Most people didn’t sign up for the worst day of their lives. In Brendan’s line of work, he was often the centerpiece of the worst day of others’ lives. Entire worlds obliterated in a fountain of smoke and ash. Beloved family members, gone in an instant from a miscalculated decision or help come too late. People didn’t go into those days knowing this. Nor did Brendan go into his with any foresight into what disasters lurked on the horizon. He could wax about the blessings and curses of this obliviousness until his breath ran out, but life didn’t come with an option for foresight. As with any battle, all anyone could do was come prepared. Most days, he could stand confident he was prepared, no matter the outcome. No matter the loss.
Today was not this day.
It wasn’t his district. Hell, it wasn’t even a parallel district, which his station would respond to calls for in the hotter, drier months like the one they were in now.
He was familiar with Busch Greenway, of course, but as a lover of nature and a good weekend hike. He was on call outside his shift—by his own choice—so he rarely left the city entirely on his off days, and the Greenway offered one of the best paths within the city. Over five miles of wooded greenspace and he could forget he was in even in St. Louis for a few hours.
It was rare his station ever ventured this far out of district, and that was why they opened this call to volunteers. Station 69 couldn’t afford to leave their own fire district vulnerable, but they also couldn’t turn down their fellow brothers in need. The call to arms was sounded long outside the city, even: Busch Greenway was on fire, and no efforts so far were slowing its progress.
City firefighters were trained for this, but they were not practiced. The techniques in containing a brush fire were vastly different from fighting a blaze in the center of a busy city. Brendan, having grown up in a small Oregon lumber town, learned these skills early as a high school firehouse volunteer. He could still smell that distinct pitch of a forest in flames. Still recalled struggling in the dead of night to draw a containment circle around the fire before it could spread. Mostly, he remembered the camaraderie of brothers in turnout gear rolling in from neighboring counties and states. At no time in his life had he ever felt the call to something bigger than himself more than those late nights and summers in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
And Rose. All these memories included her as well, for better or worse.
High school romances never lasted. Every adult in his life had said so, with dripping self-satisfied confidence, one that didn’t diminish even when he and Rose made it past graduation and packed their bags for the University of Missouri. On trips home, they were greeted with smiles and hugs filled more with surprise than joy that their relationship had survived in the real world.
Brendan wasn’t blind to the challenges. Where he was perfectly content to bury his nose in a book, Rose wanted to fly. She sought thrill after thrill, dragging Brendan along for the ride like a child with a favorite doll. It was she who signed them up as volunteers at the fire department junior year, and then, later, training as professional firefighters. Rose who consistently defied orders, bursting through areas marked unsafe to save a trapped dog or retrieve an irreplaceable photo album. She took every scolding with a faraway look, one Brendan knew reflected her planning her next adventure. He loved her for her huge heart. He feared her potential for self-destruction.
The world needs more people who aren’t afraid of it, Rose said, the day he finally walked out, her irises flared. Fists ready.
And what happens when you get yourself killed trying to be the hero?
We signed up for these risks, Brendan. Sometimes I think you forget that.
We signed up so we could do good. Together. But there’s rules, Rose. We have them for a reason.
If I followed the rules, more people would die.
They aren’t going to let you stay on if you keep getting in trouble. Everything we’ve worked for…
I love you, but I’m tired of you quoting our values as if you speak for us both.
And I’m tired of you acting like you’re the only one whose feelings and values matter. You think everything you say or do is above reproach because you have good intentions?
Good intentions? Her laugh, then, was so disgustingly unlike her that the need to be away, to be far away from her, rose up so strongly with Brendan he was hardly able to let her finish. I’m going to save the world, Brendan.
He suited up, watching in reflective silence as his brothers were all deployed to different scenes across the district. They didn’t understand why he would volunteer for a job that was guaranteed to run him on back-to-back shifts, potentially for days.
How could they? They’d never slept for the fourth day straight on bare earth with the scent of burning forest hanging in the air. They didn’t know what it was like to wake momentarily to the gift of a sandwich from someone’s wife, and the sense of community as entire towns came together to rally around a common cause.
In that, at least, he and Rose had been simpatico.
