A/N: all recognisable characters kindly borrowed from the brains of the great Mssrs Anderson et al and played with among other friends.
(Movie-verse purely for the appearance of you-know-who!)
It still feels like it was yesterday. It was almost three weeks ago but I can remember it all so clearly.
I can still feel the weight of the debris and smell the acrid smoke that burned my throat. I can still hear the feral roar of the fire that quickly devastated my surroundings and can taste the blood that coated my tongue.
I'm not supposed to remember it. They say that what with the head injury and the smoke inhalation, there's no way these are real memories. They think my mind has pieced together what little is known about what happened and created an illusion.
But when I close my eyes and it's all suddenly so near, I have no choice but to believe.
"Hey there. Time for your morning exercises."
Her entrance brings me back to the present with a thud and I let out a heavy sigh. I lay still in the bed and watch as the sheets are rolled down my body. It's all I can do.
"How are you feeling today?"
I tear my eyes from my unmoving legs in their oh-so-attractive anti-embolic stockings and meet the soft eyes of the physiotherapist. She smiles gently and there is the sympathetic shrug that I have come to know and hate.
"Did you have a better night?"
No. And she knows it. She will have chatted to the nurses and heard the details about my nightmares. She knows about the evening sedation that does nothing for my rest or my mood.
She has paused beside my bed, smile growing in anticipation. But I don't give her the satisfaction of an answer. I close my eyes and surrender to the humiliation of her pity.
"Oh. Okay. Well, we'll just get on with it, shall we?"
We. I want to protest but I can't be bothered. There's no we in it. She gently lifts first one heavy, numb leg and then the other, moving the joints and muscles for me.
"Your burns are healing nicely. We'll be able to take you down to the pool soon. You'll enjoy that."
"We need to keep these muscles active for when you're up and about."
My heart thuds against my chest and I can suddenly feel tears stinging my eyes. Damn those painkillers. They lower your defences.
She has suddenly stopped. The gentle rhythmic motion that shifts my torso up and down against the sheets has ceased. I'm aware of her hand on my shoulder and her touch against skin that can actually feel is strangely amplified.
She waits patiently for me to regain some composure. A slight sob hiccups through my clenched teeth and I groan in annoyance.
"It will happen, y'know." She offers quietly and I can sense her perching on the edge of my bed. "The swelling will subside and there's every chance that you'll walk again."
I open my eyes and look up into her sincere face. I need to know if she's just saying this to cheer me along. I need to know why the doctors and nurses talk in terms of ifs and maybes and yet she speaks of whens and hows.
"You just have to have a little faith."
And there is my answer. She's part of the positive-mental-attitude brigade. She preaches the okay-so-your-crippled-but-it's-not-all-bad theory.
I close my eyes away from the smile that actually isn't so bad and the friendly words of encouragement that, at some deeper level, I do appreciate.
She gets the message and backs off. My unmoving limbs are re-covered and she bids me farewell. I hear her talking with my nurses outside the room and hear their mumbles of sympathy. They decide to give me some space before the next degrading episode and it must be a good half hour before the undamaged parts of me are bathed and dressed.
It's raining again. The water drums melodically against the glass and shimmers down the window. I turn my head and watch the dark clouds that hurry overhead.
Lauren will be here soon. She always stops by during her lunch break. She'll sneak in some sugary treats and ramble on about how crappy it is to still be living at home and how much Dad is annoying her. She'll fantasise about moving out and then complain about how expensive the city is and I know she'll be glad to head back after work and have some home cooking and her laundry all neatly ironed.
I'd give anything to be at home right now. Even despite Mom's incessant nagging and worrying, I'd love to go home. But they want me here for at least another two weeks. There's talk of more skin grafting to repair the damage to my arms and shoulders. And then there's the continual physiotherapy.
Three times a day. I wonder if they've started to draw lots to see who has the joy of my company.
I don't mean to be so grumpy. I'd love to be positive and upbeat. But I'm a realist. Even though I can't even begin to face what my future will be like, at least I've the sense to know that there isn't much of one.
Just hold on in there.
The sudden memory jars me from my musing and my heart is racing. I must have drifted off for a moment there and I blink in the seeming brightness of the room.
Stay with me. Keep talking.
Oh god. This has to be real. It seems so real. His voice is so clear in my head.
We're on our way. You'll be fine.
The doctors are convinced it's all a fantasy. I was comatose for four days. They say there's no way I could have been awake, no way this could be a memory.
I'm here. Keep talking to me.
I grip the bedcovers in tight fists and my fingers ache with the tension. It's unusual for the images to surface during daylight hours and somehow harder to deal with. In the dimness of dreaming through the early hours I can somehow ride it out and the reality of all that has happened doesn't hurt so much when I'm half-asleep.
