The little girl who walked through fire wants to show her pictures.
She opens a binder with her stiff, taped hands. One photo shows her posing
in her cheerleader uniform, and another shows her grinning beside her mother, surrounded by Pooh bears. Then she shows a newspaper photo
of a bedroom that is no longer a bedroom, just a black ashen hole.
She points out a heap of soot on the floor.
"This was my bed."
She is 9 years old. She likes Hannah Montana, lip gloss, tiaras, macaroni and cheese, and doll babies.
She wants to know what this story is about. She is told it's about how she got up from that bed and walked through flames hot enough to melt a television set.
It's harder to explain to her that the story is really about the kind of child she is. She is a little mother. She is a girl who is lovingly, intuitively protective of her small baby cousins. Everyone knows little girls like her. Even at the youngest ages, they are mysteriously attuned to the profound beauty of a mother's calling — her willingness to endure anything for her baby — even to walk through fire.
The little girl who walked through fire is wrapped in elastic, toes to neck. Hard plastic covers her face. Over her medical wrappings, she wears a Hannah Montana T-shirt and pink jeans. She is not smiling. She is remembering the fire.
Her voice is soft as a whisper.
"Everyone panicked but me."
• • •
At least 15 people were at home that night, including eight small children. This was a home open to all relations — sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Grandmother Shirley Pressley, famous for baking 15 cakes and 25 pies every Christmas and Easter, presided over this big, proud, boisterous Clearwater tribe.
Everyone has a slightly different memory of the fire. Much of what happened at 916 Eldridge St. at midnight Feb. 23 was blurred by flame and chaos.
The little girl who walked through fire may have the best memory of anyone. Makeila Pressley — better known as Kiki among Pinellas Youth Football cheerleaders — remembers taking her four toddler cousins into her aunt's bedroom to play. Their names are Titi, J-Rock, Mike-Mike and Tinker Bell.
She told the babies they were cheerleaders, and she was their coach. She had them climb on top of each other into cheerleader pyramids. Eventually, her cheerleaders deserted her. Kiki didn't feel well enough to follow. She curled up in her aunt's bed. Her mother, Davana, 25, brought her a Tylenol. Kiki drifted off to sleep.
In another bedroom, Kiki's Uncle Lester had fallen asleep watching the NBA. A shrieking smoke alarm in the dining room woke him up at midnight. He saw no fire in the dining room or kitchen. He tried the door of a small bedroom. It seemed to push back. He pushed harder and stuck his face in. A roar of flame burned a hole through his stocking cap. Kiki was inside but he didn't know it.
Uncle Lester ran through the house shouting fire.
Women screamed. Where were the babies? Grandparents Shirley and Lester Sr. shook themselves from sleep. Grandfather Lester ran through the house in his boxer shorts with a new Wal-Mart fire extinguisher.
Kiki's mother Davana rushed to the burning bedroom. She had kissed Kiki good night only 15 minutes before. Davana couldn't open the door. She, too, felt the heat pushing back. Uncle Lester and Grandfather Lester put their backs to it and forced the door partly open. Grandfather Lester emptied his fire extinguisher through the crack. All they saw were flames.
Davana tried to wedge herself through. She felt her hair burning. She couldn't get in. She could see the bed on fire.
"KIKI GET UP!"
Kiki didn't move. She didn't speak.
Uncle Lester ran outside and broke the bedroom window with his fist. Out gushed smoke and waves of heat. The window was just over his head. He couldn't see anything. But he heard movement.
That's all anyone knows about what happened in that room — except Kiki.
• • •
Certain images from that night loop through Davana's dreams. She sees herself walking into a surgical recovery room at Tampa General Hospital. Her daughter lies there, unconscious, almost unrecognizable. The charred skin on her face had been shaved, leaving large pink blotches. Her face had swollen, like a big ball. Her arms hung from slings, over her head. They bled from surgical slits that had been cut to keep the skin from bursting.
Davana remembers doctors telling her that morning Kiki might die. About half her body had been burned — the front of her legs and chest, her arms and hands, and her neck and face.
Davana remembers a flight to Cincinnati the next day. Kiki was being sent to the Shriners burn hospital there. Davana remembers a doctor in Tampa saying they needed to get on a plane NOW for Kiki to have a chance.
Davana and Kiki had rarely left Clearwater. Neither had ever been aboard a plane. Their entire world fell away as the plane went aloft.
• • •
Kiki lay in an induced coma for 21 days. She needed a tracheotomy and a ventilator to breathe. She endured 14 surgeries in which skin was taken from the unburned back side of her body and grafted to the wounds on her front side.
Davana stayed with her in Cincinnati. The family struggled to find air fare for visits. The man who had fathered Kiki when Davana was a teenager visited for a month. Most of the time, Davana kept vigil alone at Kiki's bedside, waiting to see if she would live.
She and Kiki endured intensive care for 39 days.
