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James put the leftovers away. He was in the middle of washing his hands when he heard the sirens. He tilted his head. They were close. He dried his hands and walked to the front living room. Blue and red lights splashed on the walls. He got a feeling in the pit of his stomach he didn’t like. The police car stopped in front of his house.

James grabbed his phone while he jogged to the door and threw it open. Lieutenant Joy Waters was running towards him. “James! It’s Derrick, you have to come with me right now.”
A horrible wave of nausea and fear rolled over him. “Oh no. Oh no no no. What’s wrong? What’s happened to Derrick?”
Her eyes were full of fear. “A roof has collapsed. It’s …not good. You have to come with me right now.”
James felt all the color drain from his face and all the heat go out of his body. “No… no no.”
They clustered into the police car. Joy drove through the streets of Bremerton, Washington, with a level of insanity that both impressed and terrified James. At every turn he thought he’d be sick.
He called Derrick’s phone. It went to voicemail. At the sound of Derrick’s recorded voice, James began to panic. “No no no he’s not picking up.”
“They don’t take their phones in with them on runs,” Joy reminded him.
“I want him to pick up,” James whimpered.
Joy just looked at him with her mouth in a thin line.

James could see the smoke before they turned on the block. The sight that greeted him stunned him. The road was full of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. The lights lit up the neighborhood street like a disco. Concerned patrons gathered around the taped off boundaries.
In the center of it was a two story house completely consumed. White and yellow flames shot up into the night sky, cloaked in a blanket of grey smoke. A darker plume was rising from the center peak where water had smothered the blaze; the fire had moved into the attic though and was working on consuming the front part of the building. A sour campfire smell filled the air. James thought he was going to throw up.

Joy stopped the car. They both got out.
“Derrick?” James shouted.
Joy grabbed his arm. “No! No, don’t run,” she said in that ‘cop voice’ that any smart man would heed. A firefighter jogged up. James recognized him from the department as the Captain of Derrick’s crew, Mark Lennox. “Lennox! Where’s Derrick!?”
Lennox’s eyes were red. “The roof collapsed,” was all he would say. “Come on, come here.” Still holding onto James’ arm, Joy ducked under the tape. They followed Lennox to the fire department’s first responder SUV. The noise from the fire was distracting. There were two firefighters from another firehouse spraying water on the house, but it was more of a damage control effort than an attempt to save the property. It was a goner.

James saw a cluster of firefighters off to the side, huddled around EMTs. The corner of an ambulance blocked his view of what they were looking at.  “DERRICK?” James called. Everyone looked at him like startled meerkats.
“Woah no, NO, you stay with us,” Lennox said. James recognized Derrick’s best friend Mason Edwards. “Mason! Mason! Where’s Derrick?” Mason just gave him a hollow look.
James found himself being shoved into the back of the SUV. Lennox handed his helmet to Joy and got in with him. James had no choice but to move over.
James tried to grab the door handles to get out the other side, but Lennox grabbed his hands.
Joy spoke up. “Don’t fight him. James. James I need you to listen to me.”
Lennox cleared his throat. “I’ll do it.”
Joy exhaled softly and nodded. Derrick was on Lennox’s crew.  “James.” Lennox’s hands began to shake. James whimpered.
"No, Lennox, no.”
“James. Derrick’s …Derrick’s gone. He went back in for a toddler, and the roof collapsed.”
“..Gone? Derrick’s gone where?’
Lennox swallowed as tears pooled into his eyes. "Derrick’s dead. When we got to him, there was a piece of metal in his neck. Hardware. From the ceiling. There’s nothing anyone could do. I’m so fucking sorry.”