They filled me in on events a few days after I had woken up. Mom had offered careful, brief insights but they had not known how I would respond. Apparently, I took the news of my near death experience rather well, in relative terms. I wonder if perhaps everyone would have preferred an initial outburst and then slow acceptance, rather than the gradual sinking and grief postponement that I seem to have chosen.
But what is the point of getting angry? No one can change this. No one can re-write history. And no one is to blame. Which in itself is a little frustrating. It would be nice to have a focus, a target. But Mother Nature isn't quite the same thing.
Oh god! Oh god! Get cover! Get cover! Quick!
The rumbling had started a little after 12.30pm. I know that from the newspaper articles Lauren cut out for me. And at least we had some sort of warning. At 12.37 the tremor reached it's crescendo and at 12.41 our building started to surrender to the awesome quake that had almost destroyed an entire block of the city. At 12.53, according to the accident report, the offices of Clayton & McPherson had come crashing to the ground, killing all but 1 of the eighty-three personnel who had not gone downtown for lunch.
I could feel a lump gathering in my throat as I let the facts swirl around in my mind. They collected together and mumbled at the threat of approaching memories.
To hell with what the doctors thought. This was real. And amid the grief for the good friends and colleagues that I had lost, I let myself remember.
It was very dark and at first it had seemed eerily quiet. But somewhere above the ringing in my ears was the sound of the broken building still shifting and settling and the crackle of fires igniting amid the ruins.
There was no pain. I know now that the damage to my lumbar vertebrae was such that I was spared the agony of my crushed pelvis and I guess I'm grateful for that, despite the harsh implications.
I don't know how long I lay there, stunned and frightened. Despite the noise around me, there was one sound that was blatantly absent and I cried out to the four colleagues who had scurried with me beneath the desks.
I knew it was bad. The sudden amber glow from a growing fire provided enough light to see the devastation and I peered around me in awe. How the hell had I survived this?
And then I knew that no one would be expected to. I had to find a way to tell people outside that I was there, that I was trapped. Pinned on my stomach, I couldn't reach my desk and had no idea where my phone had fallen or even if there would still be a connection. And then I heard something buzzing across the floor from me.
It took what seemed an age to flick my jacket close enough to the cell phone to drag it across the carpet towards me and I levered myself up onto my arms to examine the small device. The image on the menu screen brought tears to my eyes and I stared at the grinning faces of my PA and his wife, not knowing if Joel had been spared too.
For a moment it seemed cruel to use his phone. Someone somewhere might recognise the number and think he was calling. I paused for a moment before then trying as many numbers as I could remember.
No one answered. I didn't know whether to leave messages for people or not. It might help them find me, might make the emergency services hurry. Or it might be the last thing anyone heard me say. And that was too freaky.
So I dialled 911 and got told that all lines were busy. They put me on hold and that's when I lost it. The tears came hard and loud.
And somehow the call was re-directed through to him. God knows how.
"This is International Rescue."
It took a moment for the small voice to register in my mind and then I slapped the phone back to my ear. "Hello?"
"This is International Rescue. We have a lot of calls coming through right now and we're assisting the emergency services. Please stay calm and wait for help to arrive."
It sounded like an automated response at first. Just like the computerised queuing system of the emergency services. I sighed in dismay and closed my eyes. No one would know that I was trapped there. And the fire was spreading.
"I'm tracing this number to a J Gregory. Is that you?"
I opened my eyes again and frowned slightly. "No." I replied quietly. "I think Joel's dead."
"I'm reading your position as 4th and Main."
There was a pause. Maybe he knew about the building. Maybe he knew how bad it was.
"Okay, help has been re-directed your way."
"Where exactly are you?"
From somewhere a smile emerged. "Well, I was on the 12th floor." I chuckled slightly and the action made me suddenly cough violently. I could taste blood in my mouth. That couldn't be good.
"Are you hurt?"
"I don't know." I peered behind me and saw the ceiling beam in the light from the rapidly nearing fire. "I'm stuck."
"Help is on its way."
He was so calm. It was impossible to read what might be going through his mind. It might be that he was cheering me along despite the inevitable. It might be that there was a chance it wasn't as bad as it seemed. It might be that he was distracted by the other calls coming through. It might be that he dealt with this every day and was functioning purely on autopilot.
The open connection hissed slightly beside my ear and I frowned as I wondered why he hadn't signed off. "How bad was it?" I asked after a moment.
"A 6.5 on the Richter Scale."
My frown grew and I considered his reply. "What's the rest of the city like?"
