What have you done today, to make you feel proud?
This is what I have done..
Breaking Point Time was running out... it was always a race against the clock. She was pinned against the steering wheel, but she wouldn't hold still, she hysterically fought them off and screamed for them to save her baby. Rick could hear the baby crying from the back seat, but couldn't see it through the twisted metal and torn fabric hanging down from the interior of the car's roof. They tried to cut the steering wheel away but she pushed at them and twisted her body in their way, flailing her hands at them. "You have to hold her still, Rick, hold her back." He tried to keep her back straight with his arm, they had managed to get a collar on to brace her neck. He locked his other arm around her, holding her tight to his chest, her head on his shoulder, her face against his neck. An awkward lover's embrace. Her face was bleeding badly, but he could still see that she was a pretty woman. He could feel her breath against his neck, in short ragged gasps. He could tell by the sound of it her lungs were perforated. He knew there was nothing they could do about her internal injuries, but race her to the hospital. The extrication seemed to be going terribly slow. Her blood was trickling down his neck, inside his collar, warm against his throat. He could feel her resistance softening. She was getting weaker. Her fingers dug deep into his coat. Her hair was in his face... amid all the acrid smells of the accident he could smell the faint, sweet scent of blossoms... her hair. He kept whispering into her ear, to calm her, We'll get you out, we'll get your baby, everything will be all right. Be still... be still. We're here to help. He could hear the baby's cries from deep in a currently inaccessible part of the crushed car. Beside him they were cutting off the rear door, working on peeling back the roof. From the other side of the woman a firefighter was wedged into the compressed space of the car from the passenger side, cutting away the steering wheel. As Rick held her still, his fellow rescue workers held a compress against her bleeding head, inserted IV needles to try to replace fluids, did everything they could. But she needed a surgeon... she needed a miracle. Everything will be all right. But he knew it really wouldn't be. Try to hold on, your baby needs you. But he could feel her breath was fading, her body weakening. He saw the police officer watching them with solemn eyes, and assumed this would be the man to notify her family if she didn't survive. He had kind eyes, a compassionate face. He wondered vaguely if that's how they got that undesirable job, just by having kind eyes, regardless of experience or ability to communicate the message. Because once you open your door to a police officer with hat in hand, you know. And you never forget the sight of that face. Probably everything that follows is just a blur. The woman was freed from the wheel just as she drew her last ragged breath. She slumped against Rick as he gently pulled her free of the car, staring at him with sightless, blue-gray eyes. For just a second he looked at her face, trying to imagine it without the damage, as she stared back at him... through him... beyond him. "We need you back here, Rick." He turned away from the woman and went to help free the baby. He knew it was his imagination, but even now as he worked in the back seat, he could still smell that blossomy scent of her hair. ********* Rick learned early on in his marriage that there were some things he just couldn't discuss at home. Katie, his wife of 4 years, would tell him animated anecdotes from her work, funny things that were said or that happened, or problems she was having with her boss or a coworker. Most of the dinner time conversation had to do with her job, or their daughter Kimmie. She used to ask him for details of his day. But you don't talk over dinner about how you started off your day by sifting through saw dust to look for someone's severed fingers at a rescue call to an industrial accident. After a while, she stopped asking. He used to tell her stories that were funny to him, having been there. Like the teenage girl who had slid down a metal pipe that had a nail sticking out of it and gouged a gash on her pelvic area, her skirt pulled up still caught on the pipe, and how she screamed at them that they were "perverts" for "looking at her like that." To them, it was funny... how did she think they could tend to her wound without looking at her? But he soon learned that his wife didn't want to hear about bloody gashes. He learned to keep quiet about those things. And some things... he just had to be quiet about. To talk about them was to re-live them, and he did that enough already. He found he could talk to Steve at the station, Steve understood, and could talk casually about the most un-casual of topics. He always helped Rick make sense of it all. Steve and he had clicked right from the start, he was mentor, brother and friend. It wasn't easy for