Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Fire-fighter (10/05/06)
- TITLE: Off Duty
By Jen Davis
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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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