An uncontrolled voice:
”The child the child is inside oh God the child they have a child it’s only a few months old God”
Over it, Chef was shouting directions:
“There. Train it more on the window! Stop aiming at that, it’s done with. Put the jet inside the house. Hold it straight. There. Yes, there!
The fire had reached the roof. It sprang through the attic skylight and windows.
A crowd began to gather. Some of them came directly from the beach, wearing bathing suits. Cellphones to the ears. Cellphones taking pictures. Flashlights. Palms over mouths. Hands on the head or to the back of the head, meaning surrender. Cops keeping people at bay.
And the woman’s chants:
“The child the child God Almighty anybody hear me it’s a child for Chrissake a child BURNING ALIVE”
“Flood the floor,” Chef shouted. ”Don’t give way. Clear the path for the boys. Flood it. I told you to give up that goddamned roof!”
God was on everyone’s lips. Over and over again. Lasku didn’t see any God’s work here. Only flames. Looking for the sky. The water jets seemed not to quench the flames but quite the contrary: they seemed to fire them up. The smoke blackened the August afternoon.
“I’m going in.”
And those were his last words.
Lasku put his helmet on. He saw Chef turning toward him. He saw him saying something, rubbing his hands in anger. It seemed that Chef was saying Boboc. Saying, What do you think you’re doing, Boboc?
Cellphones filmed him while he was darting through the main door.
The lobby and the living-room were cosy. In some allegedly quiet twilight, the furniture seemed to wait for the owners to show up. But the twilight was the smoke. Lasku breathed through his filter cartridge, then sunk into it. His boots splashed on the drenched carpet, then thudded on the stairs. Something crashed above and he thought the ceiling would come crumbling on his head. The sound of the overturned, broken furniture as the house shuddered. Upstairs, somewhere at the end of the hall, a door was ajar. He kicked it. The hot air hit him fully. He shunned the fire that tried to spread and to catch and to grind, then searched the room. The toys were burning in the middle of the bed that was burning too, the drapes — all ablaze. The overturned crib. A wooden plane with wings on fire swinging above it. The fire melted the wallpaper. Sparkles of wallpaper and papers peeled off and flew: flakes of ash. A howl. Voices. Voices echoing on the upper floor. The sweat trickled into his eyes. He got back to the stairs and climbed up through the waves, heavier and heavier and hotter by the second. In the limited space of his visor, the wainscotting and rails staggered into the flames. A happy family holding a child, a baby carriage, a smile from the cradle in the garden, on the beach, in the maternity ward — all aflame. Pictures burning up on the wall, on the stairs, amongst shards. A thud. The house shook from its foundations. Another howl. Coming from upstairs. He put on his oxygen mask and kept climbing. Up, up, into the hell above. His visor darkened suddenly. Blackness.
He crouched warding off the wooden strips falling down on him. He fell face down, buried in the rubble. A pain shot through his hand, his right hand, the forearm, a fracture. He vanished almost instantly. How was he to mind the pain, he was fucking dying here. If he couldn’t free himself A!S!A!P, say goodbye to his August paycheck. Goodbye to his paycheck also for September, October… calm down. Breath. Breath. Don’t use your head not your head. Stop thinking
(goddamn it, Boboc!)
use your last energy resources.
He was pinned under some ton-and-a-half weight.
The salty water got into his eyes, he blinked.
Don’t lose it, not now. Breath. Inhale. Exhale. Breath out the hell.
So many wishes. So many things left to be done. Places to see or visit again. People. Plans. So many dreams. So early to lose it all. Twenty two years old. Only twenty two…
Some of the weight — big wooden beams — rolled over, thudded, smoked aside.
He couldn’t believe it. That he was free. That he could move again. That he could get back and save himself.
He blinked away the tears.
Yellow tongues twisted on what was left of the ceiling. And through that crack, through the veil that settled lower and lower and through the heating, he glimpsed something. A figure. And heard a baby’s cry.
