Into The Fire

Kevin wondered what had happened to real heroes. He pulled the balaclava out from his pocket and looked at it. Plain wool, black like his clothes. He probably looked like a thief in the night, but his intentions were far purer. If he came across a rising cloud of smoke, heard the sirens in the night, he would get in his car and rush to the scene. Hiding his identity, he would save whoever needed his help.

He knew they would think he was crazy if they ever found out. Even his best friend, Nigel, would tell him to quit being a child and grow out of comic book fantasies. So he worked at an office along with all the other nine-to-five drones, and only came alive at night.

He didn’t really want to draw attention to himself, so it had always been black. No brightly colored costume for him, no character for the media. Sometimes they reported about the brave bystander who had come to the rescue, but he wasn’t doing it for the attention. He was doing it to fill a void inside of him, a well of loneliness that saw the world as a place crumbling into decay, a place that needed something good in it. Even if they never really noticed his presence, he hoped that the people he saved made a difference in the world… and that was all that mattered to him.

As the sirens went off again, Kevin got in his car and rushed to the scene. The city was huge, and there was always a disaster somewhere. Sometimes he even slipped out of work for “lunch” when he heard there was a particularly nasty incident.

When the car wreck came into view, Kevin slipped his car down a back alley and hastily parked, donning his disguise before hurrying to the scene. There he saw Nigel, who was also a volunteer firefighter, trying to douse the flames of the car that had caught on fire. Kevin supposed Nigel had the same need as he, but he would still say he was crazy. He’d try to get him to come down to the firehouse, but that wasn’t it, that wasn’t what he wanted. Kevin wanted to do it his way.

Seeing the flames consuming the vehicle, Kevin surged forward as he saw the figure in the front seat coming dangerously close to the flames. The firefighters backed off, intimidated by the searing heat, but Nigel didn’t care. He’d been burned but nothing a long-sleeved shirt and a well-placed stack of paperwork on his desk hadn’t been able to hide.

Feeling the heat, he rushed in and pulled the figure from the seat. He saw the face of a young man, about twenty, unconscious. He pulled him clear, but not before his arm caught the flames and ignited. Willing away the pain, he pulled the young man clear before the car exploded, then saw to the burning arm.

It was bad, and he needed medical attention, but most of all he needed to get away. If Nigel saw him up close, saw that he needed an ambulance… he was in trouble. The firefighters swarmed in, and he went to get away.

“Wait!” He felt a hand grab his good arm. It was Nigel.“You need medical attention for that. Why don’t you just let us do our jobs?”

Kevin shrugged, and Nigel let go, “Come on, you saved the boy. I won’t make you take your mask off, but at least come with me.”

Kevin shrugged again and relented, the searing agony in his arm making him give in. It was risky, but the serious burn on his arm was more of a risk than Nigel finding out his identity.

Sitting in the ambulance, Nigel gave him a strange look, but then he was called over by the other firefighters, “Okay, silent guy, I’ve got to go,” Nigel said, “Thanks. You know… If it hadn’t been for you, that kid would’ve died.”

Kevin said nothing, but inside he had never felt better. He had always respected Nigel, the dark-haired man in his fifties who worked with him. The man worked hard, but was always fair to the others, including him. They had worked together for ten years and were friends outside of work, too, though Kevin spent most of his time alone. He’d never married or had a family, the few relationships he’d been in failing miserably.

To get praise from Nigel… It was heady. Kevin had the urge to rip his mask off right then and let him Nigel know that he was the one doing all this, but he pulled himself together and nodded, waving a wordless goodbye. He didn’t want his voice to give away his identity.

~

The next day, he pondered his bandaged, burnt arm and thought he should probably avoid work, but then, would Nigel suspect him if he didn’t show? He decided to disguise the bandages as best he could and make up a cover story if they showed through his clothes. His hand had escaped injury this time and for that he was grateful.

Looking in the mirror, he pondered his greying hair. He was thirty-nine now, and had been doing this for fifteen years. Perhaps he was getting too old for it. He’d never thought he would live to become too old for what he loved, but he felt the strain on his muscles, the pain in his back. He’d left his better days behind, but he knew he wouldn’t give it up. He couldn’t give it up. He needed to save people as much as they needed to be saved.

Showing up at work, he made a beeline for his office and started working on the stack of paperwork waiting for him. It was hot, but he kept his suit jacket on in case anybody came in.

Nigel was the first one in, “Hey, you were late today,” he said. Kevin inwardly cursed himself for being so delayed. He had spent so much time worrying whether the bandages would show that he had indeed been a few minutes late and hoped nobody would notice.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, “I got caught in traffic.”

“A likely story,” Nigel flashed him a grin, “It’s all right, Kevin, relax. Christ, it must be eighty degrees in here, you could at least get undressed.” They both laughed at the awkward wording.

“Nah, I’m fine, really,” Kevin said, “I keep feeling a chill in the air lately. Maybe Fall’s coming early.”

“If you say so,” Nigel said, “I still say it’s hot as hell out there. But hey, suit yourself.” Kevin chuckled at the bad pun.

