The Doorway

The Doorway

“What’s cooking, Zee?”

“Hey Moose,” I said with a smile, as Tag “Moose” Mussogey wandered into the kitchen. “Seafood casserole, but only if you’re good!”

Moose, 6’4” and a muscular 280 pounds, came by his nickname honestly. Of course, feeding Moose took a lot of work. Almost as much as the rest of the shift, I thought with a smile.

He wandered over and put his head over the saucepan where I was prepping the seafood, inhaling deeply. “Goddamn,” he exclaimed appreciably. “I was hoping for some chicken when I got here. Set my sights too low!”

“That’s ‘cuz you thought Freddo was on shift tonight, and that’s about the best he can do!” I chuckled.

“Ain’t it the truth!” he said, shaking his head. “I wish you were still on my regular crew, Mom!”

I threw a towel at him, but honestly, I was used to it. One of the few things that still gave me a sense of joy and accomplishment on the fire department was making sure my shift had a real meal – a good meal. Something to compensate for the insane schedules . . . the long hours . . .

The bodies.

Moose must have caught something in my expression – something that didn’t match the banter we’d just been trading. “Another OD today?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Third one this fucking month. I . . . “

I stopped myself. If I kept going, I might not be able to. It would all come out. I never should have joined the department. Never.

It was a hard job. An important job. Something worthwhile, and jobs like that weren’t so easy to come by in the aging cities of America’s Rust Belt in the glorious 21st century.

It was a man’s job, and I had been desperate, twelve years before, to prove that I was a man. So I’d pushed and pushed and pushed myself to qualify. The written exam had been easy enough, but the CPAT – the Candidate Physical Ability Test – had been a real challenge for a scrawny, undersized 20-year old kid.

But I had done it. Had scored well on the tests, gotten a pretty high placement on the hiring list, and been brought aboard back in 2011. I had been so proud of myself. Convinced that I had finally arrived.

Moose broke in on my thoughts. “Zee,” he said quietly. “I know you don’t want to do it. But . . . you need to talk to someone. Bro . . . it’s eating you up.”

I nodded. “I know, I know.” I did, too. I could feel it. “Look, I got a couple weeks coming. Gonna go down to Georgia. Get some sun, you know? Maybe do a little fishing . . . .”

Moose looked uncomfortable. He knew – like I knew – that a week or two away wasn’t going to cure what was eating me up. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.

It wasn’t our way.

The department was a brotherhood, in ways both amazingly good and occasionally dysfunctional. We were there for each other, on the job and off. Someone’s ex’s kid’s girlfriend needed help with her plumbing, and the guy who knew his way around pipes was there. Putting on a new roof? Guys were there. Making some home brew? You had a crew, share and share alike.

But there were lines. Important lines. Words you didn’t speak. You did not show weakness or admit it. You did not intrude when your brothers were getting their shit together. Moose had walked right up to that line, but he wouldn’t cross it.

“It’s okay,” I said, and started to reassure him.

But the loudspeaker from the central dispatch ended our conversation. "CHURCH STREET STATION, ENGINE SIX, ENGINE SEVEN, SQUAD FOXTROT: DISPATCH TO 11 MILL ROAD. FIRE AT THE THOMAS WORKS. ENGINES SIX AND SEVEN, SQUAD FOXTROT.”

I shut off the fire under the saucepan with a flick of my fingers, threw a cover on the food – not much hope, but it was what it was. Pushed it over to a free burner and shut off the oven. I was still only three steps behind Moose as we burst into the garage area and suited up with the whole rest of the shift.

Any additional ODs today will just have to wait.

Seconds later, the big doors were open and we were jumping on our Quint, siren blaring, speeding through the cold night air. The old Thomas Works would be a bitch kitty in a fire. God only knows what kind of chemicals would be on site from way back when. If we were lucky, we’d have the MSDS information by the time we got there, so we would know what fire suppressants we could actually use without making things worse.

Cars were moving, sluggishly, to get out of our way. Tank was a good driver, but he had to make liberal use of the horn to clear a lane. I found myself thinking, Go, go, go!!!! Every second could make a difference, especially when we were dealing with an old 19th Century factory. As we got closer, I could hear the sirens of engines from other stations, all converging. Oh, this one will be bad.

