****** WINNER ******
Speed Of The Beat Of My Heart
Sirens almost as loud as her heart had been moments ago told her she was no longer in her apartment but it was the choking smell of smoke that made her open her eyes. The corridor she was in was filled with black smoke that made her cough violently and she looked back and forth, trying to get her bearings in a strange new place knowing she needed to find the fastest exit before the flames found her. Before she could take a step in either direction she felt the tug to go left. “Guess I know which way isn't out now,” she muttered as she took off in the direction the tug was pulling her in and away from what was probably the exit. She went past three doors with her t-shirt pulled up to cover her nose and mouth before she found the door she was looking for; the origin of the tug. A quick tap at the brass door handle made her yelp in pain at the heat. Mac backed up and looked for something to use to open the door other than her tender hand and came up empty.
“Couldn't make this easy for me could you?” she grumbled towards the ceiling.
Using the thick waistband of her sweat pants she fumbled until the door knob turned and she could get in. The first thing she noticed was the flames blocking the window running along the back of the wall. Coughing she looked around frantically until she saw the small form curled in a ball at the foot of the bed. She ran to the child and tugged on the pajamas to turn her over. When she pulled the girl up into a sitting position she saw beautiful brown eyes filled with tears that looked up at her with fear.
“Where are your parents?” Mac asked.
The only response from the child was more tears. Mac scooped her up, registering the feel of the child's arms tightening around her neck almost strangling her and turned back the way she came. This time the corridor was darker, the end of it illuminated by flames. She turned right in the direction of the stairs trying to concentrate inward to know where the other people in the house were but the tug remained silent.
“Where's your parents' room sweetie?”
The girl raised her head and pointed to the door before the staircase. Mac put her down and motioned for her to stand behind her. She tried the waistband of her pants again but couldn't get a good enough grip on the door before the heat made her pull back so she backed up, wary of the child behind her, reared back and kicked at it. It took three tries before the door swung open revealing a room completely engulfed in flames. Mac grabbed the kid and ran down the stairs, the urgency to get out becoming greater and she got the feeling there wasn't much time left. The front door in the living room was blocked by flames so she followed the tug in the other direction to what turned out to be the kitchen. The room was suffocating, the fire sucking the oxygen in and leaving smoke that seemed to settle heavily in her lungs. She saw the door but tripped over something and fell to her knees keeping a tight hold on the child in her arms who seemed too traumatized to make a sound. She turned around and came face to face with a woman. Mac felt her neck for a pulse but found none. Unable to even make out the woman's features she dragged her to the door anyway, the extra weight slowing her down and costing precious seconds as the fire from the other room came closer and the smoke made her lungs threaten revolt. She managed to get the kitchen door open but the child refused to let go of her neck when she tried to push her outside to safety so with no choices left, she pulled the woman out with them into the night. Mac made it only a few yards from the house before she ran out of strength and collapsed on the grass, the girl cushioned by her body. She could see the sirens now on the other side of the house, filling the driveway and the neighbors that lined the front of the house watching as the firemen attempted to battle the flames. Getting to her feet with the girl still firmly clinging to her like a monkey she ran for the firemen.
“I pulled that woman out but I don't think she's breathing” Mac said as she pointed to the place she had left the girl's mother. Two of the firemen ran off in that direction and another lead them to the ambulance. Mac sat quietly in the van while the medics attended to both her and the girl.
“We'll take you to the hospital now and the other bus will take anyone else,” one of the medics said.
Mac sat still with an oxygen mask over her face and stroked the child's head. They kept them together at the hospital and after repeated promises that she was fine they let her sit next to the girl's bed. She watched her sleep and wondered what her life would be like now that her parents were gone. The fact that there hadn't been a tug to get her mother said that she was already dead and Mac's mind flashed back to the image of her parent's room filled with flames. She sighed as she watched the steady rise and fall of the girl's chest and hoped that there were relatives who could take her in.
Mac had drifted off when the sound of voices woke her. From the conversation it sounded like police officers were talking to the nurses outside the curtain. She got up planning to escape before she could be questioned and felt the world begin to fall away again. By the time the nurse lead the two officers to the girl Mac was back in her apartment on the floor against the wall.
It took all her energy to get up and make her way to bed crawling between the soft blue sheets. She dragged her body to the top of the bed with her hands and lay with her face turned to the window. Before she drifted off she registered the time 3:00 am. She had been gone for four hours but it felt like much longer.
When Mac woke again it was two in the afternoon and her head was killing her. She groaned and rolled onto her back pushing her short black curls out of her face. The night's events played back in her mind and she wondered how the girl, whose name she didn't even know, was doing.
Mac rolled out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen to start some coffee in the hope that it would give her a much needed boost. Whenever the tug happened it sucked her of all her energy for a few days. She scooped out coffee into the filter and pressed the start button before heading to the bathroom to shower hoping that soaking her head for a few minutes would help with the headache that just seemed to grow worse with every step she took.
The first time the tug happened she had been thirteen years old. One minute she was safely in her bed falling asleep and the next she was struggling for breath, her heart hammering in her chest. She had struggled out of bed, sure she was dying, planning to get her parents but she never even made it halfway to her door before the world went dark. When she woke up again she was in a car next to a boy around her own age strapped to the back seat. There was a gash on his forehead and his left foot was bent at an almost impossible angle with blood running from his knee to his white sneakers. His parents were in the front seat and even at thirteen she could tell by their unseeing stare that they were very much dead. The tug told her to save the boy she had to get him out of the car fast. It was anything but easy. He cried in pain while she fought with his seatbelt and then the door handle and finally started pulling him out of the car.
“Wait! I can't leave them.”
