Two Days Ago
"Can't you just patch it again for me?" she asked.
"Randi, you really, really need a new set of tires."
"A set? What do you mean by 'set'? Only one tire has a hole in it."
"Tires need to replaced as sets. Either both front tires or both rear tires. Ideally, you replace all four at the same time, but at a minimum, you replace them as a set."
"Tommy, I can't afford to buy one tire let alone a set. Why can't you just patch it again?"
"Because I'm patching the patch, Randi. It's not safe. It won't hold. It's dangerous."
"Is there anything we can do? Can I work something out with you? Money is beyond tight right now."
He looked at her and all those feelings from the past came flooding back. He'd know Randi Sellers-Kelly since elementary school and had had a crush on her since the 7th grade. She'd married the best looking guy in school four years ago right after graduation which was no surprise to anyone, especially to Tommy. He'd always known she was way out of his league. She wasn't just gorgeous, she was also at least four inches taller than him only adding to his mental misery knowing he still had no chance with the girl of his dreams.
She knew how he felt and she hated knowing it still hurt him. She felt guilty asking for his help knowing he'd do anything he could for her. After the way her soon-to-be ex-husband had treated her; with everything she was going through now thanks to his gambling and drinking, she realized she might have been better off with Tommy. He'd never have treated her like that. Then again, she'd have never loved him the way he deserved to be loved so it was nothing but wishful thinking. Still....
"You know I'd do anything for you, right?" he began. "I'll tell you what. I'll patch it for you again for free IF you'll promise me you won't go on the freeway until this is replaced. Not repaired—replaced."
"Okay! I promise!" she said happily throwing her arms around him before realizing he was a greasy mess.
"No, wait. That's not enough. You have to promise me you won't drive over 45mph until you get a new tire. Randi? If this thing blows at high speed...." He looked in the back seat and saw her dog, the dog she loved like the child she'd wanted but never had and said, "You know it isn't just you right?"
"I do. I'm putting Rex at risk, too. I get it. I understand, Tommy. I really do." She was so grateful she bent down and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you so much. You've always been such a good friend."
"Yeah. That's me. Always the friend," he said wryly. "Okay. Give me half an hour and I'll have you on your way. Just keep in mind this thing could go at any time and you don't have a spare. It might last two weeks. It might last two minutes. Just please, please be careful, okay?"
She promised him she would then put her dog on a leash and took him out to go pee while her long-time friend put her car up on the hoist and repaired her bald tire—again.
Present Day Seattle Fire Station
"How's Flame doing?"
"Not so good. He's really depressed. He hasn't eaten a thing in two days."
"Is he drinking water?"
"Oh, sure. But he's not only not eating, he doesn't even want to play. And for him, that's unheard of."
"Well, Smoke was with him all day, every day for the last four years. Losing his best friend has to be tearing him up."
"Yeah, no kidding. He's been sitting up in the front seat of the fire engine Smoke always rode in all morning. Poor guy."
"Have you thought about getting another dog yet?"
"Yes and no. I know he needs a friend. I'm just not sure I can stand to see another dog go through this. Flame is seven and if I get another dog, he'll get attached to Flame and then when he goes...."
"Yeah, I hear you. Just remember that if you do get another dog, it has to be a Dalmatian," his fire captain said to him with a supportive smile.
He smiled back then said, "Of course. No self-respecting firefighter would bring anything else into the house!"
The captain looked up into engine #2 and shook his head.
"He must think Smoke's in there somewhere because he can smell his scent. Let's hope he gets over this soon. The two of them having the run of this place all that time made them just like family around here and it's hard to see any family member hurting. Even one with four legs."
"They are family, Cap'n," he replied.
"Yes they are," his captain agreed.
Clark Nichols had been a firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department since he was 19. With 16 years on the job he was one of the best and most respected firefighters in the department. He was calm, easy-going, and dependable. He was the kind of guy who got along with everyone and the one his fellow firefighters came to for advice—both professional and personal.
Even though Nichols had never been married himself, married friends opened up to him and told him things they'd never share with anyone else. He didn't have kids, either, but he was a source of endless good advice about how to help a dad get through a rough patch with a teenager who currently hated his father for setting limits and boundaries, or a dad whose young daughter was being bullied at school.
