She felt the insidious fog embracing her soul, slowly and deliberately. Her senses were numbing and the steel in her mind and heart were growing soft. It felt as though the days were blending together into one big fusion of melancholy, fear and boredom.
Then there was the other matter. The deadly longing infecting her chest. It pulsed and pushed making room for itself where it was not welcome or allowed. No matter how hard she tried, no matter what she did, she just couldn’t let go of it. It antagonized her ruthlessly, and she wanted it to go away.
Lucy fussed and struggled to pull a cigarette from her pack. She lit it clumsily as she flew by the drab deadness of brown California scenery on her way to work. She drew long and hard on it, pulling the nicotine in as deeply as she could, and then slowly let it out through her tight and tense lips. Somehow this was a symbolic gesture of rebellion and it made her feel comfortably indignant.
This was a daily exercise. Telling herself, lying to herself that this is what was good, and safe, and right. That she could and would find a way to be happy doing this. That someday it will be different. Someday the nightmare will end. But that thought always ended with this thought; at the end of each nightmare, there always seemed to be one just as big or bigger standing by, ready to take over where the last one left off.
She drew hard once more on her cigarette, and with a deep sigh of frustration, cranked the volume on the car stereo determined to overrule the thoughts in her mind. She pushed the gas with a little more effort, to match her anger and impatience, singing loudly to the heavy metal song on the radio. In that moment she knew she needed to regroup. Get her head back in the game, so to speak. Today she needed to make a slight detour from her life in order to get her life back in order. It wasn’t that her life had become chaotic or unmanageable. It was that it had become too quiet, lulling her into a deadly sense of false security. That couldn’t happen.
“No” she said out loud, “Today will be different”.
She needed to change things up. A small change, just enough to put things back into perspective. Without hesitation, she took the next exit off the freeway, called in to work, and pulled into the parking lot of an aging roadside café.
It had been 5 years of this. The same thing each day. It needed to be that way and she knew that. She needed to be quiet, unnoticed, reliable, boring and alone. She needed to work in a back office somewhere where she would disappear into the scenery. She needed to not have a social life. She needed to fly under any and all radars. The way to do that was to be as completely and totally unremarkable as possible. While her immediate goal had been accomplished, she hadn’t counted on the loneliness and longing for a real life to be so intense, so strong.
Silently, Lucy remembered herself as a rosy cheeked, freckle faced red-headed child, lying in the freshly cut grass, peering up to the shapes in the clouds on a warm summer afternoon. She remembered that then, she too had told herself things would be different. That someday her nightmare would end and she could go on to be the super hero she knew herself to be.
Gently, cradling her face in her hands, she allowed for herself to feel the longing to be cared for, for someone to hold her and tell her that everything would be alright. She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined someone, anyone, stroking the length of her long blonde hair and whispering in her ear that she would be ok. When she opened her eyes, Lucy looked herself square into the blue eyes in the rearview mirror.
“It’s just you Lucy. You're all you’ve got, period. I got your back.” She told herself. She was beginning the process of strengthening her thoughts, and determining her spirit. It always began with a good heart to heart.
Walking into the coffee shop, feeling slightly apprehensive, she expected to find her solace in a latte and a newspaper where she could let go of the gnawing nagging feeling behind her eyes. She was pleased to find an empty table in the back away from noisy foot traffic and she sat comfortably with a long and deep sigh. As it was her practice in any building she entered, she made mental notes of all employees and all exits, then settled in. It was a quaint little mom and pop shop, a little dirty, but with cheerful colors lining the walls and soft music in the background. Lucy heard an old man in the back barking at what must have been the dishwasher to clean the grease he had spilled on the floor. The man’s voice was gruff but she could sense humor in it.
The bouncy young waitress with the perky smile and perfect breasts dropped off her latte and asked if she needed anything else. Lucy had a plethora of responses to that question, but she remembered her audience and softly smiled with a “no thank you” instead. And then, she was alone with her latte and her newspaper.
