I was waiting in line for an appointment I never intended to attend when everything changed. It was, for lack of a more delicate word, boring. Excruciatingly, mind-numbingly boring. The whole thing was so normal, but I was on edge before it even began. I wouldn’t know when the mission was over. There was no signal, and I didn’t have a cell phone, so all I had to rely on was the time. Every second of this day had been planned, at least for us, but none of this was supposed to happen.
All the chairs were full of passive visitors, engrossed in magazines and glaring screens. So I stood.
I tapped my foot against the tiles, shifting back and forth, resisting the urge to pace the room. My eyes were glued on the clock, rendering me just as oblivious as the rest of them when it happened.
After the first detonation, it was all a blur. The floor shook beneath my feet, leading me to pray to whoever was listening that this was all a mistake. The screeching blare of sirens filled the air after the second shudder, and I fought to remain calm. There hadn’t been a sizable earthquake in Justix city in... ever. But this wasn’t an earthquake, I knew that somehow. Somewhere inside me, where all the deepest fears lurk. My thoughts went straight to Elliot. Was he safe?
Panic had spread with the thick scent of smoke rising from the lower floors. I had to stay calm. This was a visitors floor, a string of waiting rooms packed with people not trained for an emergency. And, what do you know, the interns managing the floor had managed to get lost in the chaos. what a surprise. I breathed in deep, fighting the urge to run for the fire escape and get myself out here. No. This was what I wanted, right? To help people? Here was my chance.
With a few tactfully placed elbows, the throng of screaming, panicked people jostled out of the way of the nearest table. Standing on the table, I could finally hear the calm voice emanating from the speakers above telling the floor to evacuate the building calmly, in an orderly fashion, adhering by the safety manuals posted by all stairwells. If these people would just shut up and listen, maybe they’d already be out of the danger already. I decided to tell them as much.
In the mayhem, no one missed the metal water bottles I found on an adjacent table. They were quite trendy these days, but more importantly, they were obnoxiously loud. I demonstrated this for my now very complacent audience, who were all too happy to gawk at the shouting teenage girl standing on a table, banging two bottles together. I fought the urge to curl back into myself, to run away. I could feel heat on the back of my neck and I wasn’t quite sure if it was from the distant flames or my own embarrassment.
“Shut up! All of you!” Miraculously, the dolts listened, some of them actually pulling out cell phones to video even while the same calm voice reminded them that this was not, in fact a drill. I dropped the water bottles, and they clanged to the floor. “It’s evacuation time! single file, nice, orderly lines, to the stairwell, ok?” No one questioned my highly questionable authority to be telling them what to do. Turns out all you need is some smoke and a fire alarm to turn a horde of people into a herd of sheep. Noted.
The first woman in my small army of terrified petitioners had reached the stairwell. At least, I guessed as much from the pained shriek around the corner, in the direction I’d gestured. I hopped down from my perch, pushing my way through the once more chaotic crowd to reach her.
“Ow,” she wailed, “It’s hot!” The woman was short and round, with auburn hair pulled back beneath a fashionably small hat. She actually reminded me quite a bit of Aspen, just without quite the same... spirit. She looked at me with wide eyes dripping with mascara and I narrowly dodged her flailing hand. She clutched her other hand to her chest, but even without looking I knew she had burnt it on the doorknob. The fire was in the stairwell. Smoke had started to flood the hallway, lurking above the amassed heads in a noxious cloud.
I coughed, struggling to raise my voice while ash scratched my throat. “Everybody down! Follow me, hands and knees people, hands and knees.”
Not a single person listened, but I dropped into a crouch and pulled the woman with the burned hands down with me. A few others around us followed suit, and before long the herd instinct took over. Actions, not words.
In frenzied, shuffling movements, I began to lead the crowd towards the closest fire escape. I ripped some fabric from the hem of my shirt and doused it in water from the bottles, which were still on the floor where I left them. The wet fabric clung to my skin where I pressed it against my face. Several deep breaths later, I was breathing easier. Through muffled cries, I encouraged the people around me to do the same, counting on the herd instinct to spread the message.
When we reached the window with the fire escape, all the order I’d managed to secure slipped from my grip, dissolving into full-fledged chaos as fists flew in the mad scramble for safety. Before long, they were slipping out the exit in large numbers, but I didn’t stick around to see them all out. There were other people on this floor.
Water bottles in hand, I made my way down the hallway on all fours, checking for people who hadn’t evacuated. Most of the floor’s occupants seemed to have found their way to a fire escape. All the stairwells were unusable, as a light press from the back of my hand against the doorknobs verified. The fire escape had been a good call, then. The adrenaline was pumping through my body now, and I almost didn’t hear the man shouting. Almost.
“Help! Help!” I fought the urge to rub my eyes and squinted through the smoke, trying to follow the noise. He was outside one of the bathrooms, swinging his head frantically and standing despite the now thick black haze swarming the air. Had he never heard of basic fire safety?
His suit was a mess, smeared with soot already and torn in several places. But his eyes... bloodshot and feverish, terrified, they scared me.
