“I started the fire.”
A voice broke the silence that filled the room.
Startled, Em knocked over her sealed Nalgene water bottle, which clattered loudly to the floor. Not bothering to pick it up, she rose from her chair, struggling to keep from cursing at the sudden interruption.
“Who’s in here?” she asked. “What fire?”
Quickly, she walked around her desk, meaning to catch whichever boy had snuck downstairs past dorm time. Nobody. The office wasn’t nearly big enough to hide in, it was barely more than a closet stuffed with two desks. Perplexed, Em stepped from the small office and into the large cafeteria in which it was located.
The overhead lights, ancient as they were, hummed steadily overhead. Nobody here either. The tables were folded and stored to the side of the wall on the far end of the room opposite her office with the plastic chairs stacked neatly beside them. The cafeteria was big enough to hold the entire facility, between the staff the residents and the day-school students, there were well over a hundred people, she guessed. And when it was packed away like this for the night, it was almost cavernous. Again, nowhere to hide, she was alone.
A small crew of residential kids had been down here only fifteen minutes earlier, loudly sweeping and mopping as part of chore time. She’d laughed along quietly while doing her work in her office as the crew of teens joked with each other in the next room while they cleaned, occasionally turning the volume up just a bit too loud on the beat-up antique of a boombox that lived in the mop closet whenever a favorite new hip hop song played. Randall, the staff member supervising the clean-up, wasn’t the type to silence the kids – unlike many of the staff there – but Em always loved to hear the kids enjoy themselves, so she had no complaints.
That didn’t mean she didn’t enjoy the silence too, when it came. The gentle hum of the building was usually a soothing song to which she would finish the last of her days paperwork.
Suddenly, standing alone in the large cafeteria searching for a disembodied voice, the silence was oppressive — thick. Em was certain she’d heard the voice speak, just as she was certain she was alone. It had been a boys voice, in the limbo of early puberty – deep but still youthful.
Still hoping it was a prankster trying to startle her, Em walked into the main hallway of the building, walking a few feet to the left then the right, searching for some sign of one of the residents. Seeing nobody, she walked back into the cafeteria and checked that the doors to the pantry and kitchen were securely locked. They were.
She walked slowly back to her office, ears perked for the slightest sound of movement, eyes scanning closely even as she lost hope of finding anyone. Sitting back at her computer, she rubbed her forehead and tried not to think too hard.
She’d heard the stories of the ghosts that haunted this aged building, of course. One of the supervisors who had conducted her tribunal-style job interview had even jokingly asked if ghosts were a deal-breaker. But she always laughed it off whenever it came up, feeling like it was just a running joke. Having been a lifelong skeptic towards anything she couldn’t observe, she’d never once considered that anyone could have been serious.
But here, without warning, she’d begun to feel close to thinking things she simply didn’t want to think. She considered streaming a playlist from her phone to break the silence, but her shaking hands struggled to navigate the touch screen. Her eyes just couldn’t seem to focus on her computer monitor when she attempted to return to the email she’d been drafting.
Giving up, she packed her belongings into her backpack and promised herself she’d come in early the next morning to finish up.
She woke the next morning feeling drained, as though she’d only slept for an hour or two, instead of nine. She was usually a vivid dreamer, but all she could remember from the night before was tightness, struggle, fear. The dreams had faded into grey and vanished within moments of waking, leaving only the phantoms of the claustrophobic sensation that had caused her to suddenly want to fling her heavy oversized comforter off her body.
When she’d thrown the blanket, she’d noticed the smell of fabric softener, and underneath, just for a flash, the faintest trace of campfire. Having grown up around Denver, she’d spent plenty of weekends in the mountains roughing it with her dad in a tent. Those were the days before the seemingly endless fire bans had all but criminalized the ancient art of the campfire. She had always loved coming home and smelling the lingering smoke in her hair the next morning.
But it had been years since her last campfire, and so the smell caught her off guard. Suddenly, the voice from the previous night replayed in her head.
“I started the fire.”
After a careful smell check of every linen on her bed yielded no results, she stripped them away and threw them in a corner to wash after work.
Em took an extra long shower, singing along to her playlist louder than usual, hoping to drown out the sudden loneliness she was feeling. It worked, and by the time she found parking and began her walk to work she was finally feeling back to normal.
Though she had never really researched the history of Denver Children’s Home in the six years she’d been working there, Em had heard all of the urban legends. A thick, fortress-like red brick building, DCH sat near the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Colfax, Denver’s most infamous stretch and the longest road in the country.
