The wind was at his back. Heart pounding, Paul Tucker pedaled furiously through downtown Casey, soared past the firehouse, the barbershop, the drugstore, the post office. It was October, not cold, but plenty cool to chill his knuckles around the handlebars as he sped toward the Neidermeyer farm. An explosion! So far that was all he knew, but the word alone was enough to set his mind racing. Gas leak? Pesticides? Gunpowder? A gaping crater in the ground where the Neidermeyer home had stood for a hundred and thirty years? He hoped he wasn't too late. What if he'd missed all the good stuff? What if his father and the rest of the crew were already packing up their equipment, starting the engines, heading back to the station? He shifted gears, pedaled harder.
Paul had lied to his mother, claimed he was biking downtown to pick up a pack of gum at Dewey Drugs. He lied to his mother frequently these days, often for no other reason than to assert his independence from her, to prove to himself that he was his own man with his own life, a life full of rich adventures she had no cause to know about. He'd turned twelve at the end of August, and twelve had shifted something in him, something unnameable but unmistakable. Twelve was solid, just the sound of it. At ten you were still in elementary school, still prone to tantrums and tears. Then eleven, an unsettling and unsteady age, like you had one foot on the dock and one on the boat and you did everything you could just to keep your balance.
Then, at twelve, you got on the boat.
So here he was on his boat, a sturdy, well-made vessel that promised to sail him through adolescence with relative ease. He was well liked, athletic, bright enough for others to cheat off but not cerebral enough to be regarded as a nerd. His parents -- especially his father -- were respected and admired by everyone in town. And if they were a little tightly wound, if their brows furrowed even over matters of little consequence, it was nothing that could not be overcome, or at least dodged, with jokes and charm and innocent lies.
This particular lie -- biking downtown for Bubble Yum -- had been absolutely necessary; his mother did not believe in gawking, not at fights or car accidents or exploded houses or even funny looking dogs. Among the citizens of Casey she was pretty much alone in this distaste. Crossing from the final cluster of Main Street row house apartments and into the sprawling farmland, Paul ran smack into a traffic jam the magnitude of which the town usually saw only once a year -- second week of August, for the county fair. Casey was a town of nine thousand; tucked in a valley between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora mountains, the town was surrounded by innumerable miles of swaying corn and the sweeping tails of dairy cows. Pittsburgh was two hours northwest on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Harrisburg an hour east. Excitement was in short supply. And so it was that a quarter mile away from the Neidermeyer farm, cars and pickups were rumbling off the road and into the tall grass, entire families -- many still clad in church clothes -- piling out and heading west along the wide gravelly shoulder. Paul deftly wove his way through the pedestrians (some carried picnic baskets; most had cameras swinging from their necks) and stopped his bike at the foot of the long sloping dirt drive that led to the Neidermeyer house, which sat alone in the middle of six acres of unkempt brush. He had seen the house before, of course. It was hard to miss, a white clapboard two-story nineteenth-century farmhouse with a huge front porch, each weathered board of it a testament to simpler and sturdier days. Years before, Claude Neidermeyer and his wife had raised dairy cows -- for chocolate made in nearby Hershey -- in the vast pasture that was now nothing but uninhibited weeds. Three empty silos, their only silage the ashes of grain, towered over a ramshackle barn that had housed its last cow long before Paul was born. It was the kind of house people expected to see in the middle of Pennsylvania farm country, the kind of house that graced a thousand postcards, the kind of house tourists stopped to snap pictures of at sunset.
But what lay before Paul now was a photo opportunity of a different sort. An hour before, in the church courtyard after worship, word had spread of an explosion at the Neidermeyer farm and Paul had imagined the house would be totally destroyed, a massive pile of rubble that his father and the other firemen would pick through for clues to its demise. Instead, what he saw now was that the center of the Neidermeyer house had simply vanished. In its place, between the still-standing east and west walls, lay an enormous heap of debris -- concrete, wood, furniture, pipes, wires...
"Shit," Paul muttered, steadying himself on his bike. A hot lump rose in his stomach and he swallowed hard, let his bike roll back a few inches. Well, okay then, he'd seen it. He'd taken a good long look at the thing and not broken into a cold sweat, so there was really no need to get any closer. Maybe his mother was right about the whole gawking thing, anyway. Maybe the cool thing to do was to go home. Maybe --
But no. He would not be a chicken. Not today.
Two years before, on a sticky August night, the tire factory on Route 11 had gone up in flames. He'd been ten that year -- only ten! -- practically still a baby if you thought about it. He'd been sleeping over at his friend Carson's house, camping out in the backyard, and moments after the second swell of sirens rose (and Paul had managed to still the shudder in his knees) Carson's dad had appeared out back in his bathrobe and sneakers, car keys in hand. In Mr. Diehl's stuffy Lincoln they'd followed the wail of sirens, then the swirling cloud of gray smoke, then the slow procession of other cars down the winding factory drive.
At first it had been impossible to distinguish among the firefighters; there were dozens of them rushing around the perimeter of the factory, laying long lines from the pumper and the hydrants. Flames rolled from the roof; windows exploded. Then Carson had shouted "There's your dad!" and Paul had followed Carson's pointing finger to a man (a man shorter than any of the others, a man who moved with skillful speed) fitting a SCBA mask over his face. Briefly, for a brilliant split second, Paul was thrilled; he'd never seen his father in action like this before. He'd seen only the aftermath of his father's work -- scrapes, deep bruises, sometimes a broken finger -- but never the work itself. Standing on the factory grounds, his cheeks warm and his eyes tearing from smoke, he felt what he thought was pride swell in his belly. But then suddenly, unexpectedly, the pride stung inside him, burned his gut like the flames that licked toward his father as he approached the factory doors. Paul stumbled behind the Diehls' car and threw up.
