Authors: Rachael Duncan
Tags: #First and Last
My dad’s jacket and ax sit propped up on a stand next to his closed casket that waits to be lowered into his final resting place. As I stare at his jacket, I remember a conversation I had with him last year.
“How much longer until you retire, Dad?” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Dad loves what he does, but I can’t wait for the day when he can relax at home. No one in the house says anything, but there’s always this low level of worry whenever he’s at work. We’re all very aware of the dangers of his job and know there’s always the chance that he doesn’t make it out of the building alive. And with the recent death of one of his guys, that fear stands out in my mind over the last week or so.
“You think your old man can’t hang anymore?” He looks at me from the corner of his eye, a small smile on his mouth.
“No, it’s not that, I just worry, that’s all. And with Rick . . .” I don’t need to say anything else. He understands where I’m going with this.
“Well, there are no guarantees in this line of work. That’s why I always stress to the guys that you can’t become relaxed. No two fires are the same and each must be treated with utmost respect. We’re never in control. It is. The moment any of us forget that, all hell can break loose really quick. Rick was a good man and a damn good firefighter. He did everything he was supposed to. It was a freak accident and nothing anyone could help.”
“That’s what scares me,” I admit. “I know you’re good at what you do and trust your guys, but there are many things out of your control.”
“Absolutely, but that goes for all of us. I could walk across the street and get hit by a car. Life is full of risks and uncertainties, but you can’t stop yourself from living it. I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But, to answer your question, I have three more years until I hang up my helmet.”
Three more years. That doesn’t sound so bad. “What are you going to do after that?”
He shrugs. “Beats the hell out of me. Drive your mother insane I suppose.”
A sound over a CB radio brings my attention back to the service. It’s coming from the radios the guys from the station wear on their hip.
“All personnel clear the line for last call. No response needed,” a dispatcher calls over it. A long beep follows. “Communication to 102. Communication to 102.”
My heart slows, struggling to keep beating as I hear my dad’s number being called out over the radio.
“This is the last call for 102, Assistant Chief Frank Collins.”
My chest locks up and it gets hard to breathe. This is it. This is real. Oh, God, I’m not ready to let go.
“Thank you for your time and dedication to your community.”
Tears stream down my face as my bottom lip quivers. My eyes squeeze shut, trying to shut out the feeling consuming me.
“Communications acknowledges 102, Assistant Chief Frank Collins, is out of service. God speed and farewell.”
My mom’s sobs highlight the end of the last call tradition. That’ll be the final time he’s ever called over their radios. My dad’s chief approaches my mom in his dress uniform. In his hand is an American flag, folded in the shape of a triangle. Behind him is the new assistant chief, the guy that took my dad’s position. He’s holding my dad’s helmet. It’s worn and dull and a little dirty. It’s definitely not the last helmet he wore. That one is long gone. Melted beyond recognition. Mom accepts both before they salute her and turn to walk away. My chest aches and tightens, making it hard to breathe as my vision stays blurred from the constant tears while we all mourn the greatest man I’ve ever known.
Several of the guys from the fire station and some of our family and friends follow us back home. I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone, but I humor them when they come up to show their sympathy. I keep to myself in a quiet corner and watch everyone move around our house. Even though there are a bunch of people here, it still feels empty, and it’s because my dad isn’t here. Mom used to say he always had a presence about him, but I never really understood that until this moment.
Mom’s keeping it together pretty good, putting on a strong face for the benefit of everyone else, but I hear her cry herself to sleep at night. I notice she doesn’t eat much and she’s not taking care of herself. As for me, I don’t talk much and do my best to get through each day. I haven’t been back to school yet and I haven’t returned any of my friends or my girlfriend’s calls.
“How you holding up?” Mia asks me quietly. She hands me a small paper plate with some crackers and cheese on it. When all I do is stare at it, my stomach already protesting at the thought of putting that in my mouth, she says, “You need to eat something.”
I pick up a cracker and bite the corner off. My mouth salivates, my body knowing I need to eat, but I have no desire to. “Luke seems to be looking out for your mom,” she continues once she’s satisfied that I’m eating.
“Yeah, I hate he dropped out of school, but it’s probably best right now.” Classes had just started for him at the local community college. He withdrew from all of them to be with us and help Mom with the funeral arrangements and getting our lives back on track.
She nods, taking a look around at everyone with me. “You wanna talk to everyone or go upstairs and chill out for a bit?”
“Let’s go upstairs. I’m not up to faking it for everyone right now.”
I shrug off my jacket before flopping down on the bed, loosening my tie after I get comfortable on my back. Music plays softly from the corner where my stereo sits.
“Do you remember that time our dads got into a prank war?” she asks, laughter in her voice.
A small smile hits my lips thinking about it. “Yeah, your dad gave up once my dad covered his car in sticky notes.”
Mia laughs. “I swear we’re still finding them in our bushes.”
