I hated every moment of having to change that morning. I looked into the mirror as I finished with my tie, the bruising over my body was still standing out even now, a week later, there was no hiding the dark purple across my cheek and jaw against the natural tone of my skin. Memories of the warehouse fire flashed through my mind as I straightened out my uniform.
The sound of the PASS alarms going off, my own included. They sounded so far away as I fought for consciousness, pain wracking my entire body, and fear consuming what little thread of awareness I had. The flames were everywhere, raging on in victory, their intense heat felt like it was burning right through my uniform, licking at my skin and seeping into me, scorching my airways. I tried to pick out the fallen bodies nearby, seeking signs of life through the blaze, but it was no use as the image before my eyes zoned in and out in a haze, my eyes refusing to focus after the force that I had hit the ground. Darkness consumed me once more as I lay defeated among my family that were so near, and yet so far from my side.
Picking up my car keys, I left the flat trying to shake the images from my head, but it was impossible, they were so painstakingly clear and it was as though they’d been burned into my memory forever, a torturous loop of that awful day. I remembered nothing about being pulled from the building, not even from the ambulance ride. But I remembered every second of hearing my sister crying by my bedside, telling me how scared she was. I remembered the look in my dad’s eyes as he watched his only son confined to a hospital bed, battered and bruised, the realisation that he could have lost me was clearer than ever. But all of this paled in comparison to the thing that I would always remember, the pain that I felt, that I was feeling now, and had done every day since that shout. Unlike physical pain, this wasn’t going to ease, because another member of my family was gone, and there was no way of bringing them back.
As the procession passed through the streets, various onlookers paused in their day to day activities to stop and watch us pass. I stood on the appliance, with the others, our positions on either side of our fallen colleague. Staring straight ahead, I refused to allow myself to glance over at the coffin beside me. I couldn’t bear to look, the flag and helmet that adorned it would make me break, I knew it, and I couldn’t falter here. I needed to keep holding together, no matter how much I was breaking inside. A small sniffle just ahead to my right caught my attention, and my eyes flicked to the source. Lacey was staring ahead just as determinedly as me, an expression of forced professionalism on her face, whilst a tear rolled slowly over her cheek. I wanted to be able to comfort her, the sight of her tears tugged at my heart and I knew she was just as hurt as me, but there was nothing that I could do right now, and so I returned my gaze to the front, looking past Jax and seeing the start of the path towards the cemetery.
As far as the eye could see, fellow firefighters from the surrounding area and other Watch’s lined each side of the road, forming a guard of honour as we passed through, slowly making our way closer to the church. I felt my eyes stinging as the touching moment crashed over me, everything blurred for a second as tears formed, brimming in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. Blinking rapidly, I took a steadying breath, gathering myself and forcing away the building tears as we came to a stop.
Once the procession had stopped, the guests began to group together, making their way forward, ready to follow into the church. Alex called us to attention and the six of us took our positions, lifting together. The knowledge of who resided in the coffin, and the weight of the body slammed so much emotion through me that I felt choked. I hoped that I’d never have to go through this process ever again, and yet here it was, and even harder than before. In perfectly ordered steps, we followed the priest, moving through the doors and inside.
The church was large, ornate and beautiful. The ceiling stretched so high that the music that was playing echoed loudly as though playing for the heavens far above. Tall stained glass windows twinkled with rainbow colours across the large concrete beams that lined the outer sides of the benches, and glowing candelabras hung over the long, dark wood benches on either side of the aisle. Floral wreaths stood up ahead and we pressed on toward them. It was the large photo that stood alongside them that sent a ripple of grief and heartache coursing through me. The blown up image of Dodger captured his personality perfectly. A single still frame that contained all of the love in his beaming smile, and the familiar mischievous glee in his eyes, which twinkled in the photo just as much as they had in life. I remembered when that picture was taken, and the fun that we’d all had. I could practically hear his laugh right now, and it was with a pang that I knew I’d never hear it again. I would never have guessed that this day would come, and evidence of such a fun day would become a centrepiece at his funeral. He was the vibrant soul of Red Watch and I couldn’t even begin to fathom how we would get used to being without him.
Once we’d placed his coffin down, we turned to the benches, ready to take our seats. But the sight of Emilia halted our footsteps. She looked completely distraught. There was no other word for it. Her puffy red eyes lingered on the image of her fiance, as tears streamed down her face. Sodden tissue was clenched in her hand that rested protectively over the black fabric of her dress which framed her growing, six month baby bump. Hope and Eva flanked her on either side, guiding her into a seat and trying to provide as much comfort as they could. Dodger’s parents stood arm in arm behind her with his older brother, Ricky, and younger brother, Edward, all of them looking as though they had no tears left to give as they filed into the front row together. I glanced at the others, and saw my own grief stricken expression mirrored back at me on the bruised and scraped faces of the rest of the Watch, all of us still bearing the marks of that fateful night which stole our brother. Lacey caught my eye and I saw the storm raging behind her brave face. I angled my steps to get closer and taking the place next to her on the bench, I wrapped my hand around hers, our fingers interlocking and a supportive squeeze passing between us.
