Chapter 3: Stay Alive
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Mazereen Apartments continued to burn and burn for hours despite the efforts of firefighters.
It got to the point where rescue officials had to pull out and wait for the helitanker to come. Two water dumps later and they gave the all-clear to continue the rescue operation.
It was a race against time, with the goal being; put out the fire before the sun, sets.
So there we were, my men and I, weaving back and forth between streets and posts, gathering as much of the injured as we can and assisting others in need of evacuation.
Thomas remains at the makeshift tent but only this time with Mason assisting by his side. The two men had come to a temporary truce, knowing well that their differences were the least of their worries at this point.
It was the least of everyone’s worries.
“Wait, Vanessa,” Matthew gets up from his position, which was him-arranging the used oxygen masks to the new ones-on his hands and knees.
Each and every one of us barely had any time to communicate with one another throughout the day, which was why I was startled when Matthew garnered my attention.
I have to blink a few times to adjust. “Matt?”
He’s taken off his coat and his sleeves are rolled all the way up to his shoulders. “When’s the last time you’ve changed your mask?”
“Uh... four hours I think...?” Came my bewildering answer.
There was hardly any time to process anything, we just did what we could and what we were told to do.
The hours pass one by one, ticking like grains of sand in an hourglass.
By the time anyone realized it, the evening had fallen and the fire still reigned true.
It seems impossible to put it out before night hits.
“Take that off, you’re breathing in recycled air at this point,” Matthew held out his hand and exchanges a new mask with my old one. “Every two hours, don’t forget.”
He’s firm in his statement and he had every right to be.
“Alright, got it-” Shuffling the straps against my face, I blew out a puff of air and felt an uncomfortable pinch within my lungs.
The sensation is sharp enough that I have to grasp my side and exhaled slowly.
It must have shown on my face because the silver-haired male is quick to point it out.
“You need to take a break, you’ve been going at it for hours non-stop.”
“After this,” I swatted at the air with my free hand, bending down to gather extra masks. “I left Elios behind earlier, he’s got two girls waiting for me.”
There wasn’t enough oxygen in the masks we had to make a full round trip with the girls. It was a risk carrying them all the way out with faulty protection.
So I had the older Vinyl stay with them while I quickly ran back here to retrieve new masks.
I couldn’t take long, he was still waiting for me.
“Do we need stretchers?” Matthew moves to pick up a walkie-talkie, one he must have gotten from one of the authorities so communication was easier. “How deep in the smoke were they?”
“Pretty deep, they’re huddled in a back corner alley right around the corner. No one’s seriously injured.” Ensuring everything was packed and sealed, I stood up on strained legs and hook the equipment over my shoulder.
“We’ll be exiting from the south side of Mazereen so inform Jared and Victor.”
“They’ll be there.” He’s getting to his feet. “But before you go, take this.”
Matthew procures a firefighter’s jacket. It’s big and bulky, with the sleeve long enough to bunch.
He shakes his head. “Take it, no arguments.”
Putting the jacket on, I flap at the loose sleeves at him so he was satisfied. “Happy now?”
He raises both hands in the air and shrugged.
I rolled my eyes playfully. “I gotta go, I’ll see you later.”
Leaving him, I began my trek back into the haze and cringed once again, as I came face to face with the deadly fumes. The helitanker dumping the water only made the smoke worse and it became very clear that was something to be concerned about.
Forget about the heat, you won’t be able to help others if you couldn’t breathe much less walk through the heaviness of it all.
Already, the number of volunteers has become less.
People are dropping faster than we can finish the job and I don’t blame them. My body is also reacting to the disaster with harsh consequences.
“Where on earth...” Jogging to the last place I last saw Elios, I have to pause and take a moment to understand where I was. Squinting took effort as I could barely see three feet in front of me.
Raising a hand to shield my face, I peer around for a luminescent rope wrapped around any nearby poles. Rescue officials had put those up so volunteers could use them for guidance.
Last I recalled, I passed by a bright neon tag, which meant-
Sounds of coughing in the distance made me turn my head in attention.
That’s where I left them.
I crossed the debris-filled street and exited out from the other side to an alleyway, quickly spotting three figures slouching behind a dustbin right under the fire escape.
“Hey,” I hastily went up to them, recognizing the bigger figure to be Elios. “Sorry, I got lost I couldn’t-”
His back is to me when I cut myself off upon noticing one of the girls passed out on the ground, unresponsive.
The other girl is hovering near, clutching at her unconscious older sibling with fear and desolation.
This couldn’t be good.
“Elios, how long has she been out?” I remove all the equipment I had on me and quickly handed it over to him.
“As soon as you left,” He turns to take the equipment but I froze, suddenly alert.
My lips move shakily. “Your mask...”
