They shook their heads.
My stomach sank. Abby and Trenton had gone the wrong way.
I pointed past the frightened group. “Follow that hall until you get to the end. There is a stairwell with a door at the top. Take it, and then turn left. There’s a window you can get out of.”
One of the girls nodded, wiped her eyes, and then barked at her friends to follow.
Instead of backtracking down the halls from where we came, I turned left, running through the blackness, hoping that I would get lucky and run into them somehow.
I could hear screaming from the main room as I pushed on, determined to make sure Abby and Trenton had found their way out. I wouldn’t leave until I knew for sure.
After running through several hallways, I felt panic weighing down my chest. The smell of smoke had caught up to me, and I knew that with the construction, the aged building, the furniture, and the sheets that covered them feeding the fire, the entire basement level would be swallowed by the flames in minutes.
“Abby!” I yelled again. “Trent!”
Fire and Ice
THE SMOKE HAD BECOME INESCAPABLE. NO MATTER what room I found myself in, every breath was shallow and hot, burning my lungs.
I leaned down and grabbed my knees, panting. My sense of direction was weakened, both by the darkness, and the real possibility of not being able to find my girlfriend or brother before it was too late. I wasn’t even sure if I could find my own way out.
Between bouts of coughing, I heard a knocking sound coming from the adjacent room.
“Help me! Somebody help me!”
It was Abby. Renewed resolve came over me, and I scrambled toward her voice, feeling through the blackness. My hands touched a wall, and then I stopped when I felt a door. It was locked. “Pidge?” I yelled, yanking on the door.
Abby’s voice became more shrill, spurring me to take a step back and kick at the door until it flew open.
Abby stood on a desk just under a window, banging her hands against the glass so desperately, she didn’t even realize I’d broken into the room.
“Pigeon?” I said, coughing.
“Travis!” she cried, scrambling down from the desk and into my arms.
I cupped her cheeks. “Where’s Trent?”
“He followed them!” she bawled, tears streaming down her face. “I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn’t come!”
I looked down the hall. The fire was barreling toward us, feeding on the covered furniture that lined the walls.
Abby gasped at the sight, and then coughed. My eyebrows pulled in, wondering where in the hell he was. If he was at the end of that hallway, he couldn’t have made it. A sob welled up in my throat, but the look of terror in Abby’s eyes forced it away.
“I’m gonna get us outta here, Pidge.” I pressed my lips against hers in one quick, firm movement, and then climbed on top of her makeshift ladder.
I pushed at the window, the muscles of my arms quivering as I used all of my remaining strength against the glass.
“Get back, Abby! I’m gonna break the glass!”
Abby took one step away, her entire body shaking. My elbow bent as I reared back my fist, and I let out a grunt as I rammed it into the window. Glass shattered, and I reached out my hand.
“Come on!” I yelled.
The heat from the fire took over the room. Motivated by pure fear, I lifted Abby from the floor with one arm, and pushed her outside.
She waited on her knees as I climbed out, and then helped me to my feet. Sirens blared from the other side of the building, and red and blue lights from fire engines and police cruisers danced across the brick on the adjacent buildings.
I pulled Abby with me, sprinting to where a crowd of people stood in front of the building. We scanned the soot-covered faces for Trenton while I yelled his name. Each time I called out, my voice became more broken. He wasn’t there. I checked my phone, hoping he’d called. Seeing that he hadn’t, I slammed it shut.
Nearing hopelessness, I covered my mouth, unsure of what to do next. My brother had gotten lost in the burning building. He wasn’t outside, leading to only one conclusion.
“TRENT!” I screamed, stretching my neck as I searched the crowd.
Those that had escaped were hugging and whimpering behind the emergency vehicles, watching in horror as the pumper trucks shot water through the windows. Firefighters ran inside, pulling hoses behind them.
“He didn’t get out,” I whispered. “He didn’t get out, Pidge.” Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I fell to my knees.