James stared at Lennox. He felt so cold. “Nooo no no. Derrick wouldn’t do that. Derrick can survive anything. He was first in his class at the fire academy. We’re going to Utah over Christmas. We’re married. I – I love him. He loves me. He wouldn’t go somewhere without me.”
Joy was looking out the window with her hand pressed to her mouth. Lennox was crying in that stoic Marine way. “I’m sorry. It’s true. Derrick’s dead.”
“No, I refuse to believe that. Derrick doesn’t do stupid shit. He promised me he wouldn’t do anything reckness. Now where is he?” James tore out of Lennox’s grip. He got the door open and managed to slip out of the vehicle.
“Fuck!” Lennox said. He was stuck in the middle. “JOY get him!”
She was quick, but James was faster. He ran toward Mason. “Mason! WHERE the FUCK is Derrick?”
Mason bit his knuckles. “James I’m so sorry. I told him not to go.”
James felt himself being grabbed and pulled by strong hands, but he had already rounded the ambulance and had the view. On a stretcher, under a sheet, was a body. Boots sticking out. The sheet was soaked red and blackened with char.
“…Derrick?” James whispered.

“Get him away from here! Don’t let him lift that sheet up,” someone said.
James fought everyone who held him. “Derrick! Derrick get up! Get up you asshole you can’t die on me! Fuck!” James collapsed to his knees. “Derrick? Derrick? Please don’t leave me. You can’t die. Please don’t…”
Mason came over. He was crying and his hands were trembling. He was carrying Derrick’s helmet. The top was dented. The back quarter of it on the right was missing a triangular piece; it looked like a mortar had gone through it. The inside was damp with blood. Mason kneeled and presented it to James. He worked his mouth but no words came out. James just took in his arms, bent over, and sobbed.

The funeral was two days later. The mayor was there to present James the Distinguished Citizen award on behalf of Derrick’s bravery. He had found the toddler in the pantry and tucked the little boy into his coat – when part of the roof fell in, Derrick protected him from damage. He had put his mask on the child. The child was still in the hospital but was expected to survive.
Investigators later learned that the children’s babysitter had fallen asleep smoking meth on the back porch. The boy’s older sister had run to get help when the fire alarm went off. The house was old and wooden, and the fire went through it fast. No one could find the scared toddler upstairs. Know one had known he’d crawled over his crib, which he was too big for, and had made a trip downstairs for a snack.
With the structure compromised, Lennox had ordered everyone out. The sister had returned, being carried by a neighbor. She asked if anyone had checked the pantry – the boy’s favorite hide-and-go-seek spot. They hadn’t. But the house was about to come down. Lennox told his crew to stand down – but Derrick refused to obey.

James was so mad at Derrick, and hated him as much as he loved him. Hating him wouldn’t bring Derrick back. When they got married, James knew this may happen one day. Just loving Derrick was worth that risk. Any time at all…
James listened to the mayor talk and turned the piece of metal that went through Derrick’s neck in his hands. Even if Derrick had survived, he would have been paralyzed from the neck down – and likely brain damaged from heavy bleeding and lack of oxygen. It wasn’t much of a comfort though. Derrick looked like he was just..sleeping in his casket. It would have almost been better to see the injury and the blood; at least that would have made some sense.

James got up on the podium and explained how he had lost the love of his life. His husband, his partner, his roommate, and his companion. But Derrick was always married to the fire department first. Firefighting was his life. Derrick would have made the decision again to run into that building if he’d been sent back to Earth and had to make the chance again. James had known that. It hadn’t made it easier, knowing his husband was a hero. He was still dead.
Derrick would never eat the dinner left overs in the fridge James had prepared that night. And he wouldn’t be there for Thanksgiving. Or Christmas. Or James’ birthday in June. Or in Utah. Mason came over and put an arm around him as James finished speaking. The mayor gave him the medal. He needed that arm. James’ limbs felt like gelatin.

James walked back to his seat and was embraced by the boy’s mother. He wanted to be happy the toddler lived. He did. But his heart was broken and mind gutted like that house Derrick died in. James sat down and looked at the shiny things in each of his hands. He began to cry again. Things would never be the same.

Captions are fictional.


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