You knew this was leading up to something, right, and not just me telling stories about college?
I started seeing more of Joey around the dorm after that, apparently because now he knew who I was so he wasn’t barging in on a stranger by coming over to hang with Pete. Joey was a really interesting guy. He was half Hispanic and half Italian, and he seemed to take more after the Italian side of the family than he did his mother’s side. He talked with his hands a lot – stereotypical, I know, but he did. He’d met Pete at the local comic book store on a game night that hadn’t had a very good turnout and they’d discovered they were living in the same dorm and became buddies. And his roommate, coincidentally, was Dave, the worried guy from the library. They’d been roomies for two semesters, but due to conflicting schedules Joey and Dave didn’t get to see much more of each other than Pete and I did. We had all managed to hang out a few times in spite of that, though, and it had been nice.
I was enjoying a rare afternoon free of both work and classes – one of my professors was out sick – on the day the getting-to-know-you distance between the four of us closed with a bang. Literally.
I was in our dorm’s ground-floor rec room, i.e. the place where all the vending machines were, when all of a sudden I heard a distant sort of whump sound and the building sort of shivered, and then the fire alarm started going off. I forgot about getting my soda and ran out into the lobby. Our security guard was already out there, and he waved me to the front door. “Anyone else back there?” I shook my head. “Okay, get out and get way back. All of you too!” he yelled at the trickle of students which started flowing out of the fire stairs. More security guys came in and propped open the doors, herding people out. “Get out and stay back! Just stay out of the way until we sound the all-clear.”
I let the trickle of people carry me with it out the door, and then we all stood around on the grass and watched more people come out. People were saying it was just a fire drill, but then the smoke started to make an appearance and a fire truck pulled up followed by an ambulance and then another fire truck. They were all just sort of standing around, though, and although a couple of firefighters went jogging into the building they came right back out again. The smoke, coming from an upper floor it looked like, was getting thicker, and more people were showing up to see what was going on even as the trickle of people coming out of the dorm slowed and then stopped – the security guys were the last of it, and as I was going back over there, starting to feel panicked now, I heard one of them tell the firefighters that nobody else was coming out, but they weren’t sure if the building was clear or not yet.
That had me approaching the nearest clump of firefighters. “One of my friends is still in there,” I said once I got their attention. “We’re both on the third floor…”
“He’s probably out,” one of them assured me. “Go check the crowd, kid.”
“No, he’s not,” I insisted. “He was asleep, and he’s taking cold medicine, someone’s going to have to go in and get him…”
“We’ll be going in just as soon as we know what we’re dealing with,” another one told me. “Just go sit down somewhere and wait.”
“Yeah, don’t come back over here,” the first one ordered, then turned to one of his buddies. “We need to get a perimeter set up, you think the school has barricades?”
There wasn’t really anything else I could do, so I started to walk away like they’d told me. And that was when I heard that same guy respond to a question from someone else about what if the student was still in there with a snort. “Oh, the one who’s taking ‘cold medicine’? I don’t risk my fucking life in this job to rescue some damn stupid druggie. If he sleeps through it, oh well, one less.”
There are advantages to blending in, you know. And to being on the short side. Being easily overlooked in a crowd is one of them, on both counts. I was already going in the lobby doors when I think someone noticed me – I heard a yell, anyway – but then I was inside and there was smoke everywhere. I pulled the neck of my t-shirt up to cover my nose and mouth, sort of wearing it like a hoodie. That didn’t help me see…but after an entire semester of walking the halls in this damned building while I waited for Dickie to let me back into our room, I knew the goddamn dorm like the back of my hand. I didn’t need to see.
The stairs were, as I’d suspected they would be, almost smoke-free. I pelted up to the third floor as fast as I could, took a deep breath, and dove into the smoke to find Joey and Dave’s room. Again, like the back of my fucking hand – I went right to it. I could actually see the fire, though, and the smoke smelled nasty, sort of chemically and scratchy at the back of my throat, so I quickly got out the key Pete had passed off to me before he’d gone to class and let myself in. The smoke was much less inside the room, and of course Joey was sound asleep, still. I grabbed him and shook him, and then I screamed in his ear. “DAMMIT JOEY, GET UP! FIRE!”
