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Proof of Angels


If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then—­ for me, anyway—­a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren’t yet operational. There’s been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.
—Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir

SEAN MAGEE WAS ON FIRE. THE FLAMES LICKED HIS neck and then disappeared over his fire-­retardant jacket as he crawled on all fours trying desperately to find his way out. He was staying below the dense black smoke, but it was already impossible for him to see. As he moved across the large, seemingly endless space, he could feel the heat radiating up through the floorboards and he could tell the entire room would consume him if he didn’t escape in the next minute, possibly seconds.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. That’s all he wanted to do. Even though he knew the mask and the oxygen it was pumping to him was the only thing keeping him alive at this moment, he nevertheless had the desire to rip it off and inhale deeply. It defied logic. He knew this. But he couldn’t help but feel that the mask wasn’t working, that he was suffocating. If he had given in to this particular primal urge, as he had given in to so many other urges in his life, he would die. One inhalation and his lungs would become filled with the deadly smoke and would knock him out. He knew the heavy tank on his back and the mask that it was attached to was the only thing saving him now. But even the oxygen in the tank was dissipating.

As he groped in front of him for a hint at where an exit might be, he felt at once both the sinking feeling that no one was coming for him and the relief that he was alone in this. He didn’t want anyone to be there with him. It would be sui-cide for anyone to come for him. He hoped no one had tried, because that meant that someone was already dead and was now burning in the furnace below him that was once a room. He also knew what the guys outside watching were already thinking, because they were thinking the very same thing he was at this precise moment: Magee’s a goner.

Again, Sean fought back the urge to rip off the mask. Instead, he lifted his burned hand and tightened the suction of the rubber grip that sealed it to his face. He then put his hand gingerly down against his ax handle to keep his unprotected and damaged palms from the hot floor and continued to walk on his knees, hoping to find a corner that led to a door that led to a way out.

Despite the rising temps, the fire burning the small ex-posed areas of his neck and his hands, uncovered because of an earlier false sense of safety and calm, and the black void closing in all around him, Sean Magee tried to keep his cool.

His body temperature was rising. The heat surrounding him was making it impossible to sweat. Another primal urge arose: he wanted to shed his jacket, his boots, and the heavy tank, but to give up all that would mean his entire body would burn. He couldn’t beat fire with fire, no more than he could cool off by cooling off.

Sean knew one thing better than anything else: how to sur-vive. And this essential truth was what he often reminded himself of: The key to surviving anything was to ignore every basic instinct one typically has to stay alive. Case in point, he often said when espousing this long-­held tenet, instinct tells you not to jump out of a burning building. There is nothing in-stinctual about plunging to your death. But if you don’t, you burn. Your chances are better on the ground than in fire. If you’re drowning, your instinct is to scream. But if you give in to that in-stinct and cry out for help, you swallow the water and sink. Moral of the story? Whatever you think you want to do to survive, do the exact opposite.

Sean wanted to scream for help. But he knew better. He didn’t speak aloud. He didn’t want to waste what little air he had left.

He heard his friends calling for him over the radio, “Magee? Magee? You hear me? Get the hell of there.”

He listened to his own breath rise and fall inside the mask.

Breathe. Just breathe. One breath at a time. One day at a time.

This was his solemn prayer. His only prayer. His meetings were his only true religion. He groped in the darkness for a way out. He heard the tiny voice coming from somewhere in the nether reaches of his memory, the parts he’d spent the past three years trying to push away.

There’s always a way, Uncle Sean.

But Sean had lost his way. Somehow, he’d lost his way again. 

I can’t, Colm. I can’t do it.

You have to. Come on, Uncle Sean.

Sean was lost now because he had blacked out earlier, right after the explosion initially engulfed the room. He was trying to remember how he’d even gotten here. He thought if he could just find the precise spot he’d started from, where he was before the fire took hold, he would figure out how to save himself.

Just get back. Get back to where you were. Get to where you were . . . before. Come on, Sean. Come on. You can do this. You have to do this.

He mentally backtracked. He remembered why he’d ini-tially climbed the stairs of the house. He was the ax man. His captain had sent him up to tear open the knee wall on the third floor and make sure no fire was behind it or between the archaic wall framing that rose from basement to attic without any of the fire-­blocking mechanisms that all new houses had. Sean guessed that the house had to be over a hundred years old. It was built from basement to roof with the same line of studs. It was essentially a house full of chimney flues. Since the fire had started in the basement, there was a chance it had spread up through the walls.

