The red glow of the exit sign lured Amanda with promise of escape. She hesitated, staring back at the open glass waiting to see if anyone emerged. The only movement was the current of fiery papers pushed out by the wind gusts from the missing windows. The stillness in the midst of the bedlam felt unnatural to Amanda. It would have felt more appropriate for people to dash out of the office, for screams to form an off-pitch melody with the screech of the siren. Chaos seemed to skip a beat. Amanda trained her eye inside the smoky office towards where Liz fell, but only a spreading fire stared back at her. With a final glance behind her, she pushed through the exit door.
The dark stairwell bustled with a stream of people scampering to safety. No one seemed to notice her as she stood with her back to the door. Ladies tightly clutching their purses flowed by her. Some took the time to slip on their tennis shoes before the descent, while others tried to make their way down in heels. Men were on their cell phones, carrying on conversations over the incessant ringing of the fire alarms. A few of the men offered arms to help the ladies, but Amanda thought it appeared to be every man for himself.
Amanda found an opening and slid into the school of people. She looked over the spiral staircase, a small pinprick of light shined below them. With each landing, the ringing fire alarm grew louder and her ears reverberated from the sound.
At the landing for the thirtieth floor, the surge of people behind her pushed and the floor below them shook. Amanda heard someone scream over the ringing that there were more explosions and worried that the gunman survived the earlier explosion in order to set off something more sinister.
The flow slowed as people from the lower floors filed into the stairwell. When she finally emerged, Amanda squinted at the bright sun. It took her a few minutes to get her bearings between the intensity of the noonday sun and the disorientation of a forty-two-floor spiral descent.
The door dumped her at a loading dock in the back of her office building. She moved as far away from the exit as she could and positioned herself in the shadow of the tall building. Fireman and police officers swirled around her as they tried to help the ever-flowing stream of people exiting the building, but it seemed to Amanda there were more victims than first responders. People were shouting and pointing up at the gaping hole in the side of the building.
Amanda’s head swam in dizziness and she inhaled deeply, hoping to convince her body to breathe again. Her eyes remained focused on the exit door, hoping to see someone from her office. She feared she would see the assailant instead. God, what would I do if he came out that door? Point him out to the police, or tell him to take his best shot? I’d probably just break down crying and beg forgiveness.
More ambulances arrived to tend to the wounded outside. She took a few more steps back to lean against the bank of dumpsters. Smells of rot mingled with the fresh smell of sulfur stuck in the back of her throat. She wretched behind one of the dumpsters. Her stomach was empty but it didn’t stop her body’s reaction. She finally stopped herself, but her head began spinning again. Amanda leaned against the side of the dumpster, using a small ridge as a seat. Doubled over and her head in her hands, she began her first countdown from ten. One. Still nauseous. She started again. One. A pain throbbed through her temple in rhythm with her heart. She started again. This time, she reached seven and blacked out.
With a light in her eyes, Amanda’s first thought was that she would be able to go to Heaven after all. Distant words asked if she could hear. She blinked and saw the face of a man behind the penlight.
“Can you hear me? What’s your name?” he asked.
Amanda wanted to answer him, but the gag reflex in her throat muted her words. The man called for help. Four hands lifted Amanda to her feet and walked her over to the back of a waiting ambulance. Perched on the bumper of the vehicle, Amanda watched him pull on latex gloves and dab a cut on her forehead.
“Good news, I don’t think it’s going to leave a scar,” he said, smiling at her. “And, I don’t feel any bumps so no broken crown for you.”
He finished his examination and pulled off his gloves. “An emergency checkpoint is setting up over in that building’s lobby. You may want to get something to eat. It’ll settle your stomach.” He gestured his head towards one of her building’s neighbors in the business district.
She wrapped her coat tighter around her and felt the now familiar prick at her collarbone. The envelope was the root of her trouble. She fingered the tip through her coat and toyed with the idea of leaving it for the paramedic to thank him for his help.
The office building across the street beckoned. She watched for a moment as mobilized volunteers brought box after box of drinks, packaged food and clothing into the lobby. Another scan of the crowd yielded none of her office mates.
