The Melody of Silence

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Chapter 7 - Nate

I shouldn’t have called her a bitch. I know that. I’m not over here playing some helpless victim. I shouldn’t have gotten riled up. I shouldn’t have cursed at her. I shouldn’t have let the fire in her eyes ignite mine.

Dammit, though, I’d wanted to. It wasn’t some involuntary thing to get angry. I was 100% willing. It seemed to me that the anger was the last salvageable piece of our relationship. If I couldn’t have the sweetness, the sex, the love, the friendship, the jokes, the adventure, or the future, I was going to take what I could get-- the fire.

What shocked me was that it shocked me. I’ve been hit thousands of times, but nothing to that point and nothing since has ever thrown me quite so much as the crack of her palm against my cheek. It was even worse than when Deb did it the first time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t deserve it. I know I did. I just didn’t think she would do it. Over the years, as I’d read and matured, I came to learn that she really was right that day. My circumstances were pretty unique. Not everyone solves problems with violence. So I’d tentatively come to believe that Alex, raised in a nonviolent household, was somehow magically capable of expressing her frustration without using her fists.

Hell, she probably was. From the astonishment on her face, that was her first time raising a hand to anyone. I ought to feel honored. I’d always had a special way of ticking her off, even when I wasn’t calling her a bitch.

I didn’t feel honored, though. I felt slimy. Sick. Cruel. Dirty. My darkness was leaking into her life, staining her, and we weren’t even together. What would it have done if we’d stayed together? Who would she be? I wasn’t stupid enough to believe she’d be better off.

I slipped back behind the bar, ignoring Monica’s questioning look, and busied myself with the rowdy customers. I wouldn’t even look at Alex, I resolved, uncapping two Budweisers and handing them over to the two regulars at the end of the bar. I wouldn’t speak to her, I promised myself as I tallied up a blond girl’s receipt, handed it over, and pretended not to notice the number she’d scrawled sloppily across the bottom when she handed it back.

When a fight broke out on the dance floor, I was almost hopeful. With any luck it’d be one of Al’s friends. There’d be an excuse to kick them out so I didn’t have to worry about what would happen when she came back to the bar for drinks. Or when her fiance came to the bar and recognized me.

“Nate,” Monica said urgently, looking at bouncer, Jack, who was preoccupied at the door, still unaware of what had broken out. I scanned the room, measuring the distance between Jack and the dance floor. He’d never make it in time. Fights have a strange effect on large groups of people. At first there’s a sort of push outward as people realize what’s happening. It’s like a perfect, circular force field is expanding, shoving the onlookers back like polarized magnets.

Then, if the fight goes on long enough, it takes on its own gravity. The force field falls and the onlookers get sucked in, each additional body adding to the mass of the fight, increasing its gravity until it turns into a violent, tumbling black hole, sucking up everything in its wake.

Once a fight gets like that there’s nothing a lone bouncer can do to stop it. In prison, the guards wouldn’t even come near us if shit got that bad. They’d keep their distance and break us up with tear gas and bean bag rounds.

This fight’s force field was beginning to collapse. Gravity was forming. And on the edge of the circle stood Alex, her face twisted and angry, screaming something at the two men rolling on the dance floor. Her fists were clenched and I recognized the thirst in her eyes. It was bizarre seeing it on her face, but I still recognized it. The gravity was pulling her in.

I vaulted the bar, sending pint glasses and tumblers scattering across the surface, and hit the edge of the crowd before Jack even made it past the not of people inside the door. As I shouldered my way through the mass of sweaty, booze-drenched bodies, I prayed the bouncer would hurry his ass up. I could handle it on my own, but I didn’t want to. If it got too out of hand it would be hard as hell to break up without violating the terms of my parole.