“You’re easily amused,” Nigel said, “Well, I guess that’s why you put up with me. Hey, wanna come over for a drink later?”

“Sure,” Kevin said, before he’d even thought about how he would disguise his injury. He’d been wanting company, and he didn’t think about it until Nigel had gone.

~

He went to Nigel’s house in a suit. It was the only thing that would cover his bandages, and he’d invented a suitable cover story.

“Why are you all dressed up?” Nigel said, as he answered the door, “I only invited you around for a few drinks.”

“I thought we could go out to a nice bar,” Kevin said, “It’s been a while since I did anything fancy.”

“You know I don’t like to dress fancy outside the office,” Nigel said, but he relented, “All right then. Where did you have in mind?”

They walked to the bar and soon, Nigel was really drunk, while Kevin had only had two beers. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but he’d wanted Nigel’s company. Nigel was really the only friend he had. Being a hero was a lonely business. He’d never really had the time to meet people, but Nigel had been there for him through tough times and good.

“Crap,” Nigel pulled out his cellphone as it sounded its text message alert, “It’s the firehouse. Fire on Fifth Street. Fuck, I can’t get to the firehouse like this, but John’s out of town and the others need me right now. Would you drop me off there?” He stood up and grabbed hold of the counter to steady himself.

“You shouldn’t be fighting fires right now,” Kevin said, “You drank a little too much. You’ll get hurt.”

“They need me,” Nigel said, “There is nobody else. Not unless that masked guy shows up again.” Nigel had told Kevin all about the masked man, and Kevin had found himself smiling inwardly as Nigel had recounted how brave he was. “But I can’t count on that. Guy could be anybody.”

“I’ll take you to the firehouse,” Kevin said, “But promise me you’ll stay outside the fire.”

“All right,” Nigel said, “Come on!”

~

After Kevin dropped Nigel off, he sped to the scene. He got there just as Nigel’s fire crew were setting up, and assessed the scene from behind one of the fire trucks.

“Shit,” Nigel said into his radio, “I’m talking to the mother, guys. The kid’s still in there! Hang on, I’m coming in.” He staggered towards the scene, and Kevin felt his heart sink as he saw Nigel stepping into the engulfed home. He hurried forward and saw the firefighters at the upstairs window. The fire truck’s ladder extended upwards and the firefighters escaped with the child.

When it came back to the ground, Kevin looked around, “Where’s Nigel?” he asked, “He went in there!”

“Dammit, I told him not to come in!” the one firefighter said, “He drank too much.” As they talked a creaking sound came from the house.

“It’s losing structural integrity!” one of the firefighters yelled.

“We can’t go in there now,” the firefighter said to Kevin, “It’s going to collapse any moment.”

“I’m not going to leave him,” Kevin said. He slipped the grasp of the fireman rushed into the flames.

“Nigel!” he yelled, “Shit, where are you!” The house creaked around him, threatening to fall, and the smoke made his eyes sting, but he knew he had to press on. Nigel was all he had, and it had been his fault for letting him drink so much and taking him to the firehouse. What kind of a hero was he if he couldn’t even take care of his best friend?

“Help!” came a cry from upstairs. Kevin rushed up the stairs to see Nigel’s leg trapped under a fallen beam.

“I got you,” he said, not caring if Nigel knew who he was. He just wanted to let him know somebody was there for him. He leaned down beside Nigel and pulled on the beam.

“It’s too heavy, Kevin,” Nigel said. Kevin looked at him in shock, before pulling his mask off. Nigel smiled.

“I’ve suspected it was you for a while… The way that you move… the shape of your body… the strange shit that you do at work sometimes… like those three hour lunches…” Nigel coughed.

“Don’t talk,” Kevin said, “I’m going to get you out of here.” He pulled on the beam again with every ounce of strength in his body and it finally moved enough for Kevin to pull Nigel out. Picking Nigel up, he rushed from the building, gasping for air until he reached a safe distance. Putting down his friend, he heard the building collapse behind him before he lost consciousness.

~

When Kevin woke, everything was strange and bright white. He quickly realized he was in the hospital, and sat up. A nurse came in to check on him.

“Nigel… Is Nigel okay?” Kevin couldn’t help but ask the nurse about Nigel’s fate.

“Oh, the firefighter they brought in with you? Yeah, he was discharged yesterday. Broken leg, smoke inhalation. He was asking about you. You’ve been out for three days.” The nurse performed some checks on Kevin, “You inhaled a lot of smoke, and completely exhausted yourself. You need to rest.”

Later that afternoon, Nigel came to see him. Struggling across the room on his crutches, he pulled a chair over and sat next to Kevin.

“I’m so sorry,” Nigel said, “If I hadn’t been so stupid… You wouldn’t have had to put your life in danger to save me like that. I’m lucky to have a friend like you… Somebody brave, a real hero. I’ve just come to see being a firefighter as another job, but to you… It’s a passion.”

“It’s okay,” Kevin said, “I’m glad I could be there when you needed me. That’s what friends are for, right? Besides, I was the one that screwed up. I should never have let you go to the fire when you were so drunk.”

