I wrote this short story for a contest recently, but ended up not being able to submit it. So instead, I’m letting you all read it! Remember: the Caption Contest is still open for entries.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I laid the paper face down on Captain Brett’s desk and cleared my throat. The man looked up from the file he’d been reading and I dropped my gaze. I let my eyes study the cracked tile floor, the pine paneling on the walls, the old football trophy on the desk . . . Anything but the captain’s face as he scanned my two-week’s notice.
The clock marked the seconds loudly as the agonizing moment passed. I tapped my thigh with drumming fingers, then caught myself and stuffed my hands into my pockets.
At last, he set down the paper, and I stared at the typed, double-spaced, 13-point font that made up my meticulous soul-baring, the explanation of my resignation. The stress, the danger of the job, the impact of my injury from several months ago.
My wife hadn’t understood why I was leaving the team, though I knew she’d be glad when I wasn’t putting myself in danger any longer. My brother really hadn’t understood. That conversation hadn’t ended well.
I didn’t imagine the inimitable Captain Brett would understand, either.
Talk, man. Please, just say something.
“Brandon, I wish you’d said something earlier.”
My brows hiked up as I looked at my boss. “Sir?”
“That incident was months ago. Why are you just coming forward now?”
I swallowed, cleared my throat. “I, uh . . . I thought I could forget about it. I thought I’d get over it.”
“PTSD isn’t usually like that.”
I winced, took a half-step forward. “No, it’s not . . . it’s not PTSD. It’s just the stress, you know?” I met the captain’s gaze. His weathered, roughly shaven face didn’t seem to harbor any softening toward my situation. “Amanda worries about me, has ever since I became a firefighter. You know, she’s two months pregnant. I’ll be a dad by Christmas.” I shrugged. “It’s a dangerous job, and that fire at the school . . . I could’ve died.” The memory of three long days in the hospital flashed in shades of white walls and red, bloody burns. “Like I said in the letter, it’s the stress.”
Captain Brett leaned back, causing his chair to squeak. His needling gaze didn’t leave me. “Have you spoken to anyone? Counseling, therapy, anything?”
“What- No. Why would I-”
“Does Amanda understand what you’re going through?”
“S-She knows I’m under a lot of stress right now.” I shuffled my feet on the floor, bit my lip.
“Soon as you get out of here, I want you to make an appointment with a good counselor.”
“With all due respect, I don’t need-”
“Brandon.” He leaned forward again, plunked his elbows down on the desk. “I know you don’t want to acknowledge this right now, but sooner or later, you’re going to need help. Maybe quitting this job is exactly what you need to do, but your post-traumatic stress needs to be managed, not ignored.”
My heart thrummed in my ears. I cleared my throat again. “Sir, I just need a different job. That’s all.”
The captain pursed his lips, went quiet again. I withdrew my hand from my pocket and resumed tapping my leg. “Brandon, I’m ordering you to give me an honest answer to this question. Are you okay?”
A snake curled insidiously in my stomach. My eyes bored holes in the floor.
“You can’t answer, because saying yes would be a lie.” Heat burned my face, but the captain’s voice turned thoughtful. “You’re a church-goer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” I cringed at the quiet way I said it.
“You practice your faith, yes?”
“Amanda and I both do, yes, sir.”
“So lying makes you uncomfortable. I mean, it’s right there in the Ten Commandments. I’m guessing you’ve rarely ever lied in your adult life, am I right?”
I swallowed. “N-No. I mean, no I haven’t.”
Captain Brett laughed lightly. “Son, do you know how many of us have lied when someone asks us if we’re okay? That’s got to be the most common lie people say. We don’t want to explain our situation. Maybe we don’t want to burden them or we’re in denial. But the sad thing is,” he went on quietly, “most of the time, when we decide to lie rather than tell someone how we’re feeling, we miss an opportunity to be helped.”
Helped. I hated how tempting that word sounded. I don’t need help.
“Let me tell you, son. You’re not alone, and what you’re feeling isn’t unique.”
At the earnestness in his voice – or, perhaps, in surprise that this was the most he’d ever spoken to me – I met his gaze again.
“You’re not the first firefighter to see something that he . . .” The captain shrugged one shoulder. “Can’t unsee.”
The school fire and the panicked screams of two hundred middle-grade kids pounded in my head.
“Only you can decide if you’re going to ask for help.” He stood up and came around to the front of his desk. Standing, he towered more than half a foot taller than me. “If you ever need to talk . . . about anything . . . call me.”
Ask for help. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I admit I was still having nightmares, seeing those kids running from flames, feeling the fire on my skin after I’d taken off the bunker gear to protect a little boy? I’d wake up at night, hear a car horn, and think it was an alarm and our house was on fire. Amanda had been run ragged at times by this madness.
That’s right. Amanda thinks you’re crazy. Don’t go unloading it all on somebody else.
I breathed a long sigh. “Thank you, sir,” I muttered dutifully. “Appreciate your time.”
I felt his disappointment all the way out of the office.
~ ~ ~ ~
THREE WEEKS LATER
I gripped the kitchen counter with both hands, rocking back and forth on the balls of my feet. I stared hard at the shred of paper before me, the hastily scribbled phone number. You don’t need him. Nobody understands, anyway.
I started as Amanda breezed by the counter. “What?”
She spared me a glance with brows hunched low in confusion. “Going to work.” She picked up her purse and phone and opened the front door in the same graceful motion. “If I’m not home by supper, there’s mac ‘n’ cheese in the fridge.” She closed the door on her last word.
I bowed my head, breathing hard, fast. She doesn’t understand, doesn’t care. No one does. What are you even living for?
A sob hitched in my throat, and I replaced it with an angry groan as I pushed away from the counter. I dragged my fingers through my hair. The piece of paper with the captain’s phone number stared at me behind my back, while his words echoed in my head. Only you can decide if you’re going to ask for help.
I wanted . . . I needed . . .
You know there’s only one way out of the pain. You can’t live like this. Why bother trying?
I inhaled sharply at the turn the voice was taking. “Dear God, help me.”
Praying to God? Seriously?
I paced the kitchen floor, tried to distract myself with the ticking of the clock, the hum of the refrigerator. The noises were familiar, constant.
A car horn blared outside.
I blasted out of the house like the Millenium Falcon, screeched to a stop in the middle of the driveway. Blood roared in my ears, my heart trashed in my chest. But there was no emergency – no accident, no fire. The neighbor diligently watering his flowers across the street stared at me dumbly.
See? You’re broken. No one can fix you. No one can fix this.
I spun round, made a quick return to the house. Snatching the phone number with one hand, I dialed it with the other. The captain picked up after one ring. “Brandon? How you doing?”
“Sir, you said if I needed to talk . . . I could call you.”
“I’m right here, son.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Dedicated to first responders everywhere.