Birchwood

By @RyanStrydom

Chapter 1

The television within the firehouse in Birchwood, Wisconsin broadcasted the roars of the crowd of the Wisconsin Badgers who were facing the Miami Hurricanes for the last game of 2018. The excitement of the game transferred to Andrew’s coworkers who were huddled around the small box television. Rather than joining them, Andrew kept to himself, regretting joining the fire department despite being a 16-year veteran. Following the September 11th attacks, Andrew went into firefighter training hoping that he would be fighting fires, and that was the case for the first few years, however, as stricter fire codes were enforced and overdosing on Oxycontin became a hobby in his community, his job turned him into a paramedic with a big truck. Each shift was the same, 24 hours in which Andrew cycled between sleeping in his concrete bunk, working out, and sitting in the rec room while his fellow firefighters tried to make conversation with him. Every so often an alarm would send everyone scrambling for the firetruck, hoping for some action and being disappointed when the dispatcher sends them to resuscitate a junky.

Andrew was deep in thought, staring at the clock when the sound of his own name broke him out of his trance. By the tone of the voice, it was clear that it had been trying to get his attention for quite some time.

 “Andrew! What are you still doing here? Your shift ended 10 minutes ago.” asked Cameron. Andrew shifted his head towards the open office door to see Cameron shooting him a concerned look. “Sorry chief, guess I lost track of time.”

Andrew threw his coat on and left the fire station into the frigid breeze outside. At home, Andrew’s wife, Mary, was attempting to calm down their two crying children to no avail. The only indication that her husband had returned from work was the clang of his keys hitting the countertop. Instead of helping his wife, Andrew sulked into the cold basement and stood in the doorway of a small, poorly-lit room. Inside it housed the few accolades that Andrew received throughout his life; his forensic science diploma from the local community college and his firefighter training certification. Mary was standing at the top of the staircase when Andrew finally stopped reminiscing.

“So when were you planning on helping out with the kids? You’re out for 24 hours at a time and what do you do when get home? Every single day I’m stuck doing everything for the children and you are either working or watching tv. I’ve had enough. I better wake up tomorrow morning with divorce papers on the living room table.”

Before Andrew could say a word, she was gone. Their attempt to rekindle their relationship by having kids had only made it worse and now it was about to be over. He went back upstairs, grabbed a pillow and blanket, and attempted to fall asleep, periodically checking the time on his phone. 10:31 pm … 11:24 pm … 12:18 am … 2:53 am. He couldn’t sleep, the anxiety was eating at him.

He got up from the couch and into the kitchen. He grabbed some milk from the fridge when the light switch caught his eye. He immediately went to the garage to grab his tool kit. Using his screwdriver, he quietly took off the plastic shell, exposing the poor wiring that laid behind. Using a pair of wire strippers, he rigged the switch to short circuit. All of the components were then carefully put back to their original positions and within minutes it looked as if nothing had happened. Andrew went back to his couch to rest for a bit and left at 4:30 am for work.

Throughout the shift, Andrew kept to himself in the corner of the loft, fidgeting with his fingers and glancing up at the clock. Thoughts rang through his head. What if it didn’t work? What if it did work? Does he really want to lose Mary? Is it too late to fix the switch? The last question was answered by the alarm ringing throughout the fire station. Just as he had done hundreds of times, Andrew threw on his equipment and hopped in the fire engine as fast as any of his other co-workers. The dispatcher came on through the radio the same as she had done hundreds of times.

“Engine 12, please respond to an automatic fire alarm, 304 East Balsam Avenue”

To all of the others in the cabin this sounded like a typical call, however, Andrew was all too familiar with the address.

“Don’t get your hopes up, probably just a smoker forgetting to take the batteries out of their alarms,” Cameron suggested to the rest of the crew.

Nonetheless, everyone else still had their hopes up, excited by the thought that they weren’t on another mundane call. The fire engine careened down the empty streets of the small town passing by the rotting homes of the residents. In the distance, a cloud of black smoke billowed, visible from the streets and to the crew.

Cameron snatched the radio from the dash, “Dispatch, confirmed fire, send backup immediately.”

As the engine turned onto East Balsam Avenue, the house was almost entirely engulfed in flames. Andrew felt a surge of adrenaline through his body as Cameron began shouting orders. The cracking of the fire was deafening but the crew remained orderly and efficient. Andrew connected the hose to a nearby hydrant while the others collected equipment. The sounds of other approaching engines added to the chaos. The power of the hose drowned out all other noises but seemed to be in a losing fight with the fire. The additional help of the other engines eventually subdued the flames, but not fast enough to save the house.

Within the first few hours, the crew learned from a seemingly emotional Andrew that it was his house and the people found inside were his wife and children. Hours turned to days and Andrew spent his time at the firehouse. Cameron offered it to him as temporary housing while he arranged for a new home. Throughout his stay, co-workers shared their condolences to him and were surprised to be met with Andrew’s content demeanor. Days turned to weeks and the funeral service was to be undertaken.

It was a typical service, friends and co-workers arrived in all black to the church and the pastor said a few words. Andrew made sure to speak to all of the guests as they left. The last two to the door introduced themselves as arson detectives and asked Andrew if he could come to the police station to answer a few questions.

Weeks turned to years as Andrew sat in a Wisconsin state prison on a life sentence. The investigators were able to find the source of the fire as the light switch and when questioned about it, Andrew was quick to crack. Now each day was the same, 24 hours in which Andrew cycled between sleeping in his concrete bunk, working out, and sitting in the rec room while his fellow inmates harassed him.

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