It was late, and Michelle smelled like buttercream. She’d been working with the powerfully sweet frosting for hours, trying to get the texture just right so she could use it to make flowers on a wedding cake. As a result, it was in her hair and under her nails, and she never wanted to eat another bite of it. She walked out to her car, yawning. It was dark but her car was a sporty orange and easy to see, and its lights flashed as she unlocked it from a distance.
She was so tired that even taking off the bandanna that she had tied around her long, dark brown hair felt like it would take too much effort, and she wondered if Fox would be mad at her if she tried to go to bed without showering.
He’d probably make some stupid joke about ants, she thought with a roll of her eyes as she turned on the engine. Fox had the unfortunate tendency to think he was hilarious when he mostly just cracked corny jokes, but he was so earnest that Michelle couldn’t help loving him. She was backing out of her parking space when her phone rang and she frowned, glancing over at the display on the console to see it was her father.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, answering the call with a push of the button on the steering wheel. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing much,” Eddie replied, his voice rough from years of smoking. “I was calling to see if you and Fox wanted to get together for dinner on Saturday. Charlotte too, of course. I haven’t seen that cutie in a week and I don’t want her to forget her grandad.”
“Like she ever could,” Michelle said with a smirk. “With all the stuff you buy her, every time she comes back from seeing you all she can talk about is her grandad.” She pulled out into the street and started for home with another yawn. “I’ll talk to Fox when I get home and see which day is best for him, then I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“What do you mean when you get home? Are you still at work?”
“I just left,” Michelle said. “I’m ready to take a shower, kiss the sprout goodnight, and stuff my face before I go to sleep myself. I finally figured out the flowers on the wedding cake.”
“You’re going to work yourself to death,” Eddie sighed, and Michelle wondered if this was what having a mother would be like. “Next you’re going to tell me you have to put in all these hours so you can buy the owner out of the shop.”
“Maybe one day,” Michelle said with a smile. “Right now I’m happy just to learn everything I can. Whatever else happens, happens.”
“All right, all right,” Eddie said. “You talk to your husband and I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Don’t forget to send me the pictures from Charlotte’s birthday party.”
“I will, Dad, I promise. I’m just tired right now, and starving.” Thankfully, Michelle didn’t live very far from the bakery where she worked, so she was still on the phone with her father when she turned off the main street and onto the one that led to her neighborhood. “Whenever we get the time worked out, can we go to an all-you-can-eat place? A Chinese buffet or something?”
“You always did like that cheap Chinese food, now you’re passing it on to Charlotte,” he laughed. “How many times did I try to take you to nicer places?”
“Obviously not enough, otherwise I wouldn’t still love the cheap stuff. And of course Charlotte likes it, she’s three. She can get sweet and sour chicken and mac and cheese at the same time, what kid wouldn’t love—” Her voice trailed away as she turned the corner and saw a riot of flickering lights on her street. There were fire trucks, police cars, and even an ambulance. Michelle frowned and slowed to a crawl. “What the hell?” As she got closer a horrifying sight became visible around the fire trucks.
The flickering she had seen wasn’t all coming from the vehicles. One of the houses was on fire, and so consumed by flames that she was surprised she hadn’t seen the smoke. Hoping that it wouldn’t spread to her house and that the emergency vehicles would let her get home for the night, she continued her slow progression down the street. The closer she got to the burning house, the more familiar it looked and her stomach turned when she saw why.
“No,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper before building to a shout. “No, no, no!”
“Misha, what’s the matter? What’s going on?”
Not wanting to take the time to explain, Michelle threw open the car door and ran for the house without bothering to take her phone or bag, leaving the door open and the engine running as she did. Barricades were set up in front of her house and she ducked under them smoothly. Fire lit up every window in the house and the firemen were unrolling several large hoses. They were all shouting at one another, but there was a ringing in Michelle’s ears that muffled everything they were saying.
“Ma’am,” a police officer said, hurrying up to her. “You can’t be here. We need you to get back behind the barricades where it’s safe.”
“This is my house,” Michelle said, trying to push past him only to be stopped by a very broad fireman. “My husband and daughter are in there, I have to get to them!”
“We’re doing all we can,” the fireman said, holding her arms tightly. “You have to get back right now and let us do our job.” Shaking her head, Michelle continued to try to get around both the policeman and fireman, who were determined not to let her pass.
“Calm down, ma’am,” the officer said. “We can’t let you put yourself in danger.”
“You have to—” A sudden, sharp pain stabbed into Michelle’s abdomen and she paused to press a hand to it. A second pain caused her knees to buckle and she stumbled to the ground. The pain was constant now, aching and sharp by turns, and it felt as if something was building inside her. Michelle struggled to get to her feet and there was a stab of pain as she did, followed by the feeling of a rubber band breaking after being stretched too far.
This time the pain was too much for her, and she slid out of the fireman’s arms onto the ground. Something hot and damp was spreading from her jeans and Michelle cried out as she clutched her abdomen. She heard someone shouting for EMS but it hardly registered. She laid on the grass, tears streaming down her face as she watched her home slowly getting consumed by fire, until the paramedics converged on her and she finally passed out.
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