He wiggled, winced a little because I was right in his ear and I was loud, and then he sniffed and opened his eyes. They widened when he saw the smoke hanging in the air. “Wha…”
I grabbed his arm and hauled him upright, and he didn’t fight me when I pulled him up and threw his arm over my shoulders and started dragging him to the door, only pausing to get him to shove his feet into his furry purple slippers. I knew the fire had to be getting closer, but we weren’t jumping out of a third-floor window so the stairs were the only way to go. Thinking fast, I grabbed a t-shirt that was draped over the back of a chair – I thought it looked like one of Dave’s – and pulled it over his head, then pulled mine up again and out the door we went.
Acoustic ceiling tiles don’t burn all at once like wood; they smolder first, like wool or charcoal. Which is a safety thing, supposedly, but ours were putting out more and different smoke and it was thicker than the other stuff. I forced Joey to bend over and dragged him over to the stairs, then into the stairwell, and I stayed partially in front of him all the way down just in case he lost his balance.
The lobby where I’d spent a pretty nice, quiet Christmas was starting to look sort of rough now. Lots of smoke, parts of the ceiling sagging and crumbling – more smoldering acoustic tiles, I figured the fire must have gotten into the space between the floors or something – but I knew where I was at and we were out the door before anything bad could happen. Joey was more awake now, and coughing more too, but I kept pulling because I knew we needed to get as far away from the building as possible. Paramedics appeared; one of them separated me from Joey, and I grabbed his arm. He yanked his arm away and glared, but I held up the other thing I’d grabbed in Joey and Dave’s room: The leftover-from-Christmas bottle of nighttime cold and flu I’d given Pete to give to Joey a couple of days before. “It’s not all the smoke, he has the flu or something. He’s taking this, that’s why he didn’t wake up when the alarm went off.”
He took the bottle, glare going away. “Well shit,” he said. “Thanks for thinking of that. I’ll keep the bottle with him so the docs know it’s in his system.”
I smiled, and then once he turned back around I pulled my very best disappearing act – I could see a pissed-off fireman stomping our way, and this day was shitty enough without me going to jail. Disappearing into the chaos of students and faculty and emergency vehicles was easy enough, and once I was sure I was safe I flopped down on my back in the grass and just breathed, trying to slow it down, throwing my arm across my eyes because the sun was in them. Everybody was safe. All my friends had either gotten out or hadn’t been in. I’d probably just lost everything I owned, but supposedly there was some kind of insurance on the dorms – no idea if it covered students’ personal property or not, but hopefully it did.
After a while someone sat down next to me, and I uncovered one eye; it was Dave, and he was holding out a bottle of water. I sat up and took it from him, unscrewed the cap and drained half of it. “Dave, I love you, man.”
“They’re handing them out, I thought you’d probably want one.” He was frowning. “Any idea what started it?”
I shook my head. “I was down getting a coke, I heard a noise and the walls sort of shook…and then the alarm started going off and the security guys started chasing everyone out. Everyone thought it was a drill, but then the smoke started and the fire department showed up a couple of minutes later.” I capped the water bottle and rolled it between my palms. “Um…did they get everyone else out?”
“From what I heard, yeah. They were kind of hanging back, but then some fucking idiot went running in there and dragged his buddy out so they had to go in after that.” I winced, not looking at him. “When I came over here, the dean was out there screaming at the fire chief and a whole bunch of people were pissed off.” He shrugged. “I’m sure that’ll be all over the news by tonight, whatever it was. Pete’s with Joey, by the way – they aren’t taking him anywhere, but the paramedic wanted to keep him where they could see him until his cold medicine wore off some more. And yeah, they think he has the flu too, so we’ve got another week of pitiful to deal with.”
I snorted, which made me cough just a little. “Well, only if they don’t send everyone home. The other dorms are maxed already, and I’m not sure any of us have any stuff left – the fire was right down the hall from your room, and it looked like it had already gotten between the floors too if the way the ceiling tiles in the lobby were coming apart was any indication.” He gave me a look. “Hey, it’s not like I could have come and found you guys first – I went to tell one of the firefighters about Joey, and then he turns around and tells his buddy he’s not risking his life for some druggie. I saw a chance to get past them and I took it.”
“Did you ever.” Pete plopped down on the other side of me, holding his own bottle of water. “Joey is snoring, I told the paramedics I’d come back for him in a little bit. And it was someone’s cheap-ass meth attempt that blew up, fried their room and started the fire. They got it out, some of us might still have stuff and some of us might not, they aren’t real sure right now but they’re going to be sending in official-type people to collect everything room by room. Everyone knows they’re looking for more drugs and shit while they’re at it, but as long as I get my stuff back I don’t really care.”
