Bill knew he liked the other firemen in ways they probably didn’t like him, but he grew up a fireman’s son and it was all that had ever been expected of him to follow in his father’s ashen footsteps. After the fire, it was an obsession at first, a teenager volunteering where his daddy’d worked, but then he realised there were more reasons to stay at the station than his old man’s legacy.
Monroe was a new volunteer fireman after the first few weeks of senior year. The youngest on the squad, he was only a couple years older than Bill was at eighteen. He’d just started college and volunteered mostly a couple hours over the weekend, and Bill made sure to get there the same time every day. He’d watch Monroe meticulously while he helped around the station, hoping only that wherever he was asked to help, it would give him a good view of the youngest one there other than himself.
One Sunday, midsummer, the fields were ablaze with brush fires and most of the firemen were out with the fire trucks laying fire lines to stop its spread. The station was quiet, silent all but for the scant sound of breathing, back and forth between Bill and Monroe. Bill doubted Monroe heard it at all; the soft inhalation and easy exhalation was like a dream’s symphony to the eighteen-year-old, but to Monroe? Bill doubted it seemed like any more to him than background noise.
Bill was washing down the station fridge, stealing glances at Monroe across the room where he was scuffing his fireman boots, when the phone rang. He was two steps away while Monroe was twenty, and coupled with his reflex to answer a ringing phone, he grabbed it without thinking.
“Hello?” He blinked and quickly added, “County Fire Department.”
“It’s an emergency,” came a woman’s voice, high-pitched and too noticeably panicked. Bill instantly came on edge, the hair on his arms upright and his spine suddenly straight, and he caught Monroe stop scuffing his boots out of the corner of his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked breathlessly. There was a clump in his stomach, a distant memory of his mother at the door, the fire chief saying, “There’s an emergency.”
“It’s Camille,” the woman said, “she–she’s stuck in a tree! Please, send someone to save her!”
Bill almost laughed from relief–there wasn’t any fire at all–but was still too uptight to do so. “Just give me your address, ma’am, and I’ll have someone come right away.”
He grabbed a pen and a slip of paper and quickly jotted down the woman’s address. When he hung up the phone, he walked across the room toward Monroe, his stomach fluttering for more reasons than the phone call alone, and passed the paper to Monroe.
“Someone’s stuck in a tree,” he said.
Monroe nodded and surveyed the slip of paper in his hand. He looked up at Bill and smiled. “It’s only around the block, three minutes down the street at most. Wanna come?”
Bill swallowed unintentionally. “Sure,” he said, then reconsidered. “What about the station?”
Monroe shrugged. “There’s no one else here to respond to a call, and even if I go alone, there’s not much you could do either.” He smiled, a sweet, soft, simple smile that made Bill smile too.
“Sure. That–that sounds great.” He didn’t sound too eager, did he? A walk with Monroe? He felt his whole body trembling and wondered if the fireman would notice.
“I’ll grab the ladder,” Monroe said. “Meet you at the front?”
“Sure,” Bill said again, reminding himself to say something different next time he spoke. His heart was racing at the thought of not just being alone with Monroe, but talking with him, too, going on a walk with him. He felt faint almost, but the excitement was too much to put him out.
It took two minutes for Monroe to meet him outside, and as soon as he was there, the two were walking down the street. The sun was warm and the crisp blue sky cloudless. If he didn’t know it as fact, he wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told him there were wild fires only miles away.
“Bill, right?” Monroe said, and Bill nodded. “Monroe,” he added, and Bill chuckled (as if he wouldn’t know, he thought with a grin that he quickly suppressed). “We see each other a lot, but we don’t really talk much, do we?”
“No, guess not,” Bill said. He tried counting how many times his heart beat in a second, but lost count too quickly.
“So,” Monroe said with a shrug, “let’s talk. It’s good for a team to know its members, right?”
“Right,” Bill said and held his breath in attempt to help convince himself to talk more. “What do you wanna talk about?”
Monroe shrugged again. “What brought you to the station?”
