Short story: The Paroxysm – by Ned Alexander (contains scenes some may find disturbing)
©2016, Ned Alexander, all rights reserved
With black smoke now billowing thickly behind him, the Station Officer ran back to the two fully rigged Firefighters who had just stepped down from the rear cabin of the Firepod. “Okay, so listen up. The call came in from the care line company who say that the smoke alarm actuated automatically about twenty minutes ago! They’ve tried to contact the resident since then but all they can hear over her monitor is her moaning so she’s clearly still inside but may have injured herself.”
“Shit, really? It took them twenty minutes to call us? What the fu..”
“..Gail, I know, let it go, okay? We don’t have time for that now. Right, so the man standing over the road there is a neighbour of the occupants’ who says he knows her quite well. He states that the occupants’ name is Agatha, that she’s middle aged and that she has limited mobility.”
“Is it just Agatha inside?”
“He thinks so. He said he thinks that the lady’s son came to visit her a short while ago but seemed to look unwell and left in a hurry.”
“Blimey, this guy’s quite the curtain twitcher isn’t he? Do we know whereabouts in the property the lady’s likely to be?” As he asked this, Dave sealed his mask to the front of his helmet then took a deep hard breath to actuate his demand valve which immediately began with the reassuring ‘Coof-hee, coof-hee’ sound of the air supply from the cylinder strapped to his back.
“Yeah, I know, I was getting to that! She’s very likely holed up in the back bedroom. She spends most of her time there apparently. Oh yeah, also, she’s a smoker so…”
Having sealed her helmet, Gail shook her head, partly to test its seal but also in instinctive angered response to the Station Officer’s revelation. “Another bedbound smoker. When will they ever bloody learn? Where the Hell did she even get cigarettes from?”
The Station Officer looked at her sideways for using the term bedbound which was an expression he felt uncomfortable with especially having nursed his mother for so many years towards the end of her life. “Okay, I know. That said, I’m sure that the trouble she may be in with the Police is the last of her worries right at this moment. Now come on, let’s get in there!” The Station Officer turned and looked uneasily across at the Police escort that was securing their perimeter from a safe distance. “Let’s get this done quickly. After all these bloody reports recently this part of town gives me the creeps these days!”
Dave and Gail both turned back toward the Firepod to retrieve lances when John, the Pods’ pilot handed them one each. Dave slid his hand into the lance and it began to gently hum as it activated. Gail nodded her appreciation to John and slung her lance over her shoulder before giving Dave the ‘thumbs up’ to confirmed her readiness to go. They both then turned, faced the house and hastily marched towards it.
As they neared the house, Dave lifted the thermal imaging camera to his mask. Half of the screen glowed bright orange as the camera detected the thick smoke that was billowing out through the front windows. He stood against the wall, beside the front door, as Gail stood directly in front of the entrance. She glanced at the thick wooden door for a moment deciding where its weakest points would be. “Door going in!”
Dave confirmed, “Door going in!” he then turned away from the front door to avoid any flames that may burst from the opening as it was breached.
With the added strength afforded to her by her exo-suit, Gail then leaned back onto her left leg, jolted forward and kicked the door off of its hinges with one swift kick. Never bored of seeing how effective the new suits were, she smiled to herself in her helmet. “Okay Captain Cower, you coming?”
Dave turned to face her, saw that the door had been removed and chuckled to himself as he grabbed hold of the sides of door frame and pulled himself passed her into the building. Having deselected its safety setting, his lance hummed louder as its capacitors began to quickly charge to full strength.
Gail stepped up beside him and spoke to him over the open comms system. “Jesus, this is going like a fucking train. You want me to go upstairs and look for her or shall we both sort this out down here first?”
“Let’s knock some of these flames out down here first. I don’t know if those stairs’ll last much longer otherwise.” He leaned forward with his lance and began to run it along the ground and up the sides of the walls wiping at the flames that quickly destabilised and dissipated. “Go and check out those rooms at the back will you?”
Gail stepped further into the smoke that swirled around her and enveloped her until she was no longer visible. Dave furrowed his expression as he thought for a moment about leaving the hallway and accompanying Gail to the rear of the house but, as he looked down at the readings on his thermal imaging camera he could see that the temperature within the building was quickly rising. “Gail, be quick. Things are heating up out here!” Paintwork on a doorframe beside him blistered in an instant, popped and then hissed as all of the moisture quickly dried from it.
