This, thought Pete Moore, was what most people presumed being a firefighter consisted of, day in, day out. The high-octane thrill of hurtling toward a disaster to save lives, breathing apparatus and high-vis jacket at the ready, adrenaline thundering through one’s veins, heart quickening more with every turn of the fire engine’s wheels. They were wrong. But it was what they were trained for in case it was, day in, day out. Tonight, it was the full fantasy adventure shebang: ambulances, paramedics, police deployed, both fire engines from their station plus two from the next nearest, sirens, blue lights. It was a bad one, Andy, the foreman, warned them as the information fed through to the onboard computer. A ten-vehicle pileup on a notorious accident-prone stretch of a divided highway south of town. It was dark, it was February, black ice, sleet, cold, roadwork: all the ingredients present for a perfect recipe crash. Someone who set off for work that morning with a cheery “See you later” would not be going home ever again. Pete used to chew on the emotional details of bad incidents, but somewhere along the line, he stopped. He didn’t set out to mentally detach himself, it just happened. He did his job to the best of his ability and he was good at it: strong, fearless, insightful, tenacious; but he left it at the door with his boots.
He shouldn’t have even been there that night. He was covering a couple of hours for Rav, whose dad had had a fall. He should have been at home, shoes kicked off, fire on, dinner in the oven—whoever was first in made the evening meal was the unwritten rule, although he was a much better cook than his wife was, so he tended to do more than his fair share of that particular duty. He should have been looking out of the window at the sleet, grateful to be dry and indoors and intrigued about what the night would hold for him as he twisted the top off a bottle of red and poured out two glasses to let them breathe.
Looking back, he wasn’t sure what would have been worse: waiting in the cozy warmth of the kitchen, getting slightly annoyed that the top of his shepherd’s pie was over-brown, the peaks blackening, wondering where Tara was after she’d rung and asked him to go straight home after his shift because she had something she wanted to tell him; looking at the clock, getting anxious. Or being there in the thick of it all: the smoke, the bitter, hard rain turning into snow, the lights, the noise, the chaos. Being part of the scene, seeing it all firsthand. Registering the red car in the middle of all that crushed, mangled dark metal, like the one colored frame in an otherwise black-and-white movie. Krish Khatri madly wrenching glass away, Sal crunching determinedly with the cutters, the paramedic pushing in through the driver’s-side window at a weird, uncomfortable angle in order to get to the driver.
Pete remembered screaming, “Jesus Christ, it’s Tara.” He remembered big Andy Burlap’s arms closing around him. He remembered holding his wife’s tiny, beloved hand, chill to the touch, desperately trying to rub warmth into it, a warmth it could not sustain because Tara, who had set off for work that morning with a cheery “See you later,” would not be going home ever again.