The firefighters had been working hard, but the building still collapsed, destroying six apartments, Maria's included. Every item of furniture, every article of clothing, every memento was now gone. All she had left were her purse, her cellphone—now with a crack across its screen—and the shirt and pants she had on now. The sky was pitch black. Children cried around her as tenants from the other buildings in the complex came out to gawk. Everyone seemed to have gotten out safely. At least, no one acted like anyone was missing.
Something flew out of the blaze and fluttered through the air to Maria's feet. A postcard. There was nothing written on it except "Love you, praying for you — Albert" and a neighbor's address. On the other side was a photo of an image of the Virgin Mary in which she inexplicably had three hands.
The card was addressed to a Dorothy Winston, from apartment 1338. Maria remembered an older woman living there. She would greet Maria every time they passed by, whether Dorothy was just getting her mail or Maria was coming back from a night out.
But where was she? The elderly couple from 1334 was all right. So was the young family from 1331. Maybe not everyone was as safe as she thought. She ran to the elderly couple. "Excuse me, do you know Dorothy Winston? Have you seen her?"
"Dorothy?" the husband said. "Don't know no one named Dorothy." His wife shook her head. Maria went to the father of the family from 1331, but he didn't know Dorothy either.
"Does anybody know if Dorothy's okay?" If she was, then surely she'd be happy the postcard survived. It seemed like an important memento, perhaps a note from a late husband, a lost lover, an old friend.
And if she wasn't…
Maria put the postcard in her purse. When she got the chance, she could turn it in at the front office. Perhaps Dorothy was out of town, and could come back and claim it. Or, her next of kin. There was simply no way to be sure at this point. Right now, Maria needed to figure out what she herself was going to do for the night. She needed a place to stay.
She checked her contacts. Not her mom, especially not tonight. Krista and Stieg were in Spain together. Wanda had no room. Coworkers… none she liked or trusted enough…
Serena? Of course. She was just a subway ride away, and lived in a nice townhouse in Eastmont. Maria gave her a call and told her what happened.
"Oh… Oh my God," Serena said "Are you all right? You're not hurt?"
"Y-yeah, I'm fine, but… it took everything. I don't suppose…"
"Are you kidding? Come on over. I've got family visiting, but I can roll out the sofa bed downstairs. Stay as long as you need to. God, I am so sorry."
"Thanks." And Maria headed out to the sidewalk, down the next block to the station. She stepped into a Starbucks and ordered an iced mocha. When she got her total, she reached into her purse, and…
…it wasn't there.
"No!" She had her phone, an electric bill, the Virgin Mary postcard, a broken necklace chain, three mini-bottles of Smirnoff, and her makeup… but no wallet.
She'd taken it out to order something online just a few hours ago. She never put it back in the purse before she ran out. Her ID, her cards, her cash… all gone.
"Never mind," she told the barista. "Thank you. And sorry."
She skulked back to the dull light of the street lamps. With no money, she couldn't buy a ticket. And she'd forgotten to take the postcard to the apartment office. She couldn't even get a simple thing like that right.
Maria called Serena again.
"Okay, don't worry," Serena said. "I'll come get you… Wait, actually, I just remembered, my brother's in town, and I think he's close to your neighborhood right now. I'll see if he can come get you."
A spark lit up in Maria's chest. "Eddie?" As in, the man whose torch she'd carried all through high school, and off and on since? "O-Okay, I guess."
"I'll have him meet you at the station. It's Sable Street, right? I'll text you once I've heard back from him."
Maria stood in a daze. Eddie. Plenty of men had stumbled in and out of her life over the years, but they were all fleeting pleasures, good for a little fun until she got tired of them, or vice versa. When they were gone, it was Eddie she'd dreamed of—his touch, his kiss, his tender voice. Only she had never told him how she felt. Now he was engaged to some girl he'd met in grad school, forever out of Maria's reach. It wasn't enough to lose her apartment, was it? Now she had to spend a train ride with the man life had denied her.
She got a text from Serena a moment later. He was on his way.
Maria drifted across another street and waited at the top of the steps at the station. She drank one of the mini-bottles, thinking of a fantasy she'd once concocted, after a breakup with… oh, some loser. Her: lost on the highway, needing a ride. Eddie: the Good Samaritan, offering her the passenger seat. Her: inventing all sorts of sensual ways to repay him.
Eddie called out to her as he turned the corner, and ran up to the steps. "Serena told me what happened. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay. Thanks for coming out on such short notice."
"Anything for an old friend."
They took the stairs down. Eddie used a card to get Maria through the turnstile, and the train arrived in only a few minutes.
They took a seat. They were the only people in the car. Maria had a nice buzz going.
She took the vodka bottles out of her purse. "Want one?"
"No thanks," he said, "I've already had enough for tonight."
"Suit yourself." She downed one of them. In no time, she felt like she had a nice comfy cushion inside her head.
Maria sat with her elbows on her knees, her eyes on the man beside her. There were two stops on the way to Serena's. It would take seven minutes to arrive at the second stop. Eddie had gotten out his phone, and was writing a text message. At first Maria thought it was to Serena, but the name on top was Lenore.
Right. His fiance. Her previous messages, all heart emojis, were dead giveaways. Even her name was prettier. Eddie sent a text, mentioning "My sister's friend." When Eddie was done, Maria saw his home screen, a photo of himself with Lenore. Everything about that woman said prom queen, valedictorian, gold medal.