Still, I found myself almost relieved. Firefighting was hard work, especially in dangerous environments like this one. But it was the kind of work I’d signed up for. I’d assumed, I guess, that it would toughen me up, like my old man had always wanted, before he’d died in that stupid crash.

Make a man out of me.

It hadn’t, really, but it hadn’t broken me, either. It was the EMT work – the calls to devastated homes, to the bedrooms that had become tombs. “Deaths of despair,” they were calling them, now. The overdoses. Opioids, mostly. Men, women, young, old . . . all of them, no longer able to cope with life in a dead-end town. I couldn’t take the deaths anymore. Couldn’t look into their cold, unseeing eyes, or the tormented eyes of the ones they’d left behind.

There were two engines on site when our three vehicles arrived. Dom Napoli, the Captain from the Elm Street Station, was coordinating and we got our orders. Thank God, he had details on what materials had been stored in each of the buildings.

Place shoulda been torn down years ago, I thought.

The smoke was billowing and Building One, where the old blast furnace had been, was already as good as gone – fully engulfed, the heat pulsing, angry and intense. Gramps had been the foreman there, I recalled, back in the early sixties. Back when this town still made things, and there were good jobs for men with strong backs. . . .

But there was no time for wool-gathering. The work was now focused on making sure that the entire complex didn’t go as well. We were assigned to Building Three, and started setting up our hoses. It was going to be a long night.

Thirty minutes later, I was outside the building when we got the alert. “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. FIREFIGHTER DOWN!” It was our Lieutenant, Jeff Dillon – he’d led a three man-team into the building. Moose and Liam ‘Macko” McCardy were in there with him, and I felt a stab of terror.

Tank was working the hoses. “Go, Zee, Go!!!!” he shouted.

I ran to the entryway where the team had done their insertion and arrived just as Dillon and Moose emerged from the billowing smoke, dragging Macko between them. He wasn’t moving. “Over here, over here!!!” I shouted, indicating a clear area with decent light and air. “Go, go, go!!!!”

We had him on the ground in seconds. I popped open his chest clip and checked his pulse while Dillon put Mac’s SCBA between his legs and opened the bypass valve. “No pulse!” I called out. “We need an AED up here NOW!” With a nod from the Lieutenant, I started chest compression, the rhythm depressingly committed to muscle memory years and years ago.

Sirens were screaming and I heard a “voooosh!!” from the building our team had just left. Part of my mind processed that a portion of the roof must have given way. I heard shouted orders, but tuned them out. Right now, our team had one job. Only one.

Dillon removed Macko’s helmet, mask and hood while Moose took the third position and started unbuckling his Turnout jacket from the bottom up, making sure not to interfere with the rhythm of my chest compressions. The Lieutenant moved Mac’s arms over his head, loosened then grabbed his shoulder straps, and checked to make sure Moose was ready. “Pull down!” he ordered.

Moose pulled Macko’s Turnout pants from the bottom and got him out of the gear without interrupting my compressions. Push, push . . . push, push . . . push, push . . . ..

Tank arrived with the Automated External Defibrillator. When he was ready, he barked, “clear!”

My hands came off and Tank delivered the shock. Back down . . . push, push . . . push, push . . .

“Clear!”

Off. Back. Push, push . . . push, push . . . .

Dillon was administering oxygen. I couldn’t see Macko’s face.

Minutes past. Precious minutes. I kept pushing. Sweat was pouring off me, despite the cold. We were doing everything . . . everything that we could.

The ambulance pulled right up to where we were and men were racing toward us with a stretcher. “Okay . . . go, go, go!!!!” They set it down and bent over, two to a side. “On three: one, two, three!!!” They lifted him, got him on a stretcher, hustled him into the ambulance. One of the four jumped in after the stretcher and took my place . . . .

The doors closed and they raced off.

My breath was ragged. Dillon looked gray. “El Tee?”

He shook his head once, sharply. “We’ll find out, Zee. Come on now, back to it!”

And back we went . . . . Napoli was nearby, shouting. “Jeff, we’ve got people in there!”

We ran.

We were at it for five hours. The fire was contained, then beaten back, and finally put out. Our relief arrived and we retrieved our gear, putting it back where it belonged.

Dillon was by the truck, his face blank. It didn’t look like mere fatigue. Snowflakes were starting to fall, landing on his soot-blacked face. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Lieutenant?”

