Read an Excerpt
Megan jerked out of a deep sleep. The six-year-old had heard a sound"pop." It momentarily startled her. She heard nothing else. Snuggling down in her bed with Elmo, her red Muppet, she closed her eyes once more.
And then she smelled smoke. Was she dreaming? The Muppet clock with Big Bird on it read 3:00 a.m. Sitting up, Megan suddenly felt alarm. Smoke! She wasn't dreaming! Her daddy was a firefighter. He and Mommy had taught her that if she smelled smoke she should run to the window and escape to safety. Their home was one story. Daddy had taught her how to open the window and climb out.
Maybe she was dreaming. Megan slipped out of bed and clutched Elmo to her red-flannel-nightgowned chest. A small night-light gave enough radiance to see her partially opened door. There was a haze of whitish smoke filtering into her room. Blinking, Megan stood in shock, gripping Elmo to her chest and staring at the silent and deadly smoke.
What was wrong? Daddy had gone to a special school in Cheyenne over the weekend. She and Mommy were here alone. Mommy! Running out of the room, Megan raced down the hall toward the bedroom at the other end of the home. As she did, she began to cough violently. The purling smoke became thicker. She couldn't see. Megan was disoriented, and her eyes watered badly. Coughing violently, she tried to breathe. It was impossible!
There was a dull orange glow pulsating through the thick wall of smoke. Megan heard a window breaking somewhere beyond the smoke.
"Mommy!" she shrilled. "Mommy! Mommy! Wake up! There's fire!" and then Megan's voice cracked and she started coughing violently. She couldn't breathe!
Turning, Megan raced out of the smoke now tunneling down the long, wide hall. It was March; there had been a huge blizzard last night. At least two feet of snow had fallen. Megan ran back to her room, which now was filled with smoke. Mommy! Where is Mommy?
Grabbing her robe, Megan put her toy on her bed and thrust her small arms through the sleeves. Wrapping the red sash of her flannel robe around her, she grabbed Elmo to her chest. Pushing her feet into her fluffy red Elmo-headed slippers, Megan ran out of the room. The smoke was so thick, she couldn't see anything. Oh, if only Daddy were here! He'd know what to do.
Megan coughed continuously, tears streaming down her face. She hurried down to the other end of the hall that led to the kitchen. There was a phone there. She couldn't reach Mommy! Sobbing, she picked up the phone and dialed 911. Both her parents had worked with her since age four to teach her how to call for help.
"Nine-one-one. What's your emergency?"
Megan recognized Claudia, one of the dispatchers at the fire station in Jackson Hole. "Claudia, this is Megan Sinclaire
" She coughed. "Our house is on fire! My mommy
I can't get to my mommy! She's trapped in her bedroom! I need help.help."
The smoke stole silently into the kitchen. Alarmed, Megan saw it billowing in thickly. As soon as she'd got Megan's information, Claudia told her to get out of the house. She was to put on a coat and warm headgear, if possible. And then she was to stand far away, outside the burning home. Megan said she understood and put the phone back down.
Gripping Elmo, she hurried to the front porch. Breathing was difficult. Mouth open, saliva trickling out the corners of her mouth, Megan shakily pulled on her heavy parka, slid her feet into warm fleece boots and donned her thick knit cap, scarf and mittens. She unlocked the door. The snow had piled up, and though she pushed on it, the door wouldn't budge.
Fear gripped Megan. She saw the red and orange lurid colors now coming down the hall toward the kitchen. Knowing they were flames, she realized in panic that the whole house was on fire. Crying out, one arm around Elmo, Megan pushed again and again against the door. No use!
Turning, she ran from the porch to the kitchen door. The only light she had to see with was from the flames licking rapidly toward her. With shaking hands, Megan unlocked the door and slammed her fifty-pound body against itit barely moved. There was ice build-up on the concrete steps. Again, Megan thrust herself and Elmo against the door and felt cold air suddenly filter through the edge.
Heat was rapidly building up in the kitchen. Her skin smarted and she sobbed. Megan screamed out for her parents as she hurled herself again and again into the stubborn door. There was no movement. The thick, accumulating smoke combined with that awful orange color to stalk her like a fire-breathing dragon. She hit the door with her bruised shoulder and felt it move a few inches more against the snow build-up. I have to get out!