Had that been the end of it, it wouldn't have been so bad. He could have blamed it on the Dr Pepper and Doritos he'd consumed at Carson's earlier, maybe even convinced himself he'd been sickened by the flat, thick smell of melting tires. But following the fire he'd had night sweats for two weeks straight, woken up chilled to the bone, drenched in perspiration and one unforgettable night in his own pee. The night he wet his pajama pants he curled naked at the end of the bed, away from the spreading stain, crying quietly and aching from head to toe with shame. Here he was, the only son of the bravest man in town, who himself was the only son of the previous bravest man in town, and he'd peed himself like a baby. Imagine if word got out! Imagine if somehow his secret was revealed (it could happen...gossip in Casey swirled from lips to ears like funnel clouds) and everyone would know the best quarterback in Pony football, one of the coolest kids at school, was a chickenshit bed wetter. He'd played sick the next morning, then laundered his sheets while his mother was at the grocery store, flung them back on his bed, still damp, when he heard her car in the driveway.
He took a deep breath, gripped his handlebars with sweaty palms. Not today, he told himself. He'd toted around his shame long enough. Then his feet were on the dusty ground, his legs were moving, and he found himself walking slowly up the driveway pushing his bike. Surprisingly, there was something almost pleasurable about the sensation he was feeling, a kind of mad rush that came with the wooziness. It was a little like when his friend Joe Bower had shown him a grainy picture of the Elephant Man in a thick book from the study shelf in the science room. It had made him queasy, the giant, mangled head atop the twisted body, but in the days that followed he found himself returning to the dusty book again and again and opening to that page, willing himself to keep his eyes on the hideous man a little longer each time.
There were about three hundred people on the Neidermeyer property. Most of them were obviously townspeople, some of whom had portable video cameras (normally reserved for birthday parties and school plays) trained on the crumbling house. In addition to the town gawkers there were also several news vans, half a dozen fire trucks from neighboring communities, and more cop cruisers than Paul had ever seen in one place. Yellow police tape was wound around the ancient oaks bordering the lawn, so no one in the crowd could get closer than a hundred yards or so to the wrecked house. Men and women stood along the edge of the tape, talking chipperly with neighbors and snapping pictures. Beyond the lawn, in shin-high pasture weeds, a large group of boys and a few girls were playing Frisbee in the long shadows of the silos. Paul scanned the lawn for his father, then spotted Black Phil at the edge of the yellow tape, talking to a newswoman.
Black Phil had been Kittatinny County fire captain for six years, and was one of the few men remaining in the department who had worked alongside Paul's grandfather, the legendary Captain Sam. Phil had earned his nickname when another Phil -- a white man -- joined the department sometime in the mid-seventies, and Sam took to calling them Black Phil and White Phil to avoid confusion. White Phil was long gone, but Black Phil continued to go by his nickname even when identifying himself to strangers, half out of habit and half to get on the nerves of sensitive people -- black and white -- who thought the nickname was just a tiny bit in bad taste. He was a burly guy with a thick gray mustache and hands large enough to palm a basketball. He lived in the black section of Casey, four square blocks just east of downtown, with his wife and three teenage girls; sometimes in the summer Paul and his parents went to their place for barbecues and Black Phil would tell long and -- after the third or fourth beer -- extremely loud stories about Captain Sam's quarter of a century on the force. To hear Phil tell it -- really, to hear most any of the firemen tell it -- Sam fell somewhere between Jesus and Superman in the order of heroes.
A familiar hand clapped down firmly on his shoulder.
"Busted," Sonny said, when Paul turned.
Paul feigned confusion. "Busted for what?"
ardSonny grinned. "You gonna try to tell me your mom knows you're out here? Next thing you'll be tellin' me she's out here herself."
"Don't rat, okay?" Paul recognized he needed to play up the team aspect of this particular lie, get his father to choose a side. In a family of three, alliances were weighty, crucial matters. "I'm just here for a minute."
Sonny raised his eyebrows. "Okay, but you owe me."
He was a small man, Sonny Tucker, only five feet eight inches tall, but a hundred and seventy pounds of just about pure muscle. In a suit and tie he looked unassuming, unthreatening, a man unaccustomed to danger. But in jeans and a T-shirt, or in his turnout gear, Paul thought his father looked like a first-rate ass kicker, the kind of guy other men would cross the street to avoid after dark. Sonny still pumped iron at the station four days a week and could make it up the eight-flight training staircase at the fire academy in Pittsburgh faster than any other man in the department, even the rookies who were now ten years younger than he. Sometimes he bench-pressed Paul in the middle of the living room, one hand set between the shoulders and the other at the small of the back. He did this, Paul had noticed, only when his mom was around, sitting on the couch pretending to be unimpressed as Paul counted off his father's reps -- 28, 29, 30, 31...
Now Sonny gestured to the house. "It's something, huh?"
"What happened? Gas leak?"
Sonny shook his head. "Good guess, but no. Gas was shut off months ago, after the fire."
