Friday, August 3, 2012

The Meaning of Fear

It’s been a long few weeks. I haven’t had much of a chance to write. I need it after what happened though. So, I'm making time.

I’ll start with the normal stuff.

Firefighter training gets harder every week. We’re in the home stretch now. Only two more weeks to go. It looks like I might make it.

Or, I might die. Every inch of my body aches, every night. I have muscle aches in places I didn’t even know humans had muscles.

Yeah, I’m still human.

My jeep got a flat the other day, and I realized just how much I took being a supe for granted. I don’t even own a jack. Liberty says there’s still a chance I’ll get my old self back. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I want my old self back, but there are always things I miss. I miss being able to fly, and not skinning my knees when I fall, and being able to open pickle jars.

Brad’s pretty handy for the pickle jars. When he’s around anyway. His new job has him working some odd hours. I heard him talking with Jack the other day about being a little uncomfortable with some of the stuff his boss is asking him to do. He would never tell me anything that personal. Brad’s a little awkward when it comes to talking to women, but he and Jack are best buds. He won’t tell even Jack what his new job is, or who he’s working for, though. Something top secret, we gather. Brad figures he’ll lose his lucrative new gig if he spills anything, so we don’t push.

Jack and I are good. I keep telling him every day, “That’s why,” when he does something that reminds me why I love him. Sometimes, he just studies with me and Roy for the next tough Friday test, explaining something patiently to both of us that we didn’t quite get. Sometimes, I see him giving Brad advice, or helping Ma in the kitchen, or playing ball with our dog, Rocky. And sometimes, he does something really amazing like figure out how to prop up my jeep on spare tires, pump the spares up with extra air to lift the jeep, and change the flat.

My boyfriend rocks.

I keep trying to get a chance to wear that lacy green underwear thing that Jack bought me. But it’s like life is conspiring to keep me a virgin forever.

Firefighter training eats up all of our time. By the time we get home, I’m so tired, and my body aches so badly that a hot bath and bed is all I can manage. Picking up a pen to write in my diary has felt like too much work.

On top of that, Jack and I are still taking Krav Maga with Tamara three days a week. Just when my new body thinks the abuse is over, I get shoved around, and have to punch, kick and block until I can’t hardly lift my arms. The way Tamara and Jack joke around in class bugs me still, but I try not to get weird about it. It’s not like I caught Jack sitting on the floor hugging her while she was half dressed, or saw him kissing her on national television, but still. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m a dragon or a normal, I’m constantly afraid I’m going to lose him. I’ve never been in love before. I didn’t know there was so much fear involved.

Last weekend, I found out what real fear felt like.

Jack and I finally got a little time to ourselves. Jack took me out to the Erwin center, Austin's stadium in the round, on a real date. I wore the lacy green one piece underwear. I thought that was going to be The Night.

Instead, I thought I lost him.

Jack took me out to see “Celtic Woman.” I’ve seen them on TV a few times. The music is hauntingly beautiful. It’s like part of me remembers music like that. Considering my tendency to remember things that happened to my ancestors, maybe that’s actually true.

They were doing a concert at the Erwin Center last Saturday. Jack and I booked our tickets on line way ahead of time to get decent seats. Parking downtown was the usual insanity. We had to walk four blocks to get in, but I didn’t mind. At least the humidity was back to normal.

Last year, we had the worst drought in recorded history. This year, the weather made up for it by raining nearly every afternoon for weeks. It was like living in Houston there for a while.

Now, we’re back to a baking 105 in the daytime, and warm, blessedly dry evenings. I never realized how much the heat affected normals until I found myself running obstacle courses in hundred degree heat and 90% humidity in a human body. I barely noticed the temperature when I was a dragon. Temperature was like texture or color, just an attribute of the air, not anything that affected me.

With Jack holding my arm and a fluttery new sundress on that I never could have worn before, the weather seemed just fine. I enjoyed listening to the grackles settling in for the evening with their raucous songs, and the humming buzz of the cicadas playing counterpoint.

It was a great evening to just be alive.

The concert was lovely right up until it turned into hell on earth.

We had seats toward the front of the arena section, just behind and above the floor seats. The stairs leading back to ground level were right beside us. Jack went to the bathroom. It was the only time all night that we were separated. So, of course, that was when the bombs went off.

The bombs weren’t loud. I remember hearing something strange, a few deep distant-sounding booms. I wondered what the odd sounds were, if it was part of the music in some way. There was a second or two where everything sort of paused, and then the screams.

The section I was in was miraculously spared. The Erwin Center is famous for all around view. Every seat is a good seat. The rest of the building fell all around me. I watched as if it were some horrific show.

I didn’t know what to do at first. I wasn’t a supe anymore. Most of the people around me stampeded for the exit down the stairs. A lady tripped, and three other people stepped on her. I jumped into the mess without thinking. I shoved people aside as best I could, but a lot of them were bigger than me, and stronger. I got elbowed a couple times hard enough to bruise. I managed to plant my feet in front of the downed woman, holding onto the stairway railing to keep from getting knocked over, and extended a hand to her.

