Carry Ann loved her job. Sure, it was hard. Sure, it was hot, but it sure was rewarding. She was currently up to her elbows in warm soapy water, scrubbing crud off of a large pan. Slowly, she could feel the water seep over the edge of her long yellow rubber gloves and trickle its way down to her hands. Carry Ann sighed and set the pan on a rack for someone else to dry. Plucking the glove from her hand, she turned it upside down to drain the water and then hung it on a hook. When both of her hands were freed from their rubbery prison, she tossed her dishrag over her shoulder and strode into the other room.
“I’m off, guys. Any problems, well, you know the number. I’m just-”
“A block away,” a stocky man with a mustache finished for her. He glanced up from his hand of cards. “Yeah, yeah, we know. Go get some rest, Carry Ann. We can take care of ourselves. We’re big boys now.”
The corner of her lip turned up in a smile. “Goodnight.”
Carry Ann threw the rag onto a pile of discarded clothes and grabbed her coat. As soon as she stepped out into the night, she felt the fresh air reinvigorate her. Fresh air was always the best. And Carry Ann knew better than anyone that it was not something to be taken for granted.
After all, Carry Ann was not a dishwasher by trade. She was a firefighter. It just happened that she had been assigned kitchen duty that night. Carry Ann’s feet found their way across the rural streets of South Dakota without thought. As she had every other day of the past few months, she walked past the burnt remains of the Nearingsham Manor. Perhaps it was wrong to smile at the sight, for Carry Ann knew better than most the trauma of losing everything to the all consuming flame, but she couldn’t help herself. Whenever she saw the charred support beams and scorched cement, all she could think about was the fact that they had gotten everyone out alive. Even the little two year old.
The smile on the mother’s face when Carry Ann delivered into her arms the tiny girl whom everybody had assumed to be dead was the kind of thing that imprinted itself inside her brain. Pure delight, pure gratitude, pure joy. It was well worth every drop of sweat shed on the job, and more.
When Carry Ann arrived home, the door was unlocked. She frowned. It was unusual for her to forget to lock the door. By now, it was simple muscle memory. She dismissed it, stepping inside and turning on the light. Instantly, she was greeted by a heavy weight crashing into her chest.
“Hi, Rocket!” she said happily, closing her mouth as her German shepherd washed her face in dog slime. “Alright, alright, that’s enough.”
He sat down on the floor, tail swishing across the golden hardwood and tongue lolling to the side. He let out a hoarse bark.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll get you a treat. Come on,” Carry Ann said, slipping off her shoes and padding to the kitchen.
For a moment, she thought she saw something flash in the darkness of her living room, but as she turned that way, nothing was there. She flipped the light on. Empty. Perhaps it was just her imagination. Carry Ann flicked the light off again and moved for the jar of biscuits. She tossed one to Rocket, who snapped it up happily. After making herself a cup of tea, she changed into comfortable clothes and curled up on the couch to watch her favorite TV show. Rocket lay down next to her, head on the armrest and large brown eyes looking at her.
As a commercial came on, Carry Ann hit mute, only to hear a muffled bang from somewhere across the house. She tensed. Rocket sat up.
Silence. After a few seconds, there was another bang.
Slowly, calmly, Carry Ann stood and moved to the cabinet under the television in which she kept an axe. Not for the first time, she was immensely grateful for her firefighter training that allowed her to stay calm and wield an axe easily.
“Rocket, heel,” she whispered.
The large dog jumped off of the couch and took up his position at her side. With silent footsteps, Carry Ann headed in the direction of the noise. There was another bang, easily pinpointed in the sitting room. The door was closed. She twisted the doorknob slowly, pushing the door open just enough to flip on the light before throwing it wide. The room was empty.
With another bang, the shutter outside the window whipped back to hit the house. Carry Ann watched its shadow as it was blown about. She lowered her axe in relief.
“Wow, Rocket, I overreacted,” she muttered to her dog. “Just a loose shutter. Come on.”
