FIRES IN THE COLLEGE

Alarums sounded and Mike unearthed his nose from his work. There had been a fire drill just last week and one particularly inept student in the dorms had made a bomb out of dry pasta in the microwave a week before that. But Mike's nose twitched with the faint scent of smoke, so he hasted to get out.

Mike, the physicist-in-training, nervously curled and uncurled and recurled his fingers around his crossed arms. He stood in a clearing and watched flames eat at progressively greater numbers of windows in his building, and he didn't think the firemen would arrive and extinguish everything before his computer and his papers were turned to crisps and ash.

A coworker came beside him. "What're we going to do now?" He was unconcerned and he was lazily dressed. He sipped coffee from a travel mug.

Mike shrugged.

The entire physics department had collapsed and a score of IT guys had been reprimanded or fired since it was primarily the result of not having backups. Mike lost his job as an assistant. The curricula were in shambles and he wasn't able to finish his learning at the same campus. He spent a month fruitlessly sending out applications to other colleges before forfeiting for fear of unmanageable finances and starting to look for work instead.

Mike's first day at the register of a burger joint humbled and embarrassed him. The supervisor stood over him the entire time, assuring him of his incompetence with her incessant and impossibly obvious instruction. The worst of it was when she read off the numbers on the register and dictated how much and what denominations of change Mike needed to be handing out. She was perfectly aware of Mike's education.

It was a matter of weeks before Mike could tolerate it no longer. The supervisor breathing salt-and-grease-and-garlic-infested breath hot down his neck. The customers with no patience and no IQ. He got a custodial job at his old college through a friend and he quit the cashier position with unabated enthusiasm. His supervisor huffed when he commanded with his finger for her to go fuck herself.

It was a little humiliating, cleaning the halls he ought to be walking. He could bear it, though, and he liked to chat with his old acquaintances. He fancied the idea that his working here made him a prime candidate for rehiring and readmittance when the physics department was back on its feet.

The math classrooms were kept the cleanest. Mike liked most to hang around them. He helped the students there sometimes, and on occasion he even helped the professors with their pet projects. An opportunity was bound to present itself, he hoped.

He shoved a mop back and forth. He stared at the tiled floor and looked for patterns in the grains. He sighed and looked to see that nobody was around, then he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes to rest a moment. He banged his head against it. What had his life come to? It was almost midnight on a Friday and he was in here cleaning floors. What a wreck. He should look into other colleges again.

Alarums worsened the stinging in the back of his head and he pressed his fingers to his temples and willed the noise to stop. When he internalized that the blare wasn't in his imagination he swallowed panic - it was probably just another drill - and tried to remember which way he was supposed to go from here.

Mike walked quickly down the vacated halls. That was one good part about working so late, at least, that there weren't many people to bother or judge him. He turned a corner in the hall and stopped in his tracks. There was a blockade of fire only a meter in front of him. He turned around and sprinted to the next-closest exit he could remember. The nearer he got the stronger the smell of burning became. Sprinklers finally began pouring water on top of him and everything else but it wasn't enough to sate the flames. They spat and hurled out from around the next corner.

He scurried through the maze of halls and classrooms but the fire was spreading and he had nowhere to go. He hid himself in an office that was in the center of it all. He prayed he would be saved before he burned. The overhead lights flickered then went black like it was the answer to his pleading.

Red and orange licked up from underneath the door opposite the wall he sat up against. He lowered himself to the floor to give his lungs relief from the smoke that flooded in and played downward from the ceiling. He closed his eyes and imagined the brightening light away. Harder and harder he imagined until the heat touched his skin. He felt agony, then numbness, then nothing at all.

Written by Sophie Kirschner