Rick to let people get to close to him, he was always a lone wolf kind of guy. But somehow Steve had managed to break through that. Rick was dark, stocky, powerfully built, a quiet man who kept to himself a lot. Steve had very blonde, surfer looks, tall and slender, boisterous and outgoing. Their looks and personalities were like night and day, but they were bonded. They could read each other's thoughts. They made a good team. Sometimes Katie seemed jealous of Steve. Mainly what Katie didn't want to hear was the proof that there were times he almost didn't come home to her. One night they were watching the news, a story from another state about a firefighter killed after being trapped in a flash-over. Rick commented "that happened to me once." Katie looked at him in shock and surprise, "When?" "Well, not the part where he dies, obviously, I was lucky, they were able to get to me in time. It was a couple years ago... that family of five, it was all over the news, remember?" Katie didn't remember, because she typically avoided any news having to do with fires, she didn't want to hear it, it frightened her. "What started the fire?" She asked, to steer the conversation away from the fact that he was nearly killed in it. Rick's gaze went away from her face and off into space when he answered her "Murder-suicide. The husband shot the wife and kids, put them all in a neat little row in one room, then he torched the house, laid down beside the rest of them and shot himself." Katie was horrified. She did remember the story now, it was big news, but she didn't know her husband had been there, he had never mentioned it to her at the time. "You saw them? That family?" Rick nodded, "I helped carry the kids out... the kid's... bodies" He absently gazed at his little daughter playing on the floor as he spoke. Katie could not imagine her kind and gentle husband being able to handle carrying charred, murdered children out of an intentionally set blaze. "Why did you never tell me? How do you deal with seeing that?" A full minute passed before Rick could answer, while he stared into space, seeing it in his mind's eye, and then his answer was a very quiet "I... don't... know." Now he listened to Katie recount her day, and as much as he always loved this time with her, he felt oddly detached. He didn't tell Katie about the woman they tried to save, who's life's blood ran down inside his collar, how he took two showers to scrub it away, long after no trace remained. How hard it was to accept that she had died there while he held her. How he kept thinking if only they had been able to get her out sooner. How long it took them to cut their way to the crying baby, and the elated feeling at discovering it was virtually unharmed. How those two feelings, the loss and the saving, the death and the life, collided inside him. How he still saw those sightless blue-gray eyes... and could still smell her hair against his face. ********* The heart attack the man had had was obviously massive and fatal, but the young wife stood with her two children and begged them to do something. They went through all the motions for the benefit of this shattered family, knowing it was futile, but wanting them to know everything that could be done was done. As Rick was about to get into the back of the ambulance, the littlest boy tugged on his pant leg. Rick knelt down to be eye level with the boy, but he couldn't meet the boys eyes, he looked at a spot just above and between his eyes, where a little worry crease formed between his eyebrows. A boy so small shouldn't have such worries. "Will you make my daddy all better?" Rick felt his heart thumping in his chest, he hated to lie to children, hated to have them mistrust firemen. He told him "they will do everything they can to try to make him better" The little boy raised up on his toes, bringing his eyes level with Rick's so he had to look directly in them. "When will you make him better? When will he come home?" He had deep, dark brown eyes, Rick could see his own reflection in them, see the face of the man that was supposed to tell this little boy he still had a father. He stood up, with his hands resting on the little boys shoulders. The boy craned his neck back and followed his eyes. Rick was still reflected in them, distorted now, towering above the boy. "They will do everything they can to help him, they will try really hard, I promise you that." knowing these were empty words that meant nothing to the child. What he wanted to hear was that everything would be back to the way it was. What he wanted to hear was that Rick would fix whatever was wrong with his father. Rick climbed in to the back, still seeing the image of himself reflected in those dark brown eyes. You'll always remember my face. I'm the man who couldn't save your father... ********* The call was one that was dreaded, as it meant there was not a single second to lose: "Child choking". And rush hour traffic. The cars made little effort to give them room as they raced along on the narrow shoulder