Everything is Yours - Part TwoA Short Story by ROSALIA SCALIA
PART TWO - continuing from yesterday ...
The helicopter sounds louder than usual. Qurban glances at it hovering over the trauma building as it attempts to land, wondering who's aboard. The Penn Street crowd consists of those familiar faces he sees every morning from among the university's students, employees, hospital administrators, visitors. Above, the helicopter's blades whip the air, and his bandanna nearly blows off. Qurban puts his hand over his head to keep it in place and watches as the helicopter descends to land. The wind pushes it sideways, its blades nicking the medical school's brick walls, sending a spray of sharp red chips into a random shower.
Tiny brick chunks prick Qurban's arms through his jacket. Mesmerized by the helicopter's struggle, Qurban, like the others on Penn Street, simply watches the scene.
"Holy fucking shit! Did you feel those bricks? Like a thousand darts," says a voice shouting over the drone of the helicopter engine. A man in a wheelchair is pointing at the sky. The helicopter's still fanning blades jerk the cab back a few feet, and it then lurches away from the trauma building, falling like a stone toward the street, two blocks ahead.
"Shit, we got to get outta here, fast!" the wheelchair man says.
Awestruck, Qurban observes the machine keel backward, its rear blades hitting and gouging the asphalt, thrusting the whole vehicle up like a missile before it drops again and topples over. A loud boom reverberates, shaking Penn Street when the helicopter's cab hits the ground, its rotary still spinning, blades hitting the asphalt and the brick buildings with resounding thwacks until helicopter skids in their direction, stopped by two blades embracing the two corner buildings like splintered arms. The thing explodes into a huge fireball. Helicopter parts, chunks of stone, brick, asphalt and glass fly towards them.
"Shit, oh my GOD," wheel chair man bellows, and a woman screams. Pedestrians run, scattering in multiple directions. Qurban notices the wheelchair man's hands trembling as he fumbles with the wheelchair's controls, the chair moving in circles, but his eyes are drawn to the crash scene where the fireball dances like a gypsy, shooting flames in every direction, igniting everything flammable in this path.
"Hey, Mister, MOVE! Run!" wheelchair man shouts at him.
The urgency in the voice pulls Qurban from his fascination with the crash scene. "Unlock the breaks, put it in manual," he yells at the man in the wheelchair, tossing his gym bag onto the man's thighs.
Surprised at how heavy the chair feels compared to how it looks, Qurban uses all his might to turn the chair south, toward Lombard Street, pushing it away from the heat and spreading fire, joining a throng of others fleeing the fireball.
"Wait! Stop! Incoming," the man yells. His body is twisted so that he sees the crash scene behind them. "It's going to come down right in front of us. Stop! Stop! Stop running for a second."
"No way!" Qurban yells, jogging now, grateful for the running shoes, though the wheel chair and its occupant slow his escape.
"You're going to get us both killed!" the man screams, still looking behind. "Stop one minute, please!" he shouts, his eyes pleading for Qurban to listen. A burning piece of debris drops in front of them, and Qurban swerves to avoid it without stopping. Another piece hits a man behind them, who screams in pain. Others pass them, rushing toward Lombard. Qurban points the chair as close to the wall of a university building as possible to avoid falling debris, but is unable get close enough. Decorative concrete planters line the outside of one building and Qurban struggles to maneuver the too-wide wheelchair between the wall and the planters and runs in a zig zag to avoid falling debris.
The man in the wheelchair man continues looking behind, while Qurban focuses on what lay ahead. Obstacles set close to the buildings' walls-benches, concrete planters, bike stands, force him to return to the middle of the street. The smell of burning plastic gags them both, and Qurban tries unsuccessfully to avoid smoldering and still-burning helicopter parts falling around them. The smaller pieces hit him, burning his arms and shoulders, neck and back, through his clothes and pain radiates through his whole body.