“Who was cooking?” Dave wanted to know.
“No idea, but I know it was a girl and she’s dead – room was fried, remember? They’re hunting down her roommate now, apparently someone thinks that was a team project.”
“Well, it would kind of have to be, since they were sharing the room.” I re-capped my water and stretched back out on the grass. “You know, for such a shit day…it’s kind of pretty out.”
Pete snorted and drank some of his water. “I hope you still think so when we’re camping out here tonight.”
“They won’t make us do that,” Dave said, rolling his eyes. “They’ll probably stuff everyone into a hotel tonight, or into the gym…”
“There’s a game, no they won’t.”
“Okay, then into a hotel or in the common areas of the other two dorms. For a while, anyway.”
“Yeah, that would only last a few days, a week at most,” Pete agreed. “And then what, you think they’d call the semester early and send us all home?”
I yawned. “I certainly hope not, but probably. They aren’t…going to get this sorted out in a week or two, you know. And there’s not room for all of us on campus.”
Pete was nodding. “Yeah, they could send everyone home and switch us all to telecourses so we can finish the semester. That wouldn’t be too bad, I guess.”
Crap but I was tired. “Speak for yourself.”
“I was. Don’t want to go home?”
I snorted, waved an aimless hand toward the smoldering dorm. “That was my home.”
He rolled his eyes, but Dave got a funny look on his face. “Danny,” he said slowly. “Are you feeling okay?”
I rolled my eyes right back and sat up again. “I’m just tired.”
“Well, you did get a lot of exercise today…”
Dave scowled and waved at Pete to shut up. He reached around me and grabbed my wallet out of my back pocket; I just blinked at him, because he was acting weird. He looked inside the wallet and then held it out to Pete. “Notice anything familiar about that address?”
Pete took it, and his eyes widened. “That’s…”
“Proof that our little Danny is capable of bullshitting the DMV, yes.” He pointed a finger at me when I opened my mouth to protest that. “Nope, as long as you have to look up at both of us, you’re little and that’s it – Joey doesn’t count, everyone has to look up at him. And you’re tired because you sucked in a bunch of smoke and your adrenaline high is wearing off, dumbass, you’re crashing.” Pete tossed him my wallet, already climbing back to his feet. “Soda,” Dave told him. “Not diet, either – he needs the sugar.”
“Yes sir, Dr. Montoya.”
“Actually, Dr. Montoya is my dad. And my grandpa, too.” Dave grinned. “We’re one of those families. My big sister’s already in med school, but I told Dad at Christmas that I’d rather do research and he said cool and then we watched a scientist-saves-the-world movie together and heckled the errors. As long as I don’t become a sex therapist he’s happy.” Pete laughed and took off; I raised an eyebrow. “My cousin Rudy. He’s…strange, we’re not sure he’s in it for the right reasons. Grandpa has someone keeping an eye on his practice, just in case.”
I grinned at him through another yawn. “That is so cool – that you all work together like that, I mean, not that your cousin is a future tabloid scandal in the making.”
“Oh, he won’t be if Grandpa has anything to say about it, believe me. He’s not a hardass or anything, but he’s got a big thing about not embarrassing the family.” He raised an eyebrow of his own. “So, when’d they kick you out?”
Damn. “Around the middle of senior year.”
“Were they serious or just temporarily pissed?”
“Oh, Dad was serious.” Had he ever been. “I got a letter from his lawyer the day after my eighteenth birthday – he sent it to the school – saying he’d legally disowned me. It had a restraining order in it, if I try to contact anyone in the family or deliberately get within a hundred yards of them I go to jail. Not that we had very much family to begin with, but I guess he was just covering all his bases.” I dropped back down on the grass and looked up at the sky; except for the smoke drifting by, it was calm and blue and pretty. “Wasn’t a very big town, so I had to find someone to crash with who was far enough away that I wouldn’t run into Mom or Dad accidentally. Had to change my mailing address, get a paid mailbox, find a new job I could get to without a car. I managed to keep my laptop, and a bag full of clothes. I worked two jobs that summer to get a bus ticket out here – luckily the college had already accepted me and I had my letter, coming here got me out of town and out of the state for good.”
