Chapter 1: Self Sacrifice
It was a small, typical community in Ladner, British Columbia, living their ordinary lives of ordinary day to day routines just like any other. Mothers would always wake first to brew coffee, make breakfasts, prepare lunches, and generally rush, rush, rush. Fathers wake next with a yawn, stretch and scratch, and then dance their pants on one leg at a time. Morning paper with coffee precedes a mad rush to get stuck in the routine Massey Tunnel rush hour — which was more commonly hours. Then the children wake last to mimic their parents in their adolescent ways — daughters in bathrooms fumbling with makeup, and sons fumbling with tablets. And during all of this ordinary day to day chaos, the few words that are exchanged between them are done so briskly, through distraction, and lacking the bond that truly ties a family together.
This singular perspective was brought to you by Gene's strange mind, Gene thought as he looked on the gathered families.
But he knew his imagination was running off on him, as it often tended to do, and that no matter what personal realities made up these families lives, the blunt truth was that they were being forced to watch their ordinary homes burn. For those gathering in the muster point, Gene sympathized with their plight. It was never an easy thing to see years of hard work — building a life of home and family — all torn down in a single night.
Especially when that night was the one before Christmas.
Gene wiped the sweat and soot from his brow with the back of his dirty hand. He quickly came to realize how vain the attempt was as he stared dumbly at the back of it — it was caked in black soot. Shaking his dirty blond head to throw off the exhaustion that was creeping up on him, he fixed his blue eyes on the flames eating away at yet another townhome; the blaze that sparked the early morning wakeup call that broke the normality to these family’s personal realities. This view, combined with the sheer volume of wailing sirens from emergency vehicles, the overwhelming smells of charred plastic and wood in the air, and the pounding of his heart in his chest, all surrounding and permeating him, did nothing but remind him of his age. The life of a firefighter was taking its toll on his fifty–two year old body, and despite his determined denial, this recently elevating vibe he felt deep in his bones every time he faced off against the rage of a fire only made retirement all the more desirable.
It also made it seem so much further away that it truly was.
“Captain!” a voice called out, shocking Gene out of his thoughts.
“Yeah?” Gene turned to find his friend and comrade approaching. “What’s the report Tom?”
“The Chief just radioed,” Tom said as he rushed over. “He’s ten minutes inbound. Another two engines will be here in a minute or so. The family we just got out of unit–seventeen thinks there’s still a family in eighteen. They’re not with the others in the muster point. B–side of that unit is ablaze so the—”
“So the stairs and any other means of escape might be cut off from them,” Gene concluded, his words coming out in exasperated breaths. “Get some of our people throwing a straight stream on side–B of that unit to try to cut off any further ignition from the blazing one. When the next truck arrives, have it do its reverse lay A.S.A.P and be ready to lay down a stream on unit–seventeen . . . there.” Gene pointed a dirty finger to indicate clearly where he meant. “Let’s stop this monster before it can spread any further. We’ve lost four of these units so far, so let’s get this beast under control.”
“You got it captain.”
Gene nodded numbly and returned his focus back on the blaze. Most of his adult life had been spent fighting fires and diligently helping the community, but this was the first fire in all those years that ever made him feel sick to his stomach to look upon. Perhaps it was because of how many families were at risk of losing their homes and routine life styles to this oddly vicious inferno. It seemed that no matter what his crew did to try to stem the flames, the fire only burned brighter and spread faster, as if water had suddenly become flammable. Or, perhaps, it was because something in the back of his mind was whispering to him, coaxing him to charge into unit–eighteen alone like some kind of hero out of comic book legends before it was too late for the family trapped inside.
It wouldn’t be the first time he did something that would earn him another mark under his wife’s list of ‘Gene’s Stupid Risks’.
Tom placed a gloved hand on his shoulder and squeezed hard, again braking Gene from his thoughts. “Sir, are you okay?”
Gene blinked profusely, attempting to shake off the stupid vibe, and muttered, “Yeah. I’m . . . okay Tom.” He raised his voice so Tom could hear him clearly and added, “Just a little worn for wear I guess.”
