Sun and sand and blood.
It was hot on the day it all started. It was one of the fabled arid and unforgiving West Texas days. The kind of day when the sand baked you from below and the sun cooked the air to well over a hundred degrees above. A summer day like living in a convection oven.
I remember she was sixteen and scared to death. There was an ugly, gaping wound in her side where the roll cage had torn itself in half when the dune buggy rolled over. She was bleeding alarmingly out onto the sand.
No babies for the little lady in her future.
I remember the helicopter as its blades beat the air violently and it rose almost delicately off the ground. There was so much static my hair stood on end as the wind whipped sand violently into my skin. The helicopter looked like a huge angry insect as it hovered over the sand for a moment before dropping its nose and gliding onward and upward with increasing speed.
I took another long drag from my beer and placed the empty bottle on the table between us as I thought back on that unpleasant day.
Yeah, I remember her, I said. I looked at Tom where he sat across the table from me. He was so solemn all the time; he rarely cracked a smile and when he did it was half-assed and really not happy. Even here in a semi-rowdy bar on Friday night he was staid. It wasnt that wild a bar - we had chosen it for the lack of an overbearing sound system - but it was lively and warm.
Her mother came by the firehouse today, he said. She seemed like a kind lady. Said her name was Irma.
I looked hard at him. Why? I asked. People dont come back very often.
She wanted to thank you. Tom was carefully peeling the label off his beer bottle as the condensation loosened the glue. He would have a small stack of labels by the end of the night if he kept drinking.
I just did my job, I said, and motioned the waitress to bring me another bottle.
You were off duty. Tom was right and he wasnt. No fireman, no paramedic, no one in our line of work is ever off duty. Neighbors will knock on your door at three in the morning because their kid is sick or grandpas having chest pain. No one does that to their accountant or their gardener. Maybe doctors get it too, I dont know about them.
I was out screwing around in my truck. I was off duty, I finally said. Our waitress came by with another beer for me. Tom politely declined anything more and she was off to the next table. I remember going to that bar often because I could watch a game and be distracted from reality for a few hours without having to worry about a drunken brawl. Just like I can see the girls face as we loaded her onto that helicopter. She had been bone-white from blood loss and wide-eyed with fear.
Tom went on. She wanted to thank you. She asked for your name and number, but you know I cant give that out. He slid one of our department cards across the table to me.
She asked me to have you call her. I said I would give you the number.
A name and number were on the back of the card. I put it in my pocket and nodded at Tom. I never intended to make that call when I picked up the card.
Randy was leering at me from the corner. Randy always leered; he only had half a face left, he had to leer. He was long dead and wasnt really there except in the malfunctioning clutter in my mind.
What, you saved one? he asked. Seems I was too late for you to develop adequate medical skills, but not the ladies, huh? I hated Randy. Behind him several others waited for a chance to harp on me. Rosa Delgado, the fat Spanish maid with advanced heart disease. Jake Soderquist, who drowned in his own bathtub while he was passed out drunk. There were dozens of them, some whose names I remember, some whose names I forget. I never forgot a face though. Faces were my personal burden.
I wonder what a psychologist would have said had I told him that the ghosts of dead patients frequented my apartment and jabbed at my job performance. Im pretty sure I would have gotten a ride in an ambulance with a nice canvas jacket on and spent some time in a room with very soft walls.
Fuck you, Randy, I said. I tried to save you.
Yeah. Tried real hard there buddy. So, tell me, is this one a nice piece of ass?
Sure. Why not? Sounds good to me.
Randy leered. I dialed the number. I dont know why I made that call. I wasnt good with the ladies, and I dont know how to take a thank-you. I almost hung up on the first ring, but something made me hang on.
A female voice answered on the third ring. I could hear a television in the background. Hello?
Uh, hi. My names Sam. Im with the fire department, Im looking for
I was trying to read the name on the back of the card without much success, Toms handwriting was messy.
Yeah, hi. This is Tracy. I hoped you would call. I was nervous, that was unlike me. Blood and guts and fire and destruction were my stock in trade, but an awkward phone call made me uneasy. I wanted to thank you, she said. I could hear someone talking in the background, but I couldnt understand what they were saying.
Its what I do, I said. You dont owe me any thanks.
Why not? No one else there moved a muscle to help me. You didnt have to help me when you werent on duty, and I know it. I wanted to meet you and thank you face to face. Will you meet me somewhere?
I thought for a moment and Randy made an obscene gesture in the corner. I frowned but I heard myself say, Sure. I can do that. Say, Starbucks on First? Is that good?