“We'll go get help once I get you out,” a thirteen year old Mac promised.
“I promised my dad I would watch out for my little brother. I can't leave him in here.” He said resisting Mac's efforts to pull him out.
Mac turned to other side of the backseat and saw the three year old in the car seat sitting by the other window for the first time. Something kept pushing her to save them but with two of them in the car now and the sense of urgency getting stronger it seemed too monumental a task for her and she felt tears of frustration well up in her eyes. She took a deep calming breath and turned back to the other boy.
“What's your name kid?”
“Josh I promise once I pull you out I'll come back for your brother but I can't carry you both and you're the one by the door so I have to get you out first.”
Josh nodded tears streaming down his face as he let her help him out of the car and onto the grass. Mac turned to go back into the car and finally saw what drove the sense of urgency she felt beating in her heart. The car tilted precariously on the edge of a cliff. The front tires were more over the edge than on the ground and all Mac could see beyond the drop were tree tops. She had no idea where she was or what she was doing there but she mustered all the courage she had and climbed back into the car more carefully this time, mindful that jolting it could send it over the edge with her in it. Shaking with fright she unbuckled the car seat and pulled the toddler out of it, dragging his limp body slowly out of the dangerously rocking car. By this time other cars were pulling over to the shoulder of the road and people were running towards them but the car went over the edge before anyone could reach. As she watched it go holding on to the unconscious boy still in her arms she heard Josh's heartbreaking scream and felt herself falling away from the scene until everything went black again and she woke up in her room her cries an echo of Josh's.
Neither of her parents believed that she had actually left the room, insisting it was merely a nightmare but Mac knew better. The tug as she came to think of it happened with no rhyme or reason, it wasn't confined to nighttime and she had absolutely no control over it. It was the curse that had driven her to therapists, so called psychics and even an exorcist once. It was part of the reason she had trouble making friends as a teenager and why she worked from home as a magazine writer ensuring that she didn't have to be in front of someone when it happened and didn't have to go in to work when her body was finally brought back and she was exhausted.
Mac hissed at the cold water, shivering until she adjusted the temperature to lukewarm. She tilted her head back letting the water wash away the memories of her first and most recent tug. By the end of her shower five minutes later the headache had been reduced to a dull throb and she felt somewhat better or at least more awake. She toweled off and studied her reflection in the mirror as she ran a comb through her wet hair. She had been tall for her age by ten when the growth spurt started finally stopping at a few inches short of six feet by eighteen. Her blue eyes looked tired and haunted by all they had seen in her life and her normally dark complexion seemed pale. She made a face at her reflection and followed the heavenly smell of coffee into the kitchen grabbing a cup from the sparse cupboard and adding cream and sugar before taking a sip.
She spent the rest of the day working feverishly on the story that she needed to submit by Friday. Most of the research had been done but she hadn't finished compiling the information. She had planned to use yesterday to do that and do the outline for the story with Wednesday and Thursday to polish it up but now it was Wednesday evening, she had lost an entire day and she was behind schedule on what had already proved to be a difficult assignment.
Mac pushed herself on just coffee until the outline was basically done and she had a fair idea of what she wanted to write and then exhausted, climbed into bed at 2:00 am falling asleep the second her head touched the pillow.
Her steps were almost soundless as she ran along the bridge passing the cars inching along in the early morning traffic. Her regular two mile run ended at Red Run gym.
“Morning Carly,” she said with a smile.
“Hi sweetie. You know if I was paying for gym membership I think I would actually do my work out here to make sure I got my money's worth.” Carly teased.
“Don't you know by now I only signed up so I could talk to you three times a week?” Mac said with a mischievous wink.
Carly blushed and pushed the register in Mac's direction.
“If you were saying that with flowers in your hand….”
“I'll be sure to keep that in mind,” Mac said, laughing as she made her way into the gym and headed to the weight area.
“Hey Jason, how's it hanging?” Mac asked with an amused smirk gesturing to the weights he was holding inches off the ground, as she selected her own weights and sat next to him.
“If my arms don't fall off it'll be hanging just fine,” he said with a grunt as he struggled to lift them.
Mac laughed as she went through her reps easily. Jason was a skinny computer geek attempting to do his own version of a makeover. He figured if he was buff enough his geek status wouldn't matter to women.
“Think positively Jase. If it falls off maybe a cute doctor will piece it together again,” Mac said with a mischievous grin as she moved behind the bench press to spot him.
“Not funny Mac.”
“You're right. Maybe an old guy will do it instead to spare you the humiliation.”
Jason's expression was a cross between pain and anger.
“Use the emotions you're feeling to finish the set buddy,” Mac suggested.
He got to eight before she had to lift the weight bar from his chest and place it back in position on the bar over his head. He sat up panting.
“How do body builders do it?” he complained.
“You just have to want it badly enough. Everyone starts like this and motivation helps you get better,” Mac said with a reassuring pat on his back.
“Do you think this will even work? What if absolutely nothing changes?”
“I think if you're not doing this for you but because you think it will attract women then you won't be getting much out of it and that means you would've just been wasting your time,” Mac said frankly as she settled on the bench he had just vacated and reached for the weights.
“Must you always talk in those riddles?” he asked exasperated.
“I mean that if this was about you feeling better about your body solely for you then your motivation won't be tied to someone else's reaction to the end result. If your motivation is tied to other people it will be really easy to lose it because there's the chance that it won't work the way you want it too.” Mac said finishing her ten and sitting up.
“Be happy about you and concentrate on here,” she said gently patting his chest, “the right woman for you probably won't care about how built you are.”
“You know it would really blow if after all of this work it doesn't make a difference because I would probably have lost most of the functionality in my arms for nothing.” Jason said smiling at her.
