How did I get here?
This question plagued Adam's mind, running through it over and over again. Try as he may, he could find no clear answer. A month ago, he'd been living life the same way he'd been living it for the past 23 years. Everything had been perfect. Mundane, but perfect. He had Larisa, he had Jesse . . . Two of his best friends. He hadn't needed a psychologist. He'd been content with the routine of his life, even if Larisa was cheating on him.
Now he had no one. He'd pushed everyone away, because the only person he wanted was Evangeline. But she didn't want him, did she? No, she didn't. He couldn't blame her, though, because the first person he pushed away was her.
How did I get here?
It was around 9:30 PM, or maybe later. Adam didn't know for certain; he'd thrown his cellphone out of the car's window while driving and didn't have a watch. Regardless, everything seemed to have worked out in his favor. He reclined in the chair he sat in and gazed ahead.
Evangeline was fast asleep on her bed in the corner of the room. He'd almost wanted her to wake up as he used the key to her apartment. Getting in had been far too easy, with Eric replaced by a different doorman. Now he was in Evangeline's bedroom, in a chair by the windows. Though she'd kept them both open, he'd closed them when he entered, hoping that the lack of a draft would wake her. But it didn't.
When he entered her apartment, one of the first things he noticed was a strange smell. He couldn't distinguish what it was, but it wasn't pleasant. It reminded him of rotten eggs, but mixed with an air freshener. One of the stovetop's elements was on in the kitchen, but while he wanted to turn it off, he decided not to. It didn't matter to him whether it was on. He wondered, though, why she'd turned it on. Hadn't she said it was broken? She must have spaced and forgotten about it. Still, he let it be. It didn't seem broken to him, anyway, if the pilot light was on. The small blue flame, albeit fragile-looking, would only help him.
How did I get here?
The lighter he'd bought was a golden Zippo, one that he had to flip closed to extinguish. As he sat in Evangeline's chair, he flicked it on and snapped it shut, on and shut, on and shut. It was a tiny flame, sure, but not one he'd underestimate. On its own, he worried it might not be enough. But he doubted that'd be a problem.
Evangeline slept on her stomach, head turned toward him and right arm shoved under the pillow. By watching her for about ten minutes he'd learned that she was an especially fidgety sleeper. Every two minutes or so she'd adjust her position, but somehow she remained in a deep sleep. In truth, he almost envied her; how long had it been since he'd had a good night's rest?
On and shut the lighter went again. His hope was that the audible flicking noise it made each time would wake her. But it didn't.
How did I get here?
Though he hadn't even opened the can yet, the smell of gasoline was already pungent in the air. Every time the fire sprouted from the lighter in his hands, he tensed, anticipating a blaze to start. He figured he'd get over it after the first few times that nothing happened, but still the tiny flame unnerved him.
He'd taken care in buying the gasoline and lighter separately, making his anticipated two stops into three. If he hadn't, though, he could only imagine how a clerk would react, seeing him ask for both. Would they still have sold them to him, despite the negative connotations? He wasn't sure, but he hadn't been willing to risk it.
Evangeline shifted, curling up into a fetal position with her back to the wall. Finally Adam sighed and stood up. He picked up the gas can at his feet and twisted off the cap. The scent of gasoline intensified tenfold, but he found it comforting somehow. It suffocated him, taking place of the oxygen in his vicinity, but that wasn't a bad feeling for him. He wondered if he could get high off of this. Not that he wanted to, but it might be nice.
He trudged around the bedroom, pouring gasoline onto the carpet. It poured over his boots, dampening the bottom of his pant legs. When he'd created a wet circle around Evangeline's bed, he started pouring it onto the sheets, but was careful not to get it on her. Then, for good measure, he doused the chair he'd been sitting in, too. All the while he hoped the splashing sound the gasoline made would wake her up. But it didn't.
All of a sudden, he found himself thinking about the idea he'd scrapped before everything went wrong. He'd spent all this time seeing himself as the man lured away by the spider, Evangeline being the spider. That was wrong, wasn't it? The tragic hero wasn't a man, nor was the antagonist a woman. He'd been the spider all along, luring Evangeline into his trap. Now she was fighting him, but he wouldn't let her leave. He'd wrap her in a web of flesh and eat her alive with the violent embrace of an inferno.
