As I change lanes to exit, horror crashes against my windshield then bounces off. This van next to me had a tire blow—just shred—and it’s smoking and throwing chunks of rubber everywhere. I scream and swerve and other vehicles honk at me, then I’m off the exit, then I call my husband. The line rings up to four times, and I know the fifth is his voicemail so I hang up before I hear his greeting again.
I walk in my building. Charlie, this slender guy with glasses who is our building security person, stands in the lobby with his radio. We call him when something smells bad in one of the bathrooms on our floor or when a parking garage key does not work. This morning, he paces and speaks into his radio. Charlie and I are cool. He always asks how I am. I often stop and chat. Today, I just smile. He smiles back and keeps talking into his radio, so I go up the elevator.
In our Monday morning meeting we pretend we don’t know about the scheduled fire drill. The lights and sirens go then, and we put our pens down and stand up from the conference room table. We gather our purses and our coffee. My boss says in a real emergency, we would not be able to take our purses and coffee because what if we dropped our purse in the stairwell, and someone tripped over it, we could be liable for their injury or death. Then she says she has to go to the bathroom, but she’ll be down in a few moments. I take my phone. I text my husband as I’m walking. Fire drill, I write, then delete drill so it’s just fire.
In the stairwell, a guy with rolled up white shirt sleeves makes a joke about getting trapped, and how he had tips if we needed to distract ourselves from our loneliness and terror. Ten people make jokes about how the stairs are the most exercise they’d had in weeks. People cover their ears from the ringing alarm. Another woman stands in the corner with her arms crossed. She has a brace on her leg. We walk past her, and none of us say anything to her or about her. Once outside, we have to go to our designated safe zones and there’s Charlie, running around between us and the fire department, and this is the most important he’s felt in his life. My husband does not reply. He should be at work now. He’s at work, working. He’s at his desk. His phone is on silent.
People hold their hands in front of their eyes to block the sun. The telemarketers in Suite 208 stand in their hooded sweatshirts to our left. To the right, the floor full of lawyers stand in suits and high heels. People sit on curbs. Smokers are smoking. My boss joins us. She’s holding her purse. She looks at her watch. I watched the World Trade Center go down on live TV. I know how catastrophes work. I type drill and I’m safe to my husband and hit send to avoid dramatics.
Charlie waves, which starts others waving and it’s time. We can go back. Three hundred people try to get on the elevators. My office is on the fourth floor. I don’t try the elevators. I wait in line for the stairs. I text my husband a smiley face. I’m stuck between a heavy set guy and two tall thin women in front of me, all of them panting. We try to move forward together.
“Hey,” one of the women says, “taking the stairs isn’t so bad. See? You can do it.”
They pant and laugh and pant. One woman stops to catch her breath. She wears a pink silk blouse with fresh, wet sweat stains under each arm.
“It’s one day at a time,” the friend of the woman who had to stop says. “Taking the stairs adds some movement to your day.”
Humanity is a fine line, and I don’t know if she’s being helpful or shitty.
Guy behind me pushes into me because the woman behind him pushed into him, so I push into the panting woman in front of me, who pushes into the woman in front of her. We have to adjust together. We have to turn to each other and attach blame to everyone but ourselves because the culprit is the space, we all know that, but I say sorry, and the women in front of me says sorry and the guy behind me looks sour. Everyone was fine going down because of the sound of the alarm, and now work is up ahead and it’s quiet and no one has a sense of urgency. Behind us, I hear Charlie’s voice telling us something or other, stay safe or be patient or whatever. The stairwell is hot with all these bodies and no air circulation. We move again. I take a few steps up. We stop again. I’m thirsty.
The fire department should do some crafty lighting and sound effects to make us think there’s a real fire. We need a real emergency to take chaos seriously. Screams, bangs, crashes, backdrafts. I pull my phone out of my pocket and elbow the person behind me. Sorry again, I say to him. He puts up a hand and offers an ambiguous nod. I text my husband again. Are you ok? I write. I’m not ok.
Stephanie Austin’s short stories and creative nonfiction appear in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Fiction, The South Dakota Review, Washington Square Review, Necessary Fiction, Prime Number, Eclectica, fwriction: review, The Nervous Breakdown, The New England Review, and most recently, in Emrys Journal, Carve Magazine, The Sonder Review, Open: A Journal of Arts and Literature, Pembroke Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. Her flash nonfiction essay Paralysis was a finalist in the Q3 WOW! Women on Writing flash CNF contest. Twitter: @lucysky