Abby followed me to the ground, holding me in her arms.
“Trent’s smart, Trav. He got out. He had to have found a different way.”
I fell forward into Abby’s lap, gripping her shirt with both fists.
An hour passed. The cries and wailing from the survivors and spectators outside the building had softened to an eerie quiet. Firefighters brought out just two survivors, and then continuously came out empty-handed. Each time someone emerged from the building, I held my breath, part of me hoping it was Trenton, the other fearing that it was.
Half an hour later, the bodies they returned with were lifeless. Instead of performing CPR, they simply laid them next to the other victims and covered their bodies. The ground was lined with casualties, far outnumbering those of us that had escaped.
Adam stood beside us. I got up, pulling Abby along with me.
“I’m glad to see you guys made it out,” Adam said, looking stunned and bewildered. “Where’s Trent?”
I didn’t answer.
Our eyes returned to the charred remains of Keaton Hall, the thick black smoke still billowing from the windows. Abby buried her face into my chest and gripped my shirt in her small fists.
It was a nightmarish scene, and all I could do was stare.
“I have to uh . . . I have to call my dad,” I said, furrowing my brow.
“Maybe you should wait, Travis. We don’t know anything, yet,” Abby said.
My lungs burned, just like my eyes. The numbers blurred together as tears overflowed and poured down my cheeks. “This ain’t fucking right. He shoulda never been there.”
“It was an accident, Travis. You couldn’t have known something like this was going to happen,” Abby said, touching my cheek.
My face compressed, and I clenched my eyes shut. I was going to have to call my father and tell him that Trenton was still inside a burning building, and that it was my fault. I didn’t know if my family could handle another loss. Trenton had lived with my dad while trying to get back on his feet, and they were a little closer than the rest of us.
My breath caught as I punched in the numbers, imagining my father’s reaction. The phone felt cold in my hand, and so I pulled Abby against me. Even if she didn’t know it yet, she had to be freezing.
The numbers turned into a name, and my eyes widened. I was getting another call.
“Are you okay?” Trent yelled in my ear, his voice thick with panic.
A surprised laugh escaped my lips as I looked at Abby. “It’s Trent!”
Abby gasped and squeezed my arm.
“Where are you?” I asked, desperate to find him.
“I’m at Morgan Hall, you dumb fuck! Where you told me to meet you! Why aren’t you here?”
“What do you mean you’re at Morgan? I’ll be there in a second, don’t you fucking move!”
I took off in a sprint, dragging Abby behind me. When we reached Morgan, we were both coughing and gasping for breath. Trenton ran down the steps, crashing into both of us.
“Jesus H. Christ, brother! I thought you were toast!” Trenton said, squeezing us tight.
“You asshole!” I screamed, shoving him away. “I thought you were fucking dead! I’ve been waiting for the firefighters to carry your charred body from Keaton!”
I frowned at Trenton for a moment, and then pulled him back into a hug. My arm shot out, fumbling around until I felt Abby’s sweater, and then pulled her back into a hug as well. After several moments, I let Trenton go.
Trenton looked at Abby with an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry, Abby. I panicked.”
She shook her head. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Me? I would have been better off dead if Travis had seen me come out of that building without you. I tried to find you after you ran off, but then I got lost and had to find another way. I walked along the outside wall looking for that window, but I ran into some cops and they made me leave. I’ve been flippin’ the fuck out over here!” he said, running his hand over his head.
I wiped Abby’s cheeks with my thumbs, and then pulled up my shirt, using it to wipe the soot from my face. “Let’s get out of here. The cops are going to be crawling all over the place soon.”
After hugging my brother again, he headed to his car, and we walked to America’s Honda. I watched Abby buckle her seat belt, and then frowned when she coughed.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital. Get you checked out.”
“I’m fine,” she said, interlacing her fingers in mine. She looked down, seeing a deep cut across my knuckles. “Is that from the fight or the window?”