of the road. He was surprised they weren't striking the side mirrors of the other cars with thier own as they went by. Rick rode up in front of the rescue truck, with Steve driving. They took an exit and at the bottom around the curve encountered the orange cones being set up to close off the lane they were in. "What the hell?" Rick remembered a sign he had seen earlier, he told Steve, as the first two cones crushed under their tires and popped out behind them, "Construction starts here at 8 O'clock" "Well it isn't 8 yet" "I think they got your hint." The construction workers glared at them as they sped by. When they arrived at the house, a frantic woman rushed out to meet them with a small, limp boy in her arms. His eyes were rolled back... lips blue... skin ashen. They worked first to clear the obstruction... when it popped out and landed on the ground the mother looked confused at first, and then recognition, and horror crossed her face. "My God... It's part of the dog's toy." Three of them worked on him at once, inserting a tiny breathing tube, chest compression's modified for the small size of the child, regulating the oxygen mask, feeling as if they were working with Lilliputian instruments. The woman alternately cried and screamed No! No! No! Oh God please save him. clutching at the sleeves of the men who were working on her child. They did everything they were trained to do. And the baby breathed again, the little heart started pumping. They did everything just as they were supposed to, to save a life. But Rick didn't feel that elated feeling a rescue usually brought. As he rode in the back with the tiny boy, he could see the slackness of his face and limbs, the half-rolled back eyes, the bluish tint that still rimmed his lips . and he knew this child would never be the same. The oxygen had been deprived too long. We should have just let you go, little buddy. But that's not our job... not our place. He raised his eyes and met Steve's, and knew he understood, knew he felt the same. We should have just let you go. ********* All these images were flashing through his mind when he came home, a kaleidoscope of broken lives and shattered dreams. All he wanted was to hold Katie and forget it all. He crawled in to bed beside her, wrapped his arms around her. "You're late, Rick" "Had a meeting" She murmured understanding sounds, she was used to this. "Are you hungry?" she asked, becoming more awake. "No...yes...hungry for you." She turned and snuggled against him, he ran his hand up and down her back, feeling the delicate ridges of her spine, knowing how fragile this little string of bones can be, having seen so many broken. He wanted to protect her, from everything that he knew could happen in the blink of an eye. To hold her and Kimmie away from all the dangers he witnessed everyday. He nuzzled against Katie's neck and caught the faint scent of her hair... involuntarily he recoiled... Closed his eyes tight, knowing that if he looked he would see... not his wife... but sightless blue-gray eyes. He recovered quickly, but Katie was rolling away from him, looking at him with an expression of hurt...and something else...pity, he thought. "Katie... I'm sorry, It just... it's not you, it's me" She took her pillow, and said quietly, "Yes... it's you... I know. You're losing it, Rick." He shook his head no, tried to explain, but she was already walking out of the room and softly closing the door behind her. In the morning she would tell him he should see someone, that she couldn't bear watching him fall apart. He knew he wasn't falling apart, he didn't need help, he wasn't losing it. She just didn't understand. Steve would understand. ********* They had a fire training exercise scheduled for the last half of the shift. He hoped after it he could talk to Steve about some of these things that were happening to him, that were driving a wedge between him and Katie. Rick hoped the first half of his shift would be slow. It wasn't. The final accident call would make him late to the training session, Steve was already there. The speed limit was 65, the car was probably going a little over 70. Still afe for this long, straight stretch of freeway. Traveling at a reasonable distance from the car in front of it. But the car in front was puling a large trailer, and the trailer broke free. There was no where for the car to go but into the trailer... Like hitting a wall. As they worked on the extrication, Rick noticed at the top of the hill over looking the freeway was a group of children gathered at a fence... a school. the children drawn to the fence by the lights and sirens. He also was able to see through the small part of the roof that they had peeled back what the condition of the occupants was. They would not be able to remove them easily... they had become one with the crushed and twisted metal. He made eye contact with the captain directing the operation, the captain looked in the car and then looked away... he nodded at Rick, sometimes words didn't need to be spoken. A tarp