Wednesday, February 14, 2018

502 Fourth

Hydelands a Taylespun Blog
           He felt uneasy all of the way here, heartburn, queasy, even just a bit of nausea.  Randy’s stomach was in turmoil, not just too many fucking fried clams for dinner, but too many coincidences.  He should have known better than to eat so much, especially on a work night, but his gastric unease did not matter.  Randy knew exactly what had to be done.  He grabbed at the ax and took his first steps toward the dark green front door.  He hoped it would be better this time, somehow all better.  He would make up to God for misguided choices.  Someday payment would be made in full, and his soul might be cleared of any debt, but for now he had only one thing in mind.  He hoisted the ax to his left shoulder as he had done many times before.

            She had come from within a swirling cloud of black smoke, her hair, only a shade or two darker than the midnight sky above their heads, hung nearly to her waist.  Her reddened eyes glared at him with rage.  Some wore terror on their faces while others painted the rage of reason across their features.  This one, wearing a simple white terrycloth robe, slightly tied and hardly covering her secrets, was really pissed.  Randy had no sense of her fear.  Before he took a swipe at the front door, she grabbed at his arm.
            “My boy,” she said, her eyes were flames.  “He’s on the third floor, please …” Her eyes, they would stay with him every step of the way.  “Go to him, help him.”
            “Tell the man by the truck I’m inside.” Randy swung the ax, crashing it into the door.  One powerful swing and the front door opened.  These tenement houses were never secure, and they burned so fucking fast.  He adjusted his air pack and stepped inside.  Flames were licking along the walls.  Thick black smoke, like angry thunderheads, billowed across the ceiling scorching the white to black.  Randy reached to his headlamp, turning the ineffective beacon on.  To his left, as usual, he found the first set of stairs.  He knew he should have waited for back up, or even a hose team.  But those eyes, he would see them until he died, he was sure, they more than begged, they commanded. 
He knew he needed to act fast to get to the boy.  How ironic that it was the same address, 502 Fourth. 
This house had been his first full fire six years ago, the reason he had to make amends.  His first casualty had been on the very same third floor.  Tonight he might rid himself of an old demon or two.  On the next level, second floor, the smoke was thicker and lower.  Randy was finding it more difficult to breath.  The house began to groan.  Poets speak of roaring fires and rolling flames, but every firefighter knows it is more violent than that.  The flames scratched and clawed, pulling at every stray strand and lifted corner.  As the building struggled back, it groaned.  He had never heard the roar of a fire so much as he heard the groans of pain, from the wallpaper, from the wood, from the melting copper and from the victims being carried out as the flesh peeled away from their bones, crispy and smoking like an overcooked slab bright pink salmon on a char-broil grill.  Pain had a peculiar sound and it scraped at his own soul.
            It had been like that since the first time and every time since, when the very, very, old woman was carried away in an unrecognizable lump of flayed, split charcoal.  He knew right then he could have done more.  His heart felt her agony.  His dreams carried her revenge.  He had frozen, he been scared.  He had stepped back down the stairs leaving her screaming soul to cry for both vengeance and pity.  She had gotten neither.  Survival never felt so selfish.  He lived with that conflict every day, and in every detailed nightmare, as though he had made an unspeakable bargain.
            Right now, away from that hideous memory, he was finally mounting the last flight.  There was a boy at the top.  There would be no turning back now. Not this time.  He was better trained, more professional and he had six years of vengeful nightmares under his belt.  Randy could feel the heat through his boots.  That was not a good sign at all.  His wits told him to turn back.  He fought every instinct to flee.
            "Not his time,” he told the clawing flames around his head, “It’s a young boy.  His mother begged me.  I have to do this.  I’m not a hero.  I’m just a man.  He’s just a boy.”
            Just three more steps to the top floor.  These buildings all had the vaulted ceilings on the top floor, hardly room for a man to stand in the center, let alone at the outside walls.  Randy pulled the ax around and swung, the first door pounded inward.  The bell on his air pack began to ding.  Only minutes of air left.  Next door.  Boom, a wall of flame exploded out toward him.  He had expected it and was behind the wall as the ax slid from his hand bouncing across the floor into the bathroom.  No kid.  He had time for just one more door.  Randy pounded at it.  It opened with a groan and a wave of slightly cooler air.
            There he was standing just to the left of the window, waving as if to his mother as she went off to Sunday marketing.  The flames and smoke seemed to be avoiding him.  He stood in a clear patch, almost safe from the conflagration around him.
            Randy’s bell pinged more slowly now.  Maybe a minute left.  He waved for the kid to come closer.  The boy simply waved at him.  He stood in the center of a circle that remained untouched by the ravages or their effects.  He smiled.  His red t-shirt, nearly as bright as the surrounding flames, bore the word Sabbath across his chest.  Randy waved again.
            “Not ready yet,” the boy whispered.
            “I should not be able to hear you,” Randy said as his lungs began to fight for more air.  He ripped the mask from his face.  The hot scorched air invaded his lungs with tenacious violence.  Like his first try at whisky, but more.  “C’mon,” he tried to yell.
            “No!”  The boy said, “You should remember this room.”
            Randy fell to one knee.
I do...” he coughed,  “my first casualty,” cough, cough, “this room …” Cough.
His eyes began to burn.  The heat dried all of the moisture from them.  His face was beginning to redden.  He had more than a sunburn on his cheeks, the image of the boy flickered.  Randy closed his eyes, the pain was growing and time was racing away.  Penance he thought.  Time to pay.  He opened his eyes and saw the old woman on the floor, her arms were again reaching for him as they had six years ago right here on 502 Fourth.
            “‘Help me’,” she had begged.
I couldn’t,” he whispered again.  Six years had gone by and now, he knew he could have.  “Couldn’t,” He lied.  Randy paused, then it spewed out like phlegm coughed from deep within his thumping heart. “She was old and I was so young and carrying her down might have killed us both.  I didn’t have the balls to risk it.  Six years of lying and hiding.  Six years of dreaming and screaming, I always knew that the only reasons I turned away were selfish ones.”
That old woman fried because she was old, and you did not want to risk your life.”
 “It was my very first fire, on my twenty-first birthday, and an old, old lady.”  Randy wheezed, his argument over.  He knew he had turned his back on her pleas, descending through the blaze.  The admission froze his rational thought.
The boy stood proudly in the circle of unscorched floor.
You know the really wicked part of all this is that you would have died, both of you, had you tried, but when you come right down to it, you sacrificed her, in trade for six more years.  If you had died that night there would be no debt, and no need for me.  It’s a special night for me too.”  He paused as Randy fell to the floor, his bewildered stare locked into the hardened gaze of the boy.  “If your lucky, you’ll pass out before the flames get really hungry.”
Outside as his brothers called out, looking for Randy, a woman in a bathrobe walked along the sidewalk approaching the front door.  No one seemed to care or notice the fourteen-year-old boy step unscathed from the billowing black clouds.  The smile on his face was ear to ear.
I can’t wait to show dad,” he said to the woman, “my first soul.”  He opened up the small sack.
Big Jim will be so proud,” she said peering at the soft light glowing inside the white bag.  Her red eyes shimmered with delight.  “The ones bearing guilt are always the best.  They are forever suspicious, very cautious and most difficult to trap.  This is a really good soul, so much more than just another debt paid,” she said closing the bag.  “That old woman’s wails and curses were not wasted.  Your father will be proud you’ve had such a rewarding night."
They stepped around the red truck pumping water into the triple decker.  Together they walked side by side into the enveloping darkness.

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