Charlie Bear perked up as he noticed the gruesome, weary parade. Thousands of souls—shrouded in a toxic veil of white soot and debris—still remained, trying to find a way out of the city. Kevin’s heart broke and rejoiced for them at the same time. His eyes fell upon the void in the skyline; replaced by blue sky and rancid smoke.
As Kevin’s work SUV slowed at a police checkpoint, he put his hand on Charlie’s golden head, stroking his thumb in the deep wrinkle between his espresso eyes, “Are ya’ ready for hide-and-seek, Buddy?”
Charlie thumped his tail on the seat and whimpered, accompanied by a gently lick to Kevin’s right earlobe. He rolled down his window and flashed his FEMA identification to an NYC officer. Somber nods and pointing hands led him to a parking garage—the rest of their journey would have to be on foot.
The stench was like nothing Kevin had experienced in 12 years as a firefighter. He put on his re-breather mask and gear, and felt a pang of guilt as he put on the orange vest on Charlie Bear. His only protection from the asbestos and soot was a patch on his vest that read, “Rescue Dog”.
“Okay Buddy…this is going to harder than all the rest—you need to be extra careful today. Mom made me promise I’d bring you home safe to the kiddos,” Charlie walloped his tail frantically at the mention of the kids.
They were the ones who taught him “hide-and-seek” when he was still a puppy. Kevin’s youngest—Justin—came to him in tears while his brother and cousins were playing in the yard.
“Jacob’s cheating again…it’s no fair,” as the tears left clean stripes on his cheeks.
“It’s hide-and-seek…is he peeking?”
“No, he’s using Charlie Bear!” Kevin looked over his son’s shoulder, and sure enough, Jacob and Charlie were methodically flushing out dirty kids from hiding places at every corner of the lawn. The next month, Charlie and Kevin started their official training with FEMA.
Kevin was pulled out of the past—and into Hades—as he turned the corner and saw “the pile”. The smell of smoldering electrical fires, melting plastic and scorched flesh, mingled into a nauseating concoction in Kevin’s mask. However, it was the eerie, high pitch sound that caused his heart and entire soul to gather in his esophagus. Charlie cranked his neck from side to side, perplexed by the searing cacophony. Kevin knew all too well what it was; hundreds of firefighter’s personal locators were emitting their frantically somber dirge. His grief surged into rage, then pride, and then back to an ache deep within; it felt as though his organs were inside out. He ran between two soot entombed cars and wretched by the curb. Charlie whined at Kevin’s side, consoling his friend with an endless supply of kisses to his stubbly face.
His sat cross-legged on the pavement, with both arms wrapped around Charlie. “Those are my friends under there, Charlie Bear…we’ve got to get them out, Buddy.”
Charlie pawed at the air.
“Okay, sweet Bear…let’s do it,” as he wiped the moisture from his face.
The duo checked in at the FEMA tent, where they were debriefed and assigned a location to scour. “The pile” was the most difficult terrain they had ever encountered. Ragged steel, shattered glass and crumbled concrete; all with noxious hot smoke seeping through the cracks. It was Hell on Earth.
At the end of every shift, a volunteer would hide for Charlie to find. He would play along—excited to discover a warm, breathing body—although Kevin suspected that Charlie knew that it wasn’t the real thing. In twenty nine days they found 33 body parts and 112 personal items; the most disturbing for Kevin was the toddler sized pink sandal. Unfortunately, they did not find any survivors.
On the twenty ninth day, they headed north at dusk, the October sun reflecting off the crimson and gold leaves that donned the hillsides. When turning onto their street, Charlie sat up, whacking his tail on the vinyl seat. As the SUV reached their driveway, Kevin’s wife Heather ran out and clutched him, sobbing into the crook of his neck. Charlie bolted out of the vehicle and through the front door, making a beeline to the boys' bunk-beds. He licked Justin’s bare foot, and snuggled up into the bed next to him.
Charlie proceeded to indulge in a hero’s well deserved 12 hour nap.
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