“It wouldn't be for nothing. If you're really buff at least no one will think to use you for target practice.” Mac said with a laugh.
He shrugged as he spotted her second set.
“Or they'll just come with more guys and it'll hurt even more when I go to the hospital all muscular, bruised and without a single scrape on my knuckles to prove I put up a fight.”
Mac grinned at him as he put the bar back in place so she could stand.
“You have a point. Maybe you should take taekwondo classes with me.” She teased.
“But seriously though, if some chicks can't see what a great person you are then they're not worth your time.”
“That's a lot easier to say when you're a chick magnet, gorgeous and a natural at all this stuff,” Jason said in frustration as they moved to another area and Mac sat on an ab pro machine.
“I bet you have no problems getting women to dance with you at a club or talk to you in a bar or even notice you exist.”
Mac paused and sat up.
“My deadline is Friday. You wanna go to a bar and celebrate? We could just hang out by the bartender and see what happens.” Mac suggested.
Jason smiled, “Does this outing come with pointers?”
“Sure, it'll be fun,” she said with a grin as she resumed her workout.
“Ok time to head back to the grind,” Mac said with a sigh as she walked out of the gym with Jason two hours later. She pushed damp locks out of her face and gave him a smile.
“You heading for the office now?”
Jason studied her hesitating. The first time he met her she was wall climbing in the gym and he had been struck dumb by how beautiful she was. He still noticed her now but there was no longer that star struck feeling when he saw her.
“She's gay and completely out of your league,” he muttered under his breath as he watched her impatiently push black shoulder length curls out of her face. The color was striking against her ice blue eyes and olive skin.
“Actually I was thinking I might grab a cup of coffee first. Feel like joining me before you go off to work on that article?”
“Coffee sounds good, chocolate croissants sound even better,” Mac said looping her arm through his as she pulled him in the direction of Obsidian's Café.
“She looks nice,” Mac nodded in the direction of a brunette sitting by the window alone.
“Nice to look at but I have no idea what to say to her. Anyway she looks busy so it's probably not a good idea to disturb her.” Jason hedged.
“Exactly, you already have an opener,” Mac said subtly pointing at the book the woman was reading. “Just take out your phone, go online and look up the author. Tell her one of your friends is always on you to read it and you wanna know if it's any good.”
Jason gave a look that clearly said he thought she was sending him to his execution rather than a possible date.
Mac shrugged, “Suit yourself then. Just don't complain that you can't get a date if you won't even try.”
“It's way too early in the day to get shot down. I'd rather not be miserable all day.”
Mac took another sip of her latte and motioned the waitress over.
“Hi, could you do my friend here a favor and bring the woman over there a,”
“Ignore her she's not thinking clearly” Jason panicked.
“What do you think she'd like?” Mac asked with a mischievous grin.
“She's a regular and seems to like the chocolate danish a lot,” the waitress suggested with an answering smile for Mac.
Mac grinned at her and handed her the money for it.
“Ok then one chocolate danish from my buddy Jason for the pretty brunette.”
“Coming right up,” the waitress laughed at the embarrassment on Jason's face.
“Stop,” Mac said amused. “You need to look cute not horrified when the waitress gives it to her. You didn't want to get rejected by going up to her so now you're not going to.”
“When she says she's on a diet or takes it and still doesn't want anything to do with me it'll still be a rejection.” Jason fumed.
Mac sighed and shrugged. “Look, I've only known you for a few months but you're the only person I can actually call a friend. I want to thank you for that by helping you.” She said earnestly.
Jason smiled, “Do I get a muffin as a consolation prize my friend?”
“Sure, but either way this approach is gonna sting a lot less than an upfront one. Anyway it's just a lesson in breaking the ice with no expectations attached.”
Mac stuck out her tongue at him and he threw back his head and laughed.
“You're the only person who can do that and still be cute,” Jason said shaking his head in bemusement.
“Keep that smile on your face and nod at her.” Mac advised.
Jason froze and looked up to find the subject of their attention looking right at him as the waitress explained the pastry. Mac snapped her fingers in his face.
“C'mon the smile is the next crucial step. If she smiles back you can leave here happy but you have to smile.” Mac said through gritted teeth.
Jason managed a small clearly uncomfortable smile and a stiff nod then gave Mac a ‘deer in the headlights' look.
“Next time we'll pump alcohol in you to loosen you up before we try this,” she said with a shake of her head.
Jason spent the next ten minutes on an emotional rollercoaster, afraid when she didn't touch the danish but instead finished her coffee. Fright turned to despair when he waitress took the plate back. Mac winced as he shot daggers at her. Despair turned to hope when the waitress brought a takeaway bag back to the table and hope to elation as the woman took the bag with her and passed right by their table with a smile for Jason.
“Thanks for the danish, I'll see you around sometime.” She said with a wink.
Jason smiled back at her and watched her walk out the door with a grin. “Did you see that? She liked it.”
Mac laughed and wondered if she should point out that he let her get away without asking for a phone number eventually deciding that bursting his confidence bubble right now would negate his victory.
“Well since you're in such a good mood breakfast is on you,” Mac said standing up with a smirk. “I have to run but you're most welcome.”
Jason laughed and gave her a hug.
“Thanks Mac, you made my week,” he said against her hair.
“Wait a minute,” he said when she reached the door, “I was supposed to ask for a number wasn't I?”
“No worries, you can ask for it next time you see her even if it means you have to practically live in here to find her again.” Mac grinned.
