Where Horror and Heroism Prevailed (continued...)
Bruce looks up and sees two state cruisers coming up the drive, lights flashing. A limousine follows them. From that car, a silver-haired man in a dark suit approaches, tie yanked loose at the neck.
''You all right, son?'' Gov. Julian Carroll asks. He was getting ready for bed at the governor's mansion in Frankfort when he heard about the fire.
''I don't know,'' Bruce says.
''What're you crying for?'' Mr. Carroll asks.
''Get him a pick-me-up,'' Mr. Carroll says. Yessir, Gov. Carroll, the trooper says, and heads back to the car.
When he returns, it's with a whiskey bottle, and he pours a shot for Bruce. Fireman 51 doesn't drink whiskey straight, and it goes down like fire. He gasps and coughs.
''Give him another,'' Mr. Carroll says. ''He needs it.''
The second cuts through the gunk in his throat. He feels better.
''Is it as bad as it looks?'' the governor asks, gazing over the hill.
''It's pretty bad,'' Bruce says.
'Here's The Hero'
When Beverly Rath wakes on the couch, it's to the sound of someone coming in the front door.
She smells him before she sees him: the overpowering, acrid odor of the fire. She's always hated that smell. Usually, she makes Bruce take off all his gear downstairs whenever he comes back from a run. But this morning she rushes to him and takes him in her arms.
''Whatsa matter?'' he says.
''We were told you got killed in the fire.''
''They said my name?''
''No, they just said two firemen got killed.''
''Well, I don't know anything about that.''
''You're not going out anymore.''
''I've got to,'' he says. There's always the chance there might be another fire, somewhere else in town. Someone has to man the station.
He goes upstairs, showers once, twice, three times. The oily, black goop won't come off. It's caked on his skin, in his hair. So much for the new shirt.
He puts on a clean uniform, heads back out.
When he gets to the station, some of the guys are wandering around the trucks doing the routine, peering at the gauges, checking the air bottles to make sure they're full. Others are in the watch room reading the newspaper.
''Hey, here's the hero now,'' one says. They've seen the picture, the one that newspaper photographer shot while Bruce was working on Karen. Fireman 51! Foomp. It ran in The Enquirer, for all the world to see, damsel and white knight, together forever. Bruce Rath, faithful husband, rock-steady Baptist, now has another woman in his life. One night on a hillside, he made a life-and-death commitment to Karen Prugh, and for the rest of his days, those who know the two of them only from the famous photo will connect them, will think of them together when they think of them at all.
But Bruce Rath does not feel like a hero. He is drained. This is the first day of many over the next few weeks that will pass without his being able to keep anything on his stomach.
''You clowns didn't put the flag up yet,'' he says, spotting the Stars and Stripes still folded up atop the filing cabinet.
''You did everything else tonight,'' another firefighter says. ''You put the flag up.''
Tomorrow will be Memorial Day. Bruce Rath flies the flag every day at his house; he has to buy a new one about every two years. But Memorial Day weekend is a must for flag-flying. Bruce has known men who died at war. He picks the flag up gingerly and heads toward the door.
Outside, the sky is growing bright. It's going to be a clear morning, beautiful in the way a summer day can break your heart, and as he walks out of the station the day opens up before him. The day, the weeks, the months. The years after that.
There's a hillside lost. Out of circulation. Good for nothing. Those cleaning up after the fire will leave traces of the nightmare as if they couldn't abandon the site fast enough. Five, 10, 15, 20 years will pass, but nothing will change on that lonely hill. Not even time.
Karen Prugh will discover her marriage died in the fire. She and Terry will drift apart, and in three years they will get a divorce. Terry, who lost his mother, father and brother in the fire, never will be able to talk about what happened up on that hill, though Karen will need to -- at first, anyway. And she will make up her mind not to marry again because it's just too painful feeling alone when you're right next to your husband.
She will panic one day in a grocery in Florida, running out of the store when the lights go out in a storm. She will shy away from movie theaters, too. She will become a nurse and move away to Phoenix, Arizona. But she will never tell most of her new friends what happened that night.
She will resolve never to go back to Ohio. She will turn down a job at a hospital in Cincinnati because she doesn't want to be anywhere near that hill. She will think of Bruce Rath every time a firefighter brings someone into the hospital. She will see that fire coming through the doors and the man scampering across those tables.
She will always remember the day she died.
But the fire will not change Bruce Rath. Nothing ever will. He will live long and full. Some firefighters will quit in the days and weeks ahead, ruined by last night. But Bruce will fight fires for another 19 years, until he retires, and not once will he make a run that defeats him.
The Beverly Hills fire will haunt him awhile. He will look for the exit signs whenever he goes out to eat. He will dream of a hand reaching up and pulling off his air mask. He will wake jabbering and thrashing, throwing elbows until his wife protests. But as time passes, he will bounce back and the dreams will stop. And that hand will stop reaching up to pull off his air mask.
Beverly Rath is the only woman who can take Bruce's breath away. Twenty years later, when they are grandparents, Bruce will look one day at a picture of her as a girl in a satin dress and tell her: ''You haven't changed a bit.''
And she will say: ''Yeah, right.''
But before any of that comes to pass, Bruce must do one thing.
He stands at the flag pole outside the fire house, snaps the Stars and Stripes into the eyelets there, then lets it go. This much he can do for his grieving, little town. If life is worth saving, it's sure as hell worth living.
During the darkest hours of the fire, the lone woman in labor at St. Luke had her baby early this morning, at 1:01 -- one small hope after midnight. That should be enough. The human heart burns with a fire all its own.
Bruce gives it a crank, and the flag unfurls against the brightening morning, rising:
Up, up, up:
Into the radiant sky of a brand-new day.