June - A Wedding for Ingrid
(Bryan Merrick sent me a Facebook message the other day. It read: "I have a writing challenge for you. I was wondering the other day if happiness can be interesting to read. Typically, you think of danger or drama or a dramatic fall and rise in order to keep the reader interested. Can you write a short story about happiness that still captivates?" Challenge: accepted.)
Ingrid scanned the ballroom and smiled. Deeply proud, she treated this day more like her own, a celebration and example of what she’d created, as opposed to the lavish wedding everyone else thought they were attending. And that was just fine with her. Her smile broadened when the lights dimmed and the music cranked up as the bride and groom made their entrance.
She shifted in her Rascal at the banquet table, uncomfortable as all hell. “Why, dear,” Ingrid had asked her daughter two weeks ago as they were out shopping, “are you forcing me to wear a dress and these goddam panty hose?” Carol shot her that look that said ‘you’re too old to still be cursing’, and Ingrid answered her own question. It didn’t matter, anyway. She couldn’t talk Carol out of the hose or the Liberace-style sequin-spattered dress the youngest of her seven children had picked out. Like her mother, when Carol wanted something to happen, hell and high water and wild horses couldn’t sway her. Ingrid knew when to give in.
“It’s the kind of thing the grandmother of the bride is expected to wear.”
“Right. And do I get to pick my own Solid Gold Dancers, or do they just show up at the reception?” Ingrid remembered quipping, chuckling to herself. And there was that look again. At what point, she wondered, had her daughter lost her damn sense of humor?
Shifting once more, Ingrid wished she had worn the pretty silk jogging suit she’d picked out, but she knew Carol would have had a cow, or whatever the kids say these days. She was 87 and figured by now she could do whatever the hell she wanted – and most of the time she did just that. Today, though, was different. Well, for the most part.
The ballroom lights went out just as a spotlight lit up the stage. The audience erupted in cheers and applause and screams of ‘Ball & Chain! Ball & Chain!’ from a group of men old enough to realize they were acting like children, but either too drunk or uncouth to care. Ingrid took a long pull of her beer, steered her scooter into the front of the crowd, and fell right in line with them. Carol didn’t appreciate her mother screaming ‘Ball & Chain’ like the other fraternity boys, but Ingrid didn’t care. She was having a blast.
William and Chenise stepped joyously through the dry ice smoke and multicolored lasers to the center of the stage, waving at the assembled friends and family and strangers. Chenise picked her grandmother’s gravelly voice out of the crowd and gave her a thumbs up and a huge, toothy grin. That woman knows how to have a good time, she thought before quickly returning her focus to her new husband.
William was the Assistant DA of Berkshire County and Chenise, young and blinded by emotion, was his eager third bride, and the heiress of a local dynasty. Ingrid loved Chenise like the treasure she was. Of her seven children, five of whom were still living, and three of whom had given her nine grandchildren and the invaluable opportunity to further the legacy she had taken great pains to create, Carol was the most special. And Chenise was even more special than that.
Twenty-five and brilliant, Chenise was going to change the world. The face of an angel, the body of a model, and the business acumen of a Robber Baron, Chenise was the spitting image of her grandmother, give or take sixty years. Watching her smile from ear-to-ear on the arm of that serial husband made Ingrid’s stomach turn, wondering when there would be a number four. William had already profited handsomely from his first two marriages, so what did he care about signing the prenup Ingrid’s attorney put in his face? It was as ironclad as a medieval virgin’s chastity belt. “Good luck getting through that, asshole,” Ingrid spit through her own toothy grin.
“Momma,” Carol said, exasperated, as she walked over to her mother. “What have I told you about that mouth?”
Ingrid stopped staring at her favorite granddaughter and her betrothed gold digger to look at up at her daughter. “I’m wearing a flame-retardant dress so ugly it would make Cher choke the shit out of Bob Mackie. I can’t breathe because the Spanx I’m trapped in were apparently made to squeeze the life out of the elderly. I can’t erase the image of your ex-husband mouth-mauling that drag queen of a hot southern mess he is paying to have sex with him on the dance floor. And my beer is getting warm. I will say whatever in the hell I want.”
Carol threw up her hands and walked away. Ingrid beamed and went joyously back to people watching.
Carol took several deep breaths as she walked away from that giant wheel chair-bound, foul-mouthed pain in the ass of a mother. And then she smiled. Carol stopped a passing waiter and took a champagne flute. Ingrid Fisher was a piece of work, but was also, honest to God, the best mother Carol could have ever imagined. Feisty and mean and loving and even more brilliant in her old age, Ingrid was the role model every little girl needed, but didn’t have the stomach to endure for long or the balls to question. She turned back to watch the old woman turn her nose up at something and laughed. What would she ever do without her?