She still had that smile on her face twenty minutes later as she got off the bus and headed up her street when her heart rate started to speed up. She looked around her in panic knowing she was still too far from her apartment and it was vital that the few people milling around the neighborhood not witness the tug. She sprinted away from her apartment choosing a less populated street and ducking into an apartment yard managing to reach the back before the sound of voices stopped her short. She inched back along the side of the building and crawled behind the well kept bushes lining the edge of the property. She could fit there out of sight unless you were looking for her there and even as she struggled to curl up enough to be completely concealed the roar of blood in her ears attained a deafening pitch and the pounding in her chest came to a painful climax.
“No,” she whimpered, to weak from the pain to move any further.
As her world faded to black the last thing she saw was her foot sticking out of the bushes and she hoped fervently that when her body came back no one was around to see it suddenly appear or trip on it.
She opened her eyes to the shrill ringing of the fire alarm.
“Again? Couldn't you take me to Hawaii for once to save someone from drowning?” she complained as she rubbed her still tender palm.
Mac found the stairwell and went up taking the steps two at a time, still somewhat energized from her workout that morning. She got to the second landing when the tug sent her to the other side of the building. At the bottom of the steps leading to what she figured was the third floor she discovered that she was in Wesleyann University according to the notice board which meant she was somewhere she could have gotten to with two bus rides.
“Huh, I don't think I've ever been tugged somewhere this close to home before, pity you didn't let me just take public transportation,” she muttered to the ceiling.
At the bottom of the stairs was the origin of the tug. A woman lay half on the last stair, her dark blond hair fanned out beneath her giving a scary contrast to the blood running down the side of her face.
“Hey, can you open your eyes for me?” Mac gently shook her afraid to move her until she could figure out how badly hurt she was.
She shook her shoulder a little harder when she didn't get a response and was eventually rewarded with glazed green eyes staring up at her in confusion.
“Am I dead?” she whispered.
“Nope, sorry you're still in the land of the living and any second now that knock to your head is gonna prove it,” Mac said with a wry grin as she rocked back on her heel.
The woman's hand instantly went to her head, coming away stained with blood and Mac watched her go from confused to afraid before her eyes glazed over again, this time with pain as the shock wore off.
“Can you move your legs?” Mac asked. “What's your name by the way?”
“Rachel,” she said as she tried to get up.
“We need to get out of the building. I don't know where the fire is and I don't want to take the chance to leave you while I find a paramedic,” Mac paused as she finally figured out what was wrong with the situation. Unlike Wednesday night there was no suffocating smoke.
“There's a fire?” Rachel panicked.
“Do you remember what happened before you fell?” Mac asked as a sense of foreboding came over her.
The tug urged Mac to the exit.
“Let's get you out of here,” Mac warily took Rachel's hand as she pulled her up.
Rachel was barely standing on her own before she cried out in pain, sinking to the floor holding her ankle.
“It hurts so much. I think I twisted it when I fell,” she said through gritted teeth.
Mac carefully examined it while Rachel winced in agony at every touch.
“Maybe if I leaned on you I could make it down the stairs?”
Mac felt her heart rate pick up. The tug was either taking her back before she helped Rachel which was unlikely or it was warning her to get them out now.
“And this is why we life weights,” she said mockingly.
“What?” Rachel asked confused and a little wary of the stranger in front of her.
“Nothing. Stay still and I'll carry you downstairs,” Mac said as she put one hand under Rachel's knees and another around her back, picking her up and starting for the stairs.
“Are you sure I'm not too heavy for you?” Rachel asked apprehensively as she tightened her choke hold on Mac's neck.
“Oh ye of little faith,” Mac said in mock hurt.
“It's just that I already rolled down one set of stairs and I don't want to be dropped down the other.”
Mac laughed, her eyes dancing with mischief as she raced down the two flights of stairs to the ground floor. They were within sight of the exit when the building started to shake. Mac slid down next to the stairs, cushioning Rachel's body with her own. She realized how much trouble they were in when the rumbling started and they heard things in the upper floors tumbling to the ground.
“Get down Rachel,” Mac shouted as she pushed Rachel into the fetal position between her legs and moved over her to make them as small as possible.
“This one is stronger than the one earlier. Maybe we should make a run for it.” Rachel shouted over the noise.
Mac considered the odds of making it in one piece out the double doors as small pieces on concrete came down around them. She was still weighing he possibility that carrying Rachel would slow her down when the building made the decision for her. The shaking reached a violent climax sending the shelves on their floor crashing down. Mac glanced up in horror as the structure began to cave in around them. She kept one hand around Rachel holding her in place and the other over her own head. She could feel Rachel sobbing in both fright and pain under her and the tug started up again. They were no longer safe where they were. She started dragging a resistant Rachel with her to the far side of the wall.
“No! We're safer where we were just now.” Rachel screamed as she pulled against Mac.
Out of patience and time Mac picked her up in a fireman's carry over her shoulder and raced to the side away from the entrance, crawling into a small space between a trophy cabinet and the wall it had tilted against. She positioned Rachel facing her this time.
“Look I know you're scared and you don't know me from Adam but I'm begging you to trust me.” Mac said as she captured Rachel's face in her hand. “Please trust me.”
Blue eyes locked with frightened green as long minutes passed and the world fell apart around them. They linked hands, never once breaking the gaze as green eyes grew calmer trusting the stranger in front of her to take care of her no matter what. Mac used her thumb to wipe away the trace of tears and smiled as Rachel leaned into her touch giving an answering smile with her eyes.
The shaking stopped and the eerie silence broke the spell. Mac blinked and moved to look around them. There was concrete and debris everywhere making the path to the exit into a mountain and more than likely blocking the doors. There was still a ceiling so the whole building had not collapsed just part of it.
“Damn, we would've been pancakes if we'd stayed there,” Mac said with a low whistle.
