The heat was unbearable. Holding her breath and with smoke stinging in her eyes, Shane tried to find her way through the flames inside the burning building that only minutes ago had been her workplace. She figured in another thirty minutes, all of it would be gone.
Shay was somewhere inside, and she had to find him before that happened. She’d heard his voice over the noise from the fire but it was impossible for her to tell exactly where he was. “Shay!” she yelled again and began to cough as she drew smoke back down into her lungs, but that didn’t stop her when she got no reply. “Shay? Where are you?” Tears welled up in her eyes, both from the irritating smoke and from fear of losing her brother.
“Shane!” She suddenly heard his voice coming from somewhere outside the bathroom and when she looked over there, she saw him sitting on the floor, covering his face with a t-shirt.
‘Good boy,’ she thought and her lips formed a relieved smile in spite of everything. “Stay where you are!” she yelled, covering her own face with her right arm again and tried to find the closest and safest way to get to him. The skin on her face was stinging and almost felt like it had caught fire but there was nothing she could do to keep the heat from getting to her other than trying to stay as low as possible. All she knew was that she needed to get Shay out of there fast before it was too late for both of them.
Shane hurried forward between racks of burning clothing; she didn’t have much of a choice, there was no other way to get across the room. She saw him more clearly now, even if the smoke was getting thicker, and he seemed unharmed. As she stopped for just a moment to determine what direction to take through the smoke and flames, she opened her mouth to shout to him again, but no sound came out and instead she began to cough more violently than before.
She tried to ignore the heat in her throat and lungs as she fought hard to take a breath - just one, that was all she could allow herself - and she stumbled through the smoke in Shay’s direction. When she reached him she resisted the urge to just wrap her arms around him, hold him, and never let him go. Getting him out of there was more important for the time being.
“Are you okay?” she asked him and when he nodded she continued, pausing between every few words to cough. The irritating feeling in her throat would not go away, but she could worry about that later. “Close your eyes and keep your face covered. And if I tell you to run, you run. Don’t look back.”
Shay nodded again and she picked him up, heading back out toward the flames to try to find the safest way out. It was difficult for her to carry him and she couldn’t imagine that he’d be that heavy all of a sudden, especially not since he seemed to have lost weight the last few months, so there had to be something wrong with her. Her whole body felt so heavy and everything around her was starting to look blurry. Still, she refused to put him down. She wanted him to keep covering his face and he couldn’t do that if she let him go.
As they got closer to the exit, Shane felt her arms starting to go numb, and as much as she hated herself for it, she had to put her brother down or she would drop him. She slowed her pace and everything seemed as if it was happening in slow motion. She eased him down on the floor and when he removed the t-shirt from his face and looked questioningly into her eyes, she yelled at him to run just like she’d said she would.
She followed as closely behind him as she could but even though she allowed herself to breathe more often as they got closer to the doors, it was becoming harder and harder for her to do it. Every time she took a breath, it felt like it had no oxygen in it, and it probably didn’t. The smoke wasn’t as thick when they got out of the store, but it was still enough to cause problems for her.
She had nearly reached the half-pipe when she heard a strange noise somewhere behind her and it was almost immediately followed by a searing pain in her left arm. It made her lose her balance and before she had time to react, the ground seemed to disappear beneath her feet only to come crashing towards her and the world around her faded to black.
When Shay reached the group standing a safe distance from the store, Alice put her arms protectively around him to make sure he didn’t turn around and head back toward the fire and his sister who had just risked her life to get him out of there. A while after Shane left to go and find him, Jenny had calmed down enough for Alice to dare to let go of her, but now Jenny and Chase were on their way back toward the burning shop and all the running back and forth, and the situation in itself, was making Alice sick with worry. She watched them as they ran and hoped they’d soon be back and have Shane with them. Unharmed.
They’d seen both of them emerge from the smoke and flames, first Shay and then Shane, and they’d watched in shock as she suddenly fell and disappeared behind the half-pipe without getting back up again.
Jenny was the first to reach Shane and she found her lying motionless, face down on the ground. Chase soon caught up with her and shook his head when Jenny tried to help him move her.
“It’s okay, I got her.” He’d rolled her over on her back and into his arms, and soon they were hurrying back to the others, away from the spreading fire.
