The wobbly, broken tone of the medic alarm blared from the firehouse loudspeaker overhead. The computerized voice of the dispatcher reported another ill person, this one on Beaker Street. It was 3:16 AM on a cold and snowy night. Elliot had only just closed his eyes an hour before after transporting a patient to the hospital. He felt like he hadn’t slept a wink.
He sat up and rubbed his tired eyes with his palms. They didn’t want to open. He would have given anything for just a couple hours of shut-eye. Twenty-four-hour shifts were a bear without at least a nap. His body was exhausted. His tangled brain was exhausted. He tried to focus on getting up. It wasn’t just missing sleep on one night that was killing him. Sleep on his days off had been elusive for months. He’d spent many nights staring at the digital red block numbers of his alarm clock. If he didn’t get some sleep soon, nature would ensure he did one way or another.
He silently cursed the EMS gods as he swung his legs off the bed and shoved his feet into his slip-on boots. With his elbows on his knees, he rubbed his buzzed, receding hair.
He could hear his medic partner, Carl, rustling a few bunks over. He wished Carl were his friend Jimmy instead. Carl stumbled past his bunk to the double doors that led to the apparatus bay while pulling his sweatshirt over his head.
Elliot grabbed his own sweatshirt from the chair beside his bed and stood up, his eyes still refusing to open all the way. As he slogged past his locker, he grabbed his fire department embroidered beanie from inside and then slammed the metal door shut with a bang that echoed through the bunk room. He didn’t care if it gave the engine or ladder crew a jolt. If he had to be up, they might as well be up, too.
Just outside the double doors was an artificial Christmas tree that stood to his waist. Colorful decorative lights twinkled across the silver tinsel. He considered kicking the tree over just to spite the season, but the rest of the crew would know it was him and he wasn’t up for the complaining that would follow.
The holidays hadn’t been the same since Jimmy had swallowed a buckshot on Christmas Eve seven years before. Sometimes when emergency calls woke Elliot in the middle of the night, for the briefest of seconds he still expected to see his old medic partner waiting at the truck. The disappointment of seeing Carl each time never truly faded. Good ol’ boring Carl.
Elliot walked like a zombie past the back of the ladder truck to the medic truck where Carl was already waiting in the driver’s seat. He pulled his beanie over his head when a chill ran down his neck from the opening bay door. The cold was enough to freeze a dog’s piss before the splatter hit the sidewalk. He hated his job.
The snow fell in quarter-sized flakes, covering the grass but not yet sticking to the wet roads. The truck’s heater vents blew air as chilly as the outside. Elliot closed the one blowing on his face, at least until the engine warmed up. Neither he nor Carl spoke while en route. Elliot sat with one foot on the dash, which was a terrible idea in the event that a crash inflated the airbags and fed him his knee. It had become yet another bad habit in a string of them.
Carl slowed and asked, “Do you see an address?”
Elliot blinked the sleep from his crusty eyes and tried to focus. He caught a house number. “Three-fifty-seven,” he said. “What’re we lookin’ for?”
Carl squinted as he scanned the numbers. “Three-seventy-five . . . There. The blue house.” He stopped in front of the driveway of a quaint one-story home with a string of Christmas lights hanging along the gutter and an illuminated Frosty the Snowman blowup decoration on the front lawn. A bucket of salt with a small shovel sat on the porch. It was one of the nicer houses on a block full of shitholes. In Elliot’s time at Station 22, neighborhoods with nice houses interspersed with rundowns had become a familiar sight. Carl once told him it was an unfortunate result of falling house prices in a neighborhood of elderly people. “As the original homeowners died off,” he’d said, “their houses were sold cheap or rented out to the lowest bidders. And renters in those neighborhoods don’t take much pride in the upkeep.” Carl spouted a lot of facts whether Elliot wanted to hear them or not.
Carl grabbed the first aid kit from the side compartment while Elliot reached for his report computer on the wall-mounted charger. It didn’t release right away, so he yanked and cursed until it wiggled free.
