The fireman is on his hands and knees, crawling.
Crawling up a mountain it seems.
Every movement hurts.
He fears he will never make it.
The fire rages over his head.
The hair on the back of his neck is being singed.
He can smell it burning.
There is smoke.
There is no air.
He has precious little time to live.
But the baby has less.
He puts his face on the floor, seeking the last bit of air to breathe.
There is none.
Somehow, he makes it through one room and enters another.
The floor tilts more forward with every inch he advances.
Like when you approach the center point on a teeter-totter.
He pushes his face inside his fire coat.
He manages to take in a half breath.
He holds it.
In the distance, he sees the crib.
Higher up the mountain.
Unless he reaches the crib now, the floor will tilt too far forward.
He will plummet past the crib into Hell on earth.
Still he presses on.
He is getting closer to the crib.
He knows there is a baby inside.
He struggles mightily against the tilting floor.
Large burning pieces of the ceiling are falling on his body.
His ears are burning.
He can feel the flesh melt.
There is fire all around him.
Everything is burning.
Suddenly, he passes the tipping point.
He hurtles forward.
He is falling face first into the flames.
Just as suddenly, the crib blocks his fall.
He knows he has momentarily cheated death.
His body starts cooking.
He reaches inside the crib and picks up the baby.
No time to lose.
Only seconds left.
Get out quickly.
He places his lips on the baby’s face.
He forces a breath into the baby’s mouth and nose.
Through the hot, swirling death, he sees the rear doorway.
He knows it leads to the stairway, to safety.
Covering the baby in his arms, he dives for the door.
He lands three feet short.
A large portion of the ceiling falls.
It covers him in flame.
He covers the baby.
Somehow, he stumbles forward through the doorway.
He finds the stairs.
He misses the first step.
Headfirst he falls.
He holds the baby closer.
Instinctively, he rolls over onto his back.
He hits a wall at a turn in the stairway.
The pain is excruciating.
He cannot get up.
But he thinks only of the baby.
And sees its little face.
It looks like a rubber doll.
He forces another breath in to its tiny lungs.
He stumbles to his feet and immediately loses his balance.
He slams against the wall.
He manages to slide along the wall and down the stairs.
Suddenly, she is there.
Through a sea of blazing red and death-knell black.
She looks like and angel, sent to protect him.
He stumbles down another stairway.
Teams of firefighters are surging past him.
They are going where he has been.
He labors to force another breath into the baby.
The angel is still there.
He looks back at the baby.
All at once, the angel’s manner changes.
She is not an angel.
Then her eyes narrow and her mouth becomes taut.
He looks at the baby again.
He knows it is dead.
He knows he has failed.
For the millionth time, he recognizes his fate.
She stares at him with fiery hatred in her eyes.
He gasps again.
"He's dead! I know he's dead! You coward!
Why didn't you save him!?"
November 29 - 7:50 PM
The fire house PA system crackled loudly, "Captain .....
Matt sat bolt upright in his bunk.
" ..... please come to the main floor."
As suddenly as they had besieged him, the little girl and the dream she haunts came crashing down in a blazing heap.
The youthful voice repeated, "Captain Toomey .... please come to the main floor."
Hands flat beside him and pressed into the old mattress for support, Matt paused to catch his breath and get his bearings. He hadn’t wanted to fall asleep. He just wanted to lay down and see if he could relieve some of the back pain he was feeling after what turned out to be a routine fire two hours ago. It would have been a lot worse if not for the young guys, he thought. They did all the bull work.
Mindful that he had been summoned, the middle-aged Fire Captain swung his tired legs over the side of the bunk and sat briefly, fearing that if he stood too fast, his legs would give out from under him. You would think that being startled awake would become old hat after 30-something years of working in the busiest fire houses in Boston, he reasoned. Yet, no matter how many thousands of times it had happened, there remained something uncivilized about being forcibly snatched away from a sound sleep and sent on a mission to God-knows-where.
Finally, satisfied his legs were still part of the rest of his body, Matt pushed his six-foot frame to a standing position with both hands. His mind was bounding forward at top speed: I never had a paunch in front before, what does being startled awake do to a 56-year old heart?, what day is it?, how long was I asleep?
The latter thought required but a quick glance at the clock on the wall opposite his bunk - it was just before eight o’clock - before, finally, “What’s with this infernal dream!” he asked himself out loud.
Closing his eyes to gather his senses, Matt unconsciously fingered the small, gold crucifix hanging around his neck, the one he had worn every day for over forty years. It was an Easter gift from his mother and his wearing it represented the fulfillment of a pledge he made to her. “Promise me you’ll keep it close to you and God will protect you,” she had claimed. Certainly, Matt had survived some difficult times in thirty-three years of fighting fires and at times he wondered about its power. But he never knew, nor did anyone, whether his relative lack of serious injury had anything to do with God’s protection because he wore a piece of man-made jewelry, or whether, like his cynical side believed, it was just coincidence. But one way or the other, Matt just ignored Godly details and accepted whatever life dished out. He believed in reality, not whether God really could affect things on Earth.
Besides, and assuming God did protect him from harm, where was His willingness to protect him in other matters? he thought. Like protecting me from my own stupidity, protecting my children from my failures as a father, protecting little babies so they won’t die in fires, what about them?
There were no answers, of course, for this is where his one-sided, philosophical discussions with God always ended: with him asking why and God remaining silent.