Six months before, eighty-six-year-old Claude Neidermeyer had fallen into a deep sleep in his recliner while heating tomato soup on his stovetop; by the time the firemen were able to drag him to safety and extinguish the blaze, the entire first floor of the house was gutted. Mr. Neidermeyer (an accident just waiting to happen, according to the town grapevine, left to teeter around that old house all by himself) had been sentenced to the local nursing home by his two grown sons. The house had been condemned by the fire department, but the Neidermeyer boys -- perhaps lazy, perhaps nostalgic, most likely a little of both -- had yet to clean out what items were salvageable, and so the house had sat there on the outskirts of town, empty -- so everyone thought -- of any life but carpenter ants and feral cats.
"So what was it?" Paul asked.
Sonny took off his sunglasses and wiped them with his T-shirt. "Water and fire damage, probably termites on top of that." He shrugged, ran his fingers through his hair. "Or maybe the old girl just decided she'd had enough, wanted to go out with a bang, give us all something to do on a Sunday afternoon."
"So what do you do?"
Sonny humphed. "Nothing but stand here. The whole place'll probably be down by nightfall...don't expect there's much holding it up anymore. So we're just gonna watch it crumble."
"You're not gonna try to save it?"
"Look at it," Sonny said. "What's there to save?"
"I don't know," Paul said. "I just thought -- "
His father's buddy Ben Griffin appeared in his typical manner -- out of nowhere -- and smacked Paul sharply on the back of the head with an open palm. This was his usual greeting, one that occasionally brought tears to Paul's eyes that he'd quickly blink away. Ben was tall and broad-shouldered, had a square chin and a thick brown mustache that he was fond of combing. Unlike Sonny, Ben could wear just about anything and still look like a firefighter.
"That as hard as you can hit?" Paul taunted, squinting up at him.
Ben took a drag off his cigarette, raised his right eyebrow. "Want me to give it another try? Then we can add your head to that pile of crap over there." He flipped his cigarette to the ground; smoke wafted lazily through blades of dead grass. "Fire," Ben said, pointing. "Fire, fire...for Christ's sake somebody call a fireman."
Sonny stepped on the cigarette, ground it snugly into the dry earth with his boot. "Bored?" he asked.
"Nah. I've been having loads of fun letting kids try on my helmet." He set his helmet on Paul's head. "See there? A thrill a minute."
Ben had moved from Pittsburgh to join the Casey FD only a few years before and -- following his divorce six months later -- had become a regular guest at the Tucker house. At least once a week he came for dinner, then stayed and washed the dishes, tagged along for the nightly walking of the dogs, finally plopped down on the couch with the family for an evening of television. Sometimes Paul would find him curled up on the living room couch in the morning, an afghan bunched around his legs and a horseshoe of empty beer cans on the coffee table. Once, after a week of substance abuse education in the fifth grade, Paul had asked his mother if she thought Ben had a drinking problem. She'd considered for a moment, then shaken her head. More like a lonely problem, she'd said.
"Mama know you're out here?" Ben asked.
Sonny put a finger to his lips. "It's a secret."
Ben grinned. "A secret, huh? I can keep a secret -- for the right price."
Paul took off the helmet and tossed it to Ben. "Your helmet smells like cigarettes."
Ben yawned. "Best ashtray I got, worm." He nodded toward the house. "Well, boys, we're gonna be in papers all over the state tomorrow. For about five minutes everybody in PA will be talking about Casey. Then somebody in Philly'll fart and we'll be forgotten again."
"Or somebody in Philly won't fart and we'll be forgotten," Sonny said. He gazed up at the broken house a little sadly, and Paul figured his father was sorry there was nothing to do, nothing and no one to save -- yet again -- and that all he'd be in newspaper photographs tomorrow was part of the scenery, another anonymous guy in T-shirt and shades, aimlessly hanging around. Except for the tire factory incident, there had been little drama, little genuine disaster, during his twelve years in the department. Every few months there was a pileup on the turnpike, an eighteen-wheeler in flames, a car to be cracked open with the Jaws of Life. Occasionally there were forgotten cigarettes, faulty wirings, leaf burnings gone awry, kids with lighter fluid and too much time on their hands. But mostly, Paul had learned, the life of a small-town career fireman was a never-ending series of false alarms, training exercises, fender benders, safety lectures, and fire drills.
"Think it'll be on TV?" Paul asked.
"Hell, yeah," Ben said. "Phil's been talking to cameras all morning, probably already called home to set the VCR."
"You should go now, quarterback," Sonny said. He touched the seat of Paul's bike. "Before your mom starts -- "
Then the booming voice --
-- came from across the lawn. Black Phil was standing beside Casey Engine 14 with two grungy teenage boys. Paul recognized them from downtown, where they and their grungy friends -- a handful of creepy teenagers who wore trench coats and heavy black boots -- hung out in the abandoned lot behind the Hess gas station. They were the closest thing Casey had to a gang; mostly they just smoked cigarettes and leveled malevolent glares at passersby, but occasionally they'd knock a kid off his bike, shout lewdly at women, pick fights with jocks or black kids. One day, when Paul was six or seven, he and his mother were driving past the abandoned lot and his mother had shaken her head in disgust and said, "See those boys over there? They're goners, every one of them." From that point on Paul had always thought of them by that name: The Goners. It wasn't until a couple years later that he discovered the title was his mother's own, apparently drawn from a dozen years of teaching ninth-grade algebra at Casey High, and that not everyone referred to them that way. But the name had stuck in his mind.
"What rock they crawl out from under?" Ben asked.
Sonny shrugged. "Let's go find out."
