I was surrounded by a thick cloud of black smoke. Every breath was in agony as I beat my hands upon the door. I glanced over my shoulder and saw columns of flames leaping towards me. This was it. I was going to die here, no one was going to save me this time.
"Beth! Elizabeth! Wake up!" My eyes fluttered open at the sound of my husband's voice. "Darling you were having another nightmare. It's fine. You are safe." George's strong arms wrapped around my small figure protectively. I buried my head in his chest and started to sob. It wasn't fair! Why did they have to die while I live out my days in endless grief and agony?!
I somehow managed to fall back into, thankfully, a dreamless slumber. When I awoke the next morning George had already left for work and I was alone. I did not wish to spend the day cooped up in the house alone, so I grabbed my coat and walked to the town square. I did everything I could to keep my mind busy; shopped for food, browsed clothing stores, and even pitched a couple of pennies with some orphans.
I had not realized what path I had taken until it was too late, I ended walking past the place where my life had changed forever. I stared at the charred, crumbled ruins of the factory. It felt as if no time had passed since the accident. I fell to my knees and started to sob as the memories came flooding back.
"Faster ladies, faster! Mr. Colton needs these clothes by tomorrow night!" The foreman yelled at us as he walked along the aisles. He was like this every day, always pushing us to work faster than the day before.
"Easy for him to say. He gets to just stand there and watch," A girl muttered under her breath. A couple of others whispered in agreement.
"Silence! I don't want to hear another peep from you ladies until lunchtime. Am I understood?" All of us nodded our heads and went back to sewing. I glanced across the room at my mother who had a scowl on her face. She hated it here almost as much, if not more than I did.
Working in the factory was absolutely terrible. There were no windows where we worked so we never able to get a breath of fresh air. Lots of women ended up sick because of the poor ventilation in the factory. Why, just last week my friend Judith died, her lungs gave out on her. I pushed the sad thought aside and focused on sewing as many clothes as I could.
When it was finally time for lunch I stood up and stretched. We were never allowed to get up during our shift so needless to say we were all stiff as a board. I walked over to where my mother was finishing up her last garment.
"Please hurry mother. You know we don't have long before our next shift." It was true, we only had an hour-long break before we were expected to sit back down and sew more clothes.
"Give me one moment Beth." She sewed the last stitch and laid the garment on the table. "Now we can eat." The two of us made our way out of the factory towards a small sitting area just outside the front door. We were accompanied by a couple of other women, one being my mother's good friend Edith.
"I swear the foreman expects us to work like dogs all day while he just sits around smoking his cigarettes." She complained. "I don't know how much more of him I can take."
"You have to push through it, my dear. Think of your family, they're the ones you're doing this for." My mother consoled her troubled friend. She was right, you wouldn't make it very long if you did not have a reason to keep pushing forward. For my mother and me that reason was my little sister Alice.
Alice was perfect in every way. She was smart and ever so kind. Whenever she would see an orphan on the street she would always give them a big smile and offer for them to play with her. Many told her that she was a literal ray of sunshine and I would have to agree with them. I would have never believed she could ever hate anyone… until she met the foreman. She hated him with a burning hatred that she harbored deep in her heart. We wanted Alice to attend school but in order to do so, she would have to work in the factory as well. Classes were expensive and it was hard enough as it was to put food on the table. So mother decided that she would attend school in the morning and work at the factory in the afternoon.
When she had started working with us she immediately butted heads with the foreman. He hated how happy and energetic she was and decided to make it his personal goal to break her spirit. He tried everything; he made fun of her, blew smoke in her face, and even pulled her hair on several occasions. All of this did nothing but make her hate him more. As a slap in his face, she threw herself into her work. This enraged the foreman and every day he makes sure to find something new to yell at her about.
We were eating the small sandwiches we had packed when Alice arrived. She had already changed into her factory uniform and eaten her lunch. Her school provided meals for each of its students, that's one reason why it cost so much to go there. She had a bright smile on her face as she told us about the rainbow she saw on her way to work. That smile stayed on her face until it was time to go back inside for our afternoon shift.