Rachel leaned over her shoulder and shuddered at the sight of the stairs and where they would have been buried under huge chucks of concrete.
“Thanks for showing up when you did,”
“No problem,” Mac said smiling at her.
“Stay here while I see if we can get out,” Mac said as she pulled herself out of their tiny space and made her way slowly in the direction of the exit with only dim light to guide her. As she climbed carefully over the destruction she wondered where everyone else was that they had completely missed Rachel lying there when they were evacuating. The climbing strained her muscles but her ability to make this much headway was definitely owed to all that rock climbing and she made a mental note to do a little more that her current quota of it.
As she feared the entrance was completely blocked but there was a small shard of light where the wall should have been.
“Why couldn't I be home working on my article like a normal person who actually wants to have enough money for food?” Mac whined to herself. “At this rate it'll never get finished.”
She found a semi sturdy pile to stand on and started moving pieces of concrete out of the way of the hole. It took at least an hour before it was cleared enough for them to fit through. Her arms were bleeding and her body felt like rubber with all her energy drained.
“Can we get out?” Rachel asked as soon Mac got close enough to see her.
“Yeah, how's your ankle?”
“Hurts like crazy but I can make it out of here regardless so let's go.”
“Great attitude, you're gonna need it because the place is an obstacle course,” Mac said only half joking.
“You're hurt.”Rachel exclaimed as she examined the cuts littering Mac's body.
“Nah, I'll be alright.” Mac said shrugging it off. “Climb on my back.”
“Are you sure? I don't want to hurt you more than you're already hurt and we're talking about climbing over concrete not some walk down a stairwell.”
“C'mon we don't have all day and if I stop to rest I may not bother to get back up,”
Rachel sighed and climbed on gingerly.
“You're gonna have to hold me tighter than that. I need my arms to get us there so your job is to stay on.”
Rachel tightened her arms around Mac's neck and buried her face in the crook of her neck.
It took twice as long to get back to the small hole and by the time she sat Rachel down she was shaking with exhaustion.
“I'll go out first so you don't injure your ankle on the way down.” Mac said positioning herself to slide feet first through the hole. “Can you get down by yourself?”
Rachel nodded nervously.
Mac gave her a reassuring smile and slid down. She had underestimated the height and fell to the grass that was littered with debris and shards of glass glad she went first.
“Ma'am? Are you ok?” a tall man from the crowd asked as they came toward her.
“Fine, thanks. Someone else is still in there though and she needs an ambulance.”
“I'll call the paramedics over,” he said running off immediately.
Mac looked up and saw the crowd of people looking at the damaged building, some of them making their way over to her in apparent concern. At least now she knew where all the other people from the building were.
“Ok Rachel, slide down slowly.”
“There are other people in there?” someone from the crowd asked.
“Let's start clearing the rubble so they can get out.”
“No call 911 and tell them we need a rescue crew out here. We don't want to do anything to make it collapse any more than it already has.”
Mac ignored the frantic conversation among the crowd as she positioned herself under the hole and watched Rachel start sliding out, waiting until she could comfortably hold her before she gently pulled her completely out. Rachel buckled as soon as she put weight on her ankle.
“I've got you,” Mac promised as she scooped her up again feeling more secure with Rachel in her arms than in the arms of anyone else in the crowd despite how drained she was.
“How many other people are in there?” a paramedic asked as they wheeled in a stretcher.
“I didn't see anyone there the entire time besides us,” Mac said as she carefully placed Rachel on the stretcher.
They were both loaded into the ambulance and Mac sat quietly holding Rachel's hand as they attended to a few of the cuts on her arms and face. She used the time it took them to get to the hospital to plan her escape. The tug had been quiet since the building's partial collapse but now that Rachel was safe Mac was fairly sure it would soon take her back and a hospital afforded little privacy.
The emergency entrance of the hospital was pure chaos with people affected by the earthquake pouring in and Mac used the confusion to slip away. She managed to get to the back of the hospital by the dumpster before exhaustion and pain forced her to stop. The EMTs had stopped the bleeding and done a quick temporary wrap with gauze. She sat on the edge of the road and tried to stave off nausea and dizziness.
It was another miserable half an hour before the tug took her back to the apartment complex draining the last of her energy and making the nausea worse. Mac groaned and rolled over, retching in the grass.
“C'mon you're a block away from your house. You can do it just make yourself stand up and walk.” Mac said to herself.
It was pure torture but she managed to drag herself up and walked slowly back to her apartment, the five minute walk taking twice the amount of time. She took the elevator to the fourth floor continuing her mantra all the way to her door. She cleaned herself up a little to avoid messing up the sheets and then fell face first into bed.
Mac woke up to complete darkness in her apartment, pain shooting out of both her arms and a blinding headache.
“Shit, my deadline.” Mac groaned forcing herself to turn on her side to see the clock. 2:00AM.
She sighed. The act of showering and treating the cuts and bruises littering her body was a tiring and painful exercise. Putting a bag of frozen peas on an ugly looking bruise on her forehead she started the coffee and booted up her computer.
After six straight hours of work to the tune of heavy rock she had her article. It still needed some editing and was definitely not her best work but there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Mac attempted to rub the grittiness out of her eyes and considered another pot of coffee but her shaking hands stopped her. Crawling back into bed she promised herself a two hour nap before she did a final edit and carried it in.
Still groggy and hurting Mac was nevertheless walking on pure determination into the Barron's office with her finished article in tow. She smiled at the vaguely familiar faces she passed and handed the flash drive to the editor's assistant waiting until he had uploaded it before going into Mr. Vega's office.
“Hey Mac, have a seat,” he said not looking up from the papers on his desk.
