Where There’s Smoke

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Neighborhood triathlon I volunteered at this weekend: 1 (so fun!)

Number of smoke detectors in our home: 6

9-volt batteries we usually have on-hand: 0

The people who install smoke detectors have a twisted sense of humor.

1:30 a.m. A shrill beep pierces the silence of our home.

1:31 a.m. I feel my husband lying awake but motionless beside me. We have an unspoken resolve that if we don’t make it mad, the smoke detector will leave us alone.

1:45 a.m. We are still awake. Our hearts are beating faster as if the smoke detector is not only a warning that the battery is low but a threat of imminent disaster.

1:52 a.m. Nothing. There are no more piercing beeps.

1:54 a.m. “Which one do you think it is?” I ask, eyeing the hallway.

“How should I know?”

Neither one of us wants to bring up the obvious: the next step is standing on a chair underneath each one of the detectors wearing not very many clothes, trying to detect which one is making the offensive sound. Only homeowners with dog-sensitive ears can distinguish the near hallway detector from the master bedroom or the master bedroom from the guest bedroom detector.

1:57 a.m. “Is it safe to go back to sleep?” I whisper. I wonder if I can turn over without the detector sensing my movement (because it has paranormal powers) and setting off the ear-piercing alarm that could probably alert our fire department three miles away without a 9-1-1 call.

My husband grumbles and rolls over. “It can tell when you’ve gone back to sleep. It knows.”

Back when I was nine years old, the house burning down was my worst nightmare. Firemen came out to the school and gave us lectures about all the ways we could prevent a horrible, fiery death.

I carried the propaganda home to my parents and sat at the kitchen table with them, Family Meeting Style. Only… we didn’t have Family Meetings. I think my parents were allergic.

“So. We need to buy a rope ladder for my bedroom and maybe one for yours, too,” I said, whipping out a stick figure diagram of a person escaping a burning building by handily scooting down a ladder.

“Mmmm-hmmm. No. I’m not buying a rope ladder,” my mom said, as she got up and started chopping vegetables for dinner.

My dad sipped some ice water and looked out the kitchen window.

Clearly, my parents had not figured out how destructive, even deathly, a force that fire could be. They had only survived to this point in life by luck and a double-check system for making sure the iron, stove and curling iron were turned off… as if that were enough.

“I think we should put a rope ladder on our list to buy. Also: we need a First Aid bag, packed and ready to go. I can keep that in my room.” I flipped the brochure over and made some official-looking check marks.

“How about this,” my mom said. “If there’s a fire, just make some knots with the sheets and fling them out your window.”

I looked at her in horror. “Have you seen my window? Have you seen the hill that topples right down into the creek?” I imagined how I would have to rescue my sister and evacuate her out my window, using my own body on the ground as a sort of pillow to soften her fall.

I looked at my skinny bones. I wasn’t going to make much of a pillow.

In the present day, we have six smoke detectors in our house, the majority of them upstairs. What the Installers of Smoke Detectors think goes on in our bedrooms is clearly quite colorful.

We slept that particular night. The errant beep was forgotten, and we went about our daily lives without fear.

But the next evening, we were sending the kids upstairs to brush their teeth.

Beeeeep. Beeeep.

We turned to each other, the memory of the previous night coming back in a flash.

And we scrambled into the kitchen to check the supply of 9-volt batteries.

One left.

We kissed it, and my husband trudged upstairs to begin the discovery process. Chair. Battery. Beep. New position.

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