Blue Ribbon, Red Fire – Part III

As Chris and I ran to get the two dogs out of our room, we felt fortunate that at least our dogs were housed in a new, detached part of the hotel. We assumed that only the main building was on fire.

“Come on,” Chris yelled. “Let’s go through the kitchen and out the back to our rooms.” We quickly dove past the waiters who were also scrambling to leave and we finally burst outside.  What I saw made my feet turn into stone, my eyes burning in disbelief.  I wanted to run but my shoes felt like they were stuck in mud.

“No!” We both screamed.  It was our area that was on fire.  The flames were coming from the rooms where our beloved dogs slept.  We scrambled up the metal stairs to the second floor.  The door handle at the second floor landing was hot to the touch.  I opened the door and we could see the bright flames and blue smoke reaching down the corridor.  The heat almost stopped us in our tracks.  But there was no turning around.  Our dogs were inside and their lives depended on us.  Although we had only been there a few hours ago it was hard to remember how many doors down and to the right it was until we reached room number 204.  Chris fumbled with the key, finally opening our door.  The dogs were barking furiously.  Chris’s dog was closest to the window overlooking the yard below.  She quickly picked up the tiny crate with the dog inside and turned to leave the room.  Meanwhile I was trying to open the metal crate and let Rowdy free.  There was a loud explosion behind me which blew the door to our room off its hinges.  Seeing no way out of the room, Chris put Tripper’s crate on a bedside table and opened the large window.  It was a long distance to the ground below.   But without thinking she carefully dropped the crate and jumped down herself.

“Betty. Hurry.” She screamed from below.

But the blown off door had crashed onto Rowdy’s crate, just missing me. To remove Rowdy from the crate I had to move the heavy door.  The smoke was now heavy and I couldn’t breathe.  Rowdy was barking furiously.  I was screaming to someone to help me. As I pushed the door on to the bed with what felt like my last breath I felt someone pull me back from the crate.  As if in a dream, time moved slowly.  I reached for Rowdy trapped in what was supposed to be his safe haven, where I had put him to protect him.  But now it was his trap and my arms couldn’t reach him.  My fingers brushed his nose as I again reached for the crate latch.  Then I felt someone again pulling me back as I slipped into unconsciousness.

I was told later in the hospital that I was in shock. I didn’t remember anything at first but then pieces of the night slowly came back to my memory.  I remembered Chris dropping out of the window to her death and I cried uncontrollably for the friend I’d lost.  When Chris’s husband visited me he said, “It’s going to be alright.”  He gave me a hug.

“What about you? What are you going to do?  I’ll take care of Tripper and-“.  He hugged me again and commanded me to lie back in the bed.  What he told me next, that Chris and Tripper survived the fall, that I was going home alone, without Rowdy, made me pass out. The only thing that had kept me sane through my divorce was my dog and now he was gone.  This time I was totally alone.  Life wasn’t worth living.  I eventually quit crying and the doctors took it as a sign that I had accepted the tragedy.  Never.

The morning of my release from the hospital the nurse told me I had a visitor.

“No, I don’t want to see anyone,” I said to her angrily. But the door opened and a tall, ruddy-faced, slender man entered, showed me his business card and introduced himself.

“I’m Jim Clare. You can call me Jimmy.  I’m a state arson investigator.  I’m sorry for the loss of your dog.” He said quietly, ” But you’re lucky to be alive.”

I looked up from the edge of the bed where I sat, dressed and ready to leave. How could he say I was lucky when there was nothing to live for?

“You don’t understand”, I said bitterly. “I have nothing now. I wish I’d died in the fire too!”  I had enveloped myself in self-loathing for not saving my dog.

“Look, Lady,” He raised his voice. “One of the best firemen almost died saving you.  Don’t sit there and tell me it was for nothing.  I’ve seen more death than you can imagine.  You survived.  You ARE lucky.  Move on.”  Then he turned away and took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “My husband dumped me, my dog is dead.  Everything seems hopeless.”

Jimmy turned around, “Look,” He said softly. “I shouldn’t have said that.  The fire killed seven people and five dogs.  We’ve determined it was started by an accelerant of some sort, probably gasoline, in addition to something else, which improves the chance of the fire moving quickly.  There were millions of dollars of damage done, not to mention the lives taken, or the people in the hospital, scarred for life.”

He reached into his pocket. “We found this at the top of the second floor stairs.”  He showed me an Oregon driver’s license in a clear plastic evidence bag.

“I..oh, no. It’s my ex-husband.”

“One body was burned beyond recognition and this ID was found nearby. There will be a further investigation but do you know why he would be there?”

“He hated me. He wanted my dog dead.  I can’t help but wonder if he started the fire.”  The thought that Kent’s rage could have caused so much death, humbled and scared me.

“It’s possible he caused it and was caught inside when he set the gas on fire. I’ll be in touch with you.”

He gently took my hand in both of his hands. “Please try to put this behind you. There are many people worried about you.”

His tender touch and caring smile gave me a bit of hope. As he turned and left, I looked at his strong back and shoulders.  What I didn’t know until later was that he stood outside my room for a few moments, that he wanted to return to me and talk more, that something about me reawakened something in him, something he had lost too.

Going home alone left me with a drained, yet suffocating feeling. Alone.  I hated the word.

I grabbed the mail from the bulging mail box and went inside to call Chris. She soon came over and we talked over coffee.  She told me that the Gaines competition was canceled after the fire.  Chris had hurt her ankle as a result of the jump from the hotel window.  “Tripper won’t go into a crate any more.  I can’t blame him.”  She started to cry, thinking of the night and Rowdy’s absence from my home, his toys still scattered on the floor.  She looked down at the pile of Get Well letters on the kitchen table, trying to take her mind off Rowdy’s absence.

“Hey, there’s a letter here from Jill Sanders from Colorado, with a Golden Retriever logo on the envelope. Isn’t she a well-known Golden breeder?”

I took the letter and opened it.

“She’s offering me a male puppy. I can’t, I can’t start over.”

“You can,” Chris raised her voice. “You will. Please.  For Rowdy.  Get another dog.”  She pleaded.  I looked up at the professional photographs of Rowdy surrounding me on the walls and the row of ribbons he’d won for me.

So it was that a month later I brought home a six month old Golden Retriever puppy. He was returned to the breeder from a show home because he was supposedly not perfect enough for the breed ring.  Jill confided that really the puppy was probably too hyper for the owners.  When I met Jill and the excited puppy, named Logan, she commented that he was a perfect match for me.  Jill knew the dog would have a job, exercise and would live a pampered life.  A breeder couldn’t ask for anything better.

Life goes on, I contemplated a month later. No matter what cards you’re dealt, the sun continues to rise and set.  Occasionally I thought of Jimmy, his touch, his strength.  The business card was still on my kitchen counter. Did he finish the investigation?  Was he single?  I smiled and touched Logan as he slept on the sofa next to me.  “Perhaps life will go on, Logan.”

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