They walked off without saying goodbye. Paul threw a leg over his bike and turned it around, started toward the driveway. He reached the crest and was about to begin his coast toward the road below when he heard voices behind him rise in expectation. He turned back and saw that the small group beside the fire truck had dispersed, that his father and Ben had put on their helmets and were walking across the lawn toward the house. They didn't look in any particular hurry, but even so all the gawkers were struggling for a better view, cameras at the ready. Paul considered -- stay or go? His mother would be starting to wonder, perhaps even to suspect that he'd come out here to join in the unseemly gawking, would be all frowns and furrows when he arrived home. But so what? No, really...so what? He wasn't smoking dope, for Christsakes. He wasn't busting windows or stealing lawn ornaments or harassing girls.
He turned his bike around.
"What's up?" a newsman yelled at Sonny and Ben, as Paul squeezed in through the crowd to the line of reporters who were pressed against the tape. Sonny turned and waved, smiled the broad, toothy smile that Paul knew was usually saved for kindergarten classes who toured the station. Clearly, something was wrong. To the untrained eye his father's gait might have looked casual, but Paul noticed tension in the backs of the thighs, a stiffness in the upper back; this was the way his father walked when someone was in trouble, when one of the dogs had chewed up the mail, when a fire hose was stowed carelessly. Both Sonny and Ben had their chins tucked toward their chests; they were talking, intently, but they didn't want anyone to know this. Paul felt his heart quicken; the goners had told them something that had sparked renewed interest in the house.
"You getting all this?" a lady reporter beside Paul said to her cameraman. He was standing directly behind her, the lens of the camera bobbing above her shoulder like a giant horsefly. Paul recognized the woman -- she was tiny, no bigger than the girls in his class -- from the eleven o'clock news, one of the Harrisburg stations. "This might be something."
"Maybe there's gas after all," the cameraman said. "Maybe they're smellin'."
And they did look like they were smelling. At the edge of what had once been the front porch and was now the edge of the pile of debris, Sonny and Ben got down on their hands and knees. Paul could feel the heat of bodies pressing in behind him.
"What're they doing?"
"Looking for something, I guess."
"They're smellin'," the cameraman said knowingly. "They're smellin', all right."
Paul rolled his eyes: another know-it-all. That was about the last thing Casey needed, another guy with his head up his butt thinking he knew all about somebody else's business. Paul watched his father remove his helmet, then bend down and lay the side of his head against a slab of concrete at the foot of the rubble. Ben followed suit. Neither man moved a muscle, and the crowd fell suddenly still, hundreds of breaths held in, the only sound the whir of video rolling.
"They're listening," someone whispered.
"Maybe there's somebody down there."
"No way. Be dead by now even if there was."
Then Sonny and Ben abruptly stood up. They exchanged a few words, stole a brief glance at the curious crowd, then started back down the lawn toward Black Phil, strolling casually, as if nothing but the weather occupied their minds.
"False alarm," someone said.
"They're bored," someone else added. "Just lookin' for something to look for, I bet."
Paul knew better. Before he could talk himself out of it, he laid his bike on the ground and ducked under the yellow tape, then crept around the back of Engine 14, out of sight from his father and Ben and Phil. He gently eased himself down on the wide silver bumper, his hands under his thighs to block the chill, and listened to the conversation.
"...a loser," Ben was saying. "All the cops know him. Said he's some kind of Nazi or something."
Paul recognized his father's scoff. "Cops think every weird kid's a Nazi these days."
"Maybe," Ben said. "But not every weird kid has a swastika on his back."
"You kiddin' me?"
"I heard it too," Phil said. "Sixteen years old and he's got a damn swastika tattoo. All these little boys playin' at Nazi."
Nazi? The image in Paul's mind was from a video they'd seen at school the year before, black-and-white footage of tall men in steel helmets pulling dazed old women from sooty train cars, nudging them into long lines with the butts of machine guns, spitting into dirty snow.
"He's trouble," Ben said. "Building pipe bombs down there, I bet. Or mixing drugs. Like that guy, that comedian, blew himself up. You guys remember that?"
"His friends said they were just hanging out," Phil said. "Drinking beer, listening to music."
Paul peered around the corner of the truck to get a good look at the crowd, see if he could catch sight of those boys, the two goners, but they had vanished. They were always doing that, disappearing and then reappearing -- like shadows or ghosts -- in store aisles and school halls and darkened alleyways.
"You buying that?" Ben asked. "You think they're gonna tell you they got a friggin' bomb factory in the basement? I'll bet the wad that asshole brought the house down on himself."
"He'd be dead," Sonny said, "if a bomb blew in his face. He wouldn't be making all that racket. I'm telling you, Phil, he's banging like crazy on something down there. We're lookin' at a big dig."
"Backhoe?" Ben's voice had gone up half an octave. Paul smiled; he knew the truth about Ben, about his dad, about all the firemen in Casey, maybe all the firemen in the world: most of them sat around day in and day out just hoping something like this would happen.
"No way," Sonny said. "No bulldozer, no backhoe, no heavy equipment, unless we want the rest of the house coming down on our heads. We get a construction crew out here ASAP to shore the standing walls, then we go at it with our hands. Saws, axes, air chisels. We set up a cage over the dig spot to protect our guys in case anything comes loose upstairs."
"You did the training course," Phil said. "Last year?"
"Two years ago," Sonny said. "I know the drill. All we need is a passage big enough to fit one man through."
"I'm guessing that would be you," Ben said.
