In her pitch-dark bedroom, Helena Page inhaled a lung full of smoke. For several seconds, she couldn't breathe. She clawed at her throat, desperate to drag clean air into her system. Finally something got through, and she hacked up half her lungs trying to get rid of the foulness in her throat. Tears streamed from irritated eyes as she threw back the bulky comforter and swung her legs to the edge of the bed.
A glance at the clock told her it was two in the morning. Still disoriented from the sudden shift from sleep to wakefulness, she tried to make sense of the smoke curling under her bedroom door, filling the room.
Then her brain kicked in.
Oh God, my house is on fire!
She darted for the door, reached for the knob, but pulled her hand back. Could be a wall of fire out there! She touched the door at its center and yelped when the pads of her fingers nearly sizzled from the heat.
Panicked, she ran one way, then the other and bumped into her computer desk, sending ricocheting pain from her hip down to her ankle. Several books slid and landed on the floor with a loud plop, followed by several loose sheets of paper.
As the room filled with a haze as thick as early-morning fog off a mountain lake, another round of coughs bent Helena double at the waist. She groped for the edge of the bed and fought her way to the window. She shoved it up and almost cried out at the sudden sweet influx of clear oxygen. She gulped in clean air and coughed until her lungs burned and her throat turned to sandpaper.
Once the fuzz cleared from her mind, she searched for a way out of her burning house that wouldn't kill her or leave her body scarred beyond recognition. She glanced at the spongy ground two floors below and wondered if it would be soft enough to cushion her fall.
No way. I'll crush the bones in my feet, at the very least.
She glanced over her shoulder and cringed as the fire licked around the edges of the only door out of her bedroom.
She peered out the window again and prepared herself to jump.
A ladder leaned up against the side of her house, the top a few inches below the windowsill. Had that been there a few minutes ago?
She didn't think so, but she wasn't going to question Divine intervention if that was indeed what took place. She slung one leg over the edge, paused for a moment to calm her fear of heights, then groped for the first rung. Satisfied she had a good foothold, she dragged her other leg out and half slid down the ladder in her haste to get away from the burning building.
Once on the ground, she looked up and cursed. Damn! She forgot to call 911 and would have to jog to her nearest neighbor, Old Man Dougal, a mile down the road, but what was the point now? Her house would burn to a pile of ashes before the fire department arrived.
Still, she had to try.
In the watery moonlight, a shadow moved across the clapboard siding. A strong arm wrapped around her neck and squeezed. A needle pricked her between the base of her neck and shoulder. A few seconds later, she collapsed. As the world around her faded to black, she didn't even have time to be afraid.