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.