The apartment building looks like someone crammed every star in the sky inside it and then pulled the pins all at once. I doubt there’s a rooftop in the city that the fire isn’t visible from; or if not the fire than at least the light bleeding into the sky. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing but before I can think too hard about it I’m heading toward the fire. Sprinting and jumping across rooftops like being able to bench press a lot or throw a good punch will do anything to stop a building from burning to the ground. Not that common sense matters much at this very moment, every costumed do-gooder knows it’s in the fine print of their contract to save at least one person from a burning building each year. Guess this is a chance to fill my quota.
I’m a block away when I start to notice the heat. The biggest fire most people (and before this, myself included) ever deal with is the bonfire they build with friends in high school and sometimes those are enough to make people sweat. By the time I’m scrambling down to the street I can hardly breathe. Although, that might be as much the anxiety as the heat.
The police and I won’t ever be friends, but they usually let me be since I never step too far out of line. And because I never really stick around to play meet and greet. This time, however, they start rushing toward me when I drop in behind their hastily erected barricade.
Police and Fire Department personnel only, I guess.
But while they’re hustling over to tell me something along the lines of “let the professionals do their job, kid” a woman catches sight of me. She shoulder tackles one of the officers manning the barricade to get a little closer to me and starts screaming just as the officer recovers his composure and wraps his arms around her waist and pulls her back. It seems like she’s caused trouble before.
“Please! You have to save my husband and son! They’re still inside!”
No way any sane, reasonable human being goes gallivanting into a building this far gone without some serious training and a flame-resistant onesie so I ignore the sane, reasonable part of me that’s screaming incoherently in the back of my head and trying to pull the plug on my arms and legs. Fuck him. If he didn’t want to be a hero he should have tapped out before we left.
She starts struggling against the officer again, “413!”
I run. The police are trying to keep everyone safe as well as keep a sharp public image so when I duck their outstretched arms and run directly toward the burning building, their only real choices are to use force to stop me or to let me go. No one wants to shoot or brain a teenager who runs around town helping regular folk, so they let me go. A large part of me wishes they’d hit me with the nightsticks instead.
The fire department’s already cut down the door, so I miss out on the drama of kicking it in. The ensuing scene in the apartment lobby more than makes up for any drama lost at the door. The air is rippling, the mailboxes to the right are so hot they’re actually glowing, smoke’s boiling across the ceiling, and bits of the wooden banister to the left are flaking off and falling to the ground like little comets streaking through the atmosphere. I’m dripping sweat. I can feel vapor lock starting to take hold of my brain. My legs are starting to wobble and it feels like the soles of my shoes have melted into the linoleum. There’s a family stuck up in room 413 that’s going to burn alive if I don’t go up after them, but I can’t seem to get the message out to the my body that saving them requires movement.
It’s at this point that a particularly brilliant idea strikes me and I press the back of my hand against the mailbox faceplates. My gloves are made of Kevlar and Kevlar’s highly heat resistant, but the second I put my hand to the metal my skin starts burning.
There goes the vapor lock. I’m taking the stairs two at a time, reminding myself not to use the banister. Motes of flaming ceiling fall like molten snowflakes. I’m having flashbacks to Saturday morning cartoons as a kid when something gets really hot and melts through the floor and I have a vision of one of those bits of ceiling melting through my not-entirely-fireproof jacket.
I start moving faster.
I’m only halfway up the second floor stairs when the banister finally gives way and, engulfed in flames, collapses. I pretend that something—anything—collapsing inside a burning building isn’t ominous and keep taking the stairs two at a time. I start up the third floor stairs and the elevator comes howling down the shaft. The sound of the car grinding against the walls in a freefall is deafening. The sound of it hitting the ground floor is physically painful. The building shudders and I finally lose my sea legs. I bounce off the wall and into the banister which crumbles against me, raining hot ashy wood down on my head, shoulders, and back. I scream and throw myself back down onto the landing. I don’t know if I’m on fire or not but I’m rolling around the ground gibbering incoherently anyway. I can feel my eyes watering, but the tears evaporate before reaching my cheeks.
I push off the ground and kick out the nearest window. I’ve heard of back drafts before but I’ve also heard of burning the fuck alive and that fear wins the day. I barely look to see where I’ll be jumping before throwing myself out of the building and it’s not until I’m out of the fire that I remember how to take a fall. I land on my feet and let my knees bend, launch myself forward, and tumble shoulder-first over the pavement. I end up on my back.
