It was Wednesday. Wednesday, always a little blurry. Today, more so. My cloud of blissful, loopy exhaustion punctured by the self-doubt laced anxiety that always precedes a fresh bout of GMing.
I’m sitting at the table with my notebook and the house ipad, looking up the rules regarding minors whose parents get naturalized in the US and the UK. Megan’s in the kitchen, starting on dinner.
I look up, and it occurs to me that there is a fire alarm going off somewhere, and it has been going off for a long time.
“Is that the neighbor’s?” I ask. “It’s been going off for ages.”
“Yeah, it has been.” Megan says.
I go outside. The houses on our street are large, tall and old and close together. The alarm echoes, like cries bouncing down canyon walls. I pace up and down a bit, reminding myself that my ears are designed to located things by sound. No luck.
I give up, go back inside, sit down.
But the fire alarm is still going off.
I grab the keys to the laundry room and go ‘next door’. We share our house with three other families. One lives downstairs, and two upstairs. All three can only be reached by going into the laundry room.
The alarm is louder in there. I head up the stairs, and it echoes between doors that stand just a step from each other, almost a doorway made of doors. But the only thing on the other side is blank wall.
I knock on both doors.
No one answers.
I can’t smell smoke.
There is no heat.
I go back downstairs, go back to the table. Sit down.
The fire alarm is still going off.
“I think it’s coming from above us.” I say, “But no one’s home.”
“Call the fire department.” Megan says, over the rhythm of her knife.
I imagine the fire department, pulling up, sirens blaring, pounding up the stairs and into the house of Dog Guy, or maybe it’s the Students who live right above us. Smashing in, taking down the door, and there’s no fire. Just a broken alarm
“I don’t smell any smoke.” I say. “And it doesn’t feel hot.” I get up, go into the kitchen, stand on the counter, try to feel fire through the ceiling.
“Doesn’t mean there’s not a fire.” She says. Her voice is a shrug. “Didn’t we smell smoke earlier?”
“Yeah, but that was this morning.” I say, but then I’m not sure anymore. Was it so long ago? Wasn’t it someone’s burning toast three hours ago?
I go back outside, trying to get a glimpse through the windows, or maybe some proof that it isn’t our neighbors whose alarm is going off. Or a whiff of smoke. Their windows are all closed and shuttered. I can’t see a thing, not up a floor. I can’t smell smoke. I can’t tell where the alarm is coming from.
I go back inside. I get the laundry room key. I go back up stairs, shutting the door behind me this time. The alarm is loud and clear, echoing between door D and door B like it isn’t certain where it wants to come from.
I knock, on both doors.
No one answers.
I go back down stairs. I sit back down at the table. I google “Non-emergency fire department.”
Nothing useful comes up, just the county fire page, which has no phone numbers on it at all, not even 911.
“I don’t want them to break down the door.” I say. “I think it’s D, above us.”
“Call the fire department.” Megan says. “They’ll know what to do.”
I read a reddit post about someone who had a similar problem, but in the end, a drunk neighbor called the fire department. No report on whether they knocked down the door. I google the non-emergency police number.
“Is it still going off?” Megan asks.
“Yeah.” I say. I get up and go back to the kitchen. I can’t hear it there, anymore. But it’s still loud and clear by the table.
I take a deep breath and call the police number.
A ring, another ring, “Are you having an emergency?” A woman’s voice, stern and in a hurry.
“N-no.” I say. I’m really not sure. Maybe I am?
The phone beeps, repeatedly. I sigh, bite my lip. The phone continues to beep. The fire alarm continues to go off. Maybe I should have called 911. Maybe I should hang up and call 911 now.
The phone continues to beep.
“How long has it been going off for?” I ask Megan.
“A while?” She says. “At least ten minutes.”
I flick around on the ipad, pick up the laundry room keys, pace a bit.
“Alright.” The woman’s voice. She sounds less stressed now. “Thank you for waiting, we are dealing with ongoing emergencies. What can I help you with?”
“My neighbor’s fire alarm has been going off for fifteen minutes and they aren’t home–”
“What’s your address?”
I give her my address, and their address, and then my phone number, and I say, “I don’t smell any smoke or feel any heat.”
“I’ll send the fire department.” She says.