He blinked at me. “What about your boyfriend?”
Of course he’d guessed the reason. “We were through after I got kicked out. He said he couldn’t handle drama.”
I knew he wanted to ask what about my friends, but I think he already knew the answer. Not like I ever got any mail that wasn’t official or junk, or any phone calls that weren’t from him or the other guys. Instead he snorted. “Geez, he must have been a prize twatwaffle, Danny.” He patted my shoulder. “We’ll make sure you don’t pick up another one of those; you already have one asshole, you don’t need to date a second one.”
I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh. Which made me cough, but just a little. And I threw some grass at him, which made him laugh too.
Pete came trotting back a few minutes later with a can of soda, Joey, and one of the paramedics. “We’re giving him back, he can snore over here,” the guy told us, handing over the bottle of cold medicine; Dave took it. “If he starts coughing up anything that doesn’t look normal tonight, bring him to the emergency room. I don’t think he will, though. And next time tell him to get his flu shot.”
“He can’t,” Dave piped up. “He’s allergic to the preservative the drug company is using. It’s the same one they use in those cartons of liquid egg product, that’s why he never eats the eggs in the caf here. I double-checked that with my dad, and he said as long as they keep using albumin as a carrier for the vaccine Joey’s gonna have to take his chances.”
“Well that sucks. The rest of you got yours though, right?” Dave and Pete both nodded, I didn’t. “I doubt you’re allergic.”
I shrugged, sipping my soda. “Nope, just broke. I won’t be next year.”
“If you are, you tell the nurse here and she’ll see that you get it one way or another,” he instructed. “Your buddy here is gonna have to rely on herd immunity and you’re part of the herd, am I right?”
“Yep.” Joey had plopped down on the grass next to me. “He’s still too little to let out on his own, a lion might eat him.”
“Jesus Christ, what’s in this shit, Everclear? Vodka?” Dave squinted at the label, took the child-proof cap off and sniffed. And blinked hard. He recapped it and handed it back to the paramedic. “Maybe you better keep that, it smells like minty cherry schnapps.”
“It pretty much is,” the paramedic told him, handing it back. “That’s how it makes you sleep through the symptoms. It’s fine, it’s not doing anything to him it isn’t supposed to be, trust me. Watch the dosage, though – on this one it goes by weight, not age, and he’s skinny.”
I took the bottle away from Dave and put it by Pete, who had also sat back down. “Any idea what they’re going to do with us tonight?” I asked him. “Since our dorm is still smoking.”
He shook his head. “No idea. We told them all the people who inhaled smoke needed to be indoors in a clean place by sundown, though, so I’m sure someone’s working on it. If they come around checking again I’ll let them know you guys are over here.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “How ‘bout you? Coughing, shortness of breath, anything? Your buddy there said you were crashing.”
“The soda’s helping – I’m just really tired,” I told him. I’d only been coughing before because Dave had made me laugh. “I’ll be glad when they find us a place to sleep.”
“Sleep now,” he ordered, and stood back up. “Same rules apply to him as the other one, boys. I’m leaving you two in charge of them, okay?”
“Yeah, we’re not letting either one of them out of our sight,” Pete told him. “Thanks, man.”
He grinned. “No problem. Just let them both sleep it off, they should be fine.”
We were. By that night I wasn’t able to hold back the coughing anymore, but at least my eyes weren’t as irritated as they had been earlier. Joey wasn’t much different than he had been before the fire, and Dave and Pete just kept him loaded up with cold medicine so he wouldn’t whine – after Dave had called his dad and verified that it would be okay, that was. Pete called Joey’s parents and let them know Joey was okay – the story had hit the news already, it was a given somebody in Joey’s huge-ass family was going to see it. And then Pete called his own parents, and tiredly fended off ‘suggestions’ that he should transfer to a college in the islands.
Dr. Montoya showed up late the next morning. We were all temporarily housed in the admin building’s atrium, on cots that smelled vaguely like mice but were better than the cold tiled floor. Classes had been canceled for the day because most of us didn’t have our books or homework or anything; the caf, bookstore and coffee bar were still open, though, so I’d gone in to work the night before and not gotten back to my cot until late. The person guarding the admin building’s main door would have given me shit about coming in so late – they’d instituted a curfew for the night – but Pete had been hanging around the door waiting for me and he’d let the guy know I’d been out legitimately. Between the early morning light that had come pouring into the atrium, the coldness of said atrium, and our ‘wakeup call’ courtesy of the admin staff who’d said they couldn’t let us laze around the place sleeping and stuff, I hadn’t gotten much sleep and I was definitely feeling it.
