His children never looked so flammable. From the staircase, Eric’s view of his daughters on the street was muffled by smoke. The smoke was pierced by an alarm tearing through the hallways. His wife never turned to check if Eric was behind her and Eric didn’t turn to check on their son. Hans hesitated long enough to think about grabbing his comic collection from under the bed he and his siblings had taken turns growing up in. The bed they’d built into a wall Pat wanted to tear out now that the kids were all moved out—as if it were that easy. In the face of the fire burning next door, maybe it was.
Out on the sidewalk, nothing was as quiet as Second Avenue without the sound of sirens. The smoke was thicker than the bodies crowding the street. Bodies in t-shirts and boxers, barefoot bodies jostled from nearby apartments come to watch something so big burn.
Christy stood by Eric as they watched Hans drag a hysterical Pat down the block while she shrilled, “Ashley, Ashley.” And Ashley, frozen in their doorway, stood less than ten feet from the entrance to the building where the fire had been started.
It was his birthday. Any other day and the kids wouldn’t be here, flung out as they were about the boroughs and the tri-state area. But this evening they were here, in the cold and the semi-dark of the metropolitan midnight, because of him.
“Move,” Eric said into his eldest daughter’s face. In violent protection, Eric grabbed her thin arm and pulled. Her skin was warm where it had faced the scorching building.
Ruptured from their sleep by the fire alarm, everyone congregated at the corner store. This end to Eric’s handmade home seemed about right. The kids moved out, another year ticked off his heart, and his health insurance rates rising; everything was precarious.
“There are people stuck on the fire escape,” Hans said. From that distance the building was more visible burning from the inside out. On the black fire escapes, clinging to the building, black against the sky and shrouded by smoke, black smoke battering against the darkened windows, Eric could make out human forms; trapped silhouettes.
The shapes in the smoke shifted and the smoke shifted and there was no making out how many people were up there. But there were people up there. The escape ladder still had not come down. Hans ran to the deli and Eric moved away, heading to the fire. Still there were no sirens.
At the first glimmer of orange grappling up the stairs from the entrance inside the building Eric hesitated. But he moved forward thinking of his birthday. Old enough to know better, but fit enough to get that ladder down. Better him, with life lived, children grown, and a wife who didn’t notice he had left her side.
The pavement under the fire escape smoldered and his cotton socks were useless. He tried a little jump, just to test the height. A tall man and still he needed a running start to grab the first rung of the ladder, suspended above him.
A fire hydrant made some room at the curb between the bumper-to-bumper cars. A ten-foot sprint and he reached one arm toward the ladder. The iron flaked under his hand, the creases of his fingers wrapped around the rusting rung.
Eric pulled up with one hand, swinging the other out to grab the bar above. The smoke was in his face. Again Eric pulled his two hundred pounds onto the rung above. Still his feet found nothing, his body swung free. Breathing hard was breathing flames. He reached for the fourth rung and his strength gave. His torso swung into the metal of the ladder, his ribs became less cage and more bones than he could count.
The man who came out of the crowd was his son. Eric was aware of Hans standing below him. And he thought of the people in this city, people without common sense of the world. And he wished his children were far from here and that his son was not watching him struggle against the gravity of this life.
With his forearm pressed into the rung below his hands, Eric pulled up again groping above him. His fingers met the bar and anchored him upward. He bent at the hips, the contraction of his torso pressing each rib bone into the one below it in a broken way. His feet anchored on to the bottom rung of the ladder. One pull-up he thought, one pull-up to save his own life, easy.
At the railing of the landing fire had never been blacker. And here they came. They came, black every one of them, smelling of follicles. They were on the stairs above him and the third floor landing, and above that, dark. A woman pulled him and pointed in through a broken window, pointed at the black inside.
Against the black walls and the black smoke Eric saw a crib. She yelled something or she pointed—he was already crawling in. And Eric started laughing. He laughed and coughed and coughed. He laughed at his skin, blistering where he lowered into the apartment. He laughed at the hair on his arms, the first thing to go. And he laughed and he choked as he stood and saw that the baby was still alive, and he choked with laughter as he tucked the child under his shirt. And he ran.
Sirens cut through the smoke where the flashing fire truck lights didn’t. He smelled his feet, melting away where they hit the fragile floor. He smelled his forearms realizing now that his skin was not all where it used to be. He climbed through the window careful. Careful he breathed in and looked at the baby choking in his arms. Careful he handed the baby over into the cherry picker on the top of the ladder.
A medic led Eric to a gurney and asked him to lie down. Pat was crying and their children comforted her and Eric thought, What about me?
Everything became more colorful. The flames spread from the bowels of the staircases and doorways to the window frames, enveloping the structure. The doorway of their building was threatened by all those colors lapping at the dark. The firemen turned on their hoses.
“One pull-up to save a life.” Eric said from the gurney.
And under the soot—the thick black of averted disaster—their home was still there. Their rented lifeline, their stabilized days. Those five floors that pulled them up out of the streets, out of the solitude of crowded spaces. Pulled them into a family, crowding together to eat leftover birthday cake for breakfast, laughing at the charred walls, taking inventory of everything undamaged.