Mike stopped to talk with a cop who was trying to control the crowd gathered to watch the fire fighters, or more likely, to watch the fire burn. Crandall, seeing a better opportunity while the cop was distracted by Mike, ducked under the yellow caution tape and headed for a small cluster of people dressed in sooty pajamas. They huddled closer together as he stalked up to them and demanded to know where Ash was.
“Ash, damn it,” he said, impatient under their scared and confused gazes. “He lives in this building. Where is he?”
An old man with grey hair leaning heavily on his cane coughed. A young woman with a whimpering child in her arms glowered until Crandall met her eyes and then she harrumphed and turned away. A second woman sighed and stepped forward. She said, “I don’t really know people here. I get the impression most of the residents keep to themselves. What’s your friend look like?”
Crandall looked around, but couldn’t spot Ash in any of the small clusters of now homeless people huddled together throughout the empty lot where they’d gathered in the flickering lights and shadows of flames greedily destroying their homes. He returned his attention to the girl. “Was I too abrupt? Was that why they all ignored me? I know I do that sometimes.”
She smiled weakly. “It’s alright. We’re all stressed out too. I get it. Tell me about your friend. Maybe I’ve seen him around.”
“Black hair. About my size I guess. Cocky bastard.”
The woman laughed. “I don’t know what cocky looks like. Is he cute?”
Crandall opened his mouth to answer and then snapped it shut to glare at her. “Are you fucking kidding?”
“I know. I combat stress with jokes.” She laughed and then wrapped her arms around herself, shivering despite the warm night. “You’re kind of cute, you know.” She shook her head. “I saw this cute guy, I guess. It was one of those moments where you’re not sure if you’re checking out a guy or a girl. He had black hair, messy, like bed-head, hanging over his face. At first I thought guy, then girl, then guy. It was the baggy clothes that confused me. I suppose when you wake up in a smoky room with alarms blaring, you’re not dressing for a night on the town.” She glanced down at her own clothing and shrugged. “I was just about to go to bed when it all started. Anyway, I have a thing for pretty androgynous guys, so I noticed him.”
“You have a thing for talking too much,” Crandall said.
She nodded and stared at the burning building. “Yeah, I know.”
“Where’d he go?”
She bit her lip and looked around. “I’m not sure. He looked pretty shaken.”
Crandall huffed in frustration. Being nice never got him anywhere. He was about to snap at her about wasting his time when Mike rushed up to them and grabbed Crandall’s arm. “C’mon man, he’s over here.”
Crandall let Mike lead him further into the chaos. They wove through people who stared slack-jawed at the fire, heading more or less in the direction of an ambulance with its lights flashing but its sirens quiet. Crandall’s heartbeat started to race. If Ash was hurt…
As the thought formed, and he had to swallow hard to control the sudden queasiness of his stomach, they stepped around the last few people into a direct line of sight to the triage area behind the ambulance. Crandall spotted Ash immediately. He sat on the ground, his back to the large tire of the vehicle, and his head hanging low over his crossed legs. His hair hid his face, and a large brown blanket draped over his shoulders hid the rest of his body, but Crandall knew it was him.
“There.” Crandall rushed over with Mike right behind him. He crouched down in front of Ash and dipped his head, looking between the locks of dirty, messy hair. “Ash?”
Ash looked up, but then dropped his gaze. “Thanks for coming,” he mumbled.
“Hey, Ash,” Crandall sat down and crossed his legs. Their knees touched. “There’s this chick over there that thinks you’re cute. Want me to introduce you?”
This time when Ash looked up, Crandall couldn’t make sense of his expression. After several long moments, Ash said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you crack a joke before.”
Crandall frowned. “I didn’t. I asked her if she knew where you were, and she said she saw this cute guy that matched your description.”
“I’m not exactly presentable.” Ash smiled but it faltered a moment later.
“Neither is she. Shit, she was a fucking mess.”
Ash laughed. He sat up straight and pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Thanks, Crank,” he said. “You’re alright when you need to be.”
Crandall snorted in derision as he stood. He offered a hand, and pulled Ash to his feet. “You don’t know better yet. I’m just me.”