"It's gaining on us," the wheel chair man screams, but Qurban can't view what's behind them and pushes the chair faster. Smoke fills the air; the smell of fuel infuses the area, and Qurban's eyes itch and water. The kara on his right wrist and his wristwatch on his left absorb the pervading heat and begin to slowly burn his flesh. Still running, he snaps off his watch and hands it to the man in the wheel chair and then quickly stuffs the fabric of his jacket underneath the kara, but it doesn't stay put. As he runs, the fabric loosens, and the kara's metal sears him. Both Qurban and wheelchair man cough from the smoke.
People on the sidewalks drop to their hands and knees searching for fresh air, Qurban stops pushing the chair, so that he, too, can bend down low to the ground to catch his breath. Smeared with ash and now filthy, his new red shoes look scorched in places. His face is lower than the wheelchair man's and the wheel chair man says, "Nestor. I'm Nestor," in between hacks.
"Call me Q," Qurban says, choking on smoke, wanting to avoid the usual stumbling over his name, using the nickname from elementary school. The first sirens split the air.
"Ambos. The ambos," Nestor says, rubbing his eyes. "Behind us. They're going to run us over if we don't get out of the way."
Qurban puts his face as close to the ground as possible to inhale a smoke free breath, rises, and pushes the chair as close as possible toward the wall. The medical center's entire ambo fleet races southwards, away from the fireball. "The ER entrance is blocked," Qurban says, realizing that the emergency room is not a good place for shelter.
He moves his kara up and down his arm but everywhere it touches stings him. Qurban imagines Max at the tv news studio, hearing about the crash, probably sick with worry and calling his cell a hundred times, trying to wrangle the reporting assignment for it.
Buried in the gym bag on Nestor's lap, Qurban can't get to his cell phone, and now he regrets not saying "I love you too," in the text he sent back in the morning. Already moist from the smoky air, Qurban's eyes now grow wet with regret.
The heat from the fireball scorches their throats, and sweat beads form on their arms and foreheads. Once the ambo fleet passes, Qurban presses forward, returning with the wheelchair to the middle of the street. A throng of people are bottlenecked
at the point Penn Street narrows, everyone fleeing in the same direction, jostling each other because forward movement has stopped. In his wheel chair, Nestor panics, brown eyes bulging from his head. He flails his arms, screams at the people in front to move out of the goddamn way.
A large piece of debris hits Qurban's left arm, stinging his flesh, and he yelps in pain before he flips it, still smoldering, with his fingers to the asphalt. His fingers and arm charred, but Qurban swallows his pain, absorbing it because he knows Nestor is already panicking. Falling debris hits those around him, and he hears their cries and screams, and people behind them begin pushing forward in their panic, screaming "Run," trampling those in front. Someone pushes Qurban forward and he falls into the back of the chair. A large piece of debris hits Nestor's bald head and it sits there, burning him. Nestor screams, raising his arms to his charred head just as Qurban smacks it off and the piece hits his own hand.
The pain in Qurban's arm and now hand nearly blinds him, and he stops pushing the wheelchair to cradle it, but his right arm smarts, too, from the heated kara. He pictures Max's dimpled smile, his exuberance, and his aura of happiness, and he wonders if he'll be able to push Nestor's wheel chair away from Penn Street before the fireball catches them, if he'll see Max again, if he'll see his parents and Amrit again, and feels his stomach tighten at the thought. The wind rises, bringing with an overpowering smell of fuel and burning flesh.
"Wind's going to push that damn fireball toward us faster," Nestor says, surveying the scene around them. "Hey listen, Q, no sense both of us getting caught in this mess. Look, you can shoot down the side street there - it'll take you onto Lombard, just like this one, but you'll be able to move ahead faster without me slowing you down. I appreciate getting me this far, considering I don't know you from Adam," Nestor says, extending his hand to Qurban. Appalled, Qurban doesn't answer, and ignores his extended hand, and Nestor fills the silence. "I'm already on borrowed time. I should've died in the accident that messed up my legs."
They both cough now, hacking, along with the others escaping the crash.
Qurban and Nestor can hardly see each other through the smoky fog.
"Ridiculous!" Qurban says finally, between hacks. "Are you crazy?"