People are surrounding me, someone’s screaming, and the fire keeps eating the building from the inside out. My lungs feel sunburned and the rest of me just feels heavy. I wonder if I’m smoking. I recognize one of the people standing over me as the cop who was restraining the woman earlier and my survival instincts finally take a backseat. The woman. All at once I understand the screaming.
“You left him to die! You were supposed to save him!”
I get up on one knee and see the officer isn’t restraining her anymore because her soot-darkened husband and the firewoman who probably saved him are trying to. The building behind me shudders again and the heat flares up. I put my hands up and this time the tears don’t evaporate.
“N-no, it’s—it’s not like that…”
She’s flailing her arms and kicking off the ground, enraged, despairing, shattered, and hateful. If they let her go her only thought would be how many times could she hit me before they grabbed her again. “He was five! He worshipped you people! ”
“I-I’m sorry. I tried! I tried to save him!”
“He worshipped you people and now he’s dead because of you!”
I run. I tear off down the street and cut down the nearest alley. I need to get away. Away from the fire. Away from the crowd of onlookers. Away from the sobbing woman and the child I left to die.
I don’t know how I got back to the forest preserve and I have no idea what time it is when I find my bag. I’m sure it took me longer than normal but time doesn’t feel right. I don’t know. What do I want with my bag? Why do I feel so hot?
My bag starts growling. I dig around until I feel my phone rattling at the bottom of the bag. Pulling it out, I slump down against a tree.
“Hello?” My voice sounds too small.
“Wesley! Holy shit, what happened? I saw the fire on the news but the police are keeping reporters back and all I saw was you falling out the building!”
The ground’s shuddering again and the window gives way under my foot. “I’m not sure. Anna—I-I don’t know what—I’m at the forest preserve. Where are you?”
“Wes, stay put. Just stay where you are, I’m gonna come get you. Okay?”
I wrap my arms around myself, close my eyes, and dream of fire.
Branches snap and leaves crackle and Anna skids on her knees next to me.
“Fuckohfuckohfuckohfuck, Wesley, are you okay? Oh God, were you burned?”
She’s running her hands gently over my jacket. Unzipping my jacket and hoodie and checking my shirt, I let her prop my upper body on her lap and feel around my back. It takes her a minute to be sure my skin’s not flaking off but the second she’s satisfied she pulls my upper body against her stomach and squeezes until it hurts.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. You sounded so awful on the phone and your jacket’s ruined, I was—I’m still freaking out. You need to get to a hospital.”
“I can’t. They’ll ask how I got away. Can’t tell them that.”
“Wesley, you don’t look good and smoke inhalation kills people. You can’t walk this off. We can tell them you wandered off in a daze, they’ll help you, it’s not their job to stake you to the wall. What happened? What’s going on?”
“I—Anna, I think I killed a little kid.”
“What? Wes, what are y—”
“He was five. He wanted to grow up to be like me. He wanted to grow up.”
“Wes, stop. Stop, slow down. Did someone die in the fire?”
“I dunno h-how he got left behind, but his Mom was o-out of the building and a firewoman pulled his Dad out of the fire. They must’ve brought h-him out by the fire escape while I was ins-side, but couldn’t find the kid. She was screaming.”
Something wet splashes against my neck, the water feels cool against my grimy skin. “Oh my God. Wesley, stop. Stop. There was a fire. Someone dying is not your fault. It’s—it’s like a force of nature, people aren’t capable of stopping things like that.”
“What’s the point of being this w-way if I can’t do things other people can’t do?”
She pulls me harder against her and buries her cheek in my hair. Her tears wind through my hair down to my scalp. “Stop. Shut up. Please. Jesus Christ, please stop. I don’t know what to say to you, I—I can’t make this better.” She squeezes until my raw skin screams at me. “I’m taking you to a hospital right fucking now, even if I have to drag you back to the car.”
“Anna why aren’t my thoughts making sense?”
“I think you’re in shock.” She ducks her head under my arm and wraps her arm around my back. “Come on, help me stand you up. This is gonna hurt both of us if you don’t give me something, okay?”
I stand up. My legs don’t completely understand what I’m asking them to do but they figure out a rough approximation of walking quickly enough. “Okay.”
I see the information kiosk near the parking lot when Anna asks if I’m still with her. I don’t know how to answer so I vomit quicksilver thought.
“I wasn’t too young to remember it, you know? Them abandoning me. They put a note in my pocket so the priest would know not to work too hard looking for my family. So he’d know no one cared.”
I guess that was the wrong answer because Anna doesn’t say anything, just makes a small, wet sound.