Melinda's throat constricted violently and she hacked until instinct told her to cover her mouth. Her white blouse was silk and expensive, but whatever. It was now a hundred dollar bandanna. She put her fingers into the shoulder seam and pulled hard. The material did not want to give at first but eventually she was able to pull the entire sleeve down her arm and over her hand, which she immediately wrapped around the lower half of her face. She put one hand on the planter behind her and braced as she got slowly to her feet. It was a wobbly ascent and her knees screamed their displeasure the whole time, but finally she was up. She took a tentative, feeble step and held on to the planter for dear life. She heaved out a lungful of air with a cough, surprised that she hadn't even noticed she'd been holding it.

The blackness swirled around her. She still could not breathe.

First on her mind was the condition of her crew. She had to know if they were safe. Her cell phone in her hip pocket was a direct link to the head archaeologist Irwin Sender, but a phone would be useless if her ears were shot. She was about to return the small smartphone to her pocket when she thought, Text! And immediately retrieved the phone. She found Sender's number and punched in: ARE YOU OKAY? And then her thumb tapped the SEND button. She didn't know how long it would take Sender to respond. Maybe he lost the phone in the blast, maybe he was suffering from tinnitus and was unable to hear it chime its message tone, maybe he was... unable to answer the phone. Melinda chided herself for thinking too bitterly. She checked to make sure her phone was set to vibrate and then stumbled off in the direction of the strange man she'd seen next to an oil barrel. She distantly remembered his mouth moving. Had he said something to her before the blast?

Melinda didn't know. Her brain was like oatmeal.

Sir?” she called out, but gagged. She swallowed to clear her throat and tried again, “Hello? Can you hear me? Can anybody hear me? Are you all right? Hello?”

She tried walking in the direction of the man's last known position, but the entire area was a picture of turmoil. She dropped to her knees and found she could see better if she crawled around below the thickest of the smoke.

The End

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