DIRK reached the room with the baby screaming so loudly he could hear it over the roar outside the door. After pushing open the door, Dirk rushed into the room and slammed the door closed behind him, ignoring the cries. Throwing a fire blanket over the child, he scooped it up and turned to head back through the burning Carlisle, Pennsylvania, row house. He would have loved to be able to go out the kid’s window, but he was on the second floor, and no one could reach this portion of the house from the outside. The buildings were too close together. Why anyone would put a baby in a room with only one window that looked out over a brick wall was beyond him, but Dirk didn’t have time to think about it. He yanked open the door. The flames that had just begun to lick up the hallway on his way up were nearly at the door, and the heat was incredible even inside his fire gear. He had to go down the stairs and out the front door; it was his only choice.
The sound of the fire told Dirk he probably had just enough time to get out, so he moved, the sound of his own breathing echoing in his head. The kid’s screams died away, and Dirk hoped it was from exhaustion, but he didn’t have time to find out. Everything in his brain screamed for him to get out of this death trap of a house and get out now. Sweat soaked Dirk’s clothes and ran down his face as he reached the top of the steps. The walls all the way down were burning steadily, and the roar had increased exponentially. He could barely hear himself think as he picked his way down the stairs, his brain already telling him where he had to go at the bottom. He felt one of the steps give way under him. He managed not to fall and somehow reached the main floor. Dirk took one step and heard a crash as somewhere part of the house collapsed, and the sound of the fire went from revving jet engine to full-on sonic boom in a second.
All around him, he could see nothing but flame and black rolling smoke. He knew he had only one chance. Remembering the living room from his way in, Dirk dashed across it, dodging incinerated furniture, and he almost made it before part of the floor collapsed under him. He could see water spraying through the open front door. He could also hear the hiss of water as it trickled down through the roof, but this fire was so hot there wasn’t much that would help in the next few seconds. More collapses sounded behind him, wood splitting, beams cracking, the house shifting and groaning, and the fire ramped up to blast furnace. The entire building was coming down around him. He knew it, and he had mere seconds. Taking another step, he was almost at the door when the floor moved under him. He leaped forward and almost made it, but then began to fall forward. He twisted so he wouldn’t crush the baby and thrust the kid toward the doorway. It disappeared from his hands, and the last thing he knew, he was falling into a fiery abyss.
DIRK figured he was dead. He spent days wandering through mist and smoke, trying to find God, but all he ever found were more and more swirls of gray and black. Maybe he was in hell. It wouldn’t really surprise him because that’s what he figured he deserved, anyway, at least if his father was right. Finally everything went dark, and Dirk figured this was it. Opening his eyes, he blinked through what felt like gravel and saw a tile ceiling. It took a few seconds for him to realize he was in a bed. Then the pain hit. His chest felt like the fucking fire was still burning in his lungs, his arm hurt like hell, and his legs throbbed. He tried to move a foot, and while it hurt, it at least moved, and so did the other one. Dirk did the same thing with a finger and breathed a sigh of relief that he was whole.
It wasn’t until he tried to breathe in again that the real pain hit him, and Dirk closed his eyes to keep from crying as his lungs protested.
“You’re awake,” a perky female voice said.
“Fuck… yes… water.” He needed some way to put out the fire inside him. Every breath felt like death. Dirk was aware of her moving through the room, and then something cold slid along his lips. Dirk started and gasped, which sent lightning through his chest, and he nearly bit the nurse. She squeaked and raced from the room. The ice melted, and the cold felt good in his mouth and on his throat, and Dirk relaxed, closing his eyes once again.
He must have slept, at least he thought he did, but it was hard to tell because when he opened his eyes again, he was still alone in the room and nothing seemed to have changed except there was a fresh cup of ice by his bed. It still hurt to move, but Dirk found a call button near his hand and pressed it. The same nurse from earlier came in and glowered at him. “Water,” Dirk gasped.
“As long as you don’t bite me again,” she said and carefully placed some ice chips in his mouth. He did feel slightly better, but his arm and lungs still hurt like hell. “The doctor should be in soon,” she explained as she took his temperature and blood pressure before turning to a portable computer.
“Chest hurts,” he said carefully.
“You scalded parts of your lungs,” she explained and kept typing. Dirk had already figured that out. She continued talking as she worked, and Dirk tuned out her blather, the pain taking most of his concentration. Once she left, he closed his eyes again.
AFTER a day, he began to feel better. He could breathe more easily even though he was still on oxygen. Once, when he’d woken, he’d found a card from his father, and one from his captain at the station, but other than that, he saw no signs of any visitors. He figured they were waiting until he got better.
He was wrong. The only person he saw other than the nurses and doctors was his father, and his visits were never pleasant.
“So after this, are you going to give up this fireman thing and get a real job? You have a degree. I could get you a job on my team at the brokerage,” his father told him in his usual “I know best” voice. “I’ll start the paperwork for when you get out of here.”
“I don’t—” Dirk began, but he started to cough, and it got worse and worse. A nurse hurried in and gave him something to calm the spasms, and he collapsed back into the bed, his injured arm aching and his chest hurting like hell. “Can’t we just sit and talk?” Dirk asked, and his father looked at him like he’d asked for the moon.
“I have to be back in the office in half an hour,” his father told him, and Dirk nodded.
Then his father left the room, and Dirk hadn’t had a visitor since. That had been two days ago, three days since he’d awakened, and almost a week since the fire.
