Four in the morning and this has happened many times before. The distant alarms, the rising flames. The dead malls are prone to it, with their hoards of cardboard and flimsy walls. The paper remains of what was once a kind of wonderland; now just a labyrinth of skeletal stairways, abandoned shop fronts, shrivelled pot plants, abandoned coat hangers.
The firefighters come, stumbling in their layers of clothing, pulling hoses from their great red engine.
It isn’t the kids that called them. They have made the mall a sanctuary, a place of escape. They live in the catacombs of old stores, smoking dope and surviving off crisp packets and handfuls of Walmart pick’n’mix, exchanging tired conversations and pornographic magazines. This time it was a real fire that started the blaze: the freezing February temperatures have spread even this far east, and the kids are living in sub-zero conditions. Their existence revolves around cheap nylon scarves, blue lips and the warmth of each others’ bodies. For weeks now they’d been starting fires in tyre rims pinched from the hardware store; only this time, somehow, the fire had caught. It flickered and twisted along the walls, licking the handles from doors and stealing sales banners from the ceiling. As it grew, monstrous and distorted, the kids ran and screamed, gathering what few possessions they had and seeking shelter in the toilets. The basement toilets, where at least there was water.
Explosions were heard in some distant zone of the mall, probably the electrical department of the supermarket. So it had spread that far.
Some of the kids were shivering so hard they couldn’t think. Their speech came out slurred as they voiced jokes or regrets. Many sunk into a deep sleep, the smoke coming under the doors to fog up their eyes, their throats, their brains. They start to hear the shouting – loud men’s voices – as if it were the sound of someone shaking them, waking them from a dream. Their world closes up and everything is muffled.
It was never an easy job, putting out a mall fire. The problem was the open planning, the way the fire could spread as easily as germs multiplying over a plate of left-out food. It didn’t help that the firefighters were working in the coldest conditions anyone here had known for twenty years or more. They worked for three long hours, a bustle of bodies and roaring of water. Their cheeks were flushed but they had lost all sensation in their toes and fingers. By the time they had finished, they saw that it was minus 16 degrees.
It took them a long time to find the kids. Nobody had responded to their voices, so they had assumed the place was empty. By chance they found them in the basement, strewn across the floor of ersatz marble. Most of them were passed out, their faces either bright white or burning red, a layer of frost laced across their lips. Only a couple were still conscious, though their breathing was sharp and rapid.
“The-the fire-” one of them stuttered as he saw the man in the glowing uniform approach him.
“It’s all put out. Safe.” The man looked down on this kid who barely looked a day over eighteen. He wondered why so many were running away; why so many were drawn to these wastelands, these remainders of the cosy capitalism that had nurtured them from infants. He was strong and a logical thinker, and yet he couldn’t understand this whole-scale…abandonment.
The firefighters pulled out all twenty four kids from that grubby basement toilet. They wrapped everyone in whatever sweaters, throws and coats they could salvage from the burnt-out stores, then spent a good hour or so trying to revive those that were unconscious. Some of them opened their eyes with incoherent mutters, but others remained out cold. Their pulses slipped to a dull throb, then were still.
When all of them finally left the basement, they saw that the fire was extinguished, but the water lingered. It lingered in thin icicles that clung to the ceilings, window-ledges, escalators. In sheets of shining ice that skirted the laminate floor, bubbles of frost that stuck to the surfaces of upturned chairs and tables, slushy pools surrounded by chunks of miniature icebergs. It ornamented every object with its steely glint.
The firefighters packed the kids into three ambulances, their blue lights flashing shadows across the canvas of rime that covered the mall’s outer walls. As they worked, white crusts of frost slowly fell off in the timid warmth of dawn sunshine.
A final firefighter stood in the shattered glass of the sliding door entrance, staring inside at the wreckage. It was hell frozen over; the glacial remainder of a wonderland he himself had frequented as a boy. That shiny, plastic joy had been scorched, transformed, made molten. Those ghosts of shoppers and the exciting items they longed for were now purged by fire; by this inferno of the starving, the fire of those left behind. For a while the place would be nothing but a sublime temple of ice. God was trying to tell them something, of that he was sure. Out of all the kids the firefighters had rescued from the mall, they had managed to save only four.
(Prompt: Philadelphia fire photographs)
by Maria Rose Sledmere