The Call to Duty: The Holy Flame Trilogy C.J. Peterson
Casey Carter, a probie in Engine Company 15, must prove herself a worthy member of this firefighting team. Life is a blend of the natural and spiritual, but can Casey keep them in balance? Can a mysterious group of men show Casey her true Call To Duty? "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
Read Chapter 1
Chapter 1 Four Alarm Night Casey Carter and her partner, Tommy McCormick, entered the room where Brennon Hanson and Jack Callan used the ceiling hook to pull down the plaster from overhead. The fire started in the chimney before heading into the attic, so the firefighters had to make sure the insulation was not smoldering or it could ignite, causing another fire. "What are you two doing in here?" Callan asked. He jammed the pole into the ceiling. His six-foot-three frame allowed him to reach the higher points on scene, which is the reason LT sent him and the six-foot-four Hanson to the upstairs rooms after the firefighters got the fire under control. "LT said to clear this room and we're done," Tommy said. The group took their masks off when the fire was extinguished. While they kept them handy, they were not needed. "Carter, we'll hit the walls together so you can see what I'm looking for." "Sounds good." Casey agreed. Casey was new to Engine Company Fifteen so she felt she had a lot to prove. While she was not the first woman in the company, she was the oldest female and a rookie at thirty-five, so she was grateful for the opportunity. Initially, Chief was hesitant to hire her but she won him over during the interview with her strength of character, persistence, and fortitude. Hearing her voice, Brennon Hanson spun around to look at her. He admired her beauty and brains. However, since they were on the same shift she was not going to be an option for him. That didn't stop him from admiring her assets though. "Hanson!" Jack shouted as the ceiling buckled where Brennon pulled on it. Casey looked up to see a portion of the ceiling cascade above Tommy's head. She shoved Tommy out of the way. As they hit the ground, a chunk of sheetrock dragged down her shoulder. She groaned, knowing it would probably leave a mark. From where he was standing, all LT could see was ash and dust shooting threw the attic into the air. "What happened?" LT demanded from where he stood by the engines. When the sheetrock, plaster, and insulation rained down on them, it made the air thick and hard to breathe. Tommy coughed up some of the ash as he reached for his radio. "Ceiling collapsed." "Everyone okay?" Tommy saw movement from the other three through the rubble. He wiped the soot from his eyes as he said, "We're mobile." "I'm sending Barnes and Katz up there to check things out." Callan waved to clear the air in front of his face as he grabbed his radio. He climbed over the debris to Brennon and saw him moving around. "No need. We're fine, LT." Callan said into the radio before he turned his head away so he would not be heard over the open channel and growled at Brennon, "You'd better pray everyone is okay." "It was an accident. It happens." Brennon said in his defense as a nervous anger flashed across his face and adrenaline coursed through his body. "You weren't paying attention," Jack snapped, much to Casey and Tommy's surprise. Jack tended to deal with his feelings through humor. "Someone's going to get hurt!" Brennon snatched his pole from the rubble. He pawed his way through the debris, leaving the threesome in shock that he would abandon them without finishing his job. "You two okay?" Jack looked over at Casey and Tommy in concern. When everything came down, he saw the main part of the ceiling fall toward them. "Yes," Casey helped Tommy off the ground. "Katz will have to look at my shoulder later, but otherwise, I'm okay. Thanks, Carter." Tommy brushed himself off before he searched for his pole. Casey pulled his pole from the debris to her right and handed it to him. "No problem." Inside, she smiled proudly. Tommy hadn't handed out too many compliments over the past month while working with him. After ten more minutes in the room, the three of them headed outside. "Clear," Jack said to LT, handing Casey his hook to put away. "Hanson was out of line." "What happened?" "He caused the accident and then left us in there," Jack glared at Brennon, who looked over at him from rolling one of the drained attack lines. "Talk to me," LT said. He enjoyed his job, but not the conflicts that arose. While the job often put him under a lot of duress, he would not have it any other way. He loved the camaraderie with the other firefighters. The adrenaline rush he got during the fires would be hard to replace. While Casey rolled the hose, she looked around at the men of her crew. While they were cleaning up the scene, she saw them sharing stories. There was no doubt in her mind that some were embellished as they used their hands to tell the story. That's when she saw him. Brennon's actions disgusted her. You never leave a man behind. She shook her head when she saw Vinnie Barnes slap him on his shoulder and handed him an ice-cold water bottle. After she and Will Weston heaved the hose onto the back of the engine, Will wiped the sweat off his face with a grin, and said, "This job has its share of excitement." "It does." Casey sighed. "What happened?" "Hanson wasn't paying attention and the ceiling came down on us." "That's not the first time. He's going to get someone hurt." Will scowled at Brennon. "Come on, let's get the rest of this hose up so we can get back to the station." In the trucks and on the way back to the firehouse, Casey felt the wound pulse underneath her turnout gear. The anxiety replaced the adrenaline that churned within her as she hoped her clothing would cover the wound so no one would see it. Her biggest concern was that the guys she had come to admire over the last month would think she might not be able to handle the job. Once back at the station, Will Weston hung his turnout gear in his locker and sighed. "Now that was a good one!" The overpowering smell of smoke mixed with sweat clung to every firefighter. It took Casey a couple of weeks to get used to the stench it generated without gagging, but she handled it in stride now. She had to convince herself that it was normal until she became immune to it. The soiled trucks sat in the engine bays coated with a layer of soot and ash. They would have to wait until after lunch for a cleaning. After a hearty workout from a structure fire, sustenance was the first thing on everyone's mind. "Yeah, when I woke up this morning, I thought to myself, Self, it looks like a great day for a fire," Tony Patrone, who everyone called â€˜LT', said as he hung his coat on the hook of his doorless cabinet. Not only was he the lieutenant, but