If Dr. Frost was right; if Evangeline, so similar to his beloved little sister, was only a figment of his imagination, then this was his only chance to repent. He'd left Abby to die in the fire he made. So now he'd make a new fire, but this time he'd hold her close and go with her, as he should've all those years ago. If he was wrong, and Evangeline was real . . . Well, at least they'd die together.
The train might not have been real, but this fire will be. Either it'll kill me or return me to the real world. I'll accept whichever I'm allowed.
He dropped the gasoline can to the floor without care. It landed on the carpet with a thump and fell onto its side, leaking the remaining liquid onto one of the bedposts. Even this sound did little to stir Evangeline from her sleep. Standing beside her, looking down at her beautiful sleeping face, he held up the lighter . . . and then his eyes filled up with tears. Emotion seized him all at once, and he bit his lip to prevent himself from sobbing.
Was it guilt he felt? A worry that he might be wrong about Evangeline—that he might be about to kill an innocent girl? A fear of dying himself? He didn't know what the cause was, but he cried anyway.
The fumes in the room were starting to make him light-headed. Would he pass out if he stayed in here for too long? He didn't have time to find out, so he shook his head and got a grip. Then he turned his head to the ceiling.
"By the sweat of my brow," he began in a low voice, "I will eat my food until I return to the ground, since from it I was taken. For dust I am"—he looked back down at Evangeline—"and to dust I will return."
The hand he held the lighter up in was quivering. He lit it anyway. When the room didn't burst into an immediate inferno, he snapped the Zippo shut and took a breath of relief. He hadn't realized how scared he was until that moment.
Should I stop now? I could wake Evangeline up and we could get away from here. I could warn someone about the gasoline.
He didn't know what to do. So he searched for an answer on Evangeline's sleeping face. She looked so at peace, content that she'd wake up and everything would be as she'd left it. That she'd wake up at all. The fire consuming her would wake her so, with agony as all the hairs on her body burst into flames, burning her alive.
No, I . . . I can't do this. Abby, I'm sorry. I can't do this.
Adam pocketed the lighter and thought about how to wake Evangeline without scaring her. There was no way she'd expect him to wake her up, especially if she didn't recognize him anymore. He considered leaving and turning on the fire alarm in the hallway. That'd not only wake her up (he hoped), but he'd have to do it anyway to evacuate the building.
He left Evangeline's bedroom door open, but closed the front door as he left. With slow steps he made his way down the hall, toward the little red fire alarm trigger.
What's happened to me? I almost killed her. Not only am I a terrible husband, but now I've broken into an apartment and tried to set it on fire!
He knew he'd never forgive himself for what he'd almost done. But at least once she left that apartment, she'd be safe. Maybe she'd never even know it was him who poured the gasoline.
There was a plastic case over the alarm that he lifted up. As he stared at the trigger, he realized he'd never pulled a fire alarm before. He supposed there had to be a first time for everything. Before pulling it, though, he stopped himself.
If he backed out now, he'd never be able to make it up to Abby for what he did. His poor little sister would be all alone; he'd never die the way he was supposed to—the way she had. But he couldn't bear to bring harm to Evangeline that way. He loved her. Rather than die with her, he'd save her like he should've saved Abby. It wasn't what he'd intended—rather, the complete opposite—but it would have to work.
The voice was both near and far, yet Adam froze regardless. He couldn't tell where it was coming from, whether it was real or in his head, but Abby's little voice stunned him. It sounded the same way he remembered it. His heart sunk hearing it again.
Then, Evangeline's scream, muffled by the walls. He whipped his head around to look back at her apartment. From the crack under the door billowed smoke that made its way toward the ceiling in a lazy wave.
What? What happened? Why is there smoke? I didn't light anything! I didn't start a fire!
Then it hit him.
No! The pilot light!
"Evangeline!" He ripped the alarm handle down and the blaring noise of all the bells going off at once pierced his ears. Once they'd started, he took off running down the hall, back toward Evangeline's apartment.
How had it ignited so fast? In fact, how had it ignited at all? There weren't enough fumes to reach the pilot light; he hadn't brought that much gasoline. There had to be another reason. As he ran, he figured it out.