Draining the flute, Carol looked over at Darryl and thanked God they were no longer married. And who was that floozy he’d brought with him to his only daughter’s wedding? 23, maybe 25 at the most, Carol had no idea what she saw in him. Floozy was probably after his money. Little did she know that he didn’t have his hands on any of the Fisher Fortune, and never would. Carol had only met Floozy the night before at the rehearsal dinner. Divorced – and single, hallelujah! – for a glorious three years now, Carol had never been happier. If it hadn’t been for Ingrid pinching her leg, Carol would have burst out in laughter when Darryl introduced his Generation X nightmare. And then she spoke. Floozy chirped, in her hillbilly drawl, “He said he needed some more peanuts, slapped my ass, and I knew it was love.” What a moron. “You know, you don’t look nearly as old as Darryl said you would,” Floozy continued, sounding oddly surprised. “You kind of remind of that old lady on Dynasty. Your hair is the same weird blonde color. But it looks pretty on you.” Chenise subtly unclenched her mother’s fist and the rehearsal began.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of her greasy ex-husband and his 23, maybe 25 year old peanut-fetching, hillbilly, money magnet intertwined in a passionate flesh session on the reception dance floor.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Carol dripped, covering her mouth, feigning like she was going to be sick. “What’s wrong with them?” Champagne flute empty, she turned swiftly at the sound of her daughter calling her name.
“Are you having a good time, Mother?” Carol had always called her own mother ‘momma’ and hoped her daughter would follow suit. Mother sounded so formal, so unloving. But from the time her baby could speak Carol never said anything about it or pressured her into saying something softer, kinder. She certainly never told her how much it hurt her feelings.
“Pumpkin, I am having a lovely, lovely time,” Carol said, hugging her daughter, careful not to smudge her makeup or mess up her hair. “But this isn’t my day. It’s yours, honey. I want to make sure you are having a good time. Your wedding day only happens once.” Carol instantly put her foot in her mouth, hoping Chenise didn’t make the horribly awkward and irreversible connection to this being William’s third marriage. The wink said everything, and Carol relaxed.
“Mother, I don’t know if I’ve ever loved my life so much. Look at this place.” Chenise beamed and twirled her mother in a circle, pointing out the fact that everyone in her life who loved and cared about her was there. They were dancing and laughing and eating all because of something that bound two people together forever (…or for the third time), and they were there because they loved her. Other than Ingrid’s and Carol’s business associates, friends of her grandmother and mother who had to be invited for social reasons, and the odd distant relative or two she hadn’t seen since childhood, everyone was there to celebrate Chenise and the love for her husband. “None of this would be possible if it weren’t for a special and unbelievable woman: you.”
Carol started to well up and quickly regained her composure, dabbing the corners of her eyes. “I love you so much, Pumpkin. I’ll do anything for you.” She pulled Chenise in close to her, and kissed her daughter lightly on the cheek. Carol could see over her daughter’s shoulder that the wedding coordinator was pointing rather aggressively at her watch, and making a weird slashing motion that must have meant it was time to cut the cake. Carol wiped the tears from her daughter’s eyes and sent her off to find her husband.
The electric whir of the Rascal getting closer and closer, then stopping right behind her gave Carol the chills. What now? Turning and looking down at her mother, she saw something unfamiliar. Was the woman crying? Were those actual tears in her eyes? The same kind of emotion she had just wiped from her daughter? “What the hell are you staring at?” Carol scowled and looked down at the octogenarian crowding her personal space.
Instead of launching into her mother – again – and giving her the false impression that she was mad, her face softened. This woman, evil and hard to the naked eye, was a teddy bear inside; a soft and gentle woman, yes, but one who voraciously did what she had to do to make herself and her family successful. Married to a weakling of a husband, it was her vision that created Fisher & Associates so many decades ago. It was her unyielding determination that led to the overhaul of the downtown skyline, a number of the most prominent and architecturally-progressive buildings having sprung from her avant-garde imagination. Without Ingrid Fisher, this room would not have been filled with family and friends and the city’s lofty and most notable.
Without Ingrid Fisher, there would be no Carol Fisher Clarkson (ne Fisher), who, despite her best efforts to run counter to everything her mother tried to teach her as a teenager and young adult, could never imagine being anything else. A mogul in her own right, and a mother most would be proud to emulate, without Ingrid Fisher there would be no Chenise Fisher Abbott. And this day, this glorious day, would not have been possible.
Carol bent down and wiped the tear from her mother’s face, just as she had done moments earlier for her daughter. Three generations of fearless, determined, successful, and influential women, the best this city and the world of architecture had ever seen. “Thank you, Momma,” Carol cooed, tenderly rubbing her mother’s cheek. “Thank you for everything you’ve ever done for me. I love you so much. I hope you know that. Today is joyous because of you. Chenise is radiant and happy and in love. Because of what you’ve done for her, and for me, and the family."
”Ingrid took her daughter’s hand and thanked her for those kind words. “But, I wasn’t crying. I was overcome by cheap cologne when my granddaughter’s idiot serial husband bent down to hug me.” Lie.
Carol stood up and frowned. “I can’t have one serious moment with you, can I?”
Ignoring her, Ingrid said, “After they cut that monstrosity of a cake, Floozy’s going to be lining up Patron on the far wall. I’m going to weaponize some tequila and drink that skinny bitch under the table.” And there was the look. Ingrid, who had already rolled away, discreetly wiped more tears from her eyes. Carol looked around at her guests having the time of their lives. The wedding coordinator was on point. Chenise and William and their guests were dancing and eating and laughing their butts off. Darryl was chatting up another twenty-something who wasn’t his date. And her mother had just admitted to the alcohol-fueled annihilation of the tramp her ex-husband introduced her to only the day before. Could this day get any better?