“The window,” I answered, frowning at her bloodied nails.
Her eyes turned soft. “You saved my life, you know.”
My eyebrows pushed together. “I wasn’t leaving without you.”
“I knew you’d come.”
I kept Abby’s hand in mine until we arrived at the apartment. Abby took a long shower, and with shaky hands, I poured us both a glass of bourbon.
She padded down the hallway, and then collapsed onto the bed in a daze.
“Here,” I said, handing her a full glass of amber liquid. “It’ll help you relax.”
“I’m not tired.”
I held out the glass again. She might have grown up around mobsters in Vegas, but we’d just seen death—a lot of it—and barely escaped it ourselves. “Just try to get some rest, Pidge.”
“I’m almost afraid to close my eyes,” she said, taking the glass and gulping the liquid down.
I took the empty glass and sat it on the nightstand, then sat beside her on the bed. We sat in silence, reflecting on the last few hours. It didn’t seem real.
“A lot of people died tonight,” I said.
“We won’t find out until tomorrow just how many.”
“Trent and I passed a group of kids on the way out. I wonder if they made it. They looked so scared . . .”
Abby’s hands began to tremble, so I comforted her the only way I knew how. I held her.
She relaxed against my chest and sighed. Her breathing evened out, and she nuzzled her cheek deeper into my skin. For the first time since we’d gotten back together, I felt completely at ease with her, as if we’d returned to the way things were before Vegas.
I lowered my chin and whispered into her hair. “What, baby?”
Our phones rang in unison, and she simultaneously answered hers while she handed me mine.
“Travis? You all right, man?”
“Yeah, buddy. We’re okay.”
“I’m okay, Mare. We’re all okay,” Abby said, reassuring America on the other line.
“Mom and Dad are freaking out. We’re watching it on the news right now. I didn’t tell them you would be there. What?” Shepley pulled his face away from the phone to answer his parents. “No, Mom. Yeah, I’m talking to him! He’s fine! They’re at the apartment! So,” he continued, “what the hell happened?”
“Fucking lanterns. Adam didn’t want any bright lights drawing attention and getting us busted. One caught the whole fucking place on fire . . . it’s bad, Shep. A lot of people died.”
Shepley breathed deep. “Anyone we know?”
“I don’t know, yet.”
“I’m glad you’re okay, brother. I’m . . . Jesus, I’m glad you’re ok ay.”
Abby described the horrific moments when she was stumbling through the dark, trying to find her way out.
I winced when she recounted how she dug her fingers into the window when she tried to get it open.
“Mare, don’t leave early. We’re fine,” Abby said. “We’re fine,” she said again, this time with emphasis. “You can hug me on Friday. I love you, too. Have a good time.”
I pressed my cell phone tight against my ear. “Better hug your girl, Shep. She sounds upset.”
Shepley sighed. “I just . . .” He sighed again.
“I know, man.”
“I love you. You’re as much a brother as I could ever have.”
“Me, too. See you soon.”
After Abby and I hung up our phones, we sat in silence, still processing what had happened. I leaned back against the pillow, and then pulled Abby against my chest.
“America all right?”
“She’s upset. She’ll be okay.”
“I’m glad they weren’t there.”
I could feel Abby’s jaw working against my skin, and I inwardly cursed myself for giving her more gruesome thoughts.
“Me, too,” she said with a shiver.
“I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot tonight. I don’t need to add anything else to your plate.”
“You were there, too, Trav.”
I thought about what it was like, searching for Abby in the dark, not knowing if I would find her, and then finally kicking through that door and seeing her face.
“I don’t get scared very often,” I said. “I was scared the first morning I woke up and you weren’t here. I was scared when you left me after Vegas. I was scared when I thought I was going to have to tell my dad that Trent had died in that building. But when I saw you across the flames in that basement . . . I was terrified. I made it to the door, was a few feet from the exit, and I couldn’t leave.”