he was also the supervisor of â€˜A' shift, Casey's shift. "You okay, McCormick?" Vinnie Barnes rested his big Italian hand on Tommy's shoulder. "I heard you took a nasty blow from that slab of ceiling." "Yeah. It wouldn't have happened had Hanson been paying attention instead of drooling over Carter." Tommy playfully smacked Casey's arm before looking down the line toward Hanson. "Watch this." Hanson's cabinet was down the wall near the other end, away from Casey and Tommy. "Who said I was looking at her anyway?" Hanson's voice was sharp as his face reddened. "There was a fire. Why would I pay attention to some chick when I could get burned?" "Some chick?" Casey raised an eyebrow, leaning back, glaring at Hanson. His face flushed as he shook his head. "I give." Casey looked toward the other firefighters to see several of them light cigarettes. "Didn't you inhale enough smoke?" "It's how we relax." Rob Katz said. "Besides, I get enough grief from my wife, don't be a nag too." Marty Nelson grumbled. "Just sayin'." She stuffed her gloves in the sleeve of her jacket. "You guys have families to think about." Scott Kendall pointed out, "At least we know she cares." "Well, wouldn't go that far." Casey said in jest. Then she looked at them and said, "I am just saying that our jobs are rough enough. Our families have enough on their minds without worrying about you purposely putting yourself in line for lung cancer." "I know." Marty agreed. "My wife keeps telling me the same thing, but what can I say? It's a vice." "Might wanna try something a little more healthy like lifting weights." Jesse McFadden nudged him. "No, one muscle man around here is more than enough." Marty shook his head. Then he added, "Braun but no brain, such a shame." "The lack of brains is awarded to Hanson for this fire." Jesse shot. "That's enough!" Brennon growled. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." LT remarked as he walked towards the office. Then he added to Brennon, "I want to see you in Chief's office when you're done." "About time you got busted," Will remarked. "You're going hurt someone one of these days." "He already did," Tommy gave him a dirty look. Hanson knew by the look on his face not to comment. Tommy didn't show emotion much, so when he did people paid attention. "On that note, I need to get a shower." Casey said to Tommy. She left her turnout pants and boots downstairs in the cabinet with the rest of her gear before she slipped her shoes on to head upstairs. "Carter." Hanson shook his head. "What?" "That's not a good thing to say." "Why not? We just came in from a fire. We are all going to take a showerâ€¦at least I would hope we would all take a shower. If you don't, I'm not cooking for you tonight." Tommy looked up at her from tying his shoes in surprise. "It's your night, probie! You don't have a choice. You still have another month of cooking detail." She smirked. "Yeah, well, doesn't mean I have to make it good." When she went through the doors that led upstairs, she heard them laughing and smiled to herself. As she went up the stairs, she couldn't help but admire the old structure the station was encased in. Built to last in the nineteen forties, the red brick building had survived a lot of history. The old woodwork and molding around the doors and windows were found throughout the station, along with its many historical artifacts that still adorned the structure. Some of these included the first fire bell made when the house opened in nineteen forty-three, an antique hose reel, and within showcases there were some of the old turnout gear, helmets, and equipment that was used by her predecessors of Engine Company Fifteen. Also among the historic artifacts was the fire pole from the sleeping quarters. Casey remarked at how exciting it was to see one in the station. Though it was well polished and in good condition, they did not use it. The guys stated that it was there for show and for safety purposes, they did not recommend its use. Generations of firefighters had gone up through its ranks over the course of the building's seventy-year history, and Casey took pride in being one of them. Tucked in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, its structure had been through many storms, fires, and changes of technology through the lineage. And, even though each generation took pride and cared for the station as best it could, the musty smell of the firehouse still told its old age. Casey stopped by the sleeping area before she went to the bathroom to clean up. In the sleeping areas, each person had their own room of sorts due to the partitions that cordoned each one off from the others. Since they were on multiple calls through the night, those assigned to the ambulance for the twenty-four hour shift were in another room adjacent to the main sleeping area. There were four ambulance crewmembers each night, and the remaining crewmembers on the shift filled the engine crews. Down the hall from the sleeping area were the bathrooms. The men's bathroom was across the hall from a single bathroom that Casey used when she was on shift. It had a shower stall, a sink and mirror, and a toilet. There were two other females on â€˜B' shift and one on â€˜C' shift who used the single bathroom when they were on duty. Before her shower, she cracked the window open a bit to let out the steam. The smell of spring poured in, counteracting the tang of incinerated wood that permeated the firehouse as the other firefighters ascended the staircase for their showers. The birds had already returned from their southern migration from the winter, serenading the trees to sprout new leaves, propelling the flowers to blossom to their fullest. Casey loved watching the spring flora aggressively grapple its way through the snow, showing the world its tenacity. In addition, when the honeysuckle vine that climbed the station wall commenced its welcome to the seasonâ€¦well, there was no substitution for that efflorescence scent. Spring always gave her a sense of hope. Things were fresh and new, showing the world that while the winter may be desolate and barren, spring was just around the corner, waiting with assurance and promise of marvelous things to come. After her shower, she dried off, went over to the mirror and wiped the condensation off with the palm of her hand. As she stood there, she touched the new bruises and scrapes that had formed and winced. She knew if she had complained, they might have accused her of being a wimp, and on a crew of men in this male-dominated field she didn't feel comfortable reporting her injury just yet. Working in this environment as a female was tough as it was without adding an injury on the job. She groaned though, knowing there might be some explaining to do. Sighing, she brushed out her long chestnut-brown