The strong smell when I entered . . . It wasn't eggs; it was propane! There must've been a gas leak somewhere!
Immediately a new worry struck him: if the fire continued, how long before something exploded? His hope was that nothing of the sort would happen, but he didn't want to wait and find out. He had to act fast.
When he tore open the door to Evangeline's apartment, he flinched at the heat that blew out at him. The kitchen, front of the apartment, was a fireball. He could hardly believe the sight; when he'd left only a minute or two ago, everything was fine. Now everything was on fire.
Evangeline screamed again, causing him to squint past the rising smoke to see that the fire had spread into the bedroom.
"Evangeline!" Throwing caution to the wind, he lunged into the flames and made a mad dash for her room. The heat was too much; if he wasn't on fire, it sure felt like he was. But he pushed through and jumped in.
Evangeline had curled up in the corner, sitting on her pillow. The foot of her bed was on fire, as was the exposed side of it. The chair and most of the floor were also lit up. Adam looked down and saw that, while he'd ran through fire, his pant legs were still too damp to ignite. The heat would change that yet if he stood in one place too long.
"Help me!" screamed Evangeline over the now-faint sound of alarm bells.
Adam pulled off his jacket and slapped it down over the flames at the foot of the bed. This put them out for the moment, so he reached his hand out toward her. "I'm here! Hurry!"
The girl got onto her knees and crawled toward him. As soon as she could take his arm, she did, allowing him to pull her close. He picked her up and she latched herself to his front like a child. With the adrenaline he felt, she seemed lighter than she was, so carrying her was no issue.
"Let's go! I'll get you out"—he spoke as he stepped closer to the bedroom door, but cut off when a huge flame erupted from the stovetop. The burning cloud soared toward them. As Evangeline screamed, Adam thought fast and kicked the bedroom door shut. He slammed himself against it; when the fire struck, it felt like something heavy pounding at it. "Shit!"
"What do we do?" Evangeline yelled in panic. "What do we do?"
There wasn't anything to do. The only way out wasn't safe, the smoke was growing thicker. The bedroom was on fire and even if it wasn't, the windows on the other side led only to a three-storey drop straight down. They were both going to die, and it was all his fault.
"I'm sorry," Adam rasped, voice filled with regret. "I'm so sorry."
The girl in his arms looked at him. On her surprised face was a look that revealed more than her confusion at his apology. It showed him that she understood that there wasn't any hope to be had. Her pale pink lips began to quiver, light blue eyes filling up with tears. She bit her lower lip before holding him tight and beginning to cry.
Adam held her tighter too, nuzzling his face into her soft platinum hair that glowed orange. It still smelled like pansies. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Everything had led up to this. But wasn't this what he'd wanted, coming here with gasoline and a lighter? It was even better now; at least he'd tried to save her. It made more sense. It fit better with his plan.
He could feel the heat. That felt like proof enough to him that he'd been wrong; he was in the real world, or at least, he was now. He was in the real world, and he was about to die. Evangeline was about to die. He'd never see Jesse again. Never see Larisa again. Never see Evangeline smile again. Never make another video, never get to meet any fans, never see the sunrise, never anything ever again.
I won't stand for it!
The heat was ramping up. Seeing grew more and more difficult with each passing second, never mind breathing. The flames had crawled up the walls and were now licking at the ceiling. Sooner or later, flashover would ignite everything in the room that wasn't on fire, including them. If they were going to get out, there was only one way: they had to take a risk.
Still holding Evangeline, Adam dashed across the room, trying to avoid the fire. Then he put her down on her feet and pushed open one of the windows. Smoke flew out as if outside were a vacuum. The fire around them intensified with new oxygen. Time was ticking.
"What are you doing?" Evangeline shouted.
Adam looked down at her. "You need to jump."
"What? I'll die!"
"If you do, it's better than burning to death! But if you land on your feet and don't tense up, you might survive."
Evangeline, quivering, shook her head.
"It's the only way! I wouldn't tell you to do it if it wasn't! Now jump!"
She squealed in fright and uncertainty, but allowed him to help her climb out.
