Annie stood on the street, looking up at the house in front of her. The street lamp beside her cast a warm pool of light around her feet, which were bare, and the cold night air chilled her skin. She rubbed her arms, shivering. Why am I outside? she wondered.
The windows of the house were dark -- all except for one downstairs. There were white curtains hanging in it, but behind them she could see multicolored lights blinking on and off in a random pattern. They look like Christmas lights, she thought vaguely as she continued to watch the house. There was something familiar about it, but she couldn't quite place it.
All of a sudden she saw a flash of light in the window. A moment later the curtains burst into flame as tongues of orange and yellow licked at the glass. Fire! Annie thought. The house is on fire!
Then she knew where she was and why the house was so familiar to her. It wasn't just any house. It was her house. Not the house she lived in now in Beecher Falls with her Aunt Sarah and her younger sister, Meg, but the house she had lived in when she was a little girl. It was her house, and it was burning.
Not again, she thought, fear overcoming her as she realized what was happening. Not again.
She tried to move, but her feet wouldn't carry her forward. All she could do was watch as the flames in the window grew brighter. She wanted to scream, to call for help, but her voice was frozen inside of her. She knew that behind the window she was lying on the couch, where she'd fallen asleep after sneaking downstairs to plug in the Christmas tree lights and watch them twinkle. And she knew that her parents and Meg were still asleep upstairs, oblivious to the danger that was creeping toward them as the flames spread quickly through the house.
Then she saw a light go on in an upstairs window, and the shadow of a figure ran past the curtained glass.
Daddy! she cried out silently. She knew her father, awakened by the smell of smoke, was running downstairs to see what had happened.
Get Mommy! Annie called to him, feeling like the six-year-old girl she had been on this particular night. Wake her up! But she knew that her father, still half asleep, was stumbling down the stairs. She knew that in a moment he would see her, huddled on the couch, and pick her up in his strong arms. Upstairs, her mother, confused by the thickening smoke, would just be realizing the danger that was upon them.
Leave me! she screamed. Go help Mom and Meg!
The front door opened, and Annie saw her father emerge, clouds of smoke surrounding him as the fire was fed by the fresh air that was sucked into the house. A small figure was in his arms, her hands around his neck as he came down the stairs and into the garden.
That's me, thought Annie sadly. That's me he's carrying.
Her father set her down. "Stay here," he ordered as he turned and ran back toward the house.
No! Annie called out. No! You're going to die!
But her father didn't hear her. She saw him disappear into the mouth of flame and smoke. She saw herself standing in the garden, nightgown singed and hair disheveled, staring after him.
Why didn't you stop him? she thought as she watched herself. Why?
But she could stop him now. She knew that. She could save him and her mother. All she had to do was run into the house. All she had to do was get her feet to move. She could find them and lead them to safety. They wouldn't have to die because of her.
She tried to move forward, but she couldn't. She was frozen, helpless, as she watched her house burn with her parents inside of it. No matter how much she tried to will herself forward her body wouldn't obey her. Something was holding her back.
She woke up then, knowing instantly that the dream was over. That was how it always ended. But she hadn't had the dream in almost three years. Why had it come back now?
Annie sat up and turned on the light beside her bed. She was in her upstairs bedroom in the big old house she'd lived in since her aunt had come to get her and Meg after the fire. She was nowhere near that other house, and many years had gone by since that terrible December night. But she could feel it all over again, the waves of confusion and helplessness that had consumed her as she'd stood in the garden, waiting for her father and mother to come out and tell her that it was all right, that it was safe to go back inside and climb into her cozy bed in the room down the hall from theirs.