hair and then threw it up in a twist with a clip. Then she slipped into a fresh pair of uniform pants, black socks, department-issued t-shirt, and black shoes before shoving her dirty clothes into a bag to take home later. She took one more look in the mirror before she headed toward the bedding area to put away her clothes. By the time she headed toward the dining area to eat lunch, the men from the ambulance crews for the day were already sitting around the table. Benches lined each side of the long wooden table, and a single chair sat on either end. On â€˜A' shift, the head seats belonged to LT and Katz, the watch commander and second in command of the shift. "Hey, so I hear we're destined to have a horrid dinner." Jeff Campo looked up when Casey walked into the kitchen. "Only if someone decides to skip their shower," she clarified, putting her lasagna into the microwave. Katz leaned back in his seat, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair. "What are you cooking for dinner?" "Oh, I dunno." She crossed her arms, deep in thought. In reality, she had no idea what she was going to make for dinner. In fun, she decided to keep them guessing. "That lasagna sure smells good." Johnny Marshall nodded toward the microwave. "Maybe another one a' those?" "Maybe." She placed the garlic bread in the microwave after she pulled out the now fully heated lasagna. While it cooked, she poured the ranch dressing over her salad. "Seriously, what is for dinner?" Callan asked. "Inquiring minds want to know." After the timer went off from the microwave, she sat down at the corner seat of the table. "You guys don't need to know everything." She tore a piece of the bread, glancing at the men around the table. "A girl's gotta have her secrets." "Come onâ€¦please? If ya do, maybe we'll take it easy on you during drills," Campo hinted. "You guys never take it easy on me in drills." She rolled her eyes. "It's your duty to make it hard on the rookies." "Carter, just the person I want to see. The crew is curious as to what's for dinner?" Bryan â€˜Mac' MacIntyre strolled into the kitchen with his hands in his pockets. Vinnie Barnes came in on his heels. Snickers came from around the table from the ambulance crews. "What?" Mac looked around the table in irritation. He did not like being the joke, especially where Casey was concerned. Truth be told, he would run interference with Katz for her because he liked her. He enjoyed having a little pull, especially knowing how Brennon felt about her. He often rubbed Brennon's face in it when she was out of earshot. "We've already been trying to get it out of her." Johnny pointed out. "She's not budging." Mac paused for a moment before he placed a hand on the table beside her and asked, "Does the threat of drills make any headway?" "She says we never take it easy on her during drills anyway." Callan shook his head. "Nice try." "Well, I happen to know drills are the stairs today." Mac leaned down next to her so they were eye to eye, resting his elbows on the table. "Wanna give us a clue so we know whether or not to take it easy on you?" "What if I do?" "Then..." He gestured for her to go forward. "Thenâ€¦what?" she pressed, setting her fork down. She was interested to see what arrangement he wanted to propose this time. She and Mac had a mutual give-and-take deal-making relationship. There have been multiple times where he saved her by running interference with Katz from rough drills with his deal-making abilities. Katz often had it in for the rookies and made drills harder on them, but Mac had a unique way of making Katz feel generous when it came to training â€“ if he was inspired to do so. "She's tough to crack." Vinnie chuckled. "What are you guys doing to my partner now?" Tommy walked in with the remaining crewmembers of â€˜A' shift. "Need some back up, Casey?" "Casey?" Brennon looked at him in surprise. "Since when do we go by first names here?" "She's my partner." He shrugged. "You also took a chunk a' that ceiling for me when you shoved me outta the way...didn't ya?" he rested his hand on her hurt shoulder. She looked over her shoulder at him as her heart raced in anxiousness. "Now, why would you say that?" "The bruise I see forming right here on the back of your arm. Can I take a look?" "Ohhh," she groaned, dropping her head onto her hands. Katz went around behind her. "Let me see. I've already taken a look at McCormick." She let him pull back her shirtsleeve to look at her shoulder. "Uh, Carter?" He cocked his head to the side, getting a good look at it. "What?" "Do you have a tank top in your clothes?" "Yeah...why?" She turned and looked at him suspiciously. Tommy cringed. "Doesn't that hurt?" "Some," she reluctantly admitted. "What's up?" LT came over from the kitchen to get a look. "Um, you are going to have to fill out a medical report on that." "No, please," she groaned. "It doesn't hurt that bad." "I beg to differ." LT shook his head. "Go get that tank top on so we can get a better look at it." "Fine," she relented. She knew she could not fight LT. She left the room while everyone else made their lunch or continued to eat. She quickly changed in the bathroom. While she was in there, she glanced at the injury in the mirror again. She did a double-take, as it had gone from red and a little swollen, to black, blue, and purple in a matter of minutes. She sighed, shaking her head in frustration. As she walked back out to the kitchen area in her tank top and pants, most of the guys were still eating at the table. Tommy was leaning back on an ice pack and eating his lunch on the couch. "Wow! That's a change!" Brennon looked up, almost choking on his food. Vinnie slapped him on the back, shaking his head. "Get a grip, man! Lemme give ya a piece of advice â€“ try chewing your food." "Come over and sit down, Carter." LT got up from his chair, which was right next to her seat at the end of the table. Katz brought his EMT bag over and sat it on the counter behind LT. "I just took care of your partner. Now it's your turn." As she sat down, she longingly glanced at her barely touched lunch. She was sure the lasagna was cold by now, and the salad was probably warm, but she was hungry. She couldn't believe they were making such a fuss over a couple of bruises. She dropped her head into her hands in embarrassment. "Wow! That ceiling did get you, didn't it?" LT said in concern. "Yeah," she admitted. "By the way, thanks for looking out for me," Tommy said over his shoulder. "No problem. I'm sure you would have done the same." He nodded in agreement. "Any time." Katz immediately went to work on her shoulder, and then afterwards, Casey and Tommy filled-out injury reports to file for worker's compensation. Casey already knew she wasn't going to file the paperwork, though â€“ her shoulder was fine enough to