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All The Days After


     Avery was running around the kitchen like her ass was on fire. It was an impressive display of stamina and dexterity, since my girl was seven months pregnant and though I’d never have said it out loud, she actually resembled a beached whale when she collapsed butt-down onto the sofa. 

     I couldn’t say something like that because she’d shave my head in my sleep, and I have really awesome hair. 

     Or feed me pubes of unknown origin in my breakfast and tell me after. 

     Or slip ghost pepper oil into my coffee and let me figure that one out for myself.

     I probably deserved any one of those things on the average day, but I did dumb shit for laughs and Avery was just as much of a childish prankster as I was. That was why I loved her. I mean, there were other reasons too, but that was the one I could tell people about without getting into trouble.

     “You shouldn’t have let me sleep so late!” she squealed, throwing things out of the fridge and onto the counter. “Now you’re going to have to make your own breakfast, because I have to be at work in half an hour. There’s no way I have time for a shower--I’m going to have to rush just to get dressed!” She paused, leaning over the counter and taking a deep breath.

     “Whoa, babe. You okay?” I was instantly concerned. She’d been experiencing some cramping the past couple weeks that the doctor said were Braxton-Hicks contractions, but I called bullshit on that. I’d put money on my girl being put on bedrest at her next doctor’s visit.

     My oldest brother, Thomas, liked to tease that if anything was going to get us down the aisle, or to split up for good, it was having a baby. He was probably right, too. Pregnancy made Avery meaner than usual, a genetic legacy from her scary father.

     We had been together since high school, but both of us came from weird family dynamics, so neither of us really felt like getting married was high on the priority list. I loved her and she loved me and that was a hell of a lot more powerful than any piece of paper, even though it made her dad spit with anger every time he saw me. I hadn’t yet made an honest woman of his baby girl, he always yelled, and it seemed to be the only time he was interested in Avery at all.

     “You’ve been so tired lately,” I argued with her while I started a pot of coffee. “I didn’t see any harm in letting you get a few extra minutes.”

     “A few extra minutes,” she muttered, shoving a hand into the unfolded laundry pile on the sofa and pulling out a pair of horribly wrinkled leggings. “Try forty. Do you have any idea how long it takes to get Mount Vesuvius ready in the morning?” She gestured toward her belly and I grinned at her reference. 

     “This is like running a marathon uphill the entire time. I’m exhausted by the time I get to work on a good day.”

     That may or may not have had something to do with the gestational diabetes, and the doc had a pretty close eye on her. Because of it, she had to be pretty careful with her diet and she got crazy-mad when I ate Oreos in front of her. 

     Or pizza. 

     Or even carrot sticks. 

     Basically, eating in front of her was a bad idea, and eating was something I could do like it was an Olympic sport.

     “Go get dressed,” I told her finally, crossing the room to kiss the top of her head and pat her butt. (She hated it when I patted her butt.) “I’ll pack some healthy snacks and drive you to work.” 

     We both knew I was the better driver, even though I had a lead foot.

     I was filling a travel mug with coffee when she rushed back into the kitchen, her hair in a crazy pile on top of her head. It made me grin at her. She was tiny to my huge; short and petite to my tall and broad; and hugely pregnant with our baby, whereas I was still just tall and muscular. I didn’t like doing sit-ups or push-ups, or lifting in the cold garage every day after work, but I made some sacrifices to keep in decent shape, because I liked to have a beer or two in the evenings. I understood the concept of the trade-off.

     We were going to be a family--just us--and she would be my forever, not like the rotating roster of women my father kept cycling through his house as “wife.” The average life cycle of a relationship, for him, seemed to be about three years, whereas Avery and I were going on twenty-three.

     “Jenny’s going to be on her own with all those little crazies...and we’re doing the Thanksgiving play rehearsal today…” Avery was getting herself all worked up. 

     Her class of kindergarteners adored her, as they did every year, which was never surprising. She’d been teaching for fourteen years already, straight out of college, and the woman practically had a certificate in herding cats. 

     At least she’d gone to college, which was something her sister would always hang over my head. I wasn’t good enough for Avery, because I’d barely made it through high school. I’d completed all kinds of on-the-job certification courses, but I was not a college man. Just the thought made me break out in hives. 

     Instead, my training had been on the job and I’d been working since I was eight, learning from my father’s team of men how to wire, plumb, drywall and tile. I could demo with the best of them, but it was my patching work that could make experienced contractors weep. I was whatever level was beyond expert.

     Avery struggled to wrap the seat belt around her body and she growled at me as I turned over the engine on my old work truck. “You are never knocking me up again, Atholton. You put this monster in me and it’s going to take a buzz saw and a crane to get it out.” She wiggled down in the seat, trying to shift the baby’s position so she could take a full breath.

