12/13/2021

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“You must have missed it. I know they’re this way!”
Trent tugged on my hand. “C’mon, Abby, they know the way out!”
I shook my head. “We came in this way with Travis. I know it.”
He tightened his grip. “I told Travis I wouldn’t let you out of my sight. We’re going with them.”
“Trent, we’ve been down that way … there were no windows!”
“Let’s go, Jason!” a girl cried.
“We’re going,” Jason said, looking to Trent.
Trent tugged on my hand again and I pulled away. “Trent, please! It’s this way, I promise!”
“I’m going with them,” he said, “Please come with me.”
I shook my head, tears flowing down my cheeks. “I’ve been here before. That’s not the way out!”
“You’re coming with me!” he yelled, pulling on my arm.
“Trent, stop! We’re going the wrong way!” I cried.
My feet slid across the concrete as he pulled me along, and when the smell of smoke grew stronger, I yanked away, running in the opposite direction.
“ABBY! ABBY!” Trent called.
I kept running, holding my hands out in front of me, anticipating a wall.
“Come on! She’s gonna get you killed!” a girl said.
My shoulder crashed into a corner and I spun around, falling to the ground. I crawled along the floor, holding my trembling hand in front of me. When my fingers touched Sheetrock, I followed it up, rising to my feet. The corner of a doorway materialized under my touch and I followed it into the next room.
The darkness was endless, but I willed away the panic, carefully keeping my footsteps straight, reaching out for the next wall. Several minutes passed by, and I felt the fear well up inside me as the wails from behind rung in my ears.
“Please,” I whispered in the blackness, “let this be the way out.”
I felt another corner of a doorway, and when I made my way through, a silver stream of light glowed before me. Moonlight filtered through the glass of the window, and a sob forced its way from my throat.
“T-trent! It’s here!” I called behind me. “Trent!”
I squinted, seeing a tiny bit of movement in the distance. “Trent?” I called out, my heart beat fluttering wildly in my chest. Within moments, shadows danced against the walls, and my eyes widened with horror when I realized what I thought were people, was actually the flickering light of approaching flames.
“Oh my God,” I said, looking up at the window. Travis had closed it behind us, and it was too high for me to reach.
I looked around for something to stand on. The room was lined with wooden furniture covered in white sheets. The same sheets that would feed the fire until the room turned into an inferno.
I grabbed a piece of white cloth, yanking it from a desk. Dust clouded around me as threw the sheet to the ground and lugged the bulky wood across the room to the space beneath the window. I shoved it next to the wall and climbed up, coughing from the smoke that slowly seeped into the room. The window was still a few feet above me.
I grunted as I tried to shove it open, clumsily twisting the lock back and forth between each push. It wouldn’t budge.
“Come on, dammit!” I yelled, leaning into my arms.
I leaned back, using my body weight with the little momentum I could manage to force it open. When that didn’t work, I slid my nails under the edges, pulling until I thought my nails had pulled away from the skin. Light flashed from the corner of my eye, and I cried out when I saw the fire barreling down the white sheets lining the hallway I had traveled just moments before.
I looked up at the window, once again digging my nails into the edges. Blood dripped from my fingertips, the metal edges sinking into my flesh. Instinct overcame all other senses, and my hands balled into fists, ramming into the glass. A small crack splintered across the pane, along with my blood smearing and spattering with each blow.
I hammered the glass once more with my fist, and then pulled off my shoe, slamming it with full force. Sirens wailed in the distance and I sobbed, beating my palms against the window. The rest of my life was just a few inches away, on the other side of the glass. I clawed at the edges once more and then began slapping the glass with both palms.
“HELP ME!” I screamed, seeing the flames draw nearer. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
A faint cough sputtered behind me. “Pigeon?”
I flipped around to the familiar voice. Travis appeared in a doorway behind me, his face and clothes covered in soot.
“TRAVIS!” I cried. I scrambled off the desk and ran across the floor to where he stood, exhausted and filthy.
I slammed into him, and he wrapped his arms around me, coughing as he gasped for air. His hands grabbed my cheeks.
“Where’s Trent?” he said, his voice raspy and weak.
“He followed them!” I bawled, tears streaming down my face. “I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn’t come!”
Travis looked down at the approaching fire and his eyebrows pulled in. I sucked in a breath, coughing when smoke filled my lungs. He looked down at me, his eyes filling with tears. “I’m gonna get us outta here, Pidge.” His lips pressed against mine in one quick, firm movement, and then he climbed on top of my makeshift ladder.
He pushed at the window and then twisted the lock, the muscles of his arms quivering as he used all of his strength against the glass.
“Get back, Abby! I’m gonna break the glass!”
Afraid to move, I could only take one step away from our only way out. Travis’s elbow bent as he reared back his fist, yelling as he rammed it into the window. I turned away, shielding my face with my bloody hands as the glass shattered above me.
“Come on!” he yelled, holding his hand out to me. The heat from the fire took over the room, and I soared into the air as he lifted me from the ground and pushed me outside.
I waited on my knees as Travis climbed out, and then helped him to his feet. The sirens were blaring from the other side of the building, and red and blue lights from fire engines and police cruisers danced across the brick on the adjacent buildings.