The volunteers worked like an efficient colony of ants. There were no words spoken, yet everyone seemed to know exactly what to do. Two volunteers silently stacked packaged pastries on a fold-out table to the right of where she stood, and just past that table another two volunteers quietly provided coffee and bottled water.
The need to wash her hands and face won out over the paramedic’s advice to eat. She passed the tables of food towards a sign acknowledging restrooms around the corner. Her pump’s broken heel caused her calf to ache as she walked on her toes to prevent awkward hobbling.
Hidden away in the far corner of the lobby, she spotted several boxes of clothes. The volunteers must have set these aside for those in extreme disarray. Amanda looked down at herself and saw her black pantsuit covered in lint. She smelled the overpowering smoke odor, and the broken heel of her pump hung on like a loose tooth refusing to give up. She fell into the ‘disarrayed’ category.
From a box marked “women’s jeans,” Amanda found a pair of well broken-in jeans one size too big. The best she could find in the “women’s shirts” box was a thin t-shirt from someone’s summer softball league, cheering on Mervyn’s Marlins. A smaller box labeled “women’s shoes” had few options. Amanda pulled out a pair of laceless sneakers two sizes too big.
In the small bathroom, Amanda studied her reflection. The paramedic covered the cut with two small bandages, but there was some dried blood on her temple. Her hair clumped together in a stringy mess, with the strands around her face held together by blood.
Someone had left a small brush in the bathroom.
“I hope you don’t have lice,” Amanda said to the brush. “Because that would be the perfect addition to my wonderful day.”
Her scalp stung as she brushed her hair, but it only made her pull through the knots in more forceful tugs. When her hair finally de-matted, it flared out full of static electricity and the smell of smoke. With the water running, Amanda ducked as much of her head under the sink as possible to wash out the smell, the blood and the static. She towel-dried the water out of her hair with the coarse paper towels and began disrobing in the middle of the bathroom.
Her body ached as she tried to pull off her coat for the first time since she left for work that morning. The envelope scratched at the base of her neck, as if clinging to her. She kicked off her ruined designer heels and tossed them in the trash, not blinking an eye at the shoes she once coveted. Her button up shirt and black pants fell away effortlessly and followed the pumps into the trash. She studied herself for a moment, not only looking for physical bruises and cuts, but to see if the emotional ones were visible as well. She turned to examine her back. The ghost of a gray bruise took shape on her left shoulder blade. The diamond earrings that Josh bought for her birthday joined the rest of her clothes in the trash. The Tiffany bracelet she bought herself when she earned the promotion followed, as did the ruby birthstone ring. She stopped at her watch.
The silver-banded Rolex was a gift from her father on the night of her college graduation. She remembered his words perfectly. “Your time on this Earth is precious, use it wisely.” Standing half-naked in the lobby bathroom, she could smell the freshly cut grass and bug repellent and feel the wood planks of the dock at her parents’ lake house beneath her bare feet. Amanda couldn’t part with her watch. I didn’t take his advice, she thought, shuddering from the chill of the air in the bathroom and realizing her father would be disappointed.
She dressed quickly and carefully, soreness set in now that her adrenalin was wearing off. Before she threw her coat in the trash, Amanda pulled the envelope from the interior pocket and held it in her hands. Part of her wanted to throw it away with the coat, but she knew she would need it at some point. Without another place to hide it, Amanda lifted up the t-shirt and placed the enveloped in the waistband of her jeans. Amanda took a step towards the bathroom door but stepped out of the laceless tennis shoes instead.
With a shuffle, Amanda slowly entered that tucked away little corner. A cacophony of voices filled the lobby, some low and murmuring, others wailing in high tones. She peeked around the corner and saw several police officers trying to calm a large crowd of people. She recognized Liz’s husband Ben in the crowd. He held their infant son Jackson, demanding to know where his wife was. The baby turned his head and locked eyes with Amanda peering around the corner. Liz’s eyes. Young eyes that would never look into his mother’s eyes again because of Amanda. How can I explain that I’m responsible for Liz’s death? And Jackson, he will never know his mother because of me.
Her chest pumped in and out faster and faster as the walls closed in. Her legs grew restless and she paced. At the end of the corridor, just past the row of boxes, she saw a small door marked “garage exit.” Without a second thought, she made her escape.