He was also one of the two best looking guys in the entire department along with a very handsome and equally popular firefighter named Terrell Robinson who happened to be black and also one of Nichols' best friends. Both had had covers on the department's annual calendar and had gone out and helped sell them to the public wearing their firefighting gear less anything but a pair of suspenders above the waist. Eight-pack abs and a ripped upper body coupled with a great smile and sexy eyes sold a lot of calendars.
It was all in a day's work for Nichols who took his job, but never himself, seriously. So when captain saw him this down, he knew that losing Smoke wasn't just some minor thing.
"Well, I'm making dinner this evening so I best get moving, Cap'n," Clark told his boss.
"No spaghetti, Superman. You've made it two out of the last three times. It was good, mind you, but a little variety would be nice!"
Superman was one of two nicknames that stuck. Being the only Clark anyone in the department knew, 'Clark Kent' also made sense. The fact that he had thick, dark hair with the same kind of curl Christopher Reeve had had, 'Superman' worked equally well.
"You got it, Cap'n!" he said laughing to himself knowing he'd just make lasagna instead. What could he say? His mother was full-blooded Italian and he'd grown up on her pasta. And judging by his body that didn't have an ounce of fat on it, no one could claim that pasta made people overweight. Overeating pasta (or anything else for that matter) made people fat—not the pasta itself.
It was his Italian side that had earned him his other nickname—'Brown Eyes'. Soon after his first calendar cover went on sale, women of varying ages had immediately fallen in love with the gorgeous fireman. The calendar people had titled his page 'Brown Eyes' and it too, stuck—at least with the women who'd seen it.
Women stood in line holding a calendar they'd just bought patiently waiting to get the bare-chested, hunky fireman to sign it for them. Most asked him to sign theirs, 'Love, Brown Eyes', and he was more than happy to do so.
The following morning, Nichols called for Flame once he'd changed and got ready to go home. It had been a long night but thankfully he hadn't been sent out on a single call, something that was a rare luxury in a city the size of Seattle. There would likely be twice the normal number of calls on his next shift, but it had been nice to have one quiet night.
Flame came slowly walking over to his owner and sniffed around the bottom of his pants before laying down beside him.
"Come on, boy. Time to go home." The Dalmatian just lay there looking up at him with those sad eyes. "Come on, buddy! Up!"
Flame slowly and reluctantly stood and followed Nicholson to his Chevy Silverado and jumped in. Just like in the engine, he sniffed around looking for signs of his late, ever-present best friend. Finding none, he whimpered then lay down next to his other best friend on the ride home.
They hadn't gone four blocks when Nicholson said, "Whoa. Hold on there."
He saw what looked to be a very attractive younger woman trying to change a flat tire. The traffic was whizzing by and she was clearly having a very difficult time. Fortunately it wasn't raining for once or her clean white shirt would have been drenched in mud thrown up from the passing cars.
"Let's give this nice lady a hand, shall we?" he said to his faithful companion as he pulled over behind her car. He turned on his flashers then grabbed a couple of orange cones he always kept in the extra cab section and set them out as a warning to oncoming traffic.
"Flame? Come!" he said. The dog jumped out and ran straight to the woman who was so startled she screamed and dropped the lug-nut wrench she was holding.
As Nichols walked toward her he saw Flame licking her face then heard the sound of muffled barking. There was another Dalmatian in the woman's back seat and Nichols smiled when he understood the source of all the noise. Flame quickly moved away from the woman and was standing next to the rear passenger door sitting and quietly looking in.
The woman was trying to get her bearings and figure out what in the world was going on when she saw him walk up.
"Sorry! He can be a little rambunctious," he told her. "Need some help?"
Her dog was barking wildly as Flame stood there silently watching from the curb.
Before she could answer, Nichols asked her, "If your dog will stay off the road, you could let him...or her...out, too."
The woman was standing now and staring at him.
"I know you!" she said pointing at him.
"I'm pretty sure we haven't met," he told her. "I don't forget faces. Especially not one as beautiful as yours."
"Brown Eyes! I knew I knew you!" she said ignoring his comment. "You signed my calendar for me. Well, I couldn't be there, but my friend had you sign it for me."
