We arrived last Friday on a call for a house fire that had gotten way out of control in a close-knit community. The idea was to go in, manage the fire and get things under control before the house reached a point where the entire neighborhood had a threat of burning to the ground. People had fled from their homes and were scattered all about the street, children were screaming at 2 a.m. in the morning wishing they were safely tucked back into their beds, and neighbors with their peeking eyes were watching the house become engulfed in flames. It wasn’t the most beautiful of houses, but it wasn’t horrible either. And upon seeing the scene, I knew it wouldn’t be long before roof collapse was inevitable and the house would cave in on itself in entirety.
The waitress pushed my milkshake in front of me and a coffee for him, still staring at me from under the dark brim of his Newsboy cap with a grim expression on his face. “It was really quite the fire, you know. I haven’t spent long in the field…haven’t seen a whole lot.”
“Look, I’m just trying to paint a picture here,” he said in a whisper while the waitress stepped out of view and returned to her spot behind the counter. She was wearing a short apron and he had taken a glance at her ass from behind as she strutted off to her rightful place to take more orders. “I just want to see things through your eyes – see what you saw, for recognition. Just so I can sleep at night again.”
I nodded and slurped on the beginnings of my milkshake, stomach tightening so much that I was unsure if I’d ever actually finish it by the time the meeting was over.
“Well,” I started, attempting not to trail off so I could finish this as soon as possible, “It was an uncomfortable situation, really. I was a bit nervous. And it didn’t help that my captain was on my ass about ‘really getting me out on the job’ and thinking that the few hours of training I had completed were enough to prepare me for that. I don’t think you’re ever really prepared for that. Everything seems so wrong to arrive at the scene of a fire and to realize that you may go in there and never come back out.”
This time he nodded slightly, but not too much, just a simple tip of the head and moved his untouched coffee a bit closer to him.
“Yeah. So here’s how it went…”
My captain was screaming in my ear; that much I remember, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the sound of the loud, crackling flames engulfing the house or if it was because of the people screaming in the background and spreading neighborhood gossip or calming down their frightened children. Many of these people had never seen a fire in the neighborhood; as I said, things were close-knit and timidly simply. I made out few words, but in the background of things people were screaming at us to get our attention as commands were barked out and we discovered what we would be doing.
“Captain, captain!” One of the flustered neighbor ladies crossed the line, her bathrobe concealing her overweight body and her hair in a tight, blonde bun. Her face was flushed but cheeks were bright from the sudden heat of the neighborhood. “Please! The man who lives in that home never came out. He’s still in there! You have to save him!”
After some quick information, we discovered that the home belonged to a 40-year-old man named Thomas who had recently resigned from a position at a local community college and spent a lot of time in his home, and cooking on the side. The first thought I had is that Mr. Thomas woke up for a late night snack and forgot to turn off his oven, evidently setting the entire house into a riot of flames and endangering the rest of the neighborhood around him.
“I was terrified,” I continued, with a slight chuckle. “I saw the look on my captain’s face and that determination he had looking at me, the big guy on the team, the strongest member, and I knew he was thinking one thing. He wanted to send me in.”
This made him chuckle, too. “Yeah? I can only imagine…”
With the neighbors screaming in the background and that look on my captain’s face, I knew what was going to happen and I immediately flung into action. The other team members and many local firefighting stations had arrived and were trying to get the fire under control. The captain chose me and one other guy, Randy, to sweep the house, him on the upper floor and me on the lower floor and basements. Make sure that all people were out of the house but ignore searching for dogs or cats, which we were unsure of being inside the house anyway at this point. It was life or death in these moments. The fire had almost completely engulfed the home and was nearly unsafe to enter, but we had to do what we could to find Thomas. To restore justice in the neighborhood after a horrible accident.
I geared up as quickly as possible as I heard an imaginary clock ticking like a time bomb inside my cranium. In only a few short minutes, I was headed into the blazing fire where even special equipment couldn’t keep me from feeling like I was burning in Hell itself. Randy gave me a fist bump and screamed over the roaring fires that he wished me luck and to call for back up if I ran into any problems, and though my mind was in a flurry, I wished him the same and watching him run up the stairs which had evaded the burning fires. I silently prayed that I would be seeing him again in only a few short moments. Time ticked on like a lifetime in there.