Slowly, unwinding, her mind began to run free. She needed this today, she thought as she sipped at her latte. After this, she would get some gas and head for a nice drive down the coast to clear her mind. After that she would stop at the fish market to pick up the fixings for a nice dinner and a really good bottle of wine to treat herself. The Ocean was her saving grace and one of the main reasons she chose this broken down little town to disappear in. It kept her company, talked her through her loneliness. She spent most of her free time walking its beaches, collecting sea-shells and watching the waves. The ships in the horizon reminded her of what life could be like beyond the shores that she had become a prisoner to. It fed her with the slight hope of possibility.
But the real reason she chose this town was because it would be wrought with tourists coming and going, giving her just enough people movement to remain anonymous and unnoticed. It would be easy to live in a town where the locals were so used to not paying attention to their patrons. The people around here were friendly enough, but very good about minding their own business. Most of them being simple folk or free-thinkers. The Ocean seemed to draw them. To each his own was a communal theme in this place and that suited Lucy’s needs perfectly.
Whimsy began to massage her body and mind. The knots and tension in her shoulders began to loosen their grip. This will be a good day, she told herself and for the first time in a long while, she felt she was not lying.
That was when she smelled smoke.
She knew that smell very well. No mistaking it. Something was on fire. She heard people scuffling about and loud frightened voices coming from the kitchen. Just as she lifted her head to look for the source of the smoke, the alarms began to blare. Instinctively, she put her hands to her ears to muffle the sound. All at once, the knots in her shoulders began to retie themselves and she stood at alert.
It would move quickly through a dirty, greasy kitchen and swallow up the old building within no time at all. The customers and the employees were screaming and running around in frantic circles. She heard the old man’s voice once more from the back screaming at the dishwasher,
“NO! Don’t throw water on it!!!”
He yelled for everyone to get out. Panic broke in the crowd and chaos ensued. For a little café it held about 20 people and now those 20 people were a frightened stampede, trampling and pushing past each other like animals in their escape.
This was not the detour she had been hoping for. But there would be no panicking. She knew better. Adrenaline would cloud her judgment, making it too hard to think. She drew in a long breath and let it slide out of her lungs slowly, then through her mouth to help her maintain her wits. There was only one door to escape from safely and that would be the front door, the one that the 20 or so men, women, and children were fighting each other for.
Smoke was quickly lining the ceiling in a thick choking stream. Lucy could feel the heat pouring out from the pass bar in the kitchen spilling into the small dining area. It would be close, she thought. But she had to be calm and patient.
The fire was hissing and crackling behind her, coming closer. “Time to go Lucy” she told herself.
Almost everyone was out now, save one little girl crying for her grandma.
Quickly, Lucy ran and grabbed the child’s hand. “Come on little lady, she’s probably waiting for you outside, come with me…”
The little girl coughed and screamed in protest, pulling hard on Lucy’s hand to be released.
“NO!!! She’s in the bathroom!” the little girl cried. “GRAMM AAAA!!!” She hollered.
Lucy shot a glance towards the bathrooms which were nestled directly against the kitchen; she could see the flames had already engulfed the men’s room.
“Quickly now little lady, run outside! I’ll get grandma, ok?” Lucy kept her face calm but intense and firm. She forcefully pushed the girl out of the front door.
“Someone grab this child, NOW!” Lucy called from the front door. The little girl was kicking and screaming. A fat man in a dirty white apron ran for the little girl and scooped her up. This, Lucy assumed to be the old man with the gruff voice in the kitchen.
“Miss, don’t go back in there!” he called after her.
But it was too late. Lucy was running on pure instinct now. She knew the old lady didn’t have a chance if she didn’t. The bathroom would be filled with suffocating smoke by this time if not already in flames. She ignored the old man’s words, snatched the towel from his hand, took a deep breath of fresh air, covered her mouth and ran back into the burning building. The stench of old grease and kitchen filth filled her mouth and her nose causing a slight wave of nauseous wrenching, but she knew it would be better than the smoke.
She ran directly to the door of the ladies room calling out as loud as she could.
“HELLO! EMERGENCY! EXIT THE BUILDING!” But there was no response.
The bathroom door was hot, but fire had not yet reached it. As she opened the door, smoke poured over her like a dam being released. She took several steps back, coughing and hacking, unable to breathe.
