Brand New FlamebyLesLumens©
Tracy was incredibly lucky.
Escaping the fire from the sixth story of her apartment building would have been enough. A combination of careful planning, fortunate necessity, and simple good luck left her better off following the disaster than she'd ever hoped to dream of, prior to the fire.
It was a coincidental meeting with a stranger at the storage building that had proved the greatest boon. While pulling out an old computer to tide her over, someone had stopped with a wide-eyed stare, and shortly thereafter informed her about the ghastly painting she'd ended up with when her mother died. Her mother had loved it, and that was reason enough to keep it, but not to put it anywhere except in a dark storage building.
Her decision to use a climate-controlled storage facility proved another wise choice when the painting auctioned for over two-hundred-thousand dollars.
So now Tracy owned her home, her new car, and had a solid nest egg at thirty-seven years old. With her son moved out of the house and off to college on a full scholarship, she had few worries, and many luxuries that she'd never expected to enjoy.
Even all that couldn't dull the melancholy when she returned from yet another date that was going nowhere. Two years of never making it beyond a second date would break down any woman's hopes. A quick whiff of her light chestnut hair confirmed the smell of cigarette smoke that she expected, and sent her straight to the bathroom.
Tracy showered, changed clothes, and settled in to relax and watch a movie. She had the next two days off, so she could afford to stay up late for once. The opportunity to avoid the depressing evidence of Valentine's Day that filled the hospital at this time of year was quite welcome, as well.
About an hour into the movie, two sets of headlights speeding down the road attracted her attention. She then noticed a strange glow reflecting off the siding of the house across the street, and realized what it was just before the sound of sirens reached her ears. A dart to a window confirmed her fears. A house only three lots down was fully engulfed in flames.
Tracy hurried through the house to change her clothes and snatch up her first-aid kit. She hadn't ignored the needs of others when her own life was turning upside down, and she wasn't about to do so now.
When she reached the house, she saw the paramedics already working on three children and a woman. A fireman stumbled through the thick, billowing clouds of smoke with a stocky man slung over his shoulder. The paramedics were overwhelmed, as two were performing CPR on the women, so Tracy hurried to the fireman when he sank down to his knees with his burden.
Tracy dropped to her knees next to the violently coughing fireman, and immediately recognized that the man on the ground wasn't coughing. She felt for a pulse, and didn't find one.
The fireman tore off his helmet, pushed a sweat-dampened lock of his short, dark brown hair from his forehead, and said, "He's not breathing," before coughing again.
"No pulse," Tracy confirmed, a little surprised to recognize the young fireman who had guided her out of her burning apartment not so long ago.
"Clear!" One of the paramedics shouted, confirming that the man in front of Tracy wasn't the only one in serious danger.
The young, soot-covered fireman started chest compressions, still coughing. Tracy wasted no time in giving the victim mouth-to-mouth. After a minute or so of no response, Tracy tore open her first-aid kit to retrieve her AED.
The fireman recognized the portable defibrillator and stopped his chest compressions. Tracy readied the device and offered a little prayer. Just as she discharged it, she heard one of the paramedics yell, "She's stable! Pick it up! Pick it up! We've got another one!"
Tracy smiled when the man on the ground sucked in a gasp of air just as one of the paramedics arrived. She and the fireman both stepped back as the paramedics went to work.
"Thank you," the fireman said, tears streaming down his cheeks, and then he hurried toward the children near the ambulance.
"Can I do anything to help? I'm a nurse," Tracy offered.
"I think we can handle it now, but this guy is lucky you were here with that AED." Another ambulance arrived at that exact moment. With a second set of paramedics on the scene, Tracy gathered up her kit and got out of the way. She took on the task of calming her neighbors, letting them know that everything was under control, and guiding them back away from the fire.
She was weary, frozen, and dirty when she returned to her house several hours later, once it was obvious that the firemen had the blaze both contained, and knocked down.
Tracy awakened late, and walked over to a window shortly after she changed out of her nightgown. The house down the street was a mere shell, though it was still standing. As best she could tell, neither of the houses next to it had suffered any serious damage. One of the fire trucks was still on scene, though it appeared that the firemen were packing up.
