An Alarming Situation

Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Last Saturday, my cell phone rang at 8:10 AM. When I picked it up it read “Nancy Next Door.” 


Nancy Next Door only calls when there’s something wrong. A coyote jumping into my yard. A fallen tree on our shared fence. A broken gate…that sort of thing. Naturally, I thought a tree had fallen since A. there are lots of trees in the woods and in my yard that are leaning in a bad way and B. after over a year, I’d finally fixed the fence from the last fallen tree. 

“Are you home?” asked my neighbor. I was not. I was five hours away, at the beach. “There’s an alarm going off in your house,” she said. “I don’t see smoke but it’s been going off for about 15 minutes.” 

No problem, I told her. I’d call my other neighbor who has a key to my house. 

It’s 8:20 or so on a Saturday morning, and my neighbor answers her phone and after hearing my predicament replies, “I’m not home.” She’d had a family emergency the night before and was at her in-laws’ house, checking in. She was 15 minutes away but still, I hated to ask her to drive over to my house. 

“That’s okay,” I say, “I’ll call my daughter.” 

My daughter lives about 20 minutes from my house. But when I call her, she doesn’t pick up. 

Saturday is her day off, I know that she likes to catch up on her sleep. Who knows if she’s even got her phone turned on? And I don’t want to call her husband because…well, what if they’re not asleep, if you catch my drift? So I can call my sons (both of whom live about an hour away and let's face it, they're not going to pick up) or call back my neighbor (with the key). I call the neighbor.

She doesn’t pick up, either. 

It’s now 8:30. My smoke alarm has been going off for at least a half hour, maybe longer. I’m pacing like a lunatic, wondering what to do when my cell rings and it’s my daughter. She listened to my message and she was pulling on her jeans and heading straight over to my house. Whew! 

I call Nancy Next Door who says, yep, the alarm is still going off. She still doesn’t see smoke. But now I am really alarmed. I suspect that the alarm she’s hearing is coming from my basement; I remember that I store paint and all kinds of other cleaning products down there. 

I call my daughter who’s just about at my house and tell her to be VERY careful. “Touch the front door. If it’s hot, just call 9-1-1.” I’m still on the phone with her when she gets to the house. “The door is cool but the smoke alarm is still going off,” she says. “Should I go in?” I tell her to open the door and determine if she smells smoke. And she says, “Mom, you know I still can’t smell normally. I may not be able to smell smoke.

OH MY LORD. It’s been nearly an hour that the smoke alarm has been blaring! And at this point, like the Calvary riding up, my neighbor who has the key and her husband and full use of her olfactory senses walks up to my door. 

Now, the point to this re-telling is this: how goes the story you’ve been working on?

Because if you don’t have a gripping problem, a couple of interesting characters, and more than a few obstacles to provide a fair amount of tension (and a ticking clock is always good, too), then you don’t have much of a story. You might have some delightfully pretty paragraphs and such but readers need story. 

And P.S. the house didn’t burn down; it was just a faulty smoke alarm. (I’m partial to happy endings but your story can have whatever resolution you like.)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Wow, Cathy. You had me til the very end. I was on th edge of my seat, wondering what was wrong at your house and how would it end up. Thankfully, it ended up with everything okay.

Yes, if there's no tension, no internal struggle, no obstacles, it's a boring story.

(I'm hoping the smoke detector was replaced?)

Theresa Boedeker said...

You made your point with this story I kept reading wanting to know the outcome. The tension in a book keeps me reading past my bedtime over and over.

Glad it was nothing serious. The only time our fire alarms start to chirp and remind us the battery is low, or go off with a false alarm, is the middle of the night. One night I was up three different times changing the battery on three different alarms. Now what's the odds of that happening?

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Love the way you made your point!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, yep, my daughter replaced the smoke alarm in the basement the next day.

And Theresa, I was thinking it was just a battery problem as MY smoke alarms go off at night, too. How weird is that? But to have three different alarms go off? That's got to be astronomical odds!

Thanks, Sue! Had to step up my game what with you and Sioux giving such great life examples lately! ;-)

Renee Roberson said...

Cathy--great storytelling! I'm happy you had so many people available at the ready to help you, but I also understand not wanting to put people out for a possible low battery! We have an alarm system in our house that we rarely use (ssh!) and one day, I was out with my son in town and got a call from the alarm company that it was going off at our house. Of course I missed the first call on my cell phone because I thought it was spam. Then they called my husband at work and he called me when things got serious. I arrived back home about 30 minutes later to a neighbor telling me the fire department had come and gone, and my house was still standing. Somehow, when I opened the door leading out to the garage to run our errand, the blast of hot air came inside the house and triggered something on the alarm, which was located in the mudroom. Crazy! I felt bad all my neighbors had been out in the street worrying while I had taken our doxie to get a bath at a local dog salon, LOL! It wasn't a dead battery, but it caused almost as much confusion. Glad you also had a happy ending!

Angela Mackintosh said...

What a riveting ride of a story, Cath! I love the way you seamlessly wove in the "characters" and a bit of info on all of them and their distances from the alarm. The alarm automatically adds a time clock and urgency to the piece. Lately I've been trying to put time clocks on all my writing, whether it's an ice cream cone melting or ten minutes to a date's arrival.

I'm actually taking a lyric essay/prose poetry workshop right now, and it's completely the opposite of what we're told about tension and story. The idea is that the sound of words and language trump story. So it's the sound that tells a different sort of story, a more interior one, one that's more about questions than answers. I think it's a good counterbalance to traditional storytelling methods and combining the two could prove to be an interesting experiment. :)

Want to add a story twist? You could write this into a flash, and maybe it wasn't just a faulty smoke alarm but a paranormal spirit setting it off? ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Renee, I AM lucky to have good neighbors, particularly neighbors with good hearing!

And Ang, I actually thought this post would make a good piece of flash while I was writing it...AND I wondered if there was more to that alarm going off than bad wiring. But then, I always assume I'm getting messages from the Great Beyond. (And sometimes, I am!)

Good luck with that class--it sounds challenging but fun!

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