Paul leaned forward, peered at them around the corner of the truck. Ben and his father had their backs to him, and Phil wasn't taking any notice, his eyes narrowed with plans and expectation.
"I'm guessin' it would," Sonny answered humorlessly. "Since I took the course. Plus I'm the smallest. Listen, we know he's alive, and he's got enough strength to be making all that noise. No gas, no live wires, no water, probably plenty of air. We take our time and do it right, by the book, and then we go in and get him. Once we start digging we'll find some voids along the way, I guarantee it. The kid'll be out by nightfall."
Paul grinned. He remembered when his father had come to his fourth-grade class for a fire safety lecture, how he'd held all the kids spellbound, read them the riot act about lighter fluid, paint thinner, and aerosol cans so that even the most ill-mannered boys listened intently, mouths agape. These were the times he admired his father most -- no hesitation, no doubt, and only a single viable option: his, the right one. At home, his mother always made the calls, overrode his father's decisions about sleepovers and vacations and meals and bedtime, often with no more than a word or a single well-placed expression. But out here, out in the real world, his father was boss.
"Sounds good, Sonny," Ben said. "I can only think of eight or nine hundred ways that plan could fuck up."
"You got a better idea?"
"Yeah -- call in some guys who know what they're doing. No offense, but this ain't a job for the Kittatinny County boys."
"I took the course," Sonny said.
"In a conference room, right?" Ben asked, smirking. "Watched a slide show or something while you're drinking coffee and eating jelly doughnuts? I say we call the rescue response team in Pittsburgh, tell them -- "
"They're two hours away!" Sonny interrupted. "And that's if they leave right now, which they won't. You want us to just sit around all afternoon waiting on 'em, looking like a bunch of assholes?"
Ben shook his head. "This isn't about how we look, Sonny. Those guys in Pittsburgh are experts. They do this stuff all the time." He turned to Phil. "Think about it," he said. Then he added, pointedly: "It's your call, Phil."
But it wasn't. Paul knew it wasn't, and he knew damn well the three of them knew it too, though they stood there in the dusty drive pretending otherwise. Phil may have been the chief on paper, but when something this momentous lay in the balance it was going to be Sonny -- the blood of Captain Sam coursing through his veins, thirty years at the station imprinted on his face and hands -- who'd have the final say.
Phil scratched his head and frowned thoughtfully. For a moment it looked to Paul like old Phil might actually make the decision on his own, might suck it up and pull rank. Then his eyes darted quickly to Sonny. "Wha'dya think?"
"You know what I think," Sonny said firmly. "I think we can do it ourselves. I know we can do it ourselves."
Phil nodded. "Then we do it ourselves. I'll call the construction guys. We can have a crew here in fifteen, twenty at -- " A broad grin spread across his face; his eyes had locked with Paul's. Paul jerked his head back, but he knew he was too late.
"Just like your daddy," Phil shouted. "Come on out from there, pal."
Paul hopped down and sauntered around the corner of the truck, hands in his pockets. They were all staring at him. Phil and Ben were grinning, but his father looked mystified, as if Paul were a character in a movie he'd seen once, a long time ago, that had now inexplicably materialized in the real world.
"Time was," Phil said, "I'd be standing here talking to Captain Sam and your daddy'd be lurking around in the shadows just like you are now." He and Ben laughed lightly, and Paul laughed too.
"I thought I told you to go home," Sonny said. He wasn't laughing. He wasn't, Paul recognized, anywhere in the vicinity of a laugh.
"I'm not in the way."
"You are right now. 'Cause we're standing here talking to you, wasting valuable time."
"Let him be, Sonny," Phil said gently. "'Bout time he starts learning a few things. He's just like you was at -- "
"He's not like me," Sonny snapped, his face and shoulders stiffening at once. "He's got a mother at home."
Ben cleared his throat and looked away. Phil was silent for a moment, then shrugged. "No time for this talk," he said. "I gotta get on the phone, then go face the newshounds. They'll be shitting bricks when they hear about the Finch kid."
"Who's the Finch kid?" Paul asked.
"I'll fill in the others," Ben said, heading off to the congregation of firemen from neighboring towns.
"Home," Sonny told Paul when the other two were gone, a finger that might as well have belonged to the grim reaper pointing in the general direction of their house. "Right now."
Paul took a deep breath, didn't move. He knew he was on shaky ground, but what Phil had said stirred him. He was like his father, deep down -- Phil had said it, had seen something in him that wasn't a coward. And right now, today, this very minute, with the sun high in the sky and the crisp fall air slipping up his shirtsleeves, he had his chance to prove it.
"You really going down there, under the house?"
Sonny put his hands on his hips, the last gesture before real trouble. "It's gonna be a while before anybody goes down there. Right now you need to get your butt home. I don't wanna have to deal with your mother getting -- "
"I wanna stay," Paul said. "Phil's right...it's time I start learning. I'll keep out of the way. I just want to see what you do."
"Paul, I said -- " But then Sonny stopped, mid-demand. He was taken aback by the words; it was splashed all over his face, clear as bliss or sickness. Paul had never seen this particular expression before, and he wasn't sure what it meant. Perhaps his father had seen himself in him, just for a moment, and then, too, seen Captain Sam in himself, in an even briefer moment. A breeze kicked up and ruffled his father's blond hair, blew dust at their ankles. Still his father was silent.
"All right already," Sonny said irritably. "You can stay. But you're not hanging around up here. I want you behind the tape with everybody else. I was gonna call your mom from the truck anyway; I'll tell her you met up with some kids and came out here and you guys are throwing the football around. Now you keep out of the way, I mean it."