As the days went by, he fumed at everyone who walked into his room. He heard the nurses talking about him once in the hallway, but he really didn’t care. He spent most of his days watching television—he couldn’t get out of bed except to go to the bathroom, and it hurt to fucking breathe. This was definitely no picnic! After swearing away yet another nurse, he found himself with Brunhilda, the sadistic nurse from hell, and that did nothing for his mood or his sense of misery. The woman seemed to live to poke him with needles, and a sponge bath from her could make prisoners spill their guts in two minutes flat. “You should work for the CIA,” he told her as she scraped yet more skin off him, but she just grunted and paid no attention to him at all.
After that torture ended, Dirk lay watching television, feeling sorry for himself. His lungs still hurt, but only when he took a deep breath. The doctor had told him that they were hopeful he’d return to normal and that his lungs were aching because they were healing. “Just give it time,” he’d said before leaving.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dirk saw movement in his doorway and steeled himself for another visit from Brunhilda. Instead, he saw what looked like a brick wall casting a shadow carrying flowers in a plastic fire helmet. “You Dirk Krause?” the man asked and slowly stepped into the room, like he was nervous, setting the planter on the tray.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Dirk answered. “Who the hell are you?” The kid might have been huge, but he had a definite baby face, and he looked young as shit.
“Lee Stockton. I’m the new man on third shift, and the guys asked me to bring you the flowers,” the kid said pleasantly, and Dirk watched him shuffle from foot to foot trying to figure out what to say next. “The other guys have been really busy.”
“I’ll bet.” Dirk shifted on the bed, looking at the huge kid. “You draw the short straw or something?” Dirk had no time or use for a pity plant in a cheap bit of plastic that the guys probably had the kid pick up on his way over. “’Cause you’re the first damned guy from the company to visit. So you’ve done your job, and you can go now.” Dirk turned away and waited to hear the kid walk out of the room.
“You really are the biggest asshole on the planet,” the kid said, his voice deeper, and when Dirk turned to look at him, the kid’s eyes blazed. “I didn’t believe them when they told me what a dickhead you could be. But, boy, they weren’t kidding. Two minutes, and you were already acting like an ass. That must be some kind of record. No wonder none of the other guys wanted to come up here.” The kid moved to the side of the bed, and Dirk got a good look at him. The kid’s shirt barely held in his muscles, and when he moved his arm, it looked like the damned shirt was going to rip anytime.
“Well, fuck ’em all,” Dirk said. He wanted to yell, but when he took the breath, his lungs reminded him of their condition by shooting pain down his chest. If they didn’t want to see him, he didn’t want to see those assholes, either. The kid didn’t say anything. He just stared at Dirk like he was from another planet, and then his gaze heated, and Dirk squirmed a little, actually checking to make sure he was covered up. “What’s wrong with you? You some sort of fag?” His arm was throbbing, and his lungs ached with this talking, and he wasn’t in the mood for any crap. He expected the kid’s look to shift to something approaching pity, and he was having none of that.
It had been his experience that whenever anyone was asked that question, they backed away fast, but the kid took a step closer to the bed with an unreadable look on his face. “You seem to have me mistaken with some sort of fucking doormat. I came down here ’cause no one else would visit your sorry ass, and this is the thanks I get. What are you doing calling people names and shit?” Lee took another step closer and stared straight into his eyes, which made Dirk squirm, especially since the kid was freakin’ huge. “Anyone ever tell you not to poke the bear?” Lee said with a growl. “Because you’re damned close.” Lee continued stepping closer until he practically loomed over him. “Why are you such an asshole, anyway? You know what I think?” Lee leaned over the bed, uncomfortably close for Dirk. “I think you’re one fucking huge closet case. I’ve met plenty of guys like you before. You’re fucking miserable, and you make everyone around you pay for it. Well, I saw the way you looked at me, like I was dinner and you wanted to eat me whole. And don’t think for a second you’re ever going to get that chance, because I may fuck ass, but I don’t fuck closet-case assholes like you.”
“What the fuck, man?” Dirk managed to say as he pushed Lee away with his good hand.
“Hey, I see right through you. There’s no hiding. I know a closet case a mile away, and I knew you were gay after being in the room for two seconds. You took one look at me, and I saw the way your eyes bulged and your mouth watered.”
“Little full of yourself, aren’t you?” Dirk pushed harder on Lee’s chest, and damn if he didn’t run up against a mountain of pure American muscle. “Now get the hell away from me. You don’t know shit about shit.” Dirk was more than a little uncomfortable, and Lee’s words were hitting way too close to home.
“I don’t, huh. You got yourself half a hard-on just thinking about me, and those sheets are thin enough that you really can’t hide nothing. So you can cut the bullshit and stop being such an asshole. Now, I brought you your fucking flowers and did what I said I was going to do. You’ll probably be in here for a while yet and at home for even longer, so I suggest you use that time to think about why you’re here all alone and nobody wants to visit your sorry ass.” Lee stepped back and looked toward the door. When he looked back, there was something in Lee’s eyes that Dirk couldn’t read at all. “See you around, closet case.”
“I am not!” Dirk countered, and he really paid for that one as his lungs protested.
Lee turned back to him, and Dirk thought he was going to leave, but he waited for Dirk’s coughing to subside, and then he moved close to the bed again. Dirk thought Lee was going to berate him again, but instead he leaned over the bed and planted a kiss on Dirk’s lips. This was no soft girly kiss, but one hard and strong, with Lee taking possession of Dirk’s mouth as though they’d been kissing forever. Fuck his lungs, the pain in his arms, and everything else. Dirk felt himself go instantly and painfully hard right then and there as his entire body reacted to Lee’s touch. Lee moved his tongue to duel with Dirk’s, and Dirk lost as Lee took what he wanted in almost every way. Damn, he felt good, and Dirk’s body knew what it wanted and overrode his mind. Suddenly and without warning, Lee pulled back and stepped away from the bed. “Bullshit,” Lee said and strode out of the room without looking back at all.