The air hung heavy with emotion throughout the service, I found myself tuning out as memories were triggered by the Priest’s words, and I replayed times that I’d shared with Dodger over the years. I wished more than anything, that he was here, and that I’d see his face pop up from one of the corners any moment, and he’d reveal that it had all been some elaborate prank to get back at us for all the times we teased him about being an idiot with his dodgy plans. But as I looked at the coffin, and his helmet that sat on top, I knew that there was no chance of that happening. Emilia sobbed in the front row, and I thought of how happy he was to tell us that they were engaged, and excited he was about the baby. It felt like only yesterday that he told us, and now, he wasn’t going to make it down the aisle to marry the love of his life. He wasn’t going to be there for the birth of his baby, to hold him or her for the first time, and to see that child grow and turn into a mini version of himself.
The sound of my name drew my attention away from Emilia and I realised that it was time for me to give the eulogy. Lacey squeezed my hand again and flashed me an encouraging smile.
“You’ve got this.” She whispered.
I nodded and rose to my feet, each step feeling heavy as I made my way up to the front.
The room was packed to full capacity, and those that had no place to stand, had taken up standing positions at the back. Clearing my throat, I spoke into the microphone, attempting to keep the emotions that were lurking just below the surface, out of my voice.
“To those of you who don’t know, my name is Bane Knight, and I worked with Harry.” I started.
It was strange to call him Harry, he’d been Dodger to me for as long as I’d ever known, and it was alien to me to use his actual name.
“Although we didn’t know him as Harry Olsen, to us at Red Watch, he was Dodger, a best friend and a brother.”
I saw the others nodding out of the corner of my eye, and pressed on.
“I met Dodger on my first day at Farwood station, and we got on from the start. He had this thing about him which made it impossible not to connect on some level, and on my first shout, he solidified our friendship forever.”
I thought back to that day, and how my nickname came about. It wasn’t just my story, it was the story of who Dodger really was, and I couldn’t think of a better time to tell it.
“We were called to an out of control fire at a block of flats, and like a typical rookie I was eager to prove myself. We’d had unsubstantiated reports of a woman still being inside, and yet no matter how hard we searched, we couldn’t find her. The longer we looked the more precarious our situation became until it got to the point where we were being ordered to withdraw.”
Everyone’s eyes were on me as I relayed the story, and thought about how long ago it was now. It felt almost like an entirely different lifetime.
“I was stubborn as hell back then,” I tipped my head to the side and added, “Okay, even more than I am now.”
There was a light chuckle from the crowd and I knew that it would have been the perfect moment for Dodger to include some kind of snarky remark at my expense.
“I refused to leave until I’d located the woman. I couldn’t leave until I knew without a doubt, that I’d done all that I could. The only place left that she could have gone was on the next floor which was in really bad shape. I prepared to go on up alone, when I heard someone behind me, and a sarcastic voice say ‘I knew you were going to be trouble, you’re a rebel.’ Dodger had come back in. I thought he was there to force me out, but instead, he just began climbing the stairs with me.”
I swallowed the lump that was building in my throat, and pressed on.
“Most firefighters would question a rookie on their decision, push them to see reason, or tell them to obey orders. But Dodge never did that, and when I asked why, he just smiled and said simply ‘we’re a family, we never leave each other behind.’ And I was so glad he didn’t, because when we found the room that the woman was in, it took both of us to break it down and get her out.”
There had never been any doubt in my mind that it would have ended badly had it not been for his backup that day. Without him it may have been my first and last day on the job.
“It was thanks to him that we all made it out alive that day, because he didn’t think before backing me up, he just jumped in and chose to trust me. He was the kind of man who would put everything on the line to be by your side when you needed him. No matter who you were, even after knowing you for just an hour. He didn’t care what it was that you were facing, he wouldn’t let you go through it alone.”
I managed a small smile at Em as I looked in her direction. Tears still flowed freely, but she was listening intently to my speech and nodding slowly in agreement.
“Harry Olsen had one of the biggest hearts that I’d ever known, and he filled it with love for every single person in his life. He was a great man and he died a hero. Every one of us who knew him had our lives enriched by his presence, and although he has been taken from us, he will live on forever in our hearts.”
I turned to face the coffin as I took a breath and directed my words to Dodger.
“Dodger, thank you for being the best brother I could ask for, and teaching me the true meaning of this job. You’ll always be my family, and I promise that I’ll always protect yours.”