I saw him. Sat on the floor surrounded by fire and clutching at his bleeding shoulder. Who would wait to ambush a fireman?
He’d lost his helmet and his eyes were streaming but through the haze of tears he could still see me on the landing; his face was a mixture of horror at the sight of my minimal clothing and the desire to rescue me from the burning building. He made to get up but I pushed him gently back down, saying nothing as I took his hand away from the wound.
‘You need to get out!’ he roared above the deafening inferno, sweat dripping from his face as his body battled the heat.
I didn’t reply and only put my hands over the fleshy hole in his shoulder.
The bullet had travelled far into the joint and buried itself in the muscle until it hit bone. I could feel it as an imaginary bullet sliced into me, a weeping, bleeding hole manifesting itself on my shoulder. This pain was real, white and almost unbearable. I screwed up my face and the man, watching agape at the wound that was transferring from him to me, suddenly realised what was happening and screamed at me to stop. I shut him out and locked onto the bullet that was slowly being pushed out of his shoulder, the muscle and skin healing behind it.
I had to resist the urge to collapse when the bullet bounced onto the floor. I could feel my eyes ready to roll into the back of their sockets and my mind ready to slip into a delicious darkness.
Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
My skin started to cover over the hole and within seconds there was nothing to show for the healing that I’d just performed. Without warning the man took me over his shoulders and pelted down the crumbling stairs to the open doorway. I pushed the flames back but his training showed him where to step and he darted in between the various fiery objects that stood in his way.
He put me down carefully next to a seat and we looked at each other for a moment. His eyes drew lines all over my body, taking in my bare arms, the blood stain where his had been and my distinctly clean face.
Our eyes met while I got up slowly and I waited until the last second to look away as I wandered into the night. I looked back for a final time when I got to the corner of the road and he was still watching me, bewildered and confused. He looked more afraid than when he was about to be burnt alive.
I took the bullet out of my pocket and studied it under the light in the kitchen.
There was something carved into the surface; words but not enough to make a sentence. I made a mental note to visit Ray and his magnifier.
There was a knock on the door and after the silence of the room it made me jump and drop the bullet. It rolled into a corner and I decided to leave it as the knocking on the door became more panicked.
I briefly looked through the spy hole but immediately wrenched the door open and pulled a frazzled Ray into the hallway. He was breathing heavily and his tall, wiry frame was shuddering.
‘What’s wrong?!’ I asked urgently.
At first he could only shake his head and splutter.
Eventually he managed a broken sentence; ‘bodies, burning. The smell.’
He wretched and I stepped out of the way as he barged into the bathroom.
I left the hallway to give him some peace and went in search for the bullet on my kitchen floor.
After about 10 minutes, Ray joined me at the kitchen table where I had set out two cups of tea. He gulped his down gratefully and exhaled slowly.
‘You ok?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘just a bit shaken up.’
‘Really? I would never have noticed.’
Ray smiled at my sarcasm and took gulp of tea. Even slumped on the uncomfortable wooden chair he was still almost twice my height.
‘Come on then, spill!’ I encourage playfully.
He gave a shaky laugh and put his mug down on the table. ‘Ok, well I was just walking home from work like every other day but this time I decided to look down an alley which I didn’t even know existed before today!’
‘Ok, so what? You saw something or…’
‘I smelt it first!’ Ray rubbed his forehead, ‘literally as soon as I was opposite it I could smell it and once you’ve smelt the stench of burning bodies, you don’t forget it!’ He breathed out shakily and closed his eyes, trying not to throw up into his mug.
‘So they were burning bodies down an alley way? Were there people actually doing this or just the bodies on their own?’
Ray opened his eyes, ‘there were people in face masks watching them burn and stoking the fire with rubbish they’d picked up,’ he paused, ‘I swear they were laughing!’ He downed the rest of his tea. ‘They saw me pretty much instantly and basically chased me so I didn’t want to run home in case they came to find me there…’
‘So you came home and made them think that you live here?! Thanks so much, you’re a great friend!’ I grabbed the mugs off the table and slung them into the washing up bowl.
‘No, no wait! I lost them before I came here, I think!’ I still had my back to him and his uncertainty of losing these dangerous people made me even more angry.
He tried to back track, ‘I must of lost them because they haven’t started burning your door down yet!’
I gave a crude laugh at his joke but I wasn’t overly confident in his evidence; these people could be lying in wait to take me by surprise when I was in bed or leaving the house. Even though they couldn’t hurt me, there was no telling what I would do to them if they jumped out on me and there would be two more burning bodies to add to the pile in that alley.
‘Can I stay here tonight?’ Ray asked tentatively.
I sighed irritably, caught up in my thoughts. ‘You’re going to have to because if you get mobbed by these people I’ll have to organise your funeral and I really don’t have time right now!’
I heard him jump up and then felt a light kiss being planted on my cheek before he ran upstairs to snuggle into the spare bed.