“Best. Prank. Ever.”
“How long did it take him to put all those on anyway?” She lies beside me.
“Forever. He did it in the middle of the night. I’ll never forget how silly he looked with his head lamp on. I swear he looked like a damn ninja. He must have been out there for hours.”
We both chuckle softly. “Well, if it’s any consolation, it took dad forever to pull them all off. He was even late for work.”
A smile lingers on my face thinking back to that day. People in the neighborhood took pictures and everything. It was pretty epic. We continue telling stories and remembering all the good times I’ve had with my dad.
“Thank you,” I say.
“For what?” She turns to look at me and I do the same.
“For being here. For making me laugh. For helping me remember.”
“You know I’m always here for you no matter what, Blake.” She cups my face and stares into my eyes.
“Oh, uh, sorry.” We both look toward the door and see Hilary standing there. I sit up, but don’t move toward her.
“Hey,” I say to her.
“I, uh—I was—can we talk for a second?” she asks, but her eyes go straight to Mia.
Picking up on the hint, Mia jumps up. “I’m going to run downstairs and score some more food. I’ll be back in a few.”
Once she leaves, Hilary shuts the door behind her. There’s a moment or two of awkward silence. I’m about to speak up when she beats me to it. “I’ve been calling you.”
I rub the back of my neck. “Yeah, I know. Sorry, I haven’t been up to talking lately. I haven’t called anyone back.”
“Except for Mia,” she mumbles. She tries hard to conceal her resentment, but I hear it loud and clear.
“Mia lives next door. She just shows up,” I try to explain.
She nods slowly, processing what I’ve told her. “I think it’s more than that though.”
“What are you talking about?” Here we go. The same conversation I have with every girl I go out with.
“You like Mia. She’s the third wheel in our relationship. She’s always there, we’re hardly alone, and when we are, you’re always bringing her up.” Her hands are on her hips and she’s full of attitude right now.
“She’s my best friend. We’ve been friends since we were six, and I don’t need to explain that to you or anyone else.” I stand up from my spot on the bed and walk a couple steps toward her.
“You should hear what everyone is saying. The whole school knows you guys have something going on. It’s humiliating to be the girl everyone knows will never match up. When we hold hands in the hallway everyone looks at me with pity.” I roll my eyes at her dramatics.
“I never pegged you for being so selfish. My dad just
! We buried him
! And you have the nerve to bring this shit up? This is why I didn’t call you, because in the end it’s all about when I’ll pay for us to see some stupid ass movie or when I’m going to show you off in public. Well, newsflash, I don’t need your shit. I’m over it.”
“Excuse me?” Her eyes widen as she looks at me in disbelief.
“You need to leave,” I hear Mia say from behind Hilary. When I look around her, I see my best friend standing in the doorway, a hard expression on her face as she shoots daggers at Hilary. I’ve never seen her look so mad before.
“No one is talking to you,” she sneers at Mia.
“If you don’t move it, I’ll be happy to have a couple of the guys from the station remove you. You’re not wanted here, so don’t push me.” She looks at Hilary with pure rage in her eyes, and it’s enough to make her cave.
“Whatever. Your loss,” she says to me as she leaves the room.
Mia walks in and closes the door behind her. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I wasn’t really into her anyway. Just pisses me off she made today about her.” I go back to my spot on the bed. “How much of that did you hear?” I don’t want her to feel she’s the reason for the break up, and I also hope she didn’t hear that everyone at school is supposedly talking about us either.
“Enough.” There’s a long pause, both of us stuck in our own heads. “If I’m a third wheel, let me know. I don’t want to crash your twosome.”
“Don’t listen to her. You’re around because I want you to be.”
“Good.” And that’s the end of that conversation.
y throat clogs with emotion brought on by that memory, feeling raw all over again.
The pain hasn’t dulled, but my breathing has leveled off a little. With one more inhale and exhale, I try to stand up, but when I comprehend what’s really wrong, I go into a panic.
My legs are motionless. Despite my best efforts, I can’t move them at all. Now that I’m focused, they’re the only part of my body that doesn’t hurt. I was so consumed by the pain in my back, I didn’t even notice my fucking legs not working.
“Oh, fuck. Shit!”
Panic is clawing its way up my throat, restricting my breathing. Closing my eyes, I have to fight hard not to succumb to it, to keep my cool and get out of this. My breaths are short and shallow, and it feels like I’m suffocating. I reach into my pocket for my radio, thanking God I didn’t lose it on my way down like the rest of my gear.
“This is Collins. Does anyone copy?” Even I can hear the anxiety in my voice. “Hello? Can anyone hear me? This is Blake Collins. I need immediate help. I can’t move my legs. Is anyone there?”
The only thing coming from the other line is static.
“Goddammit!” I shout. My last option is to pull my emergency beacon and hope they can get someone out here to help me soon.
As the crackling of the fire plays in the distance above me, the severity of the situation is setting in.