He didn’t respond.

I got closer, spoke more softly. “Jeff? What’s the word?”

He looked at me then and shook his head. “We lost him, Zee.”

And like that, everything that had been building up hit me like a rock slide. I wanted to puke my guts out, but there was nothing inside anyway.

It was all I could do to nod and go back to the hoses, clenching my teeth to keep my screams from escaping. I could barely see what I was doing, my eyes stinging with tears.

“Zee.” It was Moose, beside me. His voice was quiet. Urgent. “You okay?

I could only shake my head. I couldn’t speak. But I hopped on the engine, and Moose jumped up behind me. Tank backed up out, turned us around and headed back. Soon we were going too fast to hear each other talk anyway.

My hands were shaking and I was weeping uncontrollably, the bitter air digging tears into my windburned cheeks. Why’d it have to be Wacko Macko – the happy one, the joker? The one with the nice wife who helped us make the IPA for the pig roast every year, and the three great kids . . . Brooke was going to start college next year. Why’d it have to be Mack?

Why not me?

A scream of pure, primal grief and rage, an animal howl of pain, tore through my defenses, ripping my already abused throat raw. The night absorbed it, uncaring, as snowflakes continued to drift down, pure white.

We got to the station and started the routine of putting things away. The next shift was already there, but the job’s not done ’til it’s done.

Except this time, Moose said, “El Tee, let me get him outta here.”

Dillon looked at me, then back at Moose. “Do it.”

“I’m okay,” I said.

Moose ignored me. “C’mon, Zee. I’ll drive you.”

I was too tired to fight. I followed forlornly behind him, feeling like a spring that has been bent so often that it has nothing left to give. I got into the passenger seat of Moose’s big F-150 and mechanically got my seat belt on. Then I just bent my head and began to sob.

Moose drove. I didn’t know where he was going, and I didn’t care. He didn’t ask me any questions or intrude on my agony, and I was good with that for just as long as it would last. I had no strength for answering questions.

When we had gone for probably an hour and a half, Moose pulled off Route 27 and onto an old, poorly maintained gravel road. I raised my head and looked around. In the moonlight, I could see little more than the dark of pine trees surrounding us.

Still I kept quiet. Quiet is good. Quiet doesn’t ask questions that can’t be answered.

After about fifteen minutes, we came to a clearing in the woods. There was a trailer parked off to one side. Something large enough to hold a kitchen, a small sitting area, and a place to sleep.

Finally, he spoke, though all he said was, “C’mon.” He shut off the truck and walked to the trailer, his boots crunching the hard ground, making dark prints against the dusting of snow that gleamed in the moonlight.

I sighed and hopped down, following in his wake. I didn’t have a better plan.

He fished out some keys, opened the trailer, and flipped on some lights. The interior was about what I’d expected, linoleum and Formica. He pointed to a low futon couch, then went into the kitchen. A minute later he returned with a bottle of JD and a couple of shot glasses decorated with scenes of Niagara Falls.

I dropped into the couch and Moose took a well-worn chair. He put the glasses on the coffee table, poured, and then handed me a shot.

“Not sure this won’t just come back up,” I said, apologizing.

“If it does, I’ll deal with it.”

I don’t drink that much, or that often. But I took it in one and he refilled it.

I figured I’d better say something. “Your place?” It was a stupid question, but . . . it was safe.

He just looked at me. After a minute, he said, “Let’s cut the crap, Zebediah. Forget about the rules. Talk to me.”

I thought, you don’t know what you're asking. “What’s to say? We did everything we could. Macko’s still dead.”

“And you’re still alive, and you wish you weren’t,” he said quietly.

My glass smacked the table, spilling a bit. “I’m not suicidal! Shit! What the hell do you know about it?”

“I didn’t say you were suicidal,” he said evenly. “I said that you wished you were dead, and you do. Shall I go on?”

I looked at him like he had three heads. “Oh, by all means, great Swami!”

The sarcasm rolled off his back. “Every time you deal with another death, another piece of you dies. You think you’ve failed. And then you think you’re weak. Not man enough. Like you don’t measure up.”

My jaw was on the floor. “What the fuck . . . .” Angry denials were on my lips. My hands wanted to ball into fists. I knew – from hard experiences that began in childhood – the importance of squelching any questions about my manhood.