"I will," Paul said, trying to muster a serious expression, trying desperately not to grin as he headed back toward the crowd. Thing was, when his mother said she meant it, he knew she meant it. But with his father it was different -- everything was open to interpretation, open just wide enough to squeeze through. Somewhere beyond what his father said he wanted lay the things he really wanted. And those things, Paul knew, were out here, where the action was, among the cameras and the crowd and the crumbling house. So it was only right that he be here too.
It took most of the afternoon to shore the standing walls to the rescue workers' satisfaction. Paul spent the majority of that time playing Frisbee golf with several dozen of his schoolmates in the Neidermeyer pasture. His best friends Carson Diehl and Joe Bower were there, and Paul was able to restrain himself for only a few minutes before dropping the first hint (you guys ever seen a real rescue before?) that the day was about to take an exciting turn. When Carson and Joe badgered him for details he clammed up. Confidential information, he told them, and he could see the envy in their faces. He'd always gotten a lot of mileage from his father; he knew, and didn't mind, that some of his popularity had to do with his heritage. Carson's dad was a loan officer; Joe's dad owned the shoe store. A lot of kids in his class had dads who worked in factories or on farms. Some of them didn't even have dads. He knew how lucky he was: not just a dad, but a dad who kicked ass.
His father replaced the cool that his mother depleted. She was a worry-mom of the highest order, and this was the primary reason he had to lie to her so often, to protect them both from embarrassing overreactions, especially in public. He lied to her more about football than anything else, because he knew the rules: let on he might be hurt, and he could kiss his football career (Casey High, Penn State, Pittsburgh Steelers) goodbye. His mother could spot a scratch from fifty feet, saw a limp in every misstep. From August to November he wore clothes that hid bruises, tended his wounds carefully in the privacy of the shower. Stiffness was the only acceptable injury. Sometimes when he was sacked and went down hard he'd see her rise to her feet in the bleachers; once or twice she'd even made it down a few rows toward the field before he hurriedly got up, signaling to the sidelines (to her, really) that he was fine. The possibility that someday she might actually make it onto the field before he staggered to his feet was too horrifying to even consider.
It was funny, though: for all her suffocating concern over the innumerable risks of Pony football, she had never shown a moment of trepidation at the thought of her husband charging into a burning building. "Sweetie, he'll be fine," she'd always told Paul when he was naive enough to actually share his fears with her. When other firemen's wives voiced their apprehensions, Laura would wave her hand dismissively. "They spend half the day playing cards," she'd say. Or: "What's so scary about telling kindergartners to stop, drop, and roll?"
What was her secret? Paul didn't know, but he admired it, harbored great envy for this remarkable talent. Even before the factory fire, the swell of sirens had the power to turn his knees to ice, to fill his mind, if only for a moment, with the certainty that his father was speeding toward a fiery death. Usually -- usually -- he could quell the panic in a moment or two with deep breaths and practiced reason. But his mother, it seemed, didn't even need a moment. "Kiss the kitty for me," she would often say when Sonny was called away on an emergency (the old joke -- the cat up a tree) but this old joke never brought a smile to his father's lips. His sense of humor did not seem to extend to what he obviously saw as mockery; every time Laura shot one of her little arrows, made a lightly cutting remark about the lack of legitimate danger in the day-to-day affairs of a fireman, Paul noticed his father's eyes drop to the floor, his jaw stiffen. Out of embarrassment? Or anger? Paul wasn't sure -- it was part of a language he didn't understand.
His father had once told him something he now could only imagine must have been a lie, a mistake, at least an exaggeration. The story was that after they were first married, Sonny would get reports from neighbors that Laura had been seen walking their dogs around town at all hours of the night and early morning while he was on duty. According to Sonny, it was the appearance of Paul in the world that had allowed Laura to finally sleep nights while he was at the station. Now Paul doubted this information. It was the neighbors who had said it, after all. Neighbors were always saying something.
In the Neidermeyer pasture, Frisbee golf turned to Frisbee football, then -- with all the girls finally bullied out of the game -- to kill-the-man-with-the-Frisbee. Every so often, when he wasn't being pursued by a pack of tacklers, Paul would steal a look at his father. While the other firemen paced the lawn impatiently, looking at their watches, frowning at the tedious work of the construction crew, Sonny stood alone off to the side of the house, his arms crossed loosely across his chest, his eyes closed as often as open, his breaths measured and calm. Paul thought he could even detect a faint smile on his father's lips -- not exactly a happy smile, but a contented smile, the smile of a man who was finally standing on the very spot he'd been heading toward his whole life.
Following the death of Gramaw Tucker, from a cancer that spread and ravaged with mind-numbing speed, four-year-old Sonny had taken up permanent residence in Casey Station #1 with Captain Sam and the other firemen. He had his own cot in the sleeping quarters, ate and eventually cooked in the common kitchen, played Ping-Pong with the other firemen on the scarred and rickety table that still stood -- barely -- in the back room of the station house. In addition to Captain Sam, the county had employed seven other career firemen and Casey alone had a crew of nearly thirty volunteers. Before long Sonny had belonged to all of them and thus lost the name given to him by Gramaw Tucker -- a name Paul had once seen on his father's driver's license and not recognized -- and came to be known only as Sonny. Each man in the station played one part of the whole known as father: Black Phil taught him to make double-decker grilled cheese, Chris Elscot threw the football with him, Fred Randolph cut his hair, Jay Nichols helped him with his homework. And Captain Sam did what he had always done best: he oversaw.