When Sean and his engine company arrived on the scene, he had been told by his commanding officer that the fire had been contained to the first floor and was almost out. It was just precautionary that he go in and look the place over. The hose man stayed below to keep dowsing the first floor with water. Sean, heavy with gear, ripped off his gloves and walked slowly up to the second floor, feeling every wall for the heat that could be burning within them as he made his ascent. Once he scanned the entire second floor, he opened a door that led to the attic stairs and he lumbered up to the attic with his heavy gear and repeated his task.

The attic ceiling was arched, like a Gothic cathedral. But-tresses were exposed, but drywall had been applied to the arching walls to make it look modern and to cover the original wood panels. The renovated attic now served as a little boy’s playroom. Sean looked around at the familiar-­looking Lego sets and puzzles that were strewn on the floor and a moment of panic seized him. Though he’d been told no one was in the building, he was always on alert. As always, Sean needed to see for himself to believe it. He bolted around the room and pulled off his mask, announcing his presence affably, “I’m a fireman, buddy. I’m here to help. If you’re hiding, you can come out. You’re safe now. I got ya.” But when no one answered, Sean spun around and opened closets and tossed their contents in case the child was still frightened and some-where in the room. He bent down on all fours and looked under and around furniture. It took less than a minute, but he assessed the room as clear. There was no one there. He exhaled in relief, and continued his job.

Sean tried not to remember the boy. Not now. Not now. He tried not to get distracted with thoughts from the past. He knew there was no stopping the memories once they came. So he kept walking and fought them back. As he stepped over a train set, his large boot landed on, and then crushed, a tiny steam engine. He kicked it out of his way and heard it hit the wall beneath the only window in the room. Distracted by his surroundings, the memories, and the thought of a lost boy, Sean forgot to feel the south-­facing wall of the house. Instead, he walked along the western wall and put out his hands.

He felt nothing. He heard no sound.

There was no fire up there after all, Sean thought, just another fool’s errand in a day of false alarms and similar dis-patches. The end of his shift was in ten minutes. He never liked days like this. He liked to see action. Have something happen. He turned around and walked back to the south wall. Even though he felt certain there was no fire, he had to be absolutely sure before he could go back down and report it to his captain. He was sent in with an ax to check it out and that’s what he was going to do. It was his job. And he loved it.

No one would have ever guessed that the floor just below where Sean was standing, and right above where his lineman was hosing, would flash over. Weeks later, Sean’s captain would still be apologizing for sending Sean in. He would still be answering to criticism from his superiors and the OSHA investigators. The house had balloon framing. Textbook. It was a flashover waiting to happen. Shouldn’t have been up there alone and without a hose. They would all say the same thing: Magee had no business being in there. But even Sean could never have guessed the power of the fire that was building beneath him, that lurked behind those walls.

Unbeknownst to all, just as the floor below was enveloped in fire, Sean raised the ax above his head and then threw all of its weight forward and let it fall into the wall. It was like tearing open the door to hell.

Sean never knew what hit him.

As the ax ripped a hole through the drywall, oxygen filled the interior wall and fed the fire. Large billows of orange and blue flames and plumes of black smoke exploded up from be-tween the studs and blew Sean and his ax across the room. After several minutes of being unconscious, Sean came to inside a black abyss. He had no idea where he was or how to get back out. He pulled his mask back up over his face, and then reached out and felt for the ax beside him.

As he struggled to regain his strength and get his bearings, he remembered the stairs. He remembered the window on the far end of the room. He remembered the toy engine he’d kicked and how it had landed beneath the window. If he found it, he would find his way. He just needed to get to the window.

Just find your way, Sean. Find it, dammit. How hard can it be? 

But Sean was lost now. He had been turned around somehow in the darkness. He had no sense of direction. He had no idea where to go, what to do next.