When she went to the bathroom, Tracy could smell the reek of smoke coming from her clothes in the hamper — both those she'd worn when she hurried to the fire, and those she'd worn to the bar for her date.
That determined her first order of business for her day off.
With the laundry started, she settled in for the rare treat of watching afternoon television. She had absolutely no idea what was going on in the soaps that she used to watch regularly, and all of the romance was a bit depressing, but she enjoyed it anyway. The constant barrage of cupids, hearts, and flowers during the commercials was even more difficult to handle, and Tracy ended up flipping to a business channel every time the commercials started.
When an odd roar that set the windows to rattling drew her attention away from the television, Tracy could see little more than a wall of white. Though she knew that bad weather was in the forecast, the sheer violence of the storm took her by surprise. When she walked over to the window and looked outside, she knew that the storm must have just started. Despite the thick, horizontally blowing snow, little had reached the ground yet. That changed rapidly as she watched, and she was glad that she didn't have to go to work for the next couple of days.
The knock at the door a short while later startled her, and her first thought was that the wind had blown something against the door. The next knock followed rapidly on the heels of the first, and she knew it for what it was.
Who is crazy enough to be out in this storm? She wondered as she walked to the door. She recognized neither the truck in her driveway or the man standing on the porch, at first, but she realized who he was when he turned toward her, away from the wind.
Tracy hurried to the door and opened it, fighting against the force of the wind trying to slam her into the wall. "Hurry — come in," she called over the roar of the storm.
The fireman stepped inside, shivering and wearing an embarrassed grin.
"Are you crazy?" Tracy asked with a laugh. "What are you doing out in this?"
"I didn't think it would be this bad. That will teach me not to listen to my mother." He held up a wrapped package, one side of which had a quarter of an inch of wind-blasted snow plastered to it. "I wanted to thank you."
"For what?" Tracy asked as he handed her the package, which had a good deal of weight to it. "You're the one that walked into a burning building."
"I got yelled at for it, too. For that, and for doing it without putting on my respirator first. I want to thank you because that was my uncle. You saved his life. He, my aunt, and my cousins are all doing fine, thanks to you and the paramedics." He nodded toward the package and said, "Open it."
Tracy's cheeks warmed. "I'm glad that they came through it okay. You didn't have to come out in this to bring me a thank you gift."
"I wanted to. Go on, open it."
Her cheeks still a little red, Tracy peeled back the paper, and then opened the box inside. She let out a sharp gasp upon seeing the bottle of Cognac inside. "Oh my god — I can't accept this. It's too much."
"I won't take no for an answer," The fireman said, holding up his hand when she tried to hand him back the package. "The whole family chipped in for it. I thought you'd like it, because I remembered you saying that you wished you had a nice bottle of brandy when I first met you, after all the excitement was over."
"It's just... I... I don't know what to say. I don't even know your name."
"That makes us even. Steve."
"Tracy," she reciprocated. "You're right. I love it," she said, and then laughed.
"At least have a glass with me. It will keep me from feeling so guilty about accepting such an expensive gift." She turned toward the kitchen, but then paused and turned back to ask, "Uhm, you are old enough to drink, aren't you?"
Steve laughed. "I'm twenty-one, by all of a month. I'm legal. I've never had brandy before."
"Well, if you're going to like it, then this will surely spoil you. I haven't had anything this expensive since my honeymoon."
Steve pulled out his cell phone and said, "I'd better call my mother to let her know that I'm okay, and to get the I told you so's out of the way."
Tracy chuckled, remembering similar situations with her own son. "I'll get some glasses."
Though she hadn't yet replaced her snifters after the fire, Tracy found a pair of whisky glasses that would serve. An almost orgasmic tingle shot through her body as she opened the bottle and caught the first hint of the bouquet. She poured the brandy, and then carried it back into the front room to sit the glasses on the coffee table.
"Yes, I'll be careful, Mom. I love you. Goodbye." Steve glanced over at Tracy as he hung up the phone and said, "Moms," with a little roll of his eyes.