Both of his arms ache but he pushes Nestor in the wheelchair inches closer toward Lombard, focusing now on putting one foot in front of the other and getting them both away from the danger area. Nestor begins breathing noisily, fighting for each breath and Qurban recognizes asthma attack symptoms. His arms, hands, neck and back smarts; his throat burns, and his chest hurts for want of fresh air, but he knows that none of that will kill him as fast as an untreated asthma attack in this smoky fog will kill Nestor.
He pushes Nestor's chair back toward the wall where it's going to be harder to escape the approaching flames, mumbles "WaheGuru, WaheGuru!" - God is Great - and roots through a pouch tied to the chair's side for an inhaler. Nestor fights for breaths now, and Qurban frantically searches for the medicine. It's nowhere. He digs through Nestor's pants pockets, finds it, and holds Nestor's head up and back, slips his fingers into the side of his mouth, pinches his nostrils, expressing the inhaler until Nestor's breathing smoothes.
"Hey man, been following your red shoes lead the way through the smoke. Thanks man, whoever you are," a woman's voice calls to him and recedes. Qurban wants to laugh. What did Max say? "Notice-me-or-die shoes."
"Breathe, Nestor, breathe," he says, expressing the inhaler when Nestor fights to breathe again. Surprised, Qurban notices holes burned through Nestor's clothing where debris has hit him. Nestor hasn't complained about being burned anywhere else but his head. Nestor begins breathing normally, well, as normally as possible, as he's no longer fighting for breath, but the smoky haze for an asthmatic becomes a concern.
Qurban knows that he must get Nestor to a triage station sooner than later. Qurban presses through the griping throng, disembodied voices in the smoke-filled street, telling him to "Watch out!" and "Where you are going with that fucking chair?" and "Get the fuck out of the way, stupid ass!" but Qurban shrugs them off, pushing the chair forward, and back into the middle of the street and toward Lombard Street where it's safer. Others push pass them because flames are now licking their heels.
Qurban feels the heat and forces himself not to look behind and to focus on moving ahead. He fears pushing the chair faster lest he run someone down. Finally, the air thins slightly and they emerge onto Lombard Street, where he sees fire engines' blinking lights through the smoky haze. Qurban also sees the orange and yellow tongues of the fire behind them reflected in the windows of the parked cars on Lombard, and there, nearly free of the danger zone, he freezes.
The smell of seared flesh and fuel, the taste of smoke, the itch in his eyes, the burned throat and his injured arms, but mostly the sight of the dancing fire reflected in the car windows, remind him of a Delhi he tries to forget. Images tumble into his mind from when he was 8 and huddling at the Rakab Gunj Gurdwara with his family and neighbors. When his grandmother sat on the floor and rocked them both, whimpering, squeezing him tighter and tighter in her arms until he couldn't breathe, repeating "WaheGuru, WaheGuru!" She squeezed him so tight, he had to break free and run away, and she screamed at him with a strange crazy sound in her voice to hurry back now, her arms raised for him. She didn't chase him like she usually did, and he didn't want her to squeeze him anymore.
She cried. He ran to his father at the front of the gurdwara where men with guns and kirpans congregated behind the heavy, wooden doors, where he saw his father with a stern expression and more tears, where his father stared through the broken glass of the front windows, where others held his father from running outside.
Following his father's gaze, he saw Papaji, grandfather, and Taayaji, outside the gurdwara gate, on the ground, fireballs dancing on them. More men than he could count, men with sticks and iron rods, threw rocks and bricks at the gurdwara and at his uncle and Papaji, and poked them through the fireball with sticks and rods. He saw two policemen watching, and they looked liked the toy soldiers his Papaji had given him. His father struggled to break free of the men holding him. "Think of your sons," they said. Qurban watched the men with its sticks and rods, confused that they looked happy that the fireballs were turning Papaji and Thaya black. He heard them screaming, "Get the Sardars. Get them all!" and "Let us cut your hair, and we'll let you go!"
