9 hours and 30 minutes rang and echoed on the clay colored walls of the school. We hastily threw our books in our bags, before zipping or clipping them shut. Thereafter began the unevenly paced journey to the next classroom, corridors bustling with steps of students, some staying silent, others cracking with laughter to fully absorb the five minutes of liberation.
I was hurrying upfront, cerebrally undocking from math to hook onto chemistry. Occasionally, in the middle of my brisk walk a remark or criticism on so and so or this atrociously soporiphic instructor would spring out of one of the groups, giving me the chance to approve for the sake of acting sociable.
That day the topic that could be overheard the most was Professor Maintenon’s ridiculous appeal to Claude to cut his hair shorter, in her almost sweet old ways. I nodded, chuckled, gave words of approval, then turned forward again, asking my friend Aziza what she thought our results would be in the upcoming class where we were to be handed back a previous assignment.
As the bell gave its signal for a new hour of serious normality, the walls shook, cracked, and half ot them collapsed under the force of the fireball that came from the school gates.
In a white flash the buildings had buried the lesson and half of the staff and pupils, not allowing us to jump to the ground and brace our arms before our heads as training had taught us to do, pointlessly it turned out.
For a while my ears buzzed a long shrill tune, too dazed to distinguish a sound. Eyes opened slowly but their lashes struggled to blink out the dust. I tried to move my fingers one by one, to breathe through my obstructed nose, then through my mouth, tasting concrete. Colored fumes were sizzling out of what should have been the lab, probably coming from powders, liquids and other unknown substances. The smells reached my nostrils, some evoking failed experiments and burning plastic. I needed to catch a glimpse of Aziza, grab her hand and some others if we could and crawl out for air before anything that had survived would be completely blown up.
Both of my legs felt shattered as I stood up a fast as I could, although it must have taken a whole minute. I looked around, scanning the rubble for a trace of her among the other students, a couple of them coming back to their senses. Her sleeveless arm eventually came into my sight under a pile of bricks, which I stumbled to. My head shuddered as I felt out her limp hand and started to push them off her, frantically. Jeremy, whom I’d suspected had had a crush on her for months, was standing by my side. His face was unscrutable under a layer of smothered blood and greyness as he joined into my efforts.
A few others were digging out their friends as the smell of smoke was getting more and more acrid and scaring the hell out of our already sore senses. In the back Lou, our supervisor was screaming, urging us to “GET OUT”, while the nurse lay motionless beside him, a scarlet stream running off her forehead. For a moment he was leaning back and forth on her, trying to make her budge. When he was unsuccessful he turned towards us and resumed shouting. Some obeyed.
Those who had stayed were sweating as they bent down, took grip, lifted, and threw out mounts of brick to find the others. When Lou’s yelling turned into panicked shrieking however, we twisted our heads and saw the shadows of the flames in the former lab.
I looked back at Aziza’s shoulder that I had managed to uncover, not wanting to think how much longer it would take me and Jeremy to bury her out completely and to carry her on our weakened legs. He chose for me when he gently took her silent hand and pressed it against his own for an instant, smudging the dust on his fingers. Then he ran away without a glance.
I stood there, hearing the long leaps of other classmates who were also making their move out of the ruin and the cracking of the now visible flames.
The thought of staying lingered in my mind. I wouldn’t have to live with the knowledge that I would never hear her complain again about her bigoted mother, work, ephemeral boyfriends, and zits, or that we would never laugh together over one of my clumsy puns, Chinese sitcoms and people dropping their plates.
I wouldn’t have to continue walking through the banal angers and highs of life without Aziza to infuriate or invigorate my spirit.The burning was starting to obstruct my breathing, which had become heavy. I brought my sleeve to my mouth and turned around.
Suddenly my feet were springing for the outside, following the escape route the smoke had woven towards. They took me through the crumbled walls, scattered chairs and tables, and over two small bodies before I finally reached the skeletons of the school gates.
When my eyes found enough air and humidity to physically tear up, they didn’t. I walked and my mind blinked in short empty repetitions. Everyone else was pacing haphazardly, staff and students alike, some as silent and haggard as me, others giving hysterical wails. Their heads were tucked into their arms, surfacing for a short instant once in a while. I spotted Jeremy, who avoided my gaze.
The school bell rang, signalling for class to begin again. And the entire school went ablaze from the fire in the lab.The alarm siren is still echoing from the outside and small intermittent earthquakes are shaking the walls. At this moment, I can only picture the shades of fire.
Students appear blurry through my now dusty and damp glasses. Most of their features cannot be recognized in the dimness of the concrete shelter. Finally, as I dig “Jane Eyre” out of my pocket, I stare at them for a minute, till they’ve all paired up with a classmate who managed to grab the book despite the ongoing mayhem.
Alice starts reading quietly at the paragraph where we’d been interrupted, knowing it was her turn. She gasps in the poorly oxygenated room at the end of each sentence, but she finishes her part, regardless.