Crowd Control

I always start the story at the corner, by the liquor store, where I'd gotten one of those fish-shaped ice-cream things. The ones with the red bean paste. When they were questioning me, in the place they said was a hospital, they would rush me on to the fire. But I wouldn't let them, because I think it really started at that corner.

Besides, after telling the story as many times as I have, you begin to get a rhythm. And it made them uncomfortable, to hear me talk about the man in the Bermuda shorts when he had still been relatively normal. It obviously bothered them, that I had seen him that way.

And when you're sitting in some backless gown on a hard plastic chair in some godawful windowless medical dungeon right out of some episode of the X-files, being questioned for the fifth time by a man in a lab coat who sounds he smokes five packs a day and looks like he eats limes for breakfast, it's really great to make someone else uncomfortable.

So . . .

I heard the fire-engines screaming and grunting their way through the rush-hour traffic at least fifteen minutes before I saw them. The smoke from the fire had grown into a velvety black column before the first hook and ladder even whizzed by in front of me.

I stopped just before turning the corner, while the grassy hill still blocked my view of the actual fire, and a man bumped me gently in the arm with his cold paper bag of beer. It was a Saturday, and the park was full of sunbathers and their paper bags full of beer.

“I'll bet it’s that trailer up there. It’s really going up. Man, you should take a look. Watch that thing go.”

The Bermuda shorts had been dark blue, with light blue hibiscus flowers on them, and he had been wearing a shirt that said “I love California.” As soon as the light had changed at the intersection, he jogged off around the corner.

I waited a little bit longer. The air smelled like plastic and tires burning, and the smoke had begun to fill the neighborhood with an acrid haze that stung my nose. They asked about the smell more than anything else, when they questioned me later. “Acrid?” they'd ask. Yes, acrid, I'd say. Like when I'd set my Barbie dolls on fire as a child.

By the time I began to move towards the fire, the column of smoke had become a snake, like the kind that popped out of trick nut cans. Black and velvety and bumpy, spiraling up unsteadily into the air.

I went through three more cycles of the light turning green, then red, then green, then red, then I joined a mass of people crossing. Mostly, they had come down off the hill where they had been sunbathing, leaving now that the area was thick and uncomfortable with smoke. A woman next to me carried a small baby in an orange linen sling, and was busily folding a piece of the linen up as she walked to make a little mask for the child.

But, of course, she'd been walking towards the fire. Everyone had been walking towards the fire, even me.

“Do you remember why you walked towards it?” they'd ask me; it seemed like every other question. I told them they should know, the first time they'd asked, they'd done enough tests and stuck me with enough needles to know everything about me. “Would you like us to do more tests?” had been the sarcastic response, so I answered again. And again.

No, I don't remember why I went towards it. To see what was going on, maybe? Wasn't that natural?

The fire engines kept coming. How many had there been -- five? seven? People were flushed and coughing, milling around on all corners as they gently moved towards the scene.

I didn't see any trailer on fire; it was a house that was burning when I got there. A little one-story bungalow-type house nestled in-between the larger two- and three-story Victorians. The house itself was gutted by the time I saw it, and the fire quickly spread to the two adjoining houses. I could feel the heat from the end of the block.

The car in front of the house had burned, as well, and burned completely. It must have been where the acrid smell was coming from. Not just the car, I gradually noticed, but the garden. The mailbox. It was like a wall of flames had just been sprayed over the house and the land in front of it.

The fire jumped to another roof as I watched, and a fourth house began to burn. House, car, front lawn, everything.

The fire was so furious now that it was creating a hot wind, picking up fallen leaves and tossing them in our faces. Police on the scene were herding us back away from the row of houses. I moved as they moved me, slowly and mechanically, but I couldn't leave. There was something I needed to see, I remember.

“So you do remember why you went,” they'd ask. No, I'd say. I just remember why I stayed.

A fifth, and a sixth house in the row caught fire, and the police began to shout. The firefighters were backing up, waving them to keep us away. But, there was something I needed to see. I don't remember why, I don't know if I ever knew the reason, but I know there was something there I needed to see.

The police were on a bullhorn, saying something I could only half understand, and I moved back with the rest of the people. Slowly, and reluctantly. Step by step.

A woman screamed, and the sound briefly snapped me out of the trance I'd fallen into, allowing me to catch a clear glimpse of the larger scene around us. The police were everywhere, with guns and riot shields, hastily constructing an enormous barrier between the crowd and the fire. They were pushing people back from it with batons, and the people moved like cattle. Never taking their eyes off the fire.

The fire. Somewhere in the distance, a deep, rhythmic noise began to thrum through the smoke. Seven, then eight more houses caught fire, and it quickly spread to the gardens, the cars, and the parking strips in front of them. Even the grass was burning.

The barrier wound around to me, and a police officer prodded me with a baton. I plodded backwards, eyes on the flames, until I was behind the wall and the officer moved on. They moved down the line to herd the rest of the crowd, but I stood where I was and watched the fire. I desperately needed to see.

The thrumming grew louder as, slowly, the houses were gutted and blackened, the fire hot enough that my lips became dry and cracked, and my eyes stung in the hot wind. A second voice came on the bullhorn but, by this time, I couldn't hear what it was saying.