Coughing, Megan dropped Elmo at her feet and used both her hands against the oak door. This time, it gave way. It opened just enough to allow her to squeeze through. Somehow, she had to get to Mommy! Leaning over, Megan grabbed Elmo, pushed herself through the door and out into the bitterly cold night air.
She stood on the icy steps, the stars bright and close. It was so cold her breath shot out of her mouth like a white flashlight. As she turned to look back at the house, Megan's eyes widened enormously. The roof over her parents' bedroom was on fire! Gasping, Megan ran down the steps. Earlier that night, her mother had cleared the path around the ranch-style home. Now, slipping and sliding, Megan awkwardly ran around to the front of the house.
As she rounded the corner, Megan saw a dark-colored pickup spinning its tires and racing down the dirt road. A yellow streak of lightning was painted horizontally across the tailgate. The truck sloughed drunkenly through the unplowed freshly fallen snow that blocked the road. It weaved back and forth through the drifts, the tires spinning and screaming. Megan didn't know who it was, and it was too far away to call for help. Racing around the corner of the garage, she headed for the front door of their home. As she reached it, Megan skidded to a halt. Where her parents' bedroom was located, the house was fully consumed in flames.
With a cry of alarm, Megan ran forward and was instantly surrounded by a noxious odor. It smelled like gasoline! Why would there be the smell of gas out here? Megan slipped and slid on the sidewalk to get to her mommy's bedroom. Fire licked out in bright, shooting red-and-yellow flames through the only bedroom window. Megan screamed again and again for her mother. There was no answer! The popping and snapping of wood burning, the explosion of other windows breaking filled the night around her.
Panicked, Megan dropped Elmo on the sidewalk. She had to get to Mommy! She ran up to the window, gasping and choking. The flames were breathing as though a dragon was inside that room.
"Mommy! Mommy!" Megan shrilled, as she approached the window. "Wake up! Wake up! You have to get out of there!" Megan leaped up to the window, her small hands on the window sill for a second. She screamed and dropped back into the snowboth her hands burned. Megan struggled out of the snowbank sobbing and confused and backed off.
Turning, she looked down the one-mile-long dirt road. The truck was gone. The bright stars in the night sky blinked overhead. The temperature was at least ten below, and her breath shot out in ragged clouds from her contorted mouth.
Megan ran over and grasped Elmo to her chest.
She stood looking anxiously at the window. It would be impossible to get into the bedroom. But there was another way! Sliding and falling on the icy sidewalk, Megan got to her feet and made it around to the back door. All she wanted was her mommy. As she struggled through the build-up of snow on the concrete porch, she saw the flames consuming the rest of the house. The fire raced along the roof with a roar.
Looking out toward the road, Megan whimpered. She knew it would take the fire trucks a long time to get out herethree miles from the center of Jackson Hole. They lived on a dirt road that wouldn't be plowed until dawn came. Crushing Elmo to her chest, she stood crying and staring at the back door. The snow was too thick and she couldn't reach the doorknob. And then, the window in the door blew out toward Megan. Shards of hot glass showered around her as the build-up of gases within the home punched out the window like a fist on the other side.
Crying, Megan threw up her hand. Too late! The entire door blew outward. Wood struck the little girl. In seconds, she was flung off the porch and into a nearby snowbank.
That was how the paramedics found Megan when they arrived: stuck in a snowdrift, nearly hypothermic, hands with second-degree burns, her face pockmarked by the shards of glass embedded in her flesh.
Megan jerked awake and sat up. She was gripping Elmo hard to her heaving chest. The fire! The fire! Looking wildly around, Megan saw that the small lamp nearby was on. Anxiously, she looked toward her partly opened door. She saw no smoke. But she could smell it! Scrambling out of bed, sobbing, she ran to the door. There was a night-light in the hall. There was no smoke visible yet. Hurrying down the hall, her green flannel nightgown flying around her bare feet, she headed for her daddy's bedroom.
Matt Sinclaire heard his bedroom door fly open. His eight-year-old daughter, Megan, stood in the doorway, sobbing and clutching Elmo to her. Groaning, he slipped out of bed.
