If you had told me I would become homeless, I never would have believed you. But that’s exactly what I was after the wildfires hit the city of Chico. Having no friends meant that I had no one to turn to when my house was destroyed.
But thankfully my job came with a hefty paycheck and I was able to get a decent hotel room, a blessing that I didn’t take lightly. The room was nice, a private suite with a fully loaded kitchen, a personal Jacuzzi hot tub, and a balcony overlooking the mountains. It was almost like Harley and I were on vacation… almost.
I don’t waste time jumping in the shower and scrubbing the smut from my body. As I wash, I run my fingers over the tender area of my arm where the fireman had so forcibly grabbed me. The bruises were already forming, a reminder of the cost of the man’s bravery. If I had moved just a little faster, had done what he asked without hesitation, could that have meant the difference in his life and death? The never ending guilt that consumed me to the point that it was all I could think about. A man was literally fighting for his life because of me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I dry my hair and gaze at myself in the mirror. The person staring back at me was different from the woman I once knew. Other than my hair being slightly singed and the mild burn on my hand, I wasn’t hurt physically altered. My brown eyes, tanned skin, and dark curls were the same as they were a few hours ago, but I was changed on the inside. The flames didn’t just burn the place I had called home, they had also burned away a piece of who I was.
I turn away from my reflection and plop on the mattress as Harley nuzzles my shoulder. The bed was comfortable, and I wanted nothing more than to rest my weary and overwhelmed body, but I was restless and every little sound had me on edge. The spatter of rain on the tin roof reminded me of the vicious flames, devouring everything in their wake. Car alarms in the distance sounded like fire detectors, warning me of my impending death. The blankets felt excessively thick, and I was suddenly far too warm. I kick them off of my heated body in a panic, feeling as if I was suffocating on smoke all over again.
I pace around the hotel room, trying to slow my agitated heart. When I finally resigned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep I grab my keys and hop in the car. I drive aimlessly for hours, not really sure where I was going but knowing that I needed to be somewhere else. Before I realize it, I was pulling into the hospital parking lot.
Without thinking clearly, I stride through the automatic doors and walk up to the visitor’s desk. A tired, but friendly nurse swivels around in her computer chair to greet me.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes, I was hoping to see a patient.”
“Umm,” I say, realizing that I didn’t even know who the man was. “Honestly, I’m not sure. He’s a fireman.”
“Oh yes. He’s been moved to the ICU, but is stable for now,” she says. I’m relieved to hear that he was still alive. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t let you in to see him unless you’re a family member.”
“I understand,” I mumble, disappointed. “It’s just, well, he saved my life. I’m the reason he’s in the hospital right now and I just wanted to thank him,” I admit.
Compassion fills the nurse’s eyes. I watch patiently as she seems to undergo an internal battle. Finally, she lets out a sigh of defeat. “Jake Lucero. That’s the man’s name. He’s in room 552, but you didn’t hear that from me,” she says with a wink.
I smile and thank her for her time before taking the elevator to the fifth floor. I find the room and grab the door handle, but just as I am about to go inside, I hesitate. What was I doing? This man didn’t know me. I might be the last person he wanted to see right now.
I have just about talked myself into leaving the hospital altogether when a group of men appear from around the corner of the hallway. They were wearing the same uniform as the man who saved me; they were firemen, too. They spot me immediately and I feel a blush creep into my cheeks.
“Can we help you, ma’am?” a tall man with sandy blonde hair and kind eyes asks.
“I, um, I…” I stutter, at a loss for words. I couldn’t tell them the truth. How could I admit to them that I was the reason their colleague and friend was here, fighting for his life?
My eyes begin to well with tears as the men wait for me to answer. I try to bite back the liquid that threatens to overflow, but I can’t stop the tears as first one and then another tear falls down my cheek until I was a sobbing mess. The men stare at me in shock, shuffling their feet uncomfortably as they take in the blubbering stranger they had the unfortunate luck to come across.
“Hey, are you alright?” the tall man asks, handing me a tissue. “Wait… are you the woman…” he starts, his eyes widening in recognition.