work. Besides, she knew she would have the next forty-eight hours after this shift ended to rest her shoulder. Since they worked twenty-four hours on and forty-eight off, she knew it would be fine by the arrival of her next shift. After about a half hour of icing her shoulder, Casey got up to go look around in the kitchen for dinner ideas. Due to their injuries, LT kept both Tommy and Casey from drills for the day. LT sent Tommy, Casey, Mac, Nelson, Vinnie, and Will to the store to get food for dinner. They took one of the engines in case there was a fire call while they were gone. If so, they could just take off from the store. "Do I get to know what's for dinner?" Tommy asked, as he and Casey were walking through the crowded store. He pushed the cart, mainly because he knew this store inside and out. His house was just down the road, and he and his fiancÃ© frequented the aisles at minimum of two to three times per week. While Casey and Tommy talked, the others were joking around with each other, and picking out other snacks. "You get to pick." "You mean you didn't have any plans for dinner?" "Nope." "Well then. What are our choices?" He felt a little burst of power not only being able to pick what was for dinner, but also in knowing what was for dinner when no one else did. "Well, do you want Mexican, Italian, or good old-fashioned American?" "Are there specific meals with those?" "Not anything in particular. What do you want?" "What aboutâ€¦hmmmâ€¦what about Italian? You know, to make LT happy," he decided. "Good idea," she agreed. She thought for a moment before she asked, "What about manicotti stuffed with ricotta cheese that's mixed with parsley, hamburger, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, and minced garlic? We'll also have mushrooms stuffed with breading, spices, and crabmeat sautÃ©ed in butter. Then we'll finish it off with fresh made garlic and butter bread. And of course a salad with tomatoes, green peppers, and carrots, topped off with an olive oil and vinegar dressing, and sprinkled parmesan cheese." "I think you're going to have several offers for marriage if you cook like that and it's good!" He chuckled when she laughed. Together, the group went through the aisles for the next thirty minutes, picking out some of the dinner items not yet at the station, along with some extras for homemade snacks to re-stock the snack cupboard. When they returned, the others went to drills, while Casey went to work on dinner. Despite their best efforts to guess what was for dinner by what Casey put in the cart, they were never even close. Casey liked keeping them guessing Before heading over to watch the news, Tommy gave her a hand in cutting up the vegetables. He said something about feeling lazy if he didn't lend a hand somewhere. At about five-thirty, as the scent of manicotti, stuffed mushrooms, and bread diffused its way throughout the entire fire hall, Casey dispatched Tommy to let LT know it was a thirty-minute countdown until dinner. She purposely sent him early so the men could clean up the area from their drills and still be able to get another shower before sitting down to eat. On the way through, there were multiple comments on how delicious dinner smelled. Casey just shot back at how horrible they smelled. They shook their heads, laughing, on their way to the showers. Casey enjoyed the lighthearted way the crew interacted with one another. She often imagined it was similar to how a large family would communicate. By the time everyone finally made it back to the kitchen, Casey had arranged the table with a place setting for each firefighter. There was a salad in a bowl on top of their dinner plate, along with a glass of ice water, and a chilled glass of milk at each of their seats. "This looks fancy," Jack remarked, spreading his napkin on his lap. "Do we get to know what's for dinner yet?" Jesse smirked. The food was out of the oven, but covered. While they were able to get a decent whiff of dinner, Casey kept silent on the actual contents. "I know what's for dinner," Tommy bragged. "How do you rate?" Johnny looked over at him, surprised he was able to get information no one else seemed to be able to get out of her. He crossed his arms with a smug look. "Partnership has its privileges." Casey had to smile at that one as she brought over the pan containing the stuffed mushrooms. She set it on the potholders in the middle of the table. "There ya go." She lifted the foil off the pan. "This is dinner?" Brennon Hanson asked. "You do remember we're meat an' potatoes kind of guys. We work up an appetite." "I do." She nodded with a sly smile. "There's crabmeat in those mushrooms." "Um, while crab is a meat, it's not a meat-meat, ya know? We're not...there aren't any vegetarians here, probie." Katz glanced at the mushrooms and then back at her with a slightly agitated look on his face. Casey smiled as she sat down. She was trying not to look at Tommy, who she heard snickering from across the table. "What's going on?" LT looked from Casey to Tommy and back again. "While this does look good, I, uh, have to agree with Katz and Hanson on this one." "You guys are too easy!" Casey laughed, getting up from the table. She grabbed another set of potholders and set them on the table. Then she brought over the sliced, fresh-made garlic bread and uncovered it. There were a couple nods of approval, but LT, Katz, and Hanson still looked for more as they sat there with their arms crossed. "You really want to work hard for drills on your next shift, don't you?" Katz threatened. Casey smiled as she went back to the oven. She uncovered the manicotti before she brought it over, setting it on the table with a smile. "There, is that better?" "Much!" Hanson grinned. "We'll know as soon as we taste it if you have been redeemed, but it looks good." Katz nodded in approval. "I approve." LT smiled, pleased, as his eyes grazed over the entire meal now before him with a look of pure delight. He inhaled deeply before he reached for the manicotti. He scooped up a piece of it, pulling on the cheese that was stringing from the pan. He then replaced the spoon and picked up his fork as all eyes were on him. A nod of approval was required before the commencement of eating. He cut a bite, studying it for a moment, before he placed it in his mouth. He savored it, allowing the flavor to meld together. He then sipped the ice-cold milk to clear his palate, before taking a bite of the stuffed mushrooms. Finally, he tested the garlic bread. Not a muscle moved around the table as they awaited the decision. "Probie, that is perhaps the mostâ€¦" he paused a moment while Casey took a breath in anticipation, "The most delightful meal I have ever had. Do not ever tell Carol I said that, or I will deny it to my grave." "Thank you, sir." Casey