“We're doing a special issue on the earthquake, people affected, the survivors' stories, that kind of thing,” he said as he finally looked up and focused on her.
Mac winced not having any inclination to revisit the experience even if it was through someone else's eyes.
“I want you to do a human interest story focusing on Wesleyan University and Abel High. Part of one of the buildings at Wesleyan apparently collapsed and a few people were hurt. There was structural damage to Abel, no one was seriously injured but some of the kids were quite shaken up.”
“This isn't really my kind of writing Dave. I'm not an investigative reporter shouldn't this assignment go to one of your reporters?”
“I have everyone on my staff working on some aspect of this already and in any case you are a member of staff Mac.” He shrugged clearly not concerned with how little she wanted this assignment.
“Call Marty if you want shots of the two places or some of the students.”
Just the thought of going to Wesleyan and running into Rachel both excited and scared her and she started to protest again.
“This isn't negotiable Mac. You're doing the story. The deadline is next week Wednesday. We want to publish Friday and strike while it's still a hot topic. Oh and don't forget to pass by Accounts for your check.”
Mac fumed as she went to the Accounts department for her check and then went home. The last place she wanted to be was where she had been tugged. Who knew how many people would recognize her and the possibility of having to explain what she had been doing at the school and why she had run away from the hospital was daunting.
It was too late to set up an interview with the high school now unless she could track down the principal but she might be able to schedule something with the university for Monday.
With that thought in mind she switched buses and went to Wesleyan instead of home. She found the administration building on the second try and was greeted chaos.
“Hi, I'm from Barron, I was wondering if you could help me,” she said with a charming smile for the woman by the desk.
“I'm a little busy dear, why don't you try the PR department.” She suggested without looking up from what she was doing on the computer.
“Where is it?”
She pulled out a map of the campus.
“We're here,” she said pointing at the red dot on the map, “Anstey Building is there.”
“Thanks, I'm not all that good at reading maps so when I leave which direction should I head in?”
“Go east and then it's about a fifteen minute walk from here. You can see it from here actually,” she said as she turned back to the computer screen.
“I know you're busy but if you describe it a little at least I'll know what to look for ,” Mac suggested warily.
“You can't miss it. It's partly rubble.”
Mac waited to see if she was joking.
“As in it's next to the damaged building?”
“As in it is the damaged building. It used to be on the third floor. The head of the department should be over there with his assistant on the lawn.”
Now that she wasn't distracted and frazzled she was able to appreciate the amount of damage there was and how lucky they had been to get out with only a few bruises.
It was easy to spot Allan Prescott, the public relations officer out of the crowd of people milling around Anstey Hall.
“Hi, I'm from the Baron. The woman in the administration building said I should speak to you to arrange an interview?”
“On this?” he asked nodding in the direction of Anstey Hall as he examined her press pass.
“My article will hopefully focus on the damage to your university and to Abel High.”
He sighed as he handed her back her press pass.
“As you can tell I have a lot on my plate right now and I definitely don't have time to schedule another interview.”
“It doesn't have to be that long and the press coverage should highlight your problem and maybe even result in donations from the public,” Mac argued.
“That's why I'm drafting a press release. If you really want that interview and my assistant can squeeze you into her schedule feel free to talk to her about it,” he said pointing out his assistant.
“Excuse me,” Mac tapped the blond Allan had pointed out on her shoulder lightly and froze when she turned around.
“It's you!” Rachel exclaimed pulling Mac into a hug.
“I tried to find you at the hospital but no one knew where you'd gotten to. It was like you'd disappeared as soon as the ambulance got to the hospital.” she rambled.
“Yeah I know it was really crazy at that point,” Mac hedged. “How's the ankle?”
“Fractured.” She replied cheerfully. “I'll be spending a few weeks walking with those.” She nodded at the tree she had been leaning against where a pair of crutches were propped up.
“Sorry to hear that.” Mac said genuinely meaning it and fighting the urge to give her another hug.
“Don't be, it's going to make an awesome story to tell my grandkids someday,” she grinned.
Their eyes locked and again it seemed like the world faded a little.
“You know it only occurred to me when I was trying to find you afterwards that I don't know your name,” Rachel said sheepishly.
“Think I can treat you to dinner as a thank you Mac?” Rachel tucked blond hair behind her ears nervously.
“I'd love that. Just say when,” Mac grinned.
Mac nodded not caring that ten minutes ago all she could think about was sleeping.
“I should be done here around six. We could meet anytime after then.”
The mention of work finally jolted Mac out of her stupor.
“Speaking of which I actually came here to talk to your boss about doing an interview for the Baron and he said to talk to you about doing it instead.”
“Sure,” Rachel smiled. “It's the least I can do after all you did for me. When do you want to do it?”
“We could go to the park tomorrow and do it there,” Mac suggested, loathe to turn their dinner into a working one.
Rachel nodded in agreement with Mac's suggestion.
“Got what you wanted Ms. Grey?” Allan asked as he came up behind them.
“Yes thank you,” Mac turned to face him with a smile. “Rachel was most helpful.”
“Good, good, Rachel when you get a minute could you call Susan?” he asked as he handed her a messenger bag.
She nodded and they watched him walk away with his phone practically glued to his ear as he rattled of instructions to the person on the other end.
“I should get back to work. We have to put a temporary office in place across campus and work out a campaign to rake in donations to fix Anstey Hall,” Rachel said as she carefully slid the strap for the bag on her shoulder before taking up her crutches.
“I can carry that for you if you want,” Mac offered.
She smiled, “Allan doesn't always think far enough to notice things like this,” she gestured at the bag and her crutches.
“Well then I guess it's a good thing I showed up today then.”