Finally, Kiki got off the ventilator. The tracheotomy was closed and she could breathe on her own. Wounds down to the bone gradually healed. She was transferred to the rehabilitation ward.
In mid April, she saw herself for the first time. Kiki was getting out of the bath. She glanced across the bathroom, into a mirror.
She cried out.
"Mama, I'm ugly."
Her mother, wrapping Kiki in her towel, told her, "No, you're beautiful. You'll always be beautiful."
"My hair is gone. When I go back to school, they're going to laugh at me."
The two cried together.
Davana covered the mirror.
• • •
Three weeks later, Kiki's spirit began to heal, too. During the excruciating, twice-daily stretching of her scar tissue, she'd cry out, "Help! Call security!" For her daily tutoring hour, she'd walk to the hospital's schoolroom toting Vienna sausages in a Barbie lunch box. Her tutor had never seen a Vienna sausage and didn't know how to open the can. She made friends with Ryan, a 9-year-old Ohio farm boy who had set his face on fire trying to light a wood stove with gasoline.
She felt ready to face the world again. Her therapists arranged her first trip to the mall with her mother.
For the outing, Kiki zipped herself into her elastic pressure suit she must wear for a year and a half to flatten her scars. Her hands and feet were also wrapped tightly, and her face was encased in a hard, clear mask. No 9-year-old would go to the mall like that. Over the wrappings, Kiki slipped on her blond Hannah Montana wig, her Hannah Montana cap and, finally, her tiara.
A hospital van delivered mother and daughter at the mall. Kiki paused at a fountain by the entrance. The water was turned off; only a puddle covered the bottom.
Kiki stared into the fountain for a long time. She perched a dime in her taped palm, and pitched it. It hit the concrete rim, bounced in. She pitched another dime. It went straight in.
"I wish my home never burns down again."
"I wish I always have my mama and daddy."
Four hours later, Kiki was back in her room, exhausted, wearing new Air Jordan sneakers. She sat on her bed, in her tiara, showing her cheerleader photo and the newspaper photo of the charred bedroom.
She wanted to tell what happened that night in the fire.
• • •
Kiki remembers lying in the bed. She felt heat. She felt her skin burning.
"I was on fire."
She couldn't move.
She heard commotion. She still couldn't move.
Then she heard a baby's cry. She knew that cry. It was Tinker Bell, somewhere on the other side of the door.
Kiki sat up.
She got out of the bed. She walked through the fire to the door. She opened it.
She saw her mother in the hallway and walked toward her.
"Mama, I'm on fire."
Her mother literally pitched her out the door into the yard, rolling her on the ground to get the flames out.
Kiki got up again, nearly naked, bleeding, covered with dirt.
"Tinker Bell is stuck in the house," she cried.
"I have to go back."
Her mother held her. Uncle Lester raced into the house.
He found Tinker Bell, sitting on the kitchen floor, in a cloud of smoke, wailing.
• • •
Kiki and Davana flew home from Cincinnati a week after her day at the mall. Half the family, and a television news crew, met her at the airport as she came through the gate in a wheelchair. She rushed into Grandmother Shirley's arms. A TV newswoman made her feel like a celebrity. On the street below, a limousine waited to whisk her to her new home.
But Kiki asked to stop first at her old home, the one that had nearly killed her. So they drove in the limo to 916 Eldridge St.
Kiki didn't want to get out. She peered through the limo window. She looked surprised. The house was still standing. Kiki had dreamed — or maybe wished — the house had been knocked down.
They went on. A crowd stood on the lawn outside her new home near Sunset Point. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins cried and cheered as she got out. She hugged her aunts. She didn't smile or speak.
Somewhere in the throng of grownups were her babies — Titi, J-Rock, Mike-Mike and Tinker Bell.
They were rounded up for Kiki. They had not seen their cousin in 73 days — since the night she had piled them all in the aunt's bed, since she stacked them in a cheerleader pyramid, since she had walked through fire to save Tinker Bell, the smallest.
They stared at her. They hung back. A baby ran, crying.
One was different. J-Rock, the 3-year-old, wouldn't leave her side.
Kiki looked straight ahead, her brown eyes revealing nothing. Then she looked at the ground, hiding under the brim of her hat. Her family ushered her inside. Uncle Dexter led everyone in a prayer of thanks. He praised God for making the family whole again.
The family declared a joyous amen. Kiki's mother hovered wordlessly, protectively. Kiki's grandmother kept watch from a quiet corner. Their eyes were guarded, heavy with knowing concern.
Kiki stood in the center of the cheering celebration.
She burst into tears.
After the party, Kiki still had her painful stretching exercises to do before bedtime. Her mother led her to a quiet room, J-Rock at their heels. Davana said he'd have to stay out. She shut the door on him.
An hour later, Kiki found her baby J-Rock, curled up on the floor, just outside the door, asleep.
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.