Anyway, Dave’s dad came in worried and very quickly went from worried to pissed off. Not the loud kind of pissed off, the kind that made him talk to the other non-students he encountered like he’d judged them and found them wanting. Even though it wasn’t aimed at us, though, I made sure I was out of the line of fire; I took the blanket they’d given me – which also smelled a little mousy – and sat down on the floor where I could lean against Joey’s cot. Which turned out to be a mistake, because I fell asleep there, one of the admin people noticed and came over to wake me – and Joey – up, and Dr. Montoya verbally ripped that person into tiny little cringing pieces without ever once raising his voice. And then he was down at my level on the floor, frowning. “Danny,” he said very slowly and calmly, the same way Dave had the previous afternoon, “what did the smoke smell like yesterday?”
I blinked at him, holding back a cough. “The ceiling tiles smelled like burning styrofoam and plastic, they were making heavy smoke. There was some regular smoke…and upstairs it smelled chemical-y and it made my throat feel scratchy.”
He tipped up my chin and looked into my eyes. “You covered your nose and mouth?” I nodded. “How much smoke was there?”
“Not much in the stairs – I knew there wouldn’t be – but too thick to see much on our floor and when I came back down with Joey.” I blinked at him again. “I couldn’t leave him in there, sir. I told them he was in there, and they weren’t going to go in. He was taking the cold medicine I gave him, I knew he wouldn’t wake up.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he assured me. “David said you went to work at the coffee bar last night, was it busy?”
I nodded again. “Really busy, and we had a couple of people call off because of the fire.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He patted my head and moved up to the cot. Joey was awake and bleary-eyed, and Dr. Montoya chuckled. “Feeling hung over?”
The wake-up admin person heard that and started screeching, and I forced myself to stand up, putting myself between her and Joey. “He’s taking cold medicine, he has the flu,” I snapped, just barely managing to cover the cough that roughened the word ‘flu’ into something really ugly-sounding. “The paramedic yesterday said the medicine was working the way it was supposed to work, it’s supposed to help him sleep it off. And he’d probably be feeling a little better if you hadn’t woken us all up at 7am.”
She scowled at me, tapping an impatient foot against the tile floor. “This is a professional building, we have people coming in here. We understand all of you needed a place to sleep, but even though they let you out of classes that doesn’t mean the whole college stopped working.” She was kind of looming over me at this point, because fucking high heels – I’m pretty sure women only wear them to get a height advantage, because they look uncomfortable as hell, not to mention tricky to walk in. That’s what I’d heard my mother say a few times, anyway. “You can go back to sleeping in once you aren’t in our building.”
“Fair enough,” I told her. “Except in Joey’s case, because he’s sick. Even if it isn’t important to you that you’re making him miserable, you should at least be concerned that you could be making him sicker. Not to mention, we’re in an open area and he could potentially be exposing everyone else here to the flu…including the people who have to come in here for business, and all of you who have to work in here, too.”
“And the atrium is freezing cold,” Pete put in. “We all get that you guys did the best you could under the circumstances – believe me, I was really glad we didn’t have to camp out on the grass last night, because I couldn’t figure out where you were going to find room for all of us. This, though,” he waved a hand at the pretty but chilly glass dome above our heads, “was not the best place for Joey to be. And I thought it was really interesting that you guys called curfew on all of us last night after the game was over and put a guard on the front doors…but they didn’t close down the library or the bookstore and the coffee bar.” He clapped a hand down on my shoulder, which actually unbalanced me a little – just a little. “That’s why Danny here is so tired, he was at work last night – you can ask the guard, he didn’t get back until after eleven. And here it is tomorrow and almost noon already and none of us have any of our stuff yet, and they wouldn’t let any of us leave the building to go eat.”
“The cafeteria sent food over…”
“They sent over cereal bars and a couple crates of juice boxes. Not their fault, Dad,” Dave tossed back over his shoulder in answer to the sharp intake of breath. “The caf isn’t set up to handle this kind of thing. One of the people who brought stuff over told me they’d expected everyone to come over there for breakfast like usual, but they got told we all had to stay where we were at until they could find out who was a druggie and who wasn’t.”