There were, by the time I reached the center of the circle of onlookers, four individuals locked in awkward, unpracticed combat. A skinhead-looking fucker with neck tattoos, who was straddling a sloppy looking young guy, hands wrapped in his shirt. Then there was the well-dressed man with his arm locked around the skinhead’s neck, trying to pull him off. Finally, Alex’s fiance, who was dancing around the three as if trying to determine the best way to wade in.

“Get back,” I said roughly, shoving him towards the edge of the crowd. If he recognized me, it must not have registered in his adrenaline-flooded, booze-drenched brain. With palpable gratitude, he sank back to the crowd and wrapped an arm around Alex’s shoulders.

The well-dressed guy didn’t give me much trouble either. I tugged him back off his victim and he lashed out instinctually with an elbow. It didn’t come close to hitting me. I wrapped a fist in the fabric of his shirt and held him at arm’s length away.

“I’m trying to help,” I barked, shoving him away. Alex caught his arm as he stumbled, helping him right himself. He made as if to dive back in, but she held him fast.

The skinhead, predictably, put up the greatest fight. He was snarling, his hand wrapped around the other guy’s throat, so intent on the kill he didn’t even notice me.

Ideally, I’d smack him over the back of the head with something hard. Or choke him out. Or just tackle him to the ground and pummel him him into submission.

None of those were options. Even if every member of the crowd told the cops I’d been acting for the greater good, my ass would be in cuffs and headed back east before the sun came up if I did an ounce of harm to the shithead.

Circling around so I was facing him, I got down low and shoved him back, hard enough that his hands broke loose from his victim’s throat and he tumbled back. The other guy scrambled away like a crab, giving me just enough room to step between them.

I didn’t even have time to bark any orders. The skinhead growled something under his breath and charged. I caught him with a hand on his shoulder, but he wrenched himself free and threw a punch. I ducked beneath it. He staggered and came back, throwing another. I turned, letting the blow glance ineffectively off my chin. He threw himself at me, trying to tackle me to the ground, and I staggered back a few steps.

The little fucker landed a couple good blows to my ribs before Jack finally showed up and pulled him off.

“Filthy faggots!” he screamed past me at his victim, who had clawed his way to his feet and was hanging off the well-dressed guy, blood streaming from his nose.

I was disappointed. How fucked up is that? There I was, standing witness to yet another hate crime, and all I felt was weary disappointment.

Alex and her friends clearly hadn’t started the fight.

I couldn’t kick them out.

* * *

I didn’t get home that night-- or that morning, rather-- until after five. It was well into fall and the days were getting longer. The air was crisp, nipping at my nose while I walked home.

The house was blessedly silent when I unlocked the door, and I didn’t even bother with a shower. For the first time in eons, I knew that the second I dropped on the couch I would be out like a light.

As quietly as possible so as not to wake Matty, I brushed my teeth and washed the worse of the bar grime from my hands and face. All the while, the couch called to me. When I finally collapsed onto it I barely had the presence of mind to kick off my shoes before sleep reached up and dragged me under.

I couldn’t have slept for long. It was still dark when the sound of screams plucked me from blissful oblivion and hurled me back into my body. I jack-knifed, looking around frantically, trying to pinpoint the source of the awful keening.

Deb’s room.

Shoving the scratchy wool blanket off me, I stumbled to my feet and ran for her room. Her door was unlocked and I shoved it open without knocking, my mind struggling to catch up with my senses.

Deb was, thankfully, alone. Yellow streetlights slanted across her bedroom, shining of the sweat that glistened on her skin. She was sprawled on her bed, the sheets a tangle around her ankles, tossing and turning, mumbling frantic pleas that crescendoed into frantic screams.

“Deb,” I muttered, crossing the tiny room in two strides and sitting on the edge of her bed. “Deb, wake up.”

She just moaned, tears streaming down her face, mingling with the sweat and soaking her pillowcase.

“Deb, wake up,” I said, louder, reaching out and taking hold of her clammy shoulder. I shook gently and she jerked upright with a strangled scream, shoving me away and scrambling back against the headboard.