Bill was quiet a moment, looked at the ground. “My dad used to work here. He was a fireman, too.”
Monroe looked down a moment, too. Another fireman didn’t need a decoder to hear the message hidden in Bill’s words. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. His voice was genuine, sincere. It made Bill feel warm inside.
“Thanks,” he said. “It–it was a long time ago. I’ve been helping out here since then, maybe six years?” He shrugged. “What about you?”
Monroe cocked his head to the right for a second. “My dad’s a fireman, too, back home. I worked in our station much like you’re working here, till I started college. I saw this station needed firemen, so I came over.”
“What you studying?” Bill blinked; it actually hadn’t been too hard to say that. He smiled.
“Business,” Monroe said. “Pretty generic, huh? I can’t decide what I want to do. I guess everyone uncertain majors in business.” He laughed, a dry chuckle. Bill wanted to hold his hand, watched the beads of sweat roll down his forehead, watched his muscles move under his skin as he readjusted the ladder. “You in college, too?”
“Start in the fall,” he said. “Not sure what I’ll be studying though. Might as well take business, too.” They both laughed.
“I’ll probably change my mind,” Monroe said. “I’m only a sophomore, so I still have time.” He shrugged. “Might see what life brings me, who I meet, you know.”
Bill nodded. “Got a girlfriend?” He wasn’t sure why he’d asked, just sorta seemed like that’s what Monroe had been talking about.
Bill couldn’t help it: “Want one?”
Monroe looked down at him, and Bill caught his eyes. There was a strange look there, a sideways glint, a mixture of hope and humiliation, or downright disgust. Monroe quickly looked away.
“Here’s the address,” he said, turning off the sidewalk down a narrow walkway toward a white house. “You see anyone?”
“Oh, yeah,” Bill said. “The woman said she was around back. I forgot to mention it.” He wouldn’t say, however, why he’d forgotten to mention it. Thinking of his distraction, he blushed, and was happy he was already a little red in the face from the summer heat and their short walk.
The house was well kept, rather plain, and it didn’t take long to get around it. An elderly woman, grey hair, faded sundress, was standing under the branches of a tree only slightly older than she appeared. Her hands wrung endlessly as she looked up into the tangle of branches above.
“You called, ma’am?” Monroe said, and the woman gasped as she turned. She calmed instantly and rushed over.
“Oh, thank you, thank you for coming! My poor Camille! She climbed up the tree, and now she can’t get down!”
The two men walked toward the tree, looking intently into the branches. They didn’t see anyone.
“Ma’am,” Monroe said slowly, “where’s Camille?”
“Right there, don’t you see her?” She pointed her fragile had at a black blob amid the leaves. “She’s just a kitten, you might need to squint a little bit.”
Monroe and Bill exchanged glances and grinned. “Alright, ma’am,” Monroe said, “I’ll get her down in a just a sec.”
And he did. Not even ten minutes later, the two were waving goodbye to the old woman and starting back toward the station.
“So you said you’re starting college in the fall?” Monroe asked.
“Yeah.” Short, succinct, sufficient. After his question before, the horrified look in Monroe’s eyes, he didn’t feel like saying much more to Monroe ever again.
“Any idea where you’re going?”
“Nowhere special. I’ll probably just go here.” He shrugged.
Monroe was silent a moment. The wind rustled some leaves nearby. The sun persisted through a cloudless sky.
“So we’ll probably see a lot more of each other, huh?”
Bill looked up at Monroe. His eyes were glued in front of him, but there was a new layer of sweat on his skin, a new tenseness in his face that Bill hadn’t recognised before.
“Yeah,” he said slowly, still looking at Monroe, fascinated, allured, intrigued. “Guess so.”
They continued in silence again. The station was back in sight before either of them said anything: “No.”
“Huh?” Bill asked.
“No,” Monroe said again. “To answer your question.”
It took a moment for Bill to realise what Monroe meant, then he smiled.
Date: March 2010
Prompt: A black cat, a fire truck, and a mask. (The Writing for Children Resource Site’s Random Writing Prompt Generator 2)