“Oh, so that’s it.” Dave’s dad had stood up. He moved me back to Joey’s cot and made me sit down next to Joey on it. “Stay,” he told me, and then turned back to her. “I think we should go over to the front desk and call up the dean.” She opened her mouth. “You can call him, or I can call the alumni association and we can all call him – not that I’m not going to call them anyway, but whether I do it now or later is your choice.”
She huffed. “You’re not even supposed to be in here. The administration is dealing with this situation…”
“Okay, my way, then.” He pulled out his phone. “Hey Sam, it’s Dave. Yes…yes, as a matter of fact I’m standing here in that fancy atrium they built last year. It’s where they made most of the kids from the burned dorm sleep last night…yes, exactly. Yes, he’s here and so are his friends, including one who has the flu and one who inhaled a little too much smoke. Do me a favor, hit social media and make sure all of us know about this, would you? Because they’re apparently punishing all the kids for what one idiot did, looks like a witch hunt to me – oh, and they weren’t going to go in after the one who had the flu yesterday because they just assumed he must be a druggie too and therefore he deserved to die.” The lady from the office had almost run back to the desk at this point, I heard her heels clicking on the tile; I hadn’t been watching her, because Joey was warm and I was tired.
Dave’s dad – also Dave, which was kind of funny; I wondered if his grandpa was a Dave too? – kept talking to his friends. And then I heard the wake-up admin lady come back, heavier shoes with her – cop shoes, that would be a security guard, they’re mostly retired cops. “Him,” she said. “I told him he wasn’t supposed to be in here. And that one got up in my face because we ‘didn’t care’ about his boyfriend being sick.”
That got me to open one eye; I glared at her. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” I told her, and then leaned into Joey’s shoulder again; he must not have minded, because he put his arm around me. I was really tired. “It isn’t safe to have a boyfriend.”
Dead silence; the guys told me later that the look on her face had been priceless, though. See, our college supposedly has a really strong commitment to diversity, it was one of the reasons I’d picked it. But once I’d gotten to the campus, I’d realized that their ‘commitment’ was mostly bullshit. They had little student-led groups for different kinds of students, yeah, and the standard anti-harassment policy, but that was about it. I know one of the groups had approached Pete once, wanting him to join the Asian Student Alliance, but they’d been kind of weird about his monster posters because a lot of them were from knockoffs of Asian movies and they hadn’t liked it when he’d told them he wasn’t Asian, he was Polynesian. Apparently he was supposed to feel marginalized by his lack of ethnic representation on campus, and offended because the college had held a luau-themed dance; Pete’s response to that had been to show them a selfie of him and Joey at said dance – Pete is Joey’s wingman – and ask if they meant he should be offended because the college’s ‘healthy choices initiative’ meant there hadn’t been any soda there since that was pretty much all he drank at home. They didn’t stick around too long after that, and he’d cackled under his breath for an hour afterward.
Dave’s dad broke the silence first. “Did you hear that, Jim?” he asked. “Yeah, I think maybe the old alma-mater isn’t what it used to be…oh, hey Ted. Well, I heard you read someone the riot act yesterday, but I sure don’t see you down here today.” I opened both eyes this time; ‘Ted’ is our dean’s name. Dave’s dad’s friends had conferenced in the dean of our school? “Yeah well, I came down here to check on my son and his friends, because he called me this morning and said he was worried – one’s got the flu, one got a few lungfuls of really thick smoke from burning ceiling tiles – oh, and that one had to go to work last night, he said the coffee bar was really busy and I guess he didn’t get back until around eleven. And then your staff woke them all up at seven this morning, none of them have their stuff yet, and they’re apparently not allowed to leave the building even to get food…cereal bars and juice aren’t breakfast, Ted, that’s the snack they give you before naptime in preschool.” Ted apparently said something, because not only did Dr. Montoya snort, I heard the other guy on the phone, Jim, do it too. “Yeah, I’m sure they are, Ted. That’s why they’re wearing full hazmat gear, right? Because of somebody’s pop bottle chemistry accident, not because of the ceiling tiles in that old building…no can do, Ted. Jim, make that call, get someone the fuck down here right now. Because we’ve got possible exposure in multiple students and hey, they are all here in one spot so it won’t be hard to test them all…aw, Ted hung up. No, I never did either – he was always such a smug bastard. Oh here, talk to the security guard for me.”
