Smoke, thick and heavy. Natural instincts shoot warnings up my spine- even insects know to move away from fire. Higher reasoning says I should wait for a firefighter- or at least a cop- but they’re already busy.
There’s a voice in the back of my mind that says I imagined the scream, like I’m sure I imagined that plane hitting the building. I stumble on a crumpled pile of plaster, and nearly slam my face into a marble countertop. As I push up from its cold surface, I tell myself I’m not disoriented, that I could retrace my steps back to safety if I wanted to; I’m not sure it’s true.
There’s another voice, one that takes me a moment to place. It’s my fire Captain, furious at me for coming in without telling anyone; “Two-in, two-out” doesn’t work if you go in alone and no one knows it. But the lesson’s old, from before I shattered my ankle on a motorcycle, which shattered any hopes I had of fighting fires. But I was already EMT certified, and nobody cares if an EMT has a crappy ankle.
I hear movement in the white darkness; my heart is a set of African drums at the height of some tribal ceremony, as I remember my Kipling and Conrad, and the snowy shadows take feral forms that silently stalk me. The sound comes again, and it’s almost a growl, and I’m a moment from a full run when I hear grinding stones fall to the tiled floor, and I run instead towards them.
There’s a cry again, too loud and near to be in my mind, and I stop moving. My fingers find a half-destroyed wall I was about to collide with. I feel for an edge or a doorway; in desperation I cry out, and the cry comes back to me. We call back and forth three more times before I find the hole in the wall. It’s too small to crawl through, but I manage to get a shoulder and my head in. The voice is quieter closer in, more muffled, and somehow deeper. I thought it was a woman’s voice- I’m no longer sure- but there’s an excitement, and urgency, and I know I’m near.
I start to dig, careful at first, but more frantically as the cries from beneath grow weaker. My entire side aches, and the rubble slips away from fingers unused to labor now slicked with blood from a dozen lacerations and cuts.
I start to panic, afraid for all my certainty that I’m in the wrong place. I try to call out again, but my smoke-filled lungs can’t muster the force; in fact, I recognize that I’m having trouble breathing at all. The world is suddenly very small- or very large, but filled entirely with smoke, and I’m going to die alone here, with my ass hanging half out of a wall like Winnie the Pooh. I laugh at the thought and it grows to a big barrel laugh.
At that moment fingers break through the rubble and seize mine. I don’t know if we’ll die here, and in that instant I don’t care, because it feels like I’m saved- because I’m not alone anymore.