It was usually Chris Elscot or Black Phil who roused young Sonny from sleep, hurried him from his squeaky cot as the alarm screamed bloody murder in the middle of the night. Sometimes weeks would go by without a night call, then there'd be a stretch of three or four in a row (full moon, the guys would say) when Sonny's dreams would be shattered first by the blast of sound ricocheting off the walls and then -- before he was truly awake -- thick fingers around his bicep, tugging him from under the covers.
"Up and at 'em, kid..."
On his feet, in his shoes, down the pole, blinking drowsy eyes in the glare of harsh light off chrome. As the men stepped into their turnout gear, he'd fumble his black jacket from its hook (Sonny, on a piece of duct tape, slapped to the wall beside the others' names) and climb on board. And then the best part, the part that always woke him more completely than any sunrise: engines roaring, sirens wailing, they'd sail out of the station and into the night.
But mostly, Paul knew, his father and the men who raised him had spent the majority of their time doing all the things normal families did. They ate big meals, played hearts and checkers, shot baskets in the drive, argued about whose turn it was to do the dishes. The TV was on twenty-four hours a day; Chris Elscot knew the twisted history of every character on Days of Our Lives, Black Phil was a Wheel of Fortune genius, and Fred Randolph howled at every episode of Gomer Pyle, no matter how many times he'd seen it before. Most of the time Captain Sam sat in his office filling out incident reports, a Marlboro burned to its quick pinched in the web between his index and middle finger. Sometimes Sonny would pull up a chair beside him, lay out his homework next to the incident reports, and set silently to his studies. Captain Sam would briefly look over, smile approvingly, and return to his work.
According to Black Phil, by the time Sonny was in his early teens he was living the life of a fireman. Though he had gone through no formal training, he was second only to his father as the most trusted man on the force. He never entered a burning building (Captain Sam's orders) but he did everything else expected of a seasoned volunteer -- checked and cleaned equipment, laid lines from hydrant to pumper, sprayed debris from the scene of highway accidents. In his other world, away from the firehouse, he was an outsider. He lettered in football and track at Casey High, but had few close friends. His life, his home, his world, was the station.
His father didn't talk of these years much, but he didn't need to. Everyone else in town knew the story, and Paul had pieced together the history of his father detail by detail, one scene -- sometimes one frame -- at a time. Bits of the story came from the parents and grandparents of his friends, but the bulk of it came from the firemen themselves, men who liked nothing better on a rainy afternoon than to sit around the station house one-upping each other with their dueling memories. For a time Paul had been fascinated by the tale, had gathered all the information he could, had even written an essay in fourth grade about his father's unique upbringing that won honorable mention in a state contest. But in the last couple years he'd begun to lose interest in exploring the past, grown more concerned with the future -- his own future, specifically -- which seemed with each step toward manhood increasingly unrelated to his father's past.
By the time the shoring was complete, the Neidermeyer house resembled something a monkey would make if forced to take shop class, a motley mess of planks, steel bars, chains, and cables that lacked any aesthetic value but which, apparently, would keep the house from continuing its collapse. A 10 x 10 chain-link dog kennel (brought to the site by Cole Colson, owner of the local pet and livestock supply) was placed over the spot where Sonny and Ben had first heard the banging from the basement. Then the initial dig team -- Ben, Sonny, and two other Casey firemen -- began their work.
Bored with Frisbee and antsy for a better view than his five feet afforded him, Paul discovered what he thought was the ideal vantage point, a limb of one of the oak trees that the police tape was wound around. He could see the beginnings of the hole clearly from his perch. At first his father and the others dug -- or flung, more accurately -- with their hands; the first foot or two of rubble was relatively simple, consisted mostly of small pieces of plaster, planks of wood, bits of the roof, items from the upstairs rooms that could be pitched out the swinging kennel door. Once they got past the first layer, the task became more difficult. Each man took a saw or pick and began to grind and chip away at the debris. The plan was to make a shaft large enough to slip in a makeshift tunnel of wooden barrels, to secure a safe passage, guard against the tunnel caving in on itself once it was complete.
Darkness fell a little after five o'clock; floodlights borrowed from a nearby turnpike construction project were rigged up around the dog kennel. Powered by giant droning generators, the lights were powerful enough to cast the equivalent of sunlight over the dig spot plus a dim hint of dusk across the lawn and into the pasture. Sonny, straining to keep balance on the rubble despite the vibrations from the air chisel in his hands, called repeatedly for the Finch kid, but -- from what Paul could see from the look on his father's face, ghostly in the glare -- he seemed to be getting no answer. Paul recalled his confident words from earlier -- we'll have him out by nightfall -- and wondered if those words were ringing now in his father's ears as well, drowning out the buzz of the chisel and the shrill scrape of the saw. But surely, just a few more minutes, a few more inches...
"He's toast," the kid on the branch below Paul said. It was Alex Luckett, the son of one of the volunteer firemen. He was in eighth grade and stout as an ox; the branch dipped under his weight. "I'll bet ya anything."