He passed over the phone, the guard took it, listened and um-hmmed…and then turned white. “The fuck?!” he exclaimed. “Oh shit, we thought they’d fixed that years ago…no sir, not a problem, I’ll be watching for them. Yes…yes sir, thank you. You too.” He handed the phone back, then turned to the openmouthed administrator. “Ma’am, Dr. Montoya is staying where he is, and there’s a medical team coming in to check the kids. I’ll let them all know they need to stay in where they’re at for a little bit longer; maybe you should see if the cafeteria can bring over cocoa and coffee or something, it’s freezing in here.”
She closed her dropped-open mouth with an effort. “Check them for what, drugs?”
“Harmful chemical exposure,” Dr. Montoya told her. “Modern ceiling tiles don’t put off that kind of smoke. Do I want to know if that’s the real reason the fire department didn’t want to go in? Should I go ask some of them? You know, the guys over there in full hazmat gear, I’m sure they’d know all about why they’re wearing it.”
She went the color of the tile floor she was standing on. “It was drugs, chemicals. Somebody was cooking meth, and it blew up.”
“That’s apparently what started the fire, yeah.” Pete plopped himself down on the other side of Joey. “That’s what we were told yesterday, anyway – the paramedics said that’s what it was. But what I wondered is why the sprinklers didn’t go off. We got told during orientation not to use kitchen appliances in our rooms or we’d set the sprinklers off.” A few more students had started gathering around, bored and curious. “Did any of you see the sprinklers go off anywhere?”
A lot of head-shaking. “I don’t think they were on.” That was Tammi, the dorm monitor. “Someone was burning incense in the lounge one day and I made them put it out…but it had made a lot of smoke before I got there and nothing happened.”
“Yeah, I remember that – I’m the one that called you and complained,” Joey put in. “I stepped out of the room to go down the hall and there was this haze of smoke in the air, it smelled like a flower shop burning down. The group in the lounge said they needed it because they were trying to ‘create a peaceful atmosphere’.” He snorted, held in a cough. “I was kind of surprised they could breathe in the middle of that, honestly, much less do yoga.”
Dr. Montoya was giving the administrator a look that kind of made her shrink in on herself. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ll just…go see if we’re anywhere on getting these students their belongings back.”
“They’re going to need laundry credit, those clothes will be saturated with smoke and particulates,” Dr. Montoya told her, and she nodded really quickly and took off, heels tapping the tile in a brisk staccato now. He sat down on the cot I’d been using, wrinkling his nose. “Okay, this smells like mice have been living in it. Are all the rest of yours like this?” A lot of nods. “Well that’s just great. I’m really sorry about this, kids. My friends and I all went to school here, and it was a really great school. I’m not sure what’s going on with it now.”
“It’s still a great school, that’s why most of us picked it.” A few people nodded, including the dorm monitor. I zeroed in on her. “Do you know, are they going to send everyone home?”
She shrugged. “No idea, nobody’s told me anything. I don’t think they’ll force anyone to leave if they can find a place to stay, though. A friend of mine has an apartment in town, she said I could crash on their couch for the rest of the semester so I don’t lose my spot.”
I actually felt the color drain out of my face. “Lose…”
“Yeah, if you officially move off campus they won’t let you back in the dorms.” She shrugged again. “It’s not really a big deal, they just figure that once you move off you’re in the ‘adult’ category and you should stay there, that’s all. It’s not a big deal, really.”
“Tell us that after a few months on your friend’s couch,” Dave advised her. “No dorm means no meal plan, Tammi, and no being close enough to walk to class.” He sat down beside his dad. They looked really alike, Dave and his dad, almost the same height with the same dark wavy hair and the same brown eyes; I’d never looked anywhere near that much like my dad, who was five inches taller than me and had straight brown hair where mine was lighter and curlier, and blue eyes where mine were brown. “That’s going to screw a lot of us up. Would another college accept us, in light of the circumstances?”
His dad put an arm around him. “It’s a good thought, but first things first. You all need to get checked out, you all need your stuff back, and then we need to find a more appropriate place for everyone to sleep until the administration pulls its head out and lets you all know what their next move is going to be. Then we can start thinking about what you’ll be doing next semester, okay?”
Dave hugged him back. “Yeah, okay. Thanks, Dad.”
“Not a problem, that’s what dads are for.”