"Hang down and push yourself from the wall! Remember, don't tense your legs!"
She dangled out the window, hands gripping the sill. Once she was there, he went to the other window, pushed it open as well, and climbed out himself. When he turned his head to the left, he saw her still hesitating there.
"Are you ready?" he asked her.
"I don't wanna," she cried. "I'm scared!"
It sounded like there were people outside, below them; people that had escaped the building already. They were loud, likely watching as they dangled. Maybe they'd catch Evangeline or help to break her fall somehow.
"We'll fall together, okay?" he assured her. "Everything will be all right!"
Though still on the border of hysteria, Evangeline nodded her head.
"All right, on three! One! Two! Three!"
Both of them kicked the wall and let go of the window's ledges, pushing themselves away and beginning a free fall downward. Evangeline screamed with the crowd below. Adam tried his best to follow his own advice, but he was falling with his back to the ground and couldn't adjust himself.
He hit the ground hard, much harder than he'd expected. His back took the brunt of the fall. For a fraction of a second he thought he'd be okay, but then he felt the back of his head slam into the pavement. In an instant, everything went black. All he could hear were the distorted sounds of people shouting over one another.
It took a few seconds for him to be able to open his eyes again. When he did, he saw the people gathered around him. They were mouthing things, but he couldn't concentrate.
"Eve," he breathed, able only to hear himself. "Eve . . . Is she . . . okay? T-tell me she's okay . . ."
The closest man to him looked up and over his shoulder. Then he looked back down and nodded. Adam painfully looked where he had; there was a tree. Evangeline had landed in it. People were trying to climb up its base to reach her, but it seemed like they'd have to wait for help to arrive.
His hearing returned bit by bit. Someone said, "Hang in there! Help's on the way!"
All he said in response was, "Evangeline . . . Evangeline . . . Help Evangeline first . . ."
He was able to hear her moaning in pain over everyone else. Yet somehow, he knew she'd live. That was good enough for him. He let his head fall back and gazed up at the sky.
Flames were following the black billow of smoke up into the air, bursting forward from the windows above like a sweltering tornado. In a way, the sight was captivating. It was like watching a train wreck. There was a certain beauty to it when watching from a safe distance.
He'd managed to get Evangeline away from the fire. He'd saved her, like he should've saved Abby.
I did it. She's safe. She's safe . . .
He felt so tired. His vision began to blur; though he tried to blink it clear, he couldn't. His eyes refused to focus. He must've hit his head pretty hard. On top of everything else, though, to his surprise he felt little pain. He didn't feel anything other than a faint ache in his head and a powerful urge to sleep.
I'll just rest my eyes for a bit . . . When I wake up I'll be better.
Adam closed his eyes. The embrace of sleep came fast. It was a nice feeling, like going to bed after a hard day. That was exactly how it was, wasn't it? Today had been a long, hard day. He'd driven all over the city and jumped out of a third-storey window; easily the most eventful day he'd had in years. Now he needed to rest. Rest was bliss.
Have I made it up to you, Abby? I saved her . . . I saved you.
He no longer felt guilty about his intentions. Rather, he felt contented that he did the right thing in the end. Behind his closed eyelids, his recent life played out for him like a movie. Once he saw the café he and Evangeline had met at—her beautiful smile directed only at him—he stopped focusing and allowed himself to slip into a deeper sleep. Even if he never woke up from it, he didn't mind. He'd never felt so comfortable, after all. What he needed was a nice long slumber.
"I'm happy we're together now," said Eve, arms wrapped around one of his. She reached over and adjusted one of the lapels of his crisp black suit. Onto the white scarf draped over his shoulders it went. "We'll never be apart again, will we?"
Adam gazed at himself in the mirror. He didn't wonder how he'd returned to this scene. Instead, he remained composed. He reached up and slicked back his hair before looking down at Eve. She gazed up at him, wearing the same slim brown dress he'd seen her wear in this moment before. There was love in her eyes the color of the pansy stuck in her barrette. Pleased, Adam beamed at her with the same dorky grin that she loved.
"Never," he assured. Then he pecked her on the lips and smiled at their reflections. They had a long night ahead of them; a night together that would never end. He could be content with that, as long she stayed by his side.