First draft of a short story I wrote for Intermediate Fiction this year, based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Won't be uploading any of the revisions. Enjoy!
"Paula, get up this instant or you'll be late for work!"
Astrid's sharp, nasally voice cut through my slumber like a rusty saw. I scrubbed my face further into the itchy cotton of my pillow and hoped I'd turned invisible in the night; Astrid can't force the morning on me if she can't find me.
"Paula, really, why must you be so difficult every single morning? I'm serious, Paula, if you don't get up now then you won't have time for breakfast and you'll starve all day at work." Astrid's voice was much closer now, and I could feel the thin mattress dip under her weight by my knees. I peeked my eyelids open at her. She had a point about breakfast.
"I see your eyes, Paula! Get up!" She smacked my blanketed thigh and huffed out of our room, bumping her elbows on the doorframe without a deliberate care as she tied her long braid up on her head.
I groaned but lifted my body from the bed, fumbling my way over to the wash basin and drawers. I didn't take nearly as long as Astrid to get ready, so I made it to the dining table just as breakfast was being served. Mrs. Weber, Astrid's mom and runner of the boarding house, set a bowl of porridge in front of me and a loaf of bread in the center of the table. A few of the other boarders were already seated or filing in, a colorful crew of workers and immigrant families. The Mezzuli children flicked bits of their meal at each other's faces before we even said grace.
"Come on, Paula, hurry up and eat or else Cordelia won't wait for us!" Astrid whined, swallowing the last of her porridge and taking her dish to the kitchen.
Mrs. Weber pinched her daughter under her elbow, her silent signal for don't be a nag. Astrid huffed again and grumbled about grabbing something from our room. I scooped the last bit of my bread slice into my mouth and returned my dish as well.
" ," I mumbled, ducking my head. Mrs. Weber smiled at me and pinched me under my elbow, her silent signal for you're welcome and be good. Sometimes I wondered how such a talkative, annoying girl could come from such a quiet, nice woman. I smiled back and scurried after Astrid to leave for work.
My friend was finishing her coat buttons when I walked back into our bedroom. She tossed me a glare and my own coat. The brown wool was a bit too much for the rising March temperatures, but it was also pretty worn and a bit small at this point, so the warmth was moot.
"Cordelia probably won't even be at the corner anymore," Astrid fumed as we made our way into the busting street. Working men and women hustled around each other in every direction, headed for their respective jobs. Every once and a while a wealthy person could be spotted passing by, their clean suits and colorful hats standing out against the sea of brown and gray lower class.
"Of course she's still there. She can't physically remove herself from Dodger unless we force her," I giggled, taking Astrid's arm in mine.
She cracked a grin. "I don't see why she can't find a more respectable oaf to love. Honestly, he's thicker than his stack of morning papers."
I was still cackling at the newsboy's expense when we rounded Washington Square Park towards him and Cordelia. The vivacious boy stood two heads taller than our already tall friend, so they were always easy to find on the crowded street corner.
"Heya girls," Dodger called, unslinging his arm from Cordelia's shoulders. "Almost a little late, aren't ya?"
Astrid ripped her arm back from me. "See? Even Dodger thinks you're lazy and slow!"
"Do you see how mean she is to me, Cordy?" I wailed, hugging her to me.
"My goodness, you two are worse than my brothers, and they're four. And don't call me Cordy," Cordelia sighed, hugging me nonetheless before pushing me back at Astrid. I grabbed her for support, which she gave until she realized she was helping me and grunted me off of her.
"Let's go, Cordelia. We have to get to the factory," Astrid stuck her nose in the air and walked a couple feet ahead, turning for Cordelia to follow.
"Actually, I'm not going into work today. I'm…sick. Dodger is going to walk me home as soon as his stack is sold," Cordelia replied, forcing a couple lame coughs into her hand. Dodger had to visibly bite his cheek not to laugh.
Astrid and I shared a frown. "Cordelia, you can't skip work. They'll fire you if you don't show up."
"I've never been absent or late to the factory in the whole two years we've worked there. Just tell them that I'm really sick and contagious. It's only once and I'll be back to work tomorrow. It'll be perfectly fine," she assured.
Astrid and I stared at each other. I could tell that she wanted to argue with Cordelia and make her come to work with us, but we could both agree that the girl had some good points. I sighed and broke our gaze, turning back to Cordelia. "Fine, I'll tell the boss. But you owe me."
She squealed and hugged Dodger, then me, then schooled herself and let out another pitiful cough and thanks. I rolled my eyes at her and bade the lovers farewell, rejoining arms with Astrid as we walked away. She pinched me under my elbow for letting Cordelia get away with this, so I elbowed her in the ribs.
