"Miss? Can you hear me, miss?"
Chloe groaned. She was kneeling on hard, cold tarmac, her arms folded protectively over her head. The voice spoke again. "Can you tell me your name?"
"Chloe," she whispered, her throat hoarse. From screaming, probably, she thought, her mind a vague blur of half-formed memories. The deafening bang... smoke... screams... "Chloe," she tried again as someone knelt beside her. My phone... fear... pain... my phone! NEIL! She jerked upright, her eyes snapping open in panic, only to scream as a wave of pain crashed over her, blotting out any conscious, rational thought. She tumbled to the side, curling up instinctively into the foetal position. Her entire body felt like one enormous bruise, and hot tears sprang to her eyes as battered muscles protested her movement.
Strong but gentle hands eased her posture, and Chloe opened eyes that had shut in automatic reaction to see a kindly-looking woman in a paramedic's uniform kneeling beside her.
"Whoa there, Chloe," said the paramedic with a soft smile. "You surprised me. Go easy, okay? I need to do some checks before we move you anywhere. First, can you feel all of your limbs?"
Chloe gave a small nod. The initial agony was beginning to subside and she concentrated on taking small, even breaths, her mind beginning to clear. Neil..."That's good. Any really sharp pains?"
"No, everything just aches crazily," she mumbled. If he was close when–"Okay, can you move them around a little for me please?" asked the paramedic, breaking into Chloe's thought.
She obeyed, wincing as the movements made her body throb with fresh pain.
"Excellent," said the woman, patting Chloe's hand encouragingly. "I think we can be reasonably confident that you haven't broken anything serious, so I'd like to get you up on your feet. We have somewhere you can sit and regather your strength, and the church is providing drinks for survivors of the bomb blast. Okay?"
Chloe nodded again and slowly, painfully eased herself into a sitting position, using the paramedic's proffered hand for support. Standing up took more effort, but with help she managed to get to her feet. She stood for a moment, rocking unsteadily on her heels as she found her balance. I need to find him! "Neil..." muttered Chloe. "My boyfriend... he was on the phone nearby when the bomb went off. I need to find him."
The paramedic shook her head. "Not now," she said emphatically. "Right now we need to get you clear of the immediate blast area, and make sure your body has enough fluids. The police will direct your boyfriend to you, but only if they know who and where you are, and we are making a list of names over there." She pointed towards the church front, where a number of people in day-glo vests were passing out drinks to dazed members of the public huddled on the big flight of steps leading up to the church. "Okay?"
Chloe began to protest, but the woman was already moving her forward, and Chloe was too weak to resist. I hope he's okay. Please let him be okay."You were too far away to have been affected directly by the bomb," commented the paramedic, her arm around Chloe's waist as they walked, "but you seem to be pretty badly bruised. What happened?"
Chloe gazed into the distance for a moment, marshalling her thoughts before replying. "The crowd went crazy after the bomb exploded," she said, remembering the bright flash and sudden screams. "My mobile phone was knocked out of my hand, and then someone ran into me and I fell. There were people everywhere, and there was no way I could get up again. I would have been flattened. So I curled into as small a ball as possible to protect myself. No-one saw me down there, or if they did, they didn't care; they just ran into, or over, me. The next thing I remember, you were asking me my name."
"Well, you did the right thing. You can get seriously hurt, or worse, when a crowd panics like that." She shivered. "Not a good situation."
They reached the church steps, and Chloe gratefully accepted the woman's assistance to sit down. Cold and hard as it was, the concrete felt like a bed of roses to Chloe's aching muscles. She looked up with a nod of thanks as someone pressed a cup of water into her hands, and turned to the paramedic. "Thank you," she said.
The woman smiled, and Chloe was suddenly struck by how young she looked. She can't be more than a few years older than I am!"You're welcome," she replied, and stepped away to find another patient to attend to.
– – – – – – – –
Neil approached the police cordon strung around the immediate area of the blast and slowed to a stop, taking several deep breaths as he wound down from his run. He scanned those he could see, his keen, anxious eyes seeking a familiar figure, but to no avail. To his left, two paramedics were manhandling a stretcher carrying another moaning victim into an ambulance. Ahead of him firefighters stowed their hoses, having dealt with the last flames that had engulfed the source of the blast, the gutted wreck of which sat nearby. It was ironic, he reflected, that something like this should happen today, of all days. He remembered all too clearly what he had said to Chloe in the car less than an hour ago. "It's not like either of us need to worry about dying any time soon!" Bravo, Neil, and said with such conviction, eh? What a fool. Life was so fragile, a fact that had been driven home with all too sudden force. Neil could see the ring of scorched ground left by the ferocious explosion, the broken bodies having been removed long before he arrived at the scene. He bit his lip. She's fine, he reassured himself, not willing at this moment to consider any other possibility. You just haven't seen her yet. She's around here somewhere, probably helping the emergency services. That would be just like Chloe, to volunteer to help others after finding herself in the midst of something like this.
