Chapter Sixteen

“Holy shit,” I said almost under my breath. Toby’s words were not so quiet as he climbed to his feet, his face glowing in the reflection of the heat pouring our way. “Get up, get up,” I shouted, bending down to shake Andrew’s shoulders. I didn’t wait for him to stir, instead ran to the fire exit and pulled the bright red extinguisher from the wall.

Running along the aisles, the heat built on my chest, a welcome relief if it hadn’t been for the fumes catching my breath. Toby joined me, another extinguisher in his hand as we rushed forward to the glowing wall, the remains of plastic posters turning black as they slid to the floor. At first we saw no flames and little smoke, but as we rushed forward the windowless double doors burst open, smoke and toxic heat blasted out, forcing us to stop as we doubled over. Glancing back with my mouth in the crook of my arm, Toby already retreating, I watched flames lick around the side of the doors as they rattled open and closed, billowing with heat.

I abandoned the extinguisher before running back to our campsite, joining Toby’s shouts for everyone to grab what they could and get the hell out. Instead of leaping to the exit, the group split, disappearing amongst the shelves. I knelt at Chloe’s side, the rancid stench powerful enough to break through the thick smoke scratching at my lungs. Lily knelt with me, wrapping her in the blankets, folding up the corners ready to be a makeshift stretcher. Sharing her downcast look, I took moment. Chloe had grown even more pale, more gaunt as the background light grew, her breath more shallow, barely there.

To the building heat I looked along the aisles, smelt the burning plastic before I saw the contents of the shelves smouldering as it dripped to the floor. I shouted, hurrying everyone up and dragged Chloe’s blankets along the floor, moving towards to the barred exit. Soon I was joined, rucksacks on their backs, the load getting lighter with each hand adding to the hold on the stretcher. Arriving at the door we took our time to gather fresh air as we handled her through the entrance. Looking around, I saw it wasn’t just me who was doing everything to avoid catching Chloe’s sunken eyes.

Soon we were out in the chill night with no idea what the time was, but again surprised at how bright the half moon lit up the night. The mood was heavy as I rushed into the car, revving the engine as I tried to disconnect the Freelander from the building. With Andrew, Toby and Matt back in the burning building, pushing as hard as they could, the engine roaring in their faces. Metal continued to grip and when the wheels eventually moved, the car stayed still, filling the air with thick rubber burn.

The heat raged out to where we stood around the car, every pair of eyes scouring the horizon, no matter what they believed had happened earlier in the evening. We saw no movement, but the casual sway of distant trees and nothing man made. We were in the middle of nowhere.

“Let’s follow the road,” I said in a whisper, picking up the front right corner of the blanket. The others followed in silence at a cautious pace, heads turning left and right, darting at every sound. At the entrance to the car park I turned, looked back at the building, watched as the fire consumed the building, watched the pyre pluming with black smoke rising into the night, joining the countless others.

Soon we relaxed into the rhythm of the procession, Chloe’s insubstantial weight hardly a burden. Still no one spoke, taking comfort in the spectacular field of vision. We could see for miles. No one said anything, not even giving voice to the terrible odour we were carrying between us.

“Stop,” came Lily’s voice and everyone started at the break of the silence, halting in unison and lowering the blankets to the floor as we turned. Lily fell to her knees at Chloe’s side, pulled open the blankets to take her wrist, pressing her two fingers against her skin. We watched on, our spray of white breath slowing, shrugging coats tighter around our shoulders, raising packs higher, doing anything but wait motionless for the verdict. Lily looked up in my direction, a tear rolling down her cheek. Why she chose me to receive her deep heartache I often ask myself. I raised my eyebrows to prompt the next obvious question. She turned down at Chloe’s face and knelt in, putting her ear to her mouth to listen.

“No,” I shouted, my voice cutting through the night, swooping down to push her to the side.


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