I grab onto the front of his shirt and pull him towards me as hard as I can. He loses his footing and stumbles to the ground. I don’t even bother trying to get him back up on his feet. While he screams and struggles against me, his feet digging into the carpet, I pull him towards the window using every last bit of energy left in me.

“COLLIN! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING, GET DOWN THE LADDER!” I hear D.J. yell from down below.

“Get your sorry ass up right now!” I shout down at Jordan as he continues to try and struggle away from me.

The sound of a small explosion downstairs rattles the entire house, sending me backwards. I let go of Jordan as my ass slams into the windowsill and I have to throw my arms out to either side of the window to prevent myself from tumbling backwards out to the ground below.

Smoke curls around me as the flames from down below make it upstairs, climbing along the hallway and bursting into the doorway. Jordan turns and stares at the fire, frozen in shock as it inches it’s way across the floor towards him.

“I just wanted you to burn,” Jordan mutters to himself, staring wide-eyed at the fire that’s dangerously close to his legs.

I could tell as soon as I saw him out in the hallway when he first confronted me that something wasn’t right with him. His eyes were unfocused and he had all the telltale signs of someone under the influence of something bad. He’s not making any sense right now and, as much as I want to continue shouting at him to get the fuck out of the house, something tells me he’s so far gone that he doesn’t even care anymore.

I soften my tone just like I would with any other victim I encounter out on a call to do what I can to ease their fears. “Hey, it’s alright. I don’t care about any of that. Let’s just get out of here, okay?”

Jordan shakes his head back and forth as he continues to stare at the flames. “I wanted your heart to blister with the pain of losing her, just like mine did. I know I never deserved her, I know I fucked everything up, but she was mine. You shouldn’t get to make her happy if I couldn’t.”

The inflection in his voice has a singsong quality to it like he’s reading from a children’s book and that’s when I know he has officially lost his fucking mind.

I want nothing more than to just turn and race down the ladder right behind me and let him burn down with the house, but my conscience won’t let that happen. Everyone deserves to be saved. I push away from the window to try to grab him one more time when he speaks again.

“I never meant to kill her. I never meant for any of this to happen. I deserve this. I deserve to feel the heat and the fire and let it burn every inch of me for what I’ve done,” he mutters.

The fight leaves my body along with my good intentions. The heart that used to beat with the love and hope for the future that was finally within my grasp has been tossed into the fire right in front of me, scalding and melting with the burn of my pain.

“I wanted your heart to blister with the pain of losing her.”

He won. He got what he wanted.

My body slumps backwards until my ass hits the windowsill again.

He killed her. He killed her. He killed her.

Up until this moment, I still had hope that she would be okay. I still believed she could be saved. I knew D.J. would do everything within his power to bring her back to me. My only goal was to get Jordan safely out of this house so that I could make my way to her.

This weak bastard sitting on the floor a few feet from me with the fire just inches away from his feet, he killed the only thing in my life worth living for. He couldn’t handle the idea of her being happy without him, so he masterminded the ultimate revenge. He took her from this world, from this life, from me. I’ll never again see her smile, hear her laugh or feel her lips against mine. I’ll never get to tell her how much I love her, how much I’ve loved her every single day since I was fifteen years old. All those dreams, all those plans we made for the future while I held her body against mine and felt hear heartbeat under the palm of my hand… ruined, all of it ruined. She’s gone and nothing will ever be the same again.

Everything inside of me that I’ve known to be true, every instinct that told me no matter what he did, I needed to save him, it all disintegrates and I can’t find it in me to care. I want him to die. He deserves to die. He took the only woman I’ve ever loved from me before I even had a chance to tell her.

I’ve made the decision to get onto the ladder behind me, climb down to safety and leave a man behind to burn. The ethics instilled in me, the ones I’ve imparted on every single man who has ever come through my firehouse, fade into nothing in the blink of an eye.

