Collision Course VI

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Ella’s first reaction was confusion, she had never actually heard the fire alarm sound in her four years in the apartment, and while it was unmistakeable, part of her brain couldn’t figure out why it was going off.  The thought that there might be a fire causing it only occurred to her when Tanner moved, followed by the realization there was no going outside to get away from it.

Tanner’s first reaction was entirely different.  He was on his feet and pulling open the hall closet looking for the fire extinguisher, because he wasn’t worried about getting out; his first thought was knowing a fire crew would not be coming.

The extinguisher was attached to the side wall inside the closet just like in his apartment, their layouts being identical.    His hand was on the doorknob when Ella realized what he was doing.

“Tanner, no!  You can’t just-”

“What I can’t do is sit on the couch as the building burns down around us!  There’s no one coming, it’s just us.”  The sharpness in his voice made her recoil slightly but he didn’t have time to deal with that right now.

Other tenants were coming out into the hall as well, and it took only a moment to establish the fire was not on this floor.  Tanner went up to anyone who didn’t look lost or frightened and told them to get their extinguishers, too.

An older gentlemen who sounded quite used to giving orders suggested they split up, one group go up, the other go down.  Whichever group didn’t find anything, they’d know to go the other way.  “Get anyone you pass to help.  The important thing is to find it before it gets out of control.  Follow the smoke, but be careful opening doors.”

Ella watched and listened.  Four years and she still barely knew the faces of her neighbors, let alone their names.  She had seen the man a few times but wasn’t even sure which apartment he lived in, just that it was on her floor.

There were seven volunteers out of the ten apartments on the third floor, and they were split four and three.  Tanner was in the group of four going down.  Unable to find any words of encouragement, he just gave her a smile as if he knew everything would be alright, then he was headed toward the stairwell with the others.

When they were gone, Ella looked around at those who were left.  There was another woman she recognized, but she struggled to remember her name.  Bale? Banner?   She was saved from guessing when someone else spoke to her, calling her Linda and that jarred Ella’s memory: Linda Bains.

“Are you all right, Mrs. Bains?”  Her husband and daughter had both volunteered to go, and her face was lined with worry.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Mrs. Bains said, but the tone of her voice indicated it was more of an automatic answer than a true one.  Ella considered inviting her in, but the woman who had spoken earlier put an arm around Mrs. Bains’ shoulder and lead her away.

Ella looked back toward the stairwell, wondering if she should do something, or even if she could do anything.  Tanner had been right, they couldn’t just stand here waiting for the building to burn down, but she knew she’d be useless trying to fight a fire.  That’s when it struck her, what she could do.

She knocked on the next door, the elderly man having already gone back inside.

“Excuse me, sir,” she felt guilty for not knowing his name, “Do you have any bandages, first aid kit, anything?”

He nodded. “Why, yes, miss.  Want me to fetch them for you?”

“Please!  I’m just going to ask around for more,” she called, already walking to the next door.

With everyone chipping in, she collected enough to almost fill a grocery bag, then she sat in the hall outside her door.  While she was sorting through things, a girl about her age came over and sat beside her.

“Mind if I help?”

“Please.  The company would be nice.”

The girl introduced herself as Carol, adding she didn’t live here, she had just been visiting her parents when this happened.  She was young, but had some experience in CPR and first aid, and sounded competent as they looked through what Ella had gathered.

There were plenty of simple bandages, but only one roll of gauze for large injuries.  Several small packets of burn cream, rubbing alcohol, tweezers, aspirin, cold packs; a fairly standard assortment of first aid supplies.  Ella had rather hoped there would be earplugs as well, but the sound of the alarm really was the least of her worries right now.

At the last moment, she took one of the gallons of water and a towel, then she and Carol went looking not so much for the fire, but for those fighting it.

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Collision Course V

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With little to gauge it against, time dragged.  There was another fight, further away this time.  Dean slipped off the back of the couch and padded down the hall.  Ella checked her phone and sighed when only an hour had passed, though it felt more like four.  She tried to swallow and found it hard, her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth.  She finally eased herself out of Tanner’s hold and headed to the kitchen.

“I need something to drink.  Want anything?”  Not that there were any options.

Tanner shook his head.  “No, I’m good.”

Ella took a glass out of the cupboard and held it under the sink.  When she turned it on, the faucet shook; a few sputtering pulses of water splashed into the cup before it died down to a dribble.

“Tanner!”

But he was already coming over.  “What happened?”

“The water…”

He held the candle up and swore.  Both realized how foolish they had been, not to have thought to get a stock of water as soon as this had all started.  They should have filled every pitcher, every bowl.  Now they had a quickly slowing dribble of water.

