A gently flurry encapsulated the skybridge. It was the first snow and in spite of everything it felt, for a moment, like the world was a magical place and that I was safe. It was delirium setting in I’m sure.
The gray remnants of ash around Graham’s nostrils combined with the Dorito chip dust around his mouth made him look goofy, despite the sincere look in his eyes. I couldn’t hold back a smile.
“What?” He said as he sat beside me and fervently wiped his face with his sleeve only succeeding at smearing it all together.
“Nothing. We’re okay.” I cleared my throat. The strength of my voice had come back. “Well at least we’ll have better food options on the other side. The cafeteria on the eighth floor.”
Graham nodded as he quicken the tapping of his fingers on the top of an empty Sprite can.
The building on the other side of the skybridge was scheduled to be renovated in the spring and it desperately needed it. After this I’m sure that will be postponed. There was a half a step up when you entered the building from the skybridge. It was painted an obnoxious yellow with “CAUTION!” drawn in black, crooked and ominous, across it. I always hopped over that step.
The wood floors creaked as we slowly walked toward the staircase in the center of the building. I ran a hand over the gummy wood railing guiding myself in the darkness as we descended to the floor below where the cafeteria was located. The building’s small windows and dark wood interior made the lack of electricity blatant. The ash had settled thick on the worn floors of the hallways and on the oil paintings that lined the walls. If I had not seen a constant flow of people going in and out of the building for years, I would have thought it had been long abandoned and forgotten. Dark and creaking, such an eery place. The clunking of my heels and the creaking of the floors, agitating noises that made my mind race. I wished Graham would say something, anything. I wished I was clever and could think of something worth saying.
I walked ahead, more quickly now, and pulled open the cafeteria door knocking a layer of ash from the door frame. The course ash coated my throat and thrashed it when I coughed.
“I’ll get you a water.” Graham rushed into the cafeteria.
I stumbled back, the floor boards creaked louder, my eyes watered from coughing. I dropped to my knees and rubbed my eyes, the grit like sandpaper.
A crash, momentous like boulders smashing below me. Then the shift, everything seemed to tilt to one side. I was tumbling. The floor had given way. I turned faster, then darkness.
Like a slowly frying egg my cheek sizzled as it pressed hard against the tile floor as I returned to consciousness. I grasped at the tile, each finger a point of fire. A warm trickle of blood ran down the side of my face from a throbbing area on my forehead and dripped onto the floor. The heat, though intense, permeated every inch of my aching body wooing me to close my eyes and rest, to feel safe, and feel warm. I never knew such a feeling of terror.
The voice sounded far away. The room seemed to be turning around me. The growing smoke shrouding everything making the walls seem fluid, dizzying. I closed my eyes tightly.
“Julia…” The yelling continued.
I knew it was Graham calling out to me, but whatever else he was saying did not make sense and trying to decipher it made my head throb more. I painfully pushed myself up to a sitting position, my eyes and throat burning and head pounding. Maybe I deserved for it to end like this.
An arm roughly forced its way under mine and beneath my legs and lifted me up. My head limply flopped back like rag doll. I could roughly made out through the rising smoke the rough edges of what use to be the ceiling above me. I tightly closed my eyes. Some part of me knew I should stay awake, but I let myself fall back into the still darkness.
Back to the gentle warmth of the sun on the back of my neck as I grasped course clumps of grass and dragged myself on my belly closer and closer. The rapid heart beat of my young self as I sprung to my feet and charged forward, eyes on the target: my Dad crouched down with his back toward me. Faster and faster I ran, my heart pounding, my high pitch squeals I unsuccessfully attempted to suppress. I leaped forward, carefree, as my Dad turned quickly and caught me in the air. I exploded with wild giggles. I see my Dad’s smile, wide and toothy, and his soft gray eyes that somehow smiled more than his mouth. He spun me as I threw my head back, the tops of the trees turning above me, the sun flickered through the branches onto my face.
The warm feeling grew from the back my neck and spread over my shoulder and down my side. Opening my eyes, Graham, he cradled me in his arms as he stared forward. How long had he been holding me there, cross-legged on the floor with me draped across his lap? I stayed still and studied his face silently. His calm dark brown eyes, his gaze distant. The throbbing of my forehead returned. I reached to touch the wound. It was covered with some sort of fabric. Graham.
“Why?” I tried futilely to sit up.
“Hey, hey, you’re alright. I got you.” He pulled me in closer.
I buried my head in his chest, as I turned to my side and with my knees tight together and wrapped them around his back. If only I could be closer. I could never be close enough because he could never understand.
-TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONDAY- PART 4: BLAZE