Finally, Susie* fell asleep in my arms. Stopping the rocker, I moved to the crib and put her down. Please, don’t wake up, I pleaded silently. Had my friends not said they’d stop by, I’d have stretched out on my double bed for a nap.
I tip-toe-ed over to the girls’ room. Deni*, nearly five now, and her almost-three-year-old sister, appeared to be sleeping. Jamie*, my little African-American princess, dropped off while reading. Her favorite book lay open on the floor, inches from her fingertips.
On the top bunk, Deni’s book lay face-down on her tummy. The tendrils of bright-red curls framed the youngster’s freckled cuteness.
For the next few moments, I quietly repositioned things around the living room and prepared hot water for tea. As I took the kettle off the burner, I heard tires crunching the hard-pack snow.
“Come in,” I said, whispering and pressing my finger to my lips. “Kids are sleeping.”
For the next twenty minutes, the three of us maintained a low rumbling chatter, catching up on the details of our Thanksgiving holiday. Had it really been only a few days since that harrowing trip over icy roads and a house full of ice and mice? Suddenly, I noticed Janet* shudder.
“It’s getting cold in here, don’t you think, Jake*?”
“A bit, I guess. I hadn’t noticed before now.”
“Oh my, yes, it is. I’m so sorry. I meant to stoke the fire before you arrived. I just got busy getting lunch for the kids and then putting Susie down—“
“Hey, no problem,” Jake said. “Let me go down to the basement and put a shovel of coal in the furnace. I’ll just restart it if it’s gone cold.”
“I’m so sorry. Really, Jake, I can do it.”
“No need. You keep jawing there with Janet, and I’ll be back in a flash.”
Janet started another thread of conversation just as her husband turned to go. I felt torn but decided to give Janet my attention.
Fifteen minutes later, Jake emerged from the furnace room below. Washing his hands at the kitchen sink, he looked up at the clock. “Honey, we need to go. I forgot I told my cousin I’d help him at the shop this afternoon.” Jake turned to me, continuing without missing a beat. “Sorry, I couldn’t find the matches. The fire went out, but I’ve got it all set to light.”
“Thanks, Jake. I’ll take care of it from here.”
Things might have been different had the couple left at that point, and I’d lit the furnace. As often happened, the good-bye took a fair bit of time.
Once my friends left, I double-checked on the kids before descending the steps. To my amazement, all three continued sleeping deeply.
I paused a moment before unlatching the heavy metal furnace door. An odor caught me by surprise. Gasoline? Couldn’t be; I stored the little gas can in another room. It’s my imagination, born out of fatigue. I lifted the latch and swung wide the door.
Jake had made a perfect arrangement of wood over the ashes of coal. I knew he preferred a wood fire to the hassle of coal, but the coal burned hotter and longer in the old furnace. I wondered if he’d chosen wood more often than coal to keep the furnace at a low temp in our absence. I’d already noticed he’d restocked the woodpile.
“Better stop your cogitating, old girl,” I spoke out loud. “Get that furnace going before the kids wake up.”
I struck the long wooden match and threw it on the wood. As always, I shut the metal door as quickly as possible to keep any lit twigs from flying at me.
Ka-aa-boom! Before I got the latch hooked, the hot metal door exploded open. Flames of fire stretched out, engulfing my bare hand and arm. I grabbed an old gunny sack to put out the fire melting my flesh.
Surprisingly few embers fell outside the furnace. I stomped them out, trying to figure out what to do next. Should I close the door? Would the fire end up outside the monster furnace, burning the house down, if I left it open? Would it explode a second time if I tried to close the door now? “What do I do, God?”
Picturing what might happen if the kids woke up and came looking for me, I grabbed a metal rod I found along the back wall. Sidling around behind the door, I used the rod to slowly close the furnace. I held the door in place. Nothing. Carefully holding the door closed with one hand on the rod, I bunched my shirttail around my injured hand, working the lever to slip the lock in place.
Feeling the heat about to reach my burned fingers, I tried to take a breath and focus. Click. “Thanks, God!”