Ingrid stopped and turned back to the daughter she was immensely proud of but never quite sure how to praise. “You comin’ or what?” she asked with a wink. Carol smiled, slipped off her heels, and took her mother’s hand.
“Carol, honey?” Ingrid asked with a devilish smile. “What would you think about just calling me ‘Mother’?”
February - The Firefighter's Prayer
(Story idea by Chris Merrick)
The 8:30 pm nurse’s shift change already, Ross thought to himself? He couldn’t see or talk or move, for that matter, but he could damn sure hear. He heard his mother’s voice and her quiet breathing every minute he was conscious. He’d memorized the voices of the day nurses and the night shift nurses, one of whom he hoped looked as sexy as she sounded. And he heard the doctors - the positive ones, and the guy with the bad attitude who’d made his mother cry.
For the last four days, both slowly and painfully, the world was coming back to Ross Merrick. Or maybe it was Ross who was coming back to the world. It started with tiny sensations in his feet and hands; burning and pricking his skin without any way for him to relieve the irritation. Then his eyelids itched, either from the sensation of light trying to break through, or just from an intense desire to look at something other than the blackness he was trapped in. His eyes would dart back and forth rapidly to try and quell something that felt never-ending, and made his mother scream for the doctor. “He’s waking up!” she said, widely grinning and crying. The body is complicated, Mr. Negative would say. We’re not sure what’s happening in there. After surgeries to repair a badly broken leg and severe head trauma, re-inflate a collapsed lung, and mend a very nasty gash on his neck, Ross was rebuilding his strength every day, but he wasn’t out of the woods. Ross moaned once, and twitched every now and then, but that was quickly waived off as the unconscious mind repairing itself. It’s going to take some time.
Two days ago, his hearing had suddenly come rushing back and it startled Ross, scaring the hell out of him, really. It was unexpected to say the least. He imagined that it must be what babies who’d been deaf since birth felt like the instant their Cochlear implants were switched on. The world exploded before them, yet somehow they knew instantly to recognize their mother’s voice. Denise had made it a habit of reading to Ross, knowing the doctors were going to eat their words one day. Her son would be fine. She’d sat with him every day, and she would be the first person to hug him and kiss him when he woke up. He listened to the way her finger glided over the paperback as she turned the pages, the slight scraping sound lost so often to the swipe of a finger across a tablet was music to Ross. She was reading Gulliver’s Travels, Ross’s favorite. He listened to her as she spoke, thankful hers was the first voice he’d heard.When the voices changed, he knew a new nurse had come to care for him. The bandages were changed, the IV bag was squeezed or a new one hung, and very gracefully, his pain would be dulled enough for him to drift back off to sleep. He couldn’t move, but he was breathing on his own. That’s a very, very good sign, his mother was told. But we need to wait.
Sensations weren’t the only things Ross was rediscovering. Memories were making their way back to him, too, even though he still couldn’t put everything together. He was in the hospital, of course. But why, what happened? Ross moaned again, and his mother looked quickly up at her son and went back to her book, sliding her finger over another page.The only thing he could clearly remember was the pain.
* * * * * *
Five Days Earlier
“Man, just ‘cause you’re marrying my sister, that doesn’t mean you’re black.” Stitch grabbed Ross’s iPad out of his hands when he walked by and saw him looking at JETMagazine.com. “The hell you need to know on this website, Stretch?” he asked, chuckling.
Stitch and Stretch were two peas in a pod. Stitch’s real name was Garland Baker. He was one of the funniest guys in his neighborhood, and was headed for a career as a stand-up comic before life got in his way. He became a father and a husband, in that order, at 22 and realized quickly that jokes didn’t buy diapers or pay for daycare. Stitch was 5’8” and significantly dwarfed by Ross, who at 6’4” and 235 lbs., was imposing in his own right – suited up in all of his gear, and he became a towering monster of a man. Ross was 28, and Stitch looked up to him like an older brother, although Stitch conveniently kept that little tidbit to himself.
“Shut up, Stitch,” Ross said, grabbing for his iPad. “I’m reading an article called, ‘Say My Name’, about white boys puttin’ it on black girls like they’ve never had before and making them lose their minds.” Ross jumped up when Stitch lunged at him, but he was too late. Best friends since their days at the Academy, Stitch actually introduced Ross to his big sister. Better you than one of these sorry mother truckers out here, he told Ross. At least I can keep an eye on you. They wrestled for a hot second before the alarm went off.
“Get off the goddammed ground!” Bulldog yelled as he ran past the lounge on the second floor of the fire house and slid down the pole adjacent to his Engine. Stitch and Ross laughed hysterically at that and ran after him. Time to go to work.
Dispatch: “Residential structure fire, house is occupied, 1-8-7-9, eighteen seventy-nine Dore Drive."
”Bulldog: “Engine 220, Ladder 271 responding."
”Dispatch: “Number of occupants not determined. Caller saying 5 times, plus her. Trapped on 2nd story."