Freshly laid salt littered the walkway. The front door was unlocked. Carl opened it slightly and called out, “Fire Department.” Then he pushed it open.
Elliot was tired, cranky, and as cold as a polar bear’s ass. He sniffled and wiped his nose on a wadded-up tissue from his pocket. To make the night worse, he was probably coming down with a cold. The tickle in his throat he’d noticed before going to bed had extended to a garbage taste in his mouth. He’d probably gotten it from one of his earlier patients. Yet another gift he took from the job.
“You have any gum?” he asked as they walked through the doorway. His voice was tired and scratchy.
“Nope,” Carl answered.
“Oh well.” Elliot figured his gnarly breath was his patient’s problem now.
A little old lady sat in the dark, swallowed in a blue recliner in the front room. The TV was on, a black-and-white movie sending flickering light across the lady’s robe. The sound was muted.
“Come in, honey,” she said, her voice frail and jittery. “You didn’t slip on the front porch, did you?”
Before Carl could answer, Elliot crowded past. “What do you want?” he snapped. He stood with his arms crossed as she looked up at him. Carl flipped on a floor lamp next to her chair.
Her hand touched her chest. “Oh. I . . . uh . . . I’m sorry to bother you.” She scratched her arm nervously. A home blood pressure cuff rested on a dinner tray beside the recliner. Next to the cuff was a notepad with notations written in red pen. The shaky lettering looked like someone had been driving down a bumpy road when they wrote it. One column had dates, the next column had times, and the final column had blood pressure readings. Some of the dates were cluttered with as many as twelve or thirteen readings.
Elliot skimmed to the most recent. It read: Dec. 21st – 2:58 AM – 178/92. “Well?” he prompted.
Carl knelt next to the chair. “What’s your name, ma’am?” he asked warmly.
“Gladys,” she answered.
He removed a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope from the emergency kit. “I’m going to check your vital signs, if that’s okay, Gladys.”
Elliot sniffled. Uninterested, he asked, “So, what’s the major emergency tonight?”
Gladys glanced at him, then looked at Carl, and then back to Elliot again. She wore dark-rimmed glasses and a pink full-length robe. Her voice quivered when she answered, “I … I’m sorry I bothered you two young men. I …”
Carl started to answer, but Elliot interrupted. “Well, it’s too late to be sorry now. We’re here. So, what do you want?” He yawned and didn’t try to hide it.
With his stethoscope pressed against the inside of Gladys’s elbow, Carl listened for the faint tick of the blood pressure’s top number. Elliot rolled his eyes. What a pointless exercise.
Gladys continued, “I’ve been checking my blood pressure all night and it’s getting higher.”
Elliot let his report computer drop to his waist. “Of course it is. Didn’t you know that taking your blood pressure over and over in the same arm can give you false readings?”
Gladys shook her head.
“Well, it can. Why’d you wait until three in the morning to call us?”
“I don’t know … I—”
“Does your chest hurt or anything like that?”
Gladys rubbed her sternum with her fingers. “I don’t think so.”
“You just called because your pressure’s up, then?”
“It scared me.”
“At three in the morning?”
“My doctor said to keep an eye on it.”
“Did you call him?”
She shook her head.
“What’s her pressure, Carl?”
“One-sixty-two over eighty-eight.”
Elliot lifted his computer and pecked at the screen with the stylus. “See? It’s fine, Gladys. A little high, but fine.”
Gladys rubbed her neck with a shaky hand. She smiled at Carl. “You were here before, weren’t you?”
Carl smiled back. “Maybe. I’m afraid I don’t remember, though. I meet a lot of people.”
“You helped my husband when he fell.”
Carl nodded. “Oh yeah, I kind of remember.” He was probably lying.
Gladys bowed her head a little. “My Harold. He died at the hospital the next day. I miss him so much.”
Carl gently touched her hand. “I’m so sorry.”
Elliot shuffled side to side, ready to get back to the station. Gladys seemed to dismiss him to focus on Carl. “The doctor said he had bleeding in his brain from the fall. The blood thinners probably caused it. This will be my first Christmas without him in almost sixty years.”
