It's like a hemorrhage. It's an artery bursting and the chemistry takes over. Just think about the chemistry and physics involved. All that smoke is carbon molecules bled from the fuel. Fuel like wood, petroleum. Oxidization is basically the loss of electrons. The very atoms of the burning material bleed essential parts and cease to exist. And then there's the more philosophical aspect of people's lives bleeding out. All those possessions gone. All those heirlooms, all those investments, those particles of what people call their lives bleeding from a wound.
I'm twelve and my father stops the car to watch a high-rise fire. I see the teamwork of the crew. I see men carrying axes walk through flames. I see rescues. Small children. Elderly folk wrapped in blankets by soot-faced titans. And they are huge when I'm twelve. They tower over everyone around them. There's no real consideration of the possibility that I might become one of them. I have no clue one could ever become a firefighter. These people are superhuman, born this way. But from this point on, unlike other boys who know about guns or cars or science fiction, I know firefighting.
Harris kicks open the kitchen door and the bolt from the handle goes sliding across the tile, ricocheting off my boot like a puck on ice. He slings his leg in stride and a chair careens into the table and the room is an instant mess. Six plates of half-eaten lasagna and the drinks and the salad all become falling debris. I want him to make a move. I'm hungry for the opportunity to defend myself, to knock his teeth out, maybe break a finger if I get the chance. He's pacing, wading through the destruction, nearly losing his balance on a wet noodle. He hasn't said a word. He hasn't looked me in the eye. The faucet is running in the sink next to me. I turn to palm some water over my face and the soot clouds the reflection in the basin as it travels to the drain. He yells at me not to turn my back on him. Oh, the irony. Not hours before, Harris gave me a direct order to do that very thing. Turn my back on someone in peril. And now that I'm standing here in this kitchen, in this station, a singular moment in my time here, I realize his incredulity. He's in peril too. He's under pressure from someone above him and that person is under pressure from another superior and the list is probably longer than either of us knows. I have suddenly become the angry little pea in the princess' bed. He says something about peeing on parades. Will the parallels ever end? Testing him, I tell him I've never been a fan of parades. He's a child now, screaming, his words running together, his anger smearing his focus. Then I realize I'm bleeding from my chin and there are droplets with radiant fingers on the tile in front of me.
Anderson and I are standing on the patchy lawn. There are children's toys, a tiny pink bicycle with a scarf tied to the rear frame snaking ugly loops across the mud. There's the sharp odor of hot aluminum. The look in Anderson's eyes is a direct reflection of the sensation in my guts as the boyfriend of the owner is yelling in Driskol's face. We all heard Harris' order over the radio but our reactions had been as varied as any gang of shrapnel escaping an explosion. Am I the only one of us with this rotting in the belly? Anderson calls the boyfriend a poor fucker, spying him from the shadow of his helmet. Then he looks at me. I'm watching the glowing hemorrhage bubbling through the side windows of the trailer house, the billions of carbon molecules pulsing into the night sky, merging inelegantly with the star speckled darkness. Anderson turns from the heat, pauses, then moves back to the truck.
I tell my wife this will just take a second as I stop the car and throw it in park. She fires a threat at me, something like, If you even think about getting out of this car... I slam the door behind me and jog across the bricks to the sidewalk where the old guy is lying face down. A horn honks. Other vehicles are stacking behind our sedan. His overturned wheelchair is on his back, gripping him like a drowning man. At least two other pedestrians steer around him and keep moving before I reach him. I ask him if he has any needles or weapons on him that might stick me and he says no and thank you several times before I make quick work of getting him upright and back into the chair. He doesn't weigh a thing. He smells awful. His breathing is rapid. Is something wrong? I ask him. Are you having an attack or something? No, he says, I just hit that hole and fell over. So you're okay? I don't need to call anybody? No, he says. Thank you, he says. When I'm behind the wheel again, she immediately sees the blood on my shirt. She asks if it's mine. I tell her no. After a few blocks, she loses her temper and slaps me across the cheek. My marriage ends within the year.
Professional arguments happen all the time when you're a physician. Cures and treatments can be argued. One procedure carries greater risks than another. One drug produces side effects too harsh for certain constitutions. But the patient will be treated. A decision will be made to relieve suffering. That's how the oath reads. Relieve suffering. Firemen don't argue about how to control and extinguish a fire. The options are few and the techniques proven. But what they are proposing is akin to passing a law requiring doctors to let people die, people who could easily live with a simple pill or biopsy. That's not the way it works. The ambulance takes you to the hospital, the hospital treats you and then, and only then, they charge you. That's the way it works.
But doctors let people die all the time...
A pressurized tank within the trailer, probably propane, bursts and a finger of flame slings sparks through a fresh gash in the roof. The crying woman is on her knees in the mud. Her two children are buried head first in her chest. The boyfriend is standing in the heat with a yellow garden hose in hand. The rope of water is just arcing into the shadows and a thin sheet of shiny black flooding oozes down the muddy lawn. He had given up the effort even before we arrived but he won't put the hose down. The neighbors have formed a wall behind the truck, their eyes shining like a distant row of highway lighting. This greasy thing sliding around in my guts is growing. I walk back to where Finnegan and Starky are manning the hose, prepared to protect the adjacent homes if this fire jumps. I ask them both if we are seriously gonna watch this house burn. Neither of them answers me. Anderson steps in and grabs my coat and tells me to simmer down. Starky won't look at me. I tell Anderson they can't fire all of us. Who says? Finnegan asks me. Anderson pumps his grip on my sleeve and tries to pull me closer to him, away from Finnegan and Starky. He's saying something but I'm not listening. Driskol stops his conversation with a couple of cops and is headed our direction.