The ninth house caught fire, which was the second from the end of the block. An enormous fist of flames shot out, through twenty feet of clear air, and ignited the huge oak tree in front of the house. The thrumming had become deafening, and a hurricane of wind blew the breath right out of me. The fire danced crazily in and out of the whirlpool of air.

More police were coming now, but these were different. In black, with large guns and larger shields, they came at us slowly. We moved slowly, backwards, eyes on the fire. Just exactly as slowly as they moved, and when they quickened, we did too. Another jet of flame leapt from the nearest house out to the large car in front of it.

They began to run at us, pushing us back. Ten: the last house caught fire, its car bright and golden, quickly turning black. The sidewalk was burning, the street was burning. I asked myself later how concrete could burn, but I remember what I saw.

Then a strange, cracking noise came from the street in front of us, from deep underground. It sounded like a dinosaur, like a giant animal groaning, and I turned to see what it was. I had to see . . .

I remember the sound of the explosion, or the beginning of it, but I remember the silence that followed more thoroughly. The sound had started deep under the street, the groaning noise becoming a roar that rattled the manhole cover above it until it finally erupted in a column of flame and broken asphalt almost twenty feet tall. The gas mains were on fire.

The silence that I woke up to, after being thrown back from the explosion, lasted nine days. And it was a strange coincidence, that I of all people found myself deaf in the middle of disaster.

Fifteen years ago, I had been there when my mother and my aunt had the argument that stopped them talking to each other for two years, over my mother's decision to have my brother learn to read lips and not learn sign language. And, of course, he couldn't just go alone into that classroom, without me. He'd been four, and I'd been six. Pee-monster, I'd called him since he was two; now he was a lawyer and spoke five different languages, including sign language. I never thought I'd make anything more of my lip-reading skills than the weed money I'd earned in high-school, spying for classmates.

“Again,” I saw three of the black-clad police officers say, “It's happened again.”

I only caught a glimpse of the crowd after I woke up from the blast, as I was being loaded onto the ambulance. They had my neck in one of those plastic braces, but I could move it a little. I saw faces, at least a hundred people, being pushed out of the way by what looked like soldiers. Their faces . . .

How long had I been unconscious? The street was on fire; the geyser of flame still at least ten feet high from the manhole, and the entire block burning. I'd woken up in the intersection, forty feet from where I had been, and I could see the true extent of the blaze. Everything was burning, down to the steel mailboxes.

Down the block, a car exploded as I watched. I, of course, heard nothing, but the crowd, just watching . . .

They moved only when they were moved by the soldiers, shuffling like sleepwalkers, and their faces . . .

I strained to get a better look as I was wheeled away, struggling at my restraints and given a threatening head-shake by an unusually well-armed paramedic. An army paramedic, I guessed, not that I knew much about it. But she was wearing fatigues. People in the army wore fatigues, right?

But the people, the spectators watching the fire . . . their faces were so . . . had I been like that? I had to look away, but the moment I did it I wished I could look again.

The people in charge spoke relatively freely in front of me, something I would regret for years later once they had researched my background and discovered I could read lips. That I had heard everything they were saying to one another. They brought me to what they said was a hospital, but everyone in it was armed. I was in there for weeks, well after I'd healed.

To this day I receive visits from authoritative strangers nearly monthly, and I have yet to fly out of the country again.

“It's happened again,” a less heavily-armed woman in fatigues said, after the blast, “the third time, and it took us this long to get here?” Moods were almost easier to gauge deaf than when I could hear, I found, and she seemed scared.

“Disperse,” had been another common word, from the actual soldiers, the ones that weren't masked. Since the gas main had begun to burn, most of the actual people near the fire had masks on, “disperse the subjects,” and “sedate.” The doctor, or medic, or whatever, who was wheeling me said “we have to stop them looking at it. We have to get them down.”

The most chilling thing was the one man I saw, right before I was loaded onto the ambulance. The man with one of those multicolored patch things on his chest like generals and dictators and dictator-generals had. At least on TV. I didn't know it then, but I'd see my fill of multicolored patches in the next few days, asking me irritating questions I couldn't answer any better than they could.

The general, as I called him, had his hand on the shoulder of one of the spectators from the park; it was the man in the Bermuda shorts. Bermuda short man's face was like the others had been. It made me sick to look at, trying not to believe I'd been just like him, before I'd been knocked out.

I looked back at the Bermuda short man's face again; I couldn't help it.

The eyes . . . all pupil, glassy . . . his mouth slack and relaxed, like he was on heavy medication. No, like he was brain-damaged. But his face was flushed, and he was breathing as fast as a cat. He stood rooted to the ground, moved only when moved by another, swaying in time to music that wasn't there.

The general herded this man over to my medic, shaking the subject's slack shoulder a little, and smiled grimly.

My medic looked concerned. I couldn't see what she said, but she gestured to me.

I saw the last part of what the general said, though. I certainly wished I hadn't in the weeks that followed, in that uncomfortable hospital gown. I still wish I didn't know anything at all, especially when I get that knock on my door every month.

The general rubbed his chin slightly, contemplating the swaying body of the man who stood before him. The general nodded a little, and began speaking behind his hand. But then, he took the hand away, and I saw.

“ . . . and he seems unusually stable, so we've prepped a fire-proof truck for him and the others. Do whatever you have to do to figure this out; you can take as many test-subjects as you need, and we have three more test areas ready. Just make it effective. Make it controlled.”

My medic nodded.

“Yes sir.”

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