For the third time in my eight-hour shift, the needle pricks the scabbed and clotted skin outlining my fingernails. Grimacing slightly, I lift my fingers from the soft cotton blouse and watch the crimson liquid pool over my cuticles. Bringing my hands to my cream white apron, I add to the decorations of scarlet scattered around the cloth. I have to be careful. Mr. Blanck and Mr. Harris don’t like it when blood gets on the shirtwaists. I don’t want to explain to my family why we won’t be eating this week. Usually, the bosses don’t spend their time in the lower levels; the salty stenches of blood and sweat tend to turn people away. Sponging the sweat off my forehead with my wrist, I try to stay focused on the task at hand.
Still, my mind continues to wander. It doesn’t help that people are hollering, enjoying their Saturday afternoons eight floors below. I can imagine myself wearing one of these shirtwaists and strolling through the streets. My sister is always going on and on about getting one of those lavish hats to balance on the top of her head, feathers and flowers spilling from it. Shaking the fantasy from my head, I glance over at the big clock hoisted above the door. Only twenty minutes left and no mistakes now. That’s what Mr. Blanck is always telling us. As the uniformed men brought in the new electric machines, he told us specifically, wagging his finger in our faces, “Three thousand stitches a minute. No mistakes.”
I count to six thousand before I glance at the clock again. Only a minute and a half has gone by. My pride tugs at the corner of my lips as I realize that I have beaten the average already. Feeling my mind start to wander yet again, I shift in my seat. The bosses make us pay for our own electricity, so I need to keep focused. There can be no wasting it. No matter how bad the working conditions are, everyone who quits always comes back within the next week, like a boomerang. With the current economy, we need to take any job we can get.
The sweat trickles down past my ear, overflowing like a crashing waterfall, as I try to focus on my stitches. However, my sewing machine neighbor constantly shifting in her seat is distracting me. She’s just a child of ten years old. I can tell that she needs to use the bathroom but with the foremen watching, there are no bathroom breaks. Their silent rubber heels always catch people and send them back to their stations, pursed lips hidden beneath their groomed moustaches.
I count to 15,096 when the smell of smoke wafts into my nostrils. My mind tries to play it off as exhaustion-induced hallucination. However, when I glance back over to my neighbor, I see her own nose scrunched up at the odor. Everyone is so attached to their work and the money it brings in that they don’t even bother to look for the source. The foreman is too busy scolding a young German girl about her needles that he doesn’t even look up. Seeing as I am ahead on my stitches, I risk a glance behind me. A wisp of smoke is exiting from the tips of a rag bin. Before my eyes, I watch that same wisp turn to red and yellow as the flames leap upward.
“Fire!” I shout, the word ripping from my throat before I even realize that the noise is coming from me. The other English-speaking girls’ heads whip upwards, leaping from their machines.
“Fuoco!” An older Italian woman nearby shouts. Soon, every translation of the word is springing up along the eighth floor. By now, the flames are leaping across the room, licking at our ankles.
With the recent union protests in our building, Mr. Harris took it upon himself to lock all of the exits except for the Greene Street stairway. There, he would force us to undergo bag checks to make sure we weren’t stealing extra thread or needles in our purses. Only he has the keys to the other exits that he carries on a large brass ring.
As we press closer to the other side of the room, I watch as the foreman tries to use the hose to dampen the fire. However, the valve is rusted shut from lack of use. The doorway to the Greene Street stairway isn’t even visible anymore. The smoke completely covers it, blanketing over our only escape from top to bottom. Wicker baskets are scattered around the room in chaos. The fire just continues to eat them up, its hunger still not satisfied.
Blindly, I look around for my little sister, trying to catch a glimpse of her red braids somewhere in the crowd. I’m still calling out her name frantically when a small hand grips ahold of my dress. Quickly, I turn around to see my Ann staring back at me. Her cheeks are red; tears flowing freely down the sides of her face. The bottoms of her dress are singed, like she barely made it out before the flames took hold of what they thought they were entitled to. Her breath escapes her lips raggedly as her smaller hand tangles with mine. I give it a short squeeze and we push toward the elevator shaft. Already, girls are piling in, trying to cram as many bodies as they can into one car.