Tom narrowed his dark eyes. “These weird chemicals in the air are affecting everyone strangely. Maybe you should sit the rest of this one out captain.”
“No, I’m good,” Gene instantly responded. He set his jaw and met the stare of the Asian Lieutenant. “Go. I’ll keep an eye on things till you’re back with support.”
“I’ve seen that look before Gene. Don’t you dare try to do something stupid that will have me explaining why to Amber,” Tom scolded.
“Just go Tom,” Gene replied flatly. “You’re wasting time.”
“Yes sir,” the lieutenant groaned as he moved off.
Gene wiped his brow in another pointless effort before returning his helmet to his head. He glanced at the Timex on his wrist, the watch relaying the early Friday morning hour of two–fifteen, and then slid his gloves back on one at a time. It had only been a little over thirty minutes since he and his crew arrived on scene, though, the way Gene was feeling, it felt more like eight hours. Setting hoses, priming hydrants, and evacuating the residents was tiring enough, but add on the task of fighting a fire that didn’t want to die, and, well, everyone was left running on fumes. Other emergency personal had arrived at scattered times since, but the icy roads, combined with the heavy snow fall from the day before, was hampering the trucks on route, slowing the need for strong able bodies and equipment to fight this beast. And if something didn’t happen soon to tip the odds in their favor, Gene was certain that they were going to lose every town home lining this cul–de–sac.
His eyes unwillingly fixed on the flames, and the whisper at the back of his mind returned. The fire was spreading quickly, burning bright with a hunger like that of which he had never seen before. The whisper continued to speak to him, and though what it was saying was unintelligible, it brought with it the growing urge to charge through the flames and into unit–eighteen alone. It was a terribly dangerous job to enter a burning structure, and considered nothing less than stupid to do so alone, without backup. And yet, as he watched the hungry flames shrug off the jets of water trying to snuff out its existence, spreading up the side of unit–eighteen as it gorged on the home, Gene couldn’t help but think stupid thoughts.
The whisper intensified, becoming one of a child’s voice laced with panic fueled by fear. In his mind’s eye, Gene could see the child huddled in a corner alone, desperately wishing for mommy or daddy to rescue him from the approaching fiery monster. Upon seeing this, Gene’s thoughts twisted stupidity into necessity, cutting short at the point in which action took over his better sense. Gripping his ax handle tight, Gene charged at the front door.
As he came face to face with it, Gene threw out his foot and broke in the door with one experienced kick. Fire kicked back the moment the door slammed open, catching only empty air — Gene had anticipated this and had pivoted on his heels to stand off to the side. The moment the flames sagged away, he slowly moved into the entrance, training his practiced eyes on the interior of the unit.
Through the gathered smoke, Gene saw that one of the walls was aflame, along with the carpeted floor, cutting off the stairs part way up to the second level. It was just as Tom had predicted. Whoever had designed this grouping of townhouses had placed them close together to maximize the number units built on the lot. This, in turn, maximized the profit of the project, as well as maximized the potential damage that a fire would cause.
Just another classic case of the all mighty dollar over the common sense of safety, Gene thought with a frown.
Then a familiar sound echoed over the crackling flames — a rapid series of loud snaps from above. Gene paused before entering further into the unit and prepared to back off quickly. He’d seen this happen before, once again bringing forth thoughts of his age and the fatigue weighing heavily on him. The void between the ceiling and floor above was ablaze, even though it couldn’t be seen. Half a second later, the ceiling curdled, causing cheap latex to begin peeling away.
Gene darted for the stairs, taking what he knew to be his only chance to get up to the next level. The house groaned deeply, and then released a splintering wail as a section of the second floor came crashing down through the ceiling and into the hallway near him, officially halting his charge only three steps up the stairs. Debris shot out in all directions, the crash ringing in his ears as the world seemed to break down all around him. He braced himself, instinctively covering and turning his face away from the fragments of drywall, plastic, and wood. More stupid thoughts raced through his mind as he felt something collide into his backside.
Once the reverberating echo of the crash stilled in his bones, Gene turned to see what had hit him, and found Tom staring angrily back through his dirty visor.
