This story is by Crystal Adams and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Come on, Jack, what’s it gonna be?” Four pairs of eyes watch me intently.
“Fold.” I place the cards face down on the table.
“Jack Ellis, folding?” Fire commissioner, Ben Macrae slaps his hand on the table and lets out a boisterous laugh. “I don’t believe it.”
“Fatherhood is making you soft, Jack-o.” My best friend Danny Knowles gives me a friendly thump on the back.
“Bite me, Dano.” I retort. They’re just teasing, we all know it. But it’s true, ever since I became a father something inside me shifted.
I push my chair back from the table and walk down the short hall, leaving the sounds of laughter behind me. I flop down on the bottom bunk in one of the station’s bedrooms and close my eyes.
My mind immediately fills with the smiling faces of my wife and daughter – Carla and Lily, the real fires in my life. How can I keep doing what I’m doing, risking my life every day while they sit at home waiting for my safe return?
As a child, I had nightmares a fire monster was swallowing my father. I would curl up on the floor of my closet with my trusty teddy and eventually fall asleep. Most children imagine monsters live in their closets, but that’s where I felt safest. I hate the idea of putting my daughter and wife through that.
I’m not the first Ellis to have these thoughts, but if I have it my way, I’ll be the last. I remember my father telling me the same thing.
“Firefighting is in our blood, Jacky – it’s a mix of adrenaline, smoke, and courage. But damned if I don’t wish to flush it all out and replace it with starched shirts, tight ties, and hair gel.”
Even at the age of eight, I understood what he was saying; the dangers of fire are drilled into us, more so when your father is a fireman, but sometimes saving lives is more rewarding than working 9-5. It’s more than just a job.
I wake to the sound of the siren screaming. Go time! I mentally fist pump the air. I was born for this.
I stand on the sidewalk and watch as ashes and flames pour out of the roof of the two-story house in front of me.
“We need to keep this back, or the whole neighbourhood is going to go up.” Captain Warren Birch yells as another blast from the house knocks us back. I flip up the face mask on my helmet and wipe the sweat from my forehead.
The sounds of fire surround me: water rushing from hoses, firemen shouting to one another, a woman screaming. A woman screaming? I turn towards the sound. A woman with ash coloured tears streaming down her cheeks clutches a blanket coated in black soot against her chest.
“My baby!” she cries again, her arm stretched out pointing to a second story window – the only one not blown out from the heat of the fire. A man pulls her into him; her body shakes with violent sobs. I slam my mask back over my face and run towards the house.
“Dammit, Jack!’ My captain yells behind me.
I step into the house; thick black smoke smothers the air as I set the compass in my head. I run a gloved hand over the wall – bubbled drywall, blistered paint. I slosh through ankle deep water sprayed from the hoses. My foot slips on the slick floor. I grab the wall that’s no longer there. Panic slams into me as I hit the floor; my breath rushes out in one hard blow. I struggle to my feet and step through the hole in the wall.
My oxygen tank screams. I glance at the gauge, ten minutes and I’ll be out of air. Shit! The dials on the gauge blur and fade into a black and white clock hanging on a white wall.
“Ten minutes, Mr. Ellis. Your father needs his rest.” I watch as the nurse steps from the room, leaving me to the sound of machines, and the ticking of the clock. I glance up; the hands seem to be moving faster than they should be.
“Ten minutes can feel like the longest or the shortest moments of your life.” I look down at my father, his body weak, his eyes clear. “But it’s not the minutes that count, Jacky boy, it’s the way you use them.”
I shake the image from my head as I weave through unseen debris. The flashlight on my helmet bounces back against the dense smoke. I dead end twice as fear rises in my chest. I’m lost. I have no idea which way is back, which way is out. My heart pounds in my head over the roaring flames.
Unless you’ve experienced it, one can only imagine the darkness that creeps in, the intense heat, the suffocating smoke. I’ve practiced this a million times, done it in real life almost as many, but nothing prepares you for the utter blindness.
My father’s voice breaks through the smoke and settles itself in the only clear spot in my mind. “You’re blind in there, son, with just your instincts and adrenaline. Listen to the instincts, boy, ignore the adrenaline, or that fire is gonna eat you up.”
I look at the gauge on the tank again, eight minutes. The toe of my boot hits against more debris – stairs; taking them one at a time I force myself to go slowly. The whole house could come down around me; One wrong move and I’ll go down with it.
“Fire is a lot like life.” My father closes his eyes for a moment; I feel the seconds tick by. “If you don’t take your time you’re likely to get hurt, but take too much and you might lose your courage.”
The floor shifts and thunders as I stumble on to the second floor. I turn around to only smoke; the stairs are gone. Flames lick at the walls like long fingers. Light bounces through the smoke in the upstairs hall.
With five minutes remaining I scan what’s left of the upstairs hallway, searching for anything that might lead me to a small child. Melted picture frames ooze from the walls, memories lost but in the mind.
“Your old man can’t be here forever,” my father’s voice rattles in his throat. The clock on the wall ticks down to three minutes.
My lungs scream in my chest, my eyes and nose burn, my mouth and throat are dry and charred. I take a second to close my eyes, focus my mind, calm my screaming body.
“Sometimes, amidst all the chaos everything calms, the air stills, the sound dies. It’s only for a moment, and it’s always right before all hell breaks loose.”
The house shudders as the ceiling crashes down around me. I stumble back. Pain screams through my shoulder. I land on the floor, hands covering my head.
The floor sways, or maybe it’s just in my head. I need to get out. Exhausted I pull myself to my feet and move around the pile of rubble.
My headlamp flashes over burnt walls and a closed door. Slowly, I push the door open prepared for flames to backlash into the hall. All clear, I step over debris into a room – a child’s room, even with the charred walls, and blackened floor it’s obvious. What’s left of the bed is empty. I search frantically for any place a small child might hide. My eyes focus on a space in the wall. I rush towards it. With my tank empty, I push what’s left of the closet doors away. I bend down and scoop the small child into my arms and race for the window.
“It’s not getting in that’s the hard part, it’s getting out. Same goes for fatherhood.” My father’s laugh turns into a wheezing cough. “It doesn’t matter how you jump, son, as long as you land on your feet.”
I shelter the limp body with mine and plunge into the air, as shards of glass rain down around us.
I open my eyes and see Danny sitting in a chair beside the bed.
“That was a brave thing you did – stupid but brave.” Danny runs his hands through his hair, messy and still smelling of smoke. “They’re calling you a hero for saving that boy’s life.”
I shake my head.
“Risking your own life to save another, that’s not a hero, that’s a firefighter.” My father’s eyes twinkle with pride. I grip his hand tightly in mine, tears streaming down my face. I was twelve years old when my father was nearly killed in a fire. He kept fighting because that’s what firemen do; what I’ll keep doing until the day I die.
“You’re an idiot, Jack-o.”
My scorched voice barely a whisper, I smile through cracked lips. “Bite me, Dano.”