The Rat by Dave Wickenden

(Based on Real Events)

I had to brace myself as the pumper slid around the corner. The rack that my airpack was jammed into helped hold me in place rather than let me follow the trucks inertia and slide across the bench seat into space.

The new style of pumper in ’80 had me sitting behind the cab rather than standing on the tailgate, but it was wide open on both sides. Seatbelts were not an option back then.

The window slid, and the Captain yelled over the siren, “We’ve got smoke. I’ll grab the hydrant. You stretch a line.” 

“Okay,” I yelled back with all the confidence that I was definitely not feeling. It was 4:40 in the afternoon which was rush hour and both the aerial and the rescue truck were on the other side of the traffic jam. We wouldn’t be getting any backup for a while and I was as green as they come.

As the truck squealed to a halt, I jumped off and ran to the rear deck. Grabbing an armful of hose and the nozzle, I put my weight into pulling the three hundred feet of canvass off the truck so it played out in a smooth layer. Stretching the line so that it wouldn’t kink on itself, I stopped before the front of the building and dropped my load to the ground.

I removed my helmet and began donning my mask. Pulling on all the straps, I checked the building.

Thick black smoke oozed out of a second-story window that was partially open. Knowing the neighbourhood, I remembered that the homes on this block were built over a hill with access from a back lane, so there might be a unit in the lower section. Other than the obvious windows and doors, there might be secondary access to the lower unit I could use as an escape route if things went south.

I pulled on my bucket and clamped it under the chin. I caught sight of the Captain as I forced the thick gloves over my shaking hands. He was a short, heavy guy. He was waddling towards the hydrant, the red rubber hy-vol hose trailing behind him, his bald head as red as a tomato from exertion. To me, he looked like a Weable. You remember the kid’s toy? “Weables wobble but they don’t fall down.”

I snorted into my mask at the sight, as I pushed myself up and signaled the pump operator for water. Seconds later, the hose jerked violently in my hands. I opened the nozzle and bled the air out of the line and adjusted the nozzle pattern. Trying the door, I found it was unlocked and pulled it wide open as I grabbed a link of hose.

I heard a whine, followed by rapid scratching coming from further in the building. Crouching low, I peered under the dense smoke and my mouth dropped open as two monsters from the darkest levels of hell raced towards me.

Teeth and muscle. That’s all I saw before the two panicking, black and tan Rottweilers leapt over my crouching form in a mad rush to escape the building and fire.

I shook my head at the unexpected encounter. Pulling in a deep, controlled breath, I began crawling down the hallway sounding the floor with my axe. With the amount of smoke and heat I was encountering, I knew I had limited time to find anyone inside to do any good. With the crews spread over the city, it was up to me and I had to move fast.

The hallway opened up to a living room, and I swept the room from right to left, only to enter the kitchen at the far end. It was here that I found the fire.

The thick smoke began to show a flickering orange glow as I moved closer. Flames were climbing the wall and curved across the ceiling. I could feel the heat as it descended towards my position. 

Back then, the gear we wore wasn’t like they have today. We wore a long coat with long rubber boots. It kept you dry but had very little protection from the heat. Our ears and wrists were exposed and when they started to sting, you knew enough not to go any deeper. When the heat rose between your legs and under your coat and your balls began to burn, it was time to get out.

I aimed the nozzle towards the fire and gave it a quick blast as they had taught me. Instead of knocking the fire down, it flared, pushing the smoke back with an intense wave of heat.

Oil fire! I rose off my knees and pulled the pot off the cherry red element, carrying live fire across the surface of the stove.  The fluid sloshed over the container’s edge and the fire jumped towards me. On the counter to one side, I found and slammed the pot lid over the pot, trapping the fire as easily as a cat pouncing on a mouse. Repositioning the nozzle, I released a soft, wide ‘V’ pattern spray on the remaining fire that covered the stove and wall. There was no way to shut off the element because one sweep of my hand told me that the knob had melted off the stove’s control panel. It would have to wait.

I retraced my steps, following the hose back to the hallway and found the stairs to the second floor. Three bedrooms and a bath made up the top story of the building. It took a few minutes of searching in the dense smoke, but I didn’t find anyone. As I descended, my low air alarm began to chime, and I continued out to the street, ducking under the ventilation fan that had been set in the doorway to pull the smoke out of the building.

I tore my helmet and mask off and dropped them to the ground as the pumper operator, Cliff came forward with a spare air bottle. As he exchanged bottles, I briefed the Captain of what I had found inside. The two huge dogs clung to his legs liked scared puppies, tongues ready to show their appreciation to whoever was nearby. It was my first encounter with the breed and I took in their massive frame and alert presence, but thrilled I was a friend to them.

Cliff ran up my bottle and slapped me on the shoulder. I suited back up and grabbed a pike pole to start the overhaul round of the incident. Pulling the nozzle with me, I returned to the kitchen. Using my flashlight, I found the pot in the darkness and moved it to the sink where there was less chance of spilling. The element still glowed an angry red through the gloom. I pulled the stove away from the wall and unplugged the unit as a pair of flashlights arced through the smoke towards me.

As we came together, I put my head close to the other guy’s helmet and yelled through my mask, “Stove’s still hot.” Even to my hearing it came across muffled, but he nodded in acknowledgement.