“It's really ok though. It isn't that heavy,”
“Maybe not but I guarantee that it'll be awkward to carry.” Mac argued as she took the bag from Rachel and put it on her own shoulder.
Dinner at La Rustica reinforced the feeling that they had known each other for years. Completely at ease they stole bites from each other's plates as they discussed their respective careers, hobbies and dreams for the future. Mac had never felt so comfortable with anyone and for the first time she was genuinely glad that she had been tugged.
They lingered over dessert not wanting the evening to end and eventually agreed to meet the next morning for a picnic breakfast in the park before reluctantly going their separate ways.
Mac left Abel High Monday afternoon still walking on cloud nine. She had completed the interviews for both schools and was enjoying writing the article. She and Rachel had spent the entire weekend together and had spoken on the phone earlier making plans to watch a movie that night.
She barely made it inside her apartment before the tug started.
“No, I'm not missing out on spending time with Rachel, leave me alone,” she shouted at the ceiling.
In response her heart rate sped up like she was running a marathon, the world beginning to fade as she cringed at the thought that Rachel might think she had been stood up if Mac didn't make it back in time.
The first thing she became aware of was the sound of traffic. She was at the entrance of an alleyway facing the cars speeding past. Her heart was still pounding and the sense of urgency was strong pushing her to run blindly onto the pavement dodging pedestrians with moves that would have made a boot camp instructor proud. She followed the tug to the end of the street finding the origin, a woman in the middle of the road under the traffic light. Mac looked further up the road and realized that the light had turned back to green for oncoming traffic and the road was no longer clear. A red sports car was barreling straight for the woman with no intention to stop since from that distance all the driver could probably see was the green light. Mac took a deep breath and sprinted towards her quarry praying the entire way that the hours of running three days a week would be enough to propel them both out of danger.
Time slowed as she got closer to the woman, she could hear the car horn and squeal of tires as the driver tried in vain to stop in time, she saw the woman turn in slow motion in the direction of the car finally realizing the danger she was in and she saw herself reaching out to push her out of the way.
Her momentum when she crashed into the woman sent them both to the other side of the road on the pavement. The car came close enough for Mac to feel the wind as it passed by them. Mac heard more than felt the bones in her wrist crack as the other woman fell on her hand.
“Damn it all to hell.” Mac said through gritted teeth as she gingerly pulled her hand out and held it to her chest.
“My ankle,” a familiar voice moaned.
Mac's heart skipped a beat as she turned the blond to face her.
“Mac! What are you doing here? How did you know…” Rachel's voice trailed off.
“Are you ok? Where are your crutches?” Mac demanded as she sent out an apology in her mind for complaining about being tugged.
“You seem to be making a habit of saving me,” Rachel grinned as Mac helped her up and they headed to the diner down the street. “Thank you,”
Mac smiled as she led Rachel into a quiet table in the corner.
“I don't understand though, when I called you just now you said you were just wrapping up an interview at Abel which is all the way across town and that when you were done you would be going home.” Rachel said in confusion. “How'd you get here so fast?”
Mac pushed her hair out of her eyes and sighed.
“I'll explain in a minute, right now I would really love to know why you're walking around without your crutches.” Mac said pointedly.
“What can I get for ya'll,” the waitress asked as she pulled out a notebook and pen.
“Can I have some ice in a bag or maybe a towel please?” Mac asked holding up her swelling wrist in lieu of an explanation.
“Honey you should get that checked out,” the waitress advised.
“Oh my God Mac, why didn't you tell me?” Rachel exclaimed.
Mac sat back and allowed her to fuss over her wrist while she ordered.
“And a coke for her,” Mac said nodding in Rachel's direction.
“I think we should go to the hospital. This could be broken baby.”
Mac arched her eyebrow.
“They're probably road kill by now. I was crossing with everyone else but the crowd of people kept jostling me and I tripped and the crutches went flying to the other side of the road. It hurt like crazy to walk without them and I couldn't do it very quickly so everyone else had crossed and I was trying not to hurt it anymore than necessary when you showed up.” Rachel explained.
“Why didn't you say something when we were back there? I would've gotten them for you before we came here.”
“I was kind of preoccupied with the discovery that you're apparently my guardian angel,” Rachel teased.
Mac laughed, “I'll be right back.”
When Mac returned with the crutches her bag of ice was there and Rachel was sipping her coke. She placed them by Rachel and put the ice on her wrist wincing more at the pain than the cold.
“Your turn,” Rachel said.
“For what?” Mac stalled.
“How did you get all the way over here so quickly? Do you normally wonder around playing hero?” she teased.
“Can I explain later?” Mac asked as she tried to think of a plausible explanation and came up empty. This was exactly why she had always shied away from relationships, too many questions she couldn't answer.
Rachel's teasing look disappeared.
“What are you hiding?” she tried to search Mac's face.
“Nothing, it's just that it's a long complicated story that I just don't feel up to telling right now,”
“We never got around to talking about past relationships but you should know my last one ended two years ago. She would lie to me constantly, not tell me things and I eventually found out it was because she was seeing someone else on the side and lying to both of us. I swore I would never let someone pull wool over my eyes after that. If you can't be up front and honest about little things then how am I supposed to trust you?” Rachel demanded.
“Look, I know we haven't known each other that long but I'm not your ex and I swear this isn't the same thing.” Mac pleaded. “I care about you too much to ever do something like that to you.”
Rachel folded her arms clearly unconvinced.
“Let's try an easier one, I'm thinking back on Saturday now and I realized you totally sidestepped my question about what you were doing in Anstey Building.”
Mac sat back in frustration. It figured that when she finally found someone she really wanted to be with the tug got in the way and ruined it.
