If she were to describe to an outsider how she viewed her life, Keva would say that it had been surgically split in two. There was the before time and the after time. The demarcation line between the two was THE FIRE—she always thought of it in capital letters—which had altered the course of her life.
Her memories concerning the fire itself were vague. She had a hazy recollection of lying on a stretcher while an alarm blared in the background. There had been a paramedic hovering over her and exclaiming with relief when she opened her eyes.
She remembered nothing else until she woke up in the hospital, her lungs painfully seared from smoke inhalation. She had shown steady progress in her physical healing. Her mental state was another matter. For the past ten years, she had tried to take back her life. She was still in therapy after all this time.
The hallucinations had begun after the fire. She would awaken during the night to see someone sitting on her bed or she would peer into the mirror and see someone else’s image superimposed on hers. The images were blurred so that she never knew whose face she was looking at.
Then the voice in her head began—a constant murmur. Most of the words she didn’t understand, because they seemed to be in a foreign language. The sounds were guttural, and she thought it might be Latin.
She felt detached from herself, as if she were a different person. The initial diagnosis was schizophrenia, and at first Keva had been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility and placed on heavy medication.
The risperidone she’d been prescribed had seemingly improved her mental health and after a year, her doctors thought Keva was showing signs of being able to function on her own. She progressed from in-patient to out-patient status. To control her anxiety and depression, her current therapist had recommended daily exercise and had also suggested some relaxation and coping techniques.
In reality, the voice in Keva’s head still existed, but she had learned to tune it out. Her hallucinations still occurred, although less frequently, and she never spoke of them again to anyone, least of all to her therapist.
She had built a life of sorts for herself, studying photography at Algonquin College in Ottawa and working at a photography studio as an assistant and general gofer. The pay wasn’t great, but it covered her rent and groceries. When she dared to think of the future, she dreamed of having her own studio.
Keva lived in an ancient apartment building in downtown Ottawa kitty-corner to a shopping centre. The building was so old that it had once been heated by steam from water-filled radiators. The landlord had finally installed baseboard heaters the previous year. She had lived there almost seven years. The rent was reasonable—or as reasonable as rent got in Ottawa—and the downtown location meant that she didn’t need to have a car. What wasn’t within walking distance she reached by bus or taxi.
She was twenty-seven years old now. The tenth anniversary of the fire was approaching. It was a constant presence in her thoughts—one that she could not push aside.
Keva cleared a spot on the moisture-ridden window of her living room and looked outside at the falling rain that shone in the glare of the streetlights. A young couple waiting at the crosswalk embraced and then ran arm-in-arm across the street, laughing, when the traffic light changed.
They’re happy. She repeated the word several times in her head, but it seemed like an alien concept to her.
With a start, Keva realized she was still at the window of her apartment, seeing nothing outside as her fingers traced circle after circle in the moisture. These reveries had increased in frequency lately with the anniversary looming. The start of the ill-fated vacation which led to the fire was the very last time she’d felt optimistic about anything in her life.
Keva closed the curtain and began preparing for bed. She shook her head angrily at herself for being so careless as to stand that long in front of the window. She felt vulnerable to the gaze of passers-by and knew this was a high-risk building for break-ins. Half the time the front door of the building wasn’t even locked, but instead was propped open with a brick to accommodate visitors to other apartments.
As she finally drifted off to sleep, paralysis overtook her. She saw flames in her room, but her muscles were locked and she could not escape. She struggled desperately to wake up and initially thought she had succeeded in doing so because the flames had disappeared.
But then she saw a young woman in her mid-twenties with flowing dark hair. The woman tried to speak to Keva, but no words came out at first.
Finally, after several aborted attempts to speak, the young woman said: “You are not who you think you are.”
And then the flames reappeared and consumed her.