She raised her unmanicured brows. Maybe it would finally help her open her eyes. She lifted her weary and warm left hand to take off her air mask. Her tank was empty anyway, but the alarms on it would not shut up. High and low bell sounds rattled and screamed into her ears, slowly passing by her charred, numb lobes, the same ones that wore her mother’s diamonds at her cousin’s wedding last year, the same ones that felt hot then warm then hot again after they were pierced by her mother’s alcohol-soaked sewing needle when she was little.
“Well, those mall places aren’t careful enough!” she said quietly. Gwen didn’t mind that her earrings were always a little crooked. She just tilted her head.
The smoke was beginning to clear, but she could smell the burned sheetrock with plum-colored matte paint, the olive-green shag carpets that were once covered in dog hair and plain, damp dirt, the charred wooden chairs, and the plastic Marvel figurines.
She remembers seeing them when she first arrived, Captain America dripping down the front of the mantle in all of his red-white-and-blues, the lower right side of his face gone. Only Iron Man’s helmet remained, scarlet and gold intact, unintentionally laughing at his melted minion patriotic friend with his untouched face.
The sounds of the rescue crew were muffled and frantic, seemed to be getting farther and farther away. She wanted to care, so she tried.
She opened her weak mouth to scream so they could find her, but only a gurgling whisper came out of her slightly-opened lips, like a tired and cheap air-conditioner in August, “Please come back. I’m right he . . .” Her eyes closed again. Fight it, Gwen!
Her nose was running, and her lips were dry. She tasted blood somewhere near her left top molars and couldn’t feel her right side below her neck. She doubted they would find her and almost prayed for it so she could welcome the deep, tempting sleep.
What about Leigh? She had to fight. But that dark, quiet, dreamless sleep, oh it tempted her. She wanted it. She didn’t want to think. She wanted darkness. The dark darkness. The kind that’s a little too chilly. The kind that makes you stay under the covers, just a little bit, no matter how bad you have to pee in the middle of the night.
Her mind was filled with old sitcoms and the middle of a very safe night in your own bed. She’d think of Dan and Roseanne when they would sit up in their full-sized bed and talk about their working-class day, clap their hands to turn the lights on. Then off. Then on. A safe, childhood place for her. She was in bed with the Connors, all cozy in Lanford, Illinois in Middle America’s 1980’s.
As the alarms continued to scream, she thought of her soft cotton, white nightgown that was her mother’s, the one with the lightly-ruffled flannel shoulders and the very feminine hill-and-valley trim that found the tops of her ankles. Drinks of water at midnight. Taking only one freshly-shaven leg out to cool off for less than two minutes. Perfect images of her soft, plush, on-sale mattress with Bed Bath and Beyond thousand-count off-white sheets and floral cotton, white-threaded quilts adorned with tiny pink roses floated around in her brain. The ones she bought with her first real paycheck from the fire department. The ones her daughter, Leigh, would sleep next to her in.
“I’m not scared, Mom. I just want to make sure you have someone next to you.”
“Liar,” Gwen would say to her. They laughed until one of them, usually Gwen, went to dreamland.
She closed her eyes even tighter and wished she was under the covers next to Rose Niland, Lucille Ball, or on the comfort of Dan Connor’s most safest shoulder.
Drinks of tepid water at midnight from a clear, tall Dollar Tree glass. Sleep. Deep, safe, dark, sleep. In her mind, the window was open just a crack so the fresh smell of the fall’s first snow would occasionally swim through the metal screen and its extruded lines would find her face, make it pink, then move on until she became warm again. If she closed her eyes even tighter, she could inhale deeply and take in the fresh, thin, cleanest Christmas air.
The actual blackest darkness and wet warmth tempted her, but she knew not to keep her eyes closed so she opened them again. She tried to yell again but her invisible voice could not compete with the ear-piercing sirens and the squawking Motorola radios. Her muscles were torn and tired, and the outside layer of her bunker gear was saturated with dirty water. She snuggled deeper into the silver foil inner-shell of the jacket, cherishing its protection and its shiny dryness.
She thought about Leigh. She pictured her dad. What were they doing? Her mind started to go black again. “No!” she violently thought. Not yet.
“I found Gwen!” she heard. “She’s under the trailer, near the bedroom with the crib!” She allowed her jaw to go slack, and welcomed it when her body melted like warm chocolate into the dark, earthy ground, so she pulled the imaginary covers up to her chin. She wondered what was going on back at her house, picturing herself there with them, allowing it to comfort her. She closed her eyes again.
“Why do you even need to be a firefighter?” her dad said. He was sipping a Corona with no lime.
“Why does anyone want to?” They were in the backyard at the grill. Her cigarette was hanging off the corner of her mouth, the dry paper latching onto her damp lip while she used all her might to throw the gooey, grass-covered tennis ball across the yard so their German Shepherd, Erwin, could run for it.
“You could get hurt,” her dad said, his voice slowing down a bit, knowing he was about to lose her attention.
