Looking at today’s prompt(Heroes), I figured I’d write something featuring Mark or Nolan. They’re pretty heroic, former Marines turned firefighters. Instead I started writing about James Brooke, who was dealt a tough blow but manages to carry on. I think that could be the mark of a true hero. Warning: Mentions of death of a child and spouse.
James jumped into the truck as soon as he had his gear on. He held his helmet in his lap as engine 298 pulled out of the bay and turned out into the road. His heart was already beating faster, but when he looked across from him, his brother, Zachary, was grinning at him. They always seemed to have different reactions to that alarm going off.
His brother looked toward Lieutenant Whitley and asked, “Where’s the fire?”
For some reason, the lieutenant glanced at James before answering, “A residence just past Elm street. Neighbor called it in. Said they weren’t sure if any of the occupants were home.”
James’ heart beat a little faster. He lived a little past Elm street. But, that could mean anything. Sarah and Kieran…but no, they’d be fine. Still, his hand tightened a little on his helmet strap. He’d been so angry when he left the house this morning. He shouldn’t have. They were her parents. But, they’d never given a damn about him. Hadn’t even shown up for their wedding. That was how against her marrying him they’d been. Now, they were complaining they didn’t get to see Kieran enough. Saying he missed them. How could he? The boy was barely walking, and he’d only seen them maybe three times in his life.
He’d said things that never should have come out of his mouth. They’d never had a fight before. A few slight disagreements, but nothing like this. He hadn’t wanted his son to be exposed to their toxins, though. But, right now, as they drew closer to the block he lived on with his little family, he nearly prayed Sarah had taken him there. Not his house, it couldn’t be his house.
Then, they were turning onto Mill street, and he could already see the flames shooting from the back of the house, the smoke rising up into the sky. His heart stopped for a minute, he knew it did. There was no other explanation for this suddenly hollow feeling in his chest. He knew that house intimately, the chipped concrete step leading up to the side porch, the section of siding that had needed replaced. The toys scattered around the backyard. “No.” Even the one syllable of that word felt like it strangled him.
He was pulling at the restraint almost before the engine came to a stop in front of his house. “Brooke.”
The snapped order from the Lieutenant brought both his and his brother’s heads around. “You’re not going in, James. You stay outside for this one. Grab an exterior line, but you’re not going in.”
“We’ve got this, James,” another firefighter at his side said. Brian, one of his oldest friends, squeezed his shoulder as he added, “If they’re in there, we’ll get them.”
He meant to follow his orders, but as soon as he saw the dark smoke rising from the house where he’d lived for more than two years with his wife, he couldn’t just stand back and wait for someone else to save his family. He dropped the line, pulling his helmet on as he ran toward the house. He’d never been the impulsive one. That had always been Zachary. But, this time he didn’t let himself think before he acted. Then, hands were closing around his arms, yanking him back.
“You were told not to go in,” someone told him. Henry Truman, one of the men who’d ridden over on the ladder truck. “Whitley informed all of us of that. Your brother’s already heading in.”
How could he just stand here and watch, though? That was his family in there. And he’d seen Sarah’s car in the driveway. They hadn’t gone anywhere. He barely felt the tears streaming down his face as they tried extinguishing the flames. They all seemed to be coming from the back of the house. Where the playroom and kitchen were. “Please,” he whispered. “Please let them have gotten out. Please.” He kept mumbling the words even as Truman refused to let go of him.
Then, he saw one figure walking out of the house. Even from here he could recognize the lanky build of his brother. He couldn’t see his face through the mask well, but his brother’s eyes looked sad. He had a small figure in his arms, but he turned and headed straight to the waiting ambulance. James found some more strength and yanked out of Truman’s grip. Then, he was running.
His son was laying on the gurney inside the ambulance, and James recognized the EMT who was working over him, putting an oxygen mask over that small face. “James,” Zachary said, putting a hand on James’ shoulder and trying to nudge him away from the ambulance. He saw the EMT’s head jerk up slightly then he went back to work. Lawrence was another old friend.
