CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE. smoke

The weeks passed, and it was a surprise to me how quickly Spring Break was upon us. The expected stream of gossip and stares had vanished, and life had returned to normal. The basements of Eastern U hadn’t held a fight in weeks. Adam made a point of keeping a low profile after the arrests had lead to questions about what exactly had gone on that night, and Travis grew irritable waiting for a phone call to summon him to his last fight of the year; the fight that paid most of his bills for the summer, and well into the fall.

The snow was still thick on the ground, and on the Friday before break, one last snowball fight broke out on the crystalline lawn. Travis and I weaved through the flying ice to the cafeteria, and I held tight to his arm, trying to avoid both the snowballs and falling to the ground.

“They’re not going to hit you, Pidge. They know better,” Travis said, holding his red, cold nose to my cheek.

“Their aim isn’t synonymous with their fear of your temper, Trav.”

He held me against his side, rubbing my coat sleeve with his hand as he guided me through the chaos. We came to an abrupt halt when a handful of girls screamed past as they were pelted by the merciless aim of the baseball team. Once they cleared the path, Travis led me safely to the door.

“See? I told you we’d make it,” he said with a smile.

His amusement faded when a tightly packed snowball exploded against the door, just between our faces. Travis’ glare scanned the lawn, but the sheer numbers of students darting in every direction doused his urge to retaliate.

He pulled open the door, watching the melting snow slide down the painted metal to the ground. “Let’s get inside.”

“Good idea,” I nodded.

He led me by the hand down the buffet line, piling different steaming dishes on one tray. The cashier had given up her predictable baffled expression weeks before, used to our routine.

“Abby.” Brazil nodded to me and then winked at Travis. “You guys have plans next week?”

“We’re staying here. My brothers are coming in,” Travis said, distracted as he organized our lunches, dividing the small Styrofoam plates in front of us on the table.

“I’m going to kill David Lapinski!” America announced, shaking snow out of her hair as she approached.

“Direct hit!” Shepley laughed. America shot him a warning glare and his laugh turned into a nervous chuckle. “I mean…what an asshole.”

We laughed at his regretful expression as he watched her stomp to the buffet line, following quickly after.

“He’s so whipped,” Brazil said with a disgusted look on his face.

“America’s a little uptight,” Travis explained. “She’s meeting his parents this week.”

Brazil nodded, his eyebrows shooting up. “So they’re….”

“There,” I said, nodding with him. “It’s permanent.”

“Whoa,” Brazil said. The shock didn’t leave his face as he picked at his food, and I could see the confusion swirl around him. We were all young, and Brazil couldn’t wrap his head around Shepley’s commitment.

“When you have it, Brazil…you’ll get it,” Travis said, smiling at me.

The room was abuzz with excitement, from both the spectacle outside and the quickly approaching last hours before break. As the seats filled, the steady stream of chatter grew to a loud echo, the volume rising as everyone began talking over the noise.

By the time Shepley and America returned with their trays, they had made up. She happily sat in the empty seat next to me, prattling on about her impending meet-the-parents moment. They would leave that evening for his parents’, the perfect excuse for one of America’s infamous meltdowns.

I watched her pick at her bread as she fretted about what to pack and how much luggage she could take without appearing pretentious, but she seemed to be holding it together.

“I told you, Baby. They’re gonna love you. Love you like I love you, love you,” Shepley said, tucking her hair behind her ear. America took a breath and the corners of her mouth turned up in the way they always did when he made her feel more at ease.

Travis’ phone shivered, causing it to glide a few inches across the table. He ignored it, regaling Brazil with our first game of poker with his brothers. I glanced at the display, tapping Travis on the shoulder when I read the name.

“Baby?”

Without apology, he turned away from Brazil and gave me his undivided attention. “Yeah, Pigeon?”

“You might want to get that.”

He looked down at his cell phone and sighed, “Or not.”

“It could be important.”