As soon as we sat down and started to work the foreman approached Alice. He started to harass her,
"You better not slack off like you did yesterday." The women glanced around at one another. All of us knew that Alice had worked hard yesterday, she worked hard every day. Alice just continued to sew and did not pay any attention to him. Disgruntled the foreman stormed off down the aisle.
I caught my sister's eye and smiled. She really knew how to rile him up. The day continued and soon my hands were starting to hurt. My pace slowed down and I wasn't completing as many garments as I had been earlier. The foreman noticed this and started to scream at me,
"Pick up the pace girly or I'll replace you with someone faster!" I bent my head down and tried my best to ignore the insults he was throwing at me. "You're stupid! You're useless! You're-"
"Shut up!" The entire room went silent. I looked up and saw Alice standing in front of her table. "We work as hard and fast as we can! You yelling and insulting us is not helping so just shut up!" All of us stared at her with our mouths open. No one had stood up to the foreman like this before. The foreman had left my side and stormed towards Alice.
"What did you just say to me?" He was now towering over her, with his fists clenched at his sides.
"I said shut up," Alice growled out.
"Why you little-" The foreman slapped Alice across the cheek.
"Get away from her!" My mother sprang up from her seat and lodged herself between the two.
"That's it!" The foreman grabbed my family and shoved them into a small side room. It was dimly lit and had even worse ventilation than the main room. "Finish up the day in here and don't bother coming back tomorrow!" He locked the door behind them and turned to address us. "Does anyone else feel like saying anything?!" No one said a word. "That's what I thought. Get back to work." We watched him stomp towards his office, most likely to fill out my family's termination papers. I thought that his face appeared redder than usual, as he walked past my table clutching his chest.
As I continued with my work my mind was filled with worry. How were we going to pay for Alice's education now? How were we going to put food on the table? Were we going to end up on the streets like those orphans that Alice played with? There weren't many other factories in town and once you were fired from one it was nearly impossible to be hired again. The smell of smoke brought me back from my thoughts.
The others looked up from their work. We were accustomed to the smoke that came from the foreman's cigarettes but this was different. The air seemed to get thicker by the second and soon we saw a bright orange light coming from the foreman's office. That coupled with the smoke could only mean one thing,
"Fire!" Someone screamed. Within seconds everyone was pushing towards the exit, well everyone except me. I struggled against the crowd towards the room where my mother and sister were trapped. I reached the door and desperately tried to open it but it was locked. I could feel my family pounding on the other side of the door but any noise they were making was drowned out by the screams of the other workers as they fled from the building. I kept trying to force the door open but it was useless. The foreman had the key and that's where the fire started.
I continued to bang on the door but I was losing strength. The air was filled with thick black smoke; breathing was becoming more and more difficult. I glanced over my shoulder and saw columns of flames engulfing piles of clothing. I turned back to the door with renewed energy. This was it. Either the three of us were going to get out of here or none of us were. I tried my hardest to open the door but it would not budge.
Suddenly I felt someone grab my arm and pull me towards the exit. I struggled against them and tried to stay with my family.
"No! No! I have to save them! They are trapped in there!" I cried out. "You have to help them!"
"We don't have time the building's going to come down any second!" The man pulled me towards the exit. I fought with all my strength but he managed to drag me out of the building. Seconds later the factory collapsed in on itself and I knew my family was dead. I let out a blood-curdling scream as the stranger, who would later become my husband, held me back.
Two years have passed since that tragic day and not a day goes by where I don't blame myself for the death of my family. If only I had sewn clothes faster than Alice would have never yelled at the foreman. If Alice had never yelled at the foreman then mother would not have had to interfere. If mother never interfered then they would have not been locked in that room. If they had never been locked in that room they would be alive.
I knelt in front of the charred ruin of the factory, tears running down my face. If only George had not pulled me from the building! Surely dying would hurt less than this! I choked back a sob as I shakily stood up, I could not stay here any longer.
I started to walk back home and as I was drying my tears I noticed something. The sunset looked as if it was one giant rainbow, it was absolutely beautiful. I thought of the story Alice told mother and I. The one about the rainbow she saw on her way to work that dreadful day. Somehow, in my heart, I knew that it was a sign from my sister and mother. They wanted me to stop blaming myself for what had happened, to stop living in the past. I smiled at the sky and for the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.