“Oh my god,” Jenny exclaimed after they stopped a while after passing through the fence and Chase put her unconscious girlfriend down on the ground again. She stared at the big crimson spots that covered the left side of Shane’s grey hoodie. “Is that blood?” she asked him and tried to swallow the lump in her throat, not sure that she really wanted him to answer her.
He took a look at them and shook his head. “I’m pretty sure it’s paint.”
“Paint?” Alice asked confusedly and tried to get a look at it. Shay slipped out of her embrace, the skateboard Shane had given him earlier that day held tightly to his chest as he sat down next to his sister, looking completely heartbroken.
“Yeah,” Chase nodded, “could have come from one of the spray-paint cans. But it’s not blood.“
Alice remembered the paint cans that she and Shane had been sorting through on the counter but she had no idea how any of it could have ended up on Shane’s clothes when she’d gone to get Shay.
Jenny joined Shay by Shane’s side and eased her into her arms, desperate to bring her back to life. She wasn’t dead, but seeing her like that, pale under the layer of soot from the fire, barely breathing, made Jenny fear that maybe she wasn’t that far from it. “Shane, please, wake up…”
The skin on the right side of Shane’s face was bleeding a little, so were her right hand and both of her knees, Jenny noticed. Shane’s ripped jeans were even more torn now and Jenny caught herself staring at the small bloodstains on them. She had just grazed her skin when she fell and it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but Shane’s blood was supposed to be inside her, not where Jenny could see it.
“Please, Shane, please open your eyes,” Jenny pleaded, gently stroking her hand over Shane’s uninjured cheek and ignoring the tears that had begun to trickle down her own. It scared her more than words could say that life could suddenly change so drastically. Only a few hours ago, they’d been right there at WAX, so happy even in spite of the things Shane was going through at the moment. Would she ever see Shane smiling again? Hear her laugh? Feel her… “Please, Shane…” she said again, an involuntarily sigh escaping from her lips.
“Five more minutes…”
The words were barely audible but they caused Jenny to let out something that was both a giggle and a sob at once and she smiled at Shane in relief. “Shane, it’s not morning. But you do need to wake up.” Chase and the others couldn’t help but chuckle a little at her either, but they soon stepped back to give them some space.
Shane began to cough and tried to use her left hand to push her back up straight, wincing at the burning pain that shot through her upper arm. The memories of what had just happened were flashing before her eyes and her heart began to pound harder and harder in her chest when she remembered why she’d gone back inside in the first place.
“Where’s Shay?” she asked hoarsely before the next coughing attack hit her.
“He’s right here,” Jenny replied, placing a soft kiss on her forehead and pointing at Shay who sat right next to her, on her other side.
“He okay?” Shane asked while she turned around to look at him and she let out a deep sigh of relief when she saw that he was really there. She attempted to put her right arm around him but the pain in her hand seemed to want to remind her that it might not be the best idea right now. It bothered her that she couldn’t remember why it hurt, some parts of what had happened still appeared to be missing from her memory.
Shay put his hand on her back instead and nodded slowly. “I’m okay.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that it was somehow his fault that his sister was hurt. If he hadn’t been inside, she wouldn’t have had to come and get him, and none of this would have happened.
“Yeah, he’s fine. It’s you we’re worried about.” Jenny resisted giving in to the sudden impulse to ask her why on earth she’d done what she did. She didn’t need to. She already knew and she was also fairly certain that even if she’d done it because Shay was the most important person in her life, she would have done the exact same thing if it had been her or Alice who’d been trapped in the fire. That was just who she was. Always putting everyone else before herself.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Shay began to cough and Shane turned to look at her for a moment, panic written all over her face. Jenny realized Shane hadn’t looked at her with her eyes fully opened since she woke up, and that was why she hadn’t noticed how red they were until now. She blamed it on the smoke, but everything, everything was just so completely wrong. None of it was supposed to happen, and yet it had, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
A moment later Shay stopped coughing again but Shane didn’t calm down. He seemed to notice that, and he looked at her intently, his expression deadly serious as he inspected the wound on her face with a slow nod. “See, Shane,” he said, “I told you, you should have worn a helmet.”
Jenny and Shane, being the only ones there who understood what he meant, just stared at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. Jenny realized that it felt both strange and amazingly relieving to be able to do that again, laughing together at something silly like that. At least until it triggered Shane’s cough again and Jenny tried to give Shay a smile that would tell him that while she knew he meant well, he probably shouldn’t make her laugh right now.