Elliot interrupted. “Is anything else bothering you tonight?”
Gladys rubbed her forehead again and looked up. “I’ve been a little dizzy lately.”
“Anxiety,” Elliot snapped. “You’ve gotten yourself all worked up. You’ll be fine. Just go to sleep.”
Carl leaned closer to Gladys and asked, “Are you a diabetic, ma’am?”
“Do you mind if I check your sugar?”
She held out her left pointer finger—she knew the routine.
While Carl prepared the tester, Elliot continued pecking at the report computer. “Name?”
“I know that. What’s your last name?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Berger. Gladys Berger.”
He tapped the stylus on the screen. “Date of birth?”
Gladys answered each question. Once Elliot had the information he needed, including a shaky signature from her confirming she didn’t want to go to the hospital, he turned toward the door. Without looking back, he said, “A lot of people have real emergencies, Gladys. Checking vital signs at three in the morning doesn’t seem like an emergency to most people.” The storm door slammed shut behind him.
He finished the report in the truck while Carl did who knew what inside. Elliot was two seconds away from blaring the air horn to light a fire under his partner’s ass when Carl stepped out of the house. He spread some salt on the porch before taking his time getting to the truck. He was seething when he climbed into the driver’s seat. Elliot couldn’t care less. Carl’s hand hesitated on the gear shifter and he took a deep breath. “You nearly made her cry,” he said without looking over.
“You’re not tired of all the bullshit runs, Carl?”
“She’s a little old lady, man. She’s lonely and scared. Her husband just died, for Christ’s sake. You could try and be a little less of a dick.”
“Whatever. You know she didn’t need us.”
“Maybe not medically, but we still could have done some good for her.”
Elliot rolled his eyes and continued pecking away at the computer screen while Carl drove back to the station. Neither of them said another word.
Instead of going back to bed, Elliot sat in a recliner in the TV room and dozed until the 7:00 AM announcement woke him again. He kicked the footrest down and stumbled into the kitchen for some coffee. One of the newer guys was sitting at the table, mug in hand. “Good morning,” the new guy said. He had James Dean hair and a smile that lit women on fire. He even had dimples.
Elliot didn’t have patience for the new guys. All they wanted to do was train and rah, rah, rah the fire department. He ignored him and went straight for the mugs. After pouring his coffee, adding a splash of whole milk, and stirring in some Sweet ’N Low, he glanced at the news on the TV. The anchors wore ugly Christmas sweaters and talked about the latest Elf on the Shelf craze. He couldn’t believe either of those stupid trends had caught on. Nothing but holiday cheer cluttering the airwaves. Wasn’t there a train wreck somewhere they could talk about? The next story was breaking news about a fatal police shooting. Some crazy guy fell over his balcony after being shot in his own apartment or something like that.
Now that’s more like it. From elves on shelves to police shooting people, all in one segment. What a world. At least the anchor was wearing her fun sweater.
“Hey, Elliot,” the new guy called before Elliot could get out of the room.
Elliot stopped and slouched. “What?” he groaned. He didn’t look back.
“I’m off next day so I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas in case I don’t see you again beforehand.”
Just the words “Merry Christmas” dug under Elliot’s skin. “What do you got to be merry about, kid? We’re all gonna die someday.” He pushed the door open to leave.
The new guy mumbled, “Jesus. Who pissed in your oatmeal, Scrooge?”
Elliot paused in the doorway. Scrooge? Now, that was funny. He glanced back with a grunt and then walked out. Before the door swung shut, he shouted, “Humbug.” What followed was the closest he’d get to a chuckle.
For the next hour he stood alone in the bay, staring out the back window at the parking lot. Next to the window was a glass display case holding a set of fire gear and a helmet. The plaque at the bottom memorialized some firefighter named Ted who died in the line of duty in 1995, before Elliot got on the department. He was still waiting to see a display made for Jimmy, though he knew there wouldn’t be one. Firefighters didn’t like to be reminded of what can happen if the job got to be too much for them.
