From the age of six on, fire was my absolute worst fear, the main thing that kept me up at night, and the potentiality I was certain would take everything I loved away from me. During the summer of 1997, before my pyrophobia was on the scene, my dad took me to an open house at the fire station not far from our house. The firetruck was freshly washed, the firemen were all decked out in their gear, and there was free pizza for those who participated in the fire safety drill. This drill, specifically designed for children, involved going into a mobile home type trailer and lying down in one of the bunk beds. There were stairs, furniture, a kitchen – the whole deal – just to make it seem like a real home. After all the kids were tucked in and fake-sleeping, smoke started filling the room, pouring in from god knows where and attacking my throat. I panicked, as any kid, and probably any adult, would, and scrambled out of the bed, making my way toward the door as fast as my pink, glittery jelly sandals would carry me. I didn’t feel the back of the door with my hand, didn’t gingerly touch the knob to see if it was warm, and didn’t crawl on my stomach away from danger, all rituals I would later perform every night, compulsively, planning my escape from our – I was sure – soon to be burning house.
But what did I know then, about how my number one phobia would turn me into some sort of fire safety expert? Upon making my first mistake in that trailer, a fireman popped out of a secret room behind the wall nearest me and shouted, “You have to feel the door first, you have to crawl backwards down the stairs, you would be dead right now if this were real life!” Who yells that at a terrified little girl who just wants to get out of this supposedly flaming building and eat a slice of free pizza with her dad?
After that incident I made mental lists before bed of the stuffed animals and dolls I would bring with me if a fire were to occur in our home. I forced my dad to check the smoke detectors in our hallways every day to make sure they were still working. I drew a map for my sister and both of my parents of the route they should take from every possible exit to our mailbox at the end of the driveway, our designated meeting spot in case of an emergency. If it was a chilly night and my dad had made a fire in our living room fireplace, I would get up after everyone had gone to bed to make sure the embers were no longer glowing. Even a hint of light from within the grate and I would wake my dad, look on carefully as he scooped the ashes into a metal bucket, follow him outside to the garden hose and wait until every remaining spark was snuffed out by the water. I had trouble watching movies with scenes involving fire, so Free Willy and Homeward Bound, two of my sister’s favorites, were banned from our VCR. Deciding on what to watch for our weekly family movie night led to frequent debates.
“Let’s watch Homeward Bound,” my sister might say.
“Shawna, you know your sister doesn’t like that movie. It scares her,” my dad would tell her. “Remember? The fire?”
I would have already been crying by this point, probably as soon as my sister mentioned Homeward Bound, but at the word “fire” the tears would have turned rapid, dampening the front of my Pocahontas shirt, and tiny hiccups would have staccatoed my speech. “Dad! (hiccup)The F word! (hiccup) Please don’t say (hiccup hiccup) the F word in front of me!”
Sometimes I heard my parents on the phone with relatives or friends, recounting anecdotes about my recent experiences with the F word. How cute it was, how funny to ask me what the F word was and to hear my response, just precious.
Later that summer, my family took a vacation to Universal Studios in Orlando. We were waiting in line for the King Kong Encounter, where riders entered a tram that took them around the city the infamous giant ape was destroying. The line weaved through a mock subway station, graffiti and all, and I spent the hour finding interesting things written on the tiled walls. There was a heart drawn around the names Kenickie and Rizzo, which thrilled me to no end, since my favorite movie at the time was Grease.
As we reached the front of the line and were about to step into the tram car, an employee announced that the ride was experiencing technical difficulties. Something about how some cables had sparked and were a fire hazard until they could be repaired. My mom told me all this later, however, because as soon as I heard “fire,” I sped past the people behind us, ducking under ropes that separated the lines from each other and me from the exit. My mom chased after me, out into the crowds of other families, the parents wearing visors and fanny packs, park maps hiding their faces.
“Don’t be upset, sweetie,” she said. “The Universal workers gave us free vouchers to come back tomorrow and get right back up to the front of the line again.” But I wasn’t disappointed like my mom suspected; I was relieved. There was no way in hell I would ever willingly get on that ride now, fully aware that the F word resided somewhere within its mechanics. I made as much clear to my mom, the h-e-double-hockey-sticks part and all. The next day, my dad and sister went on the King Kong Encounter by themselves while my mom and I browsed in the Universal gift shop.
Almost two decades later, I can now attend bonfires with only a fleeting thought of all that could go wrong while roasting marshmallows, and I no longer chastise family members and friends for speaking the F word aloud, as though just saying it might will a fire into existence. Time has muted my phobia, I suppose, or else other fears have taken fire’s previously reigning place. But still, if I ever smell a suspicious odor in my apartment I feel compelled to sniff every electrical outlet, to check the stove burners and oven coils for potential danger, to step out into the hall to see if there’s visible smoke streaming from underneath another tenant’s door, to gather all my important belongings in one easily accessible area in case the worst were to occur.
And that King Kong ride I refused to go on? Twelve years later it was destroyed by a massive fire, and shut down permanently.
Rochelle Germond holds an MFA in Poetry from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared in The Main Street Rag, Saw Palm, and The Coachella Review, among others. Originally from Florida, she currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and their extensive collection of coffee mugs.