"Megan, it's okay. There's no fire," he whispered. He quickly moved to his trembling daughter. Her long blond hair was in wild disarray around her small oval face, her blue eyes wide with shock. Matt crouched down and brought his daughter into his arms to hold her tightly against him. "It's okay, okay, Meggie. There's no fire," he whispered, his fingers moving across her tangled hair and her shoulders. She was trembling. Sounds, strangulated and without meaning, came from her mouth.
Tightly shutting his eyes, Matt held and rocked his daughter. "It's okay, Meggie. It was just a dream. I'm okay and so are you. There's no fire, no fire
." His voice cracked with emotion that threatened to engulf him. When would this nightmare end? Matt knew his daughter had post-traumatic stress disorder. As he rocked her, he felt her small, stick-thin body tremble less and less. At least once a week, Megan would relive the horrors from two years ago. Matt had never slept well since the fire had taken Beverly, his wife. Now, it was just him and his daughter, Megan.
"Elmo isn't afraid," Matt whispered. "Is he? Have you seen if he's shaking?"
Megan eased out of Matt's arms just enough to look down at her doll. Looking up at her daddy's shadowed face, she shook her head.
"See? Elmo would know if there was a real fire," Matt soothed. He stood up and brought Megan against him. He was six foot two and his daughter was only just over four feet tall. She huddled against his thigh, head resting against his hip. Keeping a protective hand around her hunched shoulders, Matt said, "There's no fire anywhere in this house, Megan. Do you want to go back to your room to go to sleep?"
Matt always hoped in these moments that his daughter would rediscover her voice. The paramedics had found Megan unconscious in the snowdrift. She'd become conscious in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and from that moment on, she'd never spoken another word. The psychiatrist in Idaho Falls,
Idaho, who had endlessly tested her, told Matt it was "hysterical muteness," and that someday, Megan would start talking again. Grimacing, Matt knew his daughter would have to get through the trauma of seeing her mother burned to death in an arson fire.
Heart breaking all over again, Matt saw Megan dip her head forward in answer to his question. Leaning down, Matt lifted her into his arms and carried her down the hall. Since the fire, Matt always made sure there was plenty of light so that Megan could see that her room and the hall were not on fire. He always kept his bedroom door partly ajar. Holding his daughter close, he whispered soothing words to her. Megan laid her head on his broad shoulder, Elmo squeezed in between them.
In a way, Matt was glad the little red Muppet was there for his daughter. He could talk to Elmo in order to reach her. Since the murder of his wife, the loss of their home, his world focused only on Megan and her ongoing trauma. His child had never spoken a word in two years. Would she ever find her voice again? Inhaling raggedly, Matt kept his guilt and grief to himself. He didn't want Megan to know how devastating it had been for him to lose his Beverly, and worse, to compound the tragedy, to have his daughter so affected by the arson attack.
Pushing open the door to her bedroom, Matt gently slid his daughter back into her bed. He tucked Elmo, who was looking terribly ratty and old, next to her. Kneeling down, he gently covered Megan back up. "Listen, Elmo would tell you if there was anything wrong. But there's nothing wrong, Meggie. The house is fine. I'm here. If there was a fire, I'd know it in a heartbeat and I'd rescue you." He smoothed several golden strands off her furrowed brow. The worry and anxiety was clearly written in her eyes as she searched his face for some kind of reassurance.
"You know I would smell the smoke, don't you?" he asked softly, continuing to move his hand across her mussed hair. At times like this Matt knew Megan needed not only physical reassurance, she needed him as security against the nightmare. Even to this day, there were burn scars on her small beautiful hands. Matt's heart twisted in anguish knowing that his little six-year-old had valiantly tried to climb through the window to rescue her mother. Her courage shook him as nothing else ever would. He saw her eyelids begin to drift closed.
"Let me tell you a story about Elmo and Big Bird," Matt whispered as he knelt at her bedside. Meggie loved his made-up stories. They always had happy endings and magically diverted Megan so she'd fall back to sleep. She loved the little red Muppet. Matt silently thanked Jim Henson, the creator of the Mup-pets, for bringing them into existence. Elmo was the only way he could reach Megan. She would respond if he talked to Elmo about her.