smiled, pleased. "Mac, as our resident clergy, would you like to bless this terrific meal?" "Of course," he said. "Father, we thank you for this wonderful meal before us, and ask you to bless the hands that made it. We also thank you for the safety while we were at the fire, with only minor injuries. We ask for your continued safety for us, as well as our other firefighters throughout the city as we go about our regular duties. Thank you, Father, for giving us the strength day in and day out to do our job proficiently. Please bless the remainder of this evening. In Jesus's name we prayâ€¦" "Amen," everyone said in unison. They looked over at LT, who said, "Lady and gentlemen." He gestured toward the meal before them. With that, voices erupted in various conversations around the table, as almost all of the men talked at once about the fire and the drills, while passing the various portions of the meal around the table. Everyone enjoyed dinner, followed by Casey washing all the dishes for over an hour. Being that she had only been there for a month, she was still the probie, the newbie, the rookie, and therefore she got the jobs no one wanted...for at least another month. She had to cook dinner, do all the dishes, mop the floors, help roll the hose on the fire scenes, and usually had to do most of the clean up after the drills were run every time she was on shift. While she enjoyed her job, she enjoyed her time off even more. She liked the shifts and the variety in the days. The schedule during the day was different every time, and the guys were great to be around as well. Just as she finished the dishes, there was an ambulance call, which Callan and Marshall took. Outside of the fire, the day had been a slow one. The ambulance crews were usually gone on a continuous basis throughout the day, alternating each call, but today was an exception with only three or four calls. The fire crews for the day had to wash the trucks down at least once a shift and spray the garage floor to keep it clean, which the men promptly did after lunch before they ran the drills. Since the trucks were clean, they did not have to worry about washing them for the rest of shift, so they enjoyed a movie and popcorn after Casey finished with the dishes. They headed toward their beds at about eleven o'clock, just as Katz and Campo got an ambulance call. As she lay in bed, she was once again lulled to sleep by the sound of the guys in the room. She knew each of the men on her crew by their snoring or breathing of their sleep patterns. She slept in the comfort that these brave men surrounded her and went off to dreamland, fondly thinking about each of the men that she now called â€˜brother.' * * * The firefighters were peacefully sleeping or resting, when at about three o'clock in the morning there was a sudden, ear-piercing fire bell for a structure fire that woke them with a start. They snapped to attention before springing into their turnout pants and boots. Then they bolted down the stairs toward their lockers and loaded up with their remaining turnout gear before they jumped into the respective vehicles amongst shouts of orders by LT and Katz. "Carter and McCormick, I want you two to settle back a bit. I don't want your injuries to get worse," LT yelled back to them after he radioed to dispatch that they were responding. Tommy objected. "LT, come on, we're both fine. We've rested all day." LT looked at both of them debating in his head for a few moments before he asked Casey, "Are you okay too?" "Yes, sir!" She grinned. She didn't want to hang back on scene. To have a fire on your shift is rare, but when there were two â€“ it was a bonus. He sighed before he finally relented. "All right. Just be careful. Chief is going to have my head for you two getting hurt in the first place. Let's not do it twice in one shift, okay?" "Deal!" They both smiled, pleased with his decision. As soon as his head was turned, they quietly gave each other a high-five. "You're okay, right?" Tommy asked directly into her ear so no one else could hear. Casey nodded. She didn't want anyone to have any idea what he asked her. Then she pointed to him, and he nodded that he was okay too. * * * When they pulled up on scene, the fully engulfed three-story warehouse looked like it had been going for a while. The auto-extended fire scene had flames pouring out from every window, even puncturing the roof. The stench of burning rubber, wood, and metal permeated the atmosphere, making it hard to breathe. As the Incident Commander, LT immediately requested a second alarm. The firefighters jumped down from the vehicles to lay the supply and attack lines, when they suddenly had to dive to the ground as an explosion rocked various parts of the building. Glass and chunks of brick from around the windows sprayed in every direction as the ground rumbled below their feet. Casey looked up, surprised to see the structure still standing. LT got on the radio and reported what happened. He also asked for dispatch to send a third alarm while the rest of the squad scrambled to get the supply lines hooked up. "If you thread that line any slower, we can roast marshmallows on the embers," Brennon sarcastically remarked toward Casey. "Back off, Hanson!" Tommy snapped. "She's my trainee." Brennon shook his head and walked off while Tommy and Casey continued to hook up the supply lines amidst the flurry of activity around them. By the time they had all of the hose lines laid out, Vinnie stood by at the truck ready to charge the lines. "Ready?" Vinnie asked. They nodded, and he opened the lines one-by-one until they were all filled with the much-needed water. They watched the water almost immediately fill the flat hose lines, and felt the nozzle jerk slightly, letting them know they were charged and ready. As they stood in front of the broiling inferno, Tommy looked over his shoulder to Casey, and said, "Let's go, probie. We need to put the wet stuff on the red stuff." Casey felt the thrill and rush of adrenaline as they fearlessly headed into the fiery warehouse. Another engine company pulled up on scene as the other firefighters attacked the warehouse. They took one look at the warehouse and called for more back up, while LT let out a barrage of orders to the new companies as to which direction to head. Mac and his partner, Marty Nelson, went with Casey and Tommy to the front entrance, while a couple other teams targeted the windows, and others operating the deck guns of the two engine companies attempted to pump water directly onto the roof in hopes of containment. While Casey had been in fires before, they were nothing of this magnitude. Their little band were the first teams in, and what they walked into Casey would never forget. The fire was streaming down the walls like a waterfall, as well as dancing across the