“Easy,” I tried to soothe, backing away with my hands out, palm towards her. “It’s just me, Deb. It’s just me.”

Have you ever heard of a substance called “oobleck”? It’s a nasty mix of cornstarch of water that science teachers use to demonstrate non-Newtonian fluids. Its claim to fame is that it, depending on what you do to it, it acts like both a solid and a liquid. So, for example, if you punch it it acts like a solid and if you fill a tub with it and walk over it, it’ll support your weight. But you can also swish your hand around in it or pour it from one container to another.

My sister Deb was the emotional equivalent of oobleck. Hurt her, piss her off, take away her drugs, and she’d harden up and make you rue the day you crossed her. Sit still and offer her some respite and she’d melt into a puddle of vulnerability.

As soon as her eyes focused on my face, she was scrambling across the bed and hurling herself into my arms. Her body shook violently and my shirt did little to muffle her hysterical sobs.

“Sshh,” I tried to soothe, walking us back to the bed and sinking down onto the edge. Deb smelled like stale beer, sex, and sweat. I tried not to breathe through my nose, not because it was overpowering, but because the smells and sensations took me back to shared moments of fear and comfort from our childhood.

“Were you there?” she mumbled senselessly, between sobs, scarcely able to breathe around her hysteria.

“Was I where, Deb?” I asked, stroking her oily hair and praying she would quiet down before Matt woke up.

“Were you there when it happened?”

My heart sank. What happened to Deb never left me alone. If the guilt wasn’t looming over me, casting a shadow over my life, it was following behind me, taking chunks out of my ankles. It was an ever-present horror of fear and regret and, if it was that bad for me, I can’t imagine what it must have been to Deb. If I thought about it for any length of time I realized it was a miracle she was as stable as she was.

“You know I wasn’t,” I said. Then I went on, knowing I wasn’t saying the right thing but unable to generate anything better. “He’s dead now, Deb. He can’t hurt you.”

Deb shook her head, sucking in a shuddering breath and releasing it on a heartwrenching sob.

“Not that,” she moaned. Then she pulled back, peering up at me in the semi-darkness with puffy, glazed eyes and wary accusation in her gaze. “Were you there when... when Will... when Will was...” then she broke off again, strangled by her grief. Realization poured over me like so much glacial runoff.

Will.

My buddy, Will. Will Hammond, the baby-faced corrections officer. Will, the CO who got his dumb, defenseless self in the middle of a brawl his first day on the job. Will, whose pasty, naive ass I had rescued from the fray for no more selfless reason than that it was mac’n’cheese night and I didn’t want his senseless, grisly death to ruin my appetite.

Will who, thereafter, clung to me like a lost puppy. Who smuggled me contraband to cut deals with, secured me the best jobs, and subtly rearranged room assignments so I didn’t have to sleep with three hundred pounds of predatory skinhead in the bunk above me.

Will, who promised to swing by Deb’s place periodically and check on her. Who went above and beyond in driving to the city at least once a week to do so, despite his crazy hours. Will, whose death a year ago, now that my head had been removed from my ass, seemed to correlate pretty damned well with the start of Deb’s slide back into drug abuse.

“Fuck, Deb,” I muttered, pulling her closer. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He thought you’d be mad,” she said around hiccups.

I would’ve been. I sent him to check up on her. Not fuck her. It still would’ve been nice to know, though. Especially after he died. Maybe if I’d known I could’ve pressed her to get help before her grief drove her back to to the needle.

“I loved him,” she sobbed when I didn’t respond, her arms almost painfully tight as she tipped her head back and looked up at me again. “Were you there, Nate?”

Yeah, I was fucking there. Will died in one of only three full-blown riots I’d lived through during my piddling sentence. He was the only fatality on the officers’ side. It was him and two prisoners. Five officers wounded. Twenty prisoners, three of them serious enough to earn an extended stay in the relative comfort of the infirmary. Not that I’d told her any of that when she showed up four days later for her weekly visit.

