The sunset seemed to have drawn the very flames into its embrace, the evening sky blazing ferociously even as darkness approached.
A rock walkway meandered through the lawn to the house, the grass kept lush and green by a sprinkler system maze. No bushes crouched under the windows; sturdy window boxes had been added several years before, an anniversary present. The boxes – bursting with yellows, purples, and oranges like miniature sunsets, cradled in vibrant greens leaves – seemed undisturbed by the maelstrom unleashed around them. Beside the porch, a neat rectangular patch of yellow nearly glowed, the only hint of color left on the ground.
The ends of the Craftsman home stood sentinel over the still-smoldering remnants of sixty-plus years of marital bliss. Overstuffed cushions on matching wicker settees and large terra cotta planters flanked the simple but heavy wooden door, giving the surreal impression of welcome to those who failed to look beyond it to the blackened, jagged window panes or the charred ditch excavated through the roof by flames over the heart of the home. Generations had gathered there to enjoy wholesome feasts and family fun, to laugh and to cry.
Pencil-thin lines of smoke wrote across the heavens the sad and too oft repeated story of loss.
Just over an hour ago, police, fire and ambulance vehicles had been brought to life as much by dispatch as the turning of a key. Electric and gas employees, leaving work for the day and heading to personal vehicles, had been called back when the utilities had been alerted their services would be needed.
The typical bystander would have been hard-pressed to see order as men in various uniforms swarmed over the property. Yet, in reality, they had worked together, participating in the carefully choreographed chaos with nary a misstep. Now, after the urgency of the situation had subsided, adrenaline levels were returning to normal and the men began the process of cleaning up, rehydrating, and preparing to leave. Unused ambulances returned to service, yielding their spots to the coroner's ebon station wagon.
Standing under the branches of a mature Monterey pine, Marco Lopez surveyed the vehicles still stationed along the street – the large white vehicles from the utility companies stood out against the red fire department vehicles like teeth erupting from gums. A temporary smile crossed his features as he remembered a childhood riddle:
Forty white horses on a red hill,
Now they chomp,
Now they stomp,
Now they stand still.
When he turned back toward the house, the smile passed away as quickly as it had come. Captain Stanley would be calling them to head back to the barn soon; the lineman knew Station 51 had done all they could here. But Marco had something else to finish before they left. He saw Roy, the senior paramedic, making his way along the driveway and moved to intercept him, pushing aside the fatigue that threatened to drag him down. "Roy?"
After a few moments of quiet conversation, Roy placed a heavy, reassuring hand on Marco's shoulder. "I'm right here if you need me" was all he said. The other man nodded and began to look around him, searching through uniformed men for the one he sought.
DeSoto headed toward the engine where the rest of the crew of Station 51 had gathered. Leaning against the engine – his engine – Mike Stoker handed him the canteen of water and, with a gesture, invited him to pull up a bumper and have a seat. The water was cold; it would have been refreshing if Roy's mind wasn't somewhere else.
Normally the misery magnet, paramedic Johnny Gage sat on the grass beside the engine, mentally tallying this call in the 'injury-free' column, and offered quiet thanks. Marco's fellow lineman Chet Kelly had just finished stowing the last of the equipment; he removed his turncoat, and sat down beside Johnny before dumping the contents of his canteen over his head to cool off, water dribbling through his dark curly hair. He shook his head slightly, flinging a few drops of water onto Johnny who protested for form's sake only. Hank Stanley came up alongside Roy and, with nothing more than a nod toward Marco and a raised eyebrow, was able to convey his need for information. His command over his men equaled his concern for them.
Roy's voice wasn't as steady as he would have liked and, although addressing the captain, he spoke to all his brothers. "It's his cousin, Cap," Roy said and barely twitched his head in the direction of the two figures now moving across the lawn. "The kid in the electric department uniform, it's his cousin. He, uh, just got hired on a week ago. He's an apprentice. Marco says he's got family that reminds him of each of us but this kid, well, this kid reminds him of Johnny." Roy let Cap roll that information around in his mind for a bit while he downed another gulp of water, this time noticing the metal flavor the canteen added. His eyes moved to check Johnny's reaction and saw a faint smile and unoffended chocolate eyes: No worries. Another sip of water and he continued. "Marco said between drunks who wrap themselves around poles and residential fires he knew the kid would sooner or later ... well, you know, Cap. We all had our first time and Marco, he just didn't want the kid to not have family around when it happened." Hank nodded and leaned against the engine, briefly taking the canteen Roy offered before passing it back, content to wait.
Five men watched without looking, supporting Marco by their presence but lost in their own thoughts – each man remembering the first time they saw vacant eyes looking back at them, haunting their dreams, and searching their souls. Visible, uncontrollable, shudders cause several men to adjust their positions, each pretending they hadn't noticed the other.
Marco's hand rested on the shoulder of the younger man, their heads bent together, the yellow hardhat of the electric worker tapping the black of the fireman's helmet, obviously deep in conversation as they moved closer toward the porch. Suddenly they stopped as the young man spun around, gripping his relative's shoulders tightly. Dusk masked the emotional charge beneath the hats. Marco's arms enveloped the man in a rough masculine hug for the briefest of moments. Each of the men from Station 51 could recall a time when Lopez had done the same for him.
The acrid smell of smoke clinging to the burnt out house had covered the smell of death hidden under the yellow blanket at the side of the porch. Marco knelt beside the yellow shroud, bowing his head respectfully as the youngster reached up and removed his hardhat. He drew back the covering, giving his cousin time to look, to see, then replaced it, crossed himself, and rose. He reached out to steady the wavering man beside him, leading him away.
Seeing the events like a shadowy play before his eyes, DeSoto knew even before Marco's cousin what the next act likely would bring. He started across the lawn, arriving behind the Monterey pine just as Marco knelt to brace the retching man. He heard Marco's pleading whisper: "I'm sorry, Juan, I'm sorry! Forgive me, amigo." Roy's offer of the canteen was met by the movement of another uniformed arm – a second canteen, held by another electric company employee. He had been so focused on his fireman brother that Roy had forgotten the other crews on scene. The man in front of him nodded silent thanks to Roy, his yellow hardhat bobbing slightly, and put his hand on Juan's shoulder. Juan took the canteen shakily, sipping the water.
Supported between family and coworker, Juan was able to rise. Marco's arm dropped as yet another electric lineman arrived to support Juan's journey back to the company vehicle. Roy put his hand on Marco's shoulder, guiding him toward the engine as a sense of pride in mankind was rekindled within him. "He won't be alone, Marco. His brothers are here, too."
Thank each of you for your kind words to my first submission. I already shared these thoughts with one of the reviewers.
My hands shook while uploading the story; can one truly be an impartial judge of one's own child?
I have so much to learn about writing and my youth is long past in which I might have garnered and retained that knowledge.
I admit to having had a friend read my story before posting and, as she helped 'tweak' its breath of life I considered, "Is this still my story if someone else 'touches' it?" It is a hard reality to face but I came to the conclusion: the patient on the table receiving life sustaining oxygen is still WHO they are but just receiving the help they need. Thank you, SaraiEsq.