The coffee had spilt over his leg. He noticed that now, a dark brown patch like a cancer spreading on his trousers. The material clung to his skin as he moved, like a small wet hand pressing on him. His cup was broken of course. His favourite mug. The pieces of which lay off somewhere under his desk. Broken and useless now. Maybe good enough to put pens in if he was lucky. He would remember to get it next time. Next time he was at his desk working and typing. Listening to Grace at the desk opposite talking to her mother on the phone. She’d been ill a while, in and out of the hospital. Her kidneys giving up on her. He’d catch Grace tearing up sometimes, long frustrating conversations to the carers, to then hang up the phone and return to the emails, the have tos, the work that filled her day. Disappearing to get a coffee and to cry no doubt in the bathroom stalls.
He couldn’t see Grace now. Her desk was empty, but then the smoke was filling the office fast and it was hard to make anyone out. Bodies moved in the miasma like shadows and the yells and screams of the unknowing were constant. Daniel lay near the stairs, he’d stumbled across him as he moved towards the exit signs that illuminated like little green eyes in the haze. A dark wound had haloed on his head and he was pretty sure he was dead already. He’d never liked Daniel. The little shit was always passing other people’s ideas off as his own. He checked to see if he was breathing as people jostled passed him to the stairwell. He closed Daniel’s eyes and gently moved him to one side like a sleeping child being put to bed.
The impact had been deafening. It had shorted out the electronics on his floor and his computer had exploded with a glistening rain of sparks. Fires raged sporadically, little hot pockets all around him with the devil licking flames. He had his phone in his pocket, but he did not reach for it. He noticed the coffee stain once more as he looked down to the floor, making his way into the stairwell. The screams were hard and fast, and he could see the fires raging below. The thick smoke hung and moved like a malevolent ghost, consuming everyone it could. Casey passed him, coughing and spluttering like a seventy year old smoker. The smoke had stained her blonde hair to a dirty tarred colour, and she moved about feebly with her eyes barely open, groping for a way and a slither of hope.
He coughed a little himself as he watched the flames reflect in the computer screens all around him. He’d never heard anything like it before. The sounds that scratched and attacked his ears. The pity and the pain, the desperation. He loosed the top button on his shirt and made his way over towards Bobby’s desk. She’d always claimed she could see her house over the Hudson from her chair that faced west towards Newark. The glass had stained now, the black smoke bellowing up into the ceiling and blocking out the light from the outside. The widows looked like black teeth in a row against the walls, a rotting site of decay. Bobby was nowhere to be seen and a lot of people were scrambling around the centre of the building looking for a way through. He heard phones ringing out, and momentarily reached for his own in his pocket. His fingers touched the tip before retracting hastily. He couldn’t do that to them.
He sat in Bobby’s chair, the huge thing had been altered progressively, expanding along with her growing little girl she had inside of her. They had all joked it was to be twins. He had seen her making her way in each morning, she would heave across the room like a small elephant. Wheezing in and out of breath. The smoking years catching up on her. The chair felt nice underneath him, plush and cushy; but he was struggling to see now as the smoke was making his eyes sting. Then he was there, stood at the beach with his family only ten years old. The huge bonfire blazing away as the Fourth of July fireworks exploded above him in a rain of colour and patriotism. He’d tripped, or stumbled, never thinking he could’ve been pushed. His ass of an older brother always messing around. Too close to the heat, too close to the flames which screamed and burned into his eyes. He’d always hated smoke, those damn smokers who lurked outside buildings, puffing out their smoky venom which greeted you in a wall as you left. That awful feeling of something grappling inside you.
His eyes were searing now and he coughed profusely as the flames and the smoke rose and fell around him. The building beneath creaked and rumbled. The shouts of help had eerily tailed off, now solemn and sporadic like lonely calls into a distant forest. The horrific realisation perhaps descended that there was no support or rescue from this. The trauma that had fallen from the skies had landed on them completely, suffocating out the fragile hope that only grew like snowflakes. Useless in the face of such fiery hatred.
That great red dragon now breathed and raged around them, spluttering out the smoke that covered them like oil. In its grip, they sweated and froze inside with fear and pain.
The breath now was harsh and coarse. Coming in waves of sickness and coughs. The eyes were burning, transporting him back and forth to that bonfire on the beach and hell of the world around him, where the terrors and the pain of the people he knew where rising and falling like that of the tide. The blistering paint was making it all toxic, and the windows had begun to buckle and bubble in the heat.
He smashed Bobby’s window. He rammed everything he could through the fragile glass, gasping for the fresh air that promised to rush in. At first, only more smoke. The floors below, trapped in their own nightmares bellowed up acrid plumes which flooded in to their admin vacuum. But then light. Sky. The world above and below beckoned like an angelic hand. People flocked towards him, stumbling still like shadowed zombies in the volcanic office. Relief mixed with horror as they once again rationalised in repulsion. He tried not to catch the eyes of those who came. He didn’t want to see the hopelessness in those who he had known for years. The rivalry and solidarity had swung back and forth on that New York pendulum. Trying to get ahead, trying to be good. Now everyone in the room reduced to just being here. How many were loved? How many had dreams simmering inside only for the lights to be turned down. The fires now creeping towards them in their lifeboat in the sky.
He never did reach for that phone. It sailed with him as he launched himself out of the windows. His lungs expanding as the fresh air drenched his body. Life in his lungs once again. He thought of them of course. The people he loved and hoped loved him back. But these were just flashes of images and thoughts that he tried to cling to as he soared into the sky above Manhattan. It was the coffee stain on his trousers and trying to see Bobby’s house that took him away. The anaesthetising process to deal with the horror that it was such a long way down from here.
The rushing wind, the failing debris around him hung like a moment in his descent. Those who followed would have their own moments in time. Their own desperate fight for flight from that blazing inferno. Trapped as they were, the choice of escape was their own. He’d hoped to fold, to slip inside the envelope of heaven while the machine of god rolled on. Hearing his heart beat and skip he closed his eyes, knowing that the take-off was easier than the flight. Feathered and falling. That the birds who sung and soared were marked by a promise to one day return.