Illustrated by Cait Maloney
I crashed into the bedroom door in my alarmed stupor, my head shoved into the arm sleeve of my sweater. Precious seconds melted away as a robotic voice shouted at me from the pager. My hands swept across the wall, searching for the light-switch.
It was a house fire. The months of Wednesday nights spent folding hoses and spraying mock flames had built a stratospheric anticipation for this moment. It didn’t register then that I was much too excited about a home burning down.
Late April air burned my skin as I flew out the back door. With dramatic arm-swinging flair, the soles of my ragged skateboarding shoes clapped against the street. Houses flowed by in jarring blurs.
A car sped past at the end of the street — one chance gone. I would only get one or two more, depending on who went to sleep drunk, or had to work early and left their pagers off. As I arrived at the end of the street, nothing. Quiet. My first house fire and I wouldn’t even make it to the fire hall. The orange letter N on my license meant I couldn’t drive after midnight.
Headlights came around the corner. Only volunteer firefighters would be driving like that, so I flagged down the car.
“Get in,” Jared said.
The moment I fell into the passenger seat, he revved the engine to take off. My door slammed before I had the chance to shut it — adrenaline off the charts. He turned the car onto the main street, getting to the speed limit, plus some, as fast as the early model Dodge Neon would allow. The police had warned that volunteer firefighters would still get fines when responding to a call, but Jared drove like several hundred dollars were worth the thrill.
It took less than a minute to get to the fire hall. A few other cars and trucks flew into parking spots at the same time as we did, their drivers at full pace on foot before their engines stopped turning over. I followed them to the change room. Through squints under the harsh fluorescent lights, I found my locker. My heart a continuous marching band drumbeat now.
One of the firetrucks was already leaving, its sirens deafening us not in it. Another truck left as I struggled with my flash-over hood, adding to the wails reverberating off the cement walls. With my helmet tucked into my armpit, I ran out to the loading bay.
Jared started the pumper and then hopped down from the driver’s seat to check who was available. He signaled for two men I knew by faces only to get in the back. He glanced at me, but said nothing. His eyes bulged in a woken-in-a-panic kind of way. He jogged around the truck to the locker room, emerging a blink later. He flicked a gesture at me to get in the truck. I stumbled in, my gear being more suited for a man instead of a pole-thin high schooler. Our fire hall didn’t have a pole. We had a ceramic Dalmatian that weighed more than me.
My first house fire and I was riding in the pumper.
“Why is a junior in here?” said the man beside me. He had to look over his shoulder to see Jared since we faced towards the back.
“Nobody else is here, and we’ve gotta get going.”
A sigh from the man next to me. I agreed. The truck started moving, and the siren followed a second later. It sounded weird, muffled by the cabin. I had sat in here during those Wednesday night training sessions, but now it looked different. The aluminum panels with diamond shapes poking out looked menacing. There was so much equipment. I didn’t know how to use any of it.
Out through the window, I saw houses and skeletal trees going by. I hadn’t listened to enough of the voice on the pager to know where we were going. Even in the cold night air, I was sweating. The man next to me checked his respirator, letting out a hiss of air. He rolled over his shoulder strap to check a gauge. We drove for an eternity in those few minutes. I tried to think about what I would do when we arrived, but I realized I didn’t know how to do anything.
We pulled into a driveway and stopped.
Jared appeared next to me, opening my door. “Get out.”
A orange glow lit up the side of his face. Before my feet hit the ground, Jared had a large hose over his shoulder. He jogged over to a fire hydrant next to the driveway and wrapped the hose around its base.
“Make sure the hose stays wrapped around the hydrant.”
His words blew through my mind like wind through the trees lining the driveway. I was mesmerized. In front of the truck, towering flames rose out of a house. They leapt towards the stars, licking at the sky above the trees.
The truck started to move down the driveway. It’s movement distracted me from the massive flames. My brain short-circuited. I unfurled the hose from the hydrant and ran with it towards the truck. I made it a few steps before the brake lights came on.
Jared swung out of the driver’s seat and bolted towards me. “What the fuck are you doing?” He grabbed the hose and ran back to the hydrant with it.
My jog down the driveway with the hose was as close as I got to the flames that night. I was given a flashlight and told to go wave it at cars driving by.