He barely listened to the lieutenant’s change-of-shift report before heading to his truck. He figured Boy Scout Carl would pass along any pertinent information that the oncoming medic crew might need to know, like the oxygen tank level or what needed replacing in the med kit.
Elliot nearly fell asleep twice on his half-hour drive home, the spaced lines between lanes melding together in a hypnotic blur. The snow was starting to stick to the road and he got slowed by a salt truck taking up a lane and a half. “Idiot,” he shouted once he finally got around it.
He spent most of his two days off staring at vapid TV shows and interacting with his wife and ten-year-old daughter as little as possible. They didn’t understand how miserable he was and selfishly wanted him to snap out of it. He just wanted to be left alone with a nice glass of Evan Williams bourbon and a Coke.
When Elliot’s alarm clock rang for him to wake for his Christmas Eve shift following three hours of interrupted sleep, he considered throwing it through the wall. He was careful not to wake his wife, Chloe, as he got ready and left for work. She wasn’t speaking to him, anyway—the result of yet another argument the night before.
On his way to work, he stopped at a gas station for some coffee. The clerk wore an obnoxious red and green holiday sweater that had a reindeer with flappy ears on the front. She said, “Have a merry Christmas,” with a toothy smile and Elliot could have strangled the cheerfulness out of her.
He was a few miles away before he took his first sip. The coffee was old and the cream smelled slightly curdled. “Are you effing kidding me?” He cracked his window and tossed the coffee out, cup and all.
Elliot pulled into Station 22’s parking lot with two minutes to spare before roll call. He didn’t speak to anyone as he awaited his truck assignment for the day. Medic 22.
He slogged through the first half of his twenty-four-hour shift, aiming for minimal conversations with the others in the crew, especially Carl. A quiet day was a good day. If he heard one more comment in passing about how lucky they were to have such a white Christmas, he thought he might vomit.
Lunch was a potluck to celebrate the holidays with the firefighters’ families invited. Since Elliot hadn’t brought anything or invited his own family, he steered clear of the kitchen until the husbands and wives and kids had left. Then he sneaked in and made himself a plate of leftovers that he ate alone in the dingy basement of the sixty-year-old station. The occasional loud snap and hiss of the air compressor reminded him of why he didn’t just stay in the basement all day. That and the spiders.
He made his bunk around 9:30 and brushed his teeth. The rest of the crew, all seven other firefighters minus the two lieutenants who had already retired to their private rooms, hooted it up in the kitchen. Elliot was glad to miss the juvenile ribbings and stale jokes. There was a time when he might have been the ringleader, but that was before.
While lying in bed, he imagined the scene. Elliot had heard all their jokes before. The only one witty enough to make him laugh on occasion was Greg. He liked Greg best. The others were probably making fun of the way Greg was always eating yet never gained any weight, calling him Tapeworm. Again. For the thousandth time. Or maybe they were hacking on Lauren, who gave as good as she got, or mocking Charlie’s nervous habit of clearing his throat every few minutes. Sal was surely the only one sitting quietly at the end of the table. He usually just took in the nonsense with his stoic face. He had earned the nickname Fun-sucker because he was often serious to a fault.
Elliot crawled into bed just as happy to be alone as he would be to fake nice with the jokesters. More so, actually. As he lay his head on the pillow, he hoped not to have any Gladyses for one night. He could use a few solid hours of sleep.
One by one, the rest of the crew entered the bunk room, made their beds, and lay down. It was 11:30 before Elliot’s brain slowed enough to go to sleep.
It could have been a half-hour or two days later when his metal locker banged like someone had struck it with an open hand. He sprang out of bed. “What?” he snapped as he focused in the darkness. There was no one there.
Sal groaned from his corner bunk, “Keep it down, Elliot.”