“What the hell are you thinking, captain?”
Gene stared dumbly back through his own soot stained visor, unable to think of the right words to explain his stupid intentions. So, instead, he replied with a shrug.
Tom let out a well formed string of colorful words bright enough to put the fire to shame.
Gene gripped Tom’s shoulder and pointed up the stairs with his ax head. “Well since you’re here, let’s get up there and see who we find!”
Tom’s naturally frowning visage deepened into a grimace, but he nodded and gave Gene a sharp shove with his ax handle to get him moving up the stairs. Scaling them two at time, while struggling to see through their dirty visors and pulling their breathing masks over their mouths, they quickly reached the top. The scene of destruction that met their eyes was just as bad as that of the first level, if not more so.
A great fiery hole now existed where once there was a counter top island that separated the kitchen from the living room. Of course, Gene knew this because of how every unit in the complex was built exactly the same — he had been forced to break into several of these to wake up families for evacuation. On the opposite side from where they stood, a ladder to the loft above hung half way over the fiery maw. This family must have thought, in their panicked state, that escaping into the loft would buy them more time.
Gene hoped it worked out that way.
Motioning with his hand for Tom to make his way around one side of the fiery hole, Gene began taking careful steps to make his way around the other. He could hear the groans of the structure all around him with each tender step. The unit was clearly hastily and cheaply pieced together, and if they didn’t get the family trapped within out soon, the ultimate price for their home would be paid in full.
When Tom reached the living room window, he immediately used his ax to shatter it, sending clouds of dark smoke bellowing out into the early morning air. He stuck his head out and motioned instructions to his comrades outside with his gloved hands.
Gene reached the loft ladder a moment later and tested its stability. He grasped the highest rung he could reach and hoisted himself up, reaching further above himself with the head of his ax to push the loft door up. “Anyone up there!” he yelled at the top of his lungs through his mask and visor, feeling the adrenaline surge into him once more. “Anyone! Anyone up there!”
“Here! Here!” responded panicked voices.
A man came into view and grasped the door, then pulled it open fully. He offered Gene a hand and helped him up through the opening. Gene stood in the loft a moment later to find a mother sitting huddled in the corner of the tiny loft with her children cradled in her arms; a very young girl and boy, coughing, but still alive. Smoke was gradually filling the small space. Gene caught a glance from the father and saw within his eyes the reflection of the fiery glow below.
Then, with his breath caught in his throat, the strangest thing happened.
The skin on the father’s face began to bubble and peel away in blackened strips, exposing charred muscle and bone beneath. Worst of all, his eyes had changed into pools of blood, veins protruding angrily from their surface, with a pair of fiery specks for pupils dancing within.
Gene shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut tight, the mixture of smoke and sweat making them sting. He suffered a flurry of involuntary blinks, his eyes most likely attempting to clear themselves of debris and the sudden surge of irritating itchiness.
The next thing he knew, he was staring dumbly at the father before him. The man’s face was ashen, but whole, as he stared back, waiting for the fireman’s instructions that would ultimately save his family.
Gene shook his head once more, this time in a violent manner, to clear it. Chalking up what he had seen as a hallucination brought on by fatigue, stress, and the excessive amounts of chemicals in the air, he set his jaw and mind back to the task at hand.
“Captain! Captain!” Tom’s voice yelled up to the loft. “The truck is here with the ladder! What level do you want it?”
“Your level! There’s only a skylight here! The father is coming down with one of the children!” He looked to the father as he spoke, giving an experienced ‘You can do this stare’ that had a hint of ‘For the sake of your family, you need to’ quality to it.
To the father’s credit, he nodded and rushed straight to his family. He spoke quickly and quietly to them, comforting the children by running his hand through their hair, one after the other. After sharing a reassuring kiss with his wife, he hoisted his little girl into her arms and turned back to Gene with a slight nod to indicate they were ready. Gene motioned for Tom to knee or foot lock the stable butt of the ladder for stability, and then helped the mother begin her decent down with her daughter clinging to her. Keeping one arm wrapped protectively around her little girl the entire time, she moved slowly, but steadily, and was soon within the waiting hands of Tom and making for the fire truck’s ladder. A few seconds later, Tom was back, watching and bracing in anticipation of the father’s decent.