     “We’re having a whole football team of babies, Aves.” I grinned down my shoulder at her. “The combination of our exemplary genetic material is a gift to this world. Besides, you’ll make the prettiest babies.” I leaned over to peck at her cheek and she swatted at my shoulder, her hand bouncing off harmlessly. She was smiling despite being irritated.

     I broke the sound barrier to get her to school on time and she took the lunch bag I’d packed for her, shaking her head at me. “One baby, Atholton. I don’t think I can handle any more of your monster spawn. Not if you want into Vegas ever again.” She gestured vaguely toward her lower body. 

     Yeah, I’d nicknamed her lady bits. It made leaving places and uncomfortable situations really simple: Babe, we should get going--we’re going to miss our flight to Vegas. People had no idea what they were overhearing was our own innuendo signaling I wanted to head home to have crazy monkey sex.

     She leaned over to kiss me quickly, waddling across the walkway and up the steps and I watched her go, admiring the sway of her hips. I loved that pregnancy added extra pounds to her boobs and butt. She’d always been curvy, but now she was like a funhouse of squeezy toys, and I was probably wearing her out with my eagerness over all the new goodies.

     I sighed, throwing the truck into drive and pulling away from the curb. Work, for the next couple weeks, was just a little farther downtown. The crew and I were working on new construction, a block of condos that were already a hot commodity. We were two months out from completion, but all the units had already been snapped up, mostly by investors living overseas, from what I’d overheard. China seemed real eager to buy us up, almost as hot a real estate market as Vancouver.

     We’d just broken for lunch, my crew’s favorite time of day, since all the girls working in the high-rise offices sashayed down the streets to pick up sandwiches or salads. Some days I think they leered and catcalled more than they ate, but they were pretty polite as far as most crews went. They saved the catcalls for the shortest skirts.

     Suddenly a sound rang out, like a thousand cannons going off all at once, and the building shook so hard I could hear glass tinkling somewhere on one of the lower floors. It startled me enough that I dropped to my stomach on the floor, a vicious ringing in my ears.

     Not a minute later a cruiser went howling past, light bar ablaze, and I watched it with interest from my eighth floor vantage point. He was moving at a pretty good clip for being in the inner city.

     Another streaked past, four more on his tail. I had a bad feeling about this.

     In the distance there was a long, low wail winding up and it took me a minute to realize it was more responder units--bigger ones: fire trucks and ambulances.

     The noise was deafening as five fire engines rumbled past and a long line of ambulances trailed after. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen...something jumped in my stomach. Something really big was going down, and I pulled out my phone to check out the home page of one of the local news stations. Nothing yet.

     The units left the same way they came, the ambulances first, screaming past only moments later, even as more were on their way in.

     “Noah!” It was Brad, one of my dad’s foremen and the guy I usually reported to. I looked up from the panel I’d been working on, nodding at him in greeting. “Son…” His fingers on my shoulder were gentle. “Doesn’t your woman work at Lafayette?”

     I nodded stupidly, something cold and hard stabbing at my gut.

     “You’d best get to the hospital,” he said gently. “There’s something gone wrong at the school--a lot of hurt kids.”

     I slapped the button for the buck hoist before I realized I’d blacked out on my feet and run forty yards without recollection of movement. Come on, come on, come on...I could rappel down the side of the building faster. 

     I frantically punched at Avery’s contact information on my phone and after four rings it went to voicemail. Again and again and again. It’s ok, it’s ok--breathe. It’s lunchtime and she’s probably wrangling those little monsters...she’s ok.

     My truck was parked in the small lot next to the site and I threw myself in, grinding the starter and shooting gravel across the lot as I tore out onto the street.

     Damn it. A lot of the roads were blocked off by cruisers and traffic was being redirected. I went up one road and down the next, completely incapable of forming a comprehensive route in my head although I knew this city like the back of my hand.

     Finally, I pulled right up to one of the officers and rolled down my window. He eyed me warily as he moved closer. “No getting through this way, sir.” His voice was clipped and authoritative, like he was ex-military.

     “I need help,” I finally said, scrubbing my hands over my face. He saw that I was distraught and he moved a little closer. “My boss said something happened at girlfriend works there...she’s pregnant.” I swallowed hard and my throat made a weird noise. The man’s eyes softened sympathetically. 

     “Lieutenant Jackson!” he barked, and another officer hurried over. “Get your cruiser and give this man an escort to the hospital. Stay with him until he finds his woman.”

     “Thank you, sir,” I stammered, pins and needles prickling over my skin. 

     “Godspeed, son,” he said, dropping a sharp salute in my direction before he turned and walked back to his station.