ceiling like a flashover (only there wasn't one.) It was as if someone poured gasoline on the walls and ceiling before they lit it up. There were metal containers, shelves, catwalks, and various other pieces of equipment parts knocked over, hanging off the catwalks, or from atop stacks within the warehouse from the explosion. The heat was intense, as if they'd walked into a furnace. Fires were hot, but the heat blasted them as they walked through the doorway, shoving them back a step. Tommy shook his head in disbelief. "Where do we start?" They were drenched in sweat as soon as they were within ten feet of the building. Scott Kendall and Jesse McFadden came in shortly after they walked in, hauling their attack lines with them in teams of two. "Whoa!" Scott shook his head in shock. No one else said anything for a moment. They were at a loss as even where to begin. The entire building and its contents were ablaze. It was awe-inspiring yet spine tingling. Even in the heat, Casey got chills as the hair on her neck stood on end. As she surveyed the scene, her eyes suddenly got wide. "What's that in the back?" She pointed toward the back of the building at a storage tank. "What's going on? Why aren't you guys working?" LT demanded over the radio. "Sir, there'sâ€¦." Nelson shook his head, stunned. As a seasoned veteran, he was sure he had never seen anything like this before. The fact that it was this engulfed yet still standing boggled his mind. Tommy swore before he said, "LT, be advised there is an above-ground storage tank in here." At that time, a couple teams from the other departments came in, including the Captain from Engine Seventeen. "LT, I don't think there's anything we can do. Even the brick is on fire. We're going to have to let it go and keep the other buildings in the area from going up. That tank could go at any time and we can't get to it to see what it is. Contact hazmat as well." Henderson confirmed what LT suspected. He knew his team, and since they weren't attacking it with the fierceness they normally did, he had an idea that the magnitude of the situation was critical, but he was hoping his intuition was wrong. He took pride in his team and their record, and knew this would hurt it, but his main concern was for the members of his squad. "Copy that, Henderson. Bail out. Rest of the teams, redirect to the surrounding buildings. Let's prevent any further damage, but make sure you are out of the collapse zone in case it comes down. We're shifting to defensive attack," LT ordered. Just as they were about to leave, Casey heard a shout from about ten to fifteen feet away. "Did you hear that?" She asked. Everyone stopped and stared at her, which made her feel awkward. She strained to listen again, hoping she was right. That's when they saw a man on fire, screaming, as he stumbled toward them. Casey stared at what was left of the walking flesh, horrified, knowing the immense pain and agony he was in. "Oh my," was all she could squeak out. She knew they couldn't open the line on him, as the pressure would push him back, so Casey aimed the hose into the air with light pressure so it came down like rain on him, while a couple of other teams ran over to get him. They were having a hard time directing him, as any touch to his body caused immeasurable pain to the man. Tommy stood behind Casey to keep a hold of the hose. Casey's heart broke for the man when she heard the screams and saw the agony on his face. She smelled the stench of his burning flesh and hair, and saw portions of his clothing as they hung, along with parts of his skin. There were sections burnt clear to the bone. There were places where his clothing seared to what skin remained on his body. She almost felt it would have done him better had he burned in the fire. Her stomach wretched as he got closer. The miasma atmosphere that surrounded him reeked with the unmistakable scent of death. It was a ghastly reminder of how fragile, yet strong they were as humans. "Keep it going!" Henderson yelled over the sounds of the inferno. "LT, we have a casualty coming. He has third degree burns on over twenty-five percent of his body and second degree burns to the remainder." He shouted as the man and the teams came closer to the door, bringing Casey back to the reality of the situation. The pain and agony coming from him almost brought her to tears. The odor in the warehouse was rancid, drenched with the overpowering smell of the chemicals it contained. As the man stumbled closer, the emanation of the foul air magnified tenfold. Casey fought to contain the vomit that threatened to come up. When the others got near Casey and Tommy, they turned the hose, hitting the wall and doorway they headed toward to keep the path clear. As soon as they were out, Casey and Tommy shut the hose down and dragged it out the door. Then they ran in with a couple other teams to get the remaining hoses clear of the building, leaving the flaming inferno behind them. Just as they pulled the last hose out, there were several more explosions that sent all six firefighters, including Casey, at least fifteen feet through the air. The seconds seemed like forever, as the building expelled the firefighters along with the remaining debris it held within the structure. Everything pummeled them as they landed on the ground with a thud. Casey felt the pain jet through her body, but she didn't think anything was broken. She curled up into a ball for protection. No one on scene could see or hear anything as the deafening roar and blinding light from the explosion engulfed the entire area. The air was thick with ash as the remains of the building blew out for a moment before it sucked itself back in and went up toward the sky. Then it collapsed flat on the ground, shoving its aftermath toward the injured firefighters, entombing them within the rubble. All Casey could do was cover her head, hoping to prevent any further damage to her body than what had already occurred as the ground shook around her. Two-by-four chunks of building pounded the ground on top of Casey, making a tent of sorts as it landed in an A-frame shape. She hoped the others had the same luck, as the building, the equipment, along with fragments of the metal canisters, catwalks, and anything else left of the warehouse, bombarded the area. After what seemed like an eternity, everything finally settled around them. The firefighters from two of the companies clawed their way through the dust and debris to get to their comrades while the remaining firefighters continued to contain the aftermath of the explosion. Furiously, the two companies tossed the refuse aside in order to clear the way. "McFadden, Kendall, Carter, McCormick, Mac, Nelson â€“ can anyone respond?" LT's voice appealed, a nervous edge breaking through his earlier command state as