In December it was a space heater blaze in a nice apartment, and we all listened in on the scanner and went out to see. It was our first time, so Dale didn’t even notice us. We didn’t spend much time watching him, but we heard his name called out by one of the guys (it could’ve been Adams or Freedman, I really can’t remember), and repeated it over and over to each other like parrots: “Dale, give me a hand!” “Dale, give me a hand!” “Dale!”
In January it was a car accident (as usual, as we would soon learn). We all piled in, as eager as the first time (or maybe more: now we knew it could really work). We never talked much, but Margot brought tequila and we passed it around. Jed uncharacteristically refused. “I’m driving,” he barked, and shoved the bottle away, his normally careless eyes fixed fast on the road. We watched from the hood of Jed’s Civic as they opened the doors with the Jaws of Life, these great big mechanical scissor-looking things. We listened to the sirens, the crunch of metal.
In February, at yet another car accident (I’m only telling you the good ones), Dale noticed us. His old face ruddy with cold, he approached. They were clearing the area, a stretch of highway which normally ran freely but was now clogged with traffic. Jed had to pull over to the shoulder to be safe to watch. Not our best view.
Dale came up and goes “You all broke down?”
For a second we didn’t know who should talk (Margot was too busy trying to hide the tequila in her purse, and I wasn’t the type to talk up because despite the fact that I’m the tallest and the handsomest, I’m too nervous to make any decisions), but then Jed said that we “just stopped for a second, sir.” The “sir” startled me.
Dale looked us up and down. We weren’t special kids in his eyes, and, of course, he’s right.
“Didn’t I see you at some other locations?” His tone wasn’t menacing. It’s the same tone he used when he said “Now do you have insurance?” or “Calm down, ma’am. Who is inside the building right now?” or “Sandwiches. Jersey Mike’s.”
Jed didn’t know how to respond to that.
Dale waited patiently before saying “Well, be careful around fires, kids. It’s not friendly. Always keep a safe distance away.”
All Jed said was “Yes, sir.”
In March, we got a couple dull fires and, right on Saint Patty’s day, an exciting one. We didn’t observe Saint Patrick’s day here, but we each found fifty bucks somewhere and added it to the pool. Margot freely admitted to stealing hers from her mom, and my family’s wealth was something I liked to keep a secret, so I didn’t say a word about my birthday. But Jed’s fifty came in a roll of ones, fives, and tens. He didn’t have much, and the expression on his face told Margot and me both where he got it, if we didn’t know all along. Margot looked old with her hair in a bun, so, as usual, she bought the alc. Jed seemed grateful that his shame had been converted to tequila (we considered switching to beer for the expense a couple weeks in, but Margot flat out refused, insisting that she’d found the perfect drink for our hobby).
There was a gas leak at this place not a block from our favorite Mexican place. It blew up. They pulled out four or five survivors, all told, and then Margot yelped, “Dale’s got another one!”
Then after a moment, “Holy shit. It looks bad.”
“It” was right, as it turned out. Dale did CPR right there on the sidewalk, and while I was thinking about how uncomfortable it looked for the poor guy on his back, while Margot paused, mouth open, Juul halfway to her slightly open lips, while Jed stared straight ahead, knuckles white on the hood of his car, teeth gritted, while hard-faced Dale pumped and pumped with all his strength, this corpse just sat there on the sidewalk and took the last of what it could take from the world.
When everything was over for the second time that night, we went for food, but finding that none of us could eat, left the restaurant without a word. I, and Margot confessed she felt the same, never felt comfortable going back there again.
In April, after a regular car accident where nobody was much hurt, Dale told us outright to stop going to fires.
“For your own safety,” he said, looking us each in our dark eyes. He was worried about us, had seen us and talked to us and told us to get back, get back, get back, his calm, clear, old man voice like the drone of the highway outside sending us off to bed.
Jed didn’t look at him.
In May, Margot and I made excuses not to go. We had gotten what we had secretly wanted and now were left with the consequences. Jed was getting angry at us.
In June, there were brushfires. Jed prevailed on us to go and we watched from the car, hiding our faces from the firemen. In June, Jed also started paying for and drinking most of the tequila himself. We worried a little. I offered to drive but of course he said no.
In July, he parked closer and closer to the fires, until his front wheels were mere inches from the embers. The brush fires were too numerous for the firefighters to protect with more than caution tape. These days, our ritual of waiting by the scanner was no longer required. No more excitement. Just destruction. Jed would occasionally toss one of his grubby fives or tens into the fire, and watch the president’s face burn away.
In August, Dale caught us for the last time. He wasn’t friendly this time. He wasn’t calm.
“Alright kids, you think this is funny, what you’re doing? You could suffer serious injury, okay? Next time I see you down here, I’ll call the police on you, and-”
Jed didn’t say “sir” this time; that part of him was hid away somewhere we couldn’t reach. He pushed Dale. Pushed him hard and when the stocky old man tottered back, he got in the car and drove away. I don’t think he noticed we weren’t in the backseat. I could picture him yelling for the “Fuego,” the shitty tequila brand we always got. I could picture him turning around to scream at us and realizing that no one was there. But I didn’t have to picture him turning across the median into oncoming traffic because I was watching. Margot and I didn’t even think about what we were doing, we just ran. We didn’t hear Dale’s voice shouting for the others to get in the truck, to follow him to the scene of the crash: to Jed’s broken body locked in the crushed cab of his filthy car. We got there seconds after they did.
The scene is suspended for me, Dale jumping down from the truck, the Jaws of Life in one of his hands and a crowbar in the other, the trucker pushing his way out of his mostly-wrecked cab, the smell of burning brush. Everything was destruction, everything was fire. Except Dale.
I watched him jam the crowbar into the stuck car door and create a dent, a tiny gap, to force the great hydraulic Jaws of Life into. The strength of the hydraulics belonged to Dale in that moment, and the car door could not stand against him. We watched as he pulled our friend over his shoulder and carried him to the ground a short distance away, where he pushed down on his chest, again and again and again. It wasn’t in Margot’s nature to look away, or to seek comfort in others, but she did, dropping her weight against my old, comfortable hoodie, sobbing. I held her, but found I couldn’t look away myself. It just wasn’t in me. Again and again and again Dale tried, his old strong arms pumping. Every second that dragged on was awful, because I knew that Jed, who Margot and I loved like you’d love a real brother, was really, truthfully gone.
And then Jed’s eyes opened a little.
And he coughed. He tried to get up, but Dale’s hand, strong and comfortable as his old voice, kept him there. And I could finally turn away. Bury my face in Margot’s shoulder. And let go completely.