The Asch building loomed over us, ten stories tall, as we fell in line with the many women and girls working there with us. We squished into the stairwell and marched it up to the top three floors. Astrid, Cordelia, and I were stationed on the ninth, and I head straight for Mr. Lowe when we arrived. I explained to him about Cordelia, apologizing most sincerely on her behalf. The stern, cauliflower-looking man was not pleased, but he didn't say anything about her being in trouble, so I hightailed it away from him and to my bench across from Astrid.
An older woman, Dolly, sat to my right and reeked of cigarettes. Cordelia usually sat to my left, but her seat was cold beside me and I could see through her spot to the next girl over, Kate, who was barely fourteen.
Mr. Lowe gave the obligatory speech about swiftness and quality and Triangle brand values and how we are all replaceable, then walked out to join the rest of management and workers on the floor above. He would come back every once and a while to check on us, but mostly he didn't care about anything but getting his paycheck. Honestly, that was the attitude of most of us, except we had to actually work for our wages.
As the work day began and went on, the factory got unbearably hot. A new window would be opened every hour, but it didn't help much with the hot sewing machines crowding all available space or the women who would sneak cigarettes in their lapels and create a smelly haze in the air.
We got a half-hour lunch break at noon, which was really just a great sharing of bread and some other morsel. Today some of the younger girls had licorice, and Astrid commented how jealous Cordelia was going to be when we told her and how she was going to wish she'd come to work today.
No one told us about the fire. We knew because it was here, eating the Greene Street stairwell doors. The heat tripled, even the floor was hot, and suddenly the whirs of machines couldn't cover the sounds of screaming any more. Soon everyone was screaming, Astrid was screaming, I was screaming. My skin felt it was melting to my muscle and I rushed the Washington Place stairwell door. I rammed with thirty other sweaty, crazy-eyed women against the heavy doors, but they were locked, we knew. They always locked the doors; they thought it helped prevent theft but we knew they just wanted to look through our purses, but they're management so they can do whatever they want and we're powerless. God, this door won't budge and we are so powerless.
Even over my cries I could hear the screams of people from the floors below and above and on the street and, in this mass of women against the door, whichever girls were getting literally crushed or trampled by our efforts. Bones cracked as loud as the flames. I shoved Dolly and Mrs. Reihmond off my melting back and ran with another mass to Greene Street fire escape. I didn't even make it half way across the room before I heard a sickening, metallic wrenching and more screaming. The heads of women I'd been able to see descending the fire escape dropped away and now all I could see was my own vomit covering my shoes. I couldn't tell what was my shoes and what was my feet because the scraps of fabric littering the floor were engulfed in flame and melting my shoes to me.
What do I do? What would Astrid tell me to do? Where was Astrid? My hair whipped my face as I turned in circles searching for her. Finally I could see Astrid's falling bun as she pushed and pinched her way towards the front of the crowd in front of the freight elevators, so I ran to join her. It looked like some women had successfully gotten on the elevator, but the heat coming from the forced-open shaft was causing our faces to drip and soon we could hear the car grind to a halt. A couple women leapt out onto the cables and tried to slide down. They had to be cooked by the time they splat on the top of the car. Several women jumped down the shaft. The smoke was getting too thick now and I couldn't find Astrid anymore. What if Astrid jumped, what if she was cooked and splat. Bile rose in my throat and stung my tongue, as well as the skirt of the girl I pushed against.
"Paula, hey Paula!" A shrill voice sobbed against my arm. I felt her tug and was looking right at her but somehow Kate's face was completely unknown. All I saw was a girl with fire in her hair. "Paula, this way!"
My blood drummed in my ears as I let the girl drag me towards the windows. She was speaking to me I think but my skirt was burning and I was so, so dizzy. Kate pulled me up on to the sill with her and through the rushing smoke I could see girls on every sill, packs of me and Kates crying into the air, falling splat on the sidewalk in flaming hugs.
There were so many people. Everyone was screaming and I couldn't tell which human ants were dead splat or alive watching. Horse-drawn fire trucks were riding in, shooting water at the building but to no avail, their ladders and hoses were stories too short. They tried to catch the jumpers but they fell right through their nets and trampolines and sheets. Dead weight.
Were any of those ants Cordelia and Dodger? Are they okay? Did Cordelia come in to work today? Is she crushed or burned or splat? Kate's nails dug into me, pinching me under the elbows, and she gripped me and spread her fire to my own hair. My skin was melting to muscle and my shoes to my feet and I was so, so dizzy. The world was spinning, everything but Kate, who was screaming into my chest as the world whizzed past her fire-hair like we were descending to Hell.
Let me know what you think :)