His own coughing woke him up.
He didn’t even know why he was coughing at first, but then the smell penetrated his consciousness. Smoke. The air was thick with smoke. Hot, black smoke. Rolling past him in heavy, ominous waves.
Then there was the sound. It was a roaring, like an oncoming train, only different. Maybe a hurricane or tornado, a rush of air so loud it was nearly deafening. At the same time, his ears hurt. Maybe a change in air pressure.
Then he realized what the sound reminded him of: a roaring furnace, industrial size.
His eyes shot all the way open, which was a big mistake. Immediately they were stinging and tears were pouring out. The smoke and soot made it almost impossible to see, and the coughing made it almost impossible to catch his breath.
Fire, the worst possible nightmare for a bookstore owner, especially so when he lived in the upper floor above the store. He didn’t see any flames around him, so the fire must still be downstairs at the moment. Eating up all the inventory.
Barbara! Wake up Barbara.
Then he remembered. There was no Barbara to wake up. She’d left a couple days ago. There was just him.
Part of his mind wondered why bother going on; just lie here and die and be done with it. But the part of his brain with an instinct for life won out.
What was the advice they always gave about fires? Smoke rises. Crawl along the floor to avoid smoke inhalation. But was that still valid when the smoke was coming from the floor below him?
He rolled out of bed onto his knees and started crawling. Then he stopped. Which way was the window? He couldn’t see anything. He knew which way his bed was oriented relative to the window, but his mental gears jammed. He suddenly couldn’t remember which way he’d rolled out of bed. Left or right? Was he moving toward the window or away from it?
There was a smashing of glass in front of him. Good, he was headed in the right direction. A voice called out, “Anyone in here?”
He tried to yell a response, but his throat was so choked with smoke all he could manage was some dry coughing.
That was enough, though, for his would-be rescuer. “I hear you. I’m coming.”
A moment later the firefighter grabbed his arm, lifted him gently to his feet and guided him to the window. There was a ladder outside. “Think you can climb down?” the rescuer asked. He nodded.
“Anyone else in here?” was the next question.
He shook his head. “Just me,” he said very hoarsely.
There was another fireman on the ladder. The two rescuers helped him climb shakily to the ground. Suddenly he felt cold. Even though it was July, the night was chilly—plus, coming out of the superheated building, the contrast was even starker.
Plus he was dressed only in his briefs. They were all he slept in, so they were all he had on. One of the firefighters saw him shivering, though, and instantly wrapped him in a blanket. Someone else fetched him a large, baggy sweatshirt and sweat pants, and he put those on. Someone else handed him some bottled water.
He turned around to look at the fire. He watched it impassively as it burned. The flames were quite pretty, really, against the darkness of the night. Occasionally he took a sip of water, more from reflex than thirst.
His entire life going up in smoke—at least, everything that hadn’t already gone up in smoke metaphorically earlier this week.
He stood there as people bustled around him doing all sorts of frantic things—running with axes, pouring water on the blaze, keeping back the crowd. None of it really seemed to matter much; his mind had gone away. The sights, the sounds, the smells were all a kaleidoscope of sensation happening through the wrong end of a telescope. None of it was real. None of it affected him.
A woman stopped by and talked to him briefly. She said she was from the Red Cross and asked whether he had a place to stay for the night. She gave him the card of a shelter that could take him in for a night or two while he got things together.
The flames slowly died down. Someone told him the first floor was pretty much obliterated, while some things had been saved from the second: his wallet, a small chest of drawers with some clothes, his cell phone. Someone else told him a preliminary assessment looked like the fire had started in some faulty wiring. Nothing looked suspicious.
At some point he must have gone to the shelter, although he didn’t remember it. He woke up there and walked dazedly out the door, down the street to an ATM machine, where he took out a little from his meager account so he could have breakfast. The food might as well have been cardboard; he chewed and swallowed it mechanically without even tasting it.
The rest of the day passed in a similar fog. He collected the few clothes he could salvage and put them in a couple of plastic supermarket bags. He talked to his insurance agent, who gave professional condolences and reminded him that while much of the business contents had been insured, he didn’t have homeowners insurance to cover his personal losses. He left the agent’s office with a thick stack of paperwork to fill out and return at his earliest convenience.
He spent that night at a cheap motel, and remembered nothing about the experience. By daylight, reality was slowly seeping back into the corners of his mind. He would have to do something about a place to stay; he didn’t have enough money to keep living in a motel. He had to gather things together, take stock of what resources he did have. Well, that wouldn’t take long. There wasn’t much left to take stock of.
Where could he go? Well, his brother had a ranch in Nevada and was always inviting him to come for a visit. That would do, he supposed.
He started to call a couple of times to warn his brother he was coming, and each time he hung up before he finished dialing. He couldn’t tell this story over the phone; he might break down completely and never move again. Better just go on and surprise his brother. Who knows? By the time he got there, he might even be able to make some sense of it all.
He threw his few belongings into his Toyota and started his eastward drive.