#1785

“Tanim, are you even listening to me?” Catherine glared from the bathroom doorway, fingers sliding a pearl earring expertly through her earlobe. Tanim glanced up from his phone but his unfocused eyes clearly did not register his wife’s irritation. “Yes, dear,” he replied absently, already looking back down at the screen, “the dinner tonight… seven…” Why wasn’t Daren responding? What was taking him so long? Restless with anxiety, Tanim began pacing the living room, eyes darting from the phone to the window and back again as if the message might magically appear in either. On his second pass his subconscious registered something odd and he stopped mid-stride, staring out at the city spread below. What had he seen? Nothing appeared out of order, just the usual view of other high rises and polished towers, faintly obscured to the right by encroaching morning fog.

No, not fog. Too dark. Too substantial.

Tanim’s gut clenched. It was smoke. Smoke, drifting westward from somewhere east of their building, its density suggesting the source could not be that far away. Dropping the phone in his haste, Tanim ran for the door just as Catherine entered the living room. “Tanim, what’s going on?” Her startled voice was muffled by the pounding of his heart. He neither bothered to reply nor even close the front door as he ran down the hallway, foregoing the elevators in favor of taking the stairs down two at a time. When he finally reached the ground floor and burst out onto the street, the scent of burning wood and less natural materials confirmed his first suspicion.

His second suspicion, one based more on irrational fear than any real evidence, became steadily more likely as he took off in the direction of the smoke. With each block the haze grew thicker and it wasn’t long before Tanim could hear the wail of sirens; an ambulance passed him as he ran, heading toward his same destination, and within minutes another passed going the opposite direction. Breathless both from running and from the tainted air, Tanim could barely keep his legs moving as he rounded the final corner. Facing now the source of the smoke, he froze. He was right, though there had been no reason to think–

Fire had gutted and blackened the old brick building. Every window had broken, either from the force of the blaze or by the firemen who still swarmed over the lot. Soot darkened the brick and covered the scorched grass, flakes of ash still drifting out the windows and settling onto Tanim’s hair and skin. For a moment Tanim simply stood on the sidewalk, staring numbly at the wreckage. Then the anxiety that had for a moment been smothered by dread flared to life again and his mind began whirring. Heavily suited firemen still patrolled the grounds, moving in and out of the building’s battered front doors with caution, and paramedics moved between them, tending to the wounded at a temporary triage center set up in the parking lot. But there weren’t many wounded, it looked like, and more bodies were covered in white sheets than laying upon them.

Tanim began running again without realizing his feet had ever left the ground; he only registered his action when a gloved hand smacked into his chest, preventing him from broaching the scene any father. The fireman must have said something but Tanim wasn’t listening, had already started demanding to know what had happened, how many had died, who lay among the injured. Only when the fireman grasped Tanim’s collar and shook him hard, repeating, “SON! You need to calm down!” did he pause for breath. The man eyed him, seemed to accept his hysteria as true concern and not an attempt at voyeurism, then gestured over to one of the paramedics. The other man approached, a clipboard in one hand, and the fireman released Tanim’s shirt. “He’s looking for someone,” he said by way of introduction, then turned and resumed his work.

“What’s the name?” The paramedic was consulting what appeared to be a list of the apartment building’s residents. Choked by fear, hope, and acrid smoke, Tanim barely managed to cough out, “Daren. Daren St. Anthony.” The paramedic frowned, flipped through a few more papers, frowned deeper, then returned to the list. After seconds that seemed to Tanim like an eternity, the man nodded, said only, “Right, follow me,” and took off across the blackened lawn.

“He’s here?” Tanim peppered the paramedic with questions as he followed. “Was he hurt? Is he okay? What happened?” The man didn’t answer until they had approached the temporary hospital. He nodded in the direction of a white tent. “He was marked as dead when we first found him,” he explained, “but they tagged him red once they’d had a chance to examine him.” With that he waved a nurse over and handed Tanim off to her, just as the fireman had handed Tanim off to him. The nurse, too, had a clipboard, on which were pages of paperwork she apparently wanted Tanim to fill out, but he ignored her and pushed his way into the tent.

Had there been more than one cot currently occupied, Tanim might not have recognized his lover. Daren’s once pale skin was burned black and red, loose bandages covering the worst spots but nothing left untouched. Even his face sported burns, and his already short hair had been singed off. Tanim knelt beside him in an instant, yet couldn’t bear to touch the skin that even now radiated heat and a sickening smell.

“Daren…” His voice seemed swallowed up by the magnitude of the disaster and he had to clear his throat to speak more clearly. “Daren, can you hear me?” The man’s eyelids twitched, then opened a crack. Beneath, his dark eyes were glazed with pain, yet aware enough to fix themselves on Tanim. Letting out a trembling breath, Tanim forced a smile. “Hey,” he whispered. “How are you?” Beneath the oxygen mask covering his mouth, Tanim could swear he saw Daren’s cracked lips tilt up in a very faint, and probably very painful, smile. “Good,” he seemed to mouth, and Tanim, unable to resist, touched the tips of his fingers to Daren’s.

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