House on Fire

by Ginger wRong Chen

The fire alarm went off at 2:13 in the morning. In five minutes, peopleʼs attitudes shifted from “What the hell is that noise?” to “Is this real?” to, finally, “Run, there is no time!”

They rushed out of the building, in pajamas, bathrobes, sheets, unmatched shoes, crumpled pants worn overnight, dresses that had been put on only a few hours before yet already smelling of blended perfume, cologne, cigarette butts and over-fermented alcohol. They ran with terrified eyes, trembling shouting, and hysterical crying.

Standing at the edge of the roof, with eight floors beneath him, Cheung looked down at the gathering crowd. He was startled to see humans as one species of this planet standing so close to each other. It seemed unnatural.

By the pool where the last fish died 29 days ago, Mr. Wang wrapped Mrs. Wang in his arms, stroking her hair with all his tenderness, comforting her “we are safe now, we are safe now”. Are they really the couple who live next to my door; the ones programmed to fight from 8:11 to 12:12pm every night?

For a moment, Cheung was so confused that he thought there might be two pairs of Mr. and Mrs. Wangs living in his building. The Mr. Wang he knew says things like “Canʼt you see, weʼre dying here?” and his Mrs. Wang yells, “You think I want to live like this?”

To Mr. and Mrs. Wangʼs right, sitting on a stone stool, was the grumpy old lady who curses everyone walking past her door, “Damn all of you! One day you will all grow old too. One day! ” Who is she holding? Cheung squinted. Is that the ʻnoisy monsterʼ she refers to? The five-month-old baby living across from her door was bundled up in her worn 70ʼs military coat. “She hangs that coat outside the window every sunny winter day Cheung thought to himself, which makes it around 45 coat-hangings a year.

Tonight, everything seems…Cheung searched for the right word in his head …unfamiliar.

He heard yelling.

“Donʼt jump, Cheung! Don’t do it!”

He heard his name. it must be a hallucination. ʻCheungʼ? Who would know my name in this building?…He was almost amused. Yet he couldnʼt help looking over in the direction of the hallucinated sound. He saw a young girl in blue bathrobe. Her hair was drawn back in a ponytail, not as tight as normally he would see on her, but it certainly was a ponytail. He knew this girl in a sense he recognized her face. She lives in apartment 8D, right above me. By the sound delivered through the ceiling, he could tell when she was home, when she went to bed, when she was sleeplessly strolling from kitchen to balcony, when she was moving the furniture around, and when she had a visitor. He liked her ponytail. It goes well with her oval-shaped face. There were times, he really wanted to talk to her, but there was no chance. For three years, he just couldnʼt find the right time to talk to this pretty girl living right above him. But he knew her name was Yu. He got to know it because he had peeked into 8Dʼs mail-box. Though there was no mail in it, he saw the bills addressed to her. He felt himself quite clever for coming up with this peeking trick.

But still, it would be much nicer if Iʼd have got the name from her in person. There had been a pity in his way of name-sneaking.

“Itʼs eight floors! Donʼt jump, you won’t make it! ” Yu cupped her hands around her mouth. “Take the stairs to your left. You still have time. Run Cheung! Run!”

At that moment, Cheung started  to feel the heat coming up to him from Apartment 7D. Is my house on fire? What did I forget? Did I not put out the flame after I burned all my personal belongings in the bathtub? Maybe a spark jumped out, landing on the old magazines by the toilet? Maybe the stove? Was I so absorbed with preparing for this suicide that I forgot to check the gas tonight?  Was that…”


The explosion hit like a bomb. From where he stood it was just a dull thud. Strange.

Cheung was thrown from the roof by the shock wave.

He was falling. He could see fear on the faces of the people on the ground. Tonight, it is fear that makes people stand together.


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