The air that night was heavy with wood smoke and rotting leaves. The weight of it stuck in his throat, making it harder to steady his breathing, to forget about the letter in his pocket and the latest failure he was about to admit to his mother.
He hadn’t even wanted to be a police officer. Not really. He’d just wanted something to hold onto, something he could tell people in line at the grocery store, some indication that, no, he was not just another local loser: a pockmarked thirty-year-old without any career prospects living in his mother’s basement because his girlfriend — ex-girlfriend — didn’t want to see his face around their place anymore.
Patrick was an out-of-work community college graduate and recent police academy reject. Jessica was an emergency room nurse with large eyes and long legs whose father owned the busiest restaurant in town. Their breakup was inevitable, obvious to everyone except Patrick. He had been blindsided by the boxes he found stacked like Tetris blocks in the corner of their apartment, by her diatribe about his lack of drive, his relationship with his mother, his chronically bad kissing.
He’d been a little less surprised by the fat, red “F” Sergeant Tupolski had scrawled across the top of the first—and last—written exam he’d taken as a police academy trainee. He knew that he was too neurotic to perform well under pressure, that he’d probably be no good at saving lives for a living. Still, the failure stung.
The sky had darkened since he’d begun walking back from the Spoonerville Police Academy, revealing a bright spot further up the road, near one of his neighbors’ homes. Squinting, Patrick saw a flickering orange light flaring up around the roofline of the Blackstone place. The Blackstones must have lit a bonfire in their backyard. He imagined Mrs. Blackstone and her daughter carrying coleslaw and potato salad out to their back patio, Mr. Blackstone spearing hot dogs onto the ends of those metal skewers other families used instead of sticks.
Patrick never ate hot dogs around Jessica, who had banned all processed meats and packaged breads from their apartment. Their old apartment. He could eat as many hot dogs as he wanted now, but there was something sad about an adult man microwaving Oscar Mayer products in his mother’s basement.
Patrick didn’t notice that Manny Manchego—a sweet, stupid kid in his community college graduating class—had emerged from the post office across the street until he had sidled up to him.
“You on your way to the harvest festival?” Patrick asked. Once a year, the town council put on end-of-summer festival. It was always exceptionally well intended, mostly because the man who ran the funnel cake truck would deep-fry anything festival goers brought him. Candy bars, bugs, old textbooks.
“Yup, just got to pack some stuff first.” Against all odds, Manny had convinced the owner of an insurance startup to hire him as a junior analyst—he was moving across town with his girlfriend to cut down his commute time. Patrick was tempted to ask him if his company was still hiring, but he wasn’t ready to admit that he’d been booted out of the police academy for flunking his last exam.
“How’s Amanda?” he asked instead.
“She’s at a scrapbooking meetup in the city right now. So, pretty good, I guess. How’s Jessica?”
“Also good,” Patrick lied. “She’s still, uh, really liking her job at the hospital.”
A gentle breeze swept across the street as he spoke, tugging at Manny’s dark curls and filling Patrick’s lungs, once again, with the scent of wood smoke. He inhaled deeply and struggled to think of a way to change the subject. He guessed he could tell Manny that his mother would be knitting him another scarf for Christmas—she knitted half the town scarves for Christmas—but Jessica’s cutting words about his relationship with his mother, his codependence, his disfunction, she had called it, still hurt. So he allowed an awkward silence to spool out between them.
Eventually Manny told him that he’d better to get back to his place to pack. He raised his right hand to his forehead, evidently under the impression that soon-to-be police officers were supposed to be saluted, and turned and walked off a little more quickly than was really necessary.
When Patrick finally turned onto his mother’s street, the bright spot near the Blackstone place was even brighter, maybe too bright, and plumes of smoke were rising from the roofline. The Blackstones didn’t have a fireplace, did they?