Maybe someone on the gurdwara roof shot at them. The men with sticks and rods became distracted, allowing his father and some others to run outside quick, douse the fireball on uncle with a blanket, and pull uncle, still alive, back inside, and that was when Qurban gagged and vomited from uncle's burnt-up smell.
The smell that gagged him when he was 8 years old inside the gurdwara is the same one permeating Lombard Street. His injured arms radiate pain, and he notices that his left jacket sleeve is melted, his skin as charred as Papaji's and Taayaji's on that day at the gurdwara when everything seemed so unpredictable and fragile.
Qurban remembers wondering when Papaji and Uncle would get up and be themselves again, like on a tv show, but his grandfather stayed still outside the gurdwara, and Qurban knew he wouldn't get up and be his Papaji anymore. His father and the other men argued with the police, who wouldn't allow them to leave the gurdwara to bring uncle to the hospital for medical care. His grandmother poured cool water all over uncle, saying, "Sabáº– kicáº–áº– á¹¯erÄ á¹¯Å« aná¹¯arjÄamÄ« á¹¯Å« sabáº–nÄ kÄ parabáº– soâ–«Ä« - Everything is Yours, O Knower of All, Searcher of hearts; You are the Lord God of all." She prayed and cried and poured water. Eyes big as mangos, Amrit, older by two years, clung to their mother, mute, until he reached for Uncle with his hand, his thin pointer finger extended, ready to touch the one spot of Uncle that wasn't blackened before grandmother smacked his hand away with such force, it thrust him from his mother's arms onto the floor, and he wailed.
His left hand, his left arm throbbing, Qurban sucks a breath in through his teeth. "Hey, Q, let's go. I can't leave you here by yourself," Nestor says, his voice weak.
He smiles before slumping sideways in the wheelchair. The reflection in the windows shows the bright fire ball on Penn Street continuing its odd two-step toward them, and Qurban shakes himself into action. His new red shoes look old now but he can still hear Max's delight, and he realizes everything he has is nothing without Max.
"Hey Nestor, who's your family? Wife? Somebody we can call for you?" Qurban asks.
Nestor shakes his head. "She left when this happened," he says. "She was in it for the better, but not the worse," he jokes, but Qurban sees the hurt in his eyes. "Me, myself and I, one big happy family," he adds, his voice a weak whisper. Numerous burns dotting his arms and section of his legs not covered by the gym bag, asthmatic, Nestor smiles at his own joke, and then says in a halting voice. "Thank you, Q, for not leaving me back there. For not giving me up."
"Never an option for me," Qurban says. "Let's roll, Nestor!" Jogging now, Qurban pushes Nestor toward the Greene Street hospital entrance where he knows from a previous disaster exercise that a triage area will be established. Nestor needs immediate medical care, and Qurban slides into doctor mode, making a mental note to follow-up with him. The radiating pain in his arms and back reminds Qurban that he needs the same thing, and he worries if his injuries will affect his surgical career.
After he settles Nestor into the triage, before he allows himself to be treated, Qurban hunts for his phone in his gym bag and sees that Max has blown it out with missed calls, texts and voice mails.
"WaheGuru, WaheGuru, Sabáº– kicáº–áº– á¹¯erÄ - Everything is yours," he murmurs. He's alive and he needs to call Max.
[Rosalia Scalia writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The Baltimore Review; North Atlantic Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Smile, Hon, You're In Baltimore; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; Pennsylvania English; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and "Uncharted Steps" merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. "Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick," first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Scalia, who earned a masters in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2003, lives in Baltimore, Md. "Everything Is Yours" is her second short story to appear on www.sikhchic.com.]
Coyright: Rosalia Scalia
November 13, 2010
Conversation about this article
1: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), November 13, 2010, 2:16 PM.
I recommend sikhchic to my cousins - some of whom are just 8-10 years old. I am sure others read some of these articles to their kids - so kindly edit the profanity in articles (especially from external sources).
2: Hardeep Kaur (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), April 30, 2011, 10:50 PM.
Wow, that line really got me... "sab kichh ..." And a great story.