Great! Ill meet you there at three
I dont know why I agreed, much less why I suggested it. Im not shy; but everything about this wasnt like me.
I dont know why I felt nervous. I have an idea now, but I still dont know . I had never had anyone tell me to my face that they were grateful or say thank-you. There were always people on the Fourth of July and Christmas who would come to the firehouse with pies and cakes, but that was always a group thing. Thanks to all the firemen, not to me. This girl Tracy wanted to thank me personally. Thats the why, but to this day I dont know why that made me nervous.
She was all of seventeen as it turned out. I was twenty-four. I hoped she didnt want to give me a gift that required a condom.
Randy was gone, replaced by Gretchen. Shed burned alive in a car two years ago and she was grunting and moaning when we got the fire put out. She had been burned over almost her entire body so badly that she didnt have eyes left in her head. Somehow she had been alive in there. She only lived about fifteen minutes after we got her out of the car before she drowned from her own blood filling up her lungs. Now whenever I saw her she faced me as if she could see out of those charred, empty eye sockets. Sometimes I could hear the tendons creak and crackle as she moved.
Tracy walked in without a limp at all. Hi! She recognized me right away, I must have made an impression. She looked a lot better without sand and blood matted in her hair or skin bone-white from shock. She looked a hell of a lot better in the subdued earth tones and indirect lighting of Starbucks. She looked young and lively, and she smiled wide and bright at me.
Hello, I said. I smiled back at her. Gretchen shook her head in an eerily disapproving gesture in the corner. Tracy was so young.
She sat down next to me at the table and grabbed my hand lightly. Thank you so much for meeting me, she said.
Youre welcome, but it wasnt necessary. You could have said thanks on the phone
Oh, no. I felt
I had to say thank you to your face. I tried to push it out of my mind but I kept remembering youre face and how you looked so sad and at the same time so calm. I had to thank you.
Her thanks were at once sincere, and yet childish in her bubbly enthusiasm. I felt regret that she was never going to be a mother. I felt a touch of warmth too - like I was going to cry for some reason; maybe it was her sincere gratitude.
I said. The silence was awkward as Tracy smiled wide-eyed at me with my large hand cupped in her small ones. How bad were you hurt. She was very pretty sitting there smiling at me with her big green eyes.
She frowned at the question, and I was embarrassed for having asked. Well, Ill never have children. Other than that Im fine. Im back to my old self. The smile returned to her face just like that.
Good, Im glad, I said. Gretchen leaned forward and made a gesture I didnt quite catch from the corner. Then Tracy smiled and asked me what I wanted to drink, and I forgot about Gretchen. I tried to decline, but in the end Tracy made me share her biscotti and coffee.
I was sitting on the edge of my narrow little bed wondering how the hell I had just slept with Tracy. How, and just what the hell was I thinking?
Tracy was naked in bed behind me. Seventeen, and I had just done the deed with her, sealed the deal, slid into home base for the grand slam. I didnt know why I had slept with such a young girl. I remember loving every second of it. Right afterward I sat there staring at my plain white walls and my fire department hat hanging on the bedpost wondering what the hell I was thinking.
She was glowing and I was quiet. I had just slept with someone far too young for it to be wise. It wasnt criminal in Texas, but it could still be trouble for me.
Randy was back leering at me from the corner behind the dresser. Nice piece of ass! I didnt answer him with Tracy lying in bed behind me. She would have thought me nuts if I had started talking to ghosts right after mind-blowing sex. I thought I was going nuts right then. Id just had (mind-blowing!) sex with a minor and I was listening to a corpse with half a face make commentary on her assets. Randy made two fists and pumped them in the air in an obvious obscene gesture. Oh yeah! Sam the man rocking the cradle of love!
I almost wished Gretchen was there: for all her crispy morbid eschar, she was at least silent. Some days I wished that just once I could choke the living shit out of Randy.
I looked over my shoulder at the lady no, the child that I had just bedded, and I despised myself.
Randy was right, although he was a lot more vulgar than I would have been. She was beautiful and innocent. She had been innocent. But she was beautiful, maybe the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Maybe it was the moment, or maybe what happened is coloring my memory, but she was sublime.
What are you thinking? she asked. If only she knew.
I was thinking that youre young enough that I shouldnt have done that.
But you did, she said. You were great. Its all right Sam. Its not like Im going to get pregnant. She put out her hand and laid it on my shoulder. It was very warm and very light, a feather perched on my arm.
I shook my head. No, no youre not, are you?
