As I stood watching the building smolder, the sky lightened and against an incongruously azure sky, the full horror of it all came into focus. The air was cold and crisp and clear and tainted with an unclean smoke.
Tommy took Jackie, Ms. Louise, her son and granddaughters across the back alley to his house to get warm, and be comforted.
The kind neighbors who live on the street behind us and all around us reached out. The archaeology professors from UAB, offered me coffee and a warm haven for Jazmine, who was now meowing piteously every time I opened the car door to comfort her. She’d been in her carrier for over 2 hours now. I accepted for her. Sarah put their cat in an upstairs bedroom then started coffee, while Greg set up an impromptu litter box, food and water for Jazmine. She was beyond comfort, and simply sat in a warm corner and watched us all with fixed golden eyes.
I sat and drank coffee in their warm kitchen, as we made small talk and watched out their back window to the still smoking embers of my home.
I went back across the alley to get an update from the fire chief. It was 7 a.m. - time to make a few difficult phone calls. As I paced back and forth in the parking lot of Wilson’s Market, I pulled out the cell phone. I didn’t want the family or my friends to see this on the morning news and panic. First I called Mom and began, “first, I’m okay. There was a fire; Mark is gone. You have to call Barbara, Billy, Rick, George and let them know, I’m okay before they see the fire on the news.” She was dumbstruck, but recovered and I hung up knowing she would follow through.
Next, I called my friend Ree. “Ree, you’re the only one I know who knows everybody I know and then some. I don’t want people seeing this on the news first. The apartment burned down this morning. I’m sorry to just dump this on you like this, but yours is the only number I know by heart, and I’m in no shape mentally to make the calls. Mark didn’t make it out.” She lost it for a bit, but then she took charge of herself and said she’d start making calls.
So many unlikely angels: Louie drove up and offered the key to his place in case I needed somewhere to stay. The Parcak’s had offered their spare bedroom indefinitely if I needed it. I had two other offers of safe haven, but I knew when all was said and done, I was going home to Mom’s house in Hoover.
I couldn’t be still and the firemen were not letting any of us in the building yet. I went back across the alley to Tommy’s to check on Ms. Louise and her kids. I walked back across the alley to ask the fireman again, hoping against hope, if they had gotten Mark out when I wasn’t looking – they had not. “We can’t let anyone in until the coroner comes and goes.”
With those words, words that belong in a CSI episode, echoing in my head, I walked back to Greg and Sarah’s kitchen to hold vigil.
Next: Worldly Goods