We ran to the crowd of people standing in front of the building, scanning the dirty faces for Trent. Travis yelled his brother’s name, his voice becoming more and more hopeless with each call. He pulled out his cell phone to check for a missed call and then slammed it shut, covering his mouth with his blackened hand.
“TRENT!” Travis screamed, stretching his neck as he searched the crowd.
Those that had escaped were hugging and whimpering behind the emergency vehicles, watching in horror as the pumper truck shot water through the windows and firefighters ran inside, pulling hoses behind them.
Travis ran his hand over the stubble on his scalp, shaking his head. “He didn’t get out,” he whispered. “He didn’t get out, Pidge.”
My breath caught as I watched the soot on his cheeks streak with tears. He fell to his knees, and I fell with him.
“Trent’s smart, Trav. He got out. He had to have found a different way,” I said, trying to convince myself as well.
Travis collapsed into my lap, gripping my shirt with both fists. I held him. I didn’t know what else to do.
An hour passed. The cries and wailing from the survivors and spectators outside the building had grown to an eerie quiet. We watched with waning hope as the firefighters brought out two people, and then continuously came out empty-handed. As the paramedics tended to the injured and ambulances tore into night with burn victims, we waited. Half an hour later, the bodies they returned with were those who were beyond saving. The ground was lined with casualties, far outnumbering those of us that had escaped. Travis’s eyes didn’t leave the door, waiting for them to pull his brother from the ashes.
“Travis?”
We turned at the same time to see Adam standing beside us. Travis stood up, pulling me along with him.
“I’m glad to see you guys made it out,” Adam said,
looking stunned and bewildered. “Where’s Trent?”
Travis didn’t answer.
Our eyes returned to the charred remains of Keaton Hall, the thick black smoke still billowing from the windows. I buried my face into Travis’s chest, shutting my eyes tight, hoping at any moment I would wake up.
“I have to uh … I have to call my dad,” Travis said, his eyebrows pulling together as he opened his cell phone.
I took a breath, hoping my voice would sound stronger than I felt. “Maybe you should wait, Travis. We don’t know anything, yet.”
His eyes didn’t leave the number pad, and his lip quivered. “This ain’t fucking right. He shoulda never been there.”
“It was an accident, Travis. You couldn’t have known something like this was going to happen,” I said, touching his cheek.
His face compressed, his eyes shutting tight. He took in a deep breath and began to dial his father’s number.
Chapter Twenty-Two
JET PLANE
The numbers on the screen were replaced with a name as the phone began to ring, and Travis’s eyes widened when he read the display.
“Trent?” A surprised laugh escaped his lips, and a smile broke out on his face as he looked at me. “It’s Trent!” I gasped and squeezed his arm as he spoke. “Where are you? What do you mean you’re at Morgan? I’ll be there in a second, don’t you fucking move!”
I surged forward, my feet struggling to keep up with Travis as he sprinted across the campus, dragging me behind him. When we reached Morgan, my lungs were screaming for air. Trent ran down the steps, crashing into both of us.
“Jesus H. Christ, brother! I thought you were toast!” Trent said, squeezing us so tightly I couldn’t breathe.
“You asshole!” Travis screamed, shoving his brother away. “I thought you were fucking dead! I’ve been waiting for the firefighters to carry your charred body from Keaton!”
Travis frowned at Trent for a moment, and then pulled him into a hug. His arm shot out, fumbling around until he felt my shirt, and then pulled me into a hug as well. After several moments, Travis released Trent, keeping me close beside him.
Trent looked at me with an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry, Abby. I panicked.”
I shook my head. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Me? I would have been better off dead if Travis had seen me come out of that building without you. I tried to find you after you ran off, but then I got lost and had to find another way. I walked along the building looking for that window, but I ran into some cops and they made me leave. I’ve been flippin’ the fuck out over here!” he said, running his hand over his short hair.
Travis wiped my cheeks with his thumbs, and then pulled up his shirt, using it to wipe the soot from his face. “Let’s get out of here. The cops are going to be crawling all over the place soon.”
After hugging his brother once more, we walked to America’s Honda. Travis watched me buckle my seat belt and then frowned when I coughed.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital. Get you checked out.”
“I’m fine,” I said, interlacing my fingers in his. I looked down, seeing a deep cut across his knuckles. “Is that from the fight or the window?”
“The window,” he answered, frowning at my bloodied nails.
“You saved my life, you know.”
His eyebrows pulled together. “I wasn’t leaving without you.”
“I knew you’d come,” I said, squeezing his fingers between mine.
We held hands until we arrived at the apartment. I couldn’t tell whose blood was whose as I washed the crimson and ash from my skin in the shower. Falling into Travis’s bed, I could still smell the stench of smoke and smoldering skin.
“Here,” he said, handing me a short glass filled with amber liquid. “It’ll help you relax.”
“I’m not tired.”
He held out the glass again. His eyes were exhausted, bloodshot and heavy. “Just try to get some rest, Pidge.”
