I kick a stubborn door off its hinges and immediately can tell that no living thing is in this room. It's sort of like how you can tell when someone's looking at you even if you aren't facing them. I've done this long enough. I just know. I begin clearing the space anyway just to go through the motions. I report the all clear to my Captain and continue down the hallway. This is only our second stretch tonight and I'm already feeling it in my lower back. There was a, “three-decker” on the west side earlier and we only saved the basement. As soon as the meat wagon left with the casualties this call came through, so here I am, back in the shit. I really don't mind to be honest. I prefer to stay busy as busy as possible. Downtime at the house drags for me. I took this job to save lives; to make sure that what happened to my family wouldn't happen to others… if I could help it.
Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t… but that’s the job.
My probie is in a hurry and clips me in the back of the knee with his irons on his way by. I resist the urge to knock the stupid teeth out of his head. I tell him he's getting a dot when we get back to the house for that. He apologizes with a snappy "Yes sir!" and I let it go for now. He's a stupid probie who can’t get out of his own way, but he means well. He’s young kid with kids of his own. The boys ride him for his own good. We know all too well that stupidity is deadlier than any blaze could ever be. It's imperative that it be stomped out immediately so we all get to go home to our families at the end of the day. (Well, most of us anyway.)
Pushing down the hallway, probie breaks left and I clear a one-bedroom shithole to the right. Nothing but a burnt cat and two very confused goldfish. I check the next room. Not a soul to be found. I call to probie and get nothing back but dead air. I holler down the hall again. No answer. Pissed, I double back at a jog. The door to the apartment he was supposed to clear is open. I tell myself if he's making a save without reporting it, I'm going to break his legs when we get to the house. Communication is our survival and he knows I won't tolerate any cowboy shit. Everyone knows that.
With a knot forming in my gut, I push the door open…
Hungry flames are already licking up the walls and spreading out over the ceiling like fingers from Hell. This is when I see the bodies for the first time. Littered about the floor are the various limbs and parts of what must have been twenty people and my blood turns to ice. I have seen some shit before, but this...
Crouching in front of a window at the far side of the room is a man covered in blood with his head down. Nothing but the flames are moving. Slowly, he looks to me with familiar eyes that are seared into my memory for all of eternity. The gore I can handle but seeing his face again was too much for my stomach. Hell was in those eyes and instantly I knew the Devil was real.
Rising to his full height, he reaches back and rolls probies head to my feet. Impulsively, I stop it with my foot. His eyes still darting around the room, my heart breaks at the look of anguish on probie's face before he freezes in that betrayed grimace for good. Images of his children flash through my mind as the grin widens on the bastard's wicked face. I drop my gear. He rolls his shoulders and I shut the door behind me. The blaze begins engulf the apartment completely. For the first time in years, I'm terrified because I know what I have to do. Smoke fills the space between us. His body count can climb no higher. The fire was just a distraction to let him escape yet again, but not this time. This is my responsibility and it has to end here.
He draws a wicked, hooked blade from his back and I grip my irons. Gnashing my teeth, I start to pray out loud. Louder and louder, reciting the hymns I took for granted my entire life. Laughing, he charges. I block his first strike but he quickly pins me to the burning wall. His face close to mine, we jockey for position amidst the dancing flames. The floor groans and creaks underfoot as we step between and over the body parts in the heated-and-bubbling blood. I misjudge his second attack and the knife passes between my ribs, sinking deep into a lung. He knocks me to the floor.
"Say hi to Mom and Dad."
He steps over me and turns to rush the exit before the floor gives way. Blood is pouring from my side. Gripping my halligan tight, I swing with everything I have left. I catch him in the leg, popping his kneecap. As soon as he hits the ground I'm on top of him. I don't have much in the tank, so I'm holding on with all my remaining strength. I know it's a game of seconds but I just need a few more. Everything is fading. Just a little bit longer now… I faintly feel him stabbing my back and side, over and over, but there’s no pain as the flames start to catch his clothing. I hear him coughing. The probie’s face flashes in my mind. Just before we face oblivion, I lift my head so he can see my face.
"Tell them yourself."
The floor gives way and the last thing I hear is him screaming on our way down.