I made my way down the steps to the basement, being careful to watch my step, as they didn’t fall through. The door had been cracked a bit and the lights were dim and my mind was rushing in circles. I ran through the flames, which were just beginning to surface from entering the basement, and yelled that if there was somebody down there, they needed to answer me. Among my calls, I swore I heard somebody yelling back but I wasn’t sure which direction it was coming from.
And then, backed up in a corner, I found the slumped-over body of 40-year-old Thomas, head lolling as he was on the brink of unconsciousness.
“Thomas!” I called, flames blaring upstairs louder than any on-screen movie theater fire, beyond believable, insane.
“I remember that part, just barely,” he whispered, nodding along to the story as if he hadn’t been there at all. “I’ve been there for it all; I remember nearly everything until I was in the back of the ambulance on the stretcher and then I don’t remember a thing until I ended up in the hospital.” He reached down and pulled up his sleeve a bit to reveal a scorched arm, blistered and bruised. “It was terrible.”
“I’m sure,” I replied, cringing a little.
“Thomas, we need to get you out of here. You need to stay with me.” I thrust my hands up under his body and he gave a little, but attempted with every last bit of strength to stay with me.
“That fucker…got ahold of…my matches,” he said breathlessly, so quietly his voice was barely distinguishable from the roar of the flames.
“What was that?” I asked, loosing my grip a bit as he rushed to his feet on his own.
“That fucker got my matches!” And with a shaking, delirious finger, he pointed to the corner of the basement to a nearly pitch-black spot.
There, as if peeking out of the blackness, were four to five sets of blinking, terrified eyes. As I rubbed my own, I noticed that there were five children sitting on the floor of the basement, shaking, huddled around each other and sobbing.
I grabbed Thomas and lifted him up with more ease, and we started on up the steps.
“I still don’t know why you did it,” he said, a wicked grin still stretched across his face and hat lowered slightly more so I couldn’t see his other features, couldn’t see the grim acknowledgement in his dark eyes.
“You don’t know why I did it? You couldn’t see it?” I laughed a bit, but kept my voice under control. “It’s because I’m exactly like you. You aren’t the only one with kids at home.”
“Kids that aren’t ours,” he broke out in a stern laughter that could be heard all throughout the diner, had anybody been listening.
“After you get to the hospital, you check out as soon as you can. And then you get the fuck out of this state and you resume a new life because they WILL find the bones and they WILL be looking for you.” I stared deeply into Thomas’ eyes as I dumped him out onto his front lawn, neighbors gasping and watching from afar. Before the paramedics arrived on the lawn to pick him up and throw him into the back of the ambulance, he stared up at me with a puppy-dog recognition that looked like that of a child’s.
“I made a mistake this time… I have to ask… why would you help a man like me? WHY?”
“Because before I was a firefighter, I was a child psychologist in Nebraska under a different name. And before that, I was a mechanic worker in New Orleans. But I was never, ever, convicted for child kidnapping. I can imagine that wouldn’t be much of a life, now would it?”
And with that, the paramedics pulled him to the ambulance, checking his vitals as they went.
Randy gave me a thumbs up from the crowd.
“And that was it?” he asked. “That was it before they brought people in on the scene over the next few days and discovered the bodies?”
“That was it,” I said, with a last nod and a dry mouth. I plunged into my milkshake which had essentially transformed into a warmer, less thick liquid that slid easily down my throat.
“I left the hospital that same night on my own accord and I stayed in a motel, some dirty ass place out in the middle of a nearby city where they barely took a second look at you as you arrived. I figured it would be a couple of days before anybody came looking for me.”
Before he cut this conversation too short, I leaned over the table so closely that our noses could have touched had he moved forward an inch. “Are you finished with the life, or are you going to keep doing it until you slip up even worse? As if one lifestyle change isn’t enough…”
“The profession never ends. You say you were a mechanic, a child psychologist, a firefighter. The profession always ends. But there’s one thing that gives you happiness, isn’t that right? There’s one thing that feeds your need and keeps you fueled. And that’s children.” And with that, he lifted himself up from his seat and left his untouched coffee sitting across from me, the only reminder that the conversation had ever happened. “I really must go now. I don’t know where I’m going next. But the profession never ends.”
I watched him walk out of the diner and to his new car, where he got inside and promptly drove off.