This was precisely the time, he knew, one begins to bar-gain. A long time ago he told himself if he ever came to a point where he would be near death, he would not be one of those last-­ditch-­effort petitioners or hypocrites who declare their love of the lord. He would hold it together and accept his fate. He would be at peace. He would make his sister proud. He would be as strong and as brave as he had seen others who went before him. But here he was, on his way out. He had no time left at all. And after minutes of trying to play it cool, keep his head on straight, he could no longer resist the urge. He felt the words coming out of his mouth.

“If you get me out of this . . . if you help me outta here . . .

I promise I’ll be better. I’ll be a better man. A better brother. A better friend. I’ll even . . . I’ll even do that thing I said I was gonna do, but never did . . . I’ll do anything . . . Just get me the hell outta . . . ,” Sean prayed and the radio picked up every word.

“Magee? Magee! You’re still up there? Jesus, man, where are you?”

Sean could think of only one person now. One name. He thought he had only seconds and so he didn’t bother respond-ing with his location. If he had only a few last words to say, he wanted them to be these: “Tell Chiara Montanari that I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

“What? Sean? Magee? You can tell whoever you want whatever you want when we get you the hell outta there. We’re headed around the north side of the house. There is a window. Get to the north side of the house. We’ll get to you. We’re on our way.”

“I can’t see. I can’t see. It’s so dark. I don’t know how to get out of this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And just then Sean saw what he would, in the weeks immediately following the fire, forget, but then, like the apparition itself, remember quite suddenly. And he would find it impossible to ever forget it again. The smoke seemed to break and curl away, making a straight path for him and a bright, magnetic force pulled him forward. Sean succumbed to it. If not for the mask he was wearing, Sean would have rubbed his eyes. He would have tried to clarify the inconceivable scene playing itself out before him. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought he had seen an angel, surrounded by an incredible all-­encompassing light. He had seen it before. He would know it anywhere. It lighted the way. He wanted to go to that light. It made all the sense in the world. Suddenly, the only urge he had was not to keep cool, was not to breathe, it was simply to follow. All of his physical desires fell away and Sean followed the light the angel had made for him, that once again made it easier for him to find his way. Then as quickly as the apparition had seemingly materialized, it dis-appeared. And before him he saw the window. He raised his ax and smashed through the panes. He slid his legs through and stood up on the baseboard running around the length of the gabled roof, hoping to see his friends below, there to catch him.

But Sean was all alone. The men had not made their way around the house yet. And the alley was so small, he knew there would be no ladder coming for him. Flames shot out of the window behind him, burning his neck.

Sean Magee had only one option to survive. He didn’t want to jump, so he knew that was exactly what he had to do.

Just a few months shy of his thirtieth birthday, on the ledge of a three-­story house in Los Angeles, Sean Magee finally stepped out of the darkness that was about to consume him, and he did something he had never done before.

He leaped.

Part 1

Nobody’s perfect. We’re all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.
—­Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses

SEAN FELT THE COOLNESS OF THE AIR WASH OVER HIM as he descended. There was no time to think about the fall when he jumped. He just knew he had to do it.

To resist. To fight. To go back. Everything was behind him now. And the impact was coming. For a split second the realization hit him that he was going to land feetfirst. His body was so large and heavy there was no way for him to tuck, roll, or switch positions in midair like a diver. If he survived, his legs would be shattered.

Sean never felt his femur bones snap, the vertebrae in his lower spine compress, or his head hit the pavement when he landed. Legs, back, head. Later ­people would tell him how lucky he was he had not landed headfirst, that if he had, he would be dead. His legs and girth had spared him. Lucky is one of those relative terms, he would often joke. But it didn’t seem funny after the fall. Not much did.

After several minutes of being unconscious once again, this time on the ground, Sean came to and heard the commotion that surrounded him. Several people­ were talking to him at once. There was a flurry of activity in the alley. He heard both men and women shouting orders at each other and into radios. He couldn’t see what was happening, but he could tell what they were doing. He had been on the other side enough to know.

It took several of them to cut the tank straps, remove the clothes from his body, and slide him onto an orange board. He opened his eyes to look around him, but he couldn’t see anything. He knew his eyes were open, but he couldn’t see.

“I’m blind. I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see,” he gasped under a small oxygen mask that now replaced his melted one that lay beside him in a heap with his uniform.

“Magee. We got you. You’re gonna be fine,” the medic said, placing Sean’s head into a neck brace.

