Smog scratched at my lungs. It was clear now, all those indescribable feelings answered in a single moment–dusk bringing a close to the day, the ambulance doors shutting after the gurney, separation incarnate.
The afternoon began the same as any other. I was on my bed doing math. I had one ear bud in, flooding my brain with just enough music to keep me going. My door slid open and my dad walked slowly in. He called me Squirt, that dreaded nickname. He embraced me with an awkward, lingering hug. Awkward because of the way I was sprawled on my bed, lingering because he was about to leave for work. Still, I didn’t understand, he went to work everyday and he always came home. What was he worried about? He waved goodbye as he left, and I nodded in agreement. An inner twang told me I shouldn’t be so dry, but I drowned it out by turning up my music.
* * * *
I saw the smoke. My heart was still vibrating when I caught a whiff of those choking fumes. I followed the path of speeding cars and the sound of panicking sirens. I heard a bullhorn warding off pedestrians getting too close. Recognizing every fire fighter on site, I stepped closer to the yellow tape.
I could feel the tension tugging, hanging from every word spoken. I thought I was hearing hearts breaking, until I realized that the sound was real. The second story balcony was cracking. Every head turned toward it. The fire fighters took a step backwards. The final sliver of wood snapped and the whole thing came crashing down. Almost immediately the shattered remains burst into flames.
Thick smoke mixed with the whirlwind of dust and we heard a scream. A trio of fighters stood in front of the fading cry. The one in the middle stepped forward, submerging all but his right leg. The fighter to his left stared intently at his remaining limb. The fighter to his right tried to find away around the smoke to help. Billowing death took on the shape of its conqueror and slowly consumed him. No move was made. No sound was heard.
All in a second the scene was ablaze with action. Everyone began speaking at once, throwing their suggestions into stained air, hoping it might find its way to the right person. The other fighters dove into the smoke, yelling directions, yelling for help. By the time gurneys were wheeled over, the smoke was clearing. Two dusty bodies were placed on separate stretchers. One was the middle fighter, the one who dared to move. He was the fighter everyone knew, the one who listened to oldies so loud the neighbors danced along, the one who couldn’t tell a joke to save his life, the one who knew where he was going. The paramedics wheeled him to the ambulance and I felt as if my heart was wheeled with him. I was hollow.
* * * *
When everyone else had long since gone home to their families, my house was empty, a barren reminder at what should have been. My only company in front of the charred remains was a strip of yellow tape, a tiny beacon condemning what it trapped inside. My heart was on the other side of that line standing in the image of a shadowy ambulance lingering in my mind.
I heard an engine come to a halt behind me but I didn’t take my stinging eyes from the site. I needed to hear him call me “Squirt” one more time. I’d let everyone call me “Squirt” for the rest of my life for one more of his lingering hugs.
When footsteps came closer, a hand rested on my shoulder. I turned to see my uncle, a beaming smile casting a glow to break the dreary scene around him. My eyes dilated, as if more light would help me hear or understand. I ran to the car and quickly shut the door behind me.
* * * *
I came upon his beeping bedside to the open arms of his worn, smiling face. I hugged him, a lingering hug that I wished would hang on forever. We soaked each other’s shoulders and still I held on. I never wanted to let go. I wanted to hug my dad forever.