I Want You to Panic

‘When you’re asleep, you lose your sense of smell,’ the firefighter explained. ‘That’s why smoke alarms are important; without them, you won’t smell the smoke. If you don’t smell the smoke, you’ll feel the fire. Girls and boys, if that fire creeps up on you, you’ll be dead. Too late, game over. When you hear that smoke alarm beep-beep-beepin’ – girl, you’d better sit up and take notice before it’s too late. You gotta wake up. Do you hear me girl? You better wake the hell up.’

‘Anna! WAKE. UP.’

Anna sat bolt upright in bed, her eyes flying open and her heart pounding in her chest. For a moment she felt between worlds. She was in her bedroom but the warning from the firefighter in her dream still rang in her ears.


Her father stood at her bedroom door, his hands on his hips.

‘Are you getting up? You have school in an hour, if you want to get a lift with me you need to get your ass into gear. I’ve got a meeting at the office at 9am, I can’t be late.’ He looked overwrought, his business shirt buttoned crookedly. Anna nodded and swung her legs off the bed, her toes running along the floorboards trying to find a rogue left slipper.

‘Did you burn the toast again?’ Anna sniffed, but her father had already disappeared. Anna stood up and stretched, shuffled towards her door. She sniffed again.

That smells like smoke, she frowned. She poked her head out of the doorway and into the hall.

Yep, definitely smoke.

She walked down the hall following the smell, towards the study.

Warmer… warmer…

The door to the study was closed. Anna reached out to open it, and instantly recoiled when her hand touched the metal handle. Heat screamed through her fingertips.

Hot! Very hot!

Anna looked down. A thick, fat cloud of smoke escaped the bottom of the door and started to curl and creep across the carpet of the hallway.

Fire. The house is on fire.

Anna ran to the kitchen.

‘Nice of you to join us, sleepyhead,’ her mother smiled. ‘Do you want breakfast?’ She turned back to the hot plates, cracking a fresh egg into a pan already sizzling with bacon.

‘Mum, the house is on fire – it’s in the study. We need to get out of here!’ Anna started to unbuckle her baby brother from his high seat, much to his annoyance. He tried to hit her with a piece of soggy toast.

‘What?’ her mother turned, spatula in hand. She waved it at Anna dismissively. ‘Don’t be ridiculous – put your brother down, sit down and eat some breakfast.’

‘Are you kidding mum? The house is on FIRE. I saw the smoke. The door handle –’

 ‘Anna, I don’t have time for this. I’ve got to cook breakfast, get dressed and get Jamie to kindy in an hour, or I’ll be late for work.’ She returned to the sizzling pan. End of conversation.

Anna set her jaw, breathed out sharply through her nose. This is ridiculous, she thought. Still holding Jamie, who was happily mashing his toast into her shoulder, Anna ran to her parent’s bedroom. Her father was putting on his tie in front of the full-length mirror. He’d fixed his shirt.

‘Dad – the house is on fire, we need to leave. Mum won’t believe me.’

Her father raised his eyebrow at her through the mirror.

‘Sweetie, I know it’s Monday. You don’t want to go to school and all that, I get it.’ He frowned, momentarily forgetting if he had to loop his tie over or under. ‘But making up stories about the house being on fire – well, that’s a new one. Ahh – over then under.’ He chuckled at his own forgetfulness.

Anna stared at her father in disbelief.

‘You think this is a joke? Come and see – the fire is in the study. The handle on the door was hot, and I saw the smoke. I smelt it. Dad, look at my fingertips!’ She held her free hand up, revealing the small blisters that were beginning to form.

‘Now how did you do that to yourself? You should probably run that under some cold water.’ Her father held her hand, inspecting it closely.

‘Not now dad! Why aren’t you listening?’

‘I am listening Anna, and I’m telling you to stop being such a drama queen.’ His voice rose.

‘Dad –’

‘Enough Anna!’