Stitch and Ross were already half-way in their gear by the time Bulldog tore out of the station, screaming up Sea Island Parkway heading for a hard left onto Ladys Island Drive. “Get out of the goddammed way!” Bulldog was screaming to everyone, although he knew full well nobody could hear him over the blaring of the siren. It was 10:30 at night, almost pitch black due to the overcast sky; red and white strobes bounced off of buildings and into the shadows as Engine 220 careened through cars and very sharply, very aggressively cut left down Ladys Island.
“Highway to the Danger Zone” was the Engine’s adrenaline anthem and it pumped and pulsed from the little boom box between the back seats. Bulldog was fiercely dedicated to cursing out idiots as he forced them to the side of the road. Ross leaned over and looked out the window when they made the right onto Dore. “Holy shit,” he said, eyeing the raging flames over the trees, smoke billowing up from something that must have been tremendous. “This place is a monster. Gotta be four thousand square feet!”
Stitch and Ross fist bumped, shut down Kenny Loggins and began reciting the ‘Fireman’s Prayer’ as they jumped from the cab.
“When I am called to duty, God
Whenever flames may rage,
Give me the strength to save some life
Whatever be its age…”
Ross typically sat in the captain’s chair in the Engine, and as Senior Firefighter, was the Incident Commander until someone of higher rank showed up on scene. The second they hit the ground, Bulldog recognized this was more than they could handle and asked dispatch for assistance. For structure fires it was routine for three engines, the Battalion truck, Ladder, and Squad 251 to respond. Dispatch told Bulldog the other two engines, 224 and 221, were already on the way.
* * * * * *
The stench that rolls off a fire used to take Ross’s breath away in the beginning. At the Academy, you learned to smell and taste a fire, or at the very least what it was that was burning. An oil fire hung in the air, greasy residue mixing with the water, cascading down and coating everything like the back of an old grill of a burger joint. The smell of rubber melting and seats burning and the way gasoline vapors singe your face just before a vehicle explodes is something you very quickly figure out if you want to live to see another day. But nothing can prepare you for the smell of burnt flesh. That hits you like a rock to the face. You know it every time. Stitch and Ross picked it out of the air immediately and looked at each other. Somebody wasn’t going to make it out of that house.
Ladder 271, set up station as close as possible and extended almost to the 100-foot maximum, spraying water onto the top of the structure. A two or three foot high bank of box hedges surrounded the property, cleverly hiding a century-old stone wall of the same height. None of the rescue equipment could get any closer without destroying it. By the time the second and third Engines arrived, Ross had already mapped out a strategy. Entry from the north side of the property while the ladder doused the flames from the roof. Stitch and Ross two-manned a hose, and with a meaty thumbs up from Bulldog at the pump controls on the Engine, made their way in. Stitch was in the lead, and as they made their way to the staircase, heading for the second floor, he tripped over the charred remains of what must have been the father, given the size of the body. He was lying face down, partially inside a doorway, probably leading to the basement. They pushed upstairs showering every surface, burning or not, with a torrent of water. The noise of the flames and the pounding being delivered by the ladder above them was deafening. Keep your wits about you, remember the training, flame out, search room to room.
Grayson, Spawn, Lover Boy, and Battlefield were making progress from the southwest and had cleared a path toward a middle bedroom, rescuing the caller and her three children. They scuttled them out and radioed to Stitch and Ross, ‘Cleared. Exiting four heavy down the back steps. 271 and Engines to extinguish. Lost cause. Fall back.’ There was a woman screaming something in the background, but you couldn’t understand what she was saying. Ross tapped Stitch on the shoulder, time to vacate. Walking quickly backward, continuing to douse, they made their way past the dead man on the floor and back out of the structure.
Captain Lindsey had arrived just after Ross and Stitch made their entry, which meant he was now in command. Stitch and Ross ran over to the resupply truck for fresh Cascades, the breathing systems they carried on their backs, and were explaining to the Captain, between heavy breaths that the fifth person must have been the dead man on the steps. “Celia! Celia!” a woman screamed through her sobbing, running to the Captain and grabbing him. “Celia!” She pointed to bottom of the house, a tiny fistful of the Captain’s jacket lapel and shirt spinning him toward her daughter, unable to say anything more. Dispatch said five times, plus the caller. There was someone else in the house!
Ross looked at a basement window just in time to see a tiny head disappear below the cinder blocks. Without waiting, he took off, full-speed back toward the house.Smashing his way through the window that was almost too small for his bulk, let alone stacked with equipment, and landing hard on the floor, Ross was immediately overcome by smoke. Quickly, he put his Cascade mask back in place and breathed deeply, clean air filling his lungs. “Where are you honey?” Ross asked, scanning what must have been a play room for kids and a getaway for the parents. “Come on, honey. Come on, Celia” he said, pleading with the girl to show herself. “I’m here to help you.” He could only imagine what he looked like to the little girl. His voice mas muffled like a creature, a giant life-saving mask obscuring his face. He could have been the devil, for all she knew. The house creaked under the weight of the firefighters’ assaults from outside; water poured through the ceiling and the carpet was soaked.
