Jeff jumped from the truck, dressed in Bunker Gear; regulated station wear, made from weightless, breathable, and flame-retardant fabrics. The bulkiness of the fabrics made him look extra large. His hands were safeguarded by large gloves, and he wore sturdy boots to protect his feet.

His perfectly fit yellow helmet looks like a shield to preserve his head. He wears a mask over his face that provides clean breathing air that is kept in a tank he wears on his back. Just like his teammate, he looked ready to combat the fire and save the victims in the engulfed building.

But before him was a replica of what had happened years ago, and he presumed the world was at a standstill, so he allowed his mind to travel down memory lane. 

He was only 15 years old. He had come back from school with his mother’s driver. Mr. Funny, as fondly called, had picked him up from school late.

Jeff had watched in complete anguish as the house burned. His mother’s multi-million house was consumed by fire from all sides. The roof, doors, and windows erupted in yellow-blue flames that instantly turned orange. The untamable smoke had dimmed his vision, and all he wanted to do was find his way to the crumbling building to save nothing but his family.

He recalled the passersby he never knew existed alighted from their cars, not minding the stormy night sky. He had felt some strong hands deter him from taking another inch
                    “Don’t go any further” The sympathy in the stranger’s voice was not mistaken
                     “Why is the fire department not here?” Mr. Funny had yelled at someone

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The 15-year-old boy is now a reclusive firefighter driven by that one ordeal. After that afternoon, he became stoical; with a high level of pain tolerance, he became indifferent to suffering. But today, he allowed the walls of his heart to crumble at the sight of the burning house before him.

The fire department he worked for was called minutes ago; they had driven fast here on a rescue mission. They were never late.

Then what happened 15 years ago? When his single mother and little sister needed to be saved. Why did the fire department arrive when everything was already in ruins? His family was burnt beyond recognition. He recalled that was the day he decided to prevent a recurrence of such a disaster. He was going to be a firefighter and never would he be late. The state of his helplessness provoked him more.

His ambition was almost impossible when he had terrifying nightmares of his burnt family for years. He not only lost his home in a fire, but his sense of security was also lost, and it significantly disrupted the normality of his daily life. The emotional distress made him withdraw from everything. The sight of fire, no matter how little, traumatized him, and he was subjected to sessions with a therapist.
                             “Let’s move” he felt his colleagues nudge him.
                  “Can they put out the fire in my heart too?” he asked incoherently, his eyes distant.

He had lived in denial that he was fine. Free from every torment related to that day. He wished someone would eavesdrop on the conversations in his heart. He wouldn’t mind, at least this once. But everyone was scampering trying to put out the fire, just like that tragic day.

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                       “Save my mother. Please, save my sister” was the only thing he could mutter. Somehow, all he could see was his 15-year-old boy crying for help. Standing on his feet, he could still pick conversations. All efforts to respond or move failed him

“Jeff, we need to move now. We have to be in a position”
“ We need him in his area.”
“ What’s wrong with him?”
“ Where are the rest of the team?”
“ They are still at the other breakout.”
“How many victims are we talking about here?”
“Six, sir.”
“Charles and Andrew are putting out the fire”
“We are short of staff. What do we do?”
“Snap out Jeff. These people need us.”

“Ralph is on the way, sir.” The distraction was palpable.

Boom. A loud cracking noise. Everyone ran for cover as the whole building collapsed.

That was it. Jeff snapped out of his reverie, shedding the tears that refused to drop 15 years ago.
A boy tugged at his feet and gave him the saddest glare, like the one he shot the firefighters that day. A fierce stare that held so much meaning; one that pointed accusing fingers at him.
“Nothing would have been done if the firefighters had entered”
“ What delayed them?”
“ They could have died”
“The delay was a blessing disguised”
Somewhere beside him “We failed. We should have at least tried”

“The house was already a mess before we came. There was no way we’d have come out alive”
“We knew our lives were at stake when we signed up for this. Maybe the five minutes wasted was all we needed to save a soul”
“You think so? It’s a risk calculation. Do we lose the firefighters in a suicidal attempt to rescue people who are probably dead?”
Jeff heard all the surrounding discussion.
He wasn’t late today, but it didn’t matter.
He was punctual, but he let the victims down.
Today, he knew his career as a firefighter was over; he failed.

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He watched helplessly again; doing nothing until another family was burnt to death.

“There are numerous ways you can save lives. It doesn’t have to necessarily be through this. Even though it’s your strength, it could be your weakness as well. It might get you stuck in a situation you’d regret.”
His doctor had cleared him all the same. With clearance from his doctor and psychologist, he applied for the job and was subjected to physical tests, psychological evaluations, written tests, and all manners of training, and he passed excellently. Everything was fine until now…

Before everything went blank, he saw his colleagues rushing to him; concern displaced disappointment. Fear replaced fury.
But the tormenting glare remained on the little boy’s face, and willingly, he gave in to darkness to escape from it.

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