Another was strapping Sean’s upper arms to the side of the board, “Hang in there, buddy. Hang in there.”

“Where did she go?” Sean weakly muttered.

“Sean there was no one else. You came out alone. You’re gonna be fine, Sean. You’re gonna be fine. We got ya, man,” his friend James reassured him, patting his chest.

“I . . . saw . . .”

“Save your strength. You in any pain?”

“Uh-­huh,” Sean said, trying desperately to see what was going on around him. His blue eyes were bloodshot. Blood flowed out of his nose and ears. His face was black with soot save for the tracks of blood that cut tiny tributaries over his cheekbones and square jaw. The flesh on his hands was blackened and charred and smelled like overcooked steaks. Sean caught a whiff of his own burned flesh and his stomach con-tracted. Vomit forced its way up his esophagus and he began to choke.

James snapped the oxygen mask off Sean, and then with the help of three other men took the orange board and lifted it sideways.

“Oh god, oh god,” Sean gasped, “oh god.”

When Sean was done retching, the men flipped the board again and lay it flat on the ground.

“Goddammit. Goddammit,” Sean whispered.

“We’ll get you something for the pain, man. We’ll get you to the hospital and get you something. Stay with me,” James shouted nervously.

“I can’t . . . ,” Sean said weakly, barely audible and whis-pering toward James, who knew his secret. “I can’t take anything. I am not supposed to take anything.” Yes, nearly burning alive and then falling from a window did not pose as much of a threat to Sean’s life as did the possibility of jeop-ardizing his sobriety. He would rather die than go back to nursing the bottle or sneaking pain pills.

“Man, you’re gonna need a whole lot of something. Trust me. We’ll take care of you,” his friend James said now, nervously, feverishly patting his friend on the chest. “Don’t worry about that bullshit now. Stay in the moment, man. Booze is the least of your worries. You make it out of this, you have a free pass to drink for the rest of your life. You got me? You’re gonna live. You got me? We’ll be hitting the swells together. You and me. Back on the boards in no time and we’ll be fishin’, too. And after that, we’ll hit the clubs and start dancing with all the ladies. Just like ol’ times. You just hang on. You just hang on, man. Hang the hell on.”

“No. No. You’re not listening to me . . . No . . .” Sean shook his head and started to shake. If he had been on the other side, he would have thought the patient was in shock. But Sean was not in shock. He knew exactly what was happening.

James grabbed his upper arm, the only part of Sean that was not burned. “You listen to me, brother. You’re not going anywhere. Not today. Not on my watch. You got that? You shut up and quit fighting me on this one.”

Sean couldn’t see James’s ruddy, round, and panicked face. He didn’t need to. He knew what that fear looked like. He didn’t need to see what he knew James was feeling. His friend was desperate. Afraid. Sean had been there, too. Sean had been the one to grip tightly, hold on, shake, beg, and plead for someone to come back. All Sean wanted in this moment was to assuage his friend’s anguish. He wanted to make them all feel better. He wanted to tell them it would be okay. He wanted to thank them. He understood his nephew Colm now.

It’s okay, Uncle Sean. It’s okay. Just let me go. Please just let me go. He understood it so well. To want to hang on. To not let anyone down. Even when it hurt so badly. And Sean didn’t want anyone to suffer. Not on his account. In fact, that’s all he’d ever wanted—­to relieve others’ suffering. He wanted to help ­people. He wanted to see some proof that he was making a difference. A smile, a lifted finger in appreciation. A pulse. A heartbeat. Some proof. Not proof of heaven. Not proof of something beyond him. That was always his sister’s and nephew’s quest, not his. He just wanted proof of what was right in front of him. He wanted proof of life. It made all the difference in the world. He wanted to do that for his friend James especially, who at this very moment was yelling at someone about a falling heart rate and low pulse–oxygen level. He wanted to give James a little grin. Tell his friend, Thanks, I’m doing great. But instead, he said, like his nephew had just three years earlier, “Just let me go, please. Please. I’ve had a good run of things. Just let me go, James. It’s all right. It’s all right.”

With the last bit of energy he could muster up, Sean smiled and closed his eyes.

Proof of Angels
by by Mary Curran Hackett

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062279955
  • ISBN-13: 9780062279958