Story Contest 2017 #2 Results » Highly Commended Story - Flames of Regret
“Flames of Regret” by Michelle Wang, is the Highly Commended story in the senior category of the second biannual International Short Story Contest 2017 which was organized by Kids World Fun.
Flames of Regret
It was a terrible day. Terrible days were the worst for Emily. It always started with something perfect, then a terrible day would just have to ruin it all. The day before, it had been Christmas Eve. The happy memories of her large family huddled together, gazing up at the colourful fireworks lighting up the dark night sky were still vivid in Emily’s mind when she glanced back despondently at her burnt down home…
“Don’t be loud. And Cheryl, if Alicia is tired, let her sleep. It’s been a long day.” Emily’s mother retreated into her room with her father and Baby Shirley. Kylie murmured something, and snuck away into her bedroom—probably to play computer games. With everyone occupied, Emily was left to her own reserves. She grabbed her coat and crept out to the backyard where she could play in the fluffy, white snow.
Suddenly, at the corner of her eye, she spotted colourful firework cases from yesterday night’s fireworks. Curious, Emily trudged over, through the snow.
Empty, empty, empty...the wick wasn’t burnt yet, and it felt heavier than all the others. She shook it lightly, and surely, heard the powder inside.
Emily wasn’t exactly the type to look for an adventure willingly, but at that moment, she didn’t know what had come to her. It was just like every other time, when her body took control of her mind, and made her do things she didn’t mean to do. With a steady hand, she picked up the lighter thrown onto the ground carelessly by the pile of cases, and in a twitch of her fingers, a bright flame came to life.
Her hand quavered slightly, but there was no hesitation when she brought the small fire to the wick, and before she knew what she had done, a sizzling sound started to grow louder and louder...
Suddenly, Emily came to realization. The flame was so close to the case, and since Emily was never one to be smart or quick in dangerous situations, she threw the firework onto the ground without any thought.
Bang! It set off, and a second later, a huge “boom!” filled Emily’s ears as the firework hit the wall. Chunks of the wall, wood, tiles, and roof shingles shot into the air. Her arms flew up to cover her head, and she squeezed her eyes shut. When everything was silent once again, and sparks had stopped flying in all directions, Emily finally dared to take a glance.
Her eyes widened, and she stopped breathing. Everything flashed before her eyes. Emily tried to remember what had triggered her to take this action, but it felt like as if she was a whole other person.
A fire started growing from where the firework had hit, and Emily could hear shrieks and yelling from inside the house, but her legs wouldn’t budge...
The now muddy snow was coated with a thin layer of smoke and dust, scattered with miscellaneous pieces that had broken away from the house. Smoke hovered in the air, clotting up Emily’s lungs. She choked and rested a weak and dirty hand on the burnt tree limbs.
The last bits of flames died out, and the heavy smoke was slowly carried away by the biting December wind. Peeking past the tree, she made out the forms of her six sisters huddled together, leaning against the remains of their burned down house.
Emily whimpered, and Kylie tilted her head up towards the sound. Kylie’s disheveled hair framed her weary face, as sorrowful tears streamed down. She glared at Emily with what energy she had left, and turned her head away in disgust.
Emily sighed sadly, and fell to her knees. The bitter, powdery snow soaked through her pants, and burned her bruised knees. Her black hair was ashen, coated with dust and smoke. Everyone had survived the fire, except for her parents and baby Shirley. She would never forgive herself for starting it.
Looking down at the blank snow, she swirled out a picture of a firework. The case, just before it sets off. So innocent, but cunning. The beginning of its life given by a lighter.
“Come out,” Kylie rasped, the only one who had seen her. Kylie was only a grade higher than her, grade eight, her other sisters, except for Cherlyn, were all younger. Cherlyn always acted like a mother to the younger sisters.
Emily turned her head away, and ran a hand through her long, jet black hair that had come loose from her ponytail. She pulled on her large red hood, and chewed on the drawstrings, deciding whether to come out or not. Finally, with a soft sigh, she pushed herself onto her feet, and walked out of the unprotective shadow of the limp maple tree.