My fears come back, blazing. The sirens, the axes, the destroyed property, the devastated neighbors. “I don’t know if there’s a fire.” I hurry to say. “I don’t want them to have to break down the door if there’s no emergency.”
Her voice goes soft, like a pillow. “They’ll come take a look, they’ll know what to do.” She says. “Call again if the situation changes.”
“Thanks.” I say, and she hangs up.
I breathe out. “I called the non-emergency police number.” I tell Megan, and then, “They’re sending the fire department.” Bashfully. I should have just done like she said.
But she just nods.
I sit back down. I stand up, and pace back and forth from the kitchen to the front door, listening to the fire alarm, looking for a truck.
“You wanna hug?” She asks.
Back and forth, trying to stop, into the bedroom, sitting down, standing up, my hands tangled in my shirt, breathing in the smell of cooking sauce and the moist heat of boiling water. Waiting.
And then I catch sight of the fire truck at the stop sign down the street. No lights, no sirens. I get some water, grab the laundry room keys, and step outside to greet the representatives of civic safety and order.
(Some things I think about, while I stand in my gym shorts and my soft long sleeve t-shirt at our door, waiting for the truck to stop in front of our house, where it will block the entire street:
I am nervous, because over the low-frequency roar of the engine I struggle to hear the alarm. What if nothing is wrong? What if it stopped, and they came out for nothing? What if they break down the door and there is no fire? I want there to be a fire so bad, now, except I don’t want any of the housemates things destroyed.
So I have to trust. To trust that these people I have never met know what they are doing and will make the right choice.
And I do.
Because they are firemen.
They aren’t the cops. They’re firemen. It’s like a special breed, like paramedics or the people you talk to when you dial 911. No one ever questions their authority. They don’t shoot people on TV, or forget to turn off their body cameras when they plant evidence against people they want to arrest.
I remember a conversation I had with Loral, months ago, about how we train children to trust fire men, because hiding under the bed during a house fire, in a room filled with smoke, when a strange, huge, bulky figure in full gear comes into your room and reaches under the bed for you—
You need to know that its the fireman and he’s here to help. You have to come out from under the bed, no matter how scared you are.
I think about Gunnerkrigg Court. There’s this arc about Annie becoming a guide to the dead, and a small boy hiding under his bed. There is fire everywhere, and he doesn’t know.)
The truck is pulling up to our house, and I wave, wide and pointedly, and step forward. The truck slows, and the man who has been scanning for addresses waves back, and then realizes why I am waving.
(I think about a conversation with Megan, more than a year ago, about who the most trusted figures in our community are.
“The fire captain.” She said.
I open my mouth to object, but then, I realize I have no better alternative to offer. The cops? They shoot people. They’re too white. Most people don’t trust them, not any more. A priest? Not after that scandal, a decade ago. A doctor? We know them too well, now.
I think about Carmen.
I think about the fire alarm, and the door being busted down, and if I have the landlord’s phone number. I think about the cool, crisp afternoon air, brushing along my chilled legs.)
Three men in brown with yellow stripes and big black helmets hop down from their truck, one from the back, one from I don’t know where, one from the passenger seat. It’s a huge fire truck, blocking our front and part of both our neighbors.
The one in charge comes toward me, as I get to the sidewalk.
“Hi!” I say, as he says, “Did you call”
“Yes.” I say, as he says, “What’s going on?”
“Our neighbors fire alarm has been going off for a while.” I say, and I sort out the keys and head up their steps. “I can’t smell smoke or anything. They’re both students, they aren’t normally home this time of day. I knocked, but– They’re up here, it’s through the laundry room.”
I unlock the door and open it, and stand out of the way. “Upstairs.” I say, but two of them are already heading up the steps. Huge boots and pounds of equipment, the thumping seems to shake the house. The second one has some kind of meter. It is red and black, maybe it smells smoke for them?
“Fire department!” The one in charge calls, as he pounds on the door above ours. There is, of course, no response. He presses into the door, and I think the second one is leaning into the crack, and he says, “Do you smell smoke?”
I realize that the second one is a girl.
“I think so yeah.”
The third fireman comes in. He is carrying a long metal bar that has prongs on one end, the shiny end, like a giant crowbar. He is carrying an axe.