I didn’t break the news to her gently, either. I thought he was nothing more than acquaintance to her. “It wasn’t a big deal,” I had lied to her to quell her worry. She’d seen it on the news and showed up half in a panic. I’d thought at the time she was worried about me. Dumbass. “Only a couple people were killed. Nothing like last time. But you should know that Will, the CO, won’t be coming to check up on you anymore.”

I remember, now, how her face paled at the news. How she’d excused herself very shortly after that. I’d been so wrapped up in my own pain and guilt, I hadn’t thought anything of it. Fucking idiot.

“Yeah,” I said reluctantly. “I was there.”

I should have lied.

“Why didn’t you save him?”

“I couldn’t get to him in time.”

“But you were there. Did you even try? Why didn’t you save him, Nate?” Her voice was half-hysterical. Like, if she could only convince me I should have done better I could go back in time and fix it.

“I tried. He was too far away.”

“Too far away...” she echoed, trailing off into ominous silence. Her arms loosened, her eyes suddenly dry as she pulled away and glared up at me with steely accusation and jaded disappointment. My oobleck sister, morphing back into a solid.

“I swear, Deb,” I pleaded, wondering why I was so desperate for her forgiveness. I shouldn’t care. “I couldn’t get to him. I swear to you I tried. I was too far away.”

“You’re always too far away,” she said sadly. Then she shoved herself off my lap and left me on the bed. I heard the shower start in the bathroom and I heard her sobbing through the wall. At the time, I told myself I didn’t go her because I knew she didn’t want whatever comfort I had to offer. In retrospect, I think I just didn’t want to deal with her condemnation.

Nevermind that she was right.

* * *

Deb froze me out after that. Ask me on my deathbed for my five greatest regrets, and I’ll tell you that letting her do so is one of them.

As my relationship with my only remaining family grew colder, so too did the weather. Colorful leaves and crisp evenings gave way to bare branches and bitter winds. Halloween decorations appeared. Matt wanted to dress up as an auto mechanic. His mother bought him a doctor costume and I didn’t mind a bit. I loved that the kid looked up to me, but I wanted him to have loftier goals than the example I was setting.

Halloween was an affair. I took the night off work and Deb pounced on the excuse to be out of the house for a night. I knew she was going to a party to get wasted. I knew I should care, and maybe I even did. Just not enough to put up with the bullshit I’d get for stopping her.

So it was just Matt and I. No way in hell was my kid going to be knocking on doors in that hellhole of an apartment building, so we got in the car and drove to a nicer neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. People looked at me funny, but Matt was far and away the cutest miniature doctor on the block and none of the stepford wives had the heart to turn him away just because his escort was so unsavory.

Somewhere between blocks three and four, Matty realized he’d lost his plastic stethoscope. That set off a two minute crying jag which prompted no fewer than four concerned adults to stop and inquire suspiciously after his well-being.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?” one woman asked, glaring at me warily from the corner of her eye.

“Where’s your mama?” asked another.

After we got home, Matt and I sat on the living room floor and tallied up his haul. He did pretty good, and when I told him as much he grinned at me with chocolate-stained teeth.

“What’s your favorite?” he asked, looking down at the pile of sweets.

“I dunno, buddy,” I said, sifting through the pile. “Snickers, I guess. Where are we gonna hide all this so your mama doesn’t get it?”

“My closet!” he said excitedly.

“Yeah, I bet you want it in your room.” I rolled my eyes and reached out, mussing up his hair. “Stay here for a sec, okay?”

Leaving him on the floor to sort through his stash, I went to the kitchen and opened up the freezer. Taking out a large back of stir fry vegetables, I tore open the package and emptied it into a gallon ziploc. The ziploc went back in the freezer. The veggie bag returned, with me, to the living room.

Matt looked at me dubiously when I sat back down and offered it to him.