Neil closed his eyes tiredly. His arms ached to hold his girlfriend close, to know she was safe. Sometimes it isn't until you lose something that you realise how valuable it is to you. He'd taken Chloe for granted; it had become so normal to be with her that he had become lazy, he realised now, and he had ceased making an effort for her. The way their conversation had ended was a case in point. He should have taken the time to discuss the issue with her, for her sake; it was obviously something that was often on her mind. Instead, he had reacted to his own fear and had translated that into anger which he directed at Chloe. It had been a... childish reaction, an instinctive defence against something which made him feel acutely uncomfortable. Just what are you afraid of, Neil? he sneered at himself. Fear that God exists, and the consequences if He does, came the reply. Fear of what happens when I die. Fear of the unknown. So, Neil responded as a thought occurred to him, why not kill two birds with one stone? Get off your backside and actually work at your relationship with Chloe. You can start by telling her what you really think about death and the afterlife – you know, open up, be a little vulnerable. And in so doing, you can investigate God and judgement and everything else together, and just perhaps put your fears to rest once and for all. He nodded to himself. Yes, that is what he would do. Of course – his mood, which had begun to lighten, slumped again – you have to find her fir– "Excuse me, sir, may I help you?"
Neil jerked round, startled by the gruff voice, his eyes snapping open to see a middle-aged policeman standing the other side of the cordon.
"Ah, yes," replied Neil hastily, "I'm looking for my girlfriend. She was in the crowd when" – he took in the surroundings with a sweeping hand gesture – "this happened."
"Can I have a name?" asked the policeman. "My colleagues over there" – he jerked his thumb over his shoulder – "have been taking names of the survivors, could be that they've seen her. I can check for you if you like."
"That would be great, thank you." The man raised an eyebrow at Neil. "Oh, sorry," said Neil sheepishly, "it's Chloe. Chloe Templeton."
The policeman nodded. "What does she look like?" he asked.
"Um, good-looking, kinda blonde hair, about 5'7, full-ish figure."
Another nod. "Okay, sir, I'll see what we can do."
Neil sighed as the policeman retreated, and looked around again. Chloe, where are you?
– – – – – – – –
Chloe sat on the cold, concrete step, nursing a fresh cup of water as she watched the emergency services go about their work. Ambulance lights strobed and sirens wailed as the severely injured were rushed to hospital, the green of paramedics' uniforms mingling with the much brighter fluorescent yellow jackets of the police. The earlier chaos had settled somewhat, and men and women now moved with quick, efficient purpose rather than panic.
Neil, where are you? She regretted the loss of her mobile phone – it would have made things so much easier. One call would have been all she needed to locate him. Providing he's still alive, that is. Chloe swallowed the sudden lump in her throat, her eyes pricking with tears as an image of Neil's body, battered and broken, came to mind. She clenched her jaw and fiercely wiped away the tears. Enough sitting around. The young paramedic had sent over a policeman to take her full name, and he had reassured Chloe that the best thing for her would be to stay where she was; the emergency services would point Neil in her direction if he turned up looking for her. But Chloe was fed up of just sitting. She needed to do something.
She ignored the sudden bloom of pain as she rose to her feet and made her way gingerly down the steps. Neil. The last few months had been... troubling, but the abrupt realisation that she might have lost him forever brought a brilliant clarity to her thoughts, stripping away the surface frustrations and tensions to reveal what lay deep inside. For the first time Chloe understood why she felt so compelled to stay with Neil despite the slowly growing distance between them. Simply put, life would be rubbish without him. We have something good together, something too valuable to just give up without a fight. And if he doesn't see it, I'll do my damnest to make him see it. If I ever find him agai– She broke off her train of thought, her breath catching in her throat as she caught a glimpse of... There he is! Neil was standing the other side of the cordon across the street close to a police van, talking to a policeman. Chloe choked in tearful relief as she attempted to call out to her boyfriend but, as if possessed with a sixth sense, he looked up anyway, his face lighting up as he caught sight of her. He waved wildly, gesturing at the policeman–
Chloe's world went mad.
A second bomb, its twenty-minute timer triggered by the earlier bomb just before it exploded, detonated with a roar. The litter bin in which it had been hidden was no match for the expanding ball of incandescent gas, and shredded instantly into a hail of lethal shrapnel that scythed through the emergency service personnel gathered to assist those affected by the first blast.