I close my eyes and pray. I don’t know for what. It’s too late, after all. Wisdom for them, maybe. That there will be a fire, maybe.
The one in charge says, “Can you go get a ladder, see if you can see inside?”
“Sure.” She says, and she comes back down the stairs.
The third man hands over his giant crowbar. They jam it into the gap between the door and the frame. The axe comes out, its wide, wide back is used as a mallet.
I’m momentarily surprised. I would have just kicked it in.
But then I remember, that door is one of the nasty strange metal ones, not a wood one like the rest of the ones in the building.
“Cracking the frame a bit there.” One of them says, and I realize they might be trying to get in without destroying anything. I can no longer see what they are doing, but there is a pause, and then the banging continues.
She has gotten a ladder, but she is stymied: where can you put it to see into the house above us? Nowhere. It is clear that the windows above the concrete are closed and shuttered, and everywhere else is grass, hedge, huge windows, old paint, curling plants and stubborn bushes.
I hear the final crack. The alarm is blaring. The two men, swathed in their fire-resistant armor, go in, one after another, like marines clearing a room. (They look like men that have been hand built, in play-dough perhaps. All round and bulky, with no detail and no joints and no thin spots.)
I look out, meaning to open my mouth and tell her that they got the door open. But I can’t find the words or the courage. My mouth won’t open, and maybe it is because she is too far away, or because I can’t see her face.
And then I smell smoke.
I breathe relief, through that smoke.
A few moments later, an eternity later, the alarm goes off, and the men pound back down the stairs. One let’s her know they got the door open, the other, the one in charge, stops to talk to me.
“Just a pot left on the stove. The pot is ruined, but no other damage.” Maybe he smiles at me, I don’t remember, but he is being reassuring.
“Oh good.” I say, and he is saying, “You did the right thing. We had to force the door though.”
“I’ll call the landlord.” I say, or something like that.
“Oh, you have the landlord’s number?”
“I think so yes–”
“Call him and let him know we had to force the door. You did the right thing, we turned off the stove.”
I nod. The smoke is thick now, and I leave the door open behind me. Another fireman passes me, with a huge fan hanging by their knee. I leave, put the keys where they belong. I hear the fans start as I shut our door behind me, and I call the landlord’s cell phone.
I leave a message, fail to write down his other phone number, hang up, take a deep breath, go report to Megan.
And get another hug.
As I pace back to the door, I see those students, our poor neighbors, standing on their porch talking to the one in charge. They look panicked. I would too, if I came home to find the fire truck in front of my house.
I’m back in the kitchen when the fireman knocks on the door again. Back out onto the porch I go, and our neighbor is out there, with a snake curling around her hand. The fireman tells us that they see a lot of nasty fires start like that, that I’d done the right thing, and my neighbor thanks me.
She sounds desperate, sad, and scared.
I am surprised, although I say “You’re welcome. I’m so glad it is okay,” and wring my shirt. I would have been angry, if I had been her. If I had come home to the fire truck and a busted door and a ruined pot, and realized that if I had been just five minutes faster I could have avoided the whole thing.
But she is more generous then me, and she is grateful.
“How about the door?” She asks him, “Can it still shut?”
He says, “Let’s go take a look at it.”
In my head, the story about firemen is reinforced. They act like they are trustworthy, and like they care, and like they know what is going on.
They brought a fan to get the smoke out of the kitchen, they tried not to do more damage than they had to. The told me what to do, in words I understood.
As the fireman turns to go, as she turns to go, I say, “Nice snake.”
“Thank you.” She says, “He was the first thing I thought of. I ran upstairs.”
I nod. I would have been scared too.
I go back inside.
The next three times I see her that day she has that snake. I never learn his name. But I do learn hers, and I get a hug, and I learn that she is afraid they will get evicted, and she is glad the damage is no worse.
(I would still be angry. The whole thing could have been avoided if I had simply not called. They would have come home to smoke, been frightened, turned off the stove, and coped. But she thanks me. She is grateful. And the fireman said I did the right thing.)
The door can even close and lock, because they bought a new door nob. I look at the frame. It is indeed cracked, the plate that the door latch meets twisted slightly up by the wood under it being pulled out of place.
But I’ve done worse with a kick.
I am impressed.
Loral comes home.
There are no firemen in the game.