was produced and a flat bed called in. Rick and the others wrapped and tied the tarp securely around the wreck, with occupants still inside. The flat bed would remove this grisly death car from the scene, and they would work on getting the bodies out at a location unhampered by freeway traffic and peering children. It appeared to Rick to be a family of four. He wondered what they had been doing, talking about, saying to each other... at the moment when they realized the trailer was not attached to anything, was actually a solid wall coming towards them, and they had no where to go, no time to react. If they had that moment at all. But his thoughts were cut short by the radio call: The fire training exercise had suddenly become a very real fire rescue operation. ********* Katie came home and was startled to hear a voice in the dark kitchen: "Don't turn on the light". As her eyes adjusted, she saw Rick sitting bolt upright in a chair at the table, looking straight ahead... at nothing. She went to him, and sat down, tried to take his hand but he pulled it away and picked up a drink. She noticed a bottle on the table. He had never really been a drinker, but more and more she found him having drinks before bed, or after work. "Rick...?" After a long moment he answered, in a flat, emotionless voice, "Steve's dead."Katie felt like the wind had been knocked out of her, suddenly sucked from the room. "When? How?" "At the training fire... controlled burn. Smoke. Got him. Overcome." "How could that happen? Don't they... control those fires...for training?...so they'll be... safe?" Rick laughed, a cold humorless laugh. "Safe?? Fire... isn't safe. Fire is fire...flames are flames... smoke is smoke." He remembered how Steve had said if he ever died in the line of duty, they could say he died doing what he loved, saving lives and property. Now Rick felt that he had been cheated of his hero status, as odd as that sounded. And he felt guilty for thinking it would have been more fair if Steve had died in a real alarm. It shouldn't matter how he died. Fire was fire... smoke was smoke... dead was dead. "I want to be alone, Kate" "Let me be here for you, with you. I'm your wife, you just lost your best friend, you should't be alone" "I need to be alone". He could see she was hurt again. She walked away, and Rick sat in the dark, feeling more alone than ever. Steve... why the hell did you go and do this? He waited for the tears to come, for the hurt feelings to come, the rage, the fear, the anguish...but the feelings didn't come. The tears didn't come. He didn't think they ever would again. He felt nothing...nothing at all... just numb... empty. And alone. Very, very alone. ********* They urged Rick to take some time off, but he wasn't about to. Didn't need to. He needed to work. They watched him very closely for signs that would force them to pull him off duty, but he was a model firefighter and EMT... driven, professional, doing everything exactly as he was trained, accurate decisions, strong direction, wise judgments...like a machine. Although he was distant and humorless, and rumor had it his wife had left him, they could find no fault in the performance of his duties. Eventually, they stopped watching him so close, and just accepted that he was paid to work, not to be sociable. It was his right to keep to himself. They settled back into the normal routine... minus Steve. Rick continued to work with the dead and the dying, the rescued and the saved. All the same, doing his duty... like a machine. ********* The flames were reaching high into the night sky when they arrived. The heavens were teasing them, raining down in drops that hissed and disappeared into white-gray steam before reaching the flames. Open up that sky...pour buckets...help us out. As soon as they leaped from the truck a woman broke free of the people trying to hold her back. She grabbed the front of Rick's coat with both hands. "You've GOT to get my daughter out!!! She's still inside...she's only four...PLEASE..." Rick was able to pull her hands away from his coat easier than he could pull his eyes away from the desperation in her eyes. He gave her a curt nod, adjusted his equipment and went inside. The smoke was dense, his powerful flashlight was useless. The heat rolled over him and around him in waves. He was told she would be in the upstairs bedroom, to the right of the stairs. He moved quickly to the stairs and took them two at a time, testing them as he went. His feet were suddenly caught up, he fell headlong up the stairs, the flashlight flying from his hand, his mask hitting the edge of the step, biting his tongue, tasting salty blood in his mouth. He felt along by his feet in the inky dark to see what he had fallen over... it was the child... here, lying on the stairs. She must have fallen down the stairs running from the fire. Two other firemen could not see him lying there, as they went up the stairs beside him, he reached out and grabbed at one of them, tugging the back of his coat. He knelt down and Rick