This week's story was inspired by the same neighborhood, but without the radiation.
Fire, blood and imagination ahead.
There was a lot of blood. I could smell it invading my nostrils, working its way into my pores, filling up my vision. I stood there, tonguing the spot where my teeth had cut into my cheek. The taste of blood, even if this blood was mine, made my stomach tight. “It always happens the same way,” I told him.
He didn’t answer, just had that accusing look on his face.
He was right of course. That had never stopped me before. From trying. Not even when it turned out really bad. Even when everyone would’ve been better off if I’d stayed at home, hiding under my bed with a flashlight and a box of thin mints.
But I always tried.
Failed but tried.
Jamie would say that was why he loved me.
Had failing stopped me from trying to stop the gas fire?
Just thinking about that made my hands shake harder.
I had seen the fire trucks as soon as I came up out of the subway. One, two, three and then four passed me in red and neon green, sirens blasting my ears, all on different cycles making chaotic noise as they rounded the corner onto 207th street.
I walked up to the corner, not the only one who stopped at the curb to track the trucks with my eyes. Not the only one who was surprised to find an obvious reason for all the trucks. In the city you could see fifty fire trucks a day and no fire, no trickle of smoke, not even a cat up a tree. But there, right past the blue awning for the dry cleaners was black smoke so thick it blotted out everything past it. It was like that side of the street ended at the smoke. It must have been pouring out of windows but they were blotted out too, so the only defining feature past the first floor was a black cloud.
The light changed and there was a pause, everyone, old ladies and tough looking kids, the neighborhood regulars and the Sunday park tourists, all hesitating to miss this perfect view of destruction. But it was only for a second, they’d seen this on TV, they were from the city, nothing was going to faze them. I let the crowd carry me across the street and then I was walking quickly down the far side of 207th, opposite the fire, where the cops hadn’t put up barriers yet.
All fire trucks and one cop car. The cop at the car wasn’t even looking down the street; he was just staring up at the building with his radio in his hand, watching the smoke spiral toward the sky. Only the firefighters were moving, aiming their hoses into the storefront, white water disappearing into the wall of smoke.
I stopped a few buildings down, stepping back onto the front stoop of one of the apartment buildings, where people usually sat when the weather was warm. Now it was cold and I leaned against the side of the building, feeling the heat leaching out of my side, pulled away by the freezing bricks. I was already sweating under my jacket but all of my attention was on the fire.
I had to calm down. I took a deep breath and tried to remember what the building looked like before this. It was next to the dry cleaners so it had that sketchy looking video place on the ground floor. Yes, the tattered yellow awning that had turned almost white from the sun and the weather. But what else? Were there fire escapes on this side? Were they painted flaking white like the rest of the buildings in the row or had they been green? How many windows up the side? I tried to count the flickers of fire, maybe five up and three across. Was that good enough?
I took a deep breath, more cop cars were crowding the street and I tucked myself tighter to the side of the building. They were closing off the whole street, but if I was lucky they wouldn’t see me.
I closed my eyes.
The building. The building. Brown brick like the rest of the row, white rusting fire escapes like the rest, five windows up and three across, the yellow awning and the faded posters for old movies in the lowest windows.
Clear and sharp in my mind. No smoke, no flames, no acrid smell choking the air, nothing blocking out the December sun. Just busted out windows and water from the fire hoses.
My nose was running from the cold and I sniffed it back. My eyes snapped open. No smoke. No bad smell.
I laughed to myself. The firemen were looking at each other and then at the building. It was steaming faintly, white plumes now, thin and disappearing almost instantly in the sun.
It was only a momentary pause and then there was a flurry of activity, firemen running into the front door, breaking it out and swarming in with their masks and oxygen tanks swinging.
I pushed off from the wall and walked calmly to where the cops were manning the barricade. I snuck a few glances back as I walked, almost bounced, on the balls of my feet. Even the cops at the barricade had turned to look at the building instead of the crowd and I saw a spot where I could duck through unnoticed.
The explosion threw me into the sidewalk just short of the crowd. But then it had thrown all of them too. I saw it when I pushed myself up on stinging hands, tasting blood where I had bitten a chunk out of my lip. The metal barricades were strewn flat over a tangle of people on the ground. Even the cops where down, thrown over the people and the metal in the mass of arms and legs and dazed heads.
I could feel the heat before I turned around, flaring at my back like I was standing too close to a fireplace. My mouth hung open, my lip stinging in the heat. The building wasn’t just a column of smoke; it was flames shooting like a flare into the sky. I didn’t understand. I walked shakily toward it, hand on the gate the real estate agency pulled over their windows. The metal was cold through my gloves and my legs were shaky. I leaned on the gate to keep walking, back to where I’d been standing, watching. I slumped onto the stairs, staring.
There was a tickle against my chin and I wiped it impatiently with my glove. It came away bloody. I wiped higher and realized it was coming from my lip. I sucked the part that hurt into my mouth and watched the firefighters and cops getting up, scurrying like ants, trying to get close but held back by the shooting flames.
I coughed on the blood in my mouth and sent a spray onto the sidewalk. I didn’t get it. I pictured it not burning, so it stopped burning. What in the hell was easier than that?