“That’s why I train so hard,” she said, “so I will always be safe.”
“Those aren’t going to help you,” her dad said, aiming his bare chin at her Marlboro Red, his smirk showing his potential win, his concerned eyes showing his loss. He walked up to her, kissed her forehead, then brought the cookie sheet of cheeseburgers and vegan hot dogs to the kitchen.
“Did you turn off the gas?” she asked him.
She turned to him. “I’ll quit,” she said. “I promise.”
“Mmmhmmm,” he said. “Come on, let’s eat. Leigh is hungry.”
“Come on, Erwin!” she said and tapped the top of her Old Navy black leggings on her right thigh.
They walked into the house, slamming the wooden screen door behind them each time a new person or pup entered. “Time to eat, Leigh!” she yelled, smirking.
“I’m almost done, Mom!” she said. Gwen walked into the parlor and found her daughter. She was at the typewriter clicking away with her painted-black, twelve-year-old fingers. She stared at her daughter, and became a tiny bit lost.
“Mom, go! I can’t concentrate!”
“Sorry, but Papa made your favorite vegan dogs,” she said, knowing her love for him would win.
“That’s not fair, Mom,” she said. Then she pressed one last key on the electric typewriter, probably an exclamation mark, pushed back the wooden chair, and turned and walked to the kitchen where she found her papa, gave him a big hug, and said, “Thanks, Papa, for making these for me.”
“You’re welcome, Baby Leigh. I still don’t get it,” he said.
“Animals shouldn’t have to die just so I can live. It makes no sense. Do we have any mustard?”
“I’ve never known a child to love mustard that much.”
“I’m not a child, Papa.”
They took their prepared plates outside of the house they all shared to the yard, Leigh, with her single vegan hot dog, no bun, covered in mustard, and Gwen with a hot dog, double cheeseburger, both drenched in tomatoes, ketchup, pickles, lettuce, and nacho cheese. They also brought out the pan of two boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, and Erwin’s food bowl.
“How are you not 500 pounds,” her father said proudly.
“OK, Nelson, it’s these,” she said while she motioned her head towards the cigarettes waiting patiently for her to finish eating.
“How about calling me Dad? And why are you so mean to me,” he said, smirking.
“I’m sorry, Dad, I know it bothers you. I will try to quit. I promise.”
“Good,” he said, his handsome gray temples moving back and forth in his own attempt to not smile.
“Dad, you’re gonna break a tooth again,” she said, exposing his effort.
He threw a cool and very salty dill pickle chip at her and it landed and remained on her cheek. Gwen retaliated with a too-ripe Big Boy tomato slice from their garden.
“You two are children!” Leigh said, her little invisible brow furrowed but her lips smirking. She finally laughed, Walmart-brand mustard spewing from her little mouth. She grabbed the bottle she brought with her to the picnic table and emptied it on them, painting the scene yellow.
“That’s 94 cents!” Nelson yelled, then grabbed the water hose.
“No, Dad! I straightened my hair today,” Gwen pleaded.
“You and that frizz,” he said as he subconsciously patted his own head. They allowed themselves a good laugh, then finished up and began carrying their empty dishes into the house. The setting-sun threatened the day’s light, and Erwin was lapping up the food ammunition.
Once they got into the house, Nelson flicked the knob on the radio and “How Does it Feel” by Roy Harper was playing.
“I like this one,” Leigh said. “I’m trying to learn to play it.”
“Good for you, baby girl. I like it, too,” Gwen said, then she filled the kitchen sink with very hot water and blue Dawn. She began to stare into the clean, white bubbles until her eyes blurred, listening to Erwin lap up his cold, fresh water from his stainless-steel bowl, and used her ears to soak in the music that floated around the room.
She allowed herself to think of her mom, waiting for the suds to reach the top of the cool metal sink, enjoying life but feeling guilty about it.
“I miss mom,” she accidentally said aloud.
“I know. Me, too,” said her dad.
“I miss Nana, too,” Leigh chimed in from the piano bench, seeming grateful for the permission to talk about it.
Gwen and her dad looked at each other in search of what to say to Leigh, then he put his right arm around her while she loaded up the sink with plain white dishes covered in mustard and pickle juice.
“We need mustard,” she said to him, smirking.
“I’ll put it on the list.” he said, tilting his head while he smiled at her, appreciating her subject-change. Who wants a sundae? I got Breyers!”
“Me!” the mother and daughter said in unison.
Gwen continued washing dishes while Papa scooped vanilla-bean ice cream into coffee mugs boasting either the Red Sox or San Francisco 49er’s, and Leigh was loving on Erwin. Their shoulders began their daily relax, and the outside darkness settled in.
The sweet, safe darkness was cut in half when Gwen’s pager went off, charging up her heart and worrying her dad and daughter.
“I gotta go!” she said. Air hugs! I love you!”
In seconds, she was out the door, her red dash-light she purchased from a senior fire fighter illuminating the early night road, the taste of pickles and mustard still resting on her lips.