Editor’s note: As a Christmas treat for readers, Andy Clapp, a Liberty native and pastor there, has written this piece of short fiction for the News + Record.
Every call ignited the memories of the Christmas Eve three years prior.
BJ Brown yanked on his coat and made his way to the truck. A house fire demanded an immediate response. As his team hurried to get the fire truck in motion, he reacted. Yet, it was during the drive that the images burned into his mind reappeared.
The images were of that fateful Christmas Eve when his family perished in a fire. His wife and son were unable to escape the flames that engulfed their home. BJ, away at work at his insurance company, arrived home in time to see the flames at their peak and hear the news no one wanted to hear.
“Sir, no one escaped. I am so sorry,” Chief John Masterson explained as he tried to keep BJ from running into the flames himself.
That night changed everything. All his dreams burned up; all he loved swallowed up in a solitary moment.
Life offered him the opportunity to continue breathing or give up. For months, he hoped the next breath would be his last but as the days drifted forward, he knew he held an opportunity. He could help those facing the same troubles and maybe, if everything fell into place, he could rescue someone from the flames.
So, he quit his job. He gave up the life of selling insurance and chose to run into the flames as a firefighter.
But with every call the fire house received, he flashed back to the night when his life changed.
The fire was only eight minutes from the station, but it was far enough away for BJ to be swept away back to the pain of a Christmas Eve past.
The call from Chief Masterson shook him from the trance of the short trip to someone else’s nightmare. “BJ, we’ve got to get in there.” The chief’s hand on his coat jostled him to know that this wasn’t a dream.
He jumped out and geared up for an entrance. The smoke wafted thick in the air as the team rushed to douse the flames. Though nearly 40 years old, BJ moved with the agility of someone a decade younger. Perhaps it was adrenaline. Maybe it was chasing an image in his mind, one where he saved his own.
Crashing into the door, he listened intently and assessed the immediate danger. He faintly heard a noise in a side room, the living room to the left of the entrance foyer. The heaviness of the smoke hampered his visibility, and flames engulfed the entry way to the room, but he called out with all he had and hurried toward the sound.
There on the floor lay a young boy, no more than 6 or 7 years old. He grabbed the boy and hurried to get him to a place of safety, outside where he could breathe. Soot covered the boy’s hands and his face. The fireman held in his arms a boy roughly the size his son was when he died in a fire.
The sound of collapsing ceilings and trusses thundered throughout. The crackling of wood ticked like a clock pointing to an impending complete disaster. If either was going to survive, they had mere moments to get out.
As BJ emerged from the house of flames, tears rolled down his face. He couldn’t help but see his own son in the one he held in his arms.
“We’ve got him ... we’ve got him,” Chief Masterson said as he tried to take the boy from BJ’s arms. BJ held on for a moment, unable to let go, thankful that the boy lived through the ordeal.
As the Chief Masterson and the paramedics took care of the boy, the rest of the team battled the blaze. For a few moments, the hero fireman stared into the flames. He stood frozen in time, as if the worst night of his life hit a repeat cycle.
When the blaze died down, the fire team worked their way back to the firehouse.
“What was the boy’s name?” BJ asked.
“Christopher Perkins,” Chief Masterson replied, turning to focus on BJ in the moment. He looked BJ in the eyes, as if he were assessing the condition of one of his own. He knew what BJ endured. He was there the night it happened. He broke the news. And it was Chief Masterson that BJ sought out when he decided to take on a new career, one of a firefighter. “Are you OK, buddy? I know these calls are difficult, especially this one tonight. There were too many similarities … you know … to …”
Before he could finish the sentence, BJ interjected, “I’m fine. Where did they take him?”
“Did you guys find out anything about his family while y’all were working on him?”
“Mom and dad were in the house, and …”
“They didn’t get out,” BJ again finished the sentence, understanding the tone, feeling the despair of his mentor as he shared a harsh reality. BJ looked away. He could feel the uneasiness of the moment and he sensed there was more to the story.
“Did you learn anything about the family?”
Masterson hesitated. BJ looked over to see John massage his forehead, while squinting his eyes. “He has no one, BJ. Evidently, there are no aunts or uncles, and the grandparents passed years ago.”
BJ turned to leave. He said not a word, but tossed aside his coat and helmet before moving toward the door.
“Go home and get some rest,” John yelled. But BJ determined a different path needed to be taken.
“Are you here for yourself or someone else?” the nurse asked as he approached the desk at the hospital.
“I pulled a little boy from a fire a bit ago … I think they said his name was Christopher,” he responded, anxious to hear of the boy’s condition.
“Just a second.” She motioned for another nurse to come and escort him to the room. “Police Chief Turney is in there with the boy.”
As they walked the hall, he wondered what he would say when he saw the boy. Before a speech could be rehearsed, the nurse opened the door.
“Brown … great work pulling the kid out,” Chief Turney commented as he extended his hand. “Christopher is doing well, aren’t you Christopher?”
He nodded his head. Yet, BJ noticed the tear. The boy knew. He knew his parents were gone. Without saying a word, his expression told the story of fear that gripped the kid who became an orphan in an instant.
“Christopher, I’m going to talk to BJ in the hall for a minute, then we’ll be back.” They slowly closed the door and chatted about the situation.
“Can he come home with me for the time being?”
Turney hesitated. The boy had nowhere to go. As Christmas stood hours away, the only other option was foster care after he was released from the hospital. “I’m not sure this can be a long-term solution, but for the night, if he wants to go, I can make a call and make that happen.”
They re-entered the room. “Christopher, would you be willing to stay at my house for a few nights?” BJ asked as he knelt to get at eye-level. “I know you have nowhere to go, so I would love to have you stay with me.”
“I guess so …”
The discharge papers were signed and BJ drove home with a boy who faced uncertainty. The pain of reality shook both, as a season meant for joy brought unspeakable pain. BJ showed Christopher to the guest room and gave Christopher a pair of pajamas that were pulled from the house fire three years earlier, the pajamas that belonged to BJ’s son, Max.
Night fell. The quiet night of Christmas Eve normally allowed for dreams of what could be but on this night, the silence shook the soul with what was. BJ checked on the boy a couple of times, finding Christopher passed out from the exhaustion of the events of the day.
When morning broke, Christopher emerged from the back of the house.
“What are these?” he asked, unsure what to make of the packages underneath the tree.
BJ shared the story of what happened three Christmases earlier.
“These gifts were wrapped up in the back of my car for my son,” he told Christopher. “I never removed them. There were years I wanted to give them away to an organization but for some reason, I could never let go of them.
“I think I know now why I could not give them away,” he said with a grin.
Christopher slowly opened a gift. The football inside brought a slight smile to a broken boy’s face.
“But, I don’t have anything to give to you,” Christopher mentioned as he looked again at the gifts before him.
“My gift is to see you smile, just as I imagine Max would have that Christmas.”
Sometimes, a moment of joy can emerge from heaps of ashes. It did that Christmas morning.
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