‘How Not to Die in a Fire’ by Pamela Hensley

Marguerite had always feared dying in a fire. For years she’d lived in a luxury retirement residence with security cameras and 24-hour attendants, but she still worried that if the place caught fire, she’d never get out alive. The attendants would forget about her, or be overwhelmed trying to help other residents, or they’d run out to save themselves instead.

It had happened before. It had happened in L’Isle-Verte where all those elderly people were trapped in that nursing home, and either choked to death on toxic fumes, or suffered the agony of watching their flesh melt like candle wax from their bones.

Marguerite complained to her sons about this. She told the young caregiver at the reception desk. She told the doctor who gave her a flu shot in November. But everyone ignored her or placated her. She was just an old woman, not quite right in the head.

One night in February, the fire alarm went off. Marguerite’s weak heart beat like a snared rabbit’s and her arthritic hands began to shake. Gripping the rails at the side of her bed, she managed to get up and dress in her robe and slippers unassisted. She was the first to make it to the designated gathering place and to wait beneath the exit sign.

Lord have mercy. She prayed as she stood there waiting. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, please don’t let me die this way. Amen. The fire alarm kept ringing but no one else came. What’s the matter with them? They will die in their beds. They will die in the worst possible way. She looked down the hall, then around the corner, and then let herself out of the building.

“I will not burn to death,” she said out loud as the metal door slammed shut behind her.

It was -28°C outside the residence. Snow and sleet hit her cheeks and forehead. As the wind blew through her periwinkle robe, her jaw began to shiver so violently that the filling from one of her remaining teeth flew out like spittle from her mouth. Above, the sky was black as ash and empty as a graveyard. She looked up, and her eyes rolled back into her head before she fainted on the slab of ice below.

Marguerite lived to be ninety-three years old.


PAMELA HENSLEY is a Montreal writer. Her stories have appeared literary journals including EVENT magazine and The Dalhousie Review. Last October she was a finalist in the Bristol Short Story Prize in the UK and was published in their anthology. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Copyright © 2019 by Pamela Hensley. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.