He pursed his lips before holding the receiver to his ear. “What’s up, Adam?” His eyes searched the room as he listened, nodding occasionally. “This is my last fight, Adam. I’m not sure, yet. I won’t go without her and Shep’s leaving town. I know…I heard you. Hmmm…that’s not a bad idea, actually.”

My eyebrows pulled in, seeing his eyes brighten with whatever idea Adam had enlightened him with. When Travis hung up the phone, I stared at him expectantly.

“It’s enough to pay rent for the next eight months. Adam got John Savage. He’s trying to go pro.”

“I haven’t seen him fight, have you?” Shepley asked, leaning forward.

Travis nodded. “Just once in Springfield. He’s good.”

“Not good enough,” I said. Travis leaned in and kissed my forehead with soft appreciation. “I can stay home, Trav.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

“I don’t want you to get hit like you did last time because you’re worried about me.”

“No, Pidge.”

“I’ll wait up for you,” I smiled, trying to seem happier with the idea than I felt.

“I’m going to ask Trent to come. He’s the only one I’d trust so I can concentrate on the fight.”

“Thanks a lot, asshole,” Shepley grumbled.

“Hey, you had your chance,” Travis said, only half-teasing.

Shepley’s mouth pulled to the side with chagrin. He still felt at fault for the night at Hellerton. He apologized to me daily for weeks, but his guilt finally became manageable enough for him to suffer in silence. America and I tried to convince him that he wasn’t to blame, but Travis would always hold him accountable.

“Shepley, it wasn’t your fault. You pulled him off of me, remember?” I said, reaching around America to pat his arm. I turned to Travis, “When is the fight?”

“Next week sometime,” he shrugged. “I want you there. I need you there.”

I smiled, resting my chin on his shoulder. “Then I’ll be there.”

Travis walked me to class, his grip tensing a few times when my feet slipped on the ice. “You should be more careful,” he teased.

“I’m doing it on purpose. You’re such a sucker.”

“If you want my arms around you, all you have to do is ask,” he said, pulling me into his chest.

We were oblivious to the students passing and the snowballs flying overhead as he pressed his lips against mine. My feet left the ground and he continued to kiss me, carrying me with ease across campus. When he finally set me on my feet in front of the door of my classroom, he shook his head.

“When we make our schedules for next semester, it would be more convenient if we had more classes together.”

“I’ll work on that,” I said, giving him one last kiss before making my way to my seat.

I looked up, and Travis gave me one last smile before making his way to his class in the next building. The students around me were as used to our shameless displays of affection as his class was used to him being a few minutes late.

I was surprised that the time ticked by so quickly. I turned in my last test of the day and made my way to Morgan Hall. Kara was sitting in her usual spot on the bed, reading, as I rifled through my drawers for a few needed items.

“You going out of town?” Kara asked.

“No, I just needed a few things. I’m headed over to the Science building to pick up Trav, and then I’ll be at the apartment all week.”

“I figured,” she said, keeping her eyes on the pages of her book.

“Have a good break, Kara.”

“Mmmhmm.”

The campus was nearly empty, with only a few stragglers left. When I turned the corner, I saw Travis standing outside, finishing a cigarette. He wore a knit cap over his shaved head and one hand was shoved in the pocket of his worn, dark brown leather jacket. Smoke drifted from his nostrils as he looked down to the ground, deep in thought. It wasn’t until I was just a few feet from him that I noticed how distracted he was.

“What’s on your mind, Baby?” I asked. He didn’t look up. “Travis?”

His lashes fluttered when my voice registered and the troubled expression was replaced with a contrived smile. “Hey, Pigeon.”

“Everything okay?”

“It is now,” he said, pulling me against him.

“Okay. What’s up?” I said with a raised eyebrow and a frown, making a show of my skepticism.

“Just have a lot on my mind,” he sighed. When I waited expectantly, he continued. “This week, the fight, you being there….”

“I told you I would stay home.”

“I need you there, Pidge,” he said, flicking his cigarette to the ground. He watched it disappear into a deep footprint in the snow and then cupped his hand around mine, pulling me toward the parking lot.

“Have you talked to Trent?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I’m waiting for him to call me back.”

