“Can I take that? Thank you.” Without waiting for an answer, she snatched the drink from her friend’s hand and downed it in a second. The lights were still too bright and the music and chatter still too loud. The room was an oven, and if she closed her eyes it felt like she was in the middle of the fire, not miles away from it.
“What the hell, man!”
“I gotta get out of here.” She pushed her friend aside and saw her pained expression melt into one of placation as a bodiless hand passed her a new drink. And she continued to writhe to the nonsensical beats as the room seemed to get smaller and the people got closer together. Finally the light at the end of the tunnel appeared — a set of glass french doors that were out of place in the mountainside cabin. She held her arms out, to be used as human windshield wipers, and pushed her way out of the oven and into freedom.
It was the first breath of air she’d taken all night, yet it was far from healing. The distant smell of burning flesh and metal singed her nostrils and throat. Anything was better than the lodge. She stumbled down the path, feeling the fire of the liquor in her belly, and wandered off towards the railing that separated the living from the edge of a cliff. Impossibly far below, the world was engulfed in a raging fire, a fire that knew not names or faces, eating everything in its path. From so high up, it looked like a bloodstain, spreading and spreading. She gripped the railing with a white-knuckle grasp and looked to the right, following with her eyes the suspended line of the cable car that they’d used to get up here all the way to its base at the bottom. Tiny shadows of men circled around down there in the middle distance, holding rifles like babies to their chests. She shivered.
She jumped at the voice that snaked in from her left. It belonged to a man in a knit hat, his face still obscured in the dark. “Sorry if I scared you.” He settled in beside her and leaned up against the rail, looking down at the chaos.
“No, it’s ok. I didn’t know anyone else was out here,” she said to the stranger. He seemed harmless enough, but there was no real way of knowing. He hunched his shoulders and reached into the paper bag he held tightly.
“I couldn’t stand it in there,” he said, thrusting his head back towards the lodge. When he turned his head towards the light of the building she caught a half-second glance of his face: a jaw covered in thin stubble, deep-set eyes, boyish lips. She turned away and looked back down the cliff.
“No,” which came out with a breathy laugh. “Me neither.”
The stranger held out the paper bag in a friendly gesture. “You like chocolate?”
Of course I do.
Gratefully, she took his offer. The two sat in understanding silence and she decided that he was harmless. It was the ones with too much to say that you had to watch out for. Their noses slowly turned red from the cold but neither made a move to go back inside. It could have been minutes that went by or hours perhaps; the only indicator of time was the spreading of the flames — they were approaching midtown when the stranger asked his next question.
“What’s your name?” When he opened his mouth his breath was hot and smelled like chocolate. His voice wasn’t too high or too deep. It hovered in a pleasant middle-ground full of rounded vowels and ambiguity that reminded her of nowhere in particular.
She trusted him enough to use her real one. “Andrea.” Then she risked looking over at him again. It was still too dark to see what he looked like, yet she watched as he stuffed the nearly empty paper bag in his coat pocket and took off his glove to offer his bare hand to her.
She peeled off her own glove and held his warm hand in her own for a moment. Maybe his lips curled into a juvenile smile, or maybe the light from the flames was playing tricks on her. In either case, she smiled at him. “You know there are people in there that still refuse to believe this happens,” he said.
She did know. My best friend is one of those people. She thought of her friend dancing with strangers, her long black hair clinging to her sweaty forehead. “I think we’re supposed to be those people,” she said. A strong wind rolled in and they both shuddered in tandem.
“I kind of wish I hadn’t been invited. It’s my first year, anyway,” Nick said. He sounded strained. She understood.
“Mine too. I was planning on skipping town as soon as I heard the news.” She felt Nick looking over at her. Maybe he was confused. “My dad’s police,” she explained. “He warned me before it started.” Nick reached back in his coat pocket for more chocolate and wordlessly put one in her palm. It didn’t taste as good as the first. They let the silence creep between them once again for a while, until the stranger made a stuffy sound, like a sob. She shot him a tentative glance, wondering if it was something she’d said. But no, he wasn’t crying. His shoulders shook and even in the dark, she could tell that his lips had morphed into a grin. He laughed. No, giggled. Like a kid. “What?” she asked, concerned and a little offended at nothing. “What?”
“Let’s scream,” he said finally, keeping his eyes fixed on the world below.
“Scream?” Come again? He nodded and looked her in the eyes, a darkly childish glint in his own.
