Vax ran back to the Pygg and Wassail. A crowd had gathered around the front of the building in the street, and people were throwing stones at the glass trying to break it. Flames poured up behind them, backlighting them and causing a fire alarm inside to wail. The front door had been chained shut, but whoever chained it left enough give that the door could open about a foot wide, and people were slipping through the crack one at a time. The front window, with Pygg and Wassail painted in uncial, was blocked on the inside with a wall of fake Irish kitsch, and they could see patrons ripping down the country kitchen doors and saddle stands to get to the window. Smoke and screaming poured out through the broken window.
Vax ran to the back of the building, expecting to see the doors flung open and people streaming out, but instead the doors remained shut. He ran up to them and tugged ineffectively on the handles. Why weren’t they opening? He kicked on them and they didn’t budge. Did they open in? The hinges were on the outside. No. They opened out. Why won’t they open? Jackie had complained about the fact that the doors weren’t allowed to be locked during working hours. She’d been afraid that someone would steal her purse by slipping in through the kitchen from the alley. One of her co-workers had her phone stolen that way, and she was always looking for safer places to hide it.
Jackie. Jackie was in there, her cinnamon colored hair smoking, her beautiful features twisted with fear, her sweet lips choking on smoke. Could you die from fire? Yes, he was certain of it. This mortal body of his knew the ways of death well, and feared that which could destroy it. Water. Heights. Snakes. He feared fire greater than any of these.
He tugged on the door. Why, why wouldn’t they open? Twigs on the tree, were they locked? He could hear pounding from the inside, and frantic clicks as the broken lock was latched and unlatched. Ola did something. What? In the fog of his panic he tried to figure it out. What did she do? How could she even lock it?
He forced himself to look, really look at the door, calm himself down enough to concentrate. He finally saw it. Under the handles was a loop closure. One side had a hinge, the other side had an eye that a slot in the hinge fit over. Someone had slipped a padlock through the eye and bolted it.
Vax stepped back. He’d gone beyond fear now to a place that roared silently with the sound of his own blood throbbing in his veins. He glanced around the alley, considering and disregarding the things his eye lit upon until he saw the broken tire iron. Dashing towards it, he jammed it into the loop of the lock and twisted. The pounding and screaming inside the building grew more frantic, but he ignored it, focusing only upon the metal underneath his hands. It wouldn’t budge. He tried harder.
People gathered around to watch. Some one suggested he step aside so that someone else could try, but he ignored them. Jackie was in there.
He pulled and pulled and pulled, using every ounce of strength he had and more. Jackie was in there. Jackie was in there. The metal protested, screws stripping away one millimeter at a time.
When the metal finally twisted free, the doors flung open, smacking Vax in the face and shoulder. Terrified patrons and kitchen staff poured out, followed by a cloud of acrid smoke. A second later, the building sucked air into its new maw, and the flames roared higher.
Vax recognized Aisling as she dashed outside past him, eyes wide and hair singed on one side. “Where’s Jackie?”
Aisling shook her head, incomprehensible.
Vax ran into the building.
Chaos reigned. Black smoke filled the air, so he crouched low. He encountered a foot, so he scooped the body up without looking and ran back towards the kitchen. The floor had grown slick with water, dribbling down from overhead like a lackluster rain. He carried the woman to the kitchen door, nearly falling as he slid on a patch of damp linoleum. A man outside shouted at him. Vax glanced down at the woman’s face. She wasn’t Jackie. She was Tali’s friend, the young witch with the lavender colored dress. He thrust her into the man’s arms. As the man caught her, Vax turned around and went back inside.
The smoke had grown more acrid now, choking him even when he crouched low to the ground. He could barely see. The hiss of steam and the wail of the fire alarm and the roar of flames drowned out even the screaming and crying of people outside. He thought he heard sirens outside as well. His eyes burned as he squinted into the haze, searching for an arm, a leg, a face. He coughed and his sight grew dimmer.
Someone grabbed him and pulled him backwards. Vax fought.
“Get out of here!” the voice said, echoing inside a mask.
“Jack—” he couldn’t even finish shouting her name before coughing. He tried to fight against the fireman, but another man joined him in pulling Vax out of there. “Jackie!” he tried to struggle, but he couldn’t breathe. He’d grown weaker. His lungs were on fire, as were his eyes.
“Everybody’s gotta be a fucking hero,” the fireman muttered. “Sit down buddy. No one’s going back in there. You’re just going to get yourself killed.”
“I have to get Jackie! Jackie’s in there!” He wanted to push them off and go back into the building, rip off this plastic mask they were putting over his mouth as he ripped off the lock on the door. Thrust them aside and go back inside to rescue Jackie. He tried to tell them she was still in there, that they had to save her, but the air coming in through the mask smelled so sweet and his eyes and limbs were growing so heavy and he was sorry, so sorry Jackie, he tried but they were holding him down and he just wasn’t strong enough to push them off.
He saw Jackie’s face, peering over him, but it flickered like flames, appearing and disappearing. He tried to blink the tears away to see her clearly, but she vanished like smoke. He saw her, and then he saw nothing but blackness and smoke, and a ruined building, and then the doors of the ambulance closing.