Maria drank the third bottle.
Her life was just rubbing it in now. All she could think about was the sort of things Eddie and Lenore might do together in bed, and the fact that she, Maria, wasn't doing them. She'd done everything right in her life—graduated from college, got a nice job, lived on her own—so didn't she deserve better? Didn't she deserve something for herself?
Her greatest dream was right next to her, and yet forever out of reach.
Or was he?
The train stopped, and opened the doors, but no passengers came in, at least not into this car. Maria had never seen the subway this quiet.
Five minutes before the next stop… How much could she do until then?
The doors slid shut. Maria began to rest herself on Eddie's side. What else did she have to lose?
"Kiss me," she said.
"Kiss me," Maria said, laying her arms around his shoulders. "And don't stop there."
"Whoa, hey." He wriggled aside and pushed against her, not too hard, but enough to separate them, just as she was about to touch her lips to his. "What are you doing?"
"I want you." She got her arms around him again, and kissed his neck. "I want you so bad. I always have. Make love to me. Please."
Eddie made a sudden scoot back, bumping his shoulder into a pole. "Whoa!" He flashed the back of his hand, the diamond ring sparkling on his finger. "I'm engaged! Didn't Serena tell you?"
"Lenore doesn't have to find out. Besides, you deserve something for all your help."
He stared back, his face red, moistening with sweat. "Well…"
"You're thinking about it." Maria crawled on the seats toward him. Her purse fell onto the floor. "Come on, we don't have much time." She rose up on her knees, laid her hands on his shoulders. "Or we can start here and—"
"Stop!" Eddie shoved her back and marched over to the opposite side of the train. "I just can't do this!"
"Why do you have to be so selfish?" A sob forced its way through her throat. "I'm drunk and homeless and horny and trying to show you my gratitude and… I've loved you all these years and you're just throwing it right back at me and… agh…" She spoke through heavy moans, barely coherent even to herself, until she couldn't even speak anymore. Of course he wouldn't want her now, not with her face red and twisted and covered with tears and snot. "I get it. You don't want to take advantage of me. But I'm begging you. Please. Take advantage of me."
Eddie didn't say anything. He stared straight ahead, jaw clenched.
The items in her purse were scattered on the floor, not that there were many of them. She wiped her moist face on her arm, got down on her hands and knees, and gathered them together.
"Nobody has to know," Maria said. "Really. It's just… This just is all I have left in the world. I'm gonna have to start my whole life over again. I need something. I need you. I'm just asking for a little favor."
Eddie sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "This isn't what either of us needs right now."
Maria let out one last groan.
Last on the floor was the Virgin Mary postcard, for Dorothy from Albert. Dorothy, who for all Maria knew could be alive and safe, or who could be a charred corpse beneath a collapsed building. Maria started crying all over again. If things had gone differently, she might herself be buried under smoldering rubble right now. And what was she doing now? Forcing herself on her friend's brother.
There was no time left. Even if they started now, they'd miss the next stop. Whoever boarded would deserve an explanation. And Eddie wasn't any more likely to say yes when they got to Serena's.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I feel like such a piece of shit."
Eddie helped her to her feet, and they held on together to the hanging loop. "You've had a bad night."
Her lust was still searing her from within. Just a few minutes ago, she'd felt like a femme fatale seducing the man of her dreams. But she'd also had enough drunk guys pawing at her and rubbing against her over the years to know what she must have looked like. She probably reminded him of Gollum clawing after the Ring.
She still ached for him, though. "You must really love Lenore."
"She's everything to me." He was clutching the loop with all his strength. "Did you mean what you said? About always..."
Maria nodded. "Ever since high school. I was just too shy to say so."
"Huh. So if we had..." Eddie gazed at Maria, and she thought she could see some hint of desire, some lingering worm eating at him. But he shook his head. "No. We'd just be hurting each other."
The train stopped, and the doors slid open. Two older men and a pregnant woman, each of them alone, walked in. Maria and Eddie walked out.
A few stars managed to glimmer through the city's haze. Maria wasn't sure how she'd be able to look Serena in the eye, though right now she was so bleary she could drop right on the couch without speaking to anybody and not need an excuse. Who knows what kind of fallout she could have caused if she got what she wanted, if he'd jeopardized his relationship with Lenore? Maybe it wouldn't cause as much damage as the fire. Or maybe it would cause even more.
On the way to Serena's townhouse, Maria took the postcard out of her purse and gave it another look. She supposed she owed Dorothy, or maybe the Virgin, for slapping her back to her senses. And Albert, whoever he was.
"You were looking at that on the train." Eddie said, "Where'd you get it?"
"I found it after the fire," Maria said. "It belongs to a neighbor from my building, and… I don't know where she is. I want to get it back to her, but I don't even know if there's anybody to give it back to. I meant to take it to the apartment office. It slipped my mind."
"Wherever she is, I hope she's all right," Eddie said. "There's always tomorrow."
Maria slipped the postcard back into her purse. "Thank you. For everything."
"Don't worry. Nobody has to know."
They arrived at the front gate of the townhouse complex, and Eddie walked her to his sister's front door. Maria dropped right into the unfolded sofa bed downstairs. The same heat that had nearly driven her crazy still simmered deep within, just a little. But it was no longer a raging fire.
By morning, it had gone out.