     Jackson drove like a bat out of hell, siren howling, lights flashing, and I pushed my old tank to keep up with him even while I willed him to drive faster. 

     It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, but it felt like forever before he screeched to a stop near a long line of cruisers outside the hospital, and he threw open his door, shouting to the few officers standing nearby. “Boys, move the truck for him; we’re here on urgent business. Bring the keys to me.”

     Someone grumbled about being a valet wanting his tip as he slid into my truck and Jackson’s fist wound into my shirt, dragging me along behind him as we ran toward the sliding doors of the ER. I was really glad this guy took his charge so seriously.

     The waiting room was like the seventh circle of hell, filled with gurneys and wailing kids. There was blood everywhere, something I’d never been able to handle, and my stomach lurched with nausea as I scanned the room for any familiar faces.

     “Avery MacGowan!” I roared over the din, and for only a second the room quieted.

     “Sir.” It was Jackson again. “We should check in with one of the attendants. I’m sure there are more already in the back--perhaps she’s in there.”

     Satisfied he had a better plan, I had just turned toward him when I heard the tiniest voice.


     I spun quickly. It was Avery’s aide, Jenny, lying on one of the gurneys with a wicked gash across her forehead. Both of her hands were covered in blood--they looked burned. I hurried toward her, dropping to my knees beside her.

     “Jenny. Tell me. Tell me what happened. Where’s Avery?”

     She hiccuped and her pale face folded in as she began to cry. “I’m so sorry...I wasn’t...I couldn’t...she sent me to get something from the classroom and I was on my way back when it happened. I…” She was fully sobbing now and the look on Jackson’s face told me I already had my answer. My stomach lurched.

     “Have you seen her?” I asked, suddenly oddly calm despite my churning guts. My brain had drowned out all the noise and isolated everything but Jenny and her response. “Do you know if she was brought here?” She shook her head again and again.

     “Sir?” There was a woman standing next to me. I’d watched her out of the corner of my eye since hollering for Avery and she’d begun weaving through gurneys in our direction. “I’m Rosalie, executive assistant to the principal at Lafayette.” She stood there like she was waiting for me to say something and I nodded dumbly. 

     “There are teams still at the school,” she said softly, “making sure as many are rescued as possible.”

     Jackson’s shoulder microphone crackled and I saw his face pale even though I couldn’t make out the words. “Ma’am,” he said shortly, addressing Rosalie, and she turned to him with wide eyes. “Can you tell me where Ms. McGowan’s class was at the time of the blast?”

     Oh please, God, no.

     “Ms. MacGowan and Ms. Vargas had Thanksgiving play rehearsal in the gym today, sir. I believe they were just about to break for lunch.”

     A terrible sobbing sound echoed through the large room and Jackson and Rosalie turned to look at me in alarm. It was me. “The gym…” I finally managed to croak, looking beseechingly at Jackson, who quickly swiveled a chair under me as my knees gave out. The words from the microphone had just unspooled in my brain, processed slowly to remove the crackling interference and the din.

     “Suspected gas leak in the cafeteria, adjacent to the gymnasium. Both portions of the structure leveled.”

     “Nurse! Someone, please! We need a nurse!” Rosalee started shrieking as the edges of my vision began to turn black.

     Just like that, my whole world was gone.




     What kind of special hell was this?

     I’d been called in by my supervisor, who insisted she needed all hands on deck and she’d be willing to put me in for time-and-a-half, since this was an emergency situation. Willing, my ass. I was already over for the pay period.

     As it was, I was coming off a shift of four twelves, since I’d pulled an extra, and I’d crashed into bed at 12:30 the night (morning?) before, up in time to feed Jared a super nutritious breakfast of boxed cereal and orange juice, shove his books in his backpack and drag him off to school.

     I’d been running full-out the past week, between work and Jared’s Thanksgiving program at the school. I was trying really hard to help out with his class when I could, as a kind of room parent, even if it wasn’t in any really official capacity. But Jason, my ex, had filled up the rest of the week with his nonsense. He’d complained that I was negatively influencing Jared against him and so again, as was his annual tradition, now I had a court date to contend with.

     Truth was, I made an ok living as an ER nurse. But it would have been a much better living (house instead of apartment, maybe) if I hadn’t had to keep a lawyer practically on retainer since Jason had walked out on us when Jared was four. Not that Jason wanted any sort of custody, mind you--he liked to play head games, so dicking me around was his idea of a good time.

     I barely had time to call Jared’s babysitter--thank God she was available, since I was supposed to have today off. I really needed to look into some subsidized after-school programs, but I’d heard scary things about them from my girlfriends, so I hadn’t exactly been in a rush. 