Chloe screamed as Neil vanished within the cloud of smoke and flame, and without conscious thought broke into a run, a panic-fuelled surge of adrenaline blanking out the pain of her earlier injuries. She gasped as a powerful hand grabbed her arm, spinning her around to gaze into the face of a paramedic.
"No!" he commanded, his face wreathed in pain and grief, yet resolute. Chloe stared at him with wild eyes for a long moment, uncomprehending. "B-b-but... Neil..." she stammered.
The man shook his head vehemently. "No," he repeated. "Let the professionals deal with this; we have to clear the area as quickly as possible, and you'll only get in our way." More gently, "Come now, if your... boyfriend?" Chloe nodded. "If your boyfriend is injured, my colleagues" - a shadow passed over his face; paramedics had been working within the blast area and would evidently be found among the dead and wounded – "are the best ones to deal with the situation. Okay?" Chloe nodded again, and allowed the man to lead her back to the church steps.
Sirens wailed anew as the emergency services descended upon the area in force. Chloe sat huddled on a step once again, numb with fear and shock. I've just watched Neil die, right in front of me. The wind shifted, and she gagged as the acrid stench of burnt flesh and tarmac assailed her nostrils. Neil. The tears refused to come. Instead, Chloe stared into the distance, her mind barely registering what her eyes saw. Her thoughts were elsewhere, recalling memories from her relationship with Neil. The simple things were most prominent; long conversations with Neil and Sara in her house, meeting up at university with Neil daily for lunch, the little gifts he would leave on her doorstep. How his eyes lit up whenever she greeted him. His beautiful smile.
A smile she would never see again.
At last the tears began to flow and Chloe sagged, her head in her hands, as heavy sobs wracked her bruised body.
– – – – – – – –
Darkness. Pain. The smell of smoke.
Neil returned to consciousness slowly, as if being pulled out of a deep, dark well. He opened his eyes to find himself lying crumpled on his side, and rolled onto his back. Smoke billowed into the sky above him, and everything was quiet except for a distinct ringing tone. What the hell's that noise? he thought to himself, and shook his head to clear it. Bad idea. Pain lanced into his skull, forcing his eyes shut again. Geez, that hurts. I must have hit my head pretty bad. Vague memories filtered into his brain; an earsplitting bang, and then what felt like a sledgehammer slammed into his chest, throwing him against the bonnet of the police van he had been standing beside. Another bomb. Chloe... no, I saw her before it went off, she wasn't close to the blast, thank goodness. "Hey, you okay son?" said a muffled voice. Neil opened his eyes. My hearing's shot to pieces, he realised, seeing a dirt-streaked face a bare two feet from him, which I suppose accounts for the ringing too."I guess," he replied, and struggled to sit up. Gingerly he ran his hands over his ribs, checking for serious damage. Only bruising, thankfully. But it still hurts like hell. He felt his face. A few cuts, nothing major."You were lucky there," said the man, who Neil realised was a paramedic. "We've had people with pretty serious injuries who were standing not much closer than you were to the blast." The man smiled. "Looks like Someone's looking out for you." Neil gave him a curious look, then shrugged.
"Perhaps." Inwardly, he pondered the comment. Maybe, just maybe, there's some truth to that. His injuries were remarkably minor. "Thanks," he said, as the paramedic helped Neil to his feet.
"You're welcome. Look, you're obviously able to move under your own power. I'm gonna go find someone else who needs my help, okay?"
"Sure, and thanks again."
The man nodded in acknowledgement and left. Right, thought Neil, let's find my girl.
– – – – – – – –
Chloe looked up at the sound through teary eyes, her grief-stricken mind failing to register the identity of the speaker. She blinked hard as the figure approached her, the first flicker of recognition penetrating the fog of her sorrow like a lighthouse beacon, bright and clear. Neil? Chloe's mouth dropped open. He's alive! She staggered to her feet, ignoring her bruises, and made her way to him as fast as her body would allow.
Chloe cannoned into Neil's arms, making him gasp, but he was oblivious to the pain as he held her close and buried his face in her hair. The pounding in his head made it difficult to think, but a single thought forced its way through the mental haze. "Oh Chloe, I'm so sorry," he choked. "Please forgive me."
She didn't speak; she didn't need to. She simply clung to him with all her strength, her body heaving with silent sobs of relief as the grief and shock-induced adrenaline ebbed away.
For Neil, it was answer enough.
A/N Don't forget to read and review Stratiotes' version!