But I couldn’t say the words. Couldn’t say any of them. Everything he’d said was true, and I was just too wounded, too tired, to keep pretending. “I don't measure up, Moose,” I said quietly. “I never have.”

“You think you’re weak, just because you feel the pain so deep?” He shook his head. “You’re better than all of us. It’s only killing you because you love so much.”

I scoffed. “That’s me, Don Juan.” His words cut all the more deeply because I lived alone and had never even had a steady girlfriend. I’d been a lonely only, and my folks had both been gone for years now. Mom, when I was six. Dad had died in my arms. Thirteen years ago, it was. Love? Be serious.

But again, Moose refused to be rattled by my sarcasm. “You love us – Mac and the El Tee and Tank and me and all the rest. You try to take care of us, and you don’t want us to know. You try so hard to be tough as Tank, hard as Dillon.”

Again, I couldn’t bring myself to refute his words. He was so deep in my head that denial seemed impossible. “How . . . .” I couldn’t finish the question.

“How do I know?” He put his glass next to mine, untouched. “Because I’m not human, Zee.”

“With all your crazy talk, I’m almost ready to believe you.” I tried to make it sound like a joke, but it didn’t, somehow.

“You should,” he said, sounding serious. “I’ll prove it if you need me to, though I doubt it’ll make you feel better. People tend to freak out when I change shape.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “Well, try turning into something non-threatening, like a kitten.” I was being facetious, but again . . . it didn’t come out that way.

He shook his head, smiling. “My species can change shape – we’re metamorphs – but conservation of matter and energy is a law, not a suggestion.”

I didn’t manage anything more penetrating than, “Huh?”

He chuckled. “I can look like a kitten, but I’ll still weigh about 280 pounds, so I’d be a frickin’ big kitten. Know what I’m saying? I doubt you’d think it was ‘cute.’”

“Try me,” I said, deciding to call his bluff.

It was a mistake. “JESUS!!!!” I screamed.

When the enormous tabby vanished, leaving Moose behind, I was standing on the far end of the couch, straining to get as far away from him as the small trailer would allow.

He stood up and came over to me. “It’s okay,” he said quietly.

I was shaking. “Bull shit it's okay!!!”

But he caught my shoulders in his vice-like hands and effortlessly lifted me up, then back down to the floor. Perhaps sensing that my knees might buckle, he loosened his grip but didn’t let go entirely. “Zee . . . it’s okay. It’s still me.”

“But who are you!” I found myself crying.

“Moose is a good name. I like it,” he said softly. He took a half-step forward, then folded me into a warm, and very human, hug. “As for what I am, I guess I’d say I’m a person. Just not a human person. I’m a full empath, and a weak telepath. It is the nature of my people.”

Part of me wanted to break from his embrace. I was a man; he was a man. Right? Brothers and all that. We might embrace, in greeting or in parting. But not like this.

But he wasn’t a man; he said he was some kind of alien. And, in my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn’t a man either. I never had been.

“You can read minds?” Being held allowed me the advantage of putting my head on his shoulder, so that I wouldn’t have to see his face.

“Feelings, mostly. Some thoughts, but only strong ones . . . Zoë.”

I shuddered. He knew my name – my real name – the one that I never spoke aloud, even in private. That was even stranger than seeing my friend turn into a huge cat. But somehow, I wasn’t scared. His light embrace conveyed, in a way that no words ever could, his acceptance of my inner truth.

“So,” I said. “You’re, like, from outer space or something?”

“Something like that.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s more dimensional than spatial, but ‘outer space’ will do.”

I thought about that. “Why are you here, Moose?”

“Here in this trailer?” he asked, amused.

“No, jackass, here on this planet!”

“I’m here to learn. Nothing more. It’s our way.”

“Learn what?” I asked. “You’ve been a firefighter for six years. Will that help you, where you come from?”

He chuckled. “No. I’m here to learn about people.”

“By working shifts at a firehouse?” I was incredulous.

“Why not?” he asked. “Would I learn more, living with some bigwigs? Politicians, or doctors, or lawyers? I’ve learned a lot, living and working with all of you.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve learned about love . . . and its limits. You and Tank and Macko, even the Lieutenant . . . you love each other like brothers. Would lay down your lives for each other, and I’ve seen you do it, time after time. But . . . you don’t trust them to know who you are inside.”