He stood on his tiptoes for a moment, to get a better view of roof. But he couldn’t see much through the trees, planted in uniform intervals along the road, still clinging to their summer leaves. So he started to trot toward the house, hoping that he’d soon see that he’d been wrong again and everything was all right, that the Blackstones had always had a fireplace.
But they didn’t. When he finally caught a clear glimpse of the roofline, he could see that the house was on fire, unquestionably. Smoke was curling python-like around the perimeter of the pre-war home, a glint of whitish orange flame flickering through it.
Cursing softly, Patrick cast his eyes up and down the street, irrationally searching for someone else to swoop in and save the day, for fire trucks or helpful neighbors to leap from out behind a hedge and tell him that they’d take it from there. When he remembered, though, that the harvest festival was in full swing, that he and Manny were probably the only people around for a couple of blocks at least, he realized that no help was coming. Unless he counted as help.
Swallowing hard, he started to run toward the house, faster than before, still cursing under his breath. He willed himself to focus only on the road ahead of him and the sound of his rubber-soled sneakers rebounding against it, to think of nothing but the house and of reaching it, to forget about Jessica and her increasingly unsettling friendship with one of the paramedics she worked with, Dylan.
When he finally reached the house, the fire had gotten even worse—the second story was belching smoke and sputtering flame from every one of its windows. He reached for his phone, but it wasn’t in his right front pocket, where he usually kept it. It wasn’t in any of his pockets, he realized—after patting each of them down, twice—because he’d left it sitting on top of a pile of laundry in his mother’s basement that morning.
The Blackstones lived in one of the nicer houses in the neighborhood, one of the older ones too.
But a house, at the end of the day, was just an artfully arranged pile of brick and wood and plaster. Patrick couldn’t be expected to risk his life to save a stack of photo albums, or even a family cat. No, it’d be better for him to run back down the street, to look for Manny and ask him to call the fire department, the police department, some sort of department of men and women who knew how to handle situations like this. If Manny called them soon they’d be able to reach the house in a matter of minutes, just in time, he hoped, to put the fire out before the second floor collapsed into the first.
Letting someone else save the day was, in its own way, heroic, he decided, bending down to check the laces on his shoes. But when he straightened again, and turned to run back the way he’d come, toward Manny, something caught his attention.
It was a small hand, attached to the equally small body of a girl. The Blackstone girl. She was waving down at him from the roof of the house, as if to tell him that, yes, those flames chewing through the second story of her childhood home were hot enough to burn her and, yes, she would be dead soon unless someone intervened. The flames were climbing higher, getting hotter every second, and the house was beginning to look more like an artist’s rendition of the gates of hell than a family home.
Patrick doubted very much that it would stand another five minutes without collapsing. He’d never been inside the house before. It might take him that long to figure out how to get to the roof and retrieve the girl. And even if he managed to reach her before the second floor collapsed, there was no way he’d be able to get her out in time. What was he supposed to do? Fashion a makeshift rope out of a bunch of bedsheets? Shimmy down a drainpipe with her in his arms?
He couldn’t possibly be expected to save her on his own. No one would blame him for not trying, for not running into a burning building. Not even Jessica.
He wasn’t, for better or worse, a hero. His mother, his instructors at the academy, his girlfriend — ex-girlfriend — had already made that clear, as clear as his understanding that the house would almost certainly collapse upon him or burn him or kill him in some other clever way if he entered it. No one expected him to save the day, and no one would hold him accountable for failing to do so.
“It’s just not possible,” he muttered, shrugging off his shirt and wrapping it around his hands. “I can’t do it,” he said, trotting awkwardly toward the building—his knees moving up and down like pistons propelling him forward against his will—until he was at the front door of the house, pushing it open. And then he was through it, inside.
Lindsey Anderson is a journalist living and working in Milwaukee. Her fiction has been published in several literary journals and magazines (most recently Vine Leaves, Litro, and Chicago Literati), and her nonfiction appears in Fodor’s, Bust, Artslant, Isthmus, and Milwaukee Magazine.