I kept myself from reacting to that and got comfortable against Joey again, but I didn’t go back to sleep – I didn’t dare.
The four of us stayed in a hotel room that night, courtesy of the alumni association. Dr. Montoya had told my boss at the bookstore that I wasn’t allowed to work for a couple of days because of the smoke I’d inhaled, and because a local doctor – also a member of the alumni association – had written her a note that said so, I was off until Monday and not in danger of losing my job over it. You may be wondering why I would have been anyway – not like the entire school not to mention the town didn’t know about the fire – but my boss was one of the ‘this is the adult world we don’t hold your hand’ people and she’d actually given me shit for not having my apron the night before, and for not having showered and changed before coming in because I’d smelled like smoke and had grass on my clothes.
Yes, some people are that stupid, really. I’d told myself she was just caught up in her own thing and blew it off, but Dave’s dad had taken a dimmer view of the situation. Mainly because I’d had to go to work the day after the fire too and he’d come after me just in time to find her giving me shit again.
By that weekend, the college was in really hot water. Our dorm, as it turned out, had been slated for demolition and rebuilding but they’d had to table the plans for that for a while after one year when the economy took a big hit…and they’d just never gone back to those plans, because things picked back up and the dorms filled up and knocking the old one down would have meant losing a good chunk of students. Which would have meant losing a lot of money, so they’d quietly tabled the idea until someone could figure out a way to do it without costing the college money, and it had stayed on the back burner. And this was a college town, and it needed the college to be full of students, so the fire department had acknowledged at every inspection that ‘plans were being made’ to rebuild the old, semi-unsafe building.
In their defense, they really didn’t think anything bad was going to come of that. The ceiling tiles were old but still fire-resistant, meaning they’d smolder instead of flaming if fire got to them, and they had slowed the fire down when it had hit the crawlspaces between the floors; the problem was, those tiles were specifically designed to work with a sprinkler system in place because of the smoke and particles they’d put off, and the sprinklers hadn’t been working. Turned out they’d been shut off for maintenance at some point and it had never gotten done so the system had never been turned back on again. I guess the first couple of firefighters on the scene hadn’t realized what they were dealing with, they’d thought what they were seeing and smelling was the result of a much larger homegrown meth lab than the soda-bottle version which had actually blown up and some of the latecomers had heard that and assumed that a whole bunch of us must have been in on it.
Turned out even the dead meth-girl’s roommate hadn’t known, because she was a real innocent type and when her roomie had told her the chemicals and things were for a project for her advanced chemistry class she’d believed it. She was an English Lit major, she didn’t know chemistry from a hole in the ground. We all really felt sorry for her, because the police had nearly driven her into a breakdown trying to get her to admit she’d been part of a campus meth ring. At least they’d apologized, though, and sent for her parents; the administration had already been taking steps to expel her and ruin her chances of ever getting into college again by that point, so it really quickly became a clusterfuck.
But some good came out of it. The college administration turned out to be a big part of the problem, and about half of them lost their jobs. The dean actually did that firing and then stepped down; he’d be gone at the end of the semester and someone new would take his place in the fall; for summer semester, if they had one, the college would be without a dean, but that apparently wasn’t a really big deal and we all did sort of snicker over it. The college also had to pay all of the displaced students back for their room and board and lost property – or rather, the college’s insurance had to pay – so I was suddenly sitting on a nice little pile of money, even though I was currently homeless. And we were all going to get to finish the semester via telecourses or by getting a place in town somewhere, but after that we’d have the choice to transfer or stay. If the college even stayed open, there was already some talk by the State – ‘Jim’ as it turned out, was one of our congressmen and he was Not Happy – that maybe the college needed to be closed for a while and all of us rolled into the university. Which was down in enrollment and had plenty of room, so the university was pushing hard for that option and offering lots of perks to the students. They even sent some enrollment counselors in to talk to all of us, they said they were seeing how what we were currently taking would fit into their programs, and whether any of us would need to change majors or not.
Some of that was bullshit, of course, but it turned out to be a really big deal for me. The one who talked to me really talked to me, and shook his head over the idea of me majoring in engineering. “Danny, engineering is mechanical mathematics,” he said. “Looking at your test scores and your aptitude and interest results, you’ll absolutely hate it. Switch to the biological sciences, then you can specialize later once you know where your interests are. I bet you’d love genetics.”
I still send that man a Christmas card every year.