This story is by LJ Newlin and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On October 9th, Berkley Engine Six was dispatched to assist a neighboring department to fight the Tubbs fire about an hour away. At this point, Bailey and I had very little information of what we were heading into. As we drove through Santa Rosa, there appeared to be a grass fire on both sides of us. This was not the case, hundreds of homes had been razed to the ground. Sadly, structures were left to burn. We continued to travel north to find a staging area where we could make our stand, and stop the fire from spreading, God willing.
Bailey is my best friend. We enlisted in the Marines together, although we were assigned to different units, he being smarter than I. Once we did our time, we both volunteered with the local fire department while taking on temp work with a construction company. We trained hard, played hard and ultimately we were hired on with engine six. That’s where the similarities end. Bailey fell in love and decided to get clean and sober. He settled down, got married, had a couple of adorable kids if I do say so myself, being their Godfather. Godfather, who the hell would let me be a father to their kids? I’m damn near forty and nowhere close to settling down. Although, if I could find someone like Bailey’s, Jeannie, I might consider…nah, who am I kidding? I would never let anyone that close. I’m the original three date man. I bring all this up because I consider Bailey the better man. He won the bronze star, V for valor, a purple heart and various other ribbons and badges of honor. I, on the other hand, was a grunt on the line who got lucky, very lucky to come out of that war unscathed.
A few days before engine six was called out, I joined Bailey, Jeannie and the kids at an after soccer party, at Chuck E. Cheese, for his boy, Luke. Damn, at least they had beer. As per usual, the conversation turned to the discussion of fire. Jeannie had gotten up to take their little angel, Princess, to the bathroom and Luke was off playing with the other kids.
I was regaling a story that Elvis, not his real name he just sang like him, told me. It was about some guy, down south, who got caught up in a backdraft. He was burned up real bad.
“I heard even part of his suit and his helmet melted to his skin. His face burned beyond all recognition. The worst part, he lived. I can’t imagine going through that. Bailey, you promise me, if something like that happens to me, just leave me there. Let me die, please.”
“I don’t know if I can do that. It goes against my very nature. If it’s broken, fix it. If someone needs help, jump in and help the best way I know how.” Bailey was going to expound on the latter but Jeannie came back with Miss Princess in tow.
She quickly surmised the tone of the conversation. No dummy, that one.
“Andrew Bailey, you two were discussing your last rites again, weren’t you?”
Bailey totally missed my signal to keep tight-lipped, “Yes, ma’am,” poured out of Bailey at the same time I quipped, “No, ma’am.”
“Well, which is it, John, yes or no? Oh hell, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know which is worse, being married to a firefighter or a cop. These days cops have a bullseye painted on their chest but you guys have that fire whore. Either way, we wait, we worry and God forbid, we grieve.” She smiled as Miss Princess crawled up in my lap and begged me to tickle her. “I’m so glad I didn’t know either of you when you were in the service. I wouldn’t have ever slept. There’s more pizza and beer, John.”
Yep, she just eighty-sixed that conversation better than any politician.
We pulled through an area where the fire had laid down a bit but the burning telephone poles gave us concern. With the lines down, they were free to topple on us or around us, blocking egress or ingress. None an option I cared to deal with. The captain noted that there were quite a few homes here that had not caught to the east of us. If we could get the flames tamped down to our west, we just might be able to hold the line. Currently, the winds were blowing west to east and everything on the west side of the street was on fire . I mean everything, houses, cars, boats, RVs, trash cans, all going up in flames. I took out my chainsaw, slung my ax on my belt and headed to the fence surrounding a house that had just caught flame on the backside. Bailey was hooking up the main hose to the fire hydrant, with a little help. Then they unfurled the hoses from engine six and the work began.
It’s a battle of time and wit with the she-beast. I don’t know why but fire was a she. The alluring femme fatale who put the sirens of the sea to shame with her hypnotic dance. Time was always on her side. Oh, she was patient, letting us think we had wrangled her down to a manageable size, contained her by twenty or thirty percent only to have her accomplice the wind kick up live embers to cross our line once again. She was cunning and hell-bent on destroying all in her path, buildings, man, woman, child, plant or animal and paint them with her crimson heat to leave them all blackened and inert.
We worked through the night with the darkness contrasted with an eerie orange glow, always creeping towards us. She’d flick her fingers out to taste the next morsel for her gluttonous appetite and we were determined to deprive her of her insatiable desires. Crew members pounded on doors, hoping and praying the residents had already fled to safety. Some found a dog or a cat cowering in the backyard or in a corner of a house begging to be found with their paws and whiskers singed. They were the lucky ones.
Working our way up the street, Bailey thought he heard a cry coming from a house where embers had drifted onto the roof and like an old Christmas tree it went up in flames. I glanced over to see Bailey slam his ax into a side window and he climbed through.
Shortly afterward, we could hear rounds cooking off.
“Shit, Bailey, get back! They must have ammo in the house.”
While everyone was momentarily ducking for cover, I saw his feet disappear through the window just as the popping noise stopped. Then the second story windows blew out and the she-beast was licking her chops. Flames ran up both sides of the house
All available hoses were trying to beat down her flames to no avail, then the weight of the water caused the roof to collapse. I heard a cry or was it just tree sap escaping as steam. Panicked, I screamed as loud as I could, “Damn it, Bailey, hurry up!” Seconds, not minutes were crucial for a man’s survival. I don’t know if he heard me but I saw the second floor start to collapse. I handed off the hose and ran toward the house, only to be intercepted by at least two other guys. I watched in horror and complete helplessness as the house fell in on itself.
“We have to go in and get him out!” I struggled and freed myself from their grip. My instinct was to rush in to save my best friend, in truth my only friend but I risked certain death, right along with him. I ran like a bat out of hell toward the infernal just as a spiral of flame flicked out at me, beckoning me closer. Then I remembered what I tried to make Bailey promise me. I stopped in my tracks, yelling at her, “But what about Jeannie and the kids?”
I stood staring at the bitch’s fading flames when a firefighter came around from the back of the house with two people in tow. Running with a new hope in my heart, I raced towards them. An older couple had jumped into their backyard pool for refuge and managed to escape relatively unscathed but then I recognized it was the face of Elvis standing before me, my hopes were dashed.
Morning brought the news that we had successfully stopped the fire from spreading. We dug through the rubble to find the remains of my friend. We placed his charred body in the bag and proceeded down the street. As we did, I could see the homes on the west side decimated and the homes on the east, untouched. They call this eerie event, the line of sorrow. Enough said.