Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 9a

Sirens highlight the night: police have used their cars to block off the street, as well as cordon off the crowd that has gathered. Ambulances are parked haphazardly, paramedics scurrying frantically as they tend to the injured, triaging who needs urgent attention and who can wait. Four fire trucks are parked end to end as firefighters direct their hoses at the blaze.

They are too late, though.

I feel my flesh incinerate, pluming into thick black smoke that blots the starlit sky. My bones scorch and groan and crack. Floors collapse in surrender. Electrical equipment explodes like an array of fireworks. But for as much as each of these losses wounds me, these are just things. They can be rebuilt or replaced. It’s the incineration of the greater sum of who I am that pains me.

I have accumulated the thoughts and feelings and whims of countless individuals, as well as their collective attitudes. Despite the years, despite the way people and groups change, those attitudes are primal, if not selfish and self-destructive. It’s rare that they will surprise you, as did Dante when he risked himself to help save others; and rarer still for any adult to exhibit the charm, naiveté, and hopefulness of a child, as did poor Rupe.

But now Rupe lies dead on my floor, burning, the decency of rescuing his corpse for burial sacrificed as firefighters navigate the blaze to safety; and Dante paces on the street, his racing heart only settling now, his hands screaming with pain, as he attempts to assimilate the shock of everything that has happened.

Everybody else watches, crowded together, shoulder to shoulder, some joking at the misfortune of it all, some revelling in the fact that they now have a story to tell – about how they escaped the fire – which’ll exalt them, and a few stare mutely at the destruction, considering how lucky they are to escape.

How many of them will take the events of this night and use them as cause for significant change?

And how many will remain the same?

The fire consumes me as the second floor crumbles, and Constance’s – or perhaps it should be Joy’s – office tumbles and smashes the juncture just as the last of the patrons flee into the night, fire vomited from the exit and shattering the windows.

It is, for now, my last hurrah.

* * *

Amber and Quinn sit on the curb, side by side. Both are quiet. A cool breeze brushes past them, a rude interloper that makes Amber shiver. She huddles closer to Quinn, wanting him to put his arm around her as he usually would. But he sits still. She has never seen him like this before. Even when the knee injury ended his career, he was neither this solemn, nor this quiet.

‘Well,’ Amber says.

Paramedics and police scurry around them. Smoke fills the air. The lights of various sirens flash, a multicolour panorama that is more so distracting than an indicator of the gravity of the situation – at least for Quinn. Now that he’s out here, all he can think about is his relationship, and how something that seemed so sure just hours ago now hangs so precariously.

‘What happened tonight?’ Amber asks.

Quinn finally looks up at her. His face is so callow. Amber can see he is hurt – he is so obvious, although that is something she’s always loved about him: that he is without guile. So few people have that forthrightness and honesty.

‘I saw you,’ he says.

Amber’s mind flits through the night. Surely nothing extraordinary occurred – well, nothing that she recalls immediately. But, of course, there’s a fog, courtesy of a succession of Long Island Ice Teas. When she gets through that, she recalls the night wasn’t uneventful. There was Savage. And Quinn swung – or tried to swing – a chair at him.

Quinn’s eyes search the hubbub around them. He notes Savage, arms held up, the V of his torso pronounced as a paramedic wraps bandages around him. Savage catches his gaze, then nods once, in acknowledgement and gratitude. That is something. Whatever happens tonight, Quinn is proud he can at least always look back and know he did the right thing. But Amber mistakes his scrutiny; the sight of Savage pains Quinn because Quinn must’ve seen something incriminating. Why else would he be this way? Amber doesn’t know how to broach it without surrendering herself.

She reaches across to Quinn, takes his hands, and shakes them. ‘Talk to me,’ she says.

‘I came into the gaming room where you were,’ Quinn says.

Amber has an urge to blurt out the truth, to acknowledge it before it is used to condemn her.

‘And?’ she asks.

‘He was holding you,’ Quinn says. ‘Swinging you around.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Isn’t that enough?’

Amber throws her arms around Quinn. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,’ she says, and then – when she sees Quinn tense – amends,’ I shouldn’t have; no, I shouldn’t have. I just got caught up in what was happening.’

Quinn says nothing. He can’t even look at her.

‘He picked me, spun me around.’

Quinn still won’t meet her eye.

‘If you saw that, you would’ve seen we were surrounded by other women,’ Amber says, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she’s sure she’s formed them properly. ‘It’s just … the show.’

‘Just the show?’

‘Nothing was going to happen. It’s no different to dancing with somebody.’

‘Except he was naked.’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘So that makes it okay?’

Amber puts her arm around Quinn’s back. ‘It was just stupid fun,’ she says. ‘Like if you’d gone to strippers with Marcus and Dante and one of the strippers paid you attention. You’re not cheating. It just is what it is. In that moment.’

