Photo taken by @arrelaine13
Robert picked up the small stuffed tiger, covered in ash and soot. It was the only thing that had survived the fire. Tears sprang to his eyes and he squeezed the toy. How could a child’s birthday party turn into such desolation?
“Are you ready, Captain?”
Robert turned to his lieutenant, Sandra, waiting at the door. Images of smoke and charred corpses flashed. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He needed to focus. He had a job to do.
“Yeah, let’s go.” He walked out onto the porch, heading towards the fire truck. The family of this house huddled together on the grass while volunteers brought them blankets and water. The only memories they would have were that they survived and were able to rebuild. The fact that they were still together would help. He envied them.
Robert and his company loaded up the truck. With Sandra at the wheel, Robert slid into the passenger seat. Once the others finished, they drove off.
“Are you feeling okay, sir? You’ve seemed a little off lately.”
He removed his helmet and ran a hand through sweaty hair. “Just memories, Sandy. It’s been four years. She was your sister. You alone should know how I get around this time.”
“I’m not talking about that. It’s just...in general you haven’t been yourself these past few months.”
Robert looked out the window, watching people go to school and work. How many of them were suffering, and just trying to get by? “I just haven’t been sleeping well. My nightmares have gotten worse. They keep waking me up and then I can’t get back to sleep.”
Sandra decelerated, turning into the garage of the fire station. She switched the engine off, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a small bottle. “These are mild sleeping pills. Try one tonight--”
He shook his head. “Thank you, but I’ll pass. I’ve remained unmedicated this far, I think I’ll continue that way.”
“Okay.” She returned the bottle to her pocket. “Call me if you change your mind.”
Robert gave her a polite nod and smile. The desire to erase his nightmares was strong. But his guilt was stronger. He deserved his nightmares, no matter how much sleep he lost.
He lingered at the photograph in the hallway of his apartment, just outside the bedroom door. Tina had insisted on taking the photo when they first moved to this area. “One day we’ll live there,” she’d said.
A few months later the house went on the market, and they moved in. It was a great home to start a family in. He had worried about the distance from his job, but she liked being away from other people. When Cassie was born, they’d looked forward to raising her in a stable home. It was perfect.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Looking at the photo always brought back images he didn’t want. Hot flames. Still bodies. A soot-covered crib. He pinched the bridge of his nose as tears began to form. No. Not now. Save it for the nightmares.
He entered his room and slid under the covers. For a moment he wished he’d taken the offered pills from Sandra. Could he endure another night of this? He glanced at his phone. She’d bring them over if he called her now. Then he wouldn’t have to live with the nightmares anymore.
He closed his eyes. No. This was his penance. As he drifted off to sleep, he willingly gave himself to the horror that was to come. It was the only way.
Robert and Sandra were in the battalion chief’s SUV, barreling down the interstate toward his home. He had been scheduled to go home an hour early, but at the last minute they received a call and were in the middle of putting out a fire in town when he heard the call about his house.
The building was already engulfed in flames when they arrived. Tina! Cassie! He jumped out of the SUV and dashed for the inferno. He had to save his family.
“Woah woah woah, Robert!” Sandra stopped him.
“Tina’s in there! And my baby!”
Sandra pushed against him. “You know it’s not safe, Robert! We got here too late.”
“No!” Robert shouldered her out of the way and ran towards the house. “Tina! Tina!” He went through the front door. The smoke burned in his eyes, and the heat from the flames was almost too much. He had to find them.
Behind him the hoses came to life with a hiss. He coughed and reached for his mask and airpack regulator, but they weren’t there. Damn! He forgot to grab them from the truck. No time to get them now. He unzipped his jacket and covered his face with the top of his shirt as he searched the house for his family.
Coughing and footsteps came from upstairs. “Tina, I’m coming!”
“Robert!” She coughed again.
He made his way to the stairs as fast as he could. A thud shook the ceiling. He climbed the stairs, staying low under the smoke and immense heat. On the floor in front of the soot-covered crib he found his wife, clutching their baby girl in her arms, both passed out from the smoke.
The fire roared as a flashover ignited the hallway and rushed into the room. Robert threw himself over his family. The heat washed over him, then everything went black.
He opened his eyes in a perfectly intact nursery. No sign of the fire or his family. Robert dropped to his knees and wept.
Something cool and gentle touched Robert’s head. He lifted his tear-stained face. Kneeling before him was Tina. Not the fire-ravaged body he had just witnessed. She was whole and perfect. A light radiated from her presence.
She smiled and laid her hand against his cheek. He pressed his lips together and his chin quivered. Fresh tears flowed. “Oh, Tina. I’m so sorry.”
“Why, Robert? It wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m your husband and Cassie’s father. It was my job to protect you both.” His voice shook and his throat tightened, but he couldn’t stop. “I failed. I couldn’t save my own family! What sort of a fire captain am I?”
“A human one. Robert, you don’t have to put yourself through this anymore. You don’t have to suffer for us.”
“If I had just come home when I was supposed to, this never would’ve happened. I would’ve been here to protect you.”
She pulled his chin up and their eyes met. “Or you would’ve died with us. But instead you’ve saved more people. You’ve kept other families from having to live this horror.”
“But it’s pointless if I couldn’t save you.”
She laughed. Her laugh always filled him with peace. His guilt swayed. “It’s not pointless. I’m so proud of you. I enjoy watching you work. Don’t let our death get in the way of the good that you do.”
Tina leaned in and kissed him. He pulled her into an embrace and wept on her shoulder. “I miss you so much!”
“I know, Robert. But you need to live your life. Cassie and I are safe. You have to move on without us.”
Robert took a deep, shuddering breath. Tina’s words gave him hope. There would’ve been no way to control the fire. He knew that, deep down, but his grief and guilt was too strong.
It was time to let go. He couldn’t live his life and do his job if he was burdened with what-ifs and the things he should’ve done. Tina was proud of his work, and was watching from where she was. That was enough for him.
He held Tina tighter, knowing this would be the last time. “I love you, Tina.”
“I love you, too, Robert.”
The dream world faded. Birds outside his window woke with the sun. He opened his eyes as new life coursed through his soul. He’d spent the last four years as a dead man. It was time to rise from the ashes and live.
Thank you to everyone at @thewritersblock for editing and critiquing this story. A huge, special shoutout to @AkSounder for his detailed input on fire departments and fire behavior. Having the facts really helped me make Robert's story come to life.