"Oh, okay," he said smiling at her. "That was quite a few years ago. You couldn't have been too far out of diapers," he teased.
"I'll have you know I was 12 years old...Brown Eyes," she said pretending to be defensive. "I still have that calendar, by the way."
"And you have a flat tire," he said pointing out the obvious. "Can your dog come out? Will he stay off the road?"
"Um...I can put him on the leash. Why? Did you want him to play with your dog or something?"
Nichols laughed and said, "I had two of them until the day before yesterday. My other Dalmatian, Smoke, was 15 years old and I finally had to put him down. Poor guy could barely walk. My other boy here, Flame, he's hurting pretty badly from the loss."
"Well, let me get my leash and see how they do together," she said.
Seconds later, Rex was hooked up and playing happily with Flame who took a few seconds to decide he liked the new canine with a different scent.
"How bad is it?" she asked, looking at the tire, as though she hadn't been warned.
"Bad," he told her. "The tire has almost no tread and there's a visible hole the size of a quarter. You really need a new set of tires on the front."
"Oh, great. There's that word again," she said trying to keep Rex from wrapping the leash around her body.
"What's that?" he asked after having surveyed the damage.
"Oh, nothing," she said. "I was hoping against hope it would last until payday. I've been putting a few dollars aside the last three paychecks and I was going to replace it then."
"No problem. I'll throw the spare on for you and you'll be set for a few days. But you really need to replace both tires," he told her again. "Can you pop the trunk for me?"
"I can, but it won't do any good," she told him. "I don't have a spare."
"Wow. Okay, well, we're gonna have to replace this tire. It's shot. You can't even drive it to a repair shop."
"I can't afford a tow truck, so...."
"You're in luck," he said. "I've got a winch on mine."
"Um...but it's in front. How is that going to help?" she asked.
He smiled and said, "Watch and learn!"
He pulled his truck around and got in front of her car then attached the winch, got back in and raised the front end.
"I'm still not getting it," she said.
"Well, you're going to stop traffic long enough to let me get back into the right lane, then we're going to back down this street to that repair shop on the corner."
"We're going to drive backwards down this street?" she said not sure she'd understood him.
"Yep. It's less than a block. We'll be fine."
"But I still can't afford a new tire," she said again.
"Well, we can't leave your car in the street now, can we?" he said still smiling cheerfully. "Come on, help me get your dog up in the cab of my truck and then I'll show you how to be a traffic cop."
"Why do I feel like I'm about to die?" she asked rhetorically.
With Rex and Flame happily sitting together in the rear of the cab, Nichols handed her his badge and told her where to stand and what to do.
"But you're fireman, not a police officer."
"True, but they won't know that and we only need a few seconds to let me get back in the right lane safely. Where's your spirit of adventure?"
"If you weren't so cute," she said shaking her head. He nodded to her and watched her hold up the badge and her other hand. Cars stopped immediately allowing Nichols to put his rig in reverse and back into the right lane.
"Okay! Come on. Get in!" he hollered.
She lowered the badge before walking briskly to the passenger side where he grabbed her hand and pulled her up into the cab. "You should have stairs or an escalator for this thing," she said as she pulled the door shut.
"Hold on," he said stepping on the gas and backing down the street. The cars that had stopped started honking as he drove ten miles an hour in a 35mph zone.
"You're not making any friends here, Brown Eyes," she said closing hers not wanting to see the angry faces behind her car.
"They'll live," he told her. Seconds later he was backing into the Midas repair shop, and after scanning the lot found the best place to stop and let her car down. He lowered the winch then went out and unhooked her car.
"All set," he said without getting back in.
"All set? I'm supposed to be at work in 20 minutes and I still can't pay for a new tire."
"No worries," he told her. "Just stay right there and I'll get you where you need to go—on time!"
He ran inside and told the guy to put new tires on all the way around then ran back outside.
"Okay, where do you work?" he said after hopping back up in the cab.
"I work at a pet adoption center," she told him. "That's why my dog can come with me."
"Ah! Okay, now it all makes sense. I bet I know the place," he said as he put the truck in gear. "You're down on 1st Avenue, right?"
"Yes. Emerald City Pet Rescue," she told him.
"No problem," he told her.