America rolled down the window and poked her head out of Shepley’s Charger. “Hurry up! It’s freaking freezing!”

Travis smiled and picked up the pace, opening the door for me to slide in. Shepley and America repeated the same conversation they’d had since she learned she would be meeting his parents while I watched Travis stare out of the window. Just as we pulled into the parking lot of the apartment, Travis’ phone rang.

“What the fuck, Trent?” he answered. “I called you four hours ago, it’s not like you’re productive at work or anything. Whatever. Listen, I need a favor. I’ve got a fight next week. I need you to go. I don’t know when it is, but when I call you, I need you there within an hour. Can you do that for me? Can you do it or not, douche bag? Because I need you to keep an eye on Pigeon. Some asshole put his hands on her last time and…yeah.” His voice lowered to a frightening tone. “I took care of it. So if I call…? Thanks, Trent.”

Travis clicked his phone shut and leaned his head against the back of the seat.

“Relieved?” Shepley asked, watching Travis in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it without him there.”

“I told you,” I began.

“Pidge, how many times do I have to say it?” he frowned.

I shook my head at his impatient tone. “I don’t understand it, though. You didn’t need me there before.”

His fingers lightly grazed my cheek. “I didn’t know you before. When you’re not there, I can’t concentrate. I’m wondering where you are, what you’re doing…if you’re there and I can see you, I can focus. I know it’s crazy, but that’s how it is.”

“And crazy is exactly the way I like it,” I smiled, leaning up to kiss his lips.

“Obviously,” America muttered under breath.

 

In the shadows of Keaton Hall, Travis held me tight against his side. The steam from my breath entangled with his in the cold night air, and I could hear the low conversations of those filtering in a side door a few feet away, oblivious to our presence.

Keaton was the oldest building at Eastern, and although The Circle had been held there before, I was uneasy about the venue. Adam expected a full house, and Keaton wasn’t the most spacious of basements on campus. Beams formed a grid along the aging brick walls, just one sign of the renovations taking place inside.

“This is one of the worst ideas Adam has had yet,” Travis grumbled.

“It’s too late to change it, now,” I said, looking up at the scaffolds.

Travis’ cell phone lit up and he popped it open. His face was tinged with blue against the display, and I could finally see the two worry lines between his eyebrows I already knew were there. He clicked buttons and then snapped the phone shut, gripping me tighter.

“You seem nervous tonight,” I whispered.

“I’ll feel better when Trent gets his punk ass here.”

“I’m here, you whiny little girl,” Trent said in a hushed voice. I could barely see his outline in the darkness, but his smile gleamed in the moonlight.

“How ya been, sis?” he said. He hugged me with one arm, and then playfully shoved Travis with the other.

“I’m good, Trent.”

Travis immediately relaxed, and then he led me by the hand to the back of the building.

“If the cops show and we get separated, meet me at Morgan Hall, okay?” Travis said to his brother. We stopped at an open window low to the ground, the signal that Adam was inside and waiting.

“You’re fuckin’ with me,” Trent said, staring down at the window. “Abby’s barely gonna fit through there.”

“You’ll fit,” Travis assured him, crawling down into the blackness inside. Like so many times before, I leaned down and pushed myself backwards, knowing Travis would catch me.

We waited for a few moments, and then Trent grunted as he pushed off the ledge and landed on the floor, nearly losing his balance as his feet hit the concrete.

“You’re lucky I love Abby. I wouldn’t do this shit for just anyone,” Trent grumbled, brushing off his shirt.

Travis jumped up, pulling the window closed with one quick movement. “This way,” he said, leading us through the dark.

Hallway after hallway, I gripped Travis’ hand in mine, feeling Trent pinching the fabric of my shirt. I could hear small pieces of gravel scrape the concrete and I shuffled along the floor. I felt my eyes widen, trying to adjust to the blackness of the basement, but there was no light to help them focus.

Trent sighed after the third turn. “We’re never gonna find our way out of here.”

“Just follow me out. It’ll be fine,” Travis said, irritated with Trent’s complaining.

