The town of Searing boasted a population of around thirty thousand people and sat on the Florida coast. Its south side was all sand, boardwalk, and ocean, dotted with colorful homes, restaurants, and storefronts. Palm trees speckled the coastline, and it grew steadily greener the farther away from the ocean you got. Canals cut between neighborhoods and snaked behind public parks and schools.
Retirees wandered through boutiques downtown, ducking in and out of the old brick buildings and stopping for iced tea at Searing’s Cup. Children rode bikes down sidewalks as their parents walked hand in hand about a block behind them. Cul-de-sacs hosted block parties with lemonade stands and firecrackers—much to the irritation of the Sheriff’s department—and every weekend delighted passersby had the privilege of watching a wedding or party of some kind on the beach as the sun went down.
Searing was a small-town American paradise, the kind of place people never left, and when they did, it had a funny way of sucking them back in.
At least, that’s what had happened to me.
It was early Friday morning in the middle of September. I pulled up in front of the fire station and parked my black Ford pickup in my designated space. I hopped out and didn’t bother locking the doors. I slid my keys into the pocket of my jeans as I walked up the long drive from the street to the front doors.
The firehouse was bright red with white-trimmed windows and an aluminum roof. A dense greenbelt stretched on for miles behind the firehouse, which was located on Searing Avenue. Five minutes to the East took you into town down Searing Avenue, and five minutes West brought you to the residential areas and Searing Heights: the wealthier district of the small community with mansions and high-class restaurants.
The garage doors were open when I approached, and the two fire trucks were wet and glistening in the morning sun. The guys from the last crew must have spent the better part of the morning giving the girls, Bertha and Gertrude, also known as Berty and Gerty, a good scrub down.
I ducked into the shade of the garage and peered around, looking for anyone who might be on shift.
Derek Janson, my closest friend at the station, had a clipboard and was walking around the back corner of Gerty, doing his checklist. He was wearing our uniform of a form-fitting black T-shirt that showed the sleeves of tattoos he had on both arms and black cargo pants. Like me, and like every guy on the crew, his shirt was tucked in, and he had his black boots and belt on. Derek dropped to a crouch to peer under the truck as I approached and narrowed his eyes.
“How’s old Gerty looking today? Did those night shift guys leave her in good shape for us?”
Derek got to his feet and glanced at me over the top of the clipboard as he checked a couple more boxes on the list. He was the sort of man who, had he not been a firefighter, would have a thick brown beard and a sloppy haircut. But facial hair was a no go in order to seal our oxygen masks, and long hair was also a hazard, so he had it cut short like me. It contrasted with the tattoos and the old Yamaha he rode to and from the station every day.
“She’s good to go. So is Berty. And those boys cleaned ‘em up nice and good for us.”
“Bless their hearts.” I chuckled.
Derek crossed the garage, signed off on his routine checks, and hung the clipboard up for the next inspection.
I looked over my shoulder as I heard footsteps approach from behind. Two other guys from our crew, Mav Cantone and Trace Gambit, strode up beside me.
“Morning,” Mav said as his blue eyes flicked over the truck. “Inspection’s already done?”
“I saw to it,” Derek said.
Mav performed a quick visual inspection of his own. Of all of us, he was the most analytical and the most likely to spot an inconsistency before it became a problem. When he seemed satisfied that Derek had done a good enough job, he nodded and asked, “You guys have a good weekend?”
Derek scowled at Mav and shot me a look as I watched with amusement. I pushed myself off the truck. “It was decent enough. You?”
Mav shrugged. His dark blue eyes were still dancing over the truck, looking for anything that might be out of place. Derek was bristling. “Good,” Mav said. “Took Jessica to that fair down at Searing Park. Ate too much cotton candy and regretted it later.”
Derek rolled his eyes. “God forbid you indulge in a bit too much sugar. That’ll slow your ass down all week now.”
Mav smiled faintly. “I thought so too.”
I glanced over at Trace. “What about you, man?”
Trace scratched the back of his neck. “Ma set me up on another date.”
Derek, Mav, and I all exchanged a look. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. “And?”
Trace groaned. “And what? You know what my Ma is like. She wants me to settle down, and she’s getting desperate. The girls have been… not my type lately.”
Derek snorted. “Not into tits and ass, Trace?”
Trace blinked. “That’s not what I meant. I just—”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Derek sniggered.
Trace tried to defend himself, but I held up my hand. “He’s messing with you,” I said.
Trace’s shoulders slumped a little. He was the punching bag of the crew, the one we threw a lot of shit at because he could handle it. He was also a little sensitive, so we were actively trying to help him build a thicker skin. But his mother was his soft spot.
“She just doesn’t seem to get it,” Trace grumbled. “I don’t have time to date. I’m not interested. But I don’t want to hurt her feelings. And I’m not dumb. I know she has ulterior motives.”
“Your ma?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.
Trace nodded. “Yeah. She wants me to stop fighting fires. She figures I’ll listen to the woman I’m, you know, sleeping with.”
Derek chuckled and clapped Trace on the shoulder. “It’s in your blood, kid. Like us. You ain’t walking away from this gig.”
“Try telling my Ma that.” Trace sighed.
I couldn’t blame his mother for trying to get her son to quit. Trace’s father had died in a fire when he was only twelve, and it had taken a toll on his childhood for obvious reasons. His mother was terrified of fire from the experience. His father had gotten his family out of the apartment and gone back for his neighbors. He hadn’t made it back out. Trace carried that with him everywhere he went, and it was the reason he’d joined up with us. He wanted to make a difference. It was noble to have a cause like him, but it was destroying his mother one day at a time. And he knew it.