“LADY! ARE YOU IN HERE?” Lucy was trying to holler above the sound of the whining flames.
Again, there was no reply. She entered the bathroom, and could see the outline of two stalls. It would only be seconds before she would be completely blinded by the smoke. She dropped to her knees, peering underneath the stall doors and could barely make out the silhouette of a person lying lifeless on the bathroom floor. Lucy jumped up and shook the stall door. It was locked.
“LADY! WAKE UP! WE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!” Lucy cried with desperation.
It was no use. The old woman was unconscious.
“STAY STILL, I’M KICKING THE DOOR IN!” she hollered.
She pulled the weight of her body backwards and willed the force of herself into her leg and kicked the door with all of her might. The door flew open crashing against the wall loud enough to wake the dead, Lucy thought, but the old lady remained motionless, curled up in a ball on the floor. Lucy guessed the old lady to be about 200 lbs.
“Fuck. Never easy is it?” she asked the Universe.
Without thinking Lucy grabbed the old woman and used the strength left in her back and her legs to pull the lady over her shoulders. Putting the towel back over her nose and mouth, she ran for the front door with the now roaring flames chasing closely from behind.
Breathless, and coughing from deep inside of her chest, she had reached the pavement of the parking lot at a safe enough distance from the fire. Lucy allowed the old man in the dirty white apron to take the old lady from her and watched as he gently laid her to the ground. She put the towel behind the old woman’s head for cushion and quickly Lucy put her ear to the woman’s mouth listening for breath. She heard and felt nothing. The sirens were still distant. Lucy put her fingers on the old lady’s neck to feel for a pulse.
“Nothing, dammit!” she said out loud.
The little girl was standing next to Lucy, screaming, “GRAMMA!!!”
Lucy shot a quick glance at the old man and he complied, shuffling the girl away.
It was with pure instinct that Lucy began CPR. Tipping the old woman’s head back, pinching her nose, she pulled her own breath into her chest then breathed into the old woman’s mouth. When there was no response, she pushed hard on the old ladies chest, knowing she would probably crack a rib. Again, she drew her own breath and pushed it into the old woman.
Lucy repeated until the old lady coughed and spit. Pushing the old woman to her side, she wrenched and vomited. But she was breathing. And just like that, Lucy was done.
Exhausted, she fell back in relief. The adrenaline was pushing forcefully through her body now causing her kidneys to ache and her head to pound. Her mind was racing with exhilaration and disbelief. She knew that she needed to stop for a moment to catch her breath and regain her own senses. She put her head between her knees now and began to breathe in deeply and slowly until she felt the pounding stop.
She had surprised herself with her razor sharp reactions. Secretly, with her head between her knees, she smiled the same smile she would have after a real good romp in bed. It felt good. She felt alive, vital, and purposeful.
But then her mind and her ears drew her back to reality. The noises around her began to make sense. People were chattering excitedly, sirens had become unbearably loud. Lucy slowly lifted her head and found that she had involuntarily become the star of the show. Excited witnesses snapping pictures on their cell phones, talking in high pitched exclamations about what that brave woman had done.
“You’re a HERO!” one woman called out as she continued to point her cell phone at Lucy.
“This is so going on MYTUBE!” a teenager proclaimed.
“I can’t believe it!” cried a man in work boots and overalls.
“I couldn’t have done that myself” another said.
Lucy froze in blinding panic. All the cameras and the phones and the videos and the people, and now the Police and the Firemen. All looking at her, taping her, witnessing her. Her face was going to go viral. Exactly the opposite of what she wanted, or needed. Any one of these things would put her back on the run, but all of them put together would spell certain death and it would come faster than Lucy could compensate for.
Quickly, she pushed herself to her feet. She meant to disappear in this crowd and somehow escape the scene before anyone could get her name. And then it would be time to fly.
But she rose much too fast. Everything began to spin, she realized she was breathing too rapidly and her heart rate was way too high. She closed her eyes in an effort to ground her senses and to calm the dizziness. The sirens were all that she could hear now, pressing hard against her ear drums. It was too late. Lucy felt the darkness swallow her despite her protests and she fell backwards into nothingness.
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