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Holding His Forever(2)
Author: Alexa Riley

“I miss you, Mom,” I whisper into the pillow before sleep takes me.

2

Phoenix

I sit on the edge of the cot and plant my feet on the floor. I’m sleeping in the firehouse tonight, even though it’s not my turn. The department shrink would have something to say about this, but it’s the only way I can move on. To move forward. To work until I’m exhausted enough that my dreams don’t turn into nightmares and I wake up screaming.

The gold plate above my head reads, Phoenix 1st LT, Engine 20; Ladder 70 FDNY, and I reach up, tapping it for good luck. Most firefighters are superstitious, and even if I don’t believe all the things that go along with it, I respect the hell out of tradition.

I stand up and walk past the rows of cots towards the chow room. Our firehouse is big, and I’m the first lieutenant here. I supervise the daily operations, training, and lead the emergency response of our engine company. Graham, our second LT, does swing shifts with me so that we’re not both constantly on call. But I’ve been here for the past four months, regardless of whether it’s been my turn on or not.

There are ten guys sleeping in the house tonight, all trying to catch some shut-eye while Brick snores the roof off the place. Most of us have gotten used to him though. After almost ten years working here, there’s not much I can’t sleep through. Except the dreams.

“You’re up late, Phoenix,” Graham says, not looking up from his crossword puzzle.

My last name is Phoenix, and everyone calls me that. My first name is Derek, but I don’t think anyone’s called me by that name since my mom died from ovarian cancer almost five years ago. My dad, who is staying busy since she passed, usually calls me “my boy” or “sunshine.” He loves to tell everyone I had bleached blond hair as a kid and smiled all the time.

“I like to think of it as up early,” I say, reaching for a coffee mug. “You know me, glass-is-half-full kind of guy.”

He lets out a huff at my lame joke, knowing it’s the furthest thing from the truth. I pour myself some sludge from the machine. It’s probably been there for days, but I pretend it looks good.

“You know,” Graham says, but I interrupt him.

“Yes. I know I don’t have to be here. I know that I should get some sleep. I know that I should probably go back home and take some time off. And I know that I should probably be telling all of this to our shrink.” I tick off on my fingers all the things Graham is going to tell me. “Did I miss anything?”

He finally looks up at me and rolls his eyes. “You know, you can always make more coffee,” he says exasperatedly, but clearly I hit the target.

“And I could make more coffee.” I lift my mug up in cheers, and he leans back in his chair, eyeing me.

“You’re first ranking lieutenant, so I can’t tell you what to do. You’ve already talked to the captain and everyone else you’re supposed to.” He sighs, and a look of concern crosses his face. “You’re not healing, Phoenix. We all lost men that day. Marcus and Vance were our brothers, and we should mourn them, but at some point life goes on.”

I just take a sip of the coffee that tastes more like tar, not acknowledging anything he just said. How can I? Marcus and Vance were two of my closest friends. We’d gone through school together, and we became firefighters at the same time. I was promoted to lieutenant of the station, and they were both so happy for me, even though we all came in at the same time. I’d had better marks on the physical tests, so I was given the position. Four months ago, we’d gotten a routine call in the middle of the night. There was a kitchen fire in a three-story walk-up, so we jumped to. When we got to the scene, everything seemed to go as normal. We made our way into the building, all by the book. We got up to the third floor and secured the area. We made sure everyone got out, but just as we were making our way back down, Marcus said he heard something. He was in the rear with Vance, and I heard him over my headset. I’d told him we had the headcount confirmed from the truck outside, but he insisted on going back. I turned in time to watch as he kicked in a door with Vance standing at his side. Suddenly, a small child ran out, and I pulled him into my arms just as the ceiling fell in.

When I woke up in the hospital the first thing, I asked was about my men and the little boy. I was on the landing below and had fallen in such a way that the boy was under me, so neither of us got the impact my two men did. I didn’t lose my life, but Marcus and Vance weren’t so lucky. I walked away with just a few bumps and bruises, and the little boy was safe, but we had to deliver the news to their families, tell them that they’d given their lives to save someone.

My dad was a firefighter, and I hero-worshiped him for as long as I could remember. I walked around in his turnout gear as soon as I could take my first step. He tried to tell me that this job would take a piece of me, but I never understood what he had meant. Not until I woke up in that hospital bed, knowing I’d led my men into that situation. Knowing that there was so much I could have done to stop them, but then maybe there wasn’t. They saved a life that day, but it cost them theirs, and it just wasn’t something I was coping with. At least that’s what the shrink tells me.

Before I can say anything back to Graham, the alarm sounds.

3

Phoenix

“You’re benching me?” I shout as Captain Thomas walks away from me.

I’ve got my feet in my boots and look around as all the guys around me move in a blur of red and yellow. I jump out of my turnout gear, knowing that I won’t be able to catch up with them now. If you can’t do it in under forty seconds, your ass is off the truck.

   
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