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Whores: .03 The Fire
Lisa hated the night shift. She had all her windows blacked out, and wore earplugs. But the fact remained that she lived in an apartment building, and there was no keeping a building full of women quiet while she slept- not that that had anything to do with their gender.
She stirred to the sound of gunfire. The building wasn't in the nicest of neighborhoods, so that wasn't wholly unfamiliar. But this was different, because the shots were coming from inside the building. That made her skin go bumpy, and her ears prick up- not that she knew what she was listening for.
There was a steady, heavy stream of gunfire, followed by a lull, and another gunshot. Then came another loud noise, one she couldn't place, other than to say that it was louder than the gunshots.
Finally, she started drifting back to sleep. Whatever had happened was over, and she told herself that if someone had needed the cops they'd have called. She was half asleep by then, so she believed the fairy tale that if one of her neighbors had called the cops, they'd have actually shown up.
But then she heard the noise, piercing, deafening. Her body was heavy, and didn't want to move. But she woke up coughing, hacking. She opened her eyes but there was only darkness. She reached for her nightstand, and found her lamp and flicked it on. Still only darkness.
But the darkness burned. Her eyes hurt, and it was a struggle keeping them open. They were filling with tears, and just as quickly spilling them onto her cheek. She tried to take another breath, and coughed it back up, and then it finally hit her: smoke. Her room was filled with smoke.
Lisa rolled off the bed and onto her floor. There the smoke was thinner. She could breath enough to think.
The wail continued, it was her smoke detector, but behind it, joining it, like the backup choir of a powerful singer, she could hear screams. Lisa crawled with her belly against the floor.
She'd been sleeping in a ratty pair of panties and an A neck shirt that was just see-through enough she'd learned she couldn't wear it out without men staring. She wanted to grab a pair of jeans, or a coat, or her shoes, but just trying to lift herself up off the floor a few inches to survey for any one of those items of clothing sent her hacking back onto the floor.
So she pulled herself across the carpet, through her apartment, and to her front door. She tapped the doorknob leading into the hall. Then she felt the door itself. It felt cool to the touch. So she opened it.
The smoke in the hall was worse. Even crawling along the floor she couldn't breathe properly. After two attempts at inhaling, she simply refused to try a third, and started pulling herself down the stairs. It reminded her of being a child, and sliding on her belly down her parents' steps. It hurt her nipples, and she cursed again not having found a better shirt to cover herself in.
The lobby was relatively less smoky, so Lisa stood up and took a deep breath in and held it. It was like cool mountain spring water for her lungs- even though she coughed when she exhaled it.
She fell forward through the lobby doors and onto the sidewalk.
A fire truck was parked outside her building. “Thank God,” she thought. But then she realized that the firefighters were just standing there, watching. One of them was even smoking, pointing and laughing at the smoke billowing out of an open window.
Lisa forced herself forward. One of the firefighters caught her, and helped her sit on the lip of the fire truck. He pressed a mask of oxygen to her face, and told her to breathe in, slowly. When she didn't feel like she was in a low-rent casino, anymore, she coughed out, “My neighbors.”
He shook his head. “I'm sorry,” he told her.
She peered through the smoke now rolling out of the lobby. She could see one of her neighbors, Mrs. Kowalski, stumble through the smoke. She fell past the last few steps, and landed in the shallow pool of smoke that was cascading down the steps.
“Our orders were very specific: contain the fire.”
“But my neighbor,” Lisa protested, “she's right there. I can see her through the lobby doors. You have to help her.”
“We've been told not to. At the eastern fire district, one of the fighters disobeyed, and tried to help the women, and they shot him.” His jaw set as he watched the fire grow unchecked. “They're lucky,” he said, though she didn't think he believed it, “I've been to fires that the police set, where they stay outside, and pick off the women who try to run.”
“But the police aren't here,” she told him.
He looked to the other firefighters. “I'm not so sure,” he said.
“You're a fucking coward,” she said, feeling like she wanted to just give the whole thing up. She threw up her hands in disgust, and marched back towards the burning building.
“Wait,” he said, but she was done wasting her time with him. She shoved her way through the lobby doors. Smoke had finally filled the lobby as well, and she had to get back down on her hands and knees.
“Mrs. Kowalski,” she called. From the smoke Lisa had already inhaled, her throat was hoarse and cracked. She didn't get a response. But through the haze and ash, she could make out a large, bulbous lump at the base of the stairs, and she crawled towards it. “Mrs. Kowalski. Are you all right?”
She rolled the larger woman over, and tried to feel for a pulse. She couldn't find one, but she'd never been good at trying to, so she cupped her hands beneath her neighbor's armpits, and started to pull her towards the front doors.
The older woman was heavy, and Lisa's muscles were starting to burn as badly as her lungs. But she was close, she had to be, to the front door- not because she could see it, but because she knew she wasn't going to make it very far. So it had to be close.
But before she managed to reach the twin glass doors, she heard the supports from the floor above the lobby groan menacingly. “Shit,” she said, as the ceiling collapsed down on top of her.