I turn my body to the side so I can swing one leg out of the open window until I’m straddling the sill. I look at the back of Jordan’s head one last time, knowing as soon as I get on that ladder and leave him in here that I’ll never be a fireman again. By turning my back on him, ignoring every single vow I’ve ever made, I’m saying good-bye to the only dream I ever had until I found my way back to Finnley. It’s only fitting that I lose them both in one day.

Jordan’s head suddenly whips around when he sees me exiting the window. I can tell by the wild look of fear in his eyes that he suddenly realized what was about to happen to him. He was going to be left behind; left to burn alive.

Jordan lunges for me.

The entire foundation of the house begins to shake and I hear people screaming down below. I move to get on the ladder and, all of a sudden, a hand grabs onto me and pulls. The house beings to fall and I follow right behind.

Down

Down

Down, until there is nothing more.

Chapter 22—Up in Flames

IT BURNS, OH, God everything burns.

I want to scream in pain but my voice is trapped, stuck inside a throat that feels like it’s been ripped to shreds and then lit on fire. Every breath I take hurts so badly that I just want to stop breathing altogether to make the pain go away. I want to open my eyes and see what the hell is going on, but every time I try to blink them open, the sting of tears blurs my vision and I quickly snap them closed.

The smell of smoke and fire is burned into my nostrils, so strong that I can’t stop the vomit from traveling up from my stomach. As I heave and cough and cry, lurching to the side to expel the bile that burns its way up my raw throat, I hear the shout of an unfamiliar voice right next to me.

“SHE’S BREATHING! Get me seventy-five cc’s of oxygen and ten milligrams of morphine.”

I feel a hand rubbing circles against my upper arm as my body is lifted up and onto what feels like a stretcher. I don’t know what’s happening. I want the pain to go away and I want Collin. Every time my body is jostled, I cry out in pain. The burning sensation on my legs and stomach is so painful that I’m certain my body is on fire.

“It’s okay, sweetie. You’re going to be okay. The medicine will kick in soon, I promise.”

I don’t recognize the voice speaking gently by my ear and I cry even harder, trying to block out the fear and the pain.

“Collin, where’s Collin? I need Collin,” I sob, the sounds of chaos surrounding me until I want to curl up into a ball and cover my ears.

“Shit, she’s asking for McDaniels,” the voice whispers.

I feel something hard and plastic pressed over my mouth and the cold air of fresh oxygen is pushed past my lips and into my lungs. I cough against the intrusion, my throat still burning in pain.

“It’s okay, sweetie, just take it nice and slow. I know it hurts.”

I want to scream at her but I don’t have the energy. She has no idea how much it hurts, no idea how much I want to claw and scratch at my own skin just to ease the burning. I feel a pinch in my upper arm and, seconds later, my thoughts begin to grow hazy and even more confusing.

“Collin, I need Collin,” I slur as the pain in my legs and torso slowly starts to disappear.

I feel myself being lifted again and the sound of doors slamming shut, the noise and shouts of people from moments ago immediately cut off. I drift in and out of consciousness, hearing soft voices and the muffled sound of a siren every so often.

“… no way he survived that fall. Did you see the way the house crumbled? I’m surprised D.J. was able to walk away considering he was still on the ladder when it fell.”

I try to force my mind to pay attention when I hear D.J.’s name but whatever they gave me is too strong. My brain is foggy and I can feel myself slowly going under.

“There’s no way McDaniels is still alive. No one could have survived a drop like that.”

As the darkness pulls me further and further away from reality, the blessed relief I should feel since my skin is no longer on fire is erased by the knowledge that I’ve lost him. My sweet, beautiful man is gone.

Gone before I could tell him I love him.

Gone before I could spend the rest of my life showing him just how much.

With one last sob before I let the oblivion consume me, I realize my life is over. I don’t want to live one second on this earth if Collin isn’t here with me. I don’t care what happens to me, I don’t care if the pain returns and swallows me whole. I don’t care about anything but escaping from this hell and being with the man who saved me.