When the hallway grew lighter, I knew we were close. When the low roar of the crowd came to a feverish pitch of numbers and names, I knew we had arrived. The room where Travis waited to be called usually had only one lantern and one chair, but with the renovations, it was full of desks and chairs and random equipment covered in white sheets.

Travis and Trent discussed strategy for the fight as I peeked outside. It was as packed and chaotic as the last fight, but with less room. Furniture covered in dusty sheets lined the edges of the walls, pushed aside to make room for the spectators.

The room was darker than usual, and I guessed that Adam wanted to be careful not to draw attention to our whereabouts. Lanterns hung from the ceilings, creating a dingy glow on the cash being held high as bets were still being called.

“Pigeon, did you hear me?” Travis said, touching my arm.

“What?” I said, blinking.

“I want you to stand by this doorway, okay? Keep hold of Trent’s arm at all times.”

“I won’t move. I promise.”

Travis smiled, his perfect dimple sinking into his cheek. “Now you look nervous.”

I glanced to the doorway and then back to him. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Trav. Not about the fight, but…something. This place gives me the creeps.”

“We won’t be here long,” Travis assured me. Adam’s voice came over the horn, and then a pair of warm, familiar hands were on each side of my face. “I love you,” he said, as he lifted me off the floor, squeezing me to him as he kissed me. He lowered me to the ground and hooked my arm around Trent. “Don’t take your eyes off of her,” he said to his brother. “Even for a second, this place’ll get crazy once the fight starts.”

“…so let’s welcome tonight’s contender…JOHN SAVAGE!”

“I’ll guard her with my life, little brother,” Trent said, tugging on my arm. “Now go kick this guy’s ass and let’s get out of here.”

“…TRAVIS MAD DOG MADDOX!” Adam yelled through the horn.

The volume was deafening as Travis made his way through the crowd. I looked up to Trent, who had the tiniest crook of a smile on his face. Anyone else might not have noticed, but I could see the pride in his eyes.

When Travis reached the center of The Circle, I swallowed. John wasn’t much bigger, but he looked different than anyone Travis had fought before, including the man he fought in Vegas. He wasn’t trying to intimidate Travis with a severe stare like the others; he was studying him, preparing the fight in his mind. As analytical as his eyes were, they were also absence of reason. I knew before the fight began that Travis had more than a fight on his hands, he was standing in front of a demon.

Travis seemed to notice the difference as well. His usual smirk was gone, in its place an intense stare. When the horn sounded, John attacked.

“Jesus,” I said, gripping Trent’s arm.

Trent moved as Travis did, as if they were one. I tensed with each swing John threw, fighting the urge to shut my eyes. There were no wasted movements; John was cunning and precise. All of Travis’ other fights seemed sloppy in comparison. The raw strength behind the punches alone were awe-inspiring, as if the whole thing had been choreographed and practiced to perfection.

The air in the room was heavy and stagnate; the dust from the sheets had been disturbed and caught in my throat each time I gasped. The longer the fight lasted, the worse the ominous feeling became. I couldn’t shake it, and yet I forced myself to stay in place so Travis could concentrate.

In one moment, I was hypnotized by the spectacle in the middle of the basemenet, in the next, I was shoved from behind. My head jerked back with the blow, but I tightened my grip, refusing to budge from my promised spot. Trent turned and grabbed the shirts of two men behind us and tossed them to the ground as though they were rag dolls.

“Back the fuck up or I’ll kill you!” he yelled to those staring at the fallen men. I gripped his arm tighter and he patted my hand. “I got ya, Abby. Just watch the fight.”

Travis was doing well, and I sighed when he drew first blood. The crowd grew louder, but Trent’s warning kept those around us at a safe distance. Travis landed a solid punch and then glanced at me, quickly returning his attention to John. His movements were lithe, almost calculating, seeming to predict John’s attacks before he made them.

Noticeably impatient, John wrapped his arms around Travis, pulling him to the ground. As one unit, the crowd surrounding the make-shift ring tightened around them, leaning in as the action fell to the floor.