Em had loved her job at DCH from day one, working first as an overnight attendant watching over the five dorms that housed children from ages nine to eighteen, and then working her way to project coordinator with her own shared office. She wasn’t as close to the kids as she had been at first, but she still believed in her job and in the overall mission of the facility.
Most of the children had traumatic pasts, as well as various, often extreme, mental health problems. Violent or neglectful parents, sexual abuse, PTSD, all commonalities among the children, many of whom already had criminal backgrounds.
Local lore said that a fire had claimed the lives of countless children at the turn of the century, as the building had originally served as an orphanage for labor-class white children during the gold rush days and early settlement of the city. She’d heard both staff and residents make the same claims in her time there, children screaming and crying in the night, the smell of fire.
Of course, she’d also heard of the weeping bride who supposedly roamed the halls, something she found particularly inexplicable given that, as far as she knew, the building had never served any purpose besides the housing of at-risk children. And so for the duration of her career at the facility, all of the ghost stories had been lumped into the same category in her mind — cute, harmless stories people told for fun, or maybe just to scare others.
As the day wore on, these facts simmered quietly in the back-burner of her mind. She did her best to block the intrusion of the thoughts, and more than once stopped herself from asking Judy, her colleague who shared her small office for the first six hours of her shift, if she knew anything about the fire.
It wasn’t until after the cleaning crew finished their nightly mopping that she broke and opened the browser on her computer to do some research – telling herself that reason and logic had gotten her this far, it was the answer to ending this superstitious nonsense and letting her get her mind back to working and enjoying her life.
The research was frustrating and brief. Articles from one camp, Haunted America-style blogs, sensationalized the fire and the haunting. One tasteless article even went so far as to petition the producers of American Horror Story to turn the death of countless orphans into a season based in Denver. Articles from the other camp, more focused on local history, made absolutely no mention of any fire, only stating that the building that she worked in wasn’t the original orphanage that would become Denver Children’s Home in the 60’s. The information on the DCH websites history section also offered no hint of a fire.
It seemed strange that so many people could believe in a fire that didn’t even seem to have happened, and that nagging perplexity was enough to convince her to try and dig deeper. After a few red herrings, she finally came to a youtube video featuring a Colorado-based investigator who specialized in local hauntings.
The host was a smart-looking woman, and her presentation was efficient and gracefully brief, not prone to the rambling sort of amateur mess typical of the fan-run ghost hunter channels. She confirmed the same narrative Em had constructed during her research, which was that there had in fact been a fire of unknown origin on the third floor and attic of the building formerly known as the Denver Orphan’s Home – but that fire had happened across town at the building’s original pre-turn of the century location. The building currently known as DCH was opened a few years after the fire at the present location.
Em was surprised at how relieved she felt. Not only was there no fire in the buildings history, there certainly hadn’t been any deaths. She sat back in her chair as the video continued to play, finally able to start considering more rational explanations for the boy’s voice she’d heard the night before. No ghosts, the world was as it should be.
But even as she sat awash in relief, the video called her attention back.
“Ok, so, the infamous fire didn’t happen the way we’ve heard,” the investigator said into the camera. “So what does that mean when we take into account the century of reports of the smell of fire in the dorms at DCH? Or the sounds of children crying? Do we just take eyewitness account after eyewitness account and throw them out?
“Of course not! There has to be a reconciliation between what history tells us versus what people who have really lived the experience have to tell us. Like I always say, if we aren’t looking at the whole story, there’s no point looking.
“Now, regular viewers might remember our video on the Highlands Ranch mansion from last summer – I’ll post the link in the video description and at the end of the video – in which we learned the strange story of the still-living ghost.
“To briefly sum up, paranormal investigators who were hired to attempt to document spiritual activity in the well-loved party venue were able to identify the famous crying woman who had spooked staff members and contractors for years. They identified her to be a young woman who had lived in the mansion after it was first built, who had suffered some unknown tragedy combined with mental health woes during her time living there, and had imprinted a non-conscious spectre.
“But here’s the crazy thing, when they went to learn the young woman’s fate, they found her alive and well in Northglenn at the time of the investigation! Her ghost haunted the halls of the mansion while she was across the city watching Jeopardy on her couch!
“Here’s what I’m driving at – a haunting isn’t as simple as the restless dead. In our time in this video series, we’ve discussed all kinds of non-traditional hauntings – enough so that we can safely say that there isn’t such thing as a ”traditional” haunting.
“Plus, even though the history of Denver Orphans Home seems to be intentionally obscured, or at least lost to time, we can be certain of one thing – a child who would have survived such a terrifying fire, coupled with the loss of life an orphan at that time would already have likely been exposed to – as well as learning your friends and peers died a bad death such as that… well that trauma is too profound for me to even fathom.