She can almost hear Quinn trying to make sense of this – trying to frame it in a way that’s palatable. Given the opportunity, Marcus would take advantage of it. Amber sees that in him. He would relish it – indeed, he’d probably instigate it. Dante would be shy, but entertain it because it would speak to his lack of self-esteem. He’d be flattered and crave the attention. But Quinn’s different. It’s not even a realisation. Quinn would be chaste in every way because that’s who he is.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘But nothing did happen. That was it.’

‘Nothing?’

Amber shakes her head.

‘What about in the restaurant? He had you in his arms.’

‘He came to talk to me.’

‘That’s it?’

Amber considers how much Quinn knows, and how much he’s guessed. ‘He was flirting with me.’

‘Flirting?’

‘You know.’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘He tried to pick me up, okay?’

‘Looks like he succeeded.’

‘No. No. He grabbed me by my hand and pulled me to my feet. That’s when you came in. But I had told him to go.’

‘You’d told him?’

‘Yes.’

‘Really?’

‘If you don’t believe me, ask him.’

Amber’s indignation steels her resolve.

‘So that’s it?’ Quinn asks. ‘Nothing else happened?’

‘No.’

‘No?’

Amber’s attention fixes on Savage. While his chest has been bandaged, he now shows no other sign of distress, and moves among the people who’ve spilled onto the road, talking to them, joking with them, checking to see they’re okay. Everybody’s gaze follows him – he could be a sovereign checking on his troops after a long battle. Sometimes, he’ll signal to paramedics; other times, he’ll put a reassuring hand on somebody’s back, smile, and say something. The other party nods and laughs. They are enamoured with him. Or in awe. Or a combination. Amber doesn’t blame them.

‘Hey?’ Quinn asks.

She recalls feeling Savage’s erection pressed against her crotch, separated only by her underwear; she recalls kneeling before Savage, that gargantuan cock lowered before her. She had kissed it. Perhaps impulsively. Perhaps alcohol had fuelled her. Perhaps a lot of reasons. But she had done it. And in doing it, Amber was sure she’d had the wherewithal, the awareness, to understand what she was doing. She could rationalise it. Say it was done with the knowledge that it would go no further. But it had been done, nonetheless, and she acknowledges now it would’ve been so easy to let go and to let the night – and Savage – take her where it would. But she cannot tell Quinn that. She tells herself hollowly it was a mistake, and a secret she’ll have to keep buried forever.

‘Nothing happened,’ she says.

Quinn puts an arm around her, pulls her close, and kisses her forehead.

* * *

Holly stumbles out into the night, shielded by firefighters. Paramedics rush her, one attempting to escort her to the back of a waiting ambulance while another shoves an oxygen mask onto her face. She pushes them away and doubles over, coughing until her chest wracks with pain. Spittle runs from her lips, and she’s sure she’ll vomit. Her eyes sting and the stench of smoke is embedded in her very skin. Somebody thrusts a plastic bottle of water at her. She takes it, uncaps it, and straightens as she lifts it to her lips.

Then stops.

It’s Marcus who has handed her the bottle of water. He is dressed in his leather pants and has a blanket folded around him.

Holly lowers the bottle, then casually flicks it at him. He catches it against his naked chest, water splashing his face.

‘Come on, Holly,’ he says. ‘It’s a bottle of water.’

‘I don’t want anything from you,’ Holly says, voice a rasp.

‘How about we take what happened in there,’ Marcus says, ‘and just leave it in there? It’s gone. Burned away, with the rest of the place. We can start fresh.’

‘I don’t want to see you again, Marcus. Ever.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’m not. Enjoy your riches. I hope it was worth it.’

Marcus reaches for her hand. Holly snatches it away. Noah takes a step forward. Marcus’s hands come up to his hips.

‘Can I help you?’ he says.

‘I don’t know,’ Noah says. ‘Can you?’

Marcus snorts at Holly. ‘Really didn’t take you long to move on,’ he says. ‘Should’ve known. All things considered.’

‘Is that it?’ Holly asks.

‘What?’

‘If that’s your parting shot, fine. If it’s not, get out whatever else you’ve got, then go.’

Marcus opens his mouth as if to rebuke her. Holly stares back at him, unblinking, her eyes teary – although that is as much from the fire as it is from her being upset.

He takes a step forward – Noah also taking another step forward – and leans into Holly, thrusting the bottle of water into her chest. She takes it and holds it there as Marcus glowers at her.

‘One day, you’re going to realise what you lost,’ he says.

‘Can hardly wait.’

Marcus’s gaze flicks to Noah, then back to Holly. He turns, pivoting so quickly that the blanket swirls dramatically, but Holly can also see the pain in his face and the grief in his eyes – it’s about the most human expression she’s ever seen on him, and fleetingly makes her doubt herself.

Fleetingly.

‘You okay?’ Noah asks.

Holly doesn’t look at him, instead focusing on the blaze, which continues unabated. ‘I’ll live,’ she says.

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