“Stretch! Get your ass back here!” Stitch screamed through the radio. The Captain had held him back, pinning him against the Engine as he started to take off after his best friend. Ross was just about to radio back when he saw her, running from behind the bar, hiding on the other side of the pool table. “I’ve got her!” Ross yelled, keying the radio at the same time. But just as he reached her, he heard that sound, and his world switched into slow motion. The house was too damaged. If it were as old as that rock wall, he knew 100 year old wood couldn’t stand up to the punishment of fire and water for much longer. God only knew what thousands of gallons of water had done to the foundation; he was running out of time.
He grabbed Celia by her tiny little arm and started toward the window, his only known exit, when the ceiling caved in, raining debris, cutting them off. He was forced to jump the counter and land behind the bar, dragging her with him. The little girl was crying uncontrollably, and there was nothing Ross could do to comfort her. He had to think. And FAST.
Celia began to choke from the smoke and soot raining down on them. Ross took a deep breath before he took off his mask and held it up to her face. She was tiny, maybe five years old, very slight of frame. He’d sat her on the floor, legs crossed, and was hovering over her when the house shuddered again. He was checking her for injuries when he saw the right side of her nightgown had been burned, and her skin was severely burned, as well. God only knew how scared she must have been, and how much pain she was in. Ross moved her very tenderly now – she had what looked like 3rd degree burns on fifty to seventy-five per cent of her body. Her hair was burned, her right eye was shut and he couldn’t tell because of the water, but it looked like her skin had begun to weep. The dead man in the hallway must have been her father, trying to get her to safety as he died. It was a wonder she was still alive.
Before he knew it, the long wall behind the bar collapsed, falling toward them. Celia screamed and grabbed onto Ross, oblivious to the massive pain she was in. He threw his body over Celia, protecting her from liquor bottles and the mirror exploding above them. When he’d bent over to shield her, his fire helmet shifted forward and a large piece of glass scraped along the back his neck, knocking him to the ground in agony, nearly flattening Celia. Ross bellowed at the top of his lungs, scaring his charge ever more. A massive part of the bar had come to rest across his back, pushing him forcefully closer toward the floor until it violently came to rest, jamming into the cabinets and saving their lives for the moment.
He gasped in the smoke and took two long pulls from the air mask before putting it back over Celia’s face. He’d caught himself on his elbows inches from crushing her, knowing he wouldn’t be able to hold himself up for long. Blood dribbled down his neck and dripped onto the floor. Everything started to get dim. He knew that if he blacked out, Celia would be trapped under him, unable to free herself and completely unable to breathe. They would either be burned to death, crushed when the cabinets gave way to the weight of the remnants of the bar, or entombed in the shattered guts of a century-old house. Neither of those options particularly pleased him in the least.
He tried to shift his weight and roll to one side, but the bulky body which was shielding the little girl was substantially wedged between the bar and made it impossible for him to move in any direction. “When we get out of here, we can go get some ice cream,” Ross said, his voice high-pitched and trying to hide his fear. He was looking behind him, under his arm, at his leg which was caught on something he couldn’t quite make out. He was formulating a plan and trying to comfort Celia, too. “What’s your favorite flavor?” She only cried. “I like butter pecan. And blue’s my favorite color.” Think, man!
Two more quick pulls from the mask and he put it back on Celia. If he worked quickly enough, he could probably free himself and slide backward and out of their make-shift coffin. Maybe. He looked down at the little girl underneath him and couldn’t believe what he was thinking. She was going to die. There was no way he could save her, the burns she’d suffered would see to that. But he could probably still save himself. If he could free his leg somehow, he could jump back through the window to safety. He started to wiggle his leg, but it hurt too much. Ross rocked to one side, looked down at her sweet baby face and froze as she removed the mask. Like a little girl begging her daddy to fight the monster under her bed or comfort her after a nightmare, she silently pleaded with him to stay. She was crying, large tears streaming down her face but Ross couldn’t hear her, and somehow she didn’t look like she was in any pain. She didn’t speak, but Ross knew she had asked him not to leave her. Please don’t let me die alone. Please.
He looked down again at the growing pool of blood leaking from his neck. A split second later, the bar above them shifted again on the weakening cabinets, and knocked him closer to Celia. His arms were shaking uncontrollably, much like his spirit, he felt himself go limp.
* * * * * *
The 8:30 pm shift change brought Ross something precious, something he never expected to feel again. The hospital bed tilted ever so slightly to the right, and someone picked up his hand. A voice whispered into his ear, and Ross started to cry. The brightness of the lights was alarming, painful even. It was the first time since he’d been there that he’d opened his eyes. Squinting at first, he could only make out the faint silhouette of a woman. She was the same size as his mother, but the way his hand was cradled in hers, felt different. It was soft, but almost distant, as though his touch was unfamiliar. His eyes adjusted more to the light and he began to sob as she leaned down to kiss his cheek. And then she spoke. “Thank you. Thank you for saving my Celia’s life.” Denise was balling her eyes out.
“Help me to embrace a little child
Before it’s too late,
Or some older person
From the horror of that fate."
"Ross looked over when he heard Stitch’s voice reciting the second verse of the Firefighter’s Prayer. His neck was heavily bandaged and sore. Ross flashed back to that night and heard Stitch yelling for him again. It was foggy and at first Ross thought the voice had been coming through his radio. But it was real. When the house shifted the second time and the bar fell on his best friend, Stitch tore free from the Captain and ran to save his buddy and big brother. “I got you, Stretch!” was the last thing Ross heard before he blacked out.
