously pounding on my door, so I ran over to see who it was. I opened the door to someone I had never seen before. He grabbed my wrist and quickly informed me that I needed to get out of the building. Then, I saw the fire.
Time slowed down. It was all surreal. I couldn’t believe it. I sat on the sidewalk across the street in the blanket one of the firemen handed me and thought about everything that had happened in the past two months. I remembered Garry and Gurtruide, and hoped they made it out okay. Or at all. Without thinking, I ran around the trucks and pounded on their door. Garry ripped open the door and almost walked right through me.
“I’m so sorry,” he said as he passed. Gurtuide had her hand around her mouth when she came limping out. It must have been the rush of adrenaline, but I was able to pick her up like she weighed the same as paper. Garry had walked some distance, when he saw I had his wife. I followed him to their car and set her in the passenger seat.
“Don’t worry, I will let you two know when everything is clear and you can come back,” I reassured them.
“Thank you love,’ Gurtuide said as she coughed. I nodded, and backed up. Garry backed out of the parking spot he was in, and drove off.
We weren’t able to go in and get our stuff for three days, which meant getting new notebooks and things for school. It wasn’t too difficult, just very time consuming to find any. I was able to replace all but my textbooks. The textbooks would be more difficult to buy again, since they cost so much in the first place, and I just had to replace all of my wardrobe. But I could manage. I spent over $200 on just replacing things, which meant I wasn’t going to be able to get any fast-food for a while.
I sat in my car, with the plastic grocery bags surrounding me. I felt so small. Had I failed? Did I only feel this way because of the events that had occurred? I sat trying to figure it all out, as I saw my phone light up with all sorts of different messages. All the people I had text about getting some of my notes back all said they didn’t need them and passed them, or threw them away. I was frustrated, but I was managing to hold it together. To each person, I had sent back a text saying that it was fine and I hoped they found them useful, to which everyone responded, in one way or another, that they hoped I would find somebody to help me out.
It was rather late, but I thought I’d check in on Garry and Gurtruide, since I hadn’t for a bit. I called Garry’s phone, and he answered, sobbing.
“What’s going on?” I asked, panicked. I couldn’t understand him.
“Gurtruide, gone,” was all I was able to make out. I gave him my sympathy, and hung up. I started my car, and drove. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I had a pretty good idea. I fueled up and got on the freeway back to New Mexico. I started crying so hard I had to pull over a few times to let my vision clear up. I’m not sure how, but I ended up at the next gas station, and repeated the process.
I had finally stopped crying before reaching gas station number three. I was close enough that I could just consider this a visit. I got to the gas station, started the pump, and went inside. I grabbed a bag of chips and some bottled water.
“How are you today?” the cashier asked, I hated small talk, especially right now.
“I am great, how are you?” I responded with a hint of sarcasm. I paid and walked out.
Now that the most painful interaction of the day was over, I continued my journey back home. I turned off the radio, and drove in silence. I was suddenly very aware of my thoughts. I thought about Gurtuide and her life. Or, the life she told me about. She should have lived longer. Could I have helped them more? How would the outcome have changed if I had knocked sooner instead of feeling sorry for myself. I eventually had to turn the radio back on so I could leave my pity party.
I pulled into the driveway and turned my car off. I sat there for a minute, staring at the house. The longer I sat there, the more I realised how tired I was. I pulled my key out of the ignition and opened my car door. I walked up to the front door I had known all my life. The pasty white looked welcoming. I turned the doorknob and walked in. My mom poked her head around the separating wall between the living room and the kitchen. I smiled at her, and she started walking over to me.
I closed the door, and collapsed to the ground, sobbing. The hot, salty water poured from my eyes. My mom wrapped me in a hug while I sat there. I grabbed her arm and started crying harder. I finally stopped and just sat there. I let my mom hug me for as long as I could. She eventually pulled away and stood up. She put her arm out to help me up, and I took it.
I followed her to the kitchen and sat at the barstool at the island. I told her all about the apartment and how amazing it was, Garry and Gurtuide, buying my own furniture, college, and how it all, painfully literally, went up in flames. She listened to me, and cut up an apple and some berries, placing them in a bowl. When I was done, she handed me the bowl and a can of whipped cream. I happily took them, and unknowingly waited for her to tell me what to do.
“Sounds like you’ve had a lot of things going on since we last talked.” I nodded.
“ Well, it looks to me like you need to stop being helpful and start taking care of the most important person there is.” I looked at her, confused. “You.” She handed me a fork.
“But why not worry about everyone all at the same time?”
“Is that the most logical way to do things?”
“Well…no,” I defeatedly ate my fruit.
“Why don’t you stay here for a few days until you can go back?” she suggested. I nodded and stood up. I took my berries and laid on the couch. A few hours passed and I heard my phone go off. It was someone needing notes.
“I unfortunately don’t have the notes for today’s lecture. Good luck, though,” I responded. I was trying to get used to the fact that it wasn’t my responsibility to pull people through anything if I’m still struggling. That would be the most important lesson I would ever learn.
A few weeks later, I was able to go back to my apartment, to find that most of my things were okay. Most of my furniture was burnt, the TV was basically a big piece of charcoal, but my school stuff was surprisingly okay. I packed up what I could, and took it back to my mom’s. I decided to take a year off and find out who I am, under the girl who wants to help. I decided to stop tearing myself apart. I put my stuff in a storage unit until I would be able to put it somewhere of my own, again, and stayed with my mom.
We took a two week trip to California for me to unwind from the last two months’ events. We went shopping, and made our way over to the beach. The mess of people littering both the ocean and the sand was a very calming picture. It was nice to just sit and be in the world for a bit, instead of being a part of the world.
Gerry had called me after we got back to the hotel, to tell me that Gurtuide’s funeral was in two weeks and that I was welcome to come. Even though I wanted to leave that part of my life I figured I’d go. To me, she was a symbol of not giving up hope. Even though she wanted to, multiple times, she never did. I admire that about her.
We got back to Belen a week after the call and I drove to Kansas. I had everything I needed for the funeral, which was in a couple hours. I got ready in my car and drove over to the cemetery. I sat in my car as I watched all the people walk over to the pavilion. It was super difficult to not go over and see what I could help with, but I wasn’t sure I could help properly.
I looked at all the people dressed in black, and realized that I don’t belong here anymore. I went to say goodbye regardless, and continued with my life. I earned a degree in graphic design and moved on. When people ask me what I’m going to do for the rest of my life my response is always the same: keep moving forward.