Wandering the vacant halls of the office building allowed our lack of conversation to seem purposeful and the avoidance of a million question permissible. It was as if we were on a mission, though there was no explicit goal.
The vending machine. No surprise our meandering had led us there. It was the natural journey of the drifting mind during many long, dull work days. Its familiarity was strangely comforting. Graham broke the glass after continuously pounding it with the blunt end of his pen and then poked out the remaining glass. He stuffed his jacket pockets with granola bars and chips. Now that I could have any of it for free, it didn’t seem so appealing. I pulled out two peanut brittle bars from the machine’s wiry clutches, the bars that people only bought by accident.
“You don’t want anything else?”
He held out a bag of ChexMix, my vending machine usual.
I sat on a lone wooden stool and slowly split open the plastic wrapper of a peanut brittle bar as Graham spread the remaining snacks out on the floor and surveyed his meal options.
This is where the majority of our interactions had been over the past two years that we have worked in same building. Thirty second conversations about the vending machine’s lack of options, or how it had stole our dollar the week before. Sure, we have “known” each other for years, having worked in the same building for different firms. We would often pass in the hallways and make short polite conversation. We were both ranked somewhere right above the interns at our respective firms. We would see each other semi-frequently, but it wasn’t enough to say we truly “knew” each other. What if I had it all wrong? What if I actual stayed because he stayed when the emergency responders herded the masses out of the building, not the other way around? Would he have hid too if I wasn’t there?
“I…I don’t feel cold anymore.” Graham stammered.
A chill ran up my spine.
“I don’t either.”
I swiveled on the stool to look out of the small window behind me. The ice was thick and the glass was dirty.
“I can’t see anything.”
He roughly grabbed my hand pulling me from the stool. At least my legs had de-thawed.
Down the hallway we awkwardly jogged, fortunately I had become quiet adept at doing just about anything in my heels. We past the double doors that led to my office, down the hall to the far end of the building. Graham pushed open the stairwell door. A thick cloud of hot black smoke billowed out instantly burned my eyes, nostrils, and throat. In less than a second it had completely encompassed us. The grit was blinding, I tightened my grip on Graham’s hand as we ran back past the vending machine, snacks scattering as we kicked them aside in our haste back to the skybridge.
“That wasn’t on fire last night.” Graham whispered hoarsely followed by coughs and gasps for air.
I collapsed down onto the floor, pressing my fingers and forehead against a frozen window, closing my eyes tightly. I couldn’t speak. A wave of fear, and hopelessness overpowered me. The feeling was more terrifying than the fire. The burning, the course ash grinding against my eyes, was what I had to feel. I needed to know who I was in the uncertainty. To push back and to feel the terror. I had brought myself so far, I am ashamed that I could so quickly revert back and cower at the first obstacle that I knew would come.
What would my Dad think if he could see me now? I could picture his face, his chin protruded forward, his lips pulled tight together into a long sad smile, his eyes a transparent veil that would so clearly displayed every emotion. Me, being the sensitive kid I was, when I would get in trouble seeing the disappointment in my Dad’s eyes was worse than whatever punishment was doled upon me.
Breathe in, breathe out. I tighten my hands into fists. There was no turning back.
-TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONDAY- PART 3: WARM