When the sixth floor of Las Palmas Hotel caught fire Robbie Brownlaw was in the diner across the street about to have lunch.
It was a cool March afternoon in San Diego and Brownlaw's turkey burger had just arrived when he saw orange flames roiling behind the hotel windows. He took a bite of the sandwich and hustled outside just as the sixth story windows blew and an orange explosion knocked him back against the brick wall of the diner.
Robbie heard screams up there in the fire. He had never heard screams like these. Then he heard all the yelling as people spilled from the restaurants and offices, pointing up at Las Palmas while debris clattered to the asphalta splintered chair, a flaming lamp shade, a nightstand with the drawers hanging out.
Fire alarms shrieked competing warnings down the street. Brownlaw heard a guy screaming up on the sixth floor right through the ringing. Such fear. He looked up, still braced against the wall of the Sorrento Diner, heart pounding like a dryer with a load of sneakers.
Brownlaw pulled up at the lobby door of the hotel and let the onrush of humanity sweep past him: a young man in a blazer with a nameplate on and a phone to his ear, a wide-eyed oldster on a wobbling cane, a cleaning lady still wearing yellow rubber gloves and glaring at Robbie as if he had caused this. Then two more old men in shabby suits, a gangsta in a wifebeater shirt swearing in Spanish, an Indian couple with three bawling children, a tall black man in a Sonics T-shirt, then a pretty young woman with a tangle of blond hair, a black eye and a bathrobe around her.
Robbie headed up the stairs past an old woman with a Yorkie in her arms. He felt lucky and useful. The smoke was thick by the fourth landing and hot by the sixth. There was a weak moaning behind the first door he came to. It was locked but it only took him one kick and a shoulder slam to break it down. Inside he found a very old woman trapped under the bed mattress, which had apparently fallen onto her from the upended springs and frame. Only her neck and head and one arm were sticking out from under it. She looked up at him through the smoke as if he were God himself and Brownlaw told her she'd be fine as he bent and dug his fingers into the mattress and pulled it away. The old woman couldn't get up so Brownlaw just hauled her over his shoulders and ran back down the stairs with her.
By the time he got back up to the sixth story, he was coughing hard and his eyes burned and the sirens were wailing closer and all but one of the room doors had been thrown open.
Behind that door Brownlaw could hear the screams of a man, the same terrified, animal sounds he'd heard on the street. One kick later the door shuddered open and he was in. The smoke was thick but Robbie could see the guy kneeling at the glassless window with his back to him. He was wearing shorts and that was all. He was clutching the window sill, bellowing at the city with wild fear.
When Robbie was halfway across the room the man turned and looked at him and Robbie realized it wasn't fear at all. The man wheeled and came at him fast. He was very big and had Robbie in a wrestler's bear-hug in an instant. He lifted Robbie off the ground and swung him around the room. During those two rapid orbits Brownlaw stared from inches away into a face he would never forget or understanda face of rage and desperation whose depths he could not measure. Pitiless eyes. He tried to groin the guy with his knee but the man was so tall all he got was thigh. His gun was in his shoulder rig, which was under his sport coat, but his arms were pinned. He could not draw breath.
At the end of that second rotationhe was pretty sure it was only twoBrownlaw felt the big hands lock around his arms and fling him out the window.
The air was cool and he felt absolutely alone. His first thought was that he could stop his fall using pure willpower.
And it seemed to be true. He focused all of his will on staying up. Up! Up! Up! Raising his arms, Robbie clawed the sky and felt his body suspended in the great liberty of air. He wasn't falling at all, but moving forward with good speed, and for an instant he wondered if he might collide with the building across the street. Or maybe even crash through a window, land on his feet and get back to the Sorrento before the waitress took away his lunch.
Then Brownlaw came to the end of his outward momentum. There was no hesitation, no moment of suspension. Just a heavy pivot of weight and down he went.
Fast, then faster. He had never felt such speed before, nothing close to this. Faster still. Robbie Brownlaw, on his back now with his arms spread and his hands reaching for nothing, watched the top of the Las Palmas rise up into the gray clouds and felt his ears bend forward in the awesome velocity of descent. He understood that he was now in the hands of something much larger than himself if he was in any kind of hands at all.
He thought of his young wife, Gina, with whom he was ferociously in love. He understood that the power of their love would be a factor in the outcome here. It seemed impossible that their days together were about to come to an end. Something like relief flowed through Robbie and as the clouds rose away from him he tried to figure his estimated time of arrival. Sixteen feet per second? But is that only at first? Surely you accelerate. How high is a story in an old hotel? The phrase "two more seconds" came into his mind.
But in spite of Robbie's belief that he would live to love Gina for years to come, a more convincing idea now flashed into his brain: this is it.
He suddenly believed in the God he had doubted for all his life, his conversion completed in a fraction of a second.
Then, he let go. He felt insight and understanding: he saw that his first five years of life had been happy, that his childhood had been filled with wonder, his teenage years were a search for freedom, his young adulthood had been a storm of confusion and yearning for love, his twenties a happy grind of Gina and friends and Gina and friends and Gina and Gina and Gina and Robbie plummeted through the screams of sirens and alarms and onlookers and crashed through the faded red awning over the entrance to Las Palmas Hotel like an anvil through a bed sheet and hit the sidewalk with a cracking echoless thud.
© T. Jefferson Parker