“To hide it,” I explained. “Nobody will ever bother looking in the veggie bag, since veggies are gross.”

Excellent parenting, I know, conceding the vegetable argument like that.

He laughed and took the bag, stuffing candy in by the handful. I didn’t notice until later that night, when Matt was in bed and the house had fallen silent, that he’d separated out every last fun-sized Snickers bar and left them in a pile beside the couch.

November deepened the cold outside and did nothing to thaw the iciness between Deb and I. Just when I was on the verge of crossing the bridge and attempting an apology, she came home so fucked up I had to call in sick from work to sit with her and make sure she didn’t die. That pissed me the hell off, and any thoughts I had of mending fences flew out the proverbial window.

December brought intense blizzards that kept Matty home from school and plunged the apartment into a bitter, near-unlivable kind of cold. Naturally, the central heating didn’t work. Most of our neighbors, I suspect, resorted to space heaters, but Deb refused. She’d ended up in foster care after a fire killed her parents, so she didn’t care for risks like that.

So we huddled in our arctic apartment, bundled in layers and buried in blankets. Then Matt caught a cold and I put my foot down and bought a single low-voltage space heater. We cleared out an entire corner of the living room and set it up far away from anything that might be flammable, and then huddled around it, Deb glaring and anxious, Matt sniffling and coughing, me distracted and pissed off that I couldn’t do better by my family.

Most of December passed in a blur. I had finally saved up enough money to move us out of Deb’s apartment to a nicer place a little closer to Red’s shop. To my consternation, however, the place we were looking at didn’t have any available units until January. Deb and I conferred and agreed to wait. You can add that to my list of regrets.

We should have just found another place.

I got home from work at 4 am on the morning of December 16th. Deb was asleep on the couch, Matt in the nest we had made for him beside it. The space heater was trickling out just enough warm air to keep the room warm, but the rest of the apartment was barely warmer than outside.

The hot water was virtually nonexistent at that point, so I showered and dressed quickly, clenching my teeth against chills as I hurried back to the living room and, as quietly as possible, stretched out on the floor beside Matty and covered myself up with our last remaining blanket. Just two weeks, and we’d be out. We’d all have our own rooms. The hot water would work.

I drifted off with that fantasy in my mind.

I woke to the smell of smoke. Not wood smoke. Not cigarette smoke. Not burning-rubber smoke.

Get-the-fuck-out smoke.

Deb and Matt were still asleep, both of them coughing lightly but resting peacefully in the unusual warmth.

“Deb,” I said, shaking her shoulder. “Wake up.”

“Fuck off,” she mumbled, pushing my hand away. Craning over Matt, I leaned close and hissed in her ear.

“Deb, there’s a fire. Wake up!”

I jerked away just in time for her to bolt upright, her eyes wide and terrified.

“Matt!” she gasped, looking down at her son, who was still out.

“Stay calm,” I told her, even though my own heart was hammering so hard I thought it would burst right out of my chest. “Stay calm, Deb. We’re going to be fine. Get shoes on and get Matty up but don’t fucking scare him. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Lie.

The smoke was thick in the air, hovering in an ominous cloud near the ceiling. Staying as low as possible, I crawled out of my blankets and jogged to the kitchen. Snatching three kitchen towels from their drawer, I tossed them on the ground, opened up the fridge, and upended a gallon of water over them.

When I returned to the living room, Deb was wearing shoes and a jacket. Matt was sitting on her lap, his face pressed against her chest, dozing in and out as she struggled to cram his small feet into shoes.

I shoved my feet into my boots and handed her one of the wet towels.

“Use this to cover your face,” I said, holding my arms out. She handed Matt over and I grabbed a blanket from the couch and did my best to wrap it around him, a feeble shield against whatever we were about to face in our escape attempt.

Deb was trembling and pale.

“We should go out the window,” she said.