“I’m almost afraid to close my eyes,” I said, taking the glass and gulping the liquid down.
He took the glass and set it on the nightstand, sitting beside me. We sat in silence, letting the last hours sink in. I shut my eyes tight when the memories of the terrified cries of those trapped in the basement filled my mind. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to forget, or if I ever would.
Travis’s warm hand on my knee pulled me from my conscious nightmare. “A lot of people died tonight.”
“I know.”
“We won’t find out until tomorrow just how many.”
“Trent and I passed a group of kids on the way out. I wonder if they made it. They looked so scared …”
I felt the tears fill my eyes, but before they touched my cheeks, Travis’s solid arms were surrounding me. Immediately I felt protected, flush against his skin. Feeling so at home in his arms had once terrified me, but in that moment, I was grateful that I could feel so safe after experiencing something so horrific. There was only one reason I could ever feel that way with anyone.
I belonged to him.
It was then that I knew. Without a doubt in my mind, without worry of what others would think, and having no fear of mistakes or consequences, I smiled at the words I would say.
“Travis?” I said against his chest.
“What, baby?” he whispered into my hair.
Our phones rang in unison, and I handed his to him as I answered mine. “Hello?”
“Abby?” America shrieked.
“I’m okay, Mare. We’re all okay.”
“We just heard! It’s all over the news!”
I could hear Travis explaining to Shepley next to me, and I tried my best to reassure America. Fielding dozens of her questions, trying to keep my voice steady while recounting the scariest moments of my life, I relaxed the second Travis covered my hand with his.
It seemed I was telling someone else’s story, sitting in the comfort of Travis’s apartment, a million miles away from the nightmare that could have killed us. America wept when I finished, realizing how close we came to losing our lives.
“I’m going to start packing now. We’ll be home first thing in the morning,” America sniffed.
“Mare, don’t leave early. We’re fine.”
“I have to see you. I have to hug you so I’ll know you’re all right,” she cried.
“We’re fine. You can hug me on Friday.”
She sniffed again. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. Have a good time.”
Travis looked at me and then pressed the phone tight against his ear. “Better hug your girl, Shep. She sounds upset. I know, man … me too. See you soon.”
I hung up seconds before Travis did, and we sat in silence for a moment, still processing what had happened. After several moments, Travis leaned back against his pillow, and then pulled me against his chest.
“America all right?” he asked, staring up at the ceiling.
“She’s upset. She’ll be okay.”
“I’m glad they weren’t there.”
I clenched my teeth. I hadn’t even thought about what might have happened had they not stayed with Shepley’s parents. My mind flashed to the terrified expressions of the girls in the basement, fighting against the men to escape. America’s frightened eyes replaced the nameless girls in that room. I felt nauseated thinking about her beautiful blond hair soiled and singed along with the rest of the bodies laid out on the lawn.
“Me too,” I said with a shiver.
“I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot tonight. I don’t need to add anything else to your plate.”
“You were there, too, Trav.”
He was quiet for several moments, and just when I opened my mouth to speak again, he took a deep breath.
“I don’t get scared very often,” he said finally. “I was scared the first morning I woke up and you weren’t here. I was scared when you left me after Vegas. I was scared when I thought I was going to
have to tell my dad that Trent had died in that building. But when I saw you across the flames in that basement … I was terrified. I made it to the door, was a few feet from the exit, and I couldn’t leave.”
“What do you mean? Are you crazy?” I said, my head jerking up to look into his eyes.
“I’ve never been so clear about anything in my life. I turned around, made my way to that room you were in, and there you were. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t even know if we would make it out or not, I just wanted to be where you were, whatever that meant. The only thing I’m afraid of is a life without you, Pigeon.”
I leaned up, kissing his lips tenderly. When our mouths parted, I smiled. “Then you have nothing to be afraid of. We’re forever.”
He sighed. “I’d do it all over again, you know. I wouldn’t trade one second if it meant we were right here, in this moment.”
My eyes felt heavy, and I took in a deep breath. My lungs protested, still burning from the smoke. I coughed a bit and then relaxed, feeling Travis’s warm lips against my forehead. His hand glided over my damp hair, and I could hear his heart beating steady in his chest.
“This is it,” he said with a sigh.
“What?”
“The moment. When I watch you sleeping … that peace on your face? This is it. I haven’t had it since before my mom died, but I can feel it again.” He took another deep breath and pulled me closer. “I knew the second I met you that there was something about you I needed. Turns out it wasn’t something about you at all. It was just you.”
The corner of my mouth turned up as I buried my face into his chest. “It’s us, Trav. Nothing makes sense unless we’re together. Have you noticed that?”
“Noticed? I’ve been telling you that all year!” he teased. “It’s official. Bimbos, fights, leaving, Parker, Vegas … even fires … our relationship can withstand anything.”
I lifted my head up once more, noticing the contentment in his eyes as he looked at me. It was similar to the peace I had seen on his face after I lost the bet to stay with him in the apartment, after I told him I loved him for the first time, and the morning after the Valentine’s dance. It was similar, but different. This was absolute—permanent. The cautious hope had vanished from his eyes, unqualified trust taking its place.

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