“No more!” A girl barks at the rest of us, closing the gate quickly behind her. The last thing I see of her is the soot draped beneath her cheekbones as the shaft descends downward.
“We didn’t get on that one.” Ann murmurs, her bottom lip quivering.
“Next one, Annie, next one,” I whisper back, tugging on her hand. I can tell she’s terrified, her tears dropping onto the floor next to her feet. “Remember our plans? We are going to become rich and wear fancy evening gowns—”
“Can I get a fancy hat?” she asks me, suddenly.
“The fanciest,” I assure her.
“A purple hat?” she asks again, her voice trembling.
“The brightest, biggest purple hat we can find.” I nod to her. The next car never arrives. People start to become frantic, pushing forward and trying to see what the holdup is. The people up in front are whispering to the back that the elevator has crashed and there will be no more. Screams flood my ears as people jump down the shaft to escape the fire that is drifting even closer to our bodies that are shivering even though we aren’t at all cold.
“Come on.” Ann tugs on my hand and urges me closer to the shaft.
“We aren’t jumping, Annie,” I tell her, urgency etched in my voice.
“Everyone else is doing it.”
“We’ll die on impact,” I try to convince her, but she is having none of it. Instead, she pushes to the front of the group. I get caught in the back, angry girls in scorched dresses covering up her trail. I try to yank a girl backwards to get back to my sister and she kicks me straight in the knees. Hobbling for a few seconds, I at last get to the front of the group. Ann is standing at the very edge of the shaft. I try to pull her back, but I only get the back of her necklace that we made together when we were children. Beads fly down with her as I clench my eyes closed, as if that will block out her scream. For a second, I can’t breathe. My sister is gone and I don’t wait to hear the crash landing. I took this job to keep my family alive and I failed. Without her, it just seems all over. With my knees aching, I limp to the back of the crowd.
My vision is foggy from my own tears, but I run back toward the fire escape. Girls are standing around the window, watching the fire trucks pull in outside. They are screaming, their words overlapping so it sounds like a foreign tongue I’ve never heard before. I watch as the ladders fall short and the flames grow taller. Taking a deep breath, I think of my other family members. With our mother sick, they still need me to help provide a somewhat steady source of income. With their survival on my mind, I push my way to the front.
My first steps on the fire escape are wobbly. I don’t feel completely safe on the thing, but then again, I don’t feel at all safe in the building either. Other girls are screaming at me for running past them, but in the moment, I don’t care. Beneath my feet, I can feel the rumble of the girls in front of me, scrambling down. Quickening my pace, I throw my shoes off, figuring I can do this quicker barefoot. The metal is hot beneath my skin, which gives me an incentive to run faster. I’m just at the second floor when the fire escape releases a fatal creak. Clenching my teeth together, I run faster before the metal caves out from beneath me. Clattering to the ground, I’m lucky that I’m at a short enough distance that the net the firefighters have set up catches my fall. Others are not so fortunate.
As I’m rolled off of the net, I try not to pay attention to the falling figures or the disheveled tangles of hair. But I can’t do anything to block the screams.
A week later, I am called back to collect my paycheck from that terrible day. My heart is still in pieces, the remnants of my sister’s necklace coiled around my wrist. They place both of our paychecks in my hands. As soon as I get the money, I turn back around and walk toward a store that Ann and I only dreamed of entering. And I buy a hat. Not just any hat. The fanciest purple hat that they have.
Marriya Schwarz is a junior at the College of William & Mary, with roots in the Northern Virginia region. She was a recipient of two gold keys and one silver medal in the 2016 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the third-place winner of the College of William & Mary’s Howard Scammon Drama Prize in 2018. Her writing has been featured in Writopia Lab’s From Your Friendly Neighborhood Feminist and Women’s eNews: Teen Voices. In her free time, she is a historic tour guide, a tap dance teacher, and a web series producer.