As she swept her lance across the walls in the rear room Gail shook her head despondently to herself. A large section of wallpapered plaster suddenly dislocated itself from the wall, wobbled for a moment and then fell to the floor and shattered into a dozen pieces. “I really don’t think Agatha’s going to have survived this you know…Dave? We need to get upstairs quick…Dave…Dave?”
“Wait a second. Just…wait a second.” Dave lowered the lance to his side and held his breath for a moment so as to remain as quiet as possible. He tilted and twisted his head to be able to hear as well as he could the noise that he thought he heard from upstairs. “Shit. I…I think I can hear her. I can hear her moaning! Gail!”
“What? She can’t have survived…can she? Shit, hang on, I’m coming!”
Gail walked purposefully along the length of the corridor feeling her way along the walls through the thick black smoke as Dave wiped frantically at the sides of the stairs to remove the worst of the flames. Gail tried to gently move passed him but he blocked her path and quickly mounted the stairs with the thermal imaging camera to navigate his way safely through the worst of the flames. As Dave stepped onto the top landing he swept around to try to locate Agatha’s heat signature.
“I hear her. She’s in here!” As Dave turned at the top of the stairs he could part of the orange outline of Agatha standing within the room nearest him. He could see that her lower body was alight and that she was clearly in shock as she was not reacting to the flames. He dropped the camera to his side, lifted his lance and aimed it toward her. He grasped hold of the charred door frame and groped his way into the smoke filled room ready to attack the flames with his lance and to pull Agatha down onto the floor to smother the flames. “Agatha, it’s okay. We’re here. You’ve gonna be…”
…Before he could finish his sentence, Dave heard an almighty bang and he was struck hard in the chest which forced him violently backwards into Gail who was now standing at the top of the stairs. Dave’s helmet struck against Gail’s and he crumpled limply against her before rolling sideways and tumbling painfully down the stairs.
Dave flinched with pain as he instinctively tried to lift his head from the floor. “Arghh…fuck!” Beep-beep-beep-beep. Hearing the warning alarm he snatched up the air gauge and pressed it up to his mask. The smoke was still too thick which prevented him from being able to read it so he flicked on his glove-mounted light and shone it onto the face of the gauge. The light from his torch seemed dim so he dropped his hand, banged the torch gently against the floor and repositioned it against his mask again. At the new angle he was able to see more of the light coming in through his mask that was clearly reddened somehow as it entered. Still lightheaded from the fall, he struggled with focusing for a moment and then he shuddered backwards as he realised that the redness of the light must be caused by blood either in or on his visor. With pain, he sat up and groped for Gail in the dark smoke. He shone his light around but could not see her. He swept his hand around to feel for the thermal imaging camera but was unable to find it. “Fuck…FUCK!” He lifted himself up onto his knees and paused for a moment to catch his breath. “Gail? GAIL? You there? You okay?” He took hold of one of the balustrades and lifted himself up until he was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. Beep-beep-beep-beep. Hearing his low-air-supply warning, Dave uncomfortably and uncontrollably snapped himself to attention. He swayed for a brief moment as he steadied himself and then he leaned forward, rested his hands onto the stairs then desperately pulled himself up one step at a time.
“Gail? Gail? Is that you? It’s okay, I’m coming.” Dave dug into what little energy reserves he had left and kicked hard against the stairs almost as if kick starting himself back into action again. As he reached the top step he it felt as if he must have grabbed hold of Gail’s hand. “It’s okay. Are you okay?”
Gail rocked awkwardly and just grunted in pain.
“Can you stand up?”
Gail began to obediently push herself up onto her feet.
As Gail stood, Dave realised that the hand he’d grabbed hadn’t moved. Aware that he was still slightly dazed he pulled at it gently to confirm what he thought he was feeling. It was then that he realised that he was clearly holding Agatha’s hand. “Gail, Agatha’s here. She here! Can you take hold of her with me?”
Gail leaned against the wall to steady herself then leaned forward and rested her hands onto her knees. “Uh, Da…v…?” Her voice was weak and mumbled.