Shane moaned quietly and Jenny moved closer, wrapping her arms around her thin frame and holding her as tightly as she dared to. Shane just curled into a ball to rest her head on her knees. Holding her that close scared Jenny; it wasn’t until then that she heard the raspy noise when Shane tried to breathe. Tears started filling her eyes again. For a while she had thought Shane was safe, or as close to safe as she could be after what happened, but now she wasn’t sure anymore.
“They need an ambulance,” Jenny suddenly said to the others. She’d completely forgotten about everything but Shane and Shay, including their friends and the need for help. “Has anyone called 911?”
“Yeah,” Alice said, speaking up for the first time since Shane woke up. “Chase did right when you showed up, Jenny. They should be here any minute, you just need…”
‘Any minute’ wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Jenny. People she loved were hurt and they needed help now, not ‘any minute’. “What do I need, Alice?” she retorted, unable to stop herself from lashing out at her friend. “You know what I fucking need? I need someone to help her, she could be dying and you’re just standing there.”
Alice didn’t say anything. The whole situation reminded her all too much of when she lost Dana. She understood how Jenny felt and she couldn’t blame her. Watching Jenny sitting there on the ground with a barely conscious Shane in her arms had eerie similarities to how she and Dana had been the last few days of her life. It hurt in a way, that Jenny seemed to forget that Shane was her friend too, but as she thought about it, she realized that it wasn’t quite the same. Shane was to Jenny what Dana had been to her. They weren’t just friends like she and Shane were, somehow, there was more to it than that. What exactly that meant, she couldn’t quite comprehend at that moment; she had more important things to think about when she realized Jenny was yelling.
“You have to breathe, Shane! Please, I need you to keep breathing!”
“I am,” Shane coughed and Jenny looked panicked up at Alice who realized Shane must have stopped for a while for Jenny to react like that.
While she stood there, watching her friends and listening while Shane asked Jenny again where Shay was and if he was okay even though he was still sitting right next to her, Alice started to hear the sirens approaching and just as she was about to mention it, Jenny reacted too.
Alice walked over to talk to Chase for a while so they could both stay out of the way when the others got help and she found him staring at what used to be his skateboard shop that now looked more like a huge bonfire. The fire-fighters were already working on putting it out, but Alice doubted there’d be anything left of it in the morning.
“Is she okay?” he asked her and she shrugged hopelessly in response.
“I honestly can’t tell at this point. But it’s Shane, she’ll get through it.” She remembered something she’d meant to ask earlier, but it had slipped her mind with all that had happened. “I thought you had a smoke detector,” she said questioningly.
“We did,” Chase nodded slowly, his features not changing one bit as he answered her. “We had more than one.”
She raised an eyebrow and glanced confusedly back at him. “I never heard anything.”
“No one did,” he replied. “They never went off.”
“Oh.” Alice had a feeling somewhere in the back of her head that she should know what that meant, but she just had too many things on her mind to see it clearly. She didn’t have to ask about it, Chase’s boyfriend pointed it out to her before she had a chance to open her mouth.
“We think someone disabled them before they started the fire.”
“And they meant for all of us to die in it,” Chase continued. “They took something they knew we’d need so we’d have to go and look for it, and then they started all of this. And there’s only one person I can think of that would want to do that, and that would have a reason to.”
“That guy you fired?” Alice asked quietly.
Chase nodded. “Nick, yeah. I’m pretty sure it was him. It had to be someone who knew where everything was, and who had a chance to find out we’d be here tonight. I’m such a fucking idiot for not doing something about it when he threatened me, but I didn’t think that little shit actually meant it.”
Alice stayed and talked to them a while longer until she noticed that Jenny, Shane and Shay had been helped into an ambulance and she excused herself to go and talk to them before they left for the hospital.
A paramedic was trying to put an oxygen mask on Shane who sat up on a stretcher, and he wasn’t having much luck with it. Even though she looked like she was about to fall asleep at any moment, she kept shaking her head and telling him to leave her alone until he finally agreed to Jenny’s request to let her do it instead. She kissed Shane’s uninjured cheek and whispered something into her ear that Alice couldn’t hear, and a few seconds later Shane was wearing the mask after all.
Alice stood there, watching them in silence, and for the first time since the fire started, a small smile spread on her lips.