I Can't | Teen Ink

I Can't

April 20, 2021
By oliviav05 GOLD, Grand Blanc, Michigan
oliviav05 GOLD, Grand Blanc, Michigan
19 articles 0 photos 25 comments

Favorite Quote:
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." -Nelson Mandela

It all started with a phone call.

We let it ring twice, long and loud, piercing the cold night air like a thousand bullets.

Mom picked it up first, and without a sound, the ticking time bomb of destruction began its countdown.


The other end of the line was fuzzy, but I recognized its distinct male voice. Dad.

“A paring knife? You're sure it’s gone? Did you look in the dishwasher, or the silverware drawer?” Mom paused a minute, waiting for the small fuzzy voice to go silent again. “Okay. Okay, we’ll help search when we get home.” Her fingers hovered over the “end call” button. “Yes, honey. Okay. Bye-bye.” The voice disappeared, and the phone went back to its place in the center console.

The car came to a halt in front of a stoplight, and mom massaged her eyes with her fingertips. The red glow from above cast an eerie light on her face as she pulled her hands away. “One of the paring knives from the knife block is missing.” She sighed as the light turned green and the car jolted forward again. “With your brother still only on his hands and knees, we don’t want to take any chances. Before you take a shower, I want you to help us look for it.”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I didn’t even hesitate. “Yeah, okay. I can lend a hand for a minute or two.”

Mom smiled. “Thanks, honey.”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, neither of us focused on the other, both of us victims of an invisible danger that would rip us away from happiness just as soon as the time ran out.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The garage door chinked open smoothly, and Mom pulled the car next to Dad’s in perfect alignment. I opened the and kicked my shoes off by the doormat.

“Let’s start by looking in the kitchen, okay?” Mom’s voice faintly drifted towards me from inside the car.

I nodded my head in approval. “Sure.” The door handle turned underneath my hand, and the silent world outside gave way to chaos within. Footsteps pounded everywhere, voices yelled from one room to another, and every storage bin had been ripped apart like paper.

Mom stepped into the house right behind me, and I could hear the words disappear on her tongue and fly away, away from the house, away to safety.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Without a word, she pushed past me and into the kitchen.

The house quieted. The footsteps stopped.

“What is going on here?” Her voice commanded the room, restraining us by its invisible force. I tiptoed up behind her and stared into the kitchen. Every piece of silverware, every dish, every glass was shoved onto the counter. My Dad and two sisters were standing around the oven, which had been pulled slightly out and away from the wall. They looked like young children awaiting their punishment.

Mom wrung her hands together and gestured towards her bedroom. “Samuel is sleeping. Can you please keep the sound level down?” They nodded, their heads bobbing like rag dolls. Mom shook her head in exasperation and peered behind the oven.

“Whoa.” Her eyes widened as she took a step back. The small space behind the oven was carpeted in dirt and dust, hiding the dark-cherry wood floor below. Mom walked into the laundry room and came out with a handful of cleaning supplies.

“Pull that out more, will you? I need to clean it back there.”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Yeah, I can try.” Dad gripped the edge of the oven.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

His hands turned white against the strain, and he began to step back-slowly, slowly.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The oven moved an inch. An inch.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick tick tick tick tick. Ding.

I wish I could say that time slowed down, right now, right at this moment.

I wish I could say that I had screamed at the top of my lungs and the moving had stopped, the pain had been averted.

I wish I could say that we were saved, all of us, from the horror that erupted in those few seconds.

But I can’t.

Because even as I write, the horror lives in my mind, strives off my pain, snatches the breath from my lungs.

The explosion was deafening. It rang in my ears as the house filled with smoke and the hot flame of fire licked at the wall, reaching out towards us like a vicious tiger.

“Get OUT!” Dad screamed above the roar, and I heard him pound towards the basement steps. Mom stifled a cry as she rounded the corner towards her bedroom.

I pulled my arms around the girls and sucked in a breath of smoke.

