Monday, October 2

Fire Fly Chapter 9 The Big Show

            It was the day of the press conference, a gloriously sunny day. I wandered downstairs and greeted Roscoe sitting in the kitchen.
            " The Iron Lady called," he said as he shoved a cup of coffee in my hands.
            "Margaret Thatcher?"
            "No, the other one, she'll be here in an hour," he chuckled.
            For a final debriefing no doubt, I groaned. I was already tired as I had tried, unsuccessfully to sleep last night.
            "What happened to your face?" Roscoe asked, pointing to a bandage above my left eye. I was so damn nervous during my morning routine I had banged my head while opening the medicine cabinet.
            "I'm surprised you didn't slice your neck," he commented with a raised eyebrow.
            We drank our coffee in silence. He didn't want to add to my stress with idle conversation.
            Maybe the show won't be such a big deal after all. The Iran-contra scandal was dominating the news so it was possible the press was more interested in that than the flying guy.
            Stori arrived promptly at ten and I was pleasantly relieved Victoria was with her. She gave my arm an encouraging squeeze.
            " You aren't wearing that are you? Don't you have a good suit? And you need a tie," Stori regarded my rumpled khaki shorts and faded tee shirt with disapproval.
            "No tie. I hate them. It will just get in the way and flap around when flying. Where is this happening?" I asked, changing gears. She had been very secretive about the details and location, saying it was nothing for me to worry about.
            "The Point. Look for the large white tent," she answered. That was the park downtown where the Alleghany, Monongahela and the Ohio Rivers converged.
            "A tent?" my brows folded in puzzlement. She informed me it was best to have it outdoors where everyone could see me fly in.
            " Being outside will give them the photo op they want and allow you to control when you arrive and leave safely on your terms," she continued. That certainly made sense.
            After a heated discussion about my attire, I went upstairs and changed into dark slacks, comfortable shoes, and a pale blue short sleeve shirt under my better, but warmer gray herringbone wool coat. Stori nodded in approved.  I suddenly remembered something and pulled a folded note from my shirt pocket.
            "I did the homework you requested and have a fact sheet about my flying," I offered it to Victoria, who glanced at it and laughed.
            "You won't be handing out an information form to the press," she said, amused with my naivete and I scowled at her superior tone.
            " I know you think it's a pain in the ass but you have to accept that they will ask you a lot of questions and you have to answer them, no matter how inane or redundant. Reporters like to hear what you have to say, not read dry facts," she explained patiently.
            "Darling how do you think Vic would have reacted if you showed up at her doorstep with 'Hi I'm the flying guy here's a fact sheet'?" Stori elaborated. I sighed and tucked the carefully prepared page to my shirt pocket. Victoria realized they were being harsh on me and touched my arm again to ease my disappointment while Stori went over some last minute reminders.
            "When I tug on my ear ala Carol Burnett that means your answer is no. When I put a finger to my jaw like this-- " she pointed to her jaw as if in deep thought--" it means I don't know and if I clutch my necklace," she always wore the most elegant jewelry "It means no comment--got it?" we went over the cues a few more times. No, I don't know, no comment.
            "You're going to be fine sugar," she said sweetly and gave me a big hug. Inwardly I was frantic and returned an unconvincing smile.
            "We'll see you in an hour, don't be late," Stori directed.
            "Yes ma'am." I saluted smartly.
            While Stori was sucked into the adorable baby zone when Roscoe insisted on showing off Tina, I walked Victoria to her car parked in the back alley.
            "Remember when I said we should keep our relationship professional?" she said gazing at me intently. I nodded, recalling her remark the last time I left her apartment.
            "Now that things have changed," she said, choosing her words with care. "And even though I will be with the media crowd, I think we can safely say my days of reporting on you are over."  She seemed pleased to be out of the shark pool.
            "Okay Victoria," I said in a neutral tone. It was bound to happen, with the conflict of interest forcing the decision. If that meant I wouldn't see her as much, I was disappointed. At that moment Stori came bounding out of the house, telling her to hurry. Victoria opened the driver side door and unleashed a smile on me.
            "Call me Vic, all my friends do," she said, giving me a quick peck on the cheek and drove off.
            While the ladies went off to prepare for the show, I nervously had a snack to shore up my energy. With one last check of my clothes, and making sure my fly was zipped, I was ready.
            Roscoe was in the backyard gearing up for the next weekend's big Fourth of July barbeque.  He leaned on the fence talking to Mr. Brown who was tuning up for the day's music session with his sons. Mr. Brown shook my hand and Roscoe gave me a hug to wish me luck. I put on my sunglasses and I was off.
            It felt beyond strange to be flying over the city in broad daylight. I couldn't believe I had license to do so. It took me a moment to get my bearing, then I followed the Allegeny River west toward downtown. Even at three hundred feet up, it was still hot and humid and I regretted wearing the coat.
            I expected to see a small canopy one usually sees at outdoor concerts or open air markets but--oh my God. A forty foot square of white graced the wide lawn. The street nearby was blocked off and it looked like the entire population was waving as they caught sight of my approach. Holy shit, did Stori rent a billboard sign to announce this? What are all these people doing out at noon on a Monday?
            Stay calm I told myself as I headed down, removing my sunglasses and buttoning my coat as it flapped in the wind.
            The police had a barricade set up along the sidewalk to keep the crowds at bay but the photographers rushed forward as several cops cleared a spot where I touched down gently, waving and smiling pleasantly amid the clicking of cameras and applause from the crowd. Stori directed me to the open sided tent and to a table with dozens of microphones perched along its edge and we waited for everyone to get to their seats.