Harris stands like a politician. That stiff backed posture. His feet too far apart. He has that face they all have. That plasmatic bundle of lies they all have coagulating behind their eyes. He seems unaware of the trivial nature of his briefings. He seems unaware that we're gonna keep smoking behind the station, no matter what he says. He seems unaware that we're never gonna bother with an accurate inventory of the station groceries, no matter what he says. He seems unaware that we are in fact gonna go down to Joe's and get drunk in public, in uniform right after this tour, no matter what he says. He seems unaware. Seems. Even when he looks a fool, it's a lie.
My grandfather and I are in a small boat with fishing poles dangling. New Mexico. I'm eighteen. He'll be dead in a couple of years. I tell him about a paper I had to write for my history class. We executed men who were following orders. Yup. I don't know how I feel about that. He lights a Camel with hands that are more like paws. When he served in Indochina, a lift failed and a 400 pound bomb dropped three feet to the tarmac and smashed them. He had to wait ten minutes while enough men were gathered together to lift the thing. I can't imagine 400 pounds resting on my hands, my fingertips, for ten minutes. The doctors told him they would have to amputate but he refused. While he was in the hospital, a captain fresh out of officer training ordered him to remove the Flying Tigers patch on his uniform. Yer out of regulation, Grandad recalled the puny captain's voice. Grandad refused to remove it. The captain nearly succeeded in getting him demoted. But only nearly. And Grandad never did take that patch off his uniform. Now he's tooling his hook from the gill of a beautiful trout, the bright blood racing down his wrists and painting a cloud shape in the damp grime around his feet. He asks me what bothers me about it. I elaborate on the fact that we killed men who were just doing what their superiors were ordering them to do. Grandad laughs and prods me to think about what I've just said. You're looking at it wrong, son. I tell him I don't understand. Then he challenges me to pick which is worse: is it worse that we executed those men at all, for anything, or is it that those men followed the orders they were given? Either way, Grandad. Either way, what? Those men would've died either way, if they had or hadn't followed those orders. That's a given but you still haven't made a choice.
Finnegan is a big fella but he doesn't know how to take punch. The cops have shuffled over to us and Driskol has pushed me face first into the mud. The boyfriend has suddenly become my wingman and he's pulling me up, his hands in my armpits. He's barefoot and barking at Driskol and shoving a middle finger in his face. The two cops, kids really, that desert vet vacancy in their faces, move in and the boyfriend takes a swing at one of them. The taser drops him as if they had clubbed him with a hammer.
Even though I asked the question, Harris tells the room it's a fiscal issue, a budgetary decision, can't keep hemorrhaging funds like this, can't keep putting out fires in the surrounding communities where they don't pay the taxes we use to keep this department running. That's not what I asked. The city commission voted for it and we are burdened with carrying it out but I really don't see there being any problems, been done in numerous other places with success. That's not what I asked. This is the world we live in now, all of us having certain unsavory tasks we're asked to perform, teamwork, top to bottom. That's not what I asked. I hope that clears all that up. Not really. Not really at all. If you're telling us what I think you're telling us, then no, this isn't cleared up. I wanna know what happens when--. I'll put it another way for the slow kids, these are the rules and you and every other member of this department will follow the rules, end of story. But my point is I'm not sure what the rule is.
Harris' eyes glass over and he loses his smile then he ends the meeting.
The first dead man I've ever seen is a charred black shape gripping the fourth floor stair rail in this office building. The fire probably started in the break room on the floor below. His clothes burned first and there are remnants of them on the landing below him, buttons, zippers, coins that were in his pockets. The fire caught him as it rushed through a vent and began devouring the wallpaper. All of his blood is caramelized on the steps. Faintly translucent bubbles from the initial boil are standing frozen at the edges. I can smell his burnt hair. And the vinyl trim peeling across the floor. The sprinklers failed, Anderson tells me, staring up at one of the spigots on the ceiling surrounded by dark shadow shapes where the flames had licked the drywall. I leave the stairwell and wander outside past two paramedics waiting for more victims and I vomit in a bush under a shattered window.
This is wrong!
Get over yourself!
We're watching a goddamned house burn!
No! We are protecting these homes here! Get your shit back in line!
I won't watch this!
Then don't watch it. But the rest of us are going to do our duty!
Have you lost your mind? Doody is another word for shit, Driskol! We're going to let this woman's house burn down over a seventy-five dollar oversight?
It's not an oversight! She didn't pay the damn fee!
Seventy-five dollars, Driskol! Seventy-five! Fuck! I'll pay the fee... there! Now Gimmie the hose!
I'm already gonna request a suspension! You wanna push for a termination?
There is a fucking house on fire, Driskol! Smell that? Feel that heat? A house is burning! That's a fire engine! I know it's a fire engine cuz I rode over here in the goddamned thing! And that is a fucking firehose and we're standing here watching a house burn!
I ought to punch your lights out! And I'd get away with it!
There's a time and place for everything but right now somebody's gotta take a doody on this fire!
You are so fucking fired!
Gimmie the fucking hose!
This is insanity. Fine, let him have the goddamned thing.
Finnegan, just give him the fucking hose.
No fucking way.
That's an order!
Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.