Fire at The Don Cesar

“A fire has been reported in the building. Please exit down the stairs. Un fuego se ha reportado en el edificio. Por favor salga por la escalera.”

My mom has turned on the light and is standing above me.

“Put your shoes on and let’s go.”

“She doesn’t have time to put shoes on!” shouts my dad, who’s already standing by the door to our hotel room.

“Dad, let me put my flipflops on!” I yell.

“Mommy what’s going on?” asks my sister Gracie.

“We need to go!” My dad is getting upset. Or he’s just psyched there’s a fire.

“Relax, we’re coming!” says my mom.

It’s spring break, and we’re in St. Pete Beach, Florida. My family and I are staying at the Don Ce Sar hotel, where my dad went with his dad and brother as a kid. The Don is everything I hoped it would be. It’s pink, for one thing, with two pools, a spa, and a restaurant where we’ve eaten every night except for the night we went to a spring training baseball game but we had to leave early because my sister and mom fell asleep.

As we step out into the hallway, families and elderly couples are heading for the stairs. We’re on the sixth floor. Tough for the old people, but perhaps even tougher for me considering I don’t have my contact lenses in and everything is frustratingly blurry. If I die tonight I can blame it on shitty genetics and the fact my glasses make me look like Sarah Palin, which is why I had to leave them at home.

On the way down the stairs, I bump into an old lady and may have knocked her over, but there’s no time to look back. For a split second, I think about going back to help her but I realize that this is a life or death situation. A fire is really no place for arthritis or back pain. This is not a drill! Lives will be lost. Bodies will be burned. Vacations will be ruined because of this fire, this fire that is probably hot on my heels as I flee down the crowded staircase to safety, my parents and sister right behind me.

I feel the heat on my skin, and my hair is definitely being singed by the flames. I’m running so fast and everything is blurry, but I hastily glance back to look the fire in the eye. Well, actually I don’t see any fire but that doesn’t mean it’s not around here somewhere.

We dash through the lobby, and go outside where there are already clumps of tired and frightened vacationers. We stop by the fountain right outside the hotel. I squint, and in the distance I can make out a tacky neon sign that says “Come See Our Naked Mermaids!” Oh, Florida. Keeping in Klassy.

Because I am a teenager in the 21st century, I grabbed my phone as we headed out the door and check the time. It’s 6:02 am.

It’s starts to rain, and we move under the main awning. I look up and instead of finding comfort in the hot pink Spanish-style building, I am horrified to see fire leaping out of all the windows. But those flames are dark gray. Turns out, those are shadows from the air conditioners. I avert my attention to the bell tower in the front of the hotel. My little sister whispers to me, “Lily, doesn’t the bell tower look like the one from that scary movie Mommy made us see?”

Shit, it’s Vertigo. Now I have to think about Vertigo while I’m also thinking about how I left all my clothes and belongings in our room. (I should really start bringing a pre-packed mini suitcase with me that has all my most precious clothes and belongings in it so I can grab it quickly if I’m ever in this life-threatening and goddamn terrifying situation ever again. If I survive this, that is). I take a deep breath and wait for a body to be spewed out of the bell tower, plunging to its death, riding a wave of fire.

“That movie haunted me!” my sister says. Her eyes are wide with renewed fear.

I glance around me. There are families huddled together, some with dogs. I did not know this hotel allowed dogs. How impractical. This is a fire, and small dogs could be easily swallowed up in flames and no one would notice. Actually, some people would notice but by then it would be too late.

Yesterday afternoon at the pool I saw a totally gorgeous Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike. I was entranced. At last I would get my very own spring vacation romance that Seventeen magazine never shuts up about! Then we’d date and all my friends would be jealous of me! He waved to me, and I enthusiastically waved back. I was wearing a cute new bikini I bought online for $38. Yes! Seventeen would be so proud. I tried to wave back, but I couldn’t tell if he saw me or not so I made a plan to get a fruit smoothie at the same time as him today.

I catch sight of him now standing with his family. He’s wearing purple terrycloth pajama bottoms and a Taylor Swift t-shirt. What never happened between us is now over.

An old man is wearing skull-and-crossbones PJs. His wife (or his mistress, how should I know) is wearing one of the fluffy bathrobes from the hotel bathrooms. A lot of people are wearing the hotel bathrobe. Dear god, am I glad we don’t have to see what they’re wearing underneath. I wish I had thought to bring a sweatshirt with me. It’s chilly outside. I see a group of girls my age taking selfies and posting them on Instagram. They’re posting photos on Instagram during a fire? I have some questions about that. One, they’re taking a selfie with bedhead? Two, how are they getting WiFi?

I check my phone. It is 6:10. I’m starting to get ridiculously bored. My parents are talking about work, relaxed now that it’s looking more and more like the fire was not a Gone With the Wind-level situation. My sister has fallen asleep standing up. Her eyes are closed, and she’s humming the Harry Potter theme song. She’s asleep.

God, this is dull. People are chatting, the sun is rising. The sunrise is beautiful in an annoying way. Annoying because I no longer want to be in Florida. I want to be back home in New York City, where nothing dangerous ever happens. This is such a pain, they better be giving us all complimentary chocolate chip muffins at breakfast.

It is now 6:12. Progress. There’s no sign that we can go up anytime soon, and the hotel managers are looking harried as they run in and out of the hotel, checking to count the bodies and see how many lives have been lost. Suddenly the hotel guy standing by the door yells, “All clear, folks!”

I survived! We move towards the door.

“Are you sure it’s safe to go inside?” My dad asks him.

“Um, I think so.”

“Would you mind double checking?”

Oh, please, Dad. Everything’s fine. This is not a real thing, it might even have been a drill. I’m exhausted and I want to go back to bed. We’re allowed to take the elevators now that there’s not a fire, and everyone’s waiting for them. I hear one woman say to her young children, “Daddy’s going to take you two back to bed. Mommy’s going to the gym to burn off that cheesecake because she won’t be able to fall back to sleep.”

The sun has almost fully risen behind the sign for naked mermaids. The air is cool and even though I’m tired I feel very peaceful. I put out that fire with my mind. I know I did.

Now I’m delirious and the hotel guy comes back. It’s safe to go up.


The next morning at breakfast, no one mentions anything, but some respect has definitely been lost amongst the guests after seeing each other in horrifying pajamas. We’ll probably never see each other again, but we’ll all have the same near-death vacation story to tell. Maybe Taylor Swift t-shirt will write about it for his college application essay. I start thinking about the fire, and next thing I know I’m contemplating human existence and what my purpose is on this planet and whether I’ll live my life any differently now. I hope I’ve been changed by this fire, but I don’t feel anything yet. Maybe it takes a few days. Later, my mom and I head to the spa to get facials and I look up and see the Vertigo bell tower. When I close my eyes, I can still see the fire.


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