Tracy wiggled a finger at him and said, "I'll have you know that we stick together. Whatever she said, she's right." She then gestured to the brandy and said, "This should sit for a few minutes. Maybe the storm will calm down a bit in the meantime."
"How old are your kids?"
"My son is nineteen," Tracy answered as she changed the channel to check the weather.
"Nineteen?" Steve said with undisguised surprise.
"Yes, why so surprised?"
"Well, uhm... I guess I didn't think you could have a kid that old," Steve answered with a shrug of his shoulders.
"That's an even better present than the brandy," Tracy said with a little color rising in her cheeks again. The television caught her attention, and she turned up the volume.
"Law enforcement recommends that all residents remain indoors during this dangerous storm. All roads are closed due to near zero visibility and drifting snow. A blizzard warning remains in effect..."
"Ah, man," Steve groaned as he listened to the report. "I'd better get going before the snow gets any deeper."
The television switched to the weather man. "I just want to give you an idea of how bad it is out there. Take a look at this shot from the tower cam."
The image popped up, which usually gave a wide view of downtown. All Tracy could see was a few feet of thick, fast blowing snow.
"Now here's the view from the foyer of the studio," the weatherman continued.
The video was much the same as that from the tower camera, though Tracy could just make out cars in the parking lot coated in snow on one side and building drifts on the other.
"I think it may be a little late for that," Tracy remarked.
Steve sounded a little less than confident when he said, "I have four-wheel-drive and big tires. I should be okay."
A combination of Tracy's maternal instincts and years of seeing the effects on people caught out in such storms compelled her to argue, and offer her hospitality. "I don't think so, and I think you know it, too. Just stay here until you can at least see where you're going."
"I don't want to impose."
"I'd rather that you impose on me than the hospital or the morgue," Tracy argued.
Steve chuckled and said, "Okay, you win. I really don't want to go back out in that again."
"Take off your coat and have a seat. This should have had time to warm just right," Tracy said as she picked up one of the glasses of brandy. She held it up to the light and said, "The color is beautiful." A little shiver shook her as she said, "Oh, this is going to be so good."
Steve sat on the opposite end of the couch and picked up his glass. Tracy instructed, "Just sip. You don't really taste the subtleties if you just gulp it down. Take a good, deep breath of the bouquet first, too."
Tracy brought her glass to her nose and softly swirled it. A sigh escaped her as anticipation built.
Steve looked a little awkward as he tried to duplicate her action, but his eyes lit up as the scent of the brandy filled his nose. "It smells almost woody — and flowery. Maybe fruity too."
"Mmm — that's the experience of good Cognac." Tracy took a sip, and then drew in a long, deep breath. "Oh my, thank you," she breathed as the rare treat awakened her taste buds and warmed her all over.
Tracy wondered about Steve quickly looking away from her before he said, "This is good — very good."
"It's heavenly," Tracy responded, and then realized how she was acting. Her cheeks burned as she realized how she must look and sound to him. "Sorry, I guess I'm getting a little carried away," she apologized, and then laughed.
"I can understand," Steve said, "I always thought things like sniffing a drink were pompous, but I get it now. When you spend this much on something, you have to appreciate it."
"Exactly," Tracy said with a smile. A couple of seconds later, she realized that she was staring and turned away a little more quickly than she'd intended, only making her stare more obvious.
Every other time she'd seen him up until now, he was either wearing his fire gear or a winter coat. Now that he'd removed the coat, she could see his muscles bulging against his t-shirt. He was also devilishly handsome now that he wasn't coated in soot. I haven't even had enough to drink yet to use that as an excuse for drooling over him like a teenager, she silently chastised herself.
Tracy took another sip and changed the subject, hoping for a distraction. "My father was a fireman. That's why I became a nurse. I wanted to help people like him, but a woman wasn't exactly considered a possible firefighter back then."
"My dad's been on the force my whole life, too. We keep trying to get him to retire, because he's getting up there, but he won't give it up. He's with the big station in the city. Did your dad retire?"
Tracy shook her head. "Heart attack. He carried a little girl out of a house and left his air on her most of the time. He sat her down next to the paramedics, and that was it."
"The girl was okay?"
