Authors: Jayne Rylon
For my mom. Nope, you can’t read this one either.
Kyana Brady roamed the perfectly imperfect old house she’d inherited using only the silver light of the full moon to guide her through the familiar second-story hallway. Her cornflower-blue silk and lace nightgown seemed extravagant given that she was all alone, but the luxury helped her survive the night. It reminded her of when she’d had money, power and control over her life, not to mention those of the clients who’d depended on her to solve their problems in high-profile legal battles.
Six months ago, those things had seemed like enough.
Her last circuit of the upstairs hallway and the bedroom she’d inhabited as a teenager had given her a chance to debate whether she should email her partners—
-partners—and concede to their relentless begging that she resume her duties. This go around, she paused to stare into Aunt Rose’s room, still exactly as the woman had left it when she’d surrendered to liver cancer a few months earlier.
Time had slipped away without Kyana’s usual routines to tick off the passing days with the precision of a metronome. Her existence gone from an intricate melody of bright, well-timed notes to a long-held, somber chord that carried over from measure to measure. One endless night after another supplied infinite hours to ruminate on the direction of her future without a break even to catch her breath. It was long past due for her to admit she’d gotten stuck in an endless contemplative rut and was no closer to understanding the ideal direction for her future. She might just have to take the plunge, get moving again and see where she ended up.
. Relying on fate had never been her strong suit.
She cringed at an ultra-loud creak that shattered the still air. It came from a plank tucked beneath the Persian runner. Funny how the noisy floorboards had seemed charming when Aunt Rose inhabited the house. Now, they verged on creepy. Maybe she could find someone to fix the loose wood.
, her mind whispered. She promptly ignored the ridiculous excuse to call him, talk to him or, God forbid, see him. If she’d resisted, though barely, his sexy rasp spicing up her voicemail on the day of Aunt Rose’s funeral, she certainly wasn’t about to cave to silly girlish whims now. Still, it might be time to make this place her own. Or move on.
The prospect of shopping for new furnishings began to perk her up. Hooray for the internet, an insomniac’s playground. A mental list coalesced. She ticked off places to browse and what she’d need from each as she headed toward her room, seeking the laptop perched on her side table. The screensaver’s abstract shapes transformed into others, glowing with colors that lured her closer like a moth to a retail flame. No reason not to get a jump on things. She had saved a folder of inspirational pictures on one of the home-decorating sites she liked to idle away time on while dreaming about…
Tomorrow could be someday.
Well, more like today since midnight had drifted past hours ago.
Enough of this stagnation.
Simply because she didn’t need to work to survive given the insurance settlement from her parents’ deaths, the generosity of Aunt Rose and the success of her previous career, didn’t mean she had to idle all her time away. Committed to progress, even something as small as new curtains, she marched deeper into her sanctuary.
From the quaint lavender room Aunt Rose had tried to get her to abandon for a larger space, a flicker of light across the yard caught her attention. Next door, Rose’s lifelong friend still occupied his similar home. Built within a month of each other, the two houses had hosted their owners for damn near fifty years, if not more.
There were times Kyana had to catch herself from thinking of her great-aunt’s neighbor as
Ben. Maybe he was having trouble sleeping again too. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d spied his bedside lamp shining like a beacon at all hours of the night since she’d returned home to care for her ailing relative. Some of her partners couldn’t understand what they’d called a major sacrifice, but it had been the least she could do considering how Rose had taken her in all those years ago, after the accident that had stolen her parents from them.
Honestly, she regretted staying away as long as she had.
Kyana had learned to switch her own light off to keep from worrying Benjamin. At his age, he didn’t need any more stress. Certainly not over her. She could handle herself—or so she’d always thought.
She squinted at the flicker, surprised to see it coming from the kitchen instead of the upstairs as she’d first assumed. Unsteady, the spark began to writhe and grow. Her eyes bulged as she pressed her nose to the glass. A tendril of gray smoke seeped from the windows Benjamin insisted on cracking open at night despite the air-conditioning he’d had installed decades ago and her concerns about security.
Kyana snatched her cell phone off her nightstand and dialed 911 before she made it to the landing halfway down the stairs. The operator remained infuriatingly calm as Kyana shouted the address and crucial information at the well-intentioned woman. “Please, come quickly. Ben’s bedroom is right above the kitchen.”
“Ma’am, I’ve dispatched the firemen. Please stand back from the scene. You don’t want to interfere. You’ll be in their way.”
She held the phone away from her face and gave it an oh-
-no glare before disconnecting. In their speck of an upstate New York town, the firemen were all volunteers. They had to be roused from warm beds before driving in from who-knows-where. Not a chance in hell she’d let Benjamin sleep in a burning house. Without his hearing aids in, he might not notice the screeching detectors. Hell, half the time the cantankerous guy yanked the batteries from the devices after scorching his toast and left the housings dangling like open clamshells until she noticed and reassembled them.
Wet grass squished between her toes, soggy from the late spring showers they’d had almost every day for weeks. Sprinting across the lawn that divided Aunt Rose and Benjamin’s houses, she hoped the dampness would impede the blaze.
As she neared, flares of light and heat billowed from the kitchen window, causing her to stumble backward with a gasp. Losing her footing, she ruined her favorite chemise. An ass-shaped splotch of mud covered the rear. Pain shot up her tailbone and elbow, which took the brunt of the crash.