I thought about what he said, and had no response. None but tears. It was the reason why I felt so walled off from them, why I could never share what I was feeling, never share my horror at the deaths. My fears. They might discover who I am, and if they ever did . . . .

“It’s okay, Zee, really,” he said softly.

Inexplicably, I found myself clinging to him, wrapping my arms around his neck. I cried even harder. “No, damn it. It’s not. It’s killing me!!!”

He pulled back to look at me, his expression tender. “I know. And I’m telling you, it’s okay.”

“But I can’t do it anymore,” I sobbed, burying my face into his broad chest. “There’s just dying, and more dying, and I can’t stop it. Any of it. I’ve gotta go to that funeral now, and they’ll play the bugle, and we’ll all be in ranks, and I’ll have to face Rose, and Brooke, Kaitlin and Little Liam . . . knowing that I failed them! I failed them, and Macko’s never gonna come home. Never see his little girls graduate! Never see his boy get his first homer. . . . Oh, goddammit, Moose!!! I can’t!!!”

His arms held me tight, in bands of steel. “I know. Really, I know.”

I couldn’t stop crying, remembering them all. Every death. Every person lost, one by one, a parade of death. I felt myself fraying, slipping away . . . unraveling, like an old sweater. “Moose,” I whispered. “Say my name. . . . Please!”

“Zoë.” His deep voice held conviction.

I closed my eyes.

“I can’t even talk about it . . . . I worked with Macko for eight years, and I could never tell him . . . I knew him, but he didn't even know who I am. It’s like I’m in this bubble that no one can see, and no sound gets out. No one can hear me.”

He held me like a child . . . or a woman. “I can hear you, dear one,” he said. “I always could. No, you can’t do your job any more. You can’t. You know it. I know it. I expect even the El Tee knows that much, now. It doesn’t matter.”

He wasn’t making sense. “It doesn’t?”

“No, Zoë. It doesn’t. I want you to come with me. And go far, far from here.”

“Go where?”

“It’s time for me to go home. And I want to take you with me. Away from all of this. Away from a life you can’t bear anymore.”

I looked at his face. So tender. Was this some sort of fever dream? I felt a crazy, impossible hope stir inside me. “Could your people change my body, like yours? Could I . . .” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “Could I become a real woman?”

He bent down and kissed my forehead gently. “Our shapeshifting ability is genetic, not engineered. We can’t change your appearance.”

He must have felt the wave of sadness that swept through me, killing my forlorn hope. He cupped my cheek with one hand and said, “But we can offer you something else.”

My eyes were welling with tears again. “What? What can match what I’ve prayed for every day since I can remember?”

“We can offer you a home where people accept you as you are. Love you, as freely and fully as you have always loved other people. You don’t see it – and, given the society you live in, I’m not surprised – but you are beautiful and perfect, right now. Just as you are.”

I thought of my grime-encrusted and tear-streaked face, my matted hair, my clothes that stank of smoke and chemicals and death. “Beautiful and perfect, huh?”

“Yes,” he said seriously. “More so now than ever. Will you come with me?”

I thought about it.

What's holding me here? He's right . . . I can’t do the job anymore. And what else is there? A dead-end job somewhere, or worse? Will I turn to drugs to numb the pain, like so many others have? Sometime soon, will my brothers respond to a call, only to find that I am just the latest "death of despair?

What he was offering was a fantasy . . . but that sounded pretty good right now. I allowed myself to laugh a woman’s laugh, light and laced with mischief. “Sure, Moose. Carry me off to Never-Never Land!”

He picked me up effortlessly, bringing his right arm under my knees and scooping me up. I knew that Moose was strong – I’d seen proof many, many times – but I’d never had it brought home like that.

I clung to his neck.

Walking to the door that led to the sleeping area, he pushed it open with his knee.

I looked and saw, not the small compartment I had expected, but warm, sunlit fields under a velvet sky, and trees in the distance with pale peach leaves . . . . A warm breeze caressed my damp cheeks, carrying an elusive smell, fresh and clean, like orange blossoms.

“Oh my God,” I said, wonder in my voice. “I . . . I want to go there!”

He stepped through the Doorway, carrying me like a bride.

The end.

For information about my other stories, please check out my author's page.



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