Friday, October 15, 2010

A Fire and a Checklist

We were on our way to visit my parents for the first time.  We were a new family.  Life is funny, how things can change so quickly.  I had been devastated just weeks before when my wife of 3 months died.  We had found out she was pregnant just a few days before.
Then I ran into an old friend whose new husband had also died recently.  They'd been married for just 2 years and they had a new baby.  Now she just had a baby.  She and I found support in one another, and lately, I'd say we've been pretty happy together.  My parents wanted to meet Celli and baby Emily, so we decided to make a road trip out of it.
About halfway to my parents house, we had to find a place to stay the night.  The fog was so thick that visibility was next to nothing.  We found a tall, skinny, local hotel, and went inside.  The lobby was futuristic completely automated, which was a nice surprise.  I had half expected Norman Bates to greet us coming in from such foreboding weather.  We got room keys and went on up to the room listed on the keycards.
The night was uneventful, apart from one disconcerting detail.  A camera was mounted near the ceiling on the wall.  Sometimes it seemed to motion sensitive, but often it would stop and stare at Celli and Emily.
In the morning, I was startled to find a checklist on the nightstand:
Wife and Baby
Money to the poor
I had no idea where it came from or what it could mean.  I stepped out of the room and caught a heavy guy, balding and bearded, coming up the stairs with a pitcher of coffee and quizzically showed it to him.
"Oh, yeah, Clark," he told me, "You stayed in the checkered curtain room last night.  The fire's got an eye in that room.  I'm sure you noticed the camera.  It's a little game that the fire plays.  It chooses a prize, in this case 'wife and baby', and it gives you a chance to complete the checklist before it takes them from you."
At the time, I barely noticed that the stranger inexplicably knew my name.  I turned around, startled, to see Celli and Emily going back into the room.
"When did you get up?"
"Just after you did," she replied.  "I went ahead and loaded the car.  The fog seems to have lifted some.  We should be able to get out of here soon."
Nervously I showed her the list and told her what the strange man had told me.  She paled.  We had each lost a spouse to a fire recently, so the threat really hit home.  I looked at the list again.
Wife and Baby
Money to the poor
I was shocked to see two of the items checked off and scratched out.  I didn't even have anything to write with.
"In the parking garage," Celli blankly told me, "I dropped a dime.  A man picked it up.  I was sure I'd seem him before, but I couldn't place him.  He's a panhandler from back home.  I told him to keep it.  He smiled and thanked me."
"Apparently that counts as money to the poor.  You may have just saved your own life back there.  Let's go find this fire."
Hesitantly she followed me down the stairs, where we ran into the balding man again.
"There's an old bowling alley in this building that you folks might be interested in seeing," he said, winking at me and glancing at the checklist, smiling.
We hurried along.  Around the third floor, we heard the sound of rolling bowling balls.  We followed the noise and ended up at a dead end wall.  A scrawny boy with a large nose and larger head popped raced around from behind us and opened a door in the wall with a keycard.  We slipped in behind him and found ourselves in an enormous and surreal bowling alley.  There were only two lanes, but each lane was about thirty times the size of a typical lane.  Between the lanes was a fireplace with a fire about to burn out inside, and with firewood in a pile nearby.
I raced over to the fireplace, threw some wood inside, and glanced back nervously at Celli.  She looked up from the checklist, smiled and gave me a thumbs up.  We ran from the bowling alley, down the stairs, out the door, got in our car, and drove away in the still-dangerous-fog, relieved to have survived the morning.
About an hour into our drive, on the radio, "Breaking news: a historic local hotel has burned down, reportedly killing a woman and her unborn child."