Emily ducked her head shamefully, and took a few cautious steps forward, coughing softly from the smoky air. Her sisters all looked up at her with empty eyes, the devastated and betrayed looks ripped Emily’s heart into pieces. A sniffle escaped from her as endless tears streamed down their pale cheeks and fell soundlessly onto the cold, cold snow. All of them wept, but none of them were really crying, holding back the pain and sorrow. But, truthfully, they had the full right to start bawling.
Emily stood beside the tree, just out of the shadow. As hard as she tried, the tears didn’t come out, the most was just a thin line of tears that damped her fluttering eyelashes. The wind sliced through her thin hoodie, and made her shiver violently.
Just then, sirens came blaring up the street, and a few seconds later, police cars, firetrucks, and ambulances appeared on the road.
It was not a surprise, for they had called minutes after the girls had escaped, and they lived at least ten minutes from the nearest station.
The trucks and cars stopped blaring and men and women wearing uniforms and protective gear scrambled out of the car. The policemen yelled at the girls, but they didn’t hear anything, and looked up at them in fright.
The firemen ran into the house, oblivious to the fact that there was no fire left, only smoke.
Policemen hurried over to the girls, and hauled them into the ambulances, where they were met by nurses and doctors.
Everything happened in a blur, the nurses rushed everywhere, checking them up, testing everything and asking the same questions over and over again to the same answer. A shake of their heads.
Soon, Emily found herself in a hospital, on a stretcher, being rolled down an empty hall.
She tried to sit up, but constraints restrained her. Groaning, she looked down at her body. She was wearing a hospital robe that felt like paper. It was baggy, and personally, she thought she looked like a light blue paper bag princess. Now, all she was missing was a flimsy crown. If only she had been brave and smart like the princess, too, then none of this would’ve happened. If only.
The silence was broken by a lady’s voice behind her, and she tilted her head up to see who it was. “Good afternoon, Emily. Are you okay? Does it hurt anywhere? Your head? Here, let me unbuckle you.” The nurse, who looked around 40, stopped, and reached forward to unbuckle the constraints.
She leaned back, and crouched down to push up the back of the stretcher, so that Emily was in a more comfortable position.
Emily was rolled down a few more hallways, passing areas where patients were sitting on chairs and waiting to be called.
Finally, she entered a private hospital room. There were two beds, one that was taken by Cherlyn and Kylie. The walls were blank white, and there was a window seat that stretched all the way across the length of the room. Beside the bed was a nightstand with a lamp, and to the right wall, a door leading to, most likely, a washroom.
The nurse helped her off the stretcher, and onto the bed, beside Cherlyn’s bed, which was in the middle.
“Your two younger sisters are in a separate room, but they are right beside you. We will be coming in to check up occasionally. In around an hour, dinner will be served. Your nurse is Cara, and if she is busy, then you will call for me. My name is Lucinda. Your sisters and you girls will see each other soon, after they all settle in. If you would like, you’re welcome to take a bath. If you need any help or assistance, please press that button,” she pointed at a red button just behind the lamp, and continued, “I’m sure you girls will be able to take care of yourselves. Now, I will be getting along. Goodbye,” she waved stiffly, and with a wry smile, backed out the room, pulling the stretcher along.
The whole time, she talked monotonously, as if she had memorized the speech, with no meaning. Her smile was fake, and everything she did seemed fake.
Once she left, the door swinging closed quietly behind her, the room silenced, and nobody looked at anyone.
Her head throbbed, and her heart ached, she could barely keep her eyes open as she slid under the safe covers. A few seconds later, her heavy eyelids fell, and she entered a shaky slumber.
“Emily! Mom’s going to go take Shirley to daycare! Cherlyn’s out, and Kylie’s at a playdate. Please watch over Alicia while I’m gone. Thanks, Emily. Bye!” Emily’s mom, Eileen, called to her.
Emily mumbled something, intently reading her new book.
“I don’t need to be taken care of! I’m nine years old!” Alicia huffed from her room that she shared with Kylie.
Eileen rolled her eyes and smiled at Emily as she passed her door, quickly walking off holding baby Shirley.
After some loud bustling, there was a soft slam of the doors, and the whole house was silent, except for the constant clicking coming from Alicia, who was playing on the computer.
