The emergency ladder is not noticeable unless one squints at the side of the whitewashed farmhouse. The ladder is a series of two-by-fours, painted white and spaced and nailed just so onto the siding, to form an almost indiscernible ladder leading up to a second-story attic bedroom.
The girl who lives in this bedroom is five or six and every month there is an evacuation drill her young parents organize. Her parents were high school sweethearts – a little ditty about Jack and Diane... Her mother was 18 when she married; her father was 19. No shotguns were needed. Their first baby arrived five years later.
And now the girl, no longer a baby, wonders if her Momma will blow the whistle like her high school track coach? Her father’s voice is loud on command, but it is his whistle that means business. When she hears it, she comes running towards the source. He trains her and her baby sister like the coon dogs he takes hunting at dawn and dusk. The girls love the Coonhound puppies, mottled grey and black and white with lazy, floppy ears and soulful eyes. On the farm, the puppies stay outdoors in dog houses or underneath the front porch with their parents. They lick her face and elbows and the sweet, ticklish spot underneath her arms. She is pretty sure the puppies know no fear or practice timed drills to escape an imaginary fire.
When the parents’ whistles sound – her mother’s silver whistle with the little jumpy wooden ball and the loud trill from Father’s lips that means get moving – she and her younger sister rush into action. Her little sister’s emergency exit is on the first floor, but she, the firstborn, bounds up the stairs like a lioness. Arms and feet touch the wooden stairs to propel her upward faster, farther. When she arrives in her magical bedroom, all pink eyelet and books, books, books, her dad is by the window with a stopwatch. Momma is downstairs with Jenna, three years younger, helping her figure out how to unlock the window, unhinge the screen by pressing the levers in and pushing the window up to reveal an open space and fresh air.
The older one has slowly mastered the steps to make the window an escape and no longer just a portal. She shimmies her little body towards the opening and breathes deeply because this is where her fear of heights begins. Do not look down. What if she falls trying to place a foot on the four-by-four? What if the parents do not catch her because they are too busy timing daughters for catastrophes that do not yet exist?
She knows before she places her feet outside the window and onto the wooden ledge, that for this descent to work, she must have shoes on.
“No bare feet or toys,” Father says. But what about the girl’s moonfaced dolls? Greta, Skippy, and the bald one with a patch of yellow yarn on her head? They will surely perish in the imaginary fire – orange, red, and yellow flames advancing like the ones that try to consume Bugs Bunny in hell.
“Never mind them,” Father would say. She wishes she had the courage to take the dolls anyway. Instead, her fear propels her down the ladder. Small hands grip the window ledge as feet find purchase on the nailed-in wood. She scrambles down the ladder until she feels the proximity of the earth, where she jumps off the house and runs to the safe spot near the barbed wire fence and the Rose of Sharon and waits for the rest of the family to reunite.
When her lovely Teutonic mother and dark-headed hillbilly, Native American father walk toward her with her younger sister in their arms, she feels proud. We escaped the flames!
“Not bad,” her Father says. “Your time was under two minutes.”
She smiles a gap-toothed grin and flashes him a thumbs up — the disaster averted.