“So what do we do now?” Nigel said, “I never expected to tell you that I knew who the masked man was… I was happy just to see you do your thing. You’re not going to stop because of me, are you?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to tell me that I’m stupid and I should grow up and stop reading comic books? That’s what you do in my imagination.” Kevin replied.

“Hell no,” Nigel said, “I have a collection of my own. Only I never knew that real heroes existed.”

“I never knew,” Kevin said, “I figured you were way too sensible for that.”

“Apparently not too sensible…” Nigel said, “Otherwise I wouldn’t do this…” He struggled to his feet, and leaning over the bed, kissed Kevin on the mouth. Kevin, surprised, let himself be kissed. Then Nigel pulled himself away.

“I know you won’t talk to me again,” Nigel said, but I’ve been telling myself for months that you live alone, that you’ve never had a family, that you must be gay. It’s probably just wishful thinking, so I’ll get out of here. Please, just forget about it.” He limped away quickly and awkwardly, racing for the door as fast as his crutches would let him. He was gone before Kevin could form words.

Kevin was lost in a memory. When he had been in college, he’d had a crush on his roommate, Alan. One night, they were drunk, and one thing had led to another. Kevin remembered how right it had felt to him, how much he had wanted it, but when he’d woken up, Alan was gone. He’d never mentioned it again, and put a distance between them. Years later, Kevin had looked him up, to find he had died in a car accident. He’d always wondered if he’d been there, if he could have made a difference. It was one of the many factors that had led to his secret life of heroism.

He’d shelved that memory for a long time, second-guessing himself, thinking that it had just been a college experiment, something that had happened in his youth when he was drunk. Since then he’d been careful not to get too drunk around anybody. Though he wouldn’t say he had regretted it, he didn’t see himself as gay… until now. Until Nigel had kissed him and he’d had that feeling of rightness all over again. It was like a piece of a puzzle clicking into place.

He wanted to chase after Nigel, but he didn’t have the strength to go running after him, and besides, he was still organizing his feelings. What could he say to Nigel when he didn’t know anything himself?

Nigel didn’t visit again, and it was another week before Kevin returned to work. Nigel kept his distance and only talked about work, and Kevin felt a deep loss. Was he too late? Had he hurt Nigel by not knowing how to respond? He knew he had to say something, but what?

The truth, perhaps? It couldn’t hurt to come clean that he was confused about his feelings, that Nigel had done nothing wrong.

Kevin knocked on the door of Nigel’s office. Nigel answered with a gruff, “Come in!” and Kevin found himself in Nigel’s office, not knowing what to say.

“I…” Kevin stopped. His mind was filled with fog, empty. All the things that he had planned to say disappeared from his mind.

It was Nigel who eventually spoke first, “I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable,” he said, “I had no right to just come and kiss you like that. I want to forget about it, if you can. I want us to still be friends.”

Kevin felt like taking his hand. It would be so easy to shove away the hard questions, to take that hand and still be friends, but it would be dishonest. It would be cowardly. It would stand against everything he had ever believed in.

He looked into Nigel’s eyes. There was sadness there, in the blue depths of his eyes. Kevin felt like he was looking into his very soul. He felt consumed by those eyes, seeing years of loneliness and refusal piled up behind them.

They were eyes that mirrored his very own soul, and before he knew it, he batted down the hand. Shock and hurt filled Nigel’s eyes, before Kevin grabbed him and kissed him fiercely. The hurt slipped away and there was just shock, of a different kind.

Kevin let go. There was silence in the air, but he broke it, “I’ll be completely honest,” he said, “I’ve never been this confused in my life. But it feels right. Just like saving people did, back when I took that up. I slept with my roommate in college, but it’s taken me all these years to come back to the question that’s been there all along.”

“Confusion is understandable,” Nigel said, “The world hasn’t always been as accepting as it is today. But putting aside the question of whether you’re gay or not… How do you feel about me?”

“When I was back there, in that burning building, I thought that if I lost you, I would lose the best friend that I ever had,” Kevin said, “I didn’t want that to happen, no matter what…”

~

Kevin pulled the car up to the curb, and he got out. Seeing the gathering crowd around the river, and the child struggling to stay afloat, clinging to a rock with slippery hands, he pushed through the crowd. Nigel followed, dressed in the same black clothes and mask. They dived into the river, not caring for anything else, but focused on one single goal. Nigel got there first and grabbed the child and they swam to safety. The parents and bystanders clapped, but Nigel didn’t wait around. He saw Kevin beckoning to him from downstream, where he had just swam ashore, and he ran to him. They ran, pulling off their wet masks when they were far enough away and laughing as they gasped for breath.

“Oh god, that feels incredible,” Nigel said, “To have had such an impact on something…”

Kevin pulled Nigel down into the tall, thick rushes and they kissed, soaked and exhilarated.

“Now I get it,” Nigel said, “This is different then just doing a job, this is…”

Kevin never got to hear the end of his sentence, as he kissed him again and again…