The car engine started, and then rumbled off, bringing her mom and Baby Shirley away…
Emily sat up suddenly. Her head throbbed, and she slammed back down, moaning and grimacing at the pain. Her head and heart were throbbing and pounding in unison, as she squirmed around, careful not to roll off the bed. Her back was sweating, and her hands were clammy. The bedsheet and the covers were thick, but comfortable, while her hospital robe was scratchy, and sticky.
Now that there were no distractions, and no one was looking at her, tears poured out of Emily’s eyes. They were hot, and couldn’t seem to fall out fast enough. Sighing, she looked back at Cherlyn. She slumbered peacefully, a small snore escaping from her.
Emily stopped, and felt herself shrinking, withering. If Cherlyn woke up, what would she do? She knew she was fully responsible. Now that she thought about it, would it go on her criminal record when she grew up?
Shaking her head, she sighed and shuffled to the window seat, with her face tilted toward the giant window, gazing at the buildings far, far away. They were at least 20 stories high, because she knew these private rooms were on the highest floors.
She knew the private rooms were expensive, so, who was going to pay for them? The government? Her only aunt and uncle? Or her grandparents. With an exasperated sigh, she splayed her hands out onto the cool glass, humming to herself softly.
Just then, the door swung open, stopping just before it hit the wall. She heard someone suck in a breath, before wheeling a cart in.
Emily sat up, and looked at the door. It was a young nurse, who looked in her 20s. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, like every other nurse, and she wore a white penny-skirt with a white suit.
The lady smiled kindly, and pulled in the cart loaded with food, keeping the door open with her foot. “Good evening, Emily, I’m Cara, your primary nurse. How was your sleep? Do you want to wash up? I’ve got dinner ready,” she smiled again, and whisked off the lids of the platters of food.
There were 6 platters of food, each with a specific amount of food. There was a bowl of oatmeal, a box of milk, a bun with cream, and a butter muffin. In the middle of the bottom shelf was a container of salad covered in caesar sauce.
Emily’s mouth watered as she stood up, and walked to the bathroom. Amid all this chaos, Emily hadn’t noticed how hungry she was. Now that Cara had brought up food, she suddenly started to feel gnawing at the pit of her stomach.
The food was delicious and warm, filling up her empty stomach as she shoved down the oatmeal, biting, and sipping on the milk. She wiped her lips, and turned her head to look out the window.
Cara had left the room, leaving two plates of food, and a bit of salad on the window seat. Emily scraped off the last bit of Oatmeal from the bowl, and stuffing the last bite of the bun into her mouth, she gulped it all down with her milk.
She pushed away some of the pillows to create space to put down her plate, and grabbing her muffin, she turned around to stare out the window.
Each bite made her more depressed, each bite made her more anxious and guilty. Finally, she set the half of her muffin on the plate, and knocked her head on the glass. She stood up, and knocked her knees against the edge of the window seat, nervously chewing on her lip, while fiddling with her fingers.
She hurt a grunt and yawn, as Cherlyn woke up, stretching out her arms.
Emily spun around, ready to defend herself for whatever words Cherlyn wanted to throw at her.
She said nothing. Shuffling into the slippers, she sat still on the bed, staring out the window with her shoulders slumped.
Finally, Cherlyn sighed and stood up, still staring out the window, she murmured, “I won’t blame you, but I can’t not blame you either,” she straightened her back, and glanced at Emily. “You are my sister. We will help each other, and lean on each other in our new life. I can’t say our new life is started by you, but still, I can’t say it’s not. Either way, I’m sure you feel guilty enough right now,” she sighed again, and flicked her bangs over her shoulder.
“I-I’m extremely sorry,” Emily stammered, speechless and nervous. “I really am. I would never have meant to do that. And, honestly, I can just leave, you know...leave this family. It’s what I deserve.” She ducked her head, and swallowed hard, words shooting out of her mouth unwillingly.
Cherlyn bit her lip and walked forward, leaning against the window seat, a meter away from Emily. “We’re all distraught. All of us. But you’ve also got the guilt, the shame, and the regret pressing down on your shoulders. There’s no point in putting more weight, if you’ve already learned your lesson. Emily, you’re a good person, and there’s no point in ruining your reputation now. Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone deserves a second chance. Still, it’s not the second chance that everyone’s missing, it’s how they use it. You’re a part of our family, and I’m giving you your second chance. You can’t just leave now.”