Acrid smoke scorched her lungs when she recovered from having the wind knocked out of her. She didn’t dare pause to catch her breath. The edge of her nightgown would have to pass as a filter. She yanked it over her mouth and scrambled to her feet. She raced up the porch stairs two at a time, palming the key from above the side entryway in half a second flat. Her hands shook. Metal slipped against slightly warmer than usual metal. At least she didn’t drop the damn thing. On the second try, it notched into the lock.
She moved the fabric protecting her face aside long enough to yell, “Ben! Wake up! Fire!”
The next breath she took contained enough smoke to have her choking as she finally crashed through the door. The lovely carved maple hit the entryway wall hard enough to leave a mark, but she didn’t pause. No way could she dash through the kitchen without becoming a human shish kebab. Thank God the house had a second, if narrow, set of stairs in the rear.
Kyana made as much noise as possible. Shouts dwindled in her narrowing windpipe. Fumes thickened as she ascended. They turned her cries scratchy. Coughing replaced most of her calls, so she preserved her oxygen.
She opened Ben’s door cautiously, relieved to find the insidious conflagration hadn’t yet eaten through the floor. However, her eyes watered beneath the assault of dense smoke. Tears streamed down her cheeks when she caught sight of an unmoving lump beneath the fugly harvest gold and green paisley quilt straight out of the seventies. It seemed too small to contain all the laugher and vitality she associated with Ben.
Please, please, don’t be too late.
Shaking him didn’t seem to help any more than screaming her brains out had. Something downstairs gave a horrible wail then a pop. Silence was followed by the
of rejuvenated flames. Kyana couldn’t believe how fast the fire had engulfed the lower level.
Neither she nor Ben had time to waste.
Uncertain of where she found the strength, she ducked down and tried to imitate the fireman’s hold she’d seen on TV. Ben toppled to the floor, taking her balance with him. She crashed to the ground, smacking her head and shoulder on the corner of a dresser nearby. Stars danced in her vision, lulling her, tempting her to close her eyes for just one second.
Staying low to the ground this time, she crawled over the unconscious man and used the cotton of his T-shirt at his shoulders to drag him toward the stairs. Thank God he’d never covered his precious hardwood floors. The polished surface made him easy to slide as she backed up to the landing. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught claws of fire rending the edges of the wall at the bottom of the stairs. She had no choice but to try and make it past before they blocked the entryway.
Sweat poured down her face, neck and back. Not all of it from the heat. Quivering, her muscles strained to obey her commands.
The door to the outside stood open. In the distance, she thought she heard the faint whine of a siren. So close. If she could just make it a little further, they’d be okay. Someone would be waiting outside to help. She hoped.
Kyana gave in to the very rare temptation to pray. She begged Aunt Rose to watch over them. To let there be something the experts could do to wake Ben up. Allowing herself to think it might be a corpse she hauled wasn’t productive. She refused to believe that was true.
“Gonna be a rough ride. Hang on.” She lifted his head and shoulders as high as she could without going ass over tea kettle then scooted down the stairs. If every single lungful hadn’t seared her from the inside out, she might have winced at the thud of his heels banging on each riser they passed.
Overexertion, or maybe the knock she’d taken on her skull, stole her coordination. She screeched as she slipped, trying futilely to hang on to Ben as she tumbled down the last four or five steps. Landing in a heap at the bottom, she struggled to sort out their limbs. Until a wash of angry fire licked her side.
Instinct engaged. With one final burst of strength, she latched onto Ben’s arm and hauled him across the threshold onto the low deck outside. “Have to get away. Further from the house.”
Kyana didn’t realize she chanted the mantra as she repeatedly blinked her eyes to clear the haze and infuse some moisture to the dry, tortured surfaces.
“It’s okay, miss.” Someone pried her fingers from Ben. “I have you.”
“Your friend’s safe. Thanks to you. Come on. We’ll get you both sorted out.” The world tipped and turned. She couldn’t bring herself to care or to decipher the surreal sensation of being carried for the first time she could ever remember. “Christ, you’re a brave one. Running into that mess is enough to scare our rookies over there.”
“No choice.” She let her head rest on the black-and neon-striped surface of the fireman’s jacket. Even those two tiny words ripped up her throat.
“Shush.” He rocked her as he broke into a jog. “You could have actually listened to the dispatcher and not charged into that fucker yourself. But I would’ve done exactly the same thing. Get used to being called a hero, honey. The news crew is eating this shit up. By tomorrow morning, you’re going to be famous. At least around here.”
Flashing red lights intensified until they nearly blinded her, given her already impaired vision. The fireman deposited her gently on a gurney. He squeezed her fingers then disappeared, diving right into the hell she’d been so eager to flee.
Medics swarmed her.
“Ben.” The emphatic shout sounded more like a rasp.
“He’s breathing,” a woman informed her. “A good sign. Let my partners do their jobs. How about not making mine any harder by fighting, huh? Settle down.”
Gentle touches accompanied the stern request. A mask fell into place over her mouth. Cool air soothed her throat and lungs.
“Inhale. Slow and deep.” The woman’s dulcet voice charmed Kyana, forcing her to obey for several long minutes while the shock and terror of what had happened began to really sink in. She subdued the urge to rotate for a glimpse of Ben, afraid of what she might witness.