“I need to see him.” He’d only caught a quick glimpse of his son, but he hadn’t seen his chest rising or falling, had only seen the ash in the boy’s dark hair, and the way his skin was already puckering from being burned. He had to be in so much pain. Why wasn’t he crying? He’d always been tough, but…”Why isn’t he crying?”
“He’s unconscious,” his brother told him. “Come on. Let them work on him.”
But, as he turned around, he saw Brian running toward them, Sarah in his arms. James’ heart stopped again. At this rate, he wasn’t going to survive the day. His friend didn’t even look at him as he put Sarah on a second gurney. No one was meeting his eyes now. He didn’t need any of them to tell him a thing. Still he made his way over to her then dropped to his knees. “Hang on,” he told her. “Hang in there and come back to me. Please, Sarah, I need you. I still need you so much. I’m sorry for the things I said this morning, just come back to me.”
“James, you need to go home.”
James didn’t even turn his head to look at his father. “I can’t. The structural integrity is unsound, remember?”
“You know what I mean. You need to go back to our house, get a shower, eat something. Your mother got a few outfits for you. You need to decide what you’re wearing to the funeral. It’s been three days. You need to make arrangements.”
“Two,” he said, his voice breaking. He hadn’t left the hospital in three days, but it had only been two since Kieran had been pronounced dead. “And I can’t. I can’t leave Sarah, Dad.”
His father let out a breath. “She’s in a coma, James. She’s not going to know if you leave for an hour to make arrangements for your son’s funeral.”
He couldn’t bear to pick out a tiny casket or figure out any of the other arrangements. He dropped his head into his hands. “I can’t,” he said again. “I can’t do it.”
“I know this is hard.”
That had him getting to his feet and spinning on his father. “You don’t. You haven’t lost your whole family. The doctor’s are giving her less than twenty percent chance of coming out of it. My son is dead. How can you know how hard any of this is?”
Robert Brooke didn’t back away from his screaming son. Instead he moved closer and wrapped his arms around him. “I’m sorry. My heart is broken right along with yours. But, you need a shower, a good meal, and a few hours sleep. No one will fault you for stepping away from her side to take care of yourself.”
“Her parents haven’t even showed up. They won’t even come and see her now.”
His father didn’t say anything to that, just hugged him a little tighter. “Come on, James. I’ll take you home. It’s late. Your mother and I will help you make the arrangements in the morning. Then, you can come back.”
James walked through the empty house, sure the ghosts of his wife and son were speaking to him. So why did their voices sound so much like his in-laws’. “You’re fault.” “You should have saved us.” “Why didn’t you help us.” “We never should have been here.”
He shook his head as if that could dislodge the voices from his head. but, he kept walking toward the back of the house. For the last two months he’d felt like he’d been walking around in a daze. The department had given him two weeks of leave after the funeral. For almost a month, he hadn’t worked. He’d thought going back would actually be a relief. Instead every fire was a reminder of what he’d lost.
James braced a hand against the new wall. They’d remodeled the kitchen, but it had been the playroom that had received the most damage. Sarah and Kieran had gotten trapped in there and hadn’t been able to get out. He’d had them knock it down and put up this new wall. He wished he could have plastered over his memories as well. Now, he rested his head against the wall. His brother had accused him of becoming a zombie. His parents watched him like they were afraid he’d try to end his own life. The only bright spot in his life was holding his baby niece, Kayla, and even that left an aching hole in his chest when he had to hand her back. He wanted so much to have his family back.
But, he knew the last thing Sarah would have wanted was for him to give up. She’d always called him her superhero. He certainly didn’t feel like one these days. Wouldn’t a superhero have been able to save his own family? But, he couldn’t let her down in this way, too. Even if living without her hurt every day, he had to carry on. Sarah would say it’s what a true hero would do.
And he’d do anything to still be her hero.