Okay, get upstairs before the kids wake up. Wouldn’t that blast have awakened them already? I flew up the rickety steps two-at-a-time.
Swinging into the kitchen, I realized two things at the same time:
The girls had not awakened from the kaboom.
My arm felt like the skin continued to melt away with each passing second.
A smear of black caught my eye. In the corner of the kitchen, a pipe dangled from the ceiling, the connecting ring still attached to the swaying lower pipe. Big black splotches decorated both White corner walls.
Forgetting my arm, I rushed to the bedrooms. Had the kids been hurt and that’s why they didn’t come to look for me? To my relief, all three slept on, totally unaware of the unfolding crisis.
Back in the kitchen, I twisted ice cubes into the sink I’d begun to fill with cold water. The pain had crested the peak and soon would be off the charts. I had to get something to occlude the air to stop the continuing burning.
Tossing the empty ice cube trays on the counter, I let the faucet run and reached for the wall phone. I tried three times to get my fumbling fingers to work the rotary dial to call Carroll. The instant I heard a ringing, I stretched the long coil to the opposite wall.
Plunging my arm into the cold water, I bent so that my whole arm from fingertips to above my elbow had been submerged. If I’d rung a wrong number, I planned to ask the stranger for help.
“Hello,” said the familiar voice of my close friend. She heard my deep sigh. “Is that you, Dar?”
“Yeah, it’s me. Uh, are you doing anything right now, Carroll? I have a bit of a problem over here.”
“Oh, no. What’s happened? Are the kids okay? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, the kids are still sleeping. Somehow, the blast didn’t wake them up at all.”
“Yeah, Carroll. I think Jake may have soaked the wood with gasoline, expecting to light the fire right away. He didn’t, and I didn’t know he’d not put coal in for me to light. I think the gasoline fumes must have built up or something. Anyway, as soon as I closed the door on the burning wood, the furnace exploded.”
“Is there a fire?”
“Not now. My arm was burning, and some pieces of wood fell to the floor. I put out the flames melting away my arm. Then, I stomped on the small flames near the furnace. Fortunately, we have a dirt floor in the basement, huh? The door is secured now, and I think everything’s okay as far as the furnace goes. The problem is my arm, Carroll.”
“Should I call the ambulance? What can I do?”
“The ambulance would scare the kids. I’m soaking my whole arm in ice water in the sink now. If you would, please, call Cathy and ask her if she’d take me to the hospital. Then, if you could take the kids over to your house until I get done at the hospital. That’s as far as I’ve figured things out so far.”
“Okay, hang up right now. I’m calling Cathy. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I know you won’t leave the kids alone, so I’m hurrying.”
As I waited, I prayed for the kids to stay asleep until Carroll got here. I also tried to assess my arm. The underwater view obscured some of the damage, but I clearly saw the separation between the two main muscles on my forearm.
Carroll and Cathy arrived at the same time. I left with Cathy while Carroll gathered up clothing for the girls to spend the night. She assumed I’d need a night without children to care for, even if I managed to talk my way out of a hospital admission. The kids slept on until Carroll woke them to go to her house.
The doctor took one look at my arm and pointed to my wrist. “That white thing there? It’s your bone. You’re going to need extensive skin grafts, once your hand and arm are healed. That’ll take months. Look there at your forearm muscles. I’m not sure, but you may lose some function in your fingers. I’m going to admit you so we can get some IV antibiotics onboard. You’ll need heavy sedation for a few days, at least.”
“Can’t do it, Doc. I got three kids to take care of. Just give me a shot of something now ‘cuz I’m hurting so much I can hardly think. I’ll stay with a friend tonight and come back for bandage changes. I can take a few days of oral medicines for pain and antibiotics for possible infection as long as you say. I just can’t stay here tonight.”
Doctor Wong* didn’t like it, but he accepted my decision. He told the nurse he expected the pain would be enough to drive me back sometime in the night, so she should be prepared.
As it turned out, another sad surprise changed my plans, but it had nothing to do with the hospital.
For the first part of the above story, click the following link: Hallelujah Flight
Story thread begins with this link: With Just One Phone Call