“Gail, I’ll take Agatha, Don’t worry about her. I’ll get her. Can you get yourself out?” He felt along Agatha’s body as he leaned from the stairs onto the top landing until he located her other hand and pulled at it. He knew he was in no position to be able to rescue her as carefully as he would have liked to but, given the circumstances, he could be forgiven for inflicting an extra few bumps and bruises on her on the way out. Dave climbed down backwards and dragged Agatha who bumped and banged as different parts of her body made contact with each of the steps. At the bottom of the stairs he paused just long enough to confirm that he could hear Gail who was carefully sliding herself down along the wall as she made her way down to ground level. “That’s it Gail, you’ve got it. Keep coming mate. You can do it!”
Dave stood, as best he could, and lifted Agatha up onto his chest. Having staggered the last few paces needed to exit the property he stepped out from the billowing smoke and out into the clean evening air. He stumbled forwards, let go of Agatha and collapsed onto his knees. Agatha groaned loudly as she fell down hard against the cold evening floor. Dave then motioned to stand again to turn and assist Gail but, as he turned his head, he could see her feet as she plant them cumbersomely beside him. He smiled to himself and sighed heavily with desperate, thankful relief. As he sucked heavily at the air supply in his mask to ease the pain in his chest he suddenly realised that he could no longer feel air coming out of his demand valve. He panicked and snapped upright to grab hold of the release mechanisms on the front of his helmet. He quickly twisted the releases and pulled hard to remove the mask that had now stuck hard to their seals. He dropped the mask and leaned back slightly to ease the tightness of his chest and allow himself to breathe in as deeply as he possibly could. As his chest heaved quickly up and down he realised that he was unable to feel any of the air filling and leaving his chest. Fear filled his expression as the realisation that he may have somehow burnt his lungs suddenly occurred to him. He looked up to see if medics might be nearby to assist and then he suddenly froze as he caught sight of his Station Officer standing about ten metres ahead of him with eyes full of sheer terror.
The Station Officer was visibly shaken and his voice was trembling as he cautiously eased his right foot behind himself in readiness to back away. “Don’t you move Dave! Don’t come any closer. Don’t you fucking move!”
This sight was so out of context that Dave seemed to instantly sober up from any pain that he might have been feeling and, in confusion, he turned to Gail to see what she made of it. Dave almost stumbled backward and had to control himself as the sight of Gail actually panicked him more than anything that he had witnessed so far this evening. As he focussed on her face, he could see that most of her face mask had been broken away and that part of the side of her face and half of her jawbone was missing. The other half of her bottom jaw hung low and swung casually as she turned her head ghoulishly to look at him. Blood dripped and then poured suddenly from her mouth as she dropped her head and looked down to where Agatha’s upper body now rested on the ground. What was left of Agatha was now gnawing on the missing part of Gail’s jaw. At this point Dave realised that he was still holding Agatha’s severed right forearm and hand and he dropped it onto the floor in disgust. Gail looked down at the limb then stoically she dropped to her knees, lifted the arm and began to gnaw on it.
Dave looked at the Station Officer and then over to his other colleagues who were now cowering behind the Firepod and a nearby Medicalpod. However now he no longer recognised them as being his colleagues. His peripheral vision had darkened and he could no longer see colours anymore. The reduced sight that he now had he no longer fully understood and the people ahead of him he no longer recognised as even being people. As he swayed there for a few seconds he looked down at his fingers which now seemed to contort and buckle slightly. He did not respond to this and simply accepted it as memories and emotions quickly drained from him. Instinctively he turned to identify what was moving beside him as the movement of Gail pulling her own jawbone out of Agatha’s mouth and gnawing on it triggered his limited reactions. He stared for a moment longer at the jawbone and then down at Agatha and began to feel a dark rotten pain from within himself. Though not fully able to interpret the feeling yet, pain had returned to him. It began deep within his stomach which he looked down at and patted with his hand almost as if trying to pull the sensation from himself. Moments later the pain found its way to his head which caused him to wince as he hunched over with this newly found desire and, as he lifted his head to see where this desire might be coming from he saw the shapes moving in front of him. He could smell them, could smell their blood, their meat, their life…and he wanted it.
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