You know how they tell you, when you’re a child, all those safety rules about what to do if you get trapped in a fire? Nobody ever remembers those, in reality. In reality, you forget to keep as low to the floor as you can. You forget to try not to breathe. You’re too busy looking for the way out, or looking for that one person you know is also trapped, to bother thinking about what you should and shouldn’t do.
I slam into things, knocking them out of the way without stopping to wonder what they are, filling my lungs with thick, noxious smoke as I shout for them. “Emmeline!” I yell, “Em! Marc!” It’s stupid, and pointless, but just now I don’t care. “Marc!”
The answering call is faint. I can’t even tell what she’s saying – but I know it’s Em. I’m barrelling through God knows what, blinking furiously because all there is is red and grey and black, and I can’t seem to see beyond that.
And then I’m bowled backwards by something flying into me. I’m cursing, struggling to sit up, when a pair of arms wrap themselves around my neck and Em shrieks into my hair: “I can’t find Marc!”
I try to disentangle myself. “It’s alright,” I mutter through near-closed lips, trying not to breathe in because it’s beginning to hurt more than a little, “It’s alright. We’ll find him. For God’s sake, Em. Let me up.”
“Sorry,” she scrambles off me, and I lurch to my feet. Honestly, I’m not thinking so much about Marc now as about just getting out of here. My head feels foggy and thick, like the smoke’s invading my brain. I can’t move quickly enough. I’m dragging Emmeline along behind me, back to where I think the stairs should be, when I hear a voice. It’s not faint, attenuated by smoke, but loud and clear.
“Colin!” it yells, “Emmeline! Marcus!”
It’s Dia Tiernan.
“Upstairs!” I call back, or try to. Truthfully, it’s more of a hoarse whisper than a croak. I try to move towards the sound of her voice. Emmeline’s clutching at my arm wildly, going “What about Marc? What about Marc?”
The smoke’s so thick that I don’t see her until she’s right in front of me. I’m about to ask her if she’s found Marc, but instead find myself asking, irrelevantly, “What happened to your hair?” (Well, excuse me; smoke fumes don’t make for the most lucid of conversation, do they?)
Dia doesn’t deign to reply. She grabs my arm with one hand and Em’s with the other, and drags us down the stairs, which groan dangerously beneath us, and give up completely when we’re about halfway down, collapsing under us and sending us plummeting down, without warning, to land amid bits of charred wood and plaster.
I’m trying to stand again, but I can’t seem to make my legs work right. This is starting to cause me more than a little panic until Dia leans over and grabs hold of me, pulling me to my feet. I think she’s going to help Emmeline, but then a new voice says –
“It’s alright, I’ve got her.”
“Graeme!” Dia’s own voice registers first disbelief and then something fast approaching fury, “What are you doing?”
“Helping,” Graeme says grimly. I can’t see him, but it’s not difficult to picture the expression on his face – his mouth a thin, resolute line. I’m thinking about this when Dia yanks me forward again, and I move mechanically, all sense of urgency completely gone. Everything seems oddly far-off, and I’m barely aware of the ache in my chest or the searing pain in my right arm, anymore. It feels like I’ve been in here, blockaded by a wall of smoke, forever. Right now, the rest of the world seems a distant memory.
And then the cold air hits me so sharp and sudden and hard that it sends me reeling. I stagger, and Dia stumbles too, trying to keep me upright. Only suddenly I’m standing alone. Dia’s not there and even though I’m still blinking to try and clear my vision, it’s obvious what’s happened.
The house, behind us, is no longer a house at all. It’s a roaring, crumbling riptide of flame.