The first moment, the exact moment, Brendan knew he loved her was after an acres-wide fire in Tillamook Forest. Her bravery back then had been exhilarating, not dangerous. And when the chief finally gave the all-clear, she’d fallen to her knees and thrown her head back to the sky, her helmet falling to the ground and rolling away. Tears cut an uneven path through the days-thick soot staining her pale face. Watching her, he felt both an intruder in a private moment but also as if he had never been closer to another human being in his life. He had held on to that moment through every fight. It kept him persevering even when they had nothing left but the love and lingering effects of habit.
Brendan shrugged off Rose, the way he had always pushed away anything too cumbersome for his mind and heart to manage. Before the memory completely disappeared, he smiled, knowing if she could see him now, she would accuse him of letting go when things got complicated.
She had never understood, not really. In a world continuously deconstructing, Brendan preferred to focus on what he was meant to affect. It was enough for him to lay his hands on the small chunk of world given him and see it left in a better place.
Rose, if left to her inclinations, would tear the whole world apart just to have the thrill of piecing it back together.
“You comin’, Eyes?” Cortez beckoned him from the Station 75 truck.
Eyes. Even the boys from another station knew Brendan’s nickname. Fantastic. It wasn’t his fault he had been born with a natural intensity. Unfortunate that he was known more for his brooding nature than his quickness or grace under pressure, but that was the way of this world, and it was easier to take it in stride.
“We have an updated status?”
Cortez held the door open with an impatient frown. “They have the line around the fire complete. We’ll be relieving the overnight shift.”
Brendan jumped in and the truck rumbled off. “Great. If it’s already contained this should be easy.”
“Should, but we’re hearing there’s been a complication.”
Another firefighter, someone Brendan didn’t know and assumed must be from another company, rolled her eyes and laughed. “If you call the psycho who started the fire standing in the center of it, tossing flamethrowers to thwart our efforts a ‘complication,’ I’d like to know how you define an actual problem.”
Brendan shook his head. “Sorry?”
“Eastwood, who told you that?” Cortez shook his head. “That’s bullshit. It would be all over the news, and the cops would be out there with emergency response.”
Eastwood shrugged and flipped the cup on her thermos. She poured steaming liquid. “I guess Station 71 doesn’t keep their boys informed.”
“Or 75 likes to make shit up because they spend too much time rescuing kittens from storm drains,” he countered.
“One kitten. One time.”
As they continued their bickering, Brendan closed his eyes and tuned out the noise. After all these years on the job, he’d learned to sleep under damn near any circumstance.
They piled out of the truck and descended into mayhem.
Two dozen trucks lined the perimeter, spaced to each hydrant. Someone, a lieutenant, came forward to brief them and give instruction they couldn’t hear over the circling choppers dropping water from the sky.
“Line… containment… jeopardy… woman…” He heard every fifth or sixth word, straining against the cacophony of blurred uniforms and hazy air. The smoke was thick, fresh. In a few days, it would have damp heaviness about it, a lingering reminder of a bygone problem.
Brendan followed the rush of newly arriving trucks, carried toward the source of the flames. When he arrived at the perimeter, he was shocked to see there were no active extinguishing efforts. Everything appeared to be at a standstill.
“What’s happening?” he asked one of the crew.
“There’s a woman there. In the clearing, almost dead center. Can you see?”
Brendan craned his neck, and stretched upward, but there was no use. The gathering, gawking group of firefighters was too thick. “Nothing.”
“We’re stuck until someone can get her the hell out of there.”
“Why can’t we manage around her?”
“If you could see her location, you’d understand. Any efforts would end up injuring her, too. Which, if she started this damn fire, I can’t say I’d be too sad about.”
Brendan sighed, removing his helmet. The heat from the fire and the summer day were, together, oppressive. “Where are the police?”
The man shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, brother. But she’s wearing a suit.”
“She’s Fire and Rescue?”
“That or she stole it. But she’s cut her own containment line around where she’s standing. She knows what she’s doing.”
She knows what she’s doing.
Brendan stretched again, hoping for a view. He couldn’t explain the growing pit in his stomach, and he wasn’t ready to explore the source. “Why the hell is she there? Has she said anything?”
“One of the battalion chiefs was up there trying to talk her down earlier, but she said she won’t talk to anyone but her boyfriend, I guess. Keeps demanding to see him and won’t respond to anything else.” The fireman waved at someone down the line. “Gotta go.”
Brendan swallowed. He needed to get to the front of the line. “Did she give a name so we can track him down?”
The man gave his response over his shoulder. “I don’t know. Brandon, or something?”