motioned towards his feet, all the while getting into a position to pick the child up. The firemen felt the child's form, nodded understanding. The other fireman had continued up the stairs, but was driven back by the intense heat and the wall of fire at the top, he hesitated, and continued up. Rick knew he would have done the same: Walked through that wall of fire to save a child. He knew the other fireman would call him back, and he hurried down the stairs with the child in his arms. When he came out he was vaguely aware of the screams of the mother, and the police and neighbors holding her back. Rick concentrated on what he had to do. He laid the little girl down, and began to breathe for her, sealing his mouth around her tiny mouth and nose, chest compressions, one thousand one...one thousand two... The other two firemen stood behind him now. Why aren't they helping? It's easier with two. Why aren't they helping? The fireman who's coat he had tugged on at the stairs took Rick by both shoulders and tried to pull him away from the girl. "She's gone... Rick... stop... she's gone." Rick shot his arm out and pushed him away, catching the younger man in the jaw. "Help me dammit!" Rick spat out, as he continued to work on the girl. Why aren't they helping? The unintentional blow knocked the young fireman over. He got up quickly, glancing around. Few occupations perform their duties under public and media scrutiny, this doesn't look good he thought to himself. The other fireman wrapped his arms around Rick from behind, so he couldn't strike back, and said in a steady voice directly in to Rick's ear "She's gone. Look at her neck. She was gone when you brought her out. You did everything you could, but she's gone." He felt Rick go slack against his arms. In the background, the wails of the mother were more piercing than any siren, more mournful than any other cry. Rick stood up, took off his helmet and held it in his hands. Looking down at the child... most of her hair had been singed away, and stuck out in odd tufts, her face was shiny, unnaturally pale against patches of angry red, her head was almost at a right angle to her body, cheek against shoulder, her unblinking eyes stared at the sky, unaware of the raindrops splashing on her face, her mouth was a perfect little rose bud. Her arm was bent with one hand near her cheek, tiny perfect little fingers curling towards her cherub like face. She was beautiful. Even now... a beautiful, perfect, broken doll. He knew he would forever see this little face. But what he saw looking down at her was not just this face, but the faces of so many others... so many lives cut short, so many lives he couldn't save. He looked up at the two men with him. They looked surreal, smokey faces with the flashing red lights playing across them, the stripes on their turnout coats glowing eerily in the rainy night. Rick let his helmet fall from his hands, where it clattered and spun on the driveway, settling next to the little girl's head. To no one in particular, Rick said "I can't do this anymore." He walked down the driveway past the trucks, expertly stepping around the tangle of hoses snaking across the yard, continuing down the street, taking off his coat and letting it drop behind him. "Where the hell is he going?" someone asked. "Just let him go." They watched him fade into the night, until all they could see was the flash of iridescence from the stripes on his turnout pants, and then that too faded into the darkness. Rick was gone. ********* e p i l o g u e No one knows where Rick went that night. The following morning, unshaven and disheveled, he appeared on the door step of Steve's widow. When she opened the door, he said only "I miss Steve, and I'm mad as hell that he's dead." She understood exactly what he felt. And finally, Rick's tears came. Rick took other jobs, he stayed away from firefighting for eight years, and then one day decided to get re-certified and return. He said it was a part of him. He is still a firefighter today. He and Katie divorced, a casualty of the job. They remain close friends, and he sees his daughter often. Rick recently remarried. How many broken, crushed, burned and shattered people do you see before you break down? And yet, Rick did not go down to irreversible depths of despair as some do. I wonder, sometimes... if one believes in guardian angels... if there are more than one assigned to firefighters, if the souls of the people they tried so hard to save watch over them. Perhaps when Rick began spiraling down into his personal Hell, he was able to come back because an angel, with blossom- scented hair and blue-gray eyes, protected him from staying in that Hell. Perhaps... her soul at peace, knowing he did all he could to save her, knowing her child was alive because of men like him... she returned the favor by leading him back to a place where he could sleep dreamless sleep again, love again, feel again. I guess we'll never know. ~Kalvere~ ********* - This story is copyright to Kal The Rebel, Kalvere.