     The truth of the matter was that we didn’t live in the best part of town, though it was far from the worst. Still, the schools we were zoned for were a little...rough around the edges. And that meant the after school programs were sometimes a little sketchy, run by graduate students and high school kids looking to make eight bucks an hour to sit on their phones when they should have been providing oversight.

     There was a squealing noise when I swung the wheel to tuck into a tight space in the parking garage and I winced, patting the steering wheel. I’d needed to take my car in for service for some time now. I was almost eight hundred miles overdue for an oil change and she was starting to groan and creak and screech in some kind of scary ways. I had a feeling the damage was going to be extreme--more than the price of an oil change, anyway, and that was after the mechanic (my brother) lectured me about maintenance. That was a lecture I’d pay almost anything to avoid.

     Rushing into the staff area, I clocked in and tossed my hastily assembled lunch bag into the communal refrigerator. I prayed my food would be there later when I got to it--if I got to it. Then I swung the door open, into the main hallway...and it was chaos.

     There were gurneys everywhere, most of them filled with children and my eyes swept the gurneys wildly with the instinct of a mother, looking for Jared. What in the hell happened?

     “Hey!” I shouted to the orderly running down the hallway and he turned quickly, a look of absolute panic on his face. “What’s going on here?”

     “You didn’t hear?” He looked incredulous. “Gas leak at Lafayette--leveled the cafeteria and the gymnasium. At least forty-eight dead, that we know of, and the rescue crews are still working. In the meantime, we’ve got easy, two hundred kids, teachers and God-knows-who-else to patch up. A couple of the other hospitals got hit just as hard--we couldn’t handle all of it.”

      Oh god, Lafayette was huge. It serviced a lot of the inner city kids, a monster of a catch-all in the city’s educational system. I shuddered, thankful I lived just outside that district: Jared wasn’t in this group and that meant I could focus.

     “We’re moving them as fast as we can,” he called back as he turned and began to jog down the hall. “Go get more from the front--triage is up there already.”

     The wave of collective panic hit me as soon as I opened the door. The air was thick with wailing, sweat and blood. The room was filled, mostly with little kids, and I could see a blue line outside the doors trying to hold back what was probably a mob of parents.

     “Beth.” I sank to my knees next to one of the triage nurses on duty and she looked up at me in surprise as she held her fingers over the neck of a truly giant man.


     The word came to me unbidden as I looked at the huge man slumped in his seat, his beautiful features slack as he struggled to regain consciousness, his warm brown eyes blink-blinking slowly, and I watched as a huge tear rolled down his cheek.

     I didn’t think for a second. I reached up to brush it away and took his face in my hand. Beth stood, moving quickly away, but I stayed, waiting for his eyes to focus on me. 


     It was my voice.

     “Let me help you. Where are you hurt?”

     His big hand slapped over his heart and his upper body collapsed into his knees, silent sobs shaking his huge shoulders.

     Something stabbed at my heart. This guy lost someone to this... I wished for the thousandth time that I’d gone to school for counseling rather than nursing.

     “Shhh,’s ok.” I knew I was wasting valuable time, but I couldn’t walk away from him and I didn’t even know why. Something about this guy kept me anchored firmly to his side, watching him fall apart, hoping there was something I could do to help.

     “Oh god, she’s gone,” he moaned, slumping forward and I caught him as best I could, pushing my toes into the floor to try to catch him and push him back into his seat. You’re a caregiver, Eve. Act like one. You aren’t personally involved; turn off your heart and turn your brain on.

     “William!” I shouted over the big guy’s shoulder. “I need help!”

     William stepped in quickly. “Eve, hey, it’s ok--I got this.” He braced himself into the big guy’s weight and pushed him back into the chair.

      “Hey,” I said softly to the man as his eyes focused on me. “What can I do to help?”

     His face crumpled again. “I need her back, lady. We were gonna be a family, and I need them back.” He leaned forward and William almost folded in half trying to keep him up.

     “William,” I said softly into the man’s ear, and I felt him shiver at my closeness. “Let’s get this guy a bed somewhere. He’s not fit to leave. He needs rest and probably an IV and definitely some sedatives. Can we do that?”

     William was a charge nurse and he could definitely do that. He liked me and had asked me out several times, which meant I was unduly influencing him, but I had absolutely no qualms about doing so. 

     “Yeah, Eve, I got this.” William stood up, bracing the big guy’s weight carefully as he lifted him. “You get to the kids and I’ll take care of this.”

     Nodding, I moved slowly, carefully past the two of them. 

     I wanted to stay. 

     I wanted to put the man on a gurney and wheel him into the back and tend to him myself. Why? But I knew the answer already: This man loved someone with every fiber of his being--and if I was being honest, I wanted to know what that was like because I had never, ever known what it was to be someone else’s air.

Copyright 2021, Erin FitzGerald

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