You haven’t smelled anything until you get a good whiff of your life going up in smoke.
There’s a lot of poison tucked neatly away in our homes that we never think of. When a fire rips through, this poison simmers and waits for an ankle to wrap around. Insulation stands naked against the air. Cleaning products beneath the sink explode from the heat. A ceiling fan shrivels into the shape of a dead daisy.
You know it’s a cocktail of horrible, breathable chemical concoctions, but beneath the two feet of ash are treasures. When you’ve lost mostly everything, you go after what remains with a knife between your teeth. Nothing will stop you. You are brave, you are sure, you are Louis and Clark and this is your expedition. You lived in this house, for Christ’s sakes. It’s yours. No warnings will dissuade you from looting its body. You walk through what used to be a door in athletic shoes that will never be white again. And the smell hits you full-force. It’s nothing like the pleasant, wild scent of a campfire. Nor is it like the scent you get when you burn trash outside and drink beer with the neighbors while you watch the blaze go down. It’s this angry snake that coils around your sinuses and presses tight until your eyes feel too big for your skull. You get a headache at once. You ignore it, because you found a coaster (a coaster! how wonderful!) and you wash it off at the spigot next to the house and place it on the pile of belongings that made it.
You go back into the wreckage of the house twenty, thirty times. Sometimes you carry out objects of value – an unbroken Tiffany lamp. A box of Christmas ornaments. Sometimes you just walk to the hose to rinse yourself off, because your skin is burning and that headache isn’t going away anytime soon.
The smell lives in your clothes and hair. When you finally shower at a neighbor’s house after 14 hours of plucking things from the debris, your skin is speckled with strange rashes. Small wounds you don’t remember getting dot your arms and collarbone like star constellations. You take four Advil, Extra Strength, and your bones sink into the bed. Your last conscious thought is: I got out I got out I got out because each time you went inside that house, you wondered what would entomb you.
When you dream, you smell smoke.
You smell smoke every night for months.