Pointing above the stove with our flashlights, we could see the fire’s path up the wall and across the ceiling. The cupboard directly above was almost completely burnt and using the pike pole, I hooked it and tugged it off the wall in a show of sparks. Without speaking, the other fellow grabbed the nozzle and sprayed the live embers. For the next while that became our routine. He worked the flashlight and nozzle, while I pulled down the plaster and wood slats of the wall and ceiling, searching, exposing, and extinguishing any extension of the fire. It didn’t take long before my arms began to feel the burn from working overhead.  My actions must have slowed down, because I felt a tap on the shoulder and my partner shoved the nozzle towards me and we switched roles. 

More crew members had entered the house, and it was obvious that the other trucks had finally made it to the scene. Footsteps pounded up the stairs, and I knew they were doing secondary searches and opening windows to disperse the smoke. The added help in opening the kitchen made the job go quicker.

My partner was attacking the ceiling, and I took the time to look around the room as I realized the smoke was clearing a little. It rolled with the airflow produced by the fans and our own movement. From under a swath of fog-like mist, I spied a yellow helmet in the far corner of the room. Peering closer, I realized it was one of our own guys, sitting on his haunches letting us do all the work while he stayed out of sight.

I was pissed. 

There was always some person in every group that didn’t carry their own weight. They were quite happy to sit back and let others do the job while they coasted. They were also the same idiots who were the first to complain that they weren’t paid enough or that the city was taking advantage of them.

I tapped my partner on the shoulder and with my head next to his, I said, “Want to see how you drown a rat?” I used my thumb to indicate the lazy hump in the corner.

“Go for it.”

I turned and aimed the nozzle at the corner, switching the spray pattern to straight stream and opened the lever full blast. The column of water reached across the room and hit the guy fully in the chest, pinning him in the corner. The legs went out from under him and he landed on his butt, his feet rising off the floor. With a subtle change in the trajectory, the water hit the floor ahead of him and bounced up under his long coat to his groin. His mask muffled his scream, but I could hear the laughter of the three crew members behind me. 

I walked the line of water up one side of him and down the other, bringing it back to his chest every time he came close to gaining his feet. He finally rolled out of the corner and I found a new target. The force of the water hit him square in the ass and pushed him forward onto his face. He tried to twist around and I used the stream to roll him across the living room.

With a snap, I rammed the nozzle shut, cutting off the water and dropped it to the floor. That was the cue. The four of us left the kitchen in a rush, tripping and slipping over each other as we fled the house; all of us giggling like schoolgirls.

The Captain greeted us with a perplexed look on his face as he tried to understand what disaster made us all bailout of the building on mass. Ripping off our masks and helmets, the confused look turned to annoyance as he realized that some massive practical joke had ensued and there was no danger. His displeasure changed to astonishment and then to mirth in as many heartbeats as the “Rat” staggered out through the doorway.

He was completely drenched. I’m not just talking about the exterior shell of his long black coat, but both inside and out. The buckles of his gear are opened to show the light blue uniform shirt pasted to his chest which rose and fell like a marathon runner. Water sloshed from his high boots as he pulled one heavy leg before the other, his movements slow and mechanical like a robot from a cheap sci-fi.

He dripped from everywhere as he staggered towards the truck, his helmet falling and bouncing across the front lawn unnoticed. As he yanked the mask from his soaked head, water gushed from the mask in a gurgle as it fought the compressed air in the breathing tube.

Except for the rumble of the trucks and the whine of the pump, the scene had become as silent as a grave. Along with neighbours and spectators, the entire crew watched as he came to a stop before our ensemble, his eyes searching for the culprit. Murder and rage emanated from those eyes and for the first time, I felt a knot deep in my gut.

If he suspected, I would easily outrun him, weighted down by his wet garments, but he would have years to inflict his vengeance. I would never be able to let down my guard and would suspect every meal he prepared, every item he handled. The opportunities were endless.

He might not even care which of us had held the hose. He might go after each of the interior crew just to make sure he nailed the one responsible.

He opened his mouth and collectively, we leaned forward, our features tight and flushed in repressed hilarity.

“Bastards,” he slurred as he dropped to his knees, water squishing out of him like a rung sponge.

The two Rottweilers sprung forward and leaped for the “Rat” and for a moment I thought they would tear him apart. But they fell on him, knocking him backwards, both fighting to lick his face in adoration for their hero. The more he shoved them away, the greater their efforts to show their appreciation of being saved from the smoke and fire.

The entire gathering burst in laughter and we ended up bent over, back slapping each other as our rudimentary fear fled temporarily. It would be back, I knew and for the next few weeks everyone would be on their guard.

“Get back to work,” yelled the Captain, his annoyance betrayed by the silly grin on his face, as he pulled the dogs off the prone figure. “I want this fire completely extinguished, yesterday. Suit up!”

After 31 years in the Fire Service and attaining the rank of Deputy Fire Chief, Dave retired to write thriller novels full time. He has been a member of the Sudbury Writer’s Guild since 2014 and the Canadian Union of Writers. His first novel, IN DEFENSE OF INNOCENCE was released in April 2018 and his second, HOMEGROWN released in June 2018. His short story BURNING LOVE was published as part of an anthology titled Flicker by Filles Vertes Publishing (FVP) in August 2018 and his historical thriller, 300 Souls on the Line is featured at Toronto Prose Mills ( Dave worked as an Editorial Intern for FVP from January to July 2019 dealing with manuscript evaluations. He is working on his fifth novel.

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