“So let’s say the legends are all real, and some kids died, and some didn’t. The burden of survival is going to be on those still-alive kids, not to mention the adults working there, and that burden is going to keep a great sadness alive in the air – even in a newly-constructed super-size orphanage that replaced the old one. Those survivors are going to carry the spirits of their friends around with them, that is what I believe.
“Those ghosts didn’t have a place to haunt without leaving that burned-down building and following the facility to its new home. And why shouldn’t they? The ghost of a child is traditionally more likely to be frightened, perhaps angry, but overall seeking an adult, or other children – anyone who can help them escape the kind of profound alone that a wandering spirit is cursed to.
“I have personally heard first-hand stories of the paranormal happenings at Denver Children’s Home. Do we discount multiple lived experiences just because the facts don’t seem to line up? Or do we live by the philosophy that we must have as ghost hunters – that facts and patterns seldom matter to spirits, and so we must always study these things with our guts as well as our minds. I believe it’s very possible that the ghosts of the fire could have literally picked up and moved to the new facility, following friends and trusted adults the way children are inclined to. Tune in next week, and we’ll explore a few famous cases of haunted people, including a Pueblo woman tormented for years and even across state lines by the violent ghost of her abusive father.
“So that’s it, viewers. The strange case of the moving haunting of DCH. Be sure to subscribe to my…”
Em’s finger darted to the space bar like a striking rattlesnake, pausing the video and restoring the silence in which she once felt so safe.
She remembered her dreams that night, and wished to God she could forget them. She had been drowning in boiling water. No buoyancy, just a futile struggle to free herself from the blistering heat, suffocating and clawing as the pressure grew heavier. The weight and strain on her chest was too strong, she felt like her lungs were being flattened by a rolling semi truck. The fiery need to inhale hurt somehow even more than the unbearable heat which tortured her flesh.
She drowned in her dreams for hours.
When she woke, it was still dark outside. The smell of smoke and cooking meat filled her room, turning her stomach. She ran to her bathroom and vomited into her toilet until her stomach could produce no more, tried to decide if she had the strength to shower, and eventually simply fell asleep on the bathroom floor.
She awoke some hours later, light from the bright summer sun illuminating the windowless bathroom from the next room. Groggy, she rose from the small mat she’d curled up on and walked to her bedside table for her phone. She still had several hours before work, a shift she found herself dreading – something she’d never felt at this job in all her years.
Em set an alarm on her phone to wake herself in two hours, hoping to get some sleep in her own bed to make up for the time spent on the bathroom floor. As she lay her head down, she could instantly smell the smoke again. It seemed to reside deep in every fiber of linen in her bed. Suddenly furious, she stripped all fabric from her bed in a frenzy. It did nothing. The smell was deep within the cushion of her pillows, and even her mattress smelled like she had a wood-fire stove in her bedroom.
Shaking, nauseous again, Em dragged herself instead to the couch in her small sunroom and collapsed into sleep.
“I started the fire.”
Em screamed as she sat up from sleep, instinctively clawing her way backwards from the source of the voice, which had spoken calmly, plainly, mere inches from her sleeping face. Terrifying scenarios started forming their twisted plots in the recesses of her imagination, her mind racing back and forth between absolute disbelief and absolute terror.
Someone had been here, right beside her, watching as she slept. She had felt the air from a mouth disturb her face as it spoke. But as before, she was alone. Em felt tears welling up in her eyes, she felt invaded — unsafe in her own home.
Deciding on her plan quickly, Em rushed through her house, packing two bags with essentials and a few days worth of clothes. She was packed and in her car in such a blind rush, she didn’t even start to consider whether she’d locked her front door until the front end of her car was blocking the street. Deciding it wasn’t worth double-checking, she pulled the rest of the way out of the crowded curb and was free from Capitol Hill before she knew it.
Em’s grandmother had a modest split-level on a particularly steep suburban tract outside of downtown Golden, about thirty minutes west of Em’s apartment in the foothills of the Rockies. She kept an immaculate guest bed, one Em had spent many nights on in her life. This was far from the first time Em had arrived on her doorstep with a pair of backpacks and tears in her eyes. Her grandmother had lived alone there for nearly twenty years, since divorcing Em’s grandfather while Em was still rather young. Her grandmother was a fairly private person, but Em knew her door was always open in times of crisis.
