The Day that Changed Me
By Kali Hinkley
It was a rainy December morning. I flipped through the pages of a novel as snow fell silently through the window. Hot cocoa steamed on my bedside table, and my cat purred quietly from the windowsill. I closed my eyes as I soaked in this seemingly perfect moment. My grandmother had always told me to never take the things I had for granted. “One day it could all just be gone,” she would say. I didn’t know it yet, but this was that day. This would be the day that changed me.
My family was in town doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. I was left at home to wrap the remaining presents and bake the cookies. They wouldn’t be back until tonight, so I had plenty of time to relax. I nudged my curtain to the side and peered through the window. Flurries of snow danced through the air and landed on the frozen ground. I smiled as I remembered my youngest brother’s sloppy Christmas list with “SNOW” written at the very top. I dove back into my book as music played softly in the background.
An hour had passed, and I had finished reading. I laid back in my bed. As I took in a deep breath, I suddenly became aware of my senses. The air smelled faintly of smoke. I stood frantically and rushed to my door but stopped before I grabbed the handle. I remembered my mom teaching me that in case of a fire, always feel the doorknob for heat to know if the other side was safe. I did so, tapping the knob with my index finger. It wasn't warm, and I felt relief as I twisted the handle.
The relief was short-lived. As I opened the door, it revealed a fog-like, inky smoke that covered the living room floor. In that moment, my mind raced with every possibility. I hurried across the room to the fireplace, assuming that something had been left smoldering. I kneeled and looked in, but I found nothing but new wood ready to be lit. Dread filled me as the realization hit: My house was on fire.
I started toward the kitchen. The smell grew more powerful as I ran down the hall. It hurt to breathe, and my vision was blurred. Thick, black smoke billowed from the kitchen, and I was filled with horror at the sight. “No, no, no, no,” I said over, and over, and over again. It was the only word I could muster, the only word that I seemed to know at that moment. The heat was unbearable, but I was paralyzed with fear. My mind could not comprehend the scene in front of me. Flames ate through the kitchen cabinets and spread into the dining room. I could feel the panic rising in me; my brain screamed for me to run. I felt numb as I took in the last moments that I would ever have in my childhood home.
The fear-induced trance finally broke, and I bolted barefoot out the back door. I stumbled towards the woods, the word “no” still tumbling out my mouth. Part of me knew that I needed to find help, and the other half drove me as far away from the flames as possible. My head throbbed, and my throat was scorched. Guilt overcame me as I realized all that I had left behind: my mother’s wedding dress, hundreds of baby photos, my brother’s blanket that he slept with every night, my grandfather’s records that he had entrusted me with just a month prior. I did not think to grab a single thing. Selfish, selfish, selfish. I collapsed onto the frozen forest floor, and my entire body ached from the cold, but no amount of willpower could compel me to move.
Reality felt distant and out of my reach, and I had no awareness of the time that had passed as I laid under those trees, snow falling silently around me, still whispering that single word like it would make a difference. Time moved differently for me then, like some unseen force was protecting me from what I had just witnessed. It was a small mercy, perhaps.
It took everything in me to keep breathing, to inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale.
At some point, the sounds of crashing footfalls and muddled voices filtered through my brain. I could make out two figures running towards me… and then everything went black.
I woke the next morning to find smoldering ash where my home once stood. Every earthly possession I once had was gone. I spent the coming months healing—not only from my physical wounds—but from my mental and spiritual ones as well. I felt every emotion during that time: anger, grief, sadness. I was angry that the home I had grown up in was gone, angry that no one could have stopped the fire, and deep down, I was angry that God would let this happen to me. But, as I look back, I see the immeasurable amount of love that I received from all of those around me. I was met with so much kindness and charity from others as I began to find myself again.
Now, four years later, I think back to this day often. I had no idea that as I ran out the back door to safety that I was saying goodbye to my childhood. This experience changed me, and—in many ways—I feel that it defines me. It marks a time of serious self-reflection and personal growth in my life that molded me into the person that I am today. Without it, I wouldn’t know loss, but I also wouldn’t know the strength that came from that loss.
Kayli Hinckley is a freshman and Lincoln Memorial University. She is studying political science and plans to attend law school in the near future. She loves to take photographs, read, and write in her free time.