“You! You! You need to help me find my son. My son! My son... I can’t find him, he’s missing, help...” He rambled on, dropping to his knees by my side and shaking me harshly by the shoulders. I resisted the urge to squirm away. He needed my help, and blazes if I wasn’t going to help him.
“We’re going to find your son, sir, don’t worry.” He wasn’t looking at me anymore, his head already starting to droop from the smoke inhalation. “What’s his name? Your son? Can you give me a physical description?”
I thought back to all those action movies I’d obsessed over as a kid. When were the professionals getting here? Were they already here, putting out the fire downstairs?. But the fire wasn’t just downstairs anymore. The smoke was pressing in, and the floor was getting really, really hot. My thoughts drifted back to Elliot, and I felt just like the jittery dad. What time was it? He was supposed to be already out of the building, right? And what about Micah? He was a few floors down from me, had he... No. They made it out. They had to.
The man mumbled something, snapping my spinning thoughts out of their chaotic and self-sabotaging orbit. I had a child to save. “His name... His... Oh, my sweet little Theodore. He just went to use the bathroom real quick, I need...” Tears cut through the grime on his face, and I resisted the urge to slap him. He wasn’t allowed to mourn yet, not while his son might still be out there.
“How old is he? What does he look like? Where did you last see him?” But he was far, far away already, and I didn’t have time to waste. “Come on.” I pointed in the direction of the nearest fire escape and, with a shove to get him going, I was gone.
“Theo! Theodore! Where are you?” I could barely hear my own blazing voice through my makeshift mask, and sweat laden with ash kept dripping into my eyes. “Theodore!”
The only answer to my increasingly frantic cries was the harsh crackle of flames rising through a gaping hole before me. The floor had given out. That wasn’t a good sign.
While I searched, I passed several people trying to find their way out, and I pointed them all towards the fire escapes. But none of them were a small boy who answered to Theodore. He was in here, somewhere, and I was going to find him if it killed me.
The thought hadn’t really occurred to me until then. I might die in this fire. I might not make it out alive. I’d been so focused on other people, other problems... should I leave? Get in one of the dwindling lines for the fire escapes and join the last few stragglers evacuating? I knew what Elliot would tell me, and unbidden, his voice flooded into my mind.
Always the optimist, he’d tell me the little boy had probably escaped in the initial burst, that I hadn’t seen him, had I?
Then I hear Aspen, telling me that I’d already breathed in an unhealthy amount of dangerous chemicals from the smoke and any more could cause serious respiritory problems. Tammy, warning that the building had already sustained extreme foundational damage and things would start to collapse on my floor soon. Cade reasoning that someone had probably taken the poor lost kid under their wing, Vera yelling at me for dawdling, Micah calling me a martyr...
I’d never been particularly good at listening to my friends.
“Theodore!” I yelled until my throat was hoarse and rough with ash, until I finally, finally, heard him reply.
“Mom? Mommy, is that you? I’m scared, Mommy, I’m scared!” His voice broke my heart, trembling and afraid, so innocent.
I followed the petulant wail to a nearby bathroom, and in my haste, I didn’t see the broken tile through the haze. It caught my foot, sending me sprawling across the scalding floor.
I pulled myself to my feet, dragging my left foot behind me while my head fogged with pain. I definitely sprained it, maybe worse. Dirt and ash from the tiles I’d fallen on had gotten into cuts I hadn’t known I’d had. But I moved forward, until eons later I made it to the bathroom marked “family.” The door was unlocked, and I pushed the hot wood ajar with stinging fingers.
“Theodore? Is that you?”
“You’re not my mommy.” It wasn’t a question, really, but he said it with the intonation of a child who hadn’t quite yet given up hope.
“No, I’m not, but I’m here to help you, ok?” He was small and thin, and without a doubt related to the frazzled man. They shared the same dark hair and eccentric eyes that fit just as well on a scared kid as on a frantic parent. I’d found Theodore.
I’m sure I must have looked nearly as crazy as I felt, covered in some kind of white dust from the collapsing ceiling and hair a frazzled mess.
“We’re going to get out of here. Are you hurt anywhere?” He didn’t respond, just stared at me with empty eyes, so I kept talking in a low, even voice. He was in shock.
“My name is Ara, and I’m going to call you Theo, ok? How old are you, Theo?”
Something crashed outside and I jumped, wincing when my left foot brushed the ground and pushing Theo behind me. The door to the bathroom had swung shut behind me when I’d come in. I pushed, I pulled, but the door wouldn’t budge. My mind was whirring.
“Theo, you go hide behind the toilet, ok? Can you do that for me?” The crash seemed to have temporarily shaken him from his stupor, but just to be safe, I kept asking him simple questions. I crossed the room and grabbed the trash can from the corner. It was fairly heavy, plastic, but with a metal base meant for wheels to be attached to for easy movement.