“I can’t see him, Trent!” I cried as I bounced on my tip toes.

Trent looked around, finding Adam’s wooden chair. In a dance-like motion, he passed me from one arm to the other, helping me as I climbed above the mob. “Can you see him?”

“Yeah!” I said, holding Trent’s arm for balance. “He’s on top, but John’s legs are around his neck!”

Trent leaned forward on his toes, cupping his free hand around his mouth, “SLAM HIS ASS, TRAVIS!”

I glanced down to Trent and then leaned forward to get a better look at the men on the floor. Suddenly Travis was on his feet, John holding tight around Travis’ neck with his legs. Travis fell on his knees, slamming John’s back and head against the concrete in a devastating blow. John’s legs went limp, releasing Travis’ neck, and then Travis reared back is elbow, pummeling John over and over with his clenched fist until Adam pulled him away, throwing the red square on John’s flaccid body.

The room erupted, cheering as Adam lifted Travis’ hand into the air. Trent hugged my legs, calling out victory to his brother. Travis looked up at me with a broad, bloody smile; his right eye had already begun to swell.

As the money passed hands and the crowd began to meander about, preparing to leave, my eyes drifted to a wildly flickering lantern swaying back and forth in the corner of the room behind Travis. Liquid was dripping from its base, soaking the sheet below it. My stomach sank.

“Trent?”

Catching his attention, I pointed to the corner. In that moment, the lantern fell from its clip, crashing into the sheet below, immediately bursting into flames.

“Holy shit!” Trent said, gripping my legs.

A few men around the fire jumped back, watching in awe as the flames crawled to the adjacent sheet. Black smoke bellowed from the corner, and in unison, every person in the room flew into a panic, pushing their way to the exits.

My eyes met Travis’, and a look of terror distorted his face.

“Abby!” he screamed, pushing at the sea of people between us.

“C’mon!” Trent yelled, pulling me from the chair to his side.

The room darkened, and a loud popping noise sounded from another side of the room. The other lanterns were igniting and adding to the fire in small explosions. Trent grabbed my arm, pulling me behind him as he tried to force his way through the crowd.

“We can’t get out that way! We’ll have to go back the way we came!” I cried, resisting.

Trent looked around, forming a plan of escape in the center of the confusion. I looked to Travis again, watching as he tried to make his way across the room. As the crowd surged, Travis was pressed farther and farther away. The excited cheering from before was now horrified shrieks of fear and desperation as everyone fought to reach the exits.

Trent pulled me to the doorway, and I looked back. “Travis!” I yelled, reaching out for him.

He was coughing, waving the smoke away.

“This way, Trav!” Trent called to him.

“Just get her out of here, Trent! Get Pigeon out!” he said, coughing.

Conflicted, Trent looked down to me. I could see the fear in his eyes. “I don’t know the way out.”

I looked to Travis once more, his form flickering behind the flames that had spread between us. “Travis!”

“Just go! I’ll catch up to you outside!” His voice was drowned out by the chaos around us, and I gripped Trent’s sleeve.

“This way, Trent!” I said, feeling the tears and smoke burn my eyes. Dozens of panicked people were between Travis and his only escape.

I tugged on Trent’s hand, shoving anyone in my path. We reached the doorway, and then I looked back and forth. Two dark hallways were dimly lit by the fire behind us.

“This way!” I said, pulling on his hand again.

“You sure?” Trent asked, his voice thick with doubt and fear.

“C’mon!” I said, tugging on him again.

The farther we ran, the darker the rooms became. After a few moments, my breaths were easier as we left the smoke behind, but the screams didn’t subside, louder and more frantic than before. The horrific sounds behind us fueled my determination, keeping my steps quick and purposeful. By the second turn, we were walking blindly through the darkness. I held my hand in front of me, feeling along the wall with my free hand, gripping Trent’s hand with the other.

“Do you think he got out?” Trent asked.

His question undermined my focus, and I tried to push the answer from my mind. “Keep moving,” I choked out.

