In my dream, a woman is screaming.
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up Commerce Street! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
Then I am not awake but I am at my window and I see orange flames jumping in the windows of the building directly across the street, and I realize that the building across the street is on fire. But then I blink and I am awake and I realize that those aren’t flames in the windows. They’re reflections of flames.
I look down.
New York City is a kaleidoscope of humanity. Whenever I return from a trip I’m newly amazed by how beautiful everyone is, how smartly dressed, how inventively tattooed, how fast they walk and how fast they talk. But not everyone is going somewhere. Every few blocks there is a grey rock lodged in the river of the sidewalk, someone wrapped in dirty clothes, hunched behind a cardboard sign with a neatly printed explanation. When you walk by, they hold out their hand, their palm cupped.
I wouldn’t even need all ten fingers to count the number of times I’ve actually given these neighbors a hand.
Flames boil out of the windows below me. My building is massively on fire. Six stories down, the street fills with trucks and uniforms and flashing lights. But up here there’s almost no sound. No sound at all, but the woman across the street, still screaming wake up.
In the dark, I pull on shorts and shoes, find a bag; I put in an old photo of my mother, a letter, my social security card, my laptop, and my phone. When I open the door to my apartment to leave, a black wall of vaporized tar pours in and I slam it shut. The smoke has a toxic stench, like a pyre of rubber tires and Tupperware. It stings, and I start coughing. Finally a smoke alarm goes off, replacing my neighbor with its own hysterical noise. I go back to the window—a floor below me, my fire escape is engulfed in flames.
I call 911. They tell me to stay put. Help is on the way.
When I was thirteen I went to a funeral for Uncle Andrew, who had lived for many years on our farm. He wasn’t my Uncle, he was just black and very old, and everyone called him Uncle. Until his funeral, I’d never been to a black church before. The women wore the kind of hats that white women reserve for derbies, or royal weddings. I could barely see Uncle Andrew lying in his open coffin, absence personified, through the thicket of hats—the blossoming organza, silk, and netting. And he disappeared entirely from view when they started to sing for him. Now I would have said Uncle Andrew was beyond help—he was gone. But while I fumbled to find the page in a hymnal, they sang loud, asking God to take him up, to help Uncle Andrew find his rest, and comfort his family in their grief. The hats swayed together as they sang, and they raised their hands and turned their palms to the sky.
I don’t want to meet God when I die. But I would like for people to sing for me.
The air in my apartment is black and swirling now, like it’s been stained, and I can see every eddy, every particle turning on me, suddenly malevolent, and I’m trapped with it. For a moment I stand alone in the dark, taking shallow breaths. My phone is in my hand, but I don’t call anyone. I don’t dampen towels. I don’t form a plan. I only wait.
Suddenly outside my window I see a firefighter, climbing up the delicate silver thread of a seventy-foot ladder. I bang on the window and he looks over at me, and even underneath all the gear I see surprise.
I flatten my palm against the glass.
He gestures for me to open the window, and I yank it up. “The fire’s almost out!” he yells. “Stay there, someone’s coming.” I lean out and breathe the night air, smear my hand across my eyes. Spotlights from the street hit me. Across Commerce Street, faces fill the windows. Farther away, across Seventh Avenue, I see someone standing on her balcony—naked, staring. Staring at me.
It’s the universal symbol of supplication—the naked palm. Cupped on street corners, held up to God, pressed together beneath interwoven white knuckles, spread against soldier’s rifles. We all know what it is to be alone in the dark, barely able to breathe. Everybody needs a little rescue sometimes. And because human life is a cooperative endeavor, we’re all born knowing how to ask for help. We cry out. We hold out our hands.
I’d say the real difference—the real distance—between me and those homeless, those God-fearing, those refugees, is that all my life, whenever I’ve reached out my hands, whenever I’ve needed rescuing, someone has come.
I don’t hear the banging on the door until it’s half broken down, and I get there just as it’s kicked in. A firefighter with a sledgehammer, wearing oxygen tanks and a mask for a face, looms in the doorway. Black smoke from the hallway billows around him.
“Okay!” he yells over the alarms. “Take a deep breath.” I feel my hand gripped tight inside his glove. I squeeze my eyes shut against the smoke.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.