"No problem? Um...as much as I appreciate the help and the ride, how am I supposed to get home this afternoon? And did you miss the part about my not being able to afford a new tire?"
"No, I was listening," he told her. He looked over at her and smiled then said, "And I was also paying attention."
Her tone softened finally as she said, "I really am grateful. But even if a friend can give me a ride back to the shop, I still can't pay for the...."
"It's taken care of," he told her with another smile.
"Oh, no. I'm not letting you pay for the tire. No way. I don't take charity and I won't be in debt to anyone." She almost smiled before saying, "Not even someone as handsome as you."
He smiled back then said, "I promise I did not buy you one single tire." That was true. He'd paid for four. Actually, they had a 'buy three, get one free' sale so technically, one tire was free.
"So are they going to keep my car there until I can pay them?"
"Nope," he said still smiling.
"Well...I have to be able to get to work. It's too far to walk, and I can't afford a bus pass. Besides, Rex—my dog—can't ride the bus so...."
"So...no problem," he told her. "They were having a sale and I basically talked him into giving me one tire for free." She gave a look that said he was full of it. "Honestly. He's putting one tire on for free. Swear to God!"
"I'm too exhausted to argue with you or spar or whatever we're doing. I'll deal with the car when I get back to the shop. At least it's only a few blocks from my apartment so I can walk home."
"O ye of little faith," Nichols said as they pulled up to the pet rescue center. "What time do you get off?" he asked her.
"Four thirty. Why?"
"Well, I need to know what time to be here, right?"
"You're gonna drive all the way back down here to pick me up?" she asked, again not sure she believed him.
"Unless you want to walk...or bum a ride," he told her.
"What's the catch?" she asked sensing something was going on.
"No catch. Just helping out a damsel in distress. After all, I am a firefighter and helping people is what we do."
"But why me?" she asked still not getting out.
"Why not you?" he replied. "I just got off work and happened to be driving by. You needed help. I was able to offer you help so...why not you?" He was still smiling and she finally smiled back.
"Well, for whatever reason you're doing this, thank you. Very much. I haven't had a lot of help...or luck lately. I...I really appreciate this."
He'd noticed the ring on her left hand and had wanted to ask but so far, hadn't.
"It's none of my business, but can't you call your husband?"
She sighed then said, "No, not really."
He raised his eyebrows indicating he needed a bit more information.
"They generally don't let men in jail take phone calls. Oh, yeah. And then there's the fact that I'd be just fine if I never spoke to him again the rest of my life. But other than that...."
Nichols stopped smiling for once. "I'm sorry. I really stepped in it, didn't I?"
"No, it's okay," she told him. "I'm getting divorced. Well, as soon as I can afford an attorney to file the papers. Which will have to wait until I can pay for the tire which means I won't be able to cover the rent again which means...."
He'd stopped looking at her once he learned his happy-go-lucky attitude was way over the top. He glanced over at her and saw a tear fall from her eye.
"I'm really very sorry," he told her again.
She shook her head and reached for a tissue in her purse. "None of this is your fault." She dabbed her eyes then said without looking at him, "You didn't get married at 18 to a guy who turned out to be a compulsive gambler and a drunk who spent every dime you had then got arrested for stealing to fund his next round of betting and drinking."
"I'm Clark," he finally said not knowing what else to say. "Clark Nichols although the guys at the firehouse call me Clark Kent or Superman or sometimes dickhead or...."
The pretty young woman laughed for the first time.
"Oh, that felt so good!" she said still dabbing her eyes. "I haven't laughed in forever. Thank you." She looked over at him then said again, "Thank you...for everything. You don't have to pick me up today. Really. I can get a ride."
"Yes I do," he said without smiling. "I want to. Okay?"
"Well...okay," she said grabbing the door handle. "Come on, Rex. You ready to go inside? You want a treat?"
At the mention of the magic word the dog's head snapped upright and he began panting.
"They have free treats so at least he gets something to eat." She slid down to the pavement then grabbed the leash that was still attached to Rex's collar.
"I'm Randi, by the way," she said looking up at him.
"I'll be here at 4:30 then...Randi," he told her. He smiled again but it wasn't a happy, carefree smile. He genuinely hurt for her just the way he hurt for his buddy in back, his buddy who began to whine as his new friend jumped out to be with his own owner.