“How old are you, Theo?” I repeated my question from earlier, and his response was so quiet I almost thought he hadn’t replied. “Seven, huh? That’s a big age. I’m actually nearly ten years older than you, isn’t that crazy? Can you tell me how old I am, Theo?” My dad had always used simple math problems to calm me down when I was younger.
Before he could answer, I raised the trash can with a grunt and limped towards the door with as much momentum as I could muster before I planted my right foot and rammed the base of the can into the door. I tried again, and again, and again, and eventually sweat was soaking my clothes in the baking heat and strands of my hair had begun to fall loose from my braid. Finally, that blazing wooden door began to crack and splinter with the weight of whatever was on the other side. I pulled my aching body out of the way just in time to watch a jumble of plaster and metal supports cascade through the new opening that formed with a sharp crack of splintering wood.
I turned to Theo, still crouched, wide-eyed, behind his ceramic shield. “Come on, kid, we’re getting out of here.”
I started to lead the way up the miniature mountain, but before I made it far, the pile shifted beneath my feet and I fell. The sharp, broken end of a metal beam ripped into my thigh as I slid and I clenched my jaw shut against a rising scream, not wanting to scare Theo. But Theo already looked plenty scared.
I forced out a smile for him and gestured to the sliver of the doorway. “How about I just give you a boost?”
With my help and guidance, he made his way slowly up the precarious slope without a single slip. When he reached the top, he turned back.
“What do I do now, Ana?” I didn’t have the heart, nor the energy, to correct him.
Instead I focused on trying not to cry. “You’re going to slide very carefully down the other side, like on a playground. You like playgrounds, right?”
He nodded sagely, in the way only little kids can. “And you’ll be right behind me?”
“I’ll be right behind you.” I swallowed, trying not to let my fear show. “But I might take awhile, ok? So don’t wait for me on the other side. I’m going to need you to follow my directions very carefully, can you do that?”
He nodded again.
“When you get into the hallway, turn right, then turn left on the second left, ok? The second one. Repeat it after me. Right, then second left.”
“Right, then second left.”
“Good. Then you’ll see a window across the room. Go to that window, open it if it’s not already open, and climb out the window. There will be steps outside the window, and you can walk down them just like normal stairs. Can you remember all that?” I was talking fast, maybe too fast, but he needed to leave soon or he wouldn’t make it.
He recited back my instructions faithfully, and I let out a sigh of relief that hurt far more than it should’ve. “Will there be firefighters? I’ve never met a firefighter before, but I have a toy firetruck! They’re so cool.”
“Yes, lots of firefighters! But you have to go quickly, or you’ll miss them! Quick!” I fought the urgency rising in my voice. It was good that his excitement was stronger than his fear, at least for now.
I held my breath until I heard his muffled, “I’m ok!” From outside the bathroom, and the patter of his footsteps faded from earshot.
Then I let myself cry. I’d really done it. I’d saved that man’s little boy. If I’d turned around back there, he’d still be in here.
I’d saved his life, but now I was going to die. There was no use denying it anymore. I barely had the strength to stay conscious, let alone climb shifting rubble with a sprained ankle while bleeding from my other leg.
And the floor was just so inviting... This wasn’t such a bad way to go, was it? I just wanted to fall asleep, and let the welcome arms of death take me in. Maybe I’d see my dad again, if some afterlife did exist. The thought was comforting, until my friends worried faces floated through my mind.
“It’s just the blood loss and the heat messing with your brain! You can still-”
“What are you doing on the floor, you wimp! Get your lazy buns up and out of this burning-”
“Ara, remember the syringe I gave you?”
I blinked my eyes open, then I blinked again, struggling to bring the world into focus. The syringe... Elliot gave it to me, not even a week ago, insisting I carry it with me everywhere.
“Can you do this for me, Ara? It’s just a little experiment of mine... Only take it when you know you’re about to die.”
“Die? Me? Do you really see that happening any tine soon?” We laughed, oh how we laughed.
“No, no, you’re far too stubborn to die. But... just carry it for me okay? I wouldn’t ever ask you to take it under normal circumstances, it’s far too experimental, but if you’re about to die...” Elliot had a bad habit of drifting off in the middle of his sentences and snapping back to them, which Tammy said she found endearing but mostly just annoyed me. Elliot shrugged, picking up his sentence like an awkward few seconds hadn’t just passed since he’d started it. “Who knows, it might save your life.”
I rose into a half-sitting, half-lying position, grunting when my leg shifted, accompanied with a burst of pain. I hadn’t bothered to wrap it to stop the blood flow earlier, and I didn’t bother now. But it sure hurt like blazes.
Instead, I fished around in the backpack I’d left on my back, even when I’d ditched the sweater. I unzipped all the small pockets, testing my memory until I finally found it.
Small and a dull blue, the syringe wasn’t particularly remarkable- it looked just like anything of the other dozens of various serums and such scattered about Elliots ‘lab.’
I took a deep breath, murmured a quick prayer to whoever was listening, and sank the needle in the inside of my elbow. With a squeeze of my thumb, the syringe emptied and the world dissolved in a wave of pins and needles.