I’ve been too preoccupied with the safety of the two girls I didn’t realize Elios wasn’t wearing any form of protection against the smoke.
“I had to give it to Alice.” He gestures to the unconscious girl, oblivious to the state he was in. “Vera, can you put on the new mask? We have to get you and your sister out of here now.”
Vera, the only one conscious of the two, did as she was told, eyes brimming with apparent tears.
She probably thought they were not going to make it out.
Still, Elios had taken the time to know their names, presumably to ease their worries.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t be bothered with that, not when there’s no guaranteed victory nothing will go wrong and this was one of them;
Elios completely disregarded his safety.
“I’m okay, Vanessa.” He’s panting, his lips dry and chapped, his features abnormally pale.
He’s not okay.
The older Vinyl doesn’t have to see the shadows on my face to understand I am pissed.
Not only were the girls in danger, but he was too.
We just had to make it out of here.
“Come on,” Shaking my head, I gave him the other set of equipment and waited for him to put it on before anything else.
I told him not to be the hero, I told him to be careful.
The severity of his actions may have caused more casualties and I won’t be able to handle it if he becomes one of them.
“Vera-” The older Vinyl cuts himself off when a coughing fit immediately seized his attempt, fogging up the entirety of the mask.
“Elios don’t talk, let me think.” My brain did a brief rundown over the length of the trip we’d have to take between here and the safe zone.
Alice is unconscious.
Elios may fall over at any time.
Vera may lose her composure.
All three factors rounded up came back to one conclusion.
We were too far.
We might not make it.
“Listen to me,” I grasp his shoulder, shaking him hard when I see his body move sluggishly. “We’re going to have to move quickly. If you pass out here, we’re dead, do you understand?”
His eyes are cloudy and his body, despite being warm, has been blanketed by a weird chill.
“Elios!” My palm slap at his neck, startling his form into nodding vigorously. “You need to get up.”
He braces himself against the wall and shudders with pain before stumbling to a stand. The lack of response from him and how excruciatingly slow he picks up Alice is more than enough for me to internally panic.
We can make it.
We just had to move.
“Come on Vera,” I held out my hand for her and she dutifully took it, sniffling slightly against the mask that looked like it swallowed her whole.
We exit out from the cover of the alley and attempted to cross the street. Our journey is cut short when the sounds of propellers flew from above us.
They’re dumping the water.
But we’re still in here.
Before we can make it to the other side, there was the sound of loud crackling followed by a thunderous gust of black wind.
We hadn’t prepared for it.
So when the wind collided against our bodies, I felt the heat instantly stain my skin, searing burns.
“Shit!” Pulling Vera into my chest, I crouch on the ground and turn my back to the direction of the billowing smog so I had her protected. “Elios, stay there don’t come out!”
The older Vinyl instantly retreated back, pulling himself to hide behind the corner of the building.
Vera is clutching onto my arms for dear life, sobbing earnestly as we remain still and waited for the heat to settle itself.
“Vanessa?!” Elios shouts in concern from where he stands. “Are you alright?”
I take a deep breath, feeling my ears ring, feeling his voice echo farther and farther away.
Vera is still in my arms, my feet are planted on the ground, yet I can’t feel nor hear anything.
I don’t even realize I’ve sunk to the ground until Vera yelps in surprise.
“Miss?” She mumbles incoherently. “Are you okay? Can you move?”
Even though she was scared out of her mind she still had the drive to worry about others.
That, I can admire.
“Give me a second,” I tell her gently, needing my body to adjust to the change in temperature. The wave has stopped but the air remained hot. Hotter than what it was before.
The jacket Matthew gave me has thoroughly saved my life. I would’ve been seriously injured if I had refused his insistence.
Thank you, Nelle.
“Okay,” Letting Vera go, I made sure she wasn’t injured before turning to the older Vinyl. He’s poking his head out from the building, torn between going to get me or leaving Alice by herself.
I cleared my throat, feeling the rasp grit at the back of my throat. “All clear, let’s start moving.”
He shuffles from the building and jogs towards me. “Fuck, this heat,"
“It’ll only get worse.” Lying to him about this would be a waste of time.
We regrouped ourselves and continued onwards to the safe zone. It’s difficult to think, much less move, and the luminescent guidelines meant to help us are nothing but useless.
The haze is too thick to see anything and we’re slowing down.
My body is hurting and Elios is struggling to keep up.
Each step we take is a slow drawn-out agony of our thinning will.
“We’re almost there,” I mumble softly, the mantra meant for myself. Vera is holding my hand, walking briskly with my pace. Nobody says anything in this cloud of emptiness and black.
Just when I think I see the final stretch of guidelines, a loud sound erupts across the skies.
I glance at where we stand, out in the open, with no protection nor shield.
“Go!” Elios urges me to run, to get out of here first.