Trent resisted for a moment, but when I tugged on him again, a light flickered. He held up a lighter, squinting into the small space for the way out. I followed the light as he waved it around the room, and gasped when a doorway came into view.

“This way!” I said, tugging on him again.

As I rushed through to the next room, a wall of people crashed into me, throwing me to the ground. Three women and two men, all with dirty faces and wide, frightened eyes looked down at me.

One of the boys reached down to help me up. “There’s some windows down here we can get out of!” he said.

“We just came from that way, there’s nothing down there,” I said, shaking my head.

“You must have missed it. I know they’re this way!”

Trent tugged on my hand. “C’mon, Abby, they know the way out!”

I shook my head. “We came in this way with Travis. I know it.”

He tightened his grip. “I told Travis I wouldn’t let you out of my sight. We’re going with them.”

“Trent, we’ve been down that way…there were no windows!”

“Let’s go, Jason!” a girl cried.

“We’re going,” Jason said, looking to Trent.

Trent tugged on my hand again and I pulled away. “Trent, please ! It’s this way, I promise!”

“I’m going with them,” he said, “Please come with me.”

I shook my head, tears flowing down my cheeks. “I’ve been here before. That’s not the way out!”

“You’re coming with me!” he yelled, pulling on my arm.

“Trent, stop! We’re going the wrong way!” I cried.

My feet slid across the concrete as he pulled me along, and when the smell of smoke grew stronger, I yanked away, running in the opposite direction.

“ABBY! ABBY!” Trent called.

I kept running, holding my hands out in front of me, anticipating a wall.

“Come on ! She’s gonna get you killed!” a girl said.

My shoulder crashed into a corner and I spun around, falling to the ground. I crawled along the floor, holding my trembling hand in front of me. When my fingers touched sheet rock, I followed it up, rising to my feet. The corner of a doorway materialized under my touch and I followed it into the next room.

The darkness was endless, but I willed away the panic, carefully keeping my footsteps straight, reaching out for the next wall. Several minutes passed by, and I felt the fear well up inside me as the wails from behind rung in my ears.

“Please,” I whispered in the blackness, “let this be the way out.”

I felt another corner of a doorway, and when I made my way through, a silver stream of light glowed before me. Moonlight filtered through the glass of the window, and a sob forced its way from my throat.

“T-TRENT! It’s here!” I called behind me. “TRENT!”

I squinted my eyes, seeing a tiny bit of movement in the distance. “Trent?” I called out, my heart beat fluttering wildly in my chest. Within moments, shadows danced against the walls, and my eyes widened with horror when I realized what I thought were people, was actually the flickering light of flames.

“Oh my God,” I said, looking up at the window. Travis had closed it behind us, and it was too high for me to reach.

I looked around for something to stand on. The room was lined with wooden furniture covered in white sheets. The same sheets that would feed the fire until the room turned into an inferno.

I grabbed a piece of white cloth, yanking it from a desk. Dust clouded around me as threw the sheet to the ground and lugged the bulky wood across the room to the space beneath the window. I shoved it next to the wall and climbed up, coughing with the smoke that was slowly seeping into the room. The window was still a few feet above me.

I grunted as I tried to shove it open, clumsily twisting the lock back and forth between each push. It wouldn’t budge.

“Come on, dammit!” I yelled, leaning into my arms.

I leaned back, using my body weight with the little momentum I could manage to force it open. When that didn’t work, I slid my nails under the edges, pulling until I thought my nails had pulled away from the skin. Light flashed from the corner of my eye, and I cried out when I saw the fire barreling down the white sheets lining the hallway I had traveled just moments before.

I looked up at the window, once again digging my nails into the edges. Blood dripped from my fingertips, the metal edges sinking into my flesh. Instinct overcame all other senses, and my hands balled into fists, ramming into the glass. A small crack splintered across the pane, along with my blood smearing and spattering with each blow.

I hammered the glass once more with my fist, and then pulled off my shoe, slamming it with full force. Sirens wailed in the distance and I sobbed, beating my palms against the window. The rest of my life was just a few inches away, on the other side of the glass. I clawed at the edges once more, and then began slapping the glass with both palms.