I took a deep breath through my nose. The place was probably full of crispy firefighters. But maybe they were still alive. I narrowed my eyes, not daring to close them.
The flames were smaller. They were backing into the windows and backing up on themselves, little flames, nothing flames. The smoke would be thinner then. The smoke was thinner, still smoke but brownish and thin, not thick and black.
The black smoke flared.
Don’t think thick and black, think brown and thin, think movie smoke where the cops and the firefighters can still see people and get them out.
My legs and my ass were freezing against the steps but I deserved it and it kept me sharp anyway. I sucked my lip and tasted blood and shivered and kept my eyes on the building, on the thin brown smoke and the little flames just visible from some of the windows.
They were still using the hoses, in through the windows and all through the blown out storefront. People were coming out, firefighters in thick burned coats carried between other less scorched uniforms. They were being shunted over to the ambulances that had lined up further down the street. Five of them with a swarm of EMTs darting here and there, strapping one firefighter onto a gurney, then two, putting them in the ambulance and hauling them off in a haze of lights and tinny sirens while the next ambulance was loaded.
They were working on the crowd too, people strewn on the sidewalk, most of them on their feet some of them still on the ground. I didn’t look too long, I watched the building. I had to keep it sharp in my mind.
When a shadow fell over me and a hand shook my shoulder I looked away completely. There was a smoke smeared EMT standing over me saying something.
I tried to understand him and realized my attention was away from the building. I turned my head sharply, wincing, expecting to see the wall of heat and smoke coming for me. There was nothing. Just the thin brown smoke, even the little flames were gone.
I let him lead me away with my lip that needed eight stitches and my ruptured ear drum. I couldn’t have known it was a gas fire. I couldn’t have known stopping the fire had let the gas build up and the heat was still enough to spark, so it exploded. I couldn’t have known any of that. I’d just wanted to help.
I always wanted to help.
“I always want to help.” I put my palm flat against Jamie’s forehead. I was still hesitating. The blood from my hands was dark against his yellow-white skin. He almost looked jaundiced, and waxy. I could hear the blood dripping off the table and onto the floor. Drip, drip, drip.
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my arm.
What if I didn’t remember everything right?
“You don’t have to,” I told myself firmly, flinching at the sound of my own voice. It was rough from shouting and too loud for the big silent room.
I didn’t try to fix people. Too complicated. I didn’t know enough about anatomy, about how the body worked. Trying to close up that cut on Mark’s finger when he sliced himself in the kitchen had been all the lesson I needed. Only the top closed, smooth and unscarred while the rest just kept bleeding. Two hours later his finger had swelled like a sausage and we had to take him to the ER anyway.
But Jamie had his theory. He loved having theories. He was sure if I focused on the way someone was, an hour ago, a year ago, then they’d turn out just that way. It wouldn’t take picturing how to heal them, just picturing how they were before they got hurt. The reverse of when I had that bug problem and started imagining roaches boiling out of the kitchen sink. I didn’t have to know how a roach worked, or how in the hell they could’ve gotten in the drain, it just happened.
“Those were just bugs,” I reminded him, whispering like we could be overheard, like he could hear me at all.
He couldn’t encourage me or berate me for my lack of confidence. He couldn’t joke with me or keep me out of trouble. He couldn’t even open his eyes.
His skin was waxier even though his head still felt warm under my hand. Except for my palm print his face was clean, pristine and smooth, like he was sleeping. Nothing to indicate the gaping hole four inches lower. Nothing to show that the side of his neck was gone and the blood had been pumping before it slowed to a drip. Nothing to prove how hard I’d held my hands there, trying to keep the blood back.
I was breathing in fluttering gasps, like my heart was beating too hard for my lungs to fill up. Like my body knew I was going to do it before I’d decided. I took a step back, not touching him, not touching the table. No immediate reminders of what he was like now. I closed my eyes and fought for a memory before today. Tried my best not to reach for Jamie stumbling with his hand to his neck, blood spraying between his fingers in a wet arc, his voice a gurgle. No, Jamie this morning. Same green jacket, same pleated khakis, same black sweater with the v-neck that showed a fluff of chest hair. Hair on his head still wet in the back when he came by the gallery to find me. His face pink from the wind. His chest rising and falling with the regular rhythm of breathing.
I held it, Jamie standing in front of me at the gallery, the lights making a halo around the edge of his blond hair, his expression eager, his neat goatee moving when he spoke.
I wasn’t sure how long I stood there with my eyes closed. When I opened them Jamie was there, almost detail perfect, standing in front of me.
Shocked, I threw myself at him, hugging him hard just as his entire body went limp. We fell on the concrete in a heap. I raised myself up to look at his face, his neck. It was smooth, all the skin looked right, his face wasn’t waxy anymore, it was pink. My hand was against his chest propping myself up. I could feel it rising and falling. My hands shook hard, all of me shook hard, and I put two fingers against his neck. I could feel the jump of his pulse, steady and strong.
“Jamie, Jamie, you’re breathing,” I whispered fiercely, shaking his shoulders. His eyes didn’t open but he was breathing. He wasn’t awake but he had a heartbeat. I pulled us both up so we were sitting and hugged him again. He was alive and I was going to take what I could get.