"Maybe he's just passed out," Paul said. But looking at the house, he had to admit it was hard to imagine the Nazi as being anything but dead. He tried to get a picture of the goners in his mind, hoping to see the face that belonged to "the Finch kid," but he found he could only picture them as a group, lurking behind the Hess Station, as indistinguishable from one another as a pack of wolves. So he gave this Finch a face, a sketch of a convenience store thief he'd seen on the news a few nights before, a black-and-white line drawing of a man whose features were so ordinary he could have been just about anybody. He put the face in the basement, imagined the penciled face in agony, the penciled mouth shouting for help, the penciled eyes wild with fear. And then the penciled face dead, almost peaceful, his lines thickening and blurring until the face was only a scribble.
At six the second shift of diggers came on, and Sonny took a break, hobbled stiff-kneed to the water table and peeled apart an orange, stuffed it in his mouth. Paul scampered down from his perch on the tree and joined him.
"Everybody thinks he's dead," Paul said.
"He's not," Sonny said. He wet his hands under the watercooler and rubbed them gently together; even with his thick cowhide gloves, blisters puckered his palms -- they were bright red and puffy, and Paul imagined late tonight, after all this was over, his mother would rub lotion into them and his father would smile through his wincing.
"You heard anything?"
"He's just takin' a rest," Sonny said. "That's all. You'd be taking a rest too if you'd been kickin' for eight hours."
"That's what I was thinking," Paul said.
His father nodded, wiped juice from his chin with the heel of his hand. "Then you're thinking like a fireman." He tossed his orange peel on the ground. "Once you start believin' a guy's dead you don't work quite so fast, lose a little bit of that urgency. That's when you get into trouble."
As his father had predicted, the second dig team hit a void at six feet, a space of about thirty inches in what had once been the Neidermeyer kitchen. Two men carried a large wooden barrel -- the ends cut off to form a tube -- into the cage and twisted it into the hole, and then the digging became the task of one man at a time, a tedious operation of small picks and saws, all of it done upside down, blood rushing to the temples, dust in the eyes and mouth. An hour passed, then another. Crickets chirped, kids hollered. Paul sat in the tree, his lower back cramping, his eyelids heavy; the unrelenting dusk made him sleepy.
Paul could hear Black Phil's voice even from his perch in the tree, and he slid clumsily down the trunk, ducked under the yellow tape and walked at a rapid clip toward the dog kennel, hoping to render himself more or less invisible by gliding across the lawn in the fluid and unself-conscious manner of a quarterback sneak. The crowd in the pasture had not dwindled; if anything, it had grown as expectation of a dramatic rescue -- or the discovery of a mangled body -- increased. A small group from the Baptist church had gathered in a circle and were reading Bible verses in grave tones, but most everyone else seemed more comfortable as onlookers than intercessors; instead of praying, they scrambled for a better view.
Ben and Phil were fitting Sonny into his nylon harness. Paul stood on his tiptoes, his nose poking through the kennel fencing, and peered down the black hole. His father, he knew, was accustomed to tight spaces. He had heard the drill many times: as a fireman, you had to be prepared for any size and variety of traps, because you never knew when you might find yourself in one; at any moment during a rescue a roof could collapse, a floor give way, leaving you blind and disoriented, wedged under, inside, between. And then, despite the darkness and the heat and the walls crushing you, you had to be calm. And calm, Paul knew, was his father's strong suit. It was not only his size that made him the best man for the job.
Ben and Phil hooked metal clips on the harness at both the chest and thighs. Sonny jerked on the clips, did a couple deep knee bends, rolled his neck around for a few good cracks. He took a long, deep breath, then stood perfectly still for about ten seconds under the blinding lights, as if he were waiting for someone to snap his picture. It was then that he noticed Paul.
"You're like a bad penny," he said.
Ben socked him on the shoulder. "Talk like that'll win you father-of-the-year for sure," he said. "Kid just wants to wish you well."
"Yeah, good luck," Paul said. Then, after brief consideration, he added the advice his father always added right before kickoff: "Don't forget to have fun."
Sonny grinned. "Go sit in the truck or something, willya?"
"I will," Paul said.
"Gotta pee before you go?" Ben asked. "It's a long ride."
"Shut up and let's do it," Sonny said.
Phil touched Sonny's sleeve. "Your daddy'd be proud of you. He'll be down there with you, you know."
"Hope not," Ben said. "Ain't room for both of 'em."
In the dark, in the wide and chilly cab of Engine 14, Paul thought of his grandfather. He'd heard the story of Captain Sam's death so many times that he felt he'd been there himself. A quiet February night in Casey. A foot of snow on the ground. His father and mother -- though they weren't yet a father and mother, weren't even a husband and wife -- two hundred miles away in the safety of a warm dorm room. Maybe they were studying when the call came in to the station, lying on his mother's bed with their elbows touching. Maybe, by the time Engine 14 arrived at the house on Dogwood Avenue, they had closed their books and put on some music -- his mother's REM, or his father's Rolling Stones. Maybe they were making out as Sam stormed into the house to rescue a young boy whose parents believed was trapped upstairs, a boy who, as it happened, was already safe in a neighbor's kitchen down the street.
An hour later, after the blaze had been extinguished, Black Phil and Fred Randolph found their captain inside a closet in the master bedroom. He was sitting in a black puddle of his own skin, surrounded by dozens of melted shoes -- their laces unlaced, their tongues pulled back. Apparently, Sam had been looking for the boy in the toes of his parents' shoes while sucking his last poisoned breaths.
Though he'd never known his grandfather, Paul had often imagined those final moments in the life of Captain Sam, this giant of a man prying apart shoe after shoe, disoriented in the thick black smoke, his tank of air depleted, half crazy, half dead, looking for a little boy he had to know, by that time, he was never going to find.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Perabo