Elliot gave him the finger even though Sal didn’t actually open his eyes. He lay back down and pulled the covers up to his neck. The other firefighters kept it so freezing in the bunkroom that he could almost see his breath. Whoever heard of running air conditioners in the winter? The clock read 12:00. His weighted eyelids slowly closed again. But before he could drift back to sleep, a slight breeze whistled between the lockers and wafted across his neck. He shivered and pulled the covers tighter. The tail end of the breeze carried a whisper that moaned, “Elllliiiooot.”
Elliot sat up with a start. “Who said that?” It was probably one of the ladder jerks playing a prank. “Greg? Was that you?”
Greg rolled over and continued snoring. Carl’s sleep apnea machine buzzed at the other end of the room.
The moonlight shining through the windows highlighted the sleeping firefighters. None of the windows were open, yet the breeze returned and grew into a steady wind that caught the double doors leading to the apparatus bay and tossed them open, only to slam them shut again. Even that didn’t wake any of the others. Elliot wished he could sleep so soundly.
He lay motionless on his side, hoping to go back to sleep. The covers were tugged from his shoulders like someone had pulled at them. He yanked them back up. And then something nudged his lower back. He wrenched his head around, but no one was there. He licked his dry lips. Maybe a drink would calm his nerves. He climbed from his bed and pulled his uniform pants over his shorts. Still in his socks, he marched through the bunkroom and into the bay.
He stood behind the ladder truck, his head a couple of feet below the bucket that extended from the back. He hated working from inside that bucket, mostly because he didn’t like heights.
Something clanked. He cocked his head.
“Is someone in there?” he called out.
The apparatus bay was quiet.
Elliot sighed. “You’re going crazy,” he mumbled to himself. He reached for the doors to go back to bed, deciding against a glass of water. When his hand met the handle, a new sound rattled along the opposite side of the medic truck near the kitchen. He hesitated. It sounded like empty bottles being dragged across the floor. Elliot’s hand hovered over the handle. “Greg?” he called out. “Are you eating again?”
The dim fluorescent lights of the apparatus bay suddenly flared to life, blazing like the sun at high noon, every one of them audibly buzzing with energy. He squinted to focus.
Though the buzzing sound was faint at first, it quickly grew into a throaty rumble. The fluorescent lights swelled into overfilled balloons, bulging with brilliance and straining not to pop. They were too blinding to look at and Elliot had to shade his eyes with one hand. Once they reached their limits, they quivered and then burst with a single concussive boom. Raining glass battered the bucket and the floor. Darkness washed through the bay like a tsunami of the blackest ink. It stole his breath and nearly stopped his heart.
He stood alone, trying to straighten his brain over what he had just witnessed. He expected some of his coworkers to stumble from the bunkroom to investigate, but the double doors remained shut.
And then a bluish glow brightened the wall above the medic truck as the clinking bottles moved toward the front. Elliot leaned down, expecting to see a pair of work boots in the glow from the other side. No one was there.
Wind howled through the bay, whispering his name again.
“Hello?” he asked timidly.
A man awash in the strange blue light floated around the front of the medic truck wearing a long, tattered robe that danced softly behind him. He dragged his jagged fingers along the overhead door. They were glassy like icicles hanging from a gutter. The stranger drifted toward him with the fluidity of a calm morning wave on the beach. A half-dozen empty whisky bottles tied to ropes rattled over the concrete floor behind him. They must have been heavy judging by the way they seemed to tug the man’s shoulders backward.
Though Elliot wanted to retreat, his legs wouldn’t work. He regarded the stranger from his bony bare feet to his tattered robe and settled on his pale, ghostly face within the blue glow. The stranger’s lower jaw was missing, leaving a deep hole that Elliot momentarily lost himself in. A thousand tiny tortured souls writhed and moaned and called out his name from within the cavern beneath the man’s nose.
Elliot dragged his eyes away from the mesmerizing pit and up to the man’s eyes. The stranger fixed him with a deathly vacant gaze. Something about him seemed familiar, like a distant friend Elliot hadn’t seen since elementary school. Elliot summoned the courage to speak. “Who are you?” he asked.
