The blast of the alarm nearly killed a few unexpecting residents. Most of them figured it was set off by some teenager getting stoned in another apartment, but when smoke started filtering up the stairs and through vents, many people made hasty retreats down to the sidewalk below the apartment building. Young people in sweats pressed against their older, bathrobe-clad relatives in a small attempt to fight off the chilly night air and to feel better about their homes that were in danger.

Screaming sirens told the residents that help was on the way. White and yellow flashing lights bounced off city walls and signaled the arrival of three firetrucks and about thirty men. They rushed into the building and searched for a fire that was yet unseen. The people of the building had only encountered the smoke- nobody had discovered its source yet. It had to be in the basement, because the acrid fog was present on every floor. Half-dressed, tired people waited for an explosion or for the building to collapse at any moment.

Every breath felt as if it had more consequence than the previous and each moment lasted longer than its predecessor. The cold was getting to some of the residents. They walked over to the small market around the corner from their building and waited for any news. Eventually, the firemen dragged hoses from the front entrance. Several of them spoke with the building manager and the people were allowed to go back in.

Many of the residents were happy to get out of the cold, but their apartments had been tainted by smoke. They smelled it in their bedding, on their clothing, on the carpet and furniture. Windows were opened and fans blew cold, fresh air into kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. Some people left to stay with relatives for the night- the smoke agitated their asthma or kept them from sleeping. The place became a ghost town for the next few weeks, while management painted and had cleaners come in to work on the smoke-damaged property.

Many of the residents felt differently about their apartment building. Some moved on, others fought to get out of their leases and some just avoided their homes. Though there had been promises of restoration, the progress was slow and frustrating.

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Occasionally, dramatic events happen in our lives. They feel like fires, but turn out to be something much less consequential than we expected. Then again, some of us get to experience full-blown atomic bombs complete with flaming mushroom clouds and we’re always shocked when we’re alive at the end. Sometimes, the lingering after-effects turn out to be worse than the event itself. Bitterness sets in like smoke damage and worse than any kind of fire or flood, it’s retroactive- it can travel back through time. Bitterness changes smiling faces in photographs to grimaces and makes memories into monstrosities, or it just leaves everything smelling like smoke and sickness.

Fortunately, there’s always a chance to get the bitterness cleaned up, but it’s not necessarily a quick process, nor is it easy. We have a choice to work through it, or to abandon the mess and let it rest as it is… hoping in vain that it doesn’t impact us any longer.