As soon as she was back on her feet, she started running again, holding an arm that looked broken.
Everyone seemed to think this section of the building was going to blow up next.

Leaving seemed like an okay idea, although I couldn’t really think clearly. I started down the stairs and someone shoved me, hard. I rolled down the stairs, each one embedding a black and blue impression of itself into my flesh. I curled into a tiny ball at the bottom as people kept running all around me, kicking me as they went.

The feet stopped their abuse for a moment. I looked up to see a tall blond man who looked completely familiar, although I was sure I’d never met him before, at least not while I was awake. “Agmund?”

The man looked startled, then smiled. “Agmund was my brother. I’m Alrek. Did you know my twin?” He was a perfectly calm rock in the chaotic river of fleeing humanity.

“I met him a few times.” I accepted a hand up. The tall twin of Quetzelcoatl pulled me in close, sheltering me with his large body against the flow of panicked humanity pouring toward the row of shattered glass doors and out into the relative safety of the street.

I ignored the flow and turned left down the huge round corridor that surrounded the formerly drum-shaped Erwin center. The closest men’s room was that way. I stopped short as I rounded the curve. The corridor was blocked. That entire section of the building had come down.

People were trapped under rubble, moaning or lying unmoving, crushed, hurt, or dead.

I stood there, looking at the pile of concrete and dust. Blood from crushed people oozed from between the stones as if the wounded building were bleeding.

“Are you not going to aid them?” Alrek asked, gesturing to the people on the floor. He had an odd accent. It sounded Mexican or Spanish, sort of.

“I don’t know what to do.” I’ve never felt so lost, so helpless. I needed Jack.

I looked at the impenetrable pile of bleeding building as if Jack would appear if I just watched long enough. I thought about Angela, staring at the hospital entrance where her partner had gone in.

“We should go, Dee,” Alrek said softly. “This building may yet prove unstable.”

I nodded. “You go ahead.” I walked to the wall of rock and started picking up chunks of concrete and setting them aside. I couldn’t pick up very big chunks with my normal human hands. I scraped around the big pieces, pushed, and dug at them until bloody fingerprints marked the concrete.

Alrek pushed me gently aside. “Let me help.” He shifted to scaly form, not the giant dragon battle form that wouldn’t have fit well in the corridor. He was three times as big as a normal human, even so.

He lifted a chunk of concrete that had someone’s leg trapped beneath it. “Help him while I dig.”

I nodded. I didn’t have a kit. The guy had a compound fracture, bone showing.

I snagged a broken piece of steel rebar, tore strips off the hem of my dirty sundress, and splinted the leg. I don’t even remember what the guy looked like. All I saw was the wound. And even that was hard to focus on. I kept looking back at Alrek, as he moved chunk after chunk of concrete.

It seemed like an endless task. There was so much rubble. And bodies. So many dead. Alrek moved nearly as much shattered flesh as steel and concrete.

I kept looking for the bright red shirt I’d given Jack for his birthday, with the embroidered black silk dragon. It looked so gorgeous with his skin tone. Fit for a dragon lord.

I kept expecting to see it, wrapped around some crushed, barely recognizable body part.

I heard people moaning. Even though I moved like a robot and I kept looking back at Alrek to make sure he was still digging, I helped the people around me. I put an improvised pressure bandage around a woman’s leg, where a piece of steel had gone through. I splinted a few more broken bones.

Those who could walk, I sent after help for those who couldn’t.

When there was no one left to help, I started moving small stones again. I couldn’t walk away and I couldn’t just sit there and watch Alrek dig.

With an elder dragon’s strength, Alrek had made a significant dent in the pile. He had cleared a hollow place next to the inner wall of the wide corridor, about ten feet deep and across.

Firefighters and paramedics came in to help the worst wounded.

Someone put a hand on mine and took the chunk of concrete I was carrying from me. The hands were covered in shiny silver mail.

“Dee, what are you doing?” White Knight said. “We need your healing power. Why aren’t you topside helping?”

“I can’t.” That was when the tears started. “I can’t help anyone.”

I put my head against his armored chest. “I can’t help Jack.” I realized I was shaking.

Knight wrapped his arms around me. He looked over my shoulder at the purple dragon steadily digging.
“Who are you?” he asked, one hand on his sword. Old Georgian habits die hard, but at least he talked to the unknown dragon, rather than immediately attacking him.

The dragon turned with a slight bow. “I am Alrek. I have only recently come to your country.”

“Well, I appreciate you helping, but the main rescue efforts are on the other side of the building. There isn’t likely to be anyone left here to save.”

I shoved Knight away from me so hard, he actually stumbled back a little. “Jack is alive.”

I went back to picking up concrete chunks and moving them. I tried to pick up a piece that was too big for me. I struggled with it with tears streaming down my face.

Knight put a hand on my arm. “Dee, there’s no point…”

“NO!” I yanked my arm away from him and went back to struggling with the heavy rubble.

“Allow me.” Alrek lifted the heavy concrete easily in one hand and tossed it aside. We went back to digging side by side.

