I tend to keep things light and hilarious on this little creative corner of mine, but sometimes I think it’s really important to sometimes step back and really reevaluate life.
For me, this happened On May 2, 2015, one day before my first wedding anniversary.
I was finishing up a shift at work, a long double shift I had already put nearly 12 hours into, and was standing outside with two of my friends, talking about how much we hated our jobs while I watched them burn a pair of cigarettes; a much deserved treat for my great co-workers. One of the girls came outside with a hurried expression on her face.
“Dan, someone’s on line one for you, it sounds like they’re crying,” she said.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the message you want to be greeted with as you are finishing up a long shift and looking forward to some down time at home. My mind, obviously, raced. I knew Haley’s parents had been visiting and had just left, so my first thought was a car accident. But it was nearly 9:30 on a Saturday night, and my brother is a bit of a social animal when it comes to the bar scene, so my mind thought of him. I thought of Haley, my parents, her parents, my cats, even my friends. My legs burned as I jogged to the phone.
As I answered the call, a heavy-breathing Haley informed me my apartment building was on fire, she had escaped with one of my cats, Ace, but Pearl, the younger cat, was lost. I screeched out of the parking lot and flew home as several firetrucks passed me on my route home. I nearly kept pace, the smell of burning rubber hitting my face as I trailed the flashing lights.
I arrived to a chaotic scene of hundreds of displaced residents and frantic emergency responders. I found Haley. Her face was covered in soot. She needed to get the hospital.
I ran around the building, seeing flames burning a unit on the fourth floor. I know the man who lived there. A little slow, but typically unassuming and gentle. On a balcony next to the unit, a hysterical older woman pleaded for firefighters to rescue her. I could feel the flames coming from the building. The smell of ozone burned my lungs.
I informed a firefighter one of my cats was still trapped in the building, only two doors down from the source of the blaze. He told me he would do what he could. I felt selfish asking, as I saw dozens of residents covered in black, coughing, and crying.
Haley needed to get the hospital. She had exited the building through the same floor the fire started, fighting a corridor of heavy smoke. She blamed herself for allowing Pearl to escape. She’s a hero for saving even one of our cats.
I flew to the hospital, not worried about repercussions of a speeding ticket considering every officer in a 10 mile radius had been dispatched to the fire. We arrived at the hospital, got her hooked up to some machines, and she was good as new. Thank god.
As the reality of Pearl being lost began to set in, I was thankful Haley was totally fine, but I began to ponder what happened next. The news wasn’t keeping us updated, with details sparse and even loss coverage. I was assuming the flame had been extinguished, and there were no injuries reported. It could’ve been a lot worse. It was 1 a.m. when we left the hospital.
I returned to the scene, where I talked with firefighters and police, seeking details and asking about Pearl. I could see into my fourth floor apartment from the parking lot, only slightly, but enough to see the white in my apartment.
I assumed the fire would be within the realm of control, but I feared smoke damage would have ruined what was left of my personal belongings. My computer, containing nearly every aspect of my life, was still in the unit, as was my television, guitars, clothes, and Playstation. None of it matter. I prayed for Pearl to be safe. I didn’t care if I lost everything else, I just wanted to find her.
Haley and I checked into a hotel around 3 a.m. Some cruddy extended stay hotel where I assume the transients and drug dealers dwell. The guy at the front desk couldn’t be nicer. He was the first sign of things starting to turn.
Ace had been locked in a pet taxi for nearly six hours by now. The poor guy hadn’t eaten, pooped, or had any water in longer. We tried to calm him down, a gesture he quickly acknowledged with a purr and soft meow.
Around 3:30 a.m., I drove back to the building. Emergency crews had mostly dispersed and the only ones on hand were the Red Cross and a couple of crews helping people. I must’ve looked exhausted. I sheepishly asked several firefighters if they had found a small black cat with a purple collar. Nothing. I was, however, admitted to my room to access the damage. As I arrived at my hallway, black soot and smoked had stained nearly all the walls in a dark, dusty black. I was already expecting the worst as I unlocked my door, only to find, surprising, everything reasonably intact. There was a fine layer of soot on everything, but the television was still on, the lights were on, and everything was running.
I searched for Pearl, the firefighter who accompanied me to the room joined the search as well. No luck. I grabbed some clothes, my laptop, Haley’s phone, some medicine, and some toiletries. I took one last look for Pearl as I shut the door on my dark, smoky apartment
I went to bed around 5 a.m. I woke around 8, laying in bed just staring at the ceiling, the reality of Pearl being gone forever started to set in. I’ve remembered shows like “The First 48” which make it clear the odds of finding a human after two days is nearly impossible; what chance would a cat have? My vet’s office has a reminder that 75% of lost animals without a collar name-tag stay lost forever. Before too long, my phone read 11 a.m.
We dressed and headed back to the apartment to get a better look at the damage in the daylight. We had called the apartment’s office to see if they found a small black cat with a purple collar. Nothing.
The building, just 12 hours earlier bustling with 20 fire departments worth of uniformed firefighter, was now an eerily silent ghost town. Few residents wandered around the building in a daze. Cleaning trucks were parked in the spots, beginning to correct the damage from the burn the night before.
I entered the building and climbed the two flights of stairs to my floor. Still just as lack as I remember. Broken glass covered the floor from a fire extinguisher. I checked the laundry room for Pearl, praying she survived. Nothing.
As I entered the room, I noticed it looked nearly exactly the same in the light as I’d left it just over 24 hours earlier. The smell was bad, but the window to my balcony was open. I walked out and peeked over the edge. As I headed back inside, Haley and I were about to set up her computer to print fliers of Pearl, so hopefully anyone who found her would give us a call. It was a desperate, last-ditch effort.
I entered our bedroom to check under the bed (her favorite spot) to see if she was hiding. Nope. I grabbed my gym bag and began to solemnly fill it with clothes and toiletries I missed from the night before. I tossed my sunglasses onto our unmade bed.
I heard a faint jingle.
I stopped for a minute, frozen in silence, hoping to hear the noise again. I looked at the bed where my glasses had fallen. A big lump at the bottom left behind from the pillow Haley keep under her back at night. I rested my hand on the pillow.
And the pillow moved.
My head began to burn. I ripped the comforter and sheets off the bed where I found a tiny, big-eyed black cat with a purple collar.
“Oh my god!” I yelled. Haley, in the other room, heard me and both she and her parents asked me what was going on. I repeated the phrase several times, in utter disbelief as her glowing greenish-yellow eyes peered back at my from under her shelter.
I couldn’t believe it. At some point, Haley said Pearl had escaped through her book-bag as she exited the building, unsure of where exactly she has gone. Pearl has raced back to our apartment through the billowing smoke, jumped into our bed and hid under the covers, likely saving her life. She remained there, despite the open doors and windows, until we found her the next morning.
This was May 3, 2015, my first wedding anniversary.
What hours earlier had been one of the worst nights of my life became a memory of joy and jubilation as my small, half human, half-cat family had been reunited. I haven’t been this happy since this day exactly one year ago.
PS. Pearl was the last animal unaccounted for in the apartment records. Every animal involved in the fire survived.