“Get whatever you can!”

Ella snapped from her moment of fixation and started to empty the cupboards of every cup and bowl.  Tanner put them under the faucet, one by one, until the water stopped entirely.  He looked at the few they had managed to fill, realizing how utterly unprepared they were for this.

“Is that mud?”

Tanner held up the cup to catch the candle light a bit better.  There was a tinge to the water that caught the light when he swirled the cup.  “No, but it is dirty.  Dust must have gotten into the water lines somehow?”

Ella’s mouth felt even dryer now without something to wet it.  “Well, can we just- I don’t know, let it settle?”

“That would probably work if we knew it wasn’t contaminated.  Who knows what else is in there with the dirt, though.  But I have some in my apartment.”

For once, Ella couldn’t find any reason to tease him about buying bottled water, even if it did mean leaving to get it.  That door, with all that was going on, was her token of safety, and she looked at it as if leaving meant some horrible fate.

“Look, there’s no reason to start getting paranoid.”

“Don’t leave me here, please.”  She couldn’t even vocalize why she was scared, she had lost the peace of her home, lost the light in the sky, even lost the most basic utilities of power and water.  Was she going to lose him next?

He put his hands on her shoulders and gave them a reassuring rub.  “I’m just going up to my apartment, I’ll be right back.  Nothing bad is going to happen.”

“Then let me go with you.”

“Fine, you can come!” he laughed, exasperated by her outburst.  “I just didn’t think you wanted to.”

She didn’t, but she would rather be with him than left alone.  “I’ll help you carry stuff.”

He raised his hands in mock defeat.  “Alright!  Let’s go.”

Ella grabbed her coat, not really knowing why since it wasn’t like they were going outside, but it felt like they were.  She locked the door behind them and they started toward the stairs.  With power out, the elevator was out.  They had to walk twice as far down the hall, but it was empty and mostly quiet except for the sound of talking from one apartment, the sound of sex from another.  Well, Ella couldn’t argue that was a bad way to pass the time.

They arrived at Tanner’s apartment without incident and she started to relax as her fears failed to materialize.  He changed his clothes, since he’d been barely out of bed himself when he got to Ella’s that morning.  They filled a grocery bag with some better supplies: protein bars, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, chips, and ranch dip.  Ella grabbed the chocolate, too.  This was a chocolate kind of disaster.

Tanner also got some blankets.  He figured it wasn’t too long before they started to notice the lack of heat.  Along with some more candles and matches, and some good old batteries and flashlights, they each took a gallon of water and headed back to Ella’s apartment to wait this out in a bit more comfort.

Once they got the new supplies sorted out, they each had a glass of water over some fruit and eggs, curled back on the couch with the extra blanket, and now with the additional light, Ella was able to finally get to her book.  She read out loud to help pass the time, and it worked wonderfully.  Ella might almost have forgotten entirely what was happening outside the windows, until the fire alarm split the peace.

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Collision Course IV

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While Tanner carried out his experiment in trying to boil water, Ella took one of the other candles and went back to the bedroom to change out of her work clothes.  She put on a pair of comfortable yoga pants, a t-shirt and zip-up hoodie with a star on the back, a birthday gift from her aunt because of her name, Estrella.  She had gone by Ella for years as people had a tendency to mispronounce the double L in her name, so rather than fight it she just made it a nickname.

Living in the city, she had grown used to not seeing the stars.  Here their light was drowned out by the perpetual glow, but she still remembered growing up far away from the tall buildings, how she’d lay out in the field and find constellations.  Pin-pricked with a million stars, that darkness had always felt comforting.  This blackness felt oppressive, unnatural.

She picked up a book from her night stand and gave Dean’s head a rub before going back to the living room.  One candle on the coffee table and Tanner doused the other two before he joined her on the  couch. With Sam curled up on Tanner’s lap and Dean, who had followed Ella out of the bedroom, stretched out on the back, they were almost the picture of a lazy evening.  Ella opened her book, only to set it down again.  The candle was not nearly enough light to read by.  After that they just sat there, petting the cats; there wasn’t much else to do.

The silence was broken a quarter of an hour later by voices out in the hallway, rising to muffled yells before fading away again.  Ella fastened the chain on the door then retreated back to the couch.  Though there was the occasional disturbance, the apartment building was generally quiet.  Now, what with already being uneasy, the sounds from the hallway seemed even more threatening and dangerous.

“Should have grabbed stuff from home earlier,” Tanner mumbled.

Ella’s eyes widened slightly.  “But you won’t go, now.  Right?”