I picked up a broken piece of plastic with letters carved into it. “Me…” Men. “There!” I said, and dug into the pile of building where the remains of a doorway could just barely be seen. It was pretty clear that where the Men’s room had been was just more rubble.

“Dee, …” Knight tried again.

I ignored him and kept digging, Alrek at my side.

Knight stood there for a moment, watching, then turned and started to walk away. He stopped after a couple steps, next to what had been a stairwell up to the next level. He cocked his head to one side, and said, “Dee!”

“Go away, Knight.”

He turned and started digging himself, in a different spot than we were. “Dee! Alrek! Dig here! I heard something. There’s someone alive in here.”

I looked at Knight, frantically throwing chunks of concrete big enough to crush me over his shoulder.
Jack went to the bathroom. Our seats were on the second level. He had no reason to go up those stairs to the third level. There might be someone alive in there, but it wasn’t Jack.

Alrek paused, looked at me for guidance.

I remembered hearing the woman trapped in the car when no one else could. Dragon hearing. White Knight was a dragon. I wasn’t anymore, so I couldn’t hear anything but the occasional grinding of dirty stone shifting against stone.

“Do you hear anything?” I asked Alrek.

He cocked his head to one side and listened. “Yes. There is someone moving in there.” He gestured to where Knight dug frantically.

I nodded permission. Someone was alive in there, but they might not be alive for long if there was no way for air to get in. Alrek helped Knight to move larger and larger chunks of wall and ceiling. It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder why a dragon I had just met waited for my permission. I wonder now, but it’s too late to ask.

Within moments, the two strong dragons had cleared a hole through to a hollow space under the heavy reinforced concrete stairs. A man’s arm pushed out of the hole, shoving rubble outward as the two dragons dug inward.

The arm had bright dusty red silk on it.

“Jack!” I ran to the hole and grabbed that hand.

Jack peeked through the hole at me and grinned. He squeezed my hand. “Good to see you too, Dee.”

Knight and Alrek dug the hole further open until it was big enough for people to squeeze through.

Jack came out first, then reached back in to help a lady, two kids, and another guy out as well. They were all completely uninjured aside from coughing up dust.

I hugged Jack so hard that it was a good thing I wasn’t super strong anymore or I’d have squished him. “What happened? How did you get under there?”

Jack shrugged. “I heard the bombs go off just as I was coming back from the men’s room. The stairs seemed like the sturdiest place to be, so I grabbed as many people as I could and ducked under, just before everything came down.”

“That’s why,” I told him, and kissed him hard. Did I mention that my boyfriend was awesome?

We all made our way out of what was left of another destroyed Austin landmark. The giant drum-shaped building was shattered beyond repair. People wandered lost, hurt, and panicked.

All I could think at first was how beautiful the sky looked. A part of me had thought I’d never see it again, at least, not with Jack beside me.

Alrek offered to help with the rescue efforts. Knight, the former Georgian, accepted the offer of aid from a dragon with only a slight hesitation. It was a real step forward for him.

Jack and I pitched in when we spotted Dave among the fire crews. He located us a spare med kit off one of the fire trucks and we went to work.

Alrek left me his cell phone number before we parted ways. I can add one more dragon to the small number that I know.

We worked all night long, searching for survivors and helping the wounded. I saw an awful lot of wounded that I knew would be crippled for life, or might even die. And I couldn’t fix it.

I don’t want to be normal anymore. The price is too high.

I saw Detective Long poking around the rubble. The Defilers’ red crossed bones symbol was spray painted around in several conspicuous spots.

I asked him if he thought the Defilers had done this.

He grunted. “Yeah. Just like the Free Earthers blew up the highway, and Lord Vile blew the hospital.”

“It’s the same person for all three, isn’t it?”

He nodded. He pointed at the black camera eye on a nearby lamppost. “And he’s watching us closely every time. He or she or they.” He looked back at the only intact portion of the structure. “What I don’t understand is why just this section was left standing.”

“It’s a good thing it was. I was in there when it happened.”

He looked at me, eyes narrowed. “Lucky for you.”

A sick feeling twisted in my stomach. Something had been bothering me from the first explosion. “I’m not sure it was luck.”

“What do you mean?”

“The hospital that blew, I worked there for years before I was fired a few months ago. And, the first explosion, so central and public, like it was meant to draw out all the heroes, to get them to show what kind of people they were, and what they could do. I’m the only new hero in Austin right now. I’m the only unknown. TakeDown’s been an Austin fixture for two decades and The Protectors are all national news.”

“And now, the building you’re in blows up, everywhere but where you’re sitting.”

“I bought my tickets on line, weeks ahead of time. Any decent hacker could have figured out when I’d be here and where I would sit.”

Det. Long straightened his bright blue tie, squinting at his tie tack as if it were fascinating. “Why you, Dee? You said this didn’t seem like the Georgians’ style. Too bloody.”

“Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe it’s just coincidence.”

Det. Long frowned down at a red crossed bones symbol painted on a still standing brick ramp railing. “Mmm. And maybe the Defilers did it.

D. Dragon

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