"It's not that bad. Some sparse structural damage."
There was no way to know if he was lying.
"I'm hearing from the Fire Department that your office is one of the older buildings."
I laughed softly and nodded in agreement. "It was passed safe only last year, though."
"I guess they picked the wrong building to make a mistake on." He offered lightly.
"Yeah!" I enthused.
"But then a quake of this size was never expected in your region."
"That's what they said." I shrugged and suddenly coughed again, grimacing at the bitter sting of smoke fumes in my throat. "Listen." I husked, "I think the fire suppression system has been damaged. Any idea how long they'll be?"
"You don't know, then."
"There's a lot of rubble to get through. They need to go carefully."
I nodded slowly and sighed in dismay, another bout of coughing soon following.
"So. You're a lawyer?"
"No." I tried to steady my breathing, tried to avoid inhaling too much of the smoke that was gathering. "Accountant."
"Ah. Which is worse?"
I smiled and shook my head slowly. "I know. It's a real passion killer."
"Someone's got to do it."
"Not as exciting as your job, I guess."
"Oh, I'm just the receptionist."
I smiled again and appreciated his lighter tone.
"I'm co-ordinating the real heroes of the operation." He continued, "And you'll have the pleasure of their company real soon. Be sure to ask for an autograph – they just love the attention."
"Okay!" I half-chuckled, half-coughed in amusement. My smile then faded as I caught the front of the fire licking it's way closer and could now feel the heat from the flames. "Just tell them to hurry or there won't be much left to rescue." I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the dizziness that breathing shallowly was causing.
"I am. They're coming."
Suddenly it seemed to hit. The reality seeped inside me and I could feel panic burning in my chest. Or was that simply the fumes from the fire. I let my head sink down to the dusty carpet and switched the phone onto speaker, my tingling fingers no longer able to hold it steadily.
"You still there?"
"Yeah." I managed.
"Just hold on in there."
I nodded a reply, forgetting that this was of little use over the phone.
"What's your name?"
"Morgan." I answered quietly.
"Stay with me. Keep talking."
He suddenly sounded less official, less detached.
"Keep talking to me. Okay? How about dispelling the myth. Huh? Tell me what accountants get up to in their spare time."
I smiled and sighed heavily. "Oh, I don't know."
"Come on. Pretend it's a first date. Tell me what you're into."
"Movies." I shrugged.
"Yeah? Cool. What kind?"
I smiled and glanced at the phone, the gathering smoke stinging my open eyes painfully. "Sci-fi."
"Excellent. Me too."
"The older stuff though." I added. "The classic pre-CG era."
"Yeah!" He enthused, "It's not the same if you can't see the set wobble!"
"It's getting hot in here." I offered suddenly, the words rasping from my throat before I had time to realise I'd said them.
"We're on our way. You'll be fine."
I reached out and grabbed my jacket, dragging it across my face to somehow provide protection from the advancing heat. The fire was coming up behind me and I had the sudden thought that perhaps I wouldn't know if my numb feet caught fire.
"Come on. Stay with me. Keep talking."
"I know. But keep trying. You need to stay awake. Okay?"
There was the slightest hint of panic in his voice and I frowned in concern.
"Come on. Favourite Star Wars movie."
"Empire." I smiled, "Without a doubt."
"Okay! We're 2 for 2."
"And don't get me started on Episode I and II." I continued, suddenly awake, "God. What was he thinking?"
"Midi-damned-chlorians!" I laughed and sparked off another coughing fit. "Oh god!" I spluttered suddenly. "Oh god! I can't – I can't breathe!"
"It's okay. Stay calm."
I gasped as suddenly the fire seemed to find fresh fuel amid the debris and roared up behind me. The heat was intense and I could feel the skin beneath the back of my shirt tingling as if I had been exposed to too much midday sun. "Oh god! It hurts! Oh shit! Oh shit! Please hurry! Please!"
"Okay, Morgan, okay."
"Oh please! I don't want to die like this! Oh god! I'm burning! Oh my god!"
"Morgan, it's okay. We're almost with you."
"Hurry!" I screamed suddenly, my arms and back in agony from the searing heat. "Oh god! Where are you? Where the fuck are you!"
"I'm here. The fire department is almost with you."
I wanted to believe him. I so wanted to believe that the soft voice beside me was telling the truth but suddenly it seemed impossibly futile.
I had always thought that the fumes from a fire would send you unconscious long before your body burned. And suddenly breathing deep lungfuls of the smoke seemed like a good plan, a better way to go. I gulped down the noxious air and felt my stomach heave.
It worked. Slowly. But it worked. I could feel myself getting more and more light headed.