his heart raced. She waited a moment to see if others would respond before she said, "This is Carter. I'm okayâ€¦for the most part." She continued to move, so her PASS device wouldn't go off just yet. The ear-piercing scream of her Personal Alert Safety System was definitely not high on her list of things she wanted to hear as her head throbbed from getting thrown. She also wanted to hear what she could over the radio to ensure the others were okay before she set hers off. "Are you injured?" "I was hit by a couple of chunks, but parts of the structure landed in an A-frame over me. I'm fine. I don't know where the others landed though." "This is Mac, I'm okay. I heard Carter through the rubble. She's not too far from me." "Good. What about the others?" "This is McCormick. I have a concrete pinning my leg. I can't move." "This is Nelson. I'm under about fifty tons a' rubble, but it's all good. I'll just hang while you guys work for a bit, eh?" "We're working on it." LT nervously responded. "This is McFadden. I have a huge chunk pinning the bottom half of me. I'm not going anywhere fast," he groaned. "Kendall?" LT called out. There was nothing in response. "Kendall, are you there?" LT called out a couple moments later. You always know it is a possibility, but the idea that one of the men she had grown to admire over the last month might be dead terrified her. Her heart raced, and in a panic, she attempted to move the chunks of brick above her in hopes of seeing some sign of the rescue efforts. This only resulted in the rain of more debris. Even though she had her mask on, out of instinct she covered her face when it poured in toward her left. "Don't do that, Carter!" Mac yelled into the radio while coughing. "What happened?" LT stopped moving. He pressed his earpiece into his ear to hear better. Casey's heart skipped a beat. She looked toward the left, and asked, "How close to me are you?" For him to have felt that, he had to have been close. "What happened?" LT demanded. "She moved some of the debris, and it came in on me," Mac said, still coughing. Casey frantically dug through the remnants in the direction she guessed Mac to be by what he had said. After a couple of minutes, her fingers punctured through the rubble. She felt something smooth with her gloved fingers. "Is that you?" She tapped his helmet. "Yes!" he said, excited and relieved at the same time. He reached up and grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Are you two together?" LT asked, trying to figure out what was going on. He stopped while everyone continued to dig around him to listen. "We're a couple feet from each other," Mac confirmed. As they carefully pulled away the debris that separated them, she and Mac could hear the others doing their best to clear the remains of the building in order to locate them. "You two sit tight. We're coming," LT said, while Casey and Mac pulled away the remaining refuse, allowing them to see each other. Casey reached down and turned on her flashlight to illuminate her little cavern. She didn't let Mac's hand go, except to replace it with her left hand so she could resume digging with her right. She and Mac dug for several more minutes until they finally broke the wall away that was between them. "Hey gorgeous!" Mac grinned as Casey's flashlight beam hit his face. There was a two-foot space open between them. She looked at him in alarm. "Where's your mask?" "My tank ran out." Casey let his hand go to take her helmet off. She slid her mask off and gave it to him to put over his face, before replacing her helmet. "I take it you two are now face-to-face?" LT asked. Casey groaned. The open channel on the radio was great during an emergency, but not if you wanted to keep a personal conversation private. "You don't think I'd say that to Nelson, do ya?" Mac said, trying to set Casey more at ease. "You cheating on me again, Mac? That's it! Our relationship's over," Nelson said. Casey could hear the smile in his voice. "I love that guy," Mac said quietly to her as he set the mask down. She reached over and put it back on him. "No, keep it near your face. I don't know how much is left." "So, you come here often?" Mac asked a little louder into the radio. Casey decided to play along. "Na, it's my first time, but I hear this is one of the most explosive places in the area." "Yeah, it's the bomb." "Will you guys quit?" McFadden groaned. "It hurts when I laugh!" "At least you have some entertainment," Casey said. "That's me," Tommy shouted as he reached his hand through the rubble. "We got one!" The firefighters cheered. "Good. He's safe." Casey smiled in relief. "No worries, Casey, they'll get to you soon," Tommy said while they pulled him out. "Ow! Easy! Watch the leg!" he snapped. "Watch it. He can get grumpy," Casey commented. "Get grumpy?" Campo chuckled. The snaps of the straps from the rescue basket had Casey breathing easier knowing he was safe, even if he was cussing up a storm. "He already is grumpy. Unfortunately, I have to take him all the way to the hospital." The four firefighters pulled him through the rubble to the waiting ambulance. "I'm glad he's okay," Casey whispered to Mac, hoping with all the extra noise the radio wouldn't pick it up. "Me too. I wish we would at least hear from Kendall." Just then, they heard over the radio, "We found another one." "It's Kendall. He's unconscious and his helmet is cracked, but he's alive," a guy from one of the other companies said. "Good," LT said, with the relief evident in his voice as his crewmembers were located. "Get him outta there and to the hospital." "Consider it done." "Good." Casey said. As she lay there, her head began to swim and she felt dizzy so she closed her eyes. "No, here," Mac said in his normal voice as he put the mask to Casey's face. "What's wrong?" LT asked. "Carter's starting to go on me." "What do you mean?" "I'mâ€“I'm fine." Casey pushed his hand away, shaking her head to clear it. She felt like she was going to pass out. "LT, we don't have any air in here except for her air pack. She never got all the way to the surface, and the way the debris fell, it sealed us in, creating a vacuum." He reached over and manually triggered her alarm, before setting his off. "Hustle up, boys! They probably don't have much time," LT snapped. "That's me," Jesse said when they broke through to where he was located. "Please be careful, there's a...ahhhhheeeeee!" he screeched. Mac and Casey looked at each other in wide-eyed surprise, as they listened. "Sorry, mate," one of the firefighters said with an English accent. He continued to moan and groan in pain, as they removed him from the rubble that fought to keep a hold of him. Everyone heard him swearing at the other firefighters over the radio as it took them several more minutes before they could break him free. Once