Nick opened his mouth and let out a scream that overpowered the music and the crackling of the flames. It lit up the night and made her hairs stand on end. Loud, unabashed. Almost strangled like a dying animal. And he didn’t stop, either. Just held onto the railing a little tighter, closed his eyes a little more and opened wider. It was guttural. It cut through the trees and scared birds from their hiding places. By the end of it, she realized that a massive grin had overtaken her own face. He threw his head back and made one more sound of relief.
“God! You’ve gotta try it.”
She looked down to where the guards were circling — they stood alert but she knew they wouldn’t dare shoot. They probably assumed the sound came from some drunk rich kid with a reckless disregard for peace and quiet. Maybe they were right. Nick jostled her and egged her on. “Come on, I swear you’ll feel better.”
Aw, what the hell.
She let go, adding her own scream to the air. Nick jumped and laughed, yelling out something and joining in. The two held onto the railing with teary eyes shut tight and screamed their throats raw. They screamed until they ran out of breath and then they laughed together; euphoric, but afraid.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” he said. They walked a narrow pathway that wound behind the lodge into the brush. It was dark as pitch but surprisingly easy to navigate. “I guess they invited me this time because they haven’t been able to catch me yet. I’m not… one of them,” he said with a hint of contempt. “But if I’m anything, I’m unkillable.”
“That’s something.” She wanted to say I’m not one of them either, but that would be a lie, and an invitation for more questions, more grilling. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and all that. But it was hardly her fault.
“I guess so,” he mumbled. They dipped down a little hill. A suddenly very obvious silence hung between them. Nick sniffled. “You ever been down there during? Or even right after, when everything’s still hot?”
She shook her head fervently before realizing he probably couldn’t see her movements. Her voice was small. “No.” She guessed he had seen a lot, by the way he stuffed his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight around. The same posture one would have before they’re about to tell someone a hard truth.
“Count your lucky stars. It’s a God damn nightmare.” The croaky way his words came out told her more than she cared to know. “I don’t know if you’ve ever lost anyone, but… anyway.” It was clear he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and she was grateful. They walked on.
The path was taking them deeper, through bushes and trees. She cast a look over her shoulder and saw the lodge — it wasn’t much more than a pinpoint of light atop the snowy mountain. They marched to the sounds of their breaths and the snow crunching underfoot. She thought she heard Nick’s breath hitch before another sound hit — somewhere deep in the woods, a twig snapped. Or maybe it was a camera clicking. Or a gun cocking. The fear struck her all at once, and she stopped dead in her tracks. It scared him too. He nearly stumbled and fell. “What?” He whispered in that familiar tone that everyone always had at the ready.
“I don’t think we should go out any further. Maybe… let’s head back,” she said, reaching out to brush his arm. Nick sighed but didn’t protest. They marched back up to where they began. In any case, the cold was starting to freeze their muscles. “Nick your real name?” She asked between laborious breaths as they trudged upwards. She heard the stranger smile.
“It is. You don’t want to see my birth records, do you?”
“I believe you.”
The suggestion of daylight toyed at the horizon and the flames started to subside. Columns of ash and smoke rose from the hell pit of a town at the base of the mountain. The screech of machinery sounded as the cable car started back up. The soldiers still patrolled the mountainside in their black masks and thick rubber boots. All of the lodge’s curtains had been drawn yet the lazy pulse of electronic music droned on from within. Inside the four walls were the richest, the most important, the strongest. Among them stood at least one “unkillable” and one sheriff’s daughter that arguably didn’t deserve to be there. A couple hundred drunk opportunists and exhausted liars were all concentrated in that one little room. As soon as they’d reached the top of the hill after their walk, they stood under the heat lamps for a moment to catch their breath. She wanted to tell him she worked at the laundry and dry cleaner’s on Foxtrot, that she’d love to see him there sometime, even would give him a discount and oh- she always kept a little jar of candy on the counter too, but she didn’t know if it would still be standing by the time they got back down there. Claimed by the flames, she thought in her dad’s voice. So many things were. The dim orange light let each finally get a good look at the other. Nick’s eyes were blue and kind. He looked down at his feet and kicked at the ice there. He was unshaven but it didn’t look bad on him. No, not at all.
God damn it.
She gave him a pitiful smile and he returned it. Without speaking, the two pushed back inside and rejoined the mob as the sun came up and the fire died.