His eyes confirmed what his heart already knew.
“Rose,” he croaked, barely above a whisper. Two years since he’d said it out loud, and it felt foreign on his tongue, but also painfully familiar, like returning to a childhood haunt. “Rose!”
He couldn’t look at the gathered crowd or he would lose his nerve. He felt it, though. Felt their eyes boring holes in his suit, felt the unasked questions and ready judgment.
“Rose!” he cried, making this next decision as he said the words. “I’m coming to you, don’t move!”
Hands from all over tried to stop him, to warn him of the danger, but again he was compelled forward. Perhaps he was channeling Rose and her special brand of fearlessness. He knew only that a single direction awaited.
Grabbing a fire shield, he wound a path through the flames, taking advantage of the clearing’s edge and Rose’s own handiwork. When he reached her, he set it aside and regarded her in silence.
“You came. I didn’t think you would,” she said, pulling the helmet off. Black hair tumbled out, falling over her shoulders, reminding him of better times.
“You did this.” It wasn’t a question. The fire in her eyes had ten times the power of what burned around the two of them.
Her hand fell on his forearm. He could barely detect it through his suit, but he could still, even now, imagine the softness of her palm. “Does it remind you of anything?”
“Rose, we have to get you out of here,” he said, reaching down to grab her helmet from the wet grass. “I need you to stay behind m—“
She ripped the helmet from his hand and tossed it away. “Does it, Bren? Remind you of anything?”
Brendan kept his eyes at his feet, at the burning forest nearby. Anywhere but on her gaze. “This isn’t safe, Rose! We’ll talk about whatever you want, I promise, but we need to get out of this area and let them work.”
“This is the only place we’ll be having this talk, because as soon as I leave this circle, I’ll be arrested, and you know, it,” Rose said with a cool confidence. “Answer my question.”
“You know the answer already or we wouldn’t be here,” Brendan snapped. “So, you lit up the park, why? Because you missed the way things were back home? Why did you even stay in St. Louis after we broke up? There was nothing here for you.”
“I missed you,” she answered. She reached for his face, but he recoiled.
Brendan laughed, throwing his arms wide as he backed away. “You never have been able to just step softly to the point, have you? You could have called me. We could have had coffee, or lunch, or pretty much anything other than setting fire to an entire city park!”
“I did call you,” Rose said, not rising to his abrupt shift to anger. “I tried to talk to you, Brendan. I tried all the normal ways girls try to appeal to their boys. I guess I could have sent flowers…”
“This isn’t funny. Or is it, for you? Is this a new way to thrill seek, is that it? You can’t just save the day, you have to be the one to destroy it first?”
“I think we’d both agree destroying things has always been a strength of mine.”
He chanced a look at Rose. Her face spread into a smile, but the gesture didn’t match her calculated words. What he saw behind her eyes cracked his heart. The twitch at the corners of her mouth gutted him.
In a heartbeat, everything changed. “Oh, Rose. Honey…”
She crumbled at the softness, and he caught her. Everything he’d seen in the moments leading to this one had been a carefully constructed façade, meant to match the Rose he’d known and loved all those years, but it was not her, not at all. She had changed in the years apart.
Or had she always been this way and he’d chosen to put her in a box and see her as she wanted to be seen? Had he somehow failed her in this absence of observation?
“I’m scared, Brendan,” she cried against his chest. “I don’t know who I am anymore. I didn’t know how to get your attention…”
“I know,” he whispered against her smoky hair. “I’m here now.”
Brendan held her, considering how their entire dynamic had shifted in the void of their daily love. In the two years apart, Rose had slowly self-destructed, culminating in the tragedy unfolding around them. In his love for her, he had seen her through a lens that didn’t allow him to guess that this had been happening all along. That she was not the renegade she believed herself to be, but a mortal passenger on this earth who desired love and acceptance as much as anyone else.
The real tragedy, Brendan realized, was that, even now, she would rather set the world on fire than admit she was fallible.
“It’s going to be okay, Rose,” he said, more confident this time, understanding and accepting the reversal of roles as he lifted her into his arms and she allowed it, even falling against him in submission.
“Don’t leave me, Brendan. Promise me.”
“I won’t,” he vowed. He looked over her head toward the police awaiting his signal, amidst the sea of eager firefighters. He offered a sad nod in their direction, silent approval. “I promise.”