Not one for emotional displays or the interpersonal affairs of others, her grandmother simply hugged Em close and invited her in, no questions asked. Em went straight to the guest bedroom and sat on the queen-sized bed, sighing. The comfort of being safe with family and miles from Denver soon began to calm her down. Realizing she had a shift coming up, and knowing she didn’t have the strength to walk into that great brick box quite yet, she sent a quick text to her office-mate Judy, informing her of a personal emergency, hoping her coworker wouldn’t press the issue.
After sending the text, her fingers reflexively closed the message window and opened her Facebook app, a force of habit leading her to soon become engrossed in her newsfeed and notifications, melting all thoughts of the world around her and, mercifully, helping her forget hearing that stoic boy’s voice repeating endlessly in her head.
“I started the fire.”
“I started the fire.”
“I started the fire.”
Dinner was decent, prepared by her grandmother, famous for her from-the-box cuisine, and the hot shower after was even better. Her body was still sore from her night sleeping on a cold tile floor, and her mind was exhausted trying to fight off the parts of her brain that were working to piece together the sudden terror of the previous two days.
Twilight crept up on her as she sat, still wet from the shower in a borrowed terry cloth robe, dissociating into her phone. She scrolled her newsfeed absently, reading the same thirty or so posts over and over it seemed. When she finally snapped back to reality and looked around, the room was dark and lit only by the yellow street lights outside.
Sighing again, she tried not to think about what her future was going to look like. Would she have to quit her job? Move from her apartment? The thought of having to flee some menacing voice and uproot her entire life was almost as frightening as staying still and living with a haunting.
Em felt her heart start to race again, and she forced herself to follow the advice she often gave one of her residents having anxiety.
Just take a deep breath, and then another, and then another. Sometimes all you can do is breathe, and tell yourself that it’s okay to worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
It hardly helped.
Feeling a sudden pain in her stomach, Em slowly disrobed and tucked herself under her grandmother’s many stacked blankets, curled into a ball, and lay there with her mind racing until she finally passed out.
Suddenly, Em was awake, and an overwhelming rush of input hit her all at once. Grandma screaming. Can’t breathe. Wrapped up tight. Can’t move. Hot. Very hot. No air.
There was another noise, louder than her grandmother’s screaming from beyond the room. A roaring, crackling cacophony. Fire. The house was burning around her.
The thick blankets she’d slept under had somehow curled around her, holding her tightly. She kicked and trashed with all her strength, pure animal frenzy taking her. She just needed air, just one breath, and she’d be able to untangle herself, but there was no air. Just heat.
She was completely trapped, all her trashing meant nothing, it was like the blankets held no exit. The more her panicked body tried to liberate itself from the linens, the tighter it’s binds on her seemed to grow.
Her chest was burning. Her throat felt blistered as she tried desperately to draw even a single breath. She could see the light from the fire even through the thickness of her fabric chains.
Suddenly she felt the hard impact of her body falling off the bed, still hopelessly drowning in comforters. There was a shooting pain in the elbow that she had landed on, and suddenly she was no longer able to fight with her right arm. Her strength was nearly gone and she was still trapped, her mouth trying desperately to scream in pain and fear with empty lungs. Her grandmother was banging on the door, and then was gone.
Em lay where she had fallen, no longer able to struggle and beginning to convulse from the pain and terror.
Heat. Heat unlike anything she’d ever felt. Her feet were burning, the fire had found her. Feeling a new rush of determination to survive, Em began to spend all her effort desperately trying to crawl away from the burn, but there was no relief.
Then, suddenly, her left arm found an opening in the cocoon of comforters, feeling the cool, unburning wood of the bed frame. She gripped it tight, pulling her body forward even through the agony of her right arm, desperate to stop the burning — to stop the suffocating. Then, she felt herself being lifted into the air, still tightly bundled. Strong arms holding her, someone holding her. The blankets shifted as she rose, but they still burned.
She tried vainly to tell her rescuer that she was burning, please help her, burning alive, but still found no relief of breath. Her whole body felt like it was blistering in the unimaginable heat.
She expected her rescuer to move, to flee the room. But they just stood. Stood there holding her while she burned, while she suffocated. Then, those strong arms that held her began to squeeze, tighter and tighter. Tighter than the blankets. Tighter than she could bear.
Her body shook like electricity was burning her, not flames. She felt herself begin to break under the tightness, bones cracking and joints popping out of socket. The burning almost forgotten in the incredible pressure.
And then, as blackness began to grip her brain, and the pain became so explicit that she went numb, she heard the voice speak one last time before she died.
“I started the fire.”
Denver Fallux is a white queer/trans horror author based in Colorado. You can learn more about Denver here.