Tears streaming down his face, Ross turned back to the woman sitting on his hospital bed, holding his hand and, herself, crying. “Thank you for saving my Celia’s life,” she said again. “She held on for a long time after the two of you were pulled from the house. You protected my angel with your body. Her soul watches over you now.” Ross got that feeling in his throat and even though he was already crying, began to sob. “Her injuries were just too great. She died… two days ago.”
Ross squeezed her hand and tried to say he was sorry but he still couldn’t speak. “Shhhh,” the mother said, quietly, softly rubbing Ross’s cheek. “You gave me something I didn’t think I’d ever have. You gave me the chance to hold my baby in my arms again. You gave me the chance and the pleasure to hold her next to me as she left us. You didn’t have to run into the house. You didn’t have to stay with her. You didn’t have to let me have one more, precious and loving moment with her. But you did. And for that I’ll forever be grateful to you, Lieutenant Ross Merrick.”
Denise gently placed his new, shiny badge in his hand and closed his fingers around it. Ross, eyes wide, looked back over at Stitch. “I told the Captain he was full of shit when he said you were getting a promotion. But he went and did it anyway. And apparently there’s gonna be a ceremony, too. I saved your ass and all I got was two days off and an Applebee’s gift card.” Everybody laughed through their tears. Ross squeezed Celia’s mother’s hand again, and then he reached out for his own mother and his fiancé.
“Alright, everybody,” the nurse said. “It’s time for this newly minted Lieutenant to get some rest.” Ross wiped his eyes and looked over at the super-hot nurse coming through the door. With raised eyebrows, he looked at Stitch, followed by a swift, joking punch in the arm from his fiancé.
“Huh uh, Stretch,” Stitch said, walking toward the door, smiling and avoiding his sister’s gaze. “I don’t see a thing. And if you know what’s good for you, then you don’t, either.”
Ross smiled broadly and winked when he kissed his fiancé. He laid his head back on the pillow, holding his new badge, and closed his eyes. “Goodnight, sweet little Celia. Goodnight.” Once more, the bandages were changed, the IV bag was squeezed, and very gracefully, his pain was dulled just enough for him to drift back off to sleep.
January - The Taurus
(Story idea by Mark Vertreese)
The faint sound of glass breaking woke Kelli up just enough for her to wonder if something strange was going on. She looked at the alarm clock on her nightstand, trying to focus through what was left of her Ambien haze. 2:56 am. Was the noise coming from outside? It was too early for the trash pickup. And the newspaper man wouldn’t have anything to do with glass breaking. Kelli squinted through the darkness trying to make out the lights on the alarm panel in her room. Red, for armed. She took a deep breath and snuggled back into her pillow and into the warmth of her bed. It was just my imagination, she told herself.
“Dammit,” she sighed, eyes open again. “Now I’ve got to pee.” Reluctantly, Kelli slid the covers back and stepped into the restroom. She never heard the back door open and shut. Walking back to her bed, it was dumb luck that made her look at the alarm panel again. The red dot was gone. She pushed a couple of buttons, but it didn’t make a sound. “What the hell?” she asked herself.
Quickly, she tip-toed to the window and lifted one of the slats on her blinds slightly. The driver of the car across the street killed the parking lights when he saw the black slit widen against the white background of the blinds and Kelli panicked. Was that the same car from the other day? She racked her brain, trying desperately to place it. Two days ago, at the mall or was it the grocery store or the gym where she’d seen that car before? It was a grey Oldsmobile or Pontiac or something. Kelli remembered looking at the driver, feeling uncomfortable about how he looked back at her and darted to her car. “How the hell did he find me? And what the hell does he want?” She heard the back door open again and started to freak out. They’re in my house, she said to herself. Don’t panic. Think, girl. Think!
Frozen for a moment, she held her breath and listened. She wanted to hear what was going on – to listen to whoever it was that was now in her house, coming after her. She couldn’t make anything out as she strained against her own emotion, unable to discern the sounds coming from downstairs from what may have been in her imagination. Was there one voice, two voices? Are they speaking English? Her head was pointed toward the floor and her chin was cocked to the side, eyes closed tightly even though the room was pitch black. Concentrate. The pounding of her heart in her ears and the thumping of her pulse in her throat made it almost impossible to know for sure. One thing was certain: if they just wanted her stuff, they would have been in and out. But they were still there. And that meant they were coming for her.
In one fluid motion, Kelli moved from the window, slid across the bed and slipped into her walk-in closet. Thank God she took the one good piece of advice she’d gotten from her otherwise useless ex-husband. “Get a gun. Put it in the back of the closet. And practice loading it. In the dark with your eyes closed.”
The third step from the bottom creaked like always, pushing Kelli to move faster. Kneeling, she reached into the recesses of the closet until her hand hit the large wooden gun box. She could hear someone trying to whisper. It was a man’s voice. Deep and rough, like a smoker’s. She clicked open the combination lock. She had started shaking life a leaf and stopped what she was doing. Closing the box, she counted to three, and steadied her hands as she started again. Frightened beyond what she’d imagined this would feel like, she kept trying to make herself believe it simply wasn’t happening, even though she knew that was a lie.