“Would you believe me if I said I was looking for you both times?”
Rachel stared at her with unshed tears in her eyes.
“I knew this was too good to be true. You didn't even know me the day of the earthquake. What's so difficult about telling me the truth Mac,” her voice broke.
Mac started to respond but her heart chose that moment to speed up. Rachel was definitely safe and the tug was acknowledging that she had completed her mission by sending her back.
“I have to go can we talk about this tonight? I'm promising to answer you honestly I just need a little time.” Mac begged as she started to panic.
“If you cared you would tell me now not just take off with a lame promise to explain,”
Her heart beats kicked into high gear and she knew she had lost the option of finding a safe spot away from the diner. Her best bet right now was the bathroom and if she didn't get there now the entire diner would know what she had fought so hard to keep a secret.
“I'm sorry, please don't give up on us when we're only know getting started,” she whispered clutching her chest at the pain of abnormally fast heartbeats.
Mac fled from the booth and made it into the bathroom where she was thankfully alone. She never got used to the pain of the tug but that pain was nothing to the pain she was feeling at the thought of losing Rachel.
The bathroom door opened and Rachel stalked in.
“If you wanted to get away from me you should have just left not tried to hide out in here,” she stopped and stared at Mac.
“What's wrong? Are you having a heart attack? Should I call an ambulance?” Rachel worriedly cupped Mac's face to get her focus on her.
“You have to go now,” she whimpered. “No ambulance. Please just go.”
“You're pulse is too fast babe, you could be having a heart attack,” she panicked as she pulled out her cell phone.
Mac started to respond when the sound of blood roaring in her ears reached a deafening volume and the world faded. She started to reach for Rachel but didn't quite make it before there was complete darkness.
She woke up in her apartment in agony. Wrapping her wrist in a dish towel with ice she sat on the kitchen floor in tears. She could go to the hospital now that she didn't have to worry quite a much that she would be tugged in the middle of an x-ray but she was too distraught to care enough to make herself go.
The incessant ringing of the phone snapped her out of her bout of self pity.
“What are you Mac?” Rachel sounded almost afraid and it broke her heart all over again confirming her belief that no one would love a freak.
“I'm still me. I know what you saw probably shocked you,”
“Probably?” Rachel screamed into the phone. “Mac you just disappeared right in front of me.”
“Ok so it definitely shocked you. If you still want an explanation come over to my place” Mac said through tears. “If you don't want anything to do with me though I'll understand. All I ask is that you don't tell anyone what you just saw.”
“Where do you live?”
Hope filled her as she rattled off the address and used the little energy she had left to straighten up. When she opened the door to Rachel it was obvious that they had both been crying. Remembering the fright in her voice Mac stopped herself from just pulling her close.
“Want a hug or do you not trust me right now?” she asked softly.
Rachel walked past her into the apartment and Mac fought back tears as she closed the door behind her. As soon as she turned to face her Rachel buried her face in Mac's chest and wrapped her arms tightly around Mac's middle as if she thought that by holding on tightly she could ensure that Mac sisn't just disappear again.
Mac let tears of relief fall while she hugged her back. When they finally pulled apart Mac lead her to the couch and pulled her onto her lap with her good arm.
“Where are your crutched this time?”
“I was kind of in a stupor when you just vanished and I forgot them at the diner. Just so you know I'm blaming that on you.” She said with a small smile.
“I'm sorry I scared you.”
Rachel snuggled closer.
“It's okay. Explain what I saw.”
“My grandmother on my mother's side was alive until I was thirteen but we hardly ever saw her. My mom didn't get along with her and I never knew why. Then about a month after her death it happened for the first time.” Mac stroked Rachel's hair as she quietly told her about the first tug and the two boys losing their parents.
“You think your grandmother's death triggered your abilities?”
“Not quite. I think she had this ability that she couldn't control anymore than I can and it destroyed her marriage and her relationship with my mom. Based on the timing I would say that the tug transferred from her to me on her death.”
“So the earthquake?”
“I wasn't lying back at the diner. The tug led me to you. It takes me from wherever I am and sends me to help someone. Once I get there it's like operating on instinct. I follow the pull on my heart to find the people I'm supposed to save.”
“So is that why you pick me up like I weigh nothing and get out of near impossible situations?”
“You're really not that heavy babe,” Mac grinned amused that she still refused to let it go.
“I work out a lot, lift weights, do wall climbing, run swim, even some self defense.”
Rachel looked up at her in surprise.
“The only extraordinary ability I have is the one I can't control, the tug.”
“So then once you're in a situation,” Rachel started in a near whisper.
“I only have me to get out of it. I have no other special powers at my disposal so I train like a fiend so we can all stand a fighting chance.”
“So you could die playing the good Samaritan?” Rachel asked in growing horror.
Mac raised her swollen, discolored wrist up so Rachel could see it.
“I don't even heal extra fast to help balance out all that risk,” she joked.
“I could actually lose you from this,” Rachel said through tears.
“I train hard so that you won't baby,” Mac whispered as she wiped away her tears with her thumb.
“I meant what I said though, I'll understand if you don't want to take the risk to continue seeing each other. I want you to be happy more than anything else in the world and if it would be too hard on you to never know where I'm going or if I'll come back in one piece I'll understand.” Mac swallowed hard to get rid of the golf ball sized lump that was stuck in her throat.
Rachel sat up and traced the outline of her face and smiled sadly.
“I don't think it's possible to walk away from you no matter what the future holds.”
Mac slumped in relief as she stood up.
“C'mon let's get that wrist treated with something other than ice.”
Mac smiled up at her. For the first time since the tug had turned her life upside down that she was not alone.