“HELP ME!” I screamed, seeing the flames draw nearer. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”

A faint cough sputtered behind me. “Pigeon?”

I flipped around to the familiar voice. Travis appeared in a doorway behind me, his face and clothes covered in soot.

“TRAVIS!” I cried. I scrambled off the desk and ran across the floor to where he stood, exhausted and filthy.

I slammed into him, and he wrapped his arms around me, coughing as he gasped for air. His hands grabbed my cheeks.

“Where’s Trent?” he said, his voice raspy and weak.

“He followed them!” I bawled, tears streaming down my face. “I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn’t come!”

Travis looked down at the approaching fire and his eyebrows pulled in. I sucked in a breath, coughing when smoke filled my lungs. He looked down at me, his eyes filling with tears. “I’m gonna get us outta here, Pidge.” His lips pressed against mine in one quick, firm movement, and then he climbed on top of my make-shift ladder.

He pushed at the window, and then twisted the lock, the muscles of his arms quivering as he used all of his strength against the glass.

“Get back, Abby! I’m gonna break the glass!”

Afraid to move, I could only manage one step away from our only way out. Travis’ elbow bent as he reared back his fist, yelling as he rammed it into the window. I turned away, shielding my face with my bloody hands as the glass shattered above me.

“Come on!” he yelled, holding his hand out to me. The heat from the fire took over the room, and I soared into the air as he lifted me from the ground and pushed me outside.

I waited on my knees as Travis climbed out, and then helped him to his feet. The sirens were blaring from the other side of the building, and red and blue lights from fire engines and police cruisers danced across the brick on the adjacent buildings.

We ran to the crowd of people standing in front of the building, scanning the dirty faces for Trent. Travis yelled his brother’s name, his voice becoming more and more hopeless with each call. He pulled out his cell phone to check for a missed call and then slammed it shut, covering his mouth with his blackened hand.

“TRENT!” Travis screamed, stretching his neck as he searched the crowd.

Those that had escaped were hugging and whimpering behind the emergency vehicles, watching in horror as the pumper truck shot water through the windows and firefighters ran inside, pulling hoses behind them.

Travis ran his hand over the stubble on his scalp, shaking his head. “He didn’t get out,” he whispered. “He didn’t get out, Pidge.”

My breath caught as I watched the soot on his cheeks streak with his tears. He fell to his knees and I fell with him.

“Trent’s smart, Trav. He got out. He had to have found a different way,” I said, trying to convince myself as well.

Travis collapsed into my lap, gripping my shirt with both fists. I held him. I didn’t know what else to do.

An hour had passed. We watched with waning hope as the firefighters brought out two people, and then continuously came out empty handed. As the paramedics tended to the injured and ambulances tore into night with burn victims, we waited. Half an hour later, the bodies they were returning with were beyond saving. The ground was lined with casualties, far outnumbering those of us that had escaped. Travis’ eyes didn’t leave the door, waiting for them to pull his brother from the ashes.

“Travis?”

We turned at the same time to see Adam standing beside us. Travis stood up, pulling me along with him.

“I’m glad to see you guys made it out,” Adam said, looking stunned and bewildered. “Where’s Trent?”

Travis didn’t answer.

Our eyes returned to the charred remains of Keaton Hall, the thick black smoke still billowing from the windows. I buried my face into Travis’ chest, shutting my eyes tight, hoping at any moment I would wake up.

“I have to uh…I have to call my dad,” Travis said, his eyebrows pulling together as he opened his cell phone.

I took a breath, hoping my voice would sound stronger than I felt. “Maybe you should wait, Travis. We don’t know anything, yet.”

His eyes didn’t leave the number pad, and his lip quivered. “This ain’t fucking right. He shoulda never been there.”

“It was an accident, Travis. You couldn’t have known something like this was going to happen,” I said, touching his cheek.

His face compressed, his eyes shutting tight. He took in a deep breath and began to dial his father’s number.

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