“Left hand, rounds,” she said in a quiet, wisp of a voice. “Right hand, gun.” Kelli felt sick to her stomach and swallowed deeply. The Taurus .357 was loaded in a flash. She closed her eyes, took a couple of quick breaths, and dashed from the closet, back across her bed, taking dead aim at whoever was now walking toward her bedroom. She wasn’t going to be trapped and killed in her own closet. She was going to fight with everything she had. Her eyes began to water slightly from not blinking and her arms were quickly getting tired from holding the gun up. Short-barreled, hammerless, and specifically recommended by the greasy gun shop employee, the Taurus she held was either going to save her life – or get her killed.
The shadowy figure coming through her doorway made her gasp unconsciously. Startled, the man stopped dead in his tracks. “Oh, you awake?” he asked, playfully.
“Get the hell out of my house!” Kelli screamed. Her tiny voice trembled as much or maybe even more than her entire body. He fumbled for the light switch on the wall and Kelli knew that once he saw her, gun or not he’d have the advantage. Five foot nothing, 110 pounds, Kelli was by no means alarming. The sound of his voice booming from across the room was coming from somewhere above her head, so she figured he had to be a lot taller than her. She was still mentally preparing her next step when the bedroom was flooded with light. Kelli blinked hard to quickly get used to the light pouring over her and stretched her arms out even further, extending the gun beyond what she thought was possible.
A six foot six inch behemoth took up every possible open space of the door frame and stared Kelli in the eye. This wasn’t the first time he’d faced a woman with a gun. “Huh,” he said casually, as though Kelli held a toy in her hand. “Bitch got a gun. Cute. And you a little thing, too. Kinda like a little ol’ rabbit and a big ol’ wolf.” He eyed her up and down, brazenly. She was only wearing a t-shirt and panties. The way he visually assaulted her scared her to death and she told him again to leave. He backed up through the door and yelled out to whoever was waiting for him downstairs, “Ha Ha. This bitch got a gun. Grab it all. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Get the hell out of my goddam house!” Kelli screamed again, now visibly shaking. “Or I’ll….”
“What?” he yelled back. “If you gonna shoot me, then do it!” he bluffed loudly, striding quickly toward her. To Kelli, fire backlit his entire body, arching from his shoulders, terrifying her. Like a time warp, everything slowed to a crawl in the millisecond before he reached out to grab her. This is it, she said. He’s going to kill me if I don’t fight back. He’s going to kill me and another woman and another and another before he’s caught - if he ever is. I can end this. I can protect myself or I can be a victim. She closed her eyes just as she felt his enormous hand wrap around her neck and the hefty bulk of his body ram into her, pushing her hands down.
The first shot hit him in the kneecap and he buckled, dragging her to the floor until she wiggled from his choking hand. Kelli stepped backward until she ran into the bedroom wall. The third step creaked again and she knew somebody else was coming to get her.
Oh no! Kelli couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The man she’d just shot gingerly stood up and she froze again as she watched him lean on her footboard and begin to limp toward her. His eyes were rolling back in his head from the searing pain, but he growled, “I’m gonna kill your ass!”
She didn’t feel her finger squeeze the trigger. She couldn’t hear the pro at the gun shop who had taught her to hold her breathing as she pulled her index finger back. She didn’t line up the sight on the barrel. She didn’t hear the last four rounds or see how they hit him center mass. It was only when his body thudded to the floor that her senses – and time – returned to normal. Whoever it was that had been on their way up the stairs had quickly turned around and scampered back down and out of her house.
Kelli couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. Tears ran from her eyes like the blood that was soaking into her bedroom carpet from the dead body. She heard a car engine start and looked through the blinds. A man ran to the car and jumped in just before it peeled away. “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,” she said over and over and over again.
She’d killed a man. Kelli grabbed the phone from her nightstand and ran back to her closet. “What’s your emergency, ma’am?” the 9-1-1 operator asked.
“I just shot somebody!” she said, breathing deeply into the phone, loading her gun again. “He was breaking into my house and I killed him. He’s dead. On the floor of my bedroom.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, please repeat that. Are you saying you’re going to kill a man?”
“NO!” Kelli screamed. She looked at the man in the floor and pointed the gun at him again. She walked from her closet, back to the window and stomped on his back several times. “F’ing listen to me! He’s already dead. Send the police. NOW!” The Taurus was beginning to feel heavy in her hand again and she thought about putting it down when she heard a car outside. Looking through the blinds, she saw the newspaper man circling the cul-de-sac, throwing out papers, completely unaware of what had just happened to her.
Marveling at the stillness of the world outside her bedroom, she laid the gun on the window seat and covered her mouth. There was no feeling in the world like this. And there was no way she would be able to describe it to anyone who’d never experienced the same thing. For a moment, she wondered what would happen next. What would her neighbors say to her and about her? How the hell would she explain this to her boss? And the police? They were going to ask her a million questions. And her mother. “Momma,” she said, thinking about how she was going to tell her mother that she’d killed a man, no matter the reasons behind her actions. The 9-1-1 operator was still trying to question Kelli and her frustration level was about to shoot through the roof when the phone was violently slapped out of her hand.
