The stairs I was standing on fell away beneath my feet, and I dropped. I grabbed for anything that could break my fall. My hands clutched at a baluster and found purchase. I was yanked to a stop and hung suspended, coughing, smoke swirling around me, the fire roaring and crackling in my ears. Under my jacket, tiny bodies shifted and tiny needles pricked my skin through my sweatshirt. A feathery tail emerged from above the zipper and tickled my chin. I couldn’t look up. Ash and debris rained down on my head and shoulders. Any second now, a live ember would get caught in the hood of my sweatshirt and we’d be swallowed up by the inferno. One of my passengers was trying to crawl inside my bra, and if tiny teeth found something they mistook for a milk fountain, we were goners.
A voice shouted at me from below. “Cat, you got to let go!” it said. “I got a couch under you to break your fall.”
I tried looking down. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my partner, but I knew he was capable of stretching the truth if he thought it was for my own good.
But my eyes were bleary with tears and a cloud of smoke obscured everything. I coughed and clung.
Then the cloud parted and I could make out shapes — a piece of furniture, the dark figure of a man, and something small and four-footed, pacing. The mama cat, ears swiveling in my direction as if she could hear something under the roar of the fire.
Then she leapt for the enormous tapestry that hung on the wall in the stairwell, reaching from the second floor down to the first, and began climbing toward us. It was already smoldering. Now or never.
I kicked my feet out and launched myself at the wall, scrabbling at the heavy fabric. The impact sent shockwaves through my cargo and I felt them as a writhing mass just above my waistband. As I clutched at the tapestry, I felt it slowly give way. The panic-stricken mama cat, trapped between my chest and the wall, pressed against her babies but separated from them by layers of fabric, flailed and cut a scimitar slash down my cheek and neck. I coughed and clutched.
Then we slid down the wall and landed in a heap of fur and fabric. Strong arms lifted me to my feet and pulled me, my head still shrouded, trailing tapestry like a coronation train. I stumbled over something that might have been a doorsill and felt a change in the air and then the softer ground beneath my feet. Out here, there were shouts and mechanical sounds, and the rushing of water added to the cacophony of fire noises.
The fabric was pulled back and my head popped out. I felt the heat of the flames against one cheek and the cool night air against the other.
Moses tapped my shoulder, “I’m going for a paramedic.”
I nodded and sank to my knees, coughing. I fumbled for my zipper, unzipped, and released a shower of kittens. Then I collapsed fully and lay on my back, trying to fill my lungs with air. A blurry shape in my peripheral vision resembled a mama cat who was taking inventory and licking her brood with the angry intensity of a mother who’s almost lost them.
Then a new shape materialized, skinny, tailless, and human. It squatted next to me.
“You okay, M-m-miz Cat?” it said.
It continued to study me. “Wh-what that?” it said, and extended an arm.
I tried to speak and failed. I tried again. “Cat scratch,” I croaked.
“No,” it said, “n-not that. Wh-what that?”
I turned my head to follow the direction of the pointing finger, blinked to clear my vision, and looked into the blackened eye sockets of a skull.