Hungry flames licked the walls and swept along the living room downstairs. Ropes of fire chewed through the curtains. A fixture fell from the ceiling, and a coffee table collapsed with a crash, its legs reduced to charred stumps. Smoke drifted across the room, billowing plumes darkened to sooty black as the blazing inferno consumed one piece of furniture after another.

Watching the horror unfold from the staircase, Caitlyn shrieked and rushed up the stairs to her bedroom, hoping the flames wouldn’t find her there. It had only been a few hours since her parents had gone to sleep in their bedroom downstairs.

Caitlyn screamed as smoke clouded the air and burned her lungs. Her screams were muffled by the snap and pop of the flames. She held her teddy bear closer to her chest and assured herself someone would come to her rescue.

A smoky haze covered the room. Looking through the half-open door, Caitlyn saw the stair spindles turning into flaming pillars. Beads of sweat trickled down her face. Her eyelids were heavy, and she gasped for breath, coughing uncontrollably.

Slowly, the fire made its way upstairs to Caitlyn’s room. She was surrounded by rippling orange sheets of fire. Cracks appeared in the glass of the framed family photo, splintering the faces of Caitlyn and her parents. A shower of sparks lit the room.

Just then, sirens wailed outside the window. Thick phlegm rose in Caitlyn’s throat as she called, “Somebody help me! Save me!”

Minutes later, a silhouette jumped through the window. A firefighter, dressed in a yellow suit with reflective stripes, navigated through the clotted haze and dropped to his knees. He caught hold of the mic on his chest and said, “Pete, there’s a survivor in the bedroom upstairs. A little girl… aged six to eight.”

“Don’t worry.” He dusted off Caitlyn’s blonde curls and reassured her in a loud yet comforting voice. “We’re gonna get you outta here.”

The firefighter carried her in his arms and climbed out of the window as the flames rapidly consumed the room.

Caitlyn shut her eyes tight and clutched her teddy bear, as the man safely escorted her down the ladder positioned in front of the burning house.

A sea of firefighters doused the flames with heavy-duty fire hoses. Roof beams caved in and windows burst, showering the yard with glass.

Pajama-clad neighbors gathered along the fence with anxious faces. Relief washed over their faces when they saw Caitlyn safe in the firefighter’s arms.

She coughed and spluttered as fresh air entered her lungs. First responders rushed to her, wrapping her in a thick blanket and wiping soot from her face with a wet towel. A saline-drenched gauze bandage was wrapped around the minor burns on her body. The cool, damp fabric was a welcome change from the searing heat of her bedroom. She heaved a long sigh, relieved that she was alive.

The firefighters smashed down the doors of the house and tromped through debris.

Within minutes, two charred bodies were deposited on stretchers and nestled into the black body bags waiting for them. A heart-shaped locket dangled from the blackened neck of Caitlyn’s mommy.

A middle-aged first responder blocked Caitlyn’s view of her dead parents. He kneeled, and pulled her into a consoling embrace. “Oh, poor little one!”

Little Caitlyn turned her face into the man’s chest, hiding the way her lips twisted into a slow, wicked smile.

I’ll play in the fireplace if I want to, Mommy and Pappy. You should have left me alone instead of scolding me. She quietly ran her fingers over the box of matches balled in her fist before stuffing it inside the hidden pocket of her teddy bear. Now, I can play all I want. And you can never stop me.