He balled up a fistful of her hair in his hand and wrenched her left arm behind her. He spun Kelli around away from the window and dropped her face-first onto her bed. He stuffed her face into the covers, using his elbow and forearm pressed into her back and head for leverage, making it hard for her to breathe or scream. Her uncle had put her in this position before. She was nine years old and nobody believed her. Her innocence was stolen. It was a horror she’d lived with for thirty years, and one she’d tried hard to repress. She was the victim that night and every night since, losing the trust of her family and watching that bastard smile at her like a Cheshire cat at family functions when no one was watching. A joking, but unwelcome advance by her husband several years ago dredged up the horrible memories and, ultimately, led to their divorce. She loved him, but told herself she never wanted to be touched by another man for the rest of her life. Kelli’s head was yanked back, pulling her out of the flashback. She could feel her hair slowly and painfully tearing away from her scalp. He picked her up off of the bed and she struggled to turn and look behind her, searching for his face. She was certain he was dead, that she’d killed him, and didn’t understand what was going on.
“You shouldn’t have done that to my boy,” he whispered in her ear. “I love it when you pretty bitches live alone. Nobody else to ice.” She couldn’t turn and focus on his face, but she didn’t need to. The voice of her attacker had changed. It was someone else. This man was someone different! Her body tensed automatically and her mind raced. Who else? What was coming next? Is anyone coming to help me? Too scared to cry, Kelli started thinking about how she was going to survive. Strong as an ox, he still had her in the air, levitated only by her hair and left arm, hanging Kelli over the end of her bed so she could see the body of the man she’d killed. The gun, she thought! It was still on the window seat. And what about the phone? Was that useless 9-1-1 operator listening? Was she sending help or had the phone broken when it was knocked from her hand? She tried to reach behind her and punch him with her right hand, but missed. Instantly, she was slammed back on the bed and her left arm was being pulled even further behind her, resulting in the nauseating pop and pain as her shoulder dislocated. Kelli screamed and the man pushed her face deeper into the covers, muffling her again.
“I heard you on the phone,” he said. “I know the cops are on their way to save you. But they’ll be too damn late.” Her shoulder hurt so much, she couldn’t tell if he still had her in his grasp. His other hand still had her by the hair and he was leaning his whole body onto her. She was no more than five feet from the window seat. But she was facing the opposite direction and she was immobilized by the weight of her attacker. He picked Kelli’s head up and turned her face to the right before jamming it back down on the bed. This time, she was on her left cheek and she could see the phone on the bed, almost taunting her. Kelli could smell his breath and see his face out of the corner of her eye when he leaned over and slowly, disgustingly, licked from the corner of her mouth up to her eye. She felt his weight shift, rising from above her waist. For a split second she thought maybe he was giving up. Maybe he’d gotten scared and was going to run away like she wished her uncle had done. She shrieked like a demon when she heard him unzip his pants and clinched as hard as she could when she felt him angrily pull her underwear to the side. “If I’m goin’ out, I’m goin’ out my way, bitch!”
God only knows where she got the strength, but she lurched forward on her good arm before he could start to rape her. In the same motion, she bent her leg up toward her butt and kicked the hell out of him. Because she’d changed positions, the heel of her foot caught him square in the testicles, tearing them on his zipper. He let go of her hair and doubled over, yelping from his own pain. Kelli didn’t know whether to run for the door or not. She looked into the dark hallway and wondered who else was in her house, waiting for her to run downstairs?
Enraged, recovering from his thumping and still unzipped, he scrambled awkwardly across the bed, chasing her like they were cartoon characters running from each other in a mad circle. Kelli ran past her bed toward the window seat stepping on the body in her floor, and launching herself into the air, narrowly escaping the new attacker’s grasp. Her momentum propelled her past the window and into her nightstand. Picking up anything she could, she bombarded him with books and her clock and ripped the lamp out of the wall and tossed it at his head. He’d thrown his hands up to shield himself as he stalked her. Kelli jumped back across the bed and he chased after her, but tripped when his shoe got caught in the covers. Again, she jumped over the dead man and fell onto the window seat, grabbing her gun. She spun around, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger twice, raining white flakes from the ceiling. The first shot nicked his left ear and the second ripped through his left shoulder. He dropped to the floor in agony. He tried to get up and Kelli kicked him in the face, bloodying his mouth and sending him tumbling backward over his dead accomplice, writhing in pain. “Don’t you come any closer to me, you piece of shit! Don’t you fucking move or I will kill you like I killed your buddy. You picked the wrong woman this time. You picked the wrong one!”
Kelli was vibrating with fear and anger and accomplishment and her chest heaved with staccato, ragged breaths – but she was alive. The sound of the police sirens screaming into her neighborhood signaled the end of her nightmare. Exhausted, but still pointing the gun at him, she got mad and lashed out. How dare you! How dare you come into my home and do this to me! She imagined her uncle’s face on the bloody and crying man crumpled ten feet away from her on the floor of her bedroom. I am not a victim, she screamed! I am not a victim and you can never hurt me again! She fell back onto the window seat when she heard the police break down her door and saw the flashlight beams bounce back and forth as they ran up the steps and into her bedroom. She dropped the gun next to her, sat back, let out a long, deep breath, and closed her eyes.
“You picked the wrong one.”