Chapter 23—Seventeen Seconds

THE DREAM IS so vivid that I do everything I can to fight my way out of it, but nothing works. I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to feel the pain and fear all over again, but I can do nothing to stop it. I see it all as clearly as if I’m living through it one more time.

The first time was bad enough.

The second time just might kill me.

I watched as the match in Jordan’s hand fluttered to the ground, almost in slow motion. If only the fire that spread out between us as soon as the tiny little flame hit the ground moved as slow. I screamed at the top of my lungs, scrambling backwards as fast as I could. My hands and feet tangled together on the carpet and I slammed down onto my back as the fire closed the distance, the gas that coated my legs no match for the beast that latched onto me. I watched in horror as the flames rapidly swallowed my legs like the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon. I screamed in fear and agony as the heat singed my skin and scorched my flesh, the pain so intense I almost wanted to just let it take me.

Jordan stood by the door with a look of horror on his face as I ripped the robe from my body and wrapped it around my legs, smothering the fire as I kicked them across the ground and continued to scream in pain, inching across the carpet that was almost completely engulfed in flames from the gas he’d dumped.

I felt the fire licking against the skin of my side and hips as my back slammed against the corner of the wall. Rolling over onto my hands and knees, I cry and sob in pain as I slither on my belly across the tile in the hallway until I make it to the stairs. I crawl up each step as fast as my burned skin will allow. I’ve never felt pain like this before and it steals the breath from my lungs. I just needed to make it upstairs, up to one of the bedrooms where there was no smoke or fire. My entire body hurt so badly that I wasn’t even sure if my skin was still burning or not. As soon as I got to the top step, a hand grabbed onto my hair and yanked me roughly backwards.

“No! You can’t leave!” Jordan screamed as he tried to drag me back down the stairs. “The fire will erase everything. It will make it all go away. We need to make it go away!”

I couldn’t go back down those stairs. If he got me back down there, I would die. I would never be able to make it out of this hell and I can’t let that happen. I WON’T let it happen. Collin will be here soon. The neighbors must have seen the fire by now and even though Collin’s department isn’t the one that will respond, he’s still on his way here after his shift. Collin will be here. I just needed to hold on for Collin.

Drawing on every bit of the little strength I had left, I pulled my elbow forward and then slammed it back between Jordan’s legs. He immediately released his hold on my hair and fell to his knees behind me. I let out the loudest, blood-curdling scream I could muster as I dove forward and crawled the last few feet into my spare bedroom, slamming the door closed behind me to keep the smoke out.

The burnt skin of my legs and stomach scraped across the carpet as I inched my way closer to the window. I just needed to get to the window. There was fresh air and freedom through that glass. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I bit back more screams of pain as I collapsed a few feet from the window.

It hurt so much. Everything burned. I was afraid to look down at my body, sure that my skin had melted off by now. I was in agony and the coughs wracking my body from the smoke I’d inhaled amplified the pain until I felt my vision start to fade. I rolled over onto my back and stared up at the window above me, willing the pain to disappear. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted it to end.

From somewhere far away, I heard someone scream my name.

Collin. He came.

The burning of my skin engulfed me until there was nothing left but pain.

I knew he’d come. I knew he’d save me.

I counted my breaths, each one more painful than the last until I felt my heart begin to slow.

Thirteen

Fourteen

It hurts, oh, God it hurts so much.

Fifteen

Sixteen.

My eyes slowly closed as my last breath escaped my lungs.

Seventeen.

I’m screaming. The pain is so great and my voice is so loud but I can’t make it stop, even when gentle hands smooth my hair away from my face and a soft voice tries to quiet me. My eyes fly open and I feel tears pouring down my cheeks as I stare frantically around the stark, white room. An oxygen mask is quickly placed over my face as I’m lightly pushed back down in bed. I sob quietly as the dream comes back to me in flashes.




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