He was yelling now. Jamie dropped the last remaining wet crumbs of toast on the floor, stuck out his bottom lip and began to cry.

‘Look what you’ve done, you’ve upset Jamie.’ He pulled the toddler from Anna’s arms, cooed and fussed over the boy until the cries became soft hiccups. ‘You can’t come in here, ranting and raving about bloody imaginary fires, causing all this needless anxiety. Your little brother is only a baby, he doesn’t need to worry about a fire.’ Anna’s father squatted down and picked the bigger toast crumbs out of the carpet. Jamie clung to his father tightly and rubbed his cheek against his shirt, yawning.

Anna’s head spun. What the hell is happening here? I saw the smoke, I felt the heat. Am I imagining this? She raced out of the room, and back into the hallway towards the study. Flames now licked up the doorway, the carpet in front of the door scorched. She felt the heat blanket her. She heard the fire splinter and crackle. Smoke filled the hallway.

This is real. I know this is real.

‘C’mon Mum! Dad – please – come and look!’ she begged.

No one came. From behind the burning study door, Anna could hear the flames eating through the books on the shelves. She heard a pop of glass shattering under the intense heat, maybe the computer monitor? A plasticky smell followed, and she imagined the keys on the computer’s keyboard melting to a thick goo. A low groan, and a crash as the desk collapsed, the flames swallowing it whole. The fire roared now.

I’ve got to call 000.

Anna ran to her room, grabbed her phone and dialled emergency services.

‘Police, fire or ambulance?’ the operator answered in a dull monotone voice.

‘Fire – my house is on fire!’ Anna coughed. A rolling cloud of dark grey smoke began to spread across her bedroom floor.

‘Miss, who’s putting you up to this?’

‘Excuse me? My house is on fire, I – I need the fire department. My name is Anna. I live at two-eight Malizia –’

‘Anna, I don’t know what your game is, but you need to calm down.’ The operator snarled. ‘Where are your parents? Are they putting you up to this? Why aren’t you at school?’

Bewildered, Anna started to cry.

‘No – please,’ she gasped between sobs. ‘Listen to me!’

‘Listen to you?!’ the Operator screeched. ‘Are you mentally ill? Are you one of those Asperger kids?’ They spat the word out like it was poison.

‘That Adam Lanzer kid had Asperger’s too, and he shot up a school! Do you feel the need to do the same, Anna?’

There was a click, and the line went dead.

No-one believes me.

Anna sat on the edge of her bed, numb. Smoke circled her ankles, up her legs. From the kitchen, Anna could hear her mother and father talking about the weather.

This can’t be happening.

Anna stood and ran out into the hall. The door to the study had burned through, and the flames were licking across the hallway ceiling. Anna glanced up to see the smoke alarm on the ceiling. Batteries long dead, it had melted into a twisted lump, like one of those clocks in a Dali painting she had seen in art class. She ran to the kitchen.

‘Mum. Dad. I need you to listen.’

Anna’s parents looked up at her from the breakfast table. Jamie blew bubbles into his sippy cup, banged it on the side of his high chair. Rivers of smoke snaked through the kitchen, between their legs.

‘Mum, dad – I need you to come outside with me. All of you, including Jamie.’ She ignored their raised eyebrows and continued. ‘Please, just trust me. I need you to see this.’

Her parents exchanged dubious looks, but her father spoke.

‘Fine’ he sighed. ‘Anna, if this will get you to stop carrying on like you have all morning, let’s go.’

Anna’s mother hoisted a grumbling Jamie out of the high chair and followed Anna and her father to the front door. Once outside, Anna made them turn around and face the house. Thick smoke billowed from the windows. Flames leapt up the walls. The heat was oppressive, even from the street. Anna took a deep breath.

‘I want you to act as if the house was on fire.’

Her parents stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the house. Jamie coughed and sneezed from the smoke. Anna continued, never looking away from her parents.

‘Because it is.’

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