"Yeah." I whispered drowsily.
"The fire department is close now. You should be able to hear them."
I listened for a moment and slowly shook my head in reply. "There's only the fire."
"They're right there." He urged, "And I'm here. Talk to me. Keep talking to me."
I let his voice wash through my mind and could feel a strange sense of calm building. At least I wasn't alone.
"Stay with me, Morgan."
I found myself wondering about the man behind the voice. He sounded late twenties, mid-thirties. My age.
"Come on, Morgan. Talk to me."
Beneath the urgency and reality of his words, it was a very nice voice. I began to wonder if his looks matched the slightly grainy lower scale with its hint-of-West-Coast accent. I smiled as I let my mind wander and it was a welcome distraction from the increasing heat surrounding me.
"Morgan, please. Say something."
The fire department extinguished the flames and got through to me shortly after I passed out. I don't remember the trip to the hospital courtesy of the immense green form of one of the Thunderbirds. I have no knowledge of the spectacular landing in the front car park and the associated media attention. I have only the photographs Lauren gave me.
And the fact that I can't recall the arrival at the hospital and the first few days of my stay here convinces me that I did not imagine the conversation with International Rescue.
His voice is still so clear even now, weeks later. It was so calming to have his presence near me. I think even my later panic was mild compared to what it could have been if he had not been there.
I've often wondered whether I could contact him and thank him. But I'm sure I'm a faceless name among thousands. And I don't want to meet him like this.
An aching has started deep inside me and it's a feeling I've experienced before. I buried it there. It's been hidden far in the depths and I had hoped locked away forever. It's pointless. Nothing can change what has become of me.
But still it insists and soon my grief has found a loophole and escaped to the surface. I can't stop the tears that fall and I'm sobbing bitterly by the time my sister arrives.
I'm too lost in my pain to respond and make no attempt to fend her off as she clambers onto the bed and gathers me into her arms.
"Oh baby …" Lauren soothes gently, rocking me slightly and pressing her lips into the scalded skin of my right cheek. "I know … I know …"
"I can't!" I sob loudly and clutch her to me. "I can't do this! I can't live like this!"
"Okay. I hear you. Let it go."
I cried for so long that my chest hurts. After a while there were no more words and I simply leaned into my younger sister's strong embrace. I think I may have fallen asleep for a short time and she has laid me back against the pillows.
It feels good to have cried. But I'm too stubborn to admit that they were right.
"I'm sorry." I offer quietly after a while.
Lauren is perched on the bed beside me and she smiles warmly. "No need." She shrugs.
"Have I been a pain in the ass?"
"Well … yeah!" She chuckles softly but then her smile fades into sincerity. "But it's completely understandable."
"What do you think, sis?" I ask carefully, "Do you think I'll walk again?"
Lauren regards me seriously for a moment and then slowly shrugs her shoulders. "That's down to you."
I nod thoughtfully and then a smile pulls at my mouth. "In that case, get those physio-torturists back in here!"
We chatted long past the end of Lauren's lunch break and it felt wonderful. I fell into restful sleep soon after she left and was woken much later by voices outside my partially open door.
Despite my disability, I was considered depressed enough to be a danger to myself and the nurses would check on me regularly, always keeping the door to my room open so they could peer in. I listened to them whispering outside the room and slowly pulled myself from my slumber. They were debating whether to leave me resting and I assumed it must be exercise time with the physios again. Good. This was my chance to apologise to them for being so grumpy.
"It's okay. Maybe I'll come back another time."
Oh god. I know that voice.
I open my eyes and turn my head towards the door but can only see the back of one of the nurses' uniforms. My heart is galloping as I watch her nodding in conclusion of the conversation she is having and I attempt a rather unsubtle cough to announce my alertness.
The nurse spins round and smiles in greeting. "Oh. You're awake." She looks back at someone down the corridor from my room and beckons warmly.
I frown in intrigue as a young man steps up to the open door and smiles in at me with uncertainty.
"Morgan has physio in half an hour." The nurse explains gently.
"Sure." He nods in understanding. "I won't stay long."
Oh god, that voice. It is him.
He steps into the room and glances back as the nurse closes the door after him.
As his back is briefly turned, I take the chance to absorb his features. Average height. Average build. Pleasant face. Nice hair. He's not the hunk I had somehow conjured up in my mind but he's not displeasing to look at. He's sort of average really. Which makes him seem more real and that much more appealing than I was prepared for. Not that I ever thought I would actually meet him.
"Hello." I smile in greeting.
"Listen," He begins carefully, "I don't know if you remember but - "
"I remember." I urge eagerly. Too eagerly. Crap.