She stood and led me into the little bathroom. Come on, she said, and hugged me. Ill wash you up, and she turned on the shower. I was ashamed of that little two room apartment right then. I was so conflicted. I wanted a mansion to give to her instead of that miniscule economy studio. I was already falling in love with her, but in the back of my mind I was no better than a child molester. I wanted to cradle her and protect her. I wanted no part in her at the same time.
Tracy was a lot of things. She was young, she was kind, she was gentle, and she was loving. She turned out to be the woman who would drag me slowly up out of the depression I had wallowed deeper into over the four years I had been a paramedic.
I saw less and less of Randy and Gretchen and the others as time went on, Tracy drove them out of my heart and I smiled more as she shared my days and nights with me. Nothing bad ever came of me seeing Tracy.
Six months after I met Tracy she vanished. Theres only partial truth in that statement, but well get to that in a second.
I came home one day and she was gone. Just like that, no note, no email, no phone call, just
gone. At first I assumed she had gone to the store or something equally innocuous. As the day wore into evening and on into night I started to think something was very, very wrong. I had gotten home at half past eight in the morning, and by eight at night I was frantic.
Tracy was usually up when I got home, puttering in the kitchen or watching TV and waiting for me. She occasionally went out in the morning, but she always came home before noon. Sometimes we went out, some days we sat and watched TV, some days she would make love to me, but she was always there.
I was panicked. I called the police at four in the afternoon, but they gave me the old line about someone being gone for twenty-four hours before they could list them as missing. I just couldnt find a trace of her anywhere.
I couldnt find the business card with Tracys mothers phone number on it, so I looked her up in the phone book. I didnt get an answer, so I wound up driving to her house. I hoped her mother knew where Tracy was.
I wish I had been wrong. I wish I hadnt found her at all.
Irma lived in a shabby little house in the county. Shabby in that it was old and well lived-in, but it was well kept. I remember there was a crucifix on the wall right under the doorbell; Irma was Roman Catholic.
She answered the door wearing a gloves, sunglasses, and a big floppy gardening hat. Can I help you? she asked. I realized then that I had never actually met Irma.
Maam, I said. I know you havent met me, but I am trying to find Tracy. Shes up and vanished.
Irma scowled and looked like she was going to cry. Tracy? she asked. What is this, some kind of sick joke? She died in an accident at Red Sands months ago.
I must have looked like a ghost. I found myself rewinding the past six months in my head. No
I heard myself say. I realized that in all our talking, all our lovemaking, all our time together, Tracy had never once said that I had saved her. Oh, she thanked me for trying, but always for trying.
Irma started yelling at me then. Get out! she said. Go on! You got no right to come here looking for Tracy! Get on out of here! She raised her arm and struck me in the face then. I felt something wet running down my face.
I reached out and grabbed Irma by the neck
Tom was sat down stiffly across from Chief Miller; both were placid. Okay Chief, Tom said. I guess I need to tell you what happened since I was the officer. I really wish I could just forget about it myself.
Miller leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. I know, I know, its not easy. Did you write a report?
Tom nodded. Yeah, I did, but its clinical. Its not really the whole story, you know? Not like someone who knew Sam would really understand things.
Miller nodded. I know. What do you think?
Tom sighed and looked out the window for a moment, then finally said; I think he lost it. I think the stress of the job got to him and he just went right off the deep end.
When we got there we werent going to go in, you know, neighbors reporting screaming. We were going to wait for the police, but I recognized Sams truck right off the bat. I knew something weird was going on, and I told Danny Garza that we were going in. He was skittish, but when I pointed out that it had to be Sams truck he was with me. They were all with me.
Not smart, Miller said. He wasnt being dismissive; fire fighters knew better than to go in before the cops got to a crime scene.
No, but we were worried about Sam. Tom paused then and rubbed the bruised side of his face with a wince. When we got to the front porch, Sam was sitting there muttering. I dont know what he said for certain; it sounded like he was saying leave me alone, over and over. He was covered in blood too. Turned out not to be his blood. Anyway, as soon as he saw us he was on his feet and running at us screaming.
Tom paused again, then stood up. I dont think he was on drugs. He seemed disturbed all right, but he wasnt like the junkies we run who are hopped up on PCP. He just seemed, I dont know
crazy. He was screaming at us about being dead, that everyone was dead. He was still screaming when the cops sprayed him with mace. He was hoarse from screaming when they took him to Thomason.
Miller nodded at Tom again. I cant even begin to guess whats wrong. Do me one favor, Tom. Please clean out his locker for me. Ill take the stuff to his family myself.
Tom nodded. Thats the least I can do, he said. Outside, the other firefighters milled about, shaken by what they had just seen.
No one saw the ghosts...