The best home safety fire escape ladder, it says on the back of the box, is portable and easy to maneuver.

The box is surprisingly light with a lid designed for easy flipping. On the front is a picture of a little boy in blue-and-white rocket pajamas, descending a nylon ladder from a fully engulfed window. The boy looks frightened, yes, but determined. Not safe, exactly, but nearly there. He is looking down at the ground where someone is waiting for him.

Cherise tucks the box beneath the bottom bunk and imagines heat-crackled paint and smoke thick like an elephant’s skin. She’s memorized the words on the back of the box. She repeats them to herself through out the day like a prayer.

The First Responder ladder has a clean, simple design. Store it beneath the bed for rapid deployment.

Their old house was big and brick but this new one is tiny, built with the sticks and leaves the kids track in from the yard. Cherise hasn’t even hung curtains in her own bedroom yet. Before they moved in, though, she made sure the girls’ room was decorated in bright colors with sunny polyester voile curtains. On sale, buy-two-get-one free at the discount store.

Why are curtains so expensive?

Be familiar with how to hook the ladder to your window. Follow all the manufacturer’s instructions.

Cherise tries not to show it but she is afraid of the new house. She is frightened that, eventually, the primary exits will be blocked by fire, by earthquake, by some unspecified disaster.

She has not always been this skittish. For mothers, fear is a developing instinct.

He was always the one who changed the batteries in the smoke detectors. He bought the ladders. He whispered in her ear, “Your eyes evolved to the front of your face, Cherise, so you can see into the horizon. So you can see danger coming.”

He put antifreeze in her car engine.

He greased the joints.

He laid beside her in bed and jumped up at every nail pop, ready to defend.

“I love you, Cherise. I don’t know what I’d do if you ever left me.”

Open and place the attachment hooks over the windowsill and pull the release strap to free the ladder.

Every night, after the girls go to bed, she holds her breath. As she falls asleep, her skin turns blue. Lungs become unsure of their function. Smoke fills her mouth, the hallways, everywhere. The elephant is already loose in the house, lumbering up the stairway, eating wallpaper like foliage.

It happens every night. Everything goes up in flames so quickly.

Cherise runs for the girls’ room, slapping her hip off the door jamb. She stands in their doorway and watches them in their blue-and-white rocket pajamas as little fingers work together to open the window. They attach the ladder’s hook. Pull the release strap. Drop the ladder.

“You don’t need to do every little goddamn thing for them, Cherise,” he told her.

He used to wake the girls up so early for Saturday morning drills, screaming, “Fire! Fire!”

“Too slow!” he yelled. “You’re already dead! Try again!”

Now, every night, Cherise laughs, delighted, as her girls unfurl their polyester voile wings and jump. Not safe, exactly, but nearly there.

The fire spreads and eats the curtains. It moves and take the beds. Then, it shifts in the natural breaths of the house, the structural inhales and exhales, until it catches on the old rocking chair in the corner.

She walks back to her empty bedroom. It does not smell like him. She stands still in the moonlight from the naked windows as the heat rages around her. When she looked out at the horizon, she did not see him. She did not see disaster. But, she never does. Her senses are still evolving.

“That is not how disasters operate,” he told her like she was unthinking and dull. “It won’t be the fire that gets you. It’s the smoke.”

She admits it now. She is ill-prepared – there is no ladder beneath her own bed but there is a ladder beneath her children’s. What does it matter? The world is sick of stories about mothers. She doesn’t even know yet from which window she’ll jump.

Brianne M. Kohl’s writing has been featured in Catapult, The Masters Review and The Bohemyth. Along with a novel in-perpetual progress. She also writes tips articles and editor/author interviews at The Review Review. To see a full list of her publications and awards, visit her at www.briannekohl.com. Follow her at twitter.com/BrianneKohl.

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