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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Fire-fighter (10/05/06)

TITLE: Off Duty
By Jen Davis


For twenty-five years Dan had driven down the same street to and from work. Old homes lined the busy road near the firehouse. Although he couldn’t explain why, there was one house that stood out among the rest.

The modest wood-framed structure surrounded by an immaculate landscape had always caught his eye. He first noticed the house only days after starting his job as a firefighter. He’d fought a deadly blaze the night before, which had claimed an entire family. Dan had pulled an infant from her crib; holding her lifeless body in his arms, he felt the ground shake underneath him.

Driving home that morning, he carried the weight of the child with him. As he passed the little house he noticed the elderly couple outside. The old man sat in a chair on the front porch, a coffee mug in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The gray-haired woman wore a brightly colored housedress and planted pansies in the black earth. He found comfort in their simple tasks.

Most mornings when Dan got off duty he could count on seeing the two of them. Over the years, he had watched as the woman’s hair turned from gray to white, but one thing never changed. Like the morning sun, she would be wearing a housedress that would sometimes make him squint.

Ten years ago, Dan watched as their grass grew taller day-by-day. St. Augustine runners crept into the busy street, and newspapers littered the sidewalk. He found himself worrying and praying for the elderly couple. He was relieved when at last one morning the lawn had been mowed. Eventually the woman resumed her outdoor morning routine, but Dan never saw her husband again.

A few years later the woman had a new companion living with her: a big black Lab. Dan called him Shadow because wherever she went he was right behind her.

In recent weeks, Dan hadn’t seen the woman and had noticed as weeds gradually took over her yard. Then one morning after he'd gotten off duty, he drove past her house and was startled to see “Shadow” standing at the edge of the yard, barking at the cars as they drove by.

Impulsively, Dan made a sharp turn into the driveway. As soon as he slung open his door, the dog greeted him.

“What are you doing out here, crazy dog?”

The dog barked as if to answer then ran to the front door. Dan knocked, but when no one came he walked around back. He could see the doggie door and a tunnel where the dog had dug underneath the fence. “Looks like you let yourself outdoors.” He scolded the dog.

Dan became concerned. He walked to the neighbors and knocked on the door. When a young woman answered, Dan introduced himself and explained the situation.

“That’s strange. Sebastian’s never done that before,” she told Dan. “I have a key; I'll go get it.”

As soon as they unlocked the door, the dog bolted inside and headed towards the back of the house. Dan followed. Inside her bedroom, the elderly woman lay on the floor unconscious.

The next morning, Dan knocked on her hospital door.

“Come in.” A soft voice answered.

“Hello.” Suddenly at a loss for words. “My name’s Dan—I’m a firefighter. I work at the firehouse just down the road from where you live. I drove by your house yesterday and noticed your dog outside ….”

“So you’re the hero my neighbor has told me about.” A smile brought color to her cheeks.

“No. I was just an off duty firefighter who responded to the call of one determined canine. It’s your dog, Sebastian, who’s the hero.” Dan handed her a small bag, his own face turning red. “I saw this in the hospital gift shop and thought you might like it.”

“What’s this?” She pulled out a brightly patterned housedress. “Oh, thank goodness! I can get out of this dismal hospital gown.” She looked at him. “But, how did you know?”

“Ruth, I know we’ve just met, but I’ve known you now for about twenty-five years.”

She was speechless.

Dan pulled up a chair next to her bed and told her about how he’d driven by her home all these years. As he shared the pieces of her life he had witnessed—she filled in the gaps.

Dan had always wondered what was so special about the little house down the road from the firehouse, but now he knew.

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This article has been read 1189 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Marilyn Schnepp 10/12/06
A Winner in my books! Tears stream down my cheeks as I type...such a delightful, moving and touching story! I loved it! Excellent write, intriguing and entertaining read...and Thanks For Making My Day! Kudos!
Jan Ackerson 10/12/06
Great phrase: ...he carried the weight of the child with him...

Just one of the many things I loved about this. I've always done that sort of thing--speculated about people based just on observations, so this really resonated with me. And the little details were very appealing: the housedress, the coffee mug, the doggy door. Nice job!
Joanne Sher 10/13/06
What a wonderful, compelling story! The details and description were fantastic - I was definitely completely engrossed in the tale of these wonderful characters! Great job!
Ruth Neilson10/16/06
for some reason this ment a lot to me. Maybe cause my name is Ruth or maybe its cause sometimes I feel like there is no one watching out for me. But thank you for writing this.
Donna Haug10/16/06
I really enjoyed reading this. He obviously cared deeply about people and showed it. That makes him a hero in my books. Very good story.
david grant10/16/06
Good story, but I kept asking why he just stop and say hello, at least once over all them 25 years. Or at least he could have felt a little bad about it. I know this story because I have stepped over people who have later come back to ask me why I didn't stop and talk to them. Good piece of writing.
Donna Powers 10/16/06
A lovely and touching story. Simple but it was also so profound. I really enjoyed this!
Cassie Memmer10/16/06
Very good writing! I too wondered why he'd never stopped to visit in all the years, but that's the society we live in, isn't it? And besides, it wouldn't have made your story so interesting if he had! :o) Great job! I agree with Jan, all the 'little' things made it a very good read and so interesting.
Pat Guy 10/17/06
I guess the reader's interpretation of why he just didn't go up and talk to them from time to time will be based on our own character. I would be one of those who would have had to meet them.

Good work on a lovely story! And one I enjoyed.
Shari Armstrong 10/17/06
A really nice slice of life. Great details about the couple -I felt like I knew them, too.
dub W10/18/06
So well written, and insightful. This deserves some recognition.
Sara Harricharan 10/18/06
What a beautiful story! You kept me engaged through the entire piece. Great job!
Deborah Bauers10/18/06
Great human interest story. I got a bit lost in the second paragraph. When you begin to talk about the fire and the lifeless baby, I found myself wanting the story to evolve from that point. Instead, that information became trivial to the main story. Perhaps if might begin your story by sharing what your day had been like and then move into the part about passing the house. Just a thought.
Still, a good read!
Bonnie Derksen10/19/06
Congratulations on a well deserved win. This is a beautiful story told in a masterful way.

Thank you for the blessing.
Stephen Paynter10/19/06
I too found tears in my eyes as I read this. I can't quite work out why - but I really enjoyed this story. The story is simple, yet feels profound. Being unable to analyse this story and how it moves me probably explains why I can't reproduce similar poigency in my own work. Great job. And congratulations!