Through the Inferno
Jessi Noelle © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Jason Merone held three aces to go along
with the two eights on the board. Dead man’s hand, he thought, pondering the
best way to string along the other guys in the pot for the most chips. The game
was Texas Hold’em, and he was a great white in a guppy pond.
The Sunday night poker game at Station 7
of the Biloxi Fire Department was winding down. Dinner was devoured and cleaned
up, letting the crew relax until the shift’s end at 6:30 in the morning.
Weekends came with no scheduled duties other than cleaning the surrounding
housing area of the fire station. The only call they’d responded to was a
fender bender on the exit ramp of the interstate, fortunately with no injuries,
making a quick and easy run.
“Too rich for me,” Captain Engmeyer said
after Jason raised, folding his hand and stepping away from the table with a
muttered, “Gonna drain the main vein.”
Down to two and time to show. He flipped
his cards, showing the nuts.
“Mutha fuck!” The red-faced veteran
opposite him yelled as he slapped his beaten flush to the table. Everyone at
the table laughed. “Shit, Truffy. I thought for sure I had you beat, the way
you were betting.”
“Hell, Vince,” Jason retorted to the
veteran of four years. “You oughta know by now the house always wins.” He
grinned crookedly, pulling the chips, worth about twenty bucks, over to his
side and adding them to his pile.
His phone chirped before the next hand,
and he glanced at the screen. Jenna. Not a good time, love. He let his
girlfriend’s call go to voice mail and shook his head at the expectant faces at
the table. “What? I’ll talk to her later. Deal, deal.”
It only took another twenty minutes to
finish collecting the rest of the chips from the guys.
The klaxon sounded just before three
a.m. Jason woke, instantly alert. Around him, the other guys threw off covers
and made a mad dash to the restroom. No one wanted to be stuck on a scene for
hours while needing to pee. He double-timed to the truck, wiping the crusty
sleep out of his eyes.
Jason was almost to the driver’s side
door before he remembered; Vince, newly certified and soon to be officially
promoted to pump engineer, was taking driving duties this shift. His abrupt
change of direction caused him to smack into Vince’s shoulder.
“Whoops, sorry, dude. Forgot you were
“Naw, Truffy, you’re good.” Vince opened
the door and slid behind the wheel.
For Jason, putting on turnouts was a
ritual, a centering moment of zen and muscle memory before charging into chaos.
He threw the Nomex hood over his head as he slid his feet into the boots. In a
swift movement, he grabbed the suspender straps to bring the pants up to his
waist and shrugged them over his shoulders, then swung his arms into his coat.
The faint smell of sweat and old fires wafted around him as he fastened the pants
and jacket shut. Helmet, gloves, and air tank would be added while en route.
Inventory: check, check, check. Ready to rock!
Ritual complete, Jason swung into his
seat, back against the driver’s compartment. Dave, his best friend, crashed
into the seat facing him, grumbling at being woken up. Dave sucked at poker,
busting out early and going to bed. Although he only did the bare minimum
around the station, no one outworked him at a scene, and there was no one Jason
would rather have covering his ass in a fire.
The Engine pulled out of the station
within two and a half minutes. Up front, the captain radioed the en route
“Copy en route, Engine 7,” the
dispatcher said over the engine and siren noise. “Responding to River Oakes
Manor at 1787 Winding Way Road, between Stanton and Hollyberry Streets, for
reports of fire involving multiple apartment units, possible persons still
Faces went grim as the team absorbed the
information. “Police unit en route confirms heavy smoke,” the dispatcher
continued her litany. “Engines 3, 5, and 8 also dispatched with Ladder 2 and
Ladder 9. EMS and PD confirmed en route. Time is 02:57.”
Captain Engmeyer shifted to face the
crew in the back, steel-gray eyes serious, his mouth drawn into a grim line.
“Okay, guys, this is gonna be real. We’ll be first on scene. Jason and Dave, I
want you on the first line in. Get in there, knock it down as you go, clear as
many units as you can. Scott, Billy, I want you guys to set up an attack line
near their point of entry. I’ll direct the incoming engines until the battalion
chief arrives on scene. Let’s stay safe and get it done!”
Jason looked back over at Dave, whose
game face likely mirrored his own, and noticed his focus fixed outside the
window. He turned his head in the direction Dave stared and saw the orange glow
of flames on the horizon. Dave shifted his attention to Jason, and held up a
fist. “Let’s kick the tires and fight the fires!” they said in unison as they
bumped knuckles, a ritual dating back to when they were freshmen on the high
school football team. A few practiced flicks secured the air tanks to their
backs, followed by the facemasks and helmets. They pulled the bulky gloves on
last. Dave unhitched the Halligan tool, a round metal bar with prongs on one
end and flat scoop on the other, and held it vertically between his legs,
thrumming a nervous beat against it with his leather-clad fingers.
Final check¾Jason did one last
inventory¾good to go. The muscles in his legs began to twitch in anticipation
of the looming combat. No matter how many fires he fought, each one set his
heart pounding like the first.
Upon arrival at the scene, they were
slowed by the sheer number of gawking civilians crowded outside in various
degrees of panic. Vince finally maneuvered the engine to the sweet spot, close
enough to set up operations, but not too close in case the building collapsed.
Time to go to work.