There was no time to waste. Ethan reached back into the closet, past Sophia, and grabbed his old cross-trainers. He slipped into them and crunched across the broken glass to pull a T-shirt and jeans out of the chest of drawers. Sophia watched him in confusion from the relative safety of the closet as he shrugged into his T-shirt.
"Ethan?" she quavered. "Gevreet haast don?"
She still wasn't making any sense. Ethan spoke gently to her, hoping that at least the tone of his voice would calm her down. "Honey, I've got to go see if anyone's still alive in there," he said. "You stay here, and I'll be back as soon as I can. All right?"
She stared at him, uncomprehending. Time for charades, then. Ethan pointed to himself, then to the burning plane outside. Then at Sophia, then both palms open to the ground: stay. Finally he pointed at the clock and held up his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. Suddenly her eyes lit with understanding. Ethan smiled at her in what he hoped was an encouraging way, pulling on his jeans.
Suddenly, as he straightened up, Sophia darted out of the closet and wrapped herself around his waist, clutching him hard. Ethan put his arms around her tenderly, gently rubbing the tense muscles of her back, and kissed the top of her head. She'd already been through so much in one morning. But he also knew Sophia was much stronger than she looked. He pulled away from her and pointed again toward the plane.
Sophia touched her hand to her chest, then to Ethan's. She'd told him enough times that he knew just what it meant: my heart goes with you. He bent and kissed her, then laced up his shoes and ran -- through the house, out the front door, toward the burning wreck.
Clouds of greasy black smoke billowed from the half-buried plane, and the smell of kerosene was so strong in the air that it made Ethan's gorge rise. He pulled his T-shirt over his nose and mouth and moved in closer to the tail section of the wreck, hoping he could find an openable escape hatch. Broken fragments of the plane littered the area. He stepped over an oxygen mask, weirdly pristine in the middle of the devastation, and pulled himself up the side of the tilted plane. One of the rear door emergency exit hatches was clear of debris and still sealed. He grabbed the lever in the center of the hatch, pulled and twisted hard, but it wouldn't budge.
At that moment, he could hear a faint, irregular knocking coming from inside the plane. Ethan put his ear against the fuselage, trying to figure out where it was coming from. It didn't sound particularly close. He dropped down to the ground, moving toward the shattered wing section.
The emergency exit over the starboard wing was covered with debris from the crash, as well as fallen tree branches, but it was also partially unsealed. The sound of knocking was much louder. Ethan began to clear away the branches and dirt as quickly as he could. Dark smoke was starting to leak from the top of the hatch, and the knocking sound began to die away as he worked. As soon as the hatch was clear, Ethan pulled and twisted with all his might, but again the door wouldn't move.
What was wrong with these exit doors? Ethan had to restrain a passing urge to kick the hatch open. He looked down at the authoritative black letters stenciled on the hatch, just beneath the lever:
TIZANA MZ YTORRAL
Much good that did him. But there was a stick-figure diagram just below the letters that showed -- he wiped more dirt away -- showed someone opening the hatch from outside. He was trying to pull, when the door needed to be pushed. Twisting the lever again, Ethan put his shoulder against the hatch and shoved with all his weight, and the door gave. Immediately dark smoke began to billow from the opening, and Ethan ducked down, trying to avoid breathing the acrid smoke as much as possible.
Just inside the hatch lay the figure of a man. He was tall and heavy-set, with dark curly hair and a short beard. His head was bleeding heavily and one arm was stretched out in front of him, as though he'd been knocking on the side of the plane with his fist. His other arm was wrapped around a leather briefcase. Ethan grabbed him by the arms and began to pull him out, toward the exit. The stranger moaned softly, and with his last bit of strength he clung to the briefcase he was carrying.
Smoke began to fill the inside of the plane, and Ethan choked and coughed on the fumes, dragging the man roughly across the hatch entrance. It looked less and less likely that he'd be able to pull anyone else out of the wreckage -- if indeed anyone else had survived the crash. As it stood, the stranger was taller and heavier than Ethan; he was going to be a challenge to move anywhere. Ethan pulled the stranger up and around his shoulders in a fireman's carry; as he did so, the man dropped his briefcase. Whatever might be in that case, it was obviously very important to him. Ethan paused and slowly leaned down to retrieve the fallen case. Walking carefully, he made his way around the debris and away from the crash site.
Sophia was dressed and standing in the yard, her eyes wide with worry. Ethan began trying to puzzle out how to explain to her that they were going to the hospital, but there was no need. As soon as she saw the state of the survivor Ethan was carrying, she ran to open the garage. By the time he had reached the driveway, she'd backed the car out and had run around to open the back door for the stranger. Ethan loaded the man into the back seat, where he lay very still. Then he handed the briefcase to Sophia and opened the passenger door for her.
Ethan drove, and Sophia occasionally turned to look at the passenger in back, but he never stirred. After a few minutes, she tried to peek at the contents of the briefcase, which was locked. As soon as they took the final turn out of their neighborhood, however, what they saw temporarily pushed all thoughts of the stranger from Ethan's mind.
The main road was littered with cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles -- some pulled over and neatly parked on the roadside, some simply abandoned in the middle of the street, some having obviously crashed into each other. The owners of the vehicles were out in force on the street as well, most of them yelling at each other in mutually unintelligible languages. Ethan stared out his window at a police officer, loudly trying to make himself understood to two drivers who had just collided with each other. One of them was signing words in a series of earthy, expressive gestures. The other, bizarrely, blew a series of bright bubbles from her mouth that created musical notes as they popped in the air.
Sophia patted Ethan's arm and pointed further up the street. A woman was dancing on the street corner -- strange, erratic moves that nonetheless seemed to teeter on the edge of comprehension in Ethan's mind. A little girl was waving her arms and trying to talk to the dancing woman in a percussive series of clicks and pops. An older man had just finished setting up a large placard in the middle of his front yard; the sign was covered with letters in long, flowing lines that looked something like Arabic. Wherever they looked, there were even stranger sights and sounds to take in. Everywhere, up and down the long street, there rose a continuous noise of babble and confusion. In the distance, they could see more fires burning.
"What the hell is going on?" Ethan murmured.