The familiar stranger tilted his head. A worm slithered from one of his eyes before disappearing inside the other. His lost gaze narrowed to study Elliot’s face. Something fell from the hole where his mouth should have been and pinged off the floor. Elliot followed it with his eyes. It was a nubby piece of metal about the size of a BB.
The stranger reached down, picked it up, and stuffed it back into his face. “You don’t recognize me?” he asked, despite not having a jaw.
Elliot’s eyes widened and he swallowed acid. He’d recognize that hoarse voice anywhere. “Jimmy?”
Jimmy looked more tired than he ever had in life and his shoulders slouched like the weight of the whisky bottles was too much to carry. “I haven’t heard that name in years.” He looked around. “The station hasn’t changed much, has it?”
Elliot’s heart skipped. “Oh my god, Jimmy.” He fought back tears. “You selfish bastard. I can’t believe what you did.” If he wasn’t so terrified, he’d punch his old friend. “Why did you do it?”
Jimmy looked to the ceiling for a moment. Then he lowered his eyes again. “I don’t wanna talk about that.”
“Wrong answer. You left me here. You were the one rock in my life who understood what we go through in this job. Chloe tried, but she can’t. I hate you for what you did. Every day … Every goddamn day for the last seven years, I’ve tortured myself, knowing that there was something more I could have done. What did you need from me?” His first tear since Jimmy’s funeral touched his cheek.
Jimmy’s eyes saddened and he tilted his head. “What happened to me wasn’t about you, Elliot. There was nothing you could have done.”
It must be a dream. Elliot slapped his own cheek to wake up.
“You’re not dreaming, my old friend.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m a guide.” The empty bottles pulled at Jimmy’s back and he gave them an annoyed tug. “This’ll be you if you don’t pay close attention on tonight’s adventure.”
“Adventure? I can’t go anywhere. You know that. I’m working.”
Jimmy rolled his dead eyes. “A job you despise, just like I did at the end.”
Elliot scoffed. “You were weak. You took the easy way out. And you left the rest of us here to pick up the pieces.”
“Haven’t you considered doing the same?”
“Well, yeah. But …”
“Don’t you already have a plan?”
Elliot turned away. Sadness was easier to manage by smothering it with anger, and that’s what he did.
“I know what you’re planning, Elliot. I’ve seen the gun in your bedside table. I’ve seen you hold it to your head.”
“Fuck you, Jimmy. I’m not talking about this with you. You’re the last person who can lecture me about this.”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders and pitched a skeptical glower at him. “This is your final opportunity to avoid sharing my personal hell. After tonight, what you choose to do is your business. I won’t have anything else to say on the matter.”
Elliot shook his head. “I’m not interested in whatever you’re offering. I’m doing fine.”
“Are you, now?” Jimmy’s face contorted angrily. “Oh, my foolish friend.” Suddenly, he shot forward, his face stopping inches from Elliot’s. His cheekbones pressed through his decaying flesh and worms crawled frantically over the tiny tortured souls within the gaping hole. He roared, “DO YOU WANT TO END UP LIKE MEEEEEE?” The walls shook and his face melted.
Then he settled back and took a calming breath through his nose. Elliot couldn’t speak.
Jimmy broke the long silence. “You will be haunted by three ghosts tonight, Elliot. One on every even hour. You don’t get to choose whether you go on this journey, but you can choose whether or not you pay attention before it’s too late.”
“Ghosts? Jimmy, do you know how insane this is?”
Jimmy shrugged. “This is your last chance.” He turned and dragged his bottles toward the closed overhead bay door, hesitating when he got there. He glanced back and then lowered his head. “Good luck, Elliot.” He passed through the door like light through a window.
Elliot wasn’t ready for Jimmy to leave just yet. He had too many questions. He raced to catch up. His nose flattened painfully against the metal door and he stumbled backward.
“Jimmy?” he whispered. Then he gritted his teeth. “This is stupid. Ghosts. Right.” He marched back to bed. He wasn’t going anywhere, ghosts or no ghosts.