for Stephen

“House collapsing,” he said. “Get out now.”

The little girl shrieked and clung tightly to his neck. He grunted, and tugged at her arms until he could breathe again. “Hang on,” he said.

He leaped down the swaying, buckling stairs four at a time, the girl wrapped around him, her face buried in his shoulders. Halfway down the steps began to crumple, so he slithered down the remainder, feet braced for the fall. He rolled, arms cradling the girl, and came up running. The second floor was coming down on them, bathtubs and bunkbeds crashing through the ceiling in a hail of plaster and insulation. He held one arm up to protect his head. He was thinking about the girl he’d ridden next to on the bus that morning, how sweetly she’d smiled, how she’d been wearing a Red Dwarf t-shirt, how they’d talked for thirty minutes and he’d forgotten her name as she stepped off the bus.

The front door was buried behind the remains of an expensive crystal chandelier and a pile of rough-hewn decorative beams. The picture window in the front room was still clear, and miraculously in one piece. He looked around for something to throw and the ceiling snapped ominously. “Glass,” he said, and threw himself at the window. He burst through, and glass slashed and tore his jacket and his arms to ribbons, and dotted the hair of the little girl, who sobbed and wailed and bled, but they were outside, and safe.

The police and fire department were waiting on the sidewalk for him, along with the girl’s parents. Her father took her from him, and the little girl shrieked and flailed blindly, and then all three of them — the girl, her father, and her mother — were crying and thanking him incoherently. The father pummelled him about the shoulders in blind affection. “O my god o my god o my god,” said the mother, “we thought she was dead we thought we’d lost you thank god thank you thank you how can we ever repay you who are you what’s your name thank you thank you thank you…”

“Gregory,” he said, and blushed. “Welcome. Glad she’s okay.”

There were questions and interviews and pictures and reports and more questions and thank-yous and congratulations and more reports, but he made it home before noon, enough time to catch some sleep before his shift started. In his diary he wrote ten short sentences about his day, brusque and complete, one about the weather, one about what he’d eaten, two about the girl on the bus, three about work, two about what he wanted to happen in the next week, and one about the rescue. This is what he wrote:

House collapsing, girl still on the second floor, took her out in time.

And his day completed, he showered, shaved, and went to sleep.