Vera and I dashed towards a nearby car and hid behind the wheels. Elios is right behind me only a meter away when the crackling increases and the gust of smoke happens all too quickly.
I’ve ripped the jacket off and thrown it on top of Elios’s fallen figure when the heat literally creates a blow-back, throwing us all to our behinds.
Stars exploded all across my vision, my body releases a wack of shivers. Pain, that’s all I feel.
I don’t take the time to adjust, I don’t take the time to feel it, I simply got on my feet and moved.
“Vera, get up, we’re going to run, now.” The little girl is in a daze and I don’t wait for her to understand what I say. “Elios, run, we have to run, come on.”
Any more and we’d die here.
We’re at our limit.
He seems to know that too and when that look, crosses his eyes, I feel my heart thump in my chest.
“Don’t do this to me,” I speak the words through gritted teeth. The exit can’t be that far but I can’t confirm anything when this blasted haze is making things difficult to see.
“Elios, come on, hold on a bit longer, we have to get these two out-”
“Vanessa,” My name slips out of his lips, an airless comment.
The jacket I’ve thrown at him is half falling from his shoulders. His face is nothing but pale and covered in soot. He’s taken the brunt from the heat...
“Fuck,” The curse is out before I can stop it as I watch him shift his grip, putting Alice down on the ground, gently, with no more energy. “Fuck-Elios, come on!”
Vera starts to cry.
“Go,” He urges silently. “Get them out.”
I have to make a choice.
Either risk staying here any longer with the civilians or leave Elios behind.
“Don’t you dare die,” I clutch at the collar of his shirt, pulling him back from the brink of unconsciousness. “You stay awake, Vinyl. You stay alive, do you understand!?”
Elios stares long and hard at me, and raises a hand, lacing it through my shaky one.
When he squeezes it reassuringly, I have to hold back the fear threatening to swallow me whole and refocused on what mattered.
“Vera, grab hold of my shirt and don’t let go.” I picked up Alice and used all my strength to hold up the weight as Vera kept herself by my side.
Elios doesn’t move from his position when I turn my back on him. “If you die, I’m going to kill you.”
He doesn’t respond.
The girls and I are running out of the haze before I could hesitate any further.
Every part of my body is resisting, every inch of my skin felt like it was burning, but I couldn’t slow down, I couldn’t stop, I had no time, I needed to be quick.
After what seemed like mindless running, we don’t stop until we’ve reached the edge and even when we emerge, my heart is still beating so rapidly and my skin feels clammy and warm.
Jared and Victor are waiting in the near distance when I come out, breathless and panting.
Their eyes go wide upon noticing my distress, the unconscious girl in my arms, and a sobbing one by my side.
“Shit, we weren’t sure if you were still in there-”
“Take them,” I’ve barely managed to hand Alice over to Jared when I literally hit the ground on my knees, tired beyond belief.
“The Helitankers are coming back to do another round,” Victor quickly grasps my back and shoulder, covering my shaking body with his.
In the distance, Jared has done what I asked, bringing Alice and Vera to safety.
“We need to go,” Victor stands and attempts to pick me up with him. “Come on-”
“I have to go back,” I can’t think, I can’t function, I’m feeling all sorts of emotions and all sorts of pain.
He’s still in there.
“If I’m not out in 3 minutes, tell Thomas-”
Victor tightens his grip on my shoulder, so much so that I flinch. The air around us swirled with fearful tension and calamity.
He doesn’t say a thing.
Just stares at me with those dark eyes, brown, and filled with sheltering intensity.
“There’s no time,” All his unsaid concerns and unspoken actions, I ignore them as I push myself off the ground and shrugged his hold away. “Do as I say, Victor.”
I expected him to do it.
I expected him not to hesitate, just as he’s done many times before.
But he does none of that.
He just stays in his position, dark eyes encased by the fog, wavering, holding... it’s hauntingly beautiful.
Victor isn’t like my other men. He doesn’t think with his heart, he thinks with his brain, and sometimes that’s what makes people think he’s a machine.
He doesn’t let his emotions affect his decisions nor does he allow hopeless endearments to get in the way of logic which is why I could always count on him to make the necessary judgments.
In a way, my men showed more affection than he ever did.
But as he stares at me now, I realize... I may just be one of the few people that he’s allowed, to see this side of him.
That he cared.
“I’m coming back,” There is no time for me to reassure him, no time for me to tell him anything else.
Yet before I completely disappear into the fog, I raise a hand above my head and nod. “Trust that I will.”
Talking had never been his strongest suit and at first, I thought it was because he didn’t want to waste his time, but that doesn’t seem true now.
Maybe he chose not to talk often because he didn’t know how to express what he wanted.
So he’d rather choose actions over mere words and as his gaze follows my form even after I turned my back... I know this was the one time he regrets it.