July-August 2020 | Short Stories & Essays

Into the flames

2020 Short Story & Essay Contest: First Place, High School Essay Contest

share this

It was Teepee Day, a day of fun for fourth graders to explore history and culture. I looked at the clock eager for dismissal. That’s when I first heard the sirens. Smoke filled the gym, the teachers closed the doors and told us not to fret, reassuring us that there was a building on fire far from the school and that no one had to worry. Little did I know how the sounds of those echoing sirens would signal a change in my life forever.

At dismissal, my mother was there to pick me up. That was something unusual. She hugged me tightly and told me she had some bad news. She spoke in a soft tone and told me my neighbor’s apartment had caught on fire. She was holding back, but I didn’t know this at the time. With my mom following close behind, I continued to walk home with my friends, laughing without a care in the world. This laughter was stopped by the sounds of wailing sirens and loud helicopter whirring. My street was blocked off with caution tape, crowded with news vans, crowding reporters and flashes of red and blue. I ran into the parking lot, frantically searching for my father. The Red Cross team approached me, asking all sorts of questions, one being if I was OK, and I lied. I wasn’t. I was terrified. I was in shock at the sight of what was once my home, covered in ash and shattered glass. My childhood had gone up in flames.

I remember everything about that day, but I block out the immediate aftermath. My family and I were on the streets. We lost everything. I was sent to my aunt’s apartment for a “temporary” stay, but two days turned into three years. For those three long years, I slept in my aunt’s living room on an air mattress I uncomfortably shared with my mother. Word caught on at school and the staff took pity on me. I envied the kids with their luxuries, their eagerness after the dismissal bell to go home to their warm beds. I just wanted to be a normal kid again.

As the years passed, I slipped into isolation. When I got to high school, my cycle of setting myself up for failure seemed unbreakable. My mind was always somewhere else, always worrying about things that weren’t in my control. While my friends spoke of Ivy League schools and boasted of their grades, I had fallen behind. Though the memories of this tragedy overpowered my mental health, I found the will to overcome my own self-doubt. Because of this I am confident I can overcome any difficulties I may face in the future. I am no longer the weak little girl that allowed the flames to consume her future. I am no longer haunted by my past, but determined to build a better future and clear the smoke from my path.

Natalie Marti

Lives in: Silver Spring

Age: 18

School: Graduated in June from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Favorite place to write: “I love writing poetry in my free time. I’m a musician as well, so I like writing in places that give me sanctuary and peace, like riversides and creeks—there’s just a comforting feeling of being in nature alone.”

How she got the idea for this essay: “This was the event that triggered my anxiety and left me riddled with worry and pain. There is so much more and so much of a psychological toll that this event took on me that no one knows about. Being barely 10 years old and witnessing something like this crushed me, and my living situation after it kept me on edge for years. It’s a true story, but most people don’t even know the half of it.”