“Daddy?” Matt mumbled, looking up at me, finally catching on to the stress around him.

“Everything’s okay, kiddo,” I lied to him. You’ve done fire drills at school, right?”

He nodded, his bleary eyes confused.

“Okay, good. One of the other apartments is on fire, so we have to clear the building out so the firefighters can do their job, okay?”

He coughed lightly, his eyes widening. “There’s a fire?”

“Yeah, buddy. We’re gonna get out, though.”

“It’s hard to breathe,” he observed.

“I know,” I said, trying like hell to keep my voice even. Deb was glued to my side, her hand wrapped so tight around my arm I was starting to lose circulation. “I’m gonna put this towel over your face, okay? It’s a little bit cold and it’ll feel funny but it’ll make it easier to breathe so don’t take it off or let it drop. Got it?”

He nodded, but his lip trembled and tears leaped into his eyes.

“I’m scared,” he mumbled, as if he was ashamed of the fact.

“I know,” I said. “It’s gonna be okay, though. You just hang on to me, and your mama and I are gonna get you out.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, little man.” Before he had time to extract any more empty promises, I carefully draped the wet towel over his face and held him closer to my chest. His hands clenched in my shirt and I think even if I’d let go he’d have stayed there, clinging like a koala.

“Nate, I hate fire,” Deb said, following alongside as I walked to the door and tested the doorknob. Warm but not burning.

“I know,” I whispered impatiently. “We’re gonna get out. Just hang on to the back of my shirt and do not freak out on me, okay? If you go running off I can’t come after you. I gotta get Matt out.”

She nodded tearily, and her hand twisted the back of my t-shirt. Sucking in a deep breath, I pulled the door open and we stepped out into the hall.

The second we entered the hallway, the heat went from toasty to scorching and the smoke went from annoying to choking.

“Stay low,” I coughed, crouching down. Deb’s hand tightened in my shirt. Matt squirmed in my grip. All three of us hacked and coughed and stumbled toward the stairs. The hallway was crowded, the air filled with the sound of screaming and the distant roar of the fire. This wasn’t some small electrical fire, spreading smoke through the vents, I realized with a sinking chill. Half the building was ablaze, and if we didn’t get out soon there was a good chance the entire godforsaken thing would collapse on top of us.

I hitched one shoulder against the wall and used it to guide my way. The smoke was so thick I could barely see three feet in front of me, and what I could see was blurred by tears as my eyes burned and wept.

My left hand was under Matt, holding him up. The right was looped around the back of his head, and I used that hand to hold my own sodden towel against my face. It didn’t do enough. Within minutes, my throat was raw and swollen and I was coughing more than I was breathing. Deb wasn’t faring any better.

“Nate!” she cried out between coughs as we staggered down the stairs. “I... can’t... breathe.”

“You’re fine!” I yelled back as someone ran passed us, clipping me in the shoulder and causing Deb and I to stumble to our knees. I pulled in a deep breath before reaching back with my right arm and grabbing hold of Deb’s shirt. Muscles burning, lungs screaming, I dragged both of us upright and we continued our clumsy escape.

The stairway had no exit of its own. I couldn’t get my eyes to open for more than seconds a time, so we were navigating entirely by memory. I knew that, at the bottom of the stairs, there was a doorway. That we had to pass through that doorway and traverse another fifty feet of hallway before it opened up into the lobby.

When I blinked my eyes open I could see the light of the lobby. I could see flashing lights. I could also see thick black smoke and ominous, flickering orange firelight. I chose to see the bright side. We were going to make it.

Deb and I staggered onward, pressed against the wall. Matt coughed and coughed and coughed, his small, blanket-wrapped body trembling violently in my arms. I know I must have been holding on to him too tight. My grasp must have hurt him, but he made no attempt to escape. He just held his towel to his face with one hand, clung to my shirt with the other, and trusted me to keep him safe.

If she’d had the breath, maybe Deb would’ve explained to him that I really shouldn’t be trusted like that.