As Carry Ann put away the axe, the phone rang. She picked it up on the second ring.
“Fire on East Thirty Second Street,” a voice that sounded like Jeff’s answered with no formalities. “Hurry to the station, we’re shorthanded.”
“Be there in a sec.”
Carry Ann slammed the phone on the base and headed for the door, not bothering to change out of her t-shirt and sweats. There wasn’t time for that, and besides, she’d be suiting up at the station. She was out of the door in a matter of seconds, running to the station at a flat out sprint. A minute and a half. It was probably record time.
The sirens wailed as she pulled on her suit and laced up her boots. The station was in organized chaos, as usual. Within minutes of her arrival, they were off, barreling down the street in the trademark large red vehicle with a ladder strapped across the side.
“There! Turn left,” Carry Ann shouted to the driver. She had lived in this town for her whole life and knew all the shortcuts. The other firefighters never questioned her directions and when lives were at stake they had to trust her not to get them lost. Even a shortcut that saved only seconds was worth it.
They could see the smoke before they could see the fire. It rose up in large curls of grayish black over the rooftops and drifted on the wind. The firetruck came squealing to a stop and everyone jumped out, moving with purpose to get the water hooked up. Carry Ann ran to the old woman standing alone, watching the fire and drawing her robe tightly around herself.
“Ma’m! Is there anyone in there?” Carry Ann asked urgently.
The woman nodded grimly. “Nessa Mathews and her daughter. That’s all.”
The fire emerged from the windows and began to lick the side of the building. Carry Ann assessed the danger. She watched, detached, as her fellow firefighters turned on the high pressure water hose and aimed it at the building to little impact. The world seemed to slow down as the crackle of fire filled the air. A scream bit the night, breaking Carry Ann from her daze.
“Stay here,” she told the woman unnecessarily. Carry Ann sprinted towards the building, headed for the door.
“Carry Ann, no!” Jeff cried. “It’s too dangerous! The house is too unstable, you can see that!”
She hardly slowed. “I have to try!”
“But the risk-”
His voice was drowned out as she plunged into the flame. Another scream came from the first floor, around a corner. She headed that way, senses on high alert. A closed door greeted her around that corner. Heat blasted her from every angle.
“Stand back!” she cried. After a second, she kicked it off melted hinges with ease. A small girl cowered beside her bed. “Come on, I’m going to get you out of here,” Carry Ann said, offering her hand.
The girl took it and squeezed it tightly, following as she was led from the room. Fire flickered up the walls and there was hardly a safe path to walk.
“Where’s your mother?” Carry Ann cried over the roar of the flames.
The girl pointed towards an open doorway. Inside was a sea of orange and red, creeping quickly towards a corner in which a terrified woman stood. She looked out and locked eyes with Carry Ann for a second before glancing at her daughter.
“Take her!” she cried. “Take her and go!”
“We can get you out!” Carry Ann insisted. “Just hang on!”
“No! Don’t worry about me, just go!” the woman screamed. “Go!”
Carry Ann watched in horror as the weakened ceiling beams collapsed upon Nessa, burying her in a cloud of sparks and a blanket of fire. The girl cried into her leg, shaking. Carry Ann stared in shock until a heat in her foot became uncomfortable and she realized that the fire was closing them in.
“Come on,” she muttered to the girl, scooping her up with strong arms.
Carry Ann ran to the door, breaking out into the fresh night air and breathing in a deep gulp with relief. She heard another section of the house collapse as she set the girl down safely on the road.
She turned back to the house. This wasn’t going to be a monument that would bring about good memories for Carry Ann. Instead, the ruins of this house would serve as a testament to Nessa’s bravery. Carry Ann ignored the people trying to talk to her, praise her heroic deed. She wasn’t the one who deserved praise. It was Nessa Mathews who sacrificed herself for her daughter. She was the brave one. Carry Ann was just doing her job.
And her job meant Nessa Mathews had to die.