He doesn’t finish the sentence, but my mind finishes it for him. The woman who was foolish enough to stay another night in a high risk burn zone. The woman who slept peacefully when her life was going up in flames around her. The woman who put a kind and gentle man in harm’s way for no reason. The idea only makes me cry harder.
The man motions for the other firemen to give me some privacy. He guides me gently to the nearby waiting room and helps me into a chair before pouring me a cup of water from the fountain. He doesn’t say a word, but simply puts his arm around me and holds me for the longest time, allowing me to cry into his shirt until there were no tears that remained. When I look up again, the man gives a reassuring smile.
“Listen, I know how you feel,” he says in a kind voice. “But you can’t blame yourself.”
“How could I not blame myself?” I ask, a fresh wave of tears coming. “It’s my fault that kind, brave man in the hospital fighting for his life.”
“He knew what might happen when he went into that building, but he did it anyway. That’s just the kind of man that Jake is,” he says. “Besides, it could have been so much worse. The fire suit prevented most of the damage. The doctors say the medically induced coma is more of a precaution, a chance for his lungs to recover and his body to heal itself. They’re optimistic, not that I’m surprised. Jake’s a fighter. This isn’t the first time he’s been a patient in this hospital, and it won’t be his last,” the man says with a smile.
“You must know him well,” I say, wiping my nose.
“Jake’s my best friend. He has been since we were kids. I’d do anything for that man.” He smiles, and grabs my hand. “Come on, let’s go see him.”
“What? No!” I exclaim. The idea of seeing Jake right now made me want to run away and hide like a child.
“I think it’ll help ease your guilt if you see for yourself that he’s doing okay,” the kind man says.
I am reluctant, but he persists until I feel I have no choice but to agree. He walks with me to Jake’s room. I stand outside of it for the longest time, trying to talk myself into turning the handle. The kind stranger stands with me, not saying a word but simply being there. I stare into his kind green eyes and he gives me an encouraging nod.
“Thank you, err, I didn’t catch your name,” I say.
“Dewayne Davis,” he says, shaking my hand gently. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Tell Jake that I said hello,” he says with a friendly wink before leaving me alone in the hospital wing.
With a deep breath I turn the door handle and tread tentatively into the dimly lit hospital area, my stomach uneasy. A surge of guilt courses through me when I see the man lying in the hospital bed, hooked to tubes and a ventilator. I stand awkwardly at the foot of his bed, my body stiff and uncomfortable. I felt like I was trespassing, like I was an intruder lurking somewhere that I didn’t belong. What right did I have to be in this place, to see this courageous man during his most vulnerable moments? But I knew that I needed to see him, despite my qualms.
Despite being hooked to a dozen machines, I could tell that the man was handsome. His skin was smooth and tan, disrupted only by a messy goatee. His dark hair flowed in soft waves and was tucked just behind his ears, held in place by the oxygen line that ran across his nose. His eyes were closed, but I remember their deep, chocolate brown hue from our traumatic moments together.
Though they are faint, I can make out the fine worry lines across his forehead, encasing his eyes. I can’t help but wonder what he had to be worried about. He couldn’t have been much older than me, and it was clear that these lines had been forming over a long period of time.
Bandages were wrapped around the man’s arm from his wrist to his elbow, stopping below his large bicep. I can just make out the rest of his body, curved and sculpted, but hidden beneath the unflattering hospital gown. Faint scars cover the surface of his bronzed skin, most looking to be burn marks. It seemed that his newest battle wound was just one of a collection of life endangering injuries this heroic man had suffered. I can’t help the tears that well in my eyes as I stared at him. It was strange to see someone who seemed so strong and indestructible just a few hours ago, now look so small and helpless.
The room was quiet, except for the low, rhythmic hum of the machines. There was no one else here, except me and the man. I sit in the chair beside his bed and pull out my Kindle to pass the time. I didn’t want to go back to the hotel and I couldn’t go home anymore, so I settle in.
I had always heard that patients in a coma are able to hear those around them. I didn’t know if it was true or not, but I found myself reading the works of Jane Austen aloud, just in case. As I doze off, my hand grips tightly to the hand of the handsome man who saved me. I owed Jake Lucero my life, and I prayed that it didn’t cost him his in return.