“Cover your faces!”I buried my face into the dark cloth of my shirt and gripped their hands, pulling them blindly towards the back door. I shoved them outside and turned towards my mom, who was stumbling out of her bedroom with Samuel in her arms. The entire bedroom wall was now aflame, and chunks of the floor began to fall away as the orange fire pushed against it. I felt mom’s hand on my back and we fell out the door together. I looked up from the folds of my shirt and quickly counted heads. The girls were jumping into the backseat of the car, and mom was pushing herself into the driver’s seat and starting up the engine with Samuel in her lap.

My heart dropped into my chest, and the entire world fell away before my eyes.

“Where’s Dad?” I screamed, and fat tears began to roll down my cheeks.

No answer.

“Where’s Dad?” Anxiety overtook all other senses of reason, and I set off at a sprint out of the garage, down the stone steps towards the patio, through the basement door.

“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad, where are you? You have to get out!” I could hear the smoke detectors upstairs, screaming their warning. The ceiling sagged and cracked open in some spots, revealing the dark rooms above overtaken by the deadly fire.

“Daddy!” My heart leaped out as I screamed, piercingly high like a siren, pouring out the hurt and the shock and the worry in one sound.

Dad’s head ducked out of the storage room door, his phone pressed against his ear. I could feel my insides untwist as he ran towards the door and beckoned for me to follow.

We jumped up the stone stairs together, side by side, our hearts pounding in unison and our breath coming out in short gasps.

Mom backed the car out of the garage, thrusting open the doors and dragging us inside.

“Thank you.” I heard Dad say. He set the phone down and leaned his head back on the headrest, closing his eyes against the tears. “How could this happen to us? How could we let this happen?” He whispered.

Mom choked down a sob.

The quiet wasn’t as it should have been. It was too quiet, too long, too tense.

Too sad.

The car pulled out of the driveway and jolted ahead, not one of us looking back.

How could we, know the hurt that it had given us? How could we, know very well that it all could be gone in a few hours?

We couldn't.

So we didn't.

I still can't. 1 year and 4 months later, and I still can't look back on the house I grew up in. That house is no longer home. That house is no longer even there.

I made some rash decisions that night. I ran back into a burning house. I wouldn't leave that burning house until I knew that everyone was out safely. 

Am I proud that I risked my life irrationally? 


I never was, and I never will be.

But would I do it again if it meant saving someone I love?


I would run back into that fire with my face buried in the cloth of my shirt and my lungs dry from the smoky air. I would run back in there and sit down and scream until the fire was so close that it snatched my words and carried them away into the fiery abyss. I would do it every second of every day, as long as it meant that I could count heads at night and never miss one.

Although I can't relive that night and change it so that its outcome takes away my pain, I can learn to accept that it happened. December 16, 2019. That happened.

I survived a house fire. 

Since then, I’ve laughed, smiled, cried, screamed, whispered, sighed. I’ve felt all the emotions that an average teenage girl will feel. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t know that I have watched my entire house go up in flames. My experience doesn’t define me.  I am not just “ the girl whose house burned down.” 

I survived a house fire, but I am not a survivor.

I am a proud champion.

The author's comments:

Thank you to all firefighters and first responders who risked their lives this past December to save my home from complete devastation. They arrived at the scene only 4 ½ minutes after receiving the call and worked 5 long hours into the night to successfully extinguish the flame. I am forever grateful.

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This article has 2 comments.

oliviav05 GOLD said...
on Jun. 14 2021 at 1:20 pm
oliviav05 GOLD, Grand Blanc, Michigan
19 articles 0 photos 25 comments

Favorite Quote:
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." -Nelson Mandela

@Insidestories thank you!

on May. 27 2021 at 8:46 pm
Insidestories BRONZE, Batavia, New York
3 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Favorite Quote:
“We mature with the damage not with the years”

@oliviav05 this is such an amazing peace I really felt all the emotions you felt during this horrifying experience. I really love your work and was hoping we could be friends