Gene hauled the boy into his arms and pointed for the father to begin his decent alone. As the father tried to argue this, the gathering smoke cut his protest short in a fit of violent coughing. Gene removed his breather and pulled it over the father’s head, snapping it onto his face as gently as he could with only one hand, and then urged him to climb down. Gene prepared himself to follow with the lad, but as the father reached the waiting hands of Tom, the house lurched with a deep groan.
Tom pulled the father to safety only a terrifying heartbeat before fire lashed out. The loft ladder was enveloped in flames, and far faster than Gene thought possible, several of the wooden steps turned to ash. The ladder hung precariously for a moment before snapping completely apart and descending through the fiery maw below.
“Captain!” Tom yelped up and into the loft above. “Captain!”
“We’re okay! We are okay!” Gene yelped back. “This blaze is burning too hot! We’re running out of time! You and the others get out! Send the ladder up top once you’re clear! I’ll cut a way through to the roof!”
If Tom replied, it was lost in the groans of the failing structure and the little boy’s panicked cries. Gene moved quickly, tucking the lad safely under his arm as he moved under the low ceiling to the tinted skylight. With one fluid motion, he shattered the window with his ax and shielded the lad from the falling shards with his own body. A rush of hot air whizzed past him, tugging at his blond hair and bringing with it the realization that his helmet was gone. Gene dismissed the missing equipment quickly and hoisted himself and the lad through the low window and into the smoky night air.
The shrill cries of the boy pierced into the night. Over the sound of the hungry flames, Gene could hear the terror stricken cries of people below. Through the rhythmical flashing of emergency vehicle lights through the dark smoke, he could just make out the silhouette of a fire truck’s ladder rising beyond the edge of the roof. Abandoning his ax, as it was nothing more than a hindrance to his balance now, he clung tightly to the lad and crept slowly toward the edge of the roof — closer to the rising ladder and waiting arms of one of his comrades.
Inch by inch Gene crept. As he moved, though, he could feel the heat in the roof rising. The scent of melting shingles struck him with a nauseating chemical force. His mind’s eye distracted him once more with a mental picture of the interior of the loft, the place where treasures of memories of a family’s life was stored. Boxes of pictures, baby clothes and toys, no longer useful, yet retainable items of inseparable and flammable value, burned. He willfully forced the image away and cautiously made his way to the roof’s edge. A figure clinging to the ladder through the gathering black smoke came into focus.
It was Tom.
He was reaching out, yelling something inaudible at the top of his lungs. However, Gene’s concentration quickly turned to the dips forming in the black shingles in front of him, his booted feet sinking slightly in the softening surface with each step. The section of roof he was on was weakening, and there was no way Tom could see it through the dark bellowing smoke surrounding both of them.
There was no more time in which to find a safer route, no more time to consider options, only the chance to hand the boy off to Tom’s outstretched hands. So, with one last deep breath of ash filled air, Gene took a large step forward and held the small, feather light boy out with both hands under his armpits. As one of his boots sank ankle deep into the melting roof, Gene passed the boy into the waiting hands of his friend Tom.
Tom grabbed the boy with a steady grip and locked eyes with Gene. Here, in this fractured sense of time, Gene saw the clear realization of what was about to happen dawn on his friend’s face. Tom’s eyes grew wide with fear as he struggled to pull the boy onto the safety of the ladder as quickly as he could. The moment he managed to free one hand, he shot it out for Gene to take.
But it was already too late.
Another deafening crack shook the structure and Gene watched his legs sink into the roof up to his knees, as if the shingles had turned into quicksand. The house shuttered again, and Gene fell through.
As he fell, through fire and smoke, then through the next floor down and toward his doom, he could hear the pounding of his heart once again booming in his ears. Plus, something else, stronger and clearer the further he dropped — a sound that Gene found strangely comforting and long missed.
The sound of his dead father’s laughter.
Copyright © 2016 C.J. Brown
All Rights Reserved