"She was fine. She didn't even stay overnight in the hospital."
"If he was anything like my dad, then that's exactly how he wanted to go."
Tracy grinned, her eyes a little misty as she remembered. "That's what Mom said. My brother and I were devastated, but the way Mom handled it and talked about how proud she was of him helped us through it." She then sifted through the mail on the table and picked up a card. "We all still get cards from that family. I just got my Valentine's card yesterday."
Steve nodded, but his expression looked more than a little sad. Tracy couldn't help but pick up on it. "I'm sorry, did I say something wrong?"
"Nah, it's nothing. I broke up with my girlfriend a few months ago. I'm trying to pretend that Valentine's Day doesn't exist this year."
"I know what you mean. My anniversary with my ex was this week, too." Tracy raised her glass and said, "To forgetting."
"Cheers," Steve responded, and then joined her in another sip. He looked out the window and said, "It looks like it's getting worse. I think the weatherman dropped the ball on this one."
"It's a little bit frightening. I've never seen a storm like this. I'm glad I loaded up on food before this hit."
"If it keeps this up, I may be glad that you have plenty of food, too." He shrugged apologetically.
"The couch folds out into a bed, if it comes to that. Speaking of food, I'm a little hungry. You?"
"Yeah, actually I'm starving. You have to let me help, though. Believe me, you don't want me singing for my supper."
Tracy broke out into laughter. Once she regained her composure, she said, "Okay, let's go find something, then." She stood up, and then snapped her finger toward him to quickly say, "No singing."
As she laughed at her joke, Steve stood with a chuckle of his own and said, "Not a note."
As soon as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, Tracy looked back over her shoulder and asked, "How about roast chicken and vegetables?"
"That sounds great to me."
"I was just going to fry the chicken, but since I've got company and half of the leftovers won't go to waste, we'll go with something a little more elegant. Potatoes, carrots, and onion?"
"Perfect. I'll take care of the veggies."
Tracy pulled everything out of the fridge and the cabinets, relaying each item to Steve, who arranged all the utensils and ingredients with a little more knowledge than she would have anticipated. When she turned around from pre-heating the oven, he was already rinsing the vegetables.
With a little nod of approval, Tracy went to work on the chicken. Once she'd washed it and discarded the giblets, she sat it down on the cutting board and reached for the dreaded spool of twine in the drawer. Steve had already finished peeling half of the carrots as Tracy took a deep breath before trying to truss the bird.
As usual, she made a couple of false starts. The string was too short the first time. On her second attempt, the wrap around one of the legs slipped loose while she flipped the bird over. Somehow, she resisted the urge to curse.
"Need a hand?" Steve asked.
"This always frustrates me, but I'll get it eventually."
"Try giving the drumsticks one more wrap than you have been."
Tracy turned and asked, "You know how to truss a bird?"
"Learned to do it to help my mom once her arthritis got bad."
"Well, let's see it," Tracy said with a gesture toward the chicken.
Steve put down his carrot and knife, and walked over to take the twine from her. It was all Tracy could do not to let her mouth hang open as he trussed the chicken as quickly and efficiently as a professional chef.
"Show off," Tracy scoffed, the smile on her face completely belying her tone. She then took the chicken to the roasting pan to finish preparing it. More than once, she glanced over her shoulder at Steve to wonder what other surprises he had hiding.
Soon enough, the chicken was in the oven. Tracy and Steve returned to the front room, munching on carrot sticks that Steve had cut to tide them over until the chicken finished cooking.
Steve walked over to the window. "I can barely see your car, and my truck isn't much better."
Tracy sat down the bottle of Cognac and said, "Looks like this couch is going to get some use tonight. Care for another nip?"
Steve took another bite from his carrot. "Sure, why not."
Tracy quickly discovered that Steve opened up with a little alcohol in him. He was animated and talkative while they sipped brandy and waited for the chicken to cook. She spent a lot of time wistfully wondering where he was when she was ten years younger, while trying to push the thoughts out of her head at the same time.
That fight became a great deal more difficult when the conversation turned to music, and the discovery that his retro taste lined up perfectly with hers.