It was an innocent mistake. The boys wanted a room just like Harry Potter’s cupboard. Mom indulged them with a special desk tucked in the back corner of the closet under the stairs. She had studied the frozen screen image in the first movie and tried to replicate it exactly. Exactly down to the candle in the corner. The boys loved it.
Mary babysat early that day. She was a good sister, and the boys wanted to play Harry Potter. They made a poster of spells and taped it on the wall above the candle. “Alohamora! Open the door.” Mary lit the candle. Just for a little fun. She did not blow it out.
The evening brought a dinner cooked a bit too long. Of course, the smoke detector went off. It always went off when Mom opened the oven door and the hot air wafted out. It went off when she burnt the toast. It went off at the slightest cooking infraction. It was as bad as her ex-husband, forever screaming at her for the smallest of errors. She had enough. She grabbed a chair from the dining room, positioned it under the offending smoke detector, and unscrewed it from the wall. She turned it over in her hands, inspecting it for switches. A sensitivity switch, maybe? That made her chuckle a little because her ex had always called her “oversensitive.” He probably would think she was like the smoke detector, wailing at his every correction. Whatever. She decided to shelf the project for the night and put the detector in the cupboard. There were more upstairs and the house was small. She hadn’t checked the batteries when she moved in, and that gave her pause, but surely they were fine.
The candle flickered merrily inside of the closet and one corner of the poster above it lost its tack, leaving the bottom left edge to linger inches above the flame.
The boys were tucked in bed. Mary was locked in her room listening to a new playlist she created on iTunes, and Mom was ready for bed. It was 8:30. She relaxed, luxuriating in the master bath for a while. She was working on self-care and had just bought some new shampoo — the good kind. And some expensive lotion. She crawled under the covers, at last, feeling as though things may finally be getting better. It had been a hard year, but she was happy again. It felt good to be on her own, she decided. She fell asleep fast, taking a Melatonin just to be safe.
The edge of the poster still attached to the wall, lost its tack and the little list of incantations fell into the dancing flame. Soon, the fire licked the edge of the bookshelf, the spells reduced to ashes and the little plastic knights and horses emitting black smoke. Within seconds, the flames were five feet high and all the coats that were still hanging in the closet were engulfed. Someone coughed upstairs. Maybe it was Mary. She had fallen asleep with her headphones in.
It was one of the boys who woke up mom. Standing at the foot of her bed, mouth open like a siren, he was wailing a warning made of pure panic. She sat bolt upright, disoriented. Her eyes were stinging and the air felt welted. She reached for her son, fear bubbling in the bottom of her stomach. She ran into the hallway, remembering Mary’s door was locked. Tall flames were climbing the tops of the staircase, threatening the three bedrooms upstairs. She banged on the door. The other boy was crying under his covers, curled into a small ball. She grabbed him quickly and both boys tried to burrow their way into her, clawing at her chest, grabbing at her hair. The smoke was suffocating.
“Mary! Mary!” She was screaming inside of choking sobs. The hall was completely engulfed in flames. She kicked at the wall that separated Mary and the boys. The boys.
She had to move the desk that she had put in front of the window. It was tall with shelves. Cursing herself silently, she shut the door to the boys’ room, shoving a blanket down to cover the crack. She pried the boys off of her and set them in the furthest corner from the door, begging them to stay so she could move the desk. So she could open the window. So she could try to save them.
“Mary!” she screamed again, the hot air strangling the word in her mouth.
She managed a space big enough to get behind and worked at the window. It was old and stubborn. Crying in frustration, she pulled it up as hard as she could, ripping the nail off of her second finger.
Mary began to scream. “Mom! Mom!”
“Mary!” Mom was frantic. She had to get the boys out of the window. They were back at her feet, clawing at her. The door was on fire.
“Get out of the window!” Mom yelled. Mary couldn’t hear her. She was screaming that the window wouldn’t open and she was coughing. Mom reached for the first boy and held him to the open window. They were one floor up, and the small yard looked so far away. The boy stared wide-eyed, wild and frantic. “No, Mommy! Don’t drop me!” But she had to. And she did, praying for a broken bone to be the worst of it. She couldn’t hear Mary anymore. Sobbing, she grabbed her second son and dropped him out the window, a long bloody scratch on her forearm where he tried to hold on. Then she vomited. The fire was in the room and smoke was everywhere. She jumped, trying not to fall on the children, trying to remember how to land. But she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t hear, she couldn’t even see anything anymore. She crawled around the yard, feeling for Mary.