The pain said hi. Hi to you, too. Holding his wounded hand along his body, he crawled further. Not back. Forward. His mind said back, his body carried him forward. Somehow, he reached the top of the stairs. He waited there for a moment, only a little — give me a minute, folks — to discover the last pieces of his will-power
(wrong — of insanity)
and last traces of ableness. He clung to them and entered the fiery frame.
The room was like an oven. The roof was gone almost entirely. The sky was ablaze. On the verge of the abyss that opened into the floor a woman sat still. Her head was down, her shoulders close together, and the baby to her chest. The belt of her gown hung on the floor, one end burning. The baby was squirming in her hands. Whimpering.
Robert. He was huddled into a corner. He wasn’t wearing the helmet, or the mask. His face had blackened, you could barely see his features. Where is Parnik? he thought of asking him. Lasku wiped his visor with his hand. Colored fish scampered on the wall. In this world cube from that fishbowl that somehow remained untouched. There is no telling how those oxygen bubbles still freshened the water. Lasku seemed to hear them — blook! — popping at the surface. Blook-blook-blook!
“Stay… away,” Robert muttered.
Lasku crouched beside him. Robert’s eyes just stared, unblinking, out of the black. Lasku grabbed his vest and tried to pull him out of there. The pain said hi hi hi. A stream of water flowed between Robert’s purple lips. In a crease of the suit, a goldfish was flapping. Lasku turned around and saw he was watched, too.
The woman stretched her hands. The coil of meat floundered into her hands.
Lasku took off his oxygen mask and put it on Robert’s face.
“Long time ago”, the woman said.
The house jerked. A shard still hanging to the woodwork fell off and broke on the window sill.
“You can’t save him now,” she said.
It smelled of burned fish. Lasku coughed.
“You cannot save anyone now. They drowned a long time ago.”
Lasku wondered how she could even talk. He wondered where the hell she could find any oxygen particle left unbreathed here. To tell him. Let him know. He put his mask on his mouth and inhaled deeply.
“Go away”, the woman said. “Get out of here. Get out of my house! OUT!”
She took a step and vanished through the floor, both she and the baby.
A table leg. The piece of wood came out through her chest from the tumulus of the rubble. Blood was pouring from her belly and mouth. She was still holding the baby with one hand, its little head leaned over one of her breasts.
Lasku broke it away from its mother. He crept through the flames down the stairs, over things and remnants, through puddles and smoke clouds that overlapped each other, covering everything. The daylight hit him behind his temples. He kept going. On and on, with the child crying on his shoulder. His boots sunk into the beach sand, but he didn’t stop. Until the first touch of the waves. There he collapsed. Still breathing through his mask, he put the child gently down.
The wave came. He withdrew. It came. He withdrew. It brought along a dead fish. And the memory.
The images stormed him.
He didn’t stop because nobody helped him.
Turning back with his memory, he saw the sand of the empty beach and the street, the abandoned fire engines, police cars and ambulances. A hose floundered on the concrete, spurting all over. He didn’t see Chef, nor his other mates. It seemed to him it was quiet. All too quiet. The group of onlookers was absent, too. He remembered the dry grass he walked on. The dry flowers from the house garden. The leafless trees in the winter of the summer. Then he remembered that he looked for the last time through the hole in the roof. Thinking of Robert. Thinking that he was late. That’s right… he had abandoned him. And when he looked up, the roof was a fiery mouth. And Robert fell upwards through that hole.
Lasku took off his helmet. He threw it in the sand.
The child laughed.
If you took a better look, the waves turned into waves again.
The child was laughing.
When you got out of focusing, hands and torsos and fish and faces together were rolling adrift.
He was holding the fish by its tail.
It smeared his mouth. Under its little nose and on its chin. It was dirty.
Waves were still waves.
— Translated from the Romanian by Dan BURUZA