            Sweat plastered hair on my forehead and trickled down my back--the hell with formality, I shrugged out of the coat and draped it over the chair. When I turned back, I saw the large assembly of reporters with the oddest expressions on their faces as if they had just witnessed the second coming. I glanced at Stori in puzzlement and she smiled like a Cheshire cat. Vic sat three seats behind her and nodded with the same kind of awareness lost to me.
            After Stori's brief introduction, she spelled out the rules, each reporter had a two question limit and she requested each give their name and media. This was a good idea as I had no clue who any of these people were.
            "Good afternoon everyone, it's a pleasure to be here," I began. Actually, I'd rather be   anywhere but here, I thought.           
            " I'd appreciate it if you kept your interest to me, work and recent events,” I continued, meaning stay clear of my parents and friends.
            Despite that speech I had made at Mom and Dad's, the little shits returned to harass them.  I told mother not to talk to them and under no circumstances let a reporter into the house. They had little patience with nosy people anyway. If someone was particularly bothersome, Mom  directed them to Dad, who would exaggerate his slow speech to a maddening degree forcing them to flee within minutes.
            " I understand you are all intensely curious about me, this is all new to me too, so go easy on me please. I will do the best I can to answer your questions. Who wants to start?" Every hand shot up. I pointed to a fellow from the Baltimore Sun.
            "How do you fly?"
            " Honestly, I have no idea. I've been able to do it since I was a child-- it's as natural to me as walking," I explained, figuring that was the end of it.
            "So have you always been able to fly like you did today?" another asked.
            "Well, when I was a kid it was more like a high jump but it developed as I got older," I replied. I had the urge to blurt everything out, get it over and leave, but I did as Stori coached. Be nice, stick to the point, present a friendly image to the public so people don't freak out like Sally the clerk or Rueben.
            "There was a recent incident where a nine -year -old boy jumped off a roof, how do you feel about that?" Another asked.
            I knew what he was referring to, some kid had jumped off the roof of a garage and promptly broke his leg. Now was the time for a disclaimer before the next parents came after me with dollar signs in their eyes.
            "Seriously. The only way to truly fly is from the ground. If you can stand on the ground and jump up--you're flying. Any other way is falling, and falling will get you hurt or killed. If you get hurt it's your fault because that is the wrong way. So don't try it."  I playfully scolded the reporter and he ducked his head.
            "But you did jump off the roof of the DuPont apartments," someone else pointed out.
            " No, I jumped up into the air not over the side of the building," I said, raising a finger to note the distinction. They followed with more questions about flying and I pulled out my fact sheet. If they weren't going to use it, I was.
            "I cruise at about 25 and can go about 65 miles per hour in a sprint." I figured this out by marking off a mile on a country road and timed myself.
            " I get closer to the speed of a skydiver, about 120 miles an hour in a dive but I prefer to go slower to avoid the high g's when braking out of them. Going above ten thousand, like pilots, requires the use of oxygen," I said, explaining how I used an altimeter to gauge the altitude.
“The view from that height is awesome, by the way,” I offered.            
            "Where did you get the cut on your eye?"
            "I fought a medicine cabinet door and it won," I said with a straight face. Everyone laughed and I relaxed.
            "Did you receive any special training from the Bureau of Fire Academy to develop your powers?"
            "No but the training was grueling enough," I replied, pushing back the memory of that exhausting time.
             I would drag myself home after eight hours of heavy physical work with equipment or endure long classes absorbing mountains of facts about building codes, procedures, chemistry and the behavior of fire. On top of that was the additional time of medical training as an EMT.
            I'd eat a big meal and spend hours pouring over huge three ring binders of highly technical jargon. I often woke up where I had been studying, a spot of drool staining a page of text.
            "Fighting fires is pretty basic, put the wet stuff on the red stuff and you'll be fine. It's all the other stuff that's complicated," I remarked simply.
            "Do you show up on radar?" a young woman with a high pitched voice and bright red hair inquired, a pen poised over her notebook. A man next her shook his head at her naive question. I answered kindly to make up for his rudeness.
            " I haven't had to deal with airport monitoring yet, but probably not, because of the way radar works. Like birds, I don't have enough reflective surface for the signal to echo back. Unless I wrap myself in aluminum foil, which would look silly," I said. That got another laugh.
            "What other powers do you have?" A burly fellow from a west coast newspaper asked. He was sweating profusely but made no attempt to take off his oversized coat. I was a bit irked by his terminology.
            "Let me clear up some things. I am not Superman. I don't have super hearing or x-ray vision-darn. Although I am strong, I can't lift a car over my head," I said, referencing the famous Superman comic book cover.
            "How strong are you?" the same guy asked. Using up his second question quota, he winced in regret.
            I looked on the back of my fact sheet where I had scribbled the results from my trip to the gym and recounted my findings. There were some gasps and shaking of heads.
            "What about the track races you won in high school? Was that possible because of your  unusual speed?"  Wow, that reporter from Chicago obviously did a lot of homework.
            I had visions of my record being invalidated after a lengthy, melodramatic investigation but remembered Mr. Carlson was still coach and he had no patience for such nonsense.
            " I won them honestly, even the best racers lose if they are sick, distracted, or off their rhythm. Sometimes I just didn't feel like running,” I answered truthfully.
            "Are you bulletproof?" I recognized Phil Braxton immediately.
            " Not as far as I know and don't wish to find out. However, as a paramedic, I have been shot at, been threatened with bats, bricks, and knives. People react in strange ways to someone trying to help them. It goes with the territory," I replied sadly. I wondered how Mom and Dad would react to that as I paused to take a drink of water. I wondered when they will see this interview. I found out later CNN aired it