Elsa had prepared for this evening all afternoon. For several days, actually. Laid out upon her bed, her gossamer satin dress, the base of which needed a slight hemming, she thought, posed for her admiration all afternoon long. Around six, as she applied a light facial cover and delicately attached a pair of earrings she’d bought for herself shortly after Christmas, she gazed into her bathroom mirror, prodding at her brunette bun, examining her color combinations, her symmetry and style. Once, the accessories would have been gifts. Earrings were a typical offering from her ex-husband, gone six years now, geographically anyway. He’d been gone emotionally for at least twice that long. The gifts, like the near-annual jewels, were like stand-ins, substituting shiny objects for a void.
Ostensibly, Elsa was venturing alone to the dinner gathering, though one of her colleagues was bringing along a male friend to the party of six. This was the kind of online-ignited get together that Elsa had patronized before. About a half a dozen people, maybe a few more, converging upon a social scene, usually a fashionable restaurant in a lively district, with casual if tacitly intent purpose. About two-thirds of the group would be unattached and similarly-situated: thirty-something, single though experienced, maybe too experienced; professional and therefore financially independent, though not wealthy necessarily; implicitly egalitarian, progressive in their beliefs. Elsa thought her friend Judy a little gratuitous in this last category. Ever eager to exhibit her knowing, socially just credentials, she used words like “cisgender” to indicate the profiles of heterosexual others, or “woke” to signify a near-requisite sensibility. Ever careful to include and not assume inclusion, she crafted her thoughts to cover all bases, to not reduce or restrict to any particular way of being.
For an hour, Elsa’s thoughts drifted lightly over a surface of chatter and dry congeniality. Work was a predictable subject of conversation since at least two within the party were colleagues from Elsa’s magazine; one, a junior editor, was technically her subordinate, which added to a somewhat formal air. Elsa rarely got drunk, but she might have wanted to let the hair out of the bun, so to speak; to tease Judy out of her studied sociability. She might have wanted more than one drink to soften the creeping anxiety that settled in around eight o’clock. Joe, her mooted quasi-date for the evening, had started well with alert interest in Elsa’s literary career, but soon betrayed a dismaying distractibility. He timed his comments well, not interrupting necessarily, but within moments of Elsa’s speaking, he at least twice spoke in tangents, conflating his interests with hers, leaving Elsa confused, and quickly bored, which taxed the abilities she employed in the daytime, like the maintenance of polite, smiling contact. Over Joe’s shoulder, she observed a congestion of dinner guests around a tight front entry. A troubled hostess was struggling to manage the numbers, it seemed, and a fussy manager bounced back and forth between the restaurant’s kitchen and the glitchy elevator that brought group after group, packing the space. That singular path to the dining area was the one feature of the restaurant that Elsa disliked. The curiously small elevator, built to fit an earthy, Terra Cotta ambience, seemed inadequate for the restaurant’s physical needs—a sacrifice to someone’s notion of an aesthetic, Elsa thought.
The explosion that occurred around eight-thirty blew past the ornamental shaft, not destroying it necessarily, but certainly obscuring it from vision. Within seconds, smoke filled the room, with sparks of flame spitting out from the sides. Sounds of glass shattering shot out from side to side, with feminine screams and angry male barks hitting the noiseless gaps. Elsa staggered, reached out for someone’s touch, possibly Joe’s or that of Judy, straining to stand. She wasn’t injured, not physically anyway, and her investigatory mind was just about functional. The fire, or explosion, had come from the kitchen, she thought, as if divining the cause was the paramount task of the moment. Everyone else had other priorities. From within the haze of their shock, they fell over chairs and past broken tables. Splintered wood and shards of glass were minor obstacles as bodies scrambled like desperate rats to a presumed escape, that space wherein that tight and glitchy elevator once stood, pretty and inviolate. The cluster of panicked diners were in for a rude awakening, and by the looks of the crowded back-up, evident even amid the thick and blackening smoke, the prospect of escape had hit a wall.
Elsa stood as though frozen, not sure how to act, to think, or to be. Twitchily, she flicked glances at frightened faces, those of colleagues, of strangers, of people to whom she cared how she appeared no matter what they represented. She heard fragments of thoughts, of frantic inquiries. What floor were we on? Where is there an emergency stairwell? Elsa thought, am I the only one still thinking about what happened? The advancing blanket of smoke pushed back groups, the dinner party to which Else was now tenuously attached. The fluttering limbs and stop-and-start motions suggested a thin solidarity that was doomed to collapse: every man, woman, or whatever Judy might remind was in between or beyond was for themselves, said the body language. To Elsa, it seemed that within moments that could not be measured temporally, all social conventions would dissolve. Not only would the barely-invested concern between individuals disappear, so too would the inhibitions that illustrated the fixed limits of caring. As flames ignited curtains on either side of the dining hall, portending an entrapment of heat and breathlessness, the crowd rushed back, pushing Elsa, now separated and amongst utter strangers, towards a back wall. Fire escape. Someone called out the words with a blend of fright and inspiration, and suddenly heads turned, searching for the recognizable fixture that would signal hope.
Soon the coughing started, followed by smoke-induced tears, which forced temporary blindness. Choking, and hearing the din of others’ like-suffering, Elsa’s body spun away, bumping off others’ bodies like a ball in a pinball machine. What lay before her felt like a hallucination: an orange line of fire, advancing upon a wall that flanked the kitchen, melted away an ornate wallpaper pattern as though it was an ice-cube quickly thinning into a puddle. As the flame tore away at the fabric of brick and mortar, it revealed behind it a grey space that beckoned like freedom. Cool and clear: that was the impression Elsa held of the space that had opened up, promising room to breathe. Glancing around her, she saw that few were at the gap so she dashed towards it, pushing past an object that might have been a chair but was possibly flesh and bone—someone else’s already-slumped, defeated body. Within another indeterminate moment she was at an edge, contemplating a dream. Is this a dream, she wondered, feeling a pressing heat at her back and an urge to leap? This is a dream, she next decided, regarding a mobius strip of fire all around her. Whatever this is, it will soon be over. The dream—or this something unthinkable—will soon be over, yielding relief. Elsa gasped. Dizzy, her head spinning, she knew there was one more decision to make. Instinctively, she looked over her shoulder, like she was saying goodbye to the assembly of faces. Who did she really know? Who cared about her? As something like a hot spear struck her, she let out a shriek and stumbled backward. Falling, she felt the weightless sensation of a terrorizing drop and conjured its hard and bloody end. Finally, the eyes of an unknown woman met hers, perhaps drawn by the sound of Elsa’s cry. It was an appraising gaze, at once sympathetic yet judging of another’s indignity, and as the eyes of that woman disappeared above the floor upon which she remained standing, Elsa wondered her final thought before the great dream: does it matter still what anyone thinks?