released from the rubble, they swiftly got him to an ambulance and on his way to the hospital. "Hey, how about pulling the rest of us outta here?" Nelson grumbled. "This is getting a little oldâ€¦fast." "They'll get to ya soon, hold your horses," Mac said. "At least you have company," he shot back. "I'm here in the middle of nowhere by myself." "You're not pouting are you, Nelson?" Mac asked. Casey couldn't keep her eyes open anymore so she closed them. Mac reached over and touched her neck. While he checked her pulse, he noticed her shallow breathing. He gently tapped her face to get her to wake up. "Carter? Carter, come on, stay with me." "What's going on in there?" LT asked. "Quit asking questions and get us outta here!" Mac snapped. "Carter, come on, open your eyes. Hereâ€¦." He reached over and put the mask on her face. "LT, I can't look at her tank because my ankle is trapped. I don't know how much is left." After a moment he added, "Come on, Carter! Work with me here!" "I'm...." She moved her head and mumbled, "I'm okay." "We found another one," another firefighter said. "It's about time!" Nelson grumbled. "I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to bed-in for the rest of the night." "Quit...whoa!" Mac took the mask from Casey to get a big gulp of air before replacing it back on her face. "This isn't good. You guys need to get us out of here." "We're working on it." LT insisted. "Carter?" Mac asked quietly. She struggled, but could not open her eyes. He moved so his head was closer to hers and rested the mask over both of their faces so they could get what little air remained. "Hmmm?" "Can you open those beautiful, green eyes a' yers for me?" "Huh-unh." She shook her head. "Please?" he rested his gloved hand on the side of her face. "I don't want to have to be the one to tell McCormick he needs a new partner. He likes the one he has. Besides, we have the best cook right now. I don't want to have you replaced by some horrid one." "I'll be fine," she responded. Her voice was weak, and her body was limp. Mac took another deep breath of air, before he moved back over to his side of the enclosure, leaving the mask resting on Casey's face. She obviously needed it more than he did at that moment. After another minute, Casey's air tank beeped. It started slowly, then picked up pace as it emptied, multiplying the volume in the cavity. "I hear that!" LT said, excited. "Good, because she's almost out, and I'm on my way there too," Mac said. Hearing Mac's voice, Casey fought to open her eyes. "Mac?" "Carter? Is that you?" LT asked. "Um-hmmm." She slowly nodded. Everything to her seemed to be going in slow motion, as if she were in some time dilation bubble. She groaned as she heard the alarm on the tank beep faster. The last of the air filled what it could of the small chamber before it abruptly stopped. "It's coming from over here!" Casey heard one of the firefighters shout through the rubble above them. There was a flurry of activity above their little cavern for several minutes before the rock, dirt, ash, and rubble debris slowly gave way as the firefighters desperately tried to reach them. While it was only a couple of minutes, it felt like an eternity without air. When they finally broke-through, Mac raised his hand. "We're right here." There were shouts and cheers of joy as they excitedly continued to dig. The dust was so thick that it made it even harder to breath. Mac put his mask loosely over his face, before holding Casey's to her face so they wouldn't suffocate. Casey looked up to see the rescue lights shining down like rays of sunlight on a cloudy day. They cleared the way for Mac first, finally releasing his ankle. As they pulled him out, Casey lay there still unable to move. She felt disconnected from the scene, as if she were watching it on television. She tried to reach toward the hole, but her body would not cooperate. After they got Mac out, LT dropped into the hole. "Hey, Carter." He took his mask off to put it on her while the others shifted position to release her from her cavern of debris. "Hmmm." She looked up at him. She could see him, but he looked fuzzy. She squinted to see if that would help, but it didn't, so she closed her eyes again. "Move it!" LT shouted to the other firefighters. She could hear the nervousness in his voice. He was down on one knee with his head poked out of the rubble while he held his mask to Casey's face, giving her a portion of the precious oxygen she needed. He braced himself with his other hand on the rubble of the entrance of the cavern they created. "LT?" "What's up?" He ducked his head in to see Casey. He almost didn't hear her, her voice was so weak. "I need...." She shook her head as a black cloud threatened to overtake her mind. "I know. We're working on it. Good job!" he said as they finally punctured a hole through to where they could pull her out. One of the firefighters reached in and touched her helmet. "She's right here," he said to the others. He glanced into the hole to where he could see that her flashlight was still on. "She's free in there. We just need to open it up on this end and slide her out." "Get an oxygen tank ready. She's going to need it," LT yelled to the ambulance crew. "Carter?" He looked down at her. She wasn't moving. "Carter?" He came down further into the hole and took his glove off. He felt her neck for a pulse. It was slow, but it was there. "Get those rocks outta the way! She's unconscious!" He yelled as he kept his fingers on the ceratoid artery on her neck feeling for her pulse. It took them a few more minutes to break her free before a couple of the firefighters were able to reach in and pull her out. When she was clear of the hole, they slid her into the waiting rescue basket before they quickly got her to the expecting ambulance. On the way to the hospital, Jeff Campo took off some of her turnout gear so he could get an IV set up. "Hey, Carter? Can you open your eyes for me?" He waited a minute before he said, "Come on, I don't want to have to be the one to tell McCormick his partner's not awake, he was cranky as it was." "She awake yet?" Katz asked from the driver's seat. "No." Campo took her blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. After a couple of minutes, he gently tapped her face again. "Carter, come on. Wake up." "We're here." Katz pulled into the hospital parking lot, up to emergency. Campo swore. "She's not awake yet, and her vitals are low." "Then let's get her in there." Katz ran around and opened the back doors.
C.J. Peterson grew up in a Christian military home, but it was far from tranquil. Many of life's lessons were hard ones. Through the encouragement of her husband, C.J. was able to rekindle the creativity she thought she had lost. 'While the stories are fiction, the journey is real.'