He shook his head.  “No, don’t worry.  I don’t really need anything.”  Besides, these kinds of situations can make people act crazy, and he didn’t want to run into anyone or have to fight someone off.  He was happy to justify it as not wanting to make Ella worried, though.

That made him realize that he hadn’t heard from his mother.  His mother, who worried about absolutely everything, would no doubt be in a panic over this.  He grabbed his phone and dialed her number but only got the automated message that all lines were busy.  So, no power, no phones, and a self-imposed restriction to his apartment; Tanner felt the anxiety begin to creep up inside of him.

The next sound they heard was a rhythmless pinging coming from the window.  Ella took the candle over to the sill and peered out.  With no basis of reference for what she was hearing, her mind tried to make it into a bird pecking at the glass.  It was Tanner who realized what it was.

“Rocks.”

Ella stared at him, her mind still not ready to comprehend what was happening.  “What?”

“Rocks.  Look, they’re small, but they’re rocks… hitting the window.”

That’s when Ella saw it, too.  It was difficult to see anything outside, the glass reflecting most of the light back and obscuring what lay beyond, but if she stared at one spot long enough she was able to make out the tiny objects bouncing off of the window.  Though they could only hear it as a muted howl, if the wind was strong enough to hurl even bits of rock three stories up, then it must be raging indeed.  The thought of it sent Ella into Tanner’s arms, wrapping herself with a sense of security.  He gladly took her in, guiding her back to the couch.  Sam had spread out on the seat, and Tanner eased him out of the way so they could sit down again.

“It’ll to be okay,” he assured her.  “We’re going to be just fine.”

Ella wished she felt as confident as he sounded.  Tanner did as well.

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Collision Course III

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Ella looked out the window, sick of the same scene, the same commentary over and over on the television.  The sky, which just half a hour ago had begun to grow light around the edges, was darkening again.  She looked over to Tanner, who was being distracted by Sam rubbing against his legs, and for a moment she smiled.

“It must be nice to be a cat.”

He nodded.  “Especially one as spoiled as yours are.”  They were silent again for a moment, then Tanner added, “Hey, how about I make us some…” he trailed off as the lights flickered twice, then went out entirely.

It was then that Ella heard it.  Or rather, realized she didn’t hear it.  The sounds of the living city, banished to an eerie silence; no traffic, no horns, not even the distant sound of sirens.   Tanner put his hand on her shoulder.

“Okay, we knew this was coming, right?”  But his own voice carried an uncertain edge as well.

Ella got up and walked to the window, watching as the last of the light was blotted from view, like a curtain being drawn across the horizon.   With the whole apartment plunged into darkness, Tanner used his cell phone to find his way to the kitchen and started rummaging in her drawers.

“You still keep those matches in here, right?”  When she didn’t answer, he looked up, but couldn’t even see her silhouette now.  “Ella?  Ella!”

“I’m okay,” she finally answered.   Turning, she saw his face barely etched out of the dark by the blue-green glow. “Matches… right, yes.  In the drawer to your left.  I mean my left.”

“Okay.”  He took a deep breath and pulled out the box.  It seemed pretty light, and opening it revealed only about 10 matches left inside.  “Candles?”

“Candles.  Yeah, somewhere.  Hold on.”  She got her own phone out and dug into the hall closet, finding the box of Christmas decorations where some pillar candles got stored the other eleven months of the year.  Tanner put three plates on the counter, one for each candle, and they lit them all.  One had three wicks, and each was likely to burn for at least eight hours, and soon they had a warm glow in the apartment.

“That’s not bad.  Almost feels romantic.”  He smiled, but she only looked away.  “Sorry.”

Awkward silence, this time broken by the sound of a thump from the apartment next door.

Tanner tried again.  “So, what’s in the fridge?  I never got breakfast.”

Ella gave a little groan, remembering she had decided not to stop and get groceries last night.  She silently vowed never to procrastinate on getting food ever again.  “Not much.  Take a look, I guess.  Help yourself.”

“Well, I have stuff upstairs, too.  If it comes to that.”  He opened the fridge and poked around.  She hadn’t been kidding.  Cream cheese, half a bag of bagels, some wilted lettuce, various condiments, jam, and half of a chicken breast.

Her bagel, long forgotten in the toaster, was now retrieved and smeared with cream cheese and jam.  Another was impaled on a bamboo skewer to be held over the three-wick candle.

“Just like camping!” he proclaimed proudly as she nibbled at hers, though she wasn’t really hungry.  She pushed the other half over to him.

“We’ll split that one when it’s ready,” she said when he made to protest.   He gratefully took a bite, then, and stared at the flame.

“So, how long do you think it’d take to boil water this way?”

An hour later he abandoned that idea.

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