“Hey, Trace,” Derek said, eyes glittering with mirth. “I bet I know a girl who’d like to go on a date with you.”
“Piss off,” Trace said. But he was smiling too.
The last two guys in our crew showed up as we were teasing Trace. Allen Yellich, possibly the most intimidating out of all of us, strode in with his hands in his pockets. His green eyes flicked around at all of us as the corner of his mouth curled up in a smile. “You ladies picking on Trace?”
“Your ma giving you a hard time again?”
Trace nodded again.
Maddox, the youngest and newest member on our crew, jogged up beside Allen. He was only twenty-one and still had a lot to learn. He still had that naive, youthful sparkle in his brown eyes, which would start to fade away over the next couple years as he fought fires to save people who were already lost. Time stole that innocence from all of us eventually.
“What are you guys talking about?” Maddox asked, smiling around at all of us.
Derek hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Your mom. Now hop to it, rookie. Inspection needs to be done on both trucks.”
“Oh, yes sir,” Maddox said, and he jogged across the garage and plucked the clipboard off its hook.
Derek slipped his hands in his pockets and beamed proudly around at all of us.
I laughed. “You’re an ass.”
Derek shrugged. “He’s gotta learn somehow. All he has to do is look at the last signature and time and he’d save himself a hell of a lot of effort.”
I couldn’t argue with that. This job demanded an eye for detail, and Maddox had a lot of opportunities to improve.
Right when I was about to take pity on the rookie and call over to him to check the last inspection entry, the fire alarm sounded. The mood went from goofy and relaxed to show time. There was a fire, and we were the only men in Searing equipped to fight it.
Chief Rinehart hadn’t given us the order to go into the burning house. It was a two-story colonial that would have been white and crisp an hour ago. Now it was crumbling as flames licked out the windows and crept upward over the roof, which had started to burn when we pulled up.
The house was beyond saving. All there was to do was get the fire out.
Derek was at my side. We were both Search and Rescue and were the ones who would go inside the house if a rescue was in order. There were hoses going on either side of us, the one to our right manned by Allen and Maddox, and the one to our left by Trace and Mav. At this point, it looked like the water was doing no good.
The flames were still roaring.
The heat radiating from the flames was insane. A crowd had gathered, and Rinehart had bellowed at them to stay back. His intimidating presence and deep voice had startled people and sent them scurrying backward across the street.
Pedestrians and fires never mixed, but the flames always drew a crowd no matter what, giving us something else to worry about besides just the fire.
I hear Rinehart yell at us to hold our lines.
At the same time, I heard another sound. A faint cry. Someone pleading for help from inside the burning home. A woman.
I turned my head slightly so Derek could hear me as I yelled, “There’s someone inside!” My voice was muffled in my mask, but he could hear me clearly enough.
“Wait for Rinehart to give the order!”
I gritted my teeth. She wouldn’t have time to wait. This place was going to come crashing down all around her if someone didn’t go in there and get her out.
“Hayden,” Derek warned me. “Wait.”
“I’m going in!”
I rushed forward, breaking through the crumbling doorway of the house and pushing through what used to be a beautiful foyer. Glass crunched under my boots. The chandelier that hung above the stairs had fallen and shattered at some point when that part of the roof gave in.
I didn’t have to look behind me to know Derek had followed me in.
I pointed up the stairs. Derek nodded. We climbed, and the heat swelled around us until the air felt thick with it. It was like we were moving through a resistant liquid. It pushed at my body with every step I took. The heat on the second floor was worse, but we pushed forward, checking every room and calling out for the woman.
She never called back, and we didn’t find her corpse or unconscious body upstairs.
We retreated to the first level. One of the stairs collapsed under Derek’s foot, and I had to haul him up. With his oxygen tanks and gear, he weighed a ton.
We searched the bottom level. Sweat dripped from my brow into my eyes. My breath was ragged. Smoke had penetrated my lungs. We’d been inside too long.
When we found the bottom level empty, we pulled out.
I pushed Derek out the front door ahead of me. We emerged through a billowing wall of thick black smoke and broke free into the front yard as the roof of the house splintered and caved in in the middle.
I turned around, peering up at it as the second story crumbled down upon the first, reducing the place to rubble and flames.
I breathed deeply into the oxygen mask I held over my face as Derek and I sat on the back of Gerty. We’d both inhaled enough smoke to make our lungs ache and had been ordered to sit while the rest of the crew doused the flames.
When the job was done, Trace came around the corner of the truck and crossed his arms. His mask and hood were already off, but the rest of his gear was on. His face was covered in glistening beads of sweat. “Did you think someone was inside or something? That shit was crazy.”
I nodded and pulled the mask away from my mouth. “I thought I heard a woman calling for help.”
Derek didn’t say anything, but he shifted beside me to bring his knee up and rest his heel on the edge of the truck. He draped his arm over his knee as he held the mask to his face.
Trace undid his suit and tied the top half around his waist. “Rinehart isn’t happy, man. He wants you in his office when we get back to the station. But, for the record, you did what you thought was right.”
I nodded and put the mask back on. I was too easily out of breath after all the smoke inhalation.
Derek lowered his mask and gave me the sort of look a teenage boy might give his friend who had just been called to the principal’s office. “Somebody’s in trouble.”