We were almost there. The flashing lights were getting brighter and when I blinked my eyes open I could see the dark outline where the hallway widened and opened up into the lobby. Deb was still with me, and her grip on my shirt was as much a crutch as a guide, pulling so hard the neckline was strangling me almost as badly as the smoke.

We were stumbling into the lobby when I heard the deafening crack, followed closely by the sound of splintering wood. Instinct took over. I threw myself to the ground, ignoring Matt’s cry of protest as my weight covered him. Somewhere behind me, Deb screamed, and the world exploded. Fire and debris rained down on my back and all I could do was cover Matt with my body, cover my head with my hand, and pray.

When the chaos faded, all that was left was smoke, fire, and Deb’s scream.

I’ve heard all kinds of screams in my life. I’ve heard angry yelling, terrified squeals, mournful cries, and pained howls.

I had never in my life, until that night, heard anything like that wail of pure agony. I struggled to push myself off the ground, holding Matt against me, and looked behind us.

My vision was blurry with tears, but the sight is somehow crystal clear in my memory. Deb, stretched out on her stomach on scorched carpeting. Her hands, clawing uselessly at the ground. Her legs, buried in burning rubble. Somehow, the sour stench of burning flesh found its way through the acrid smoke.

Her screams were wordless and shrill, drawn out and agonized in spite of the choking smoke. Matt had gone limp, either from smoke inhalation or from our fall, a fact I barely took time to note as I slung him over a shoulder with one hand and reached down with the other, grabbing hold of Deb’s wrist.

I pulled as hard as I could, trying to free her from the rubble. I put everything I had into it, and all I managed to do was lose my footing and slam into the ground.

Deb continued to scream.

Matt tumbled off my shoulder, unconscious.

What remained of the ceiling above us cracked and buckled and groaned.

“Deb,” I choked, dropping her hand. “I’ll be... back. I’ll come back.”

“Nate!” she screamed, my name merging with another piercing wail of pain as she clawed at the carpet, trying to pull herself free.

“I’ll...” I broke off on a fit of coughing that I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t leave her with even a shitty, empty promise that I was going to come back for her. The sound of Deb’s screams faded and all I could think was that I needed to get the fuck out. I needed to breathe.

Sucking in useless lungfuls of burning smoke, I scooped Matt’s limp form off the ground and begged my arms not to give out as I staggered toward the door. Every few steps, my knees buckled, and every few feet I shoved myself upright once more and threw myself blindly towards the flashing blue-and-red lights.

I didn’t realize we’d made it until someone tried to take Matt from me and voices broke through the buzzing in my ears. Even then, I still couldn’t open my eyes and my lungs didn’t seem ready to accept the fresh air. I dropped to my knees and curled over Matt, shoving away the hands that were trying to take him from me.

“Let go, sir,” someone said, pulling at my arms. “We need to provide aid.”

I coughed and hacked and retched and held him tighter.

Fortunately, I didn’t have the strength to put up an effective fight and before long Matt had been pried from my arms and I was alone, choking on air, my mind too oxygen-deprived to make sense of what was happening.

All I knew was that I needed to go back in.

Somehow, I found my feet and used the warmth of the fire and the sound of the greedy flames to guide my way back to the entrance of the building.

“Stop!” someone yelled, grabbing my arm. Without thinking I wrenched myself free and staggered forward. Fire heated my face and I pried open gritty eyes to see orange flames dancing in the open doorway.

I was halfway to the door when the building groaned, moaned, growled, and collapsed in a sudden, screaming tumble of brick and flames.

I sank to my knees, heedless of the debris raining down on me and the smoke cramming its way into my abused lungs. Deb had probably long since succumbed to smoke inhalation or shock, but I could still hear her screaming. The building collapsed, burying her in rubble, and all the while, in my head, she wailed and cried and begged for help.

I’m still waiting for her to stop.

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