"Oh." He smiles and shrugs slightly. "I only wanted to know if you were okay. They won't tell non-family any information over the phone and … well …"
"Sure. I appreciate it."
He edges closer to the foot of my bed and his smile fades a little. "I met your sister in the corridor and she told me what happened." He glances at my still legs and shrugs again. "I'm sorry."
"Why?" I chuckle suddenly, "It's not your fault." I watch him for a moment and my smile grows. "I mean … it's not, is it? Cos if you had anything to do with this then I'll kick your ass!"
He laughs and nods gently in understanding. "I know. It's a stupid expression."
"I get what you mean, though." I offer, "Thanks."
"And thanks for being there that day." I continue quickly. A little too quickly. "I mean. I know it's your job and all that but … you really made a difference."
"Yeah?" He frowns slightly.
I nod a reply and watch him smile in satisfaction. He suddenly seems so much younger than I had first assumed. And vulnerable somehow. And it's most endearing.
"Listen … I … I don't know why I had to stop by but … I only wanted to check you were okay and I told your sister that I was a friend and she insisted I visit." He fumbles slightly, "I won't disturb you any longer - "
"No, it's okay." I urge. Still too eager. Shit. "Please. Sit down."
He nods and wanders round to sit in the chair beside my bed. "Truth is ..." He continues after a moment. "We've had a run of rescues with pretty poor outcomes and … well …"
I nod slowly. "I get it."
"You're the only success we've had in a long while." He concludes.
I smile in understanding and can now appreciate why he became so anxious to keep me talking, keep me with him. It was as much for him as for me.
"I understand that quite a number of your firm were out of the building."
"Yeah. Out at lunch." I agree happily, "They were lucky to be off on a Starbucks raid."
He chuckles softly and then his smile fades a little. "I'm sorry for the friends you lost."
"Thanks." I nod, "They say it was all very quick, though. They didn't stand a chance."
"You shouldn't have, either." He shakes his head in wonder. "I couldn't believe it when I first located where you were. Everyone was sure that your building was no hope."
I shrug slightly and my gaze wanders down to my legs. "Believe me, I've spent many a night wondering why the hell I was spared."
"It's not a chance to be wasted." He offers carefully.
I look back up at him and wonder if Lauren has said something about my low spirits. And I wonder if it's blatantly obvious how much his presence has improved them.
"So." I grin suddenly, "When do I get an autograph?"
He laughs warmly and shakes his head. "That's the others."
"Can I at least ask what your name is?" Crap. Far too forward.
He pauses for a moment. "John."
Suddenly there's a knock at the door. The physiotherapist. She's early. She offers to come back later but suddenly John is standing and telling me that he has somewhere he has to be.
"It was nice to meet you." I smile and hold out my hand.
"And you, Morgan." He shakes my hand and frowns slightly. "Listen, maybe I'll pop by again some other time."
"I'd like that." I nod.
"I believe we have a movie debate to continue."
"Absolutely!" I agree merrily. "I'll be here."
"And you know how to get hold of me." John concludes and releases my hand to wander from the room.
Oh god. What did that mean? He wants me to call? He feels sorry for me? I need rescuing? What am I supposed to do with that?
"Who was that?" The physiotherapist asks in interest as she glances down the corridor at John's departing figure.
"An old friend from school." I reply evenly, my brain spinning.
It's not long before Lauren is back and she is grinning as she steps inside my room. She greets the physiotherapist and hurries round to perch beside me on the bed.
"Who was he?" Lauren urges merrily.
I so want to tell her. Tell them all. I'm not going crazy. He's the one who was talking to me all the time I was trapped. He's a Thunderbird.
Oh god. He's a Thunderbird.
"I went to school with him." I reply as calmly as I can manage.
"You did?" Lauren frowns. "I don't remember any of your friends being that hot!" She laughs suddenly, "Or I so would have hung around you a lot more, big brother!"
I watch her and the physiotherapist giggling together mischievously. "Yeah." I agree with a wide smile. "If ever there was a reason to get back on your feet, huh?"
Lauren shrieks with delight and the physiotherapist glances at me warily for a moment. She assumes I'm joking and I'll let her think as much.
I lie back against the pillows and relax into the exercises. So this is what hope feels like.
My mind is wandering as Lauren continues to chat animatedly with the physiotherapist about my unexpected visitor. I'm so pleased I got the chance to thank him. And I get the feeling that he is pleased to have made a difference.
I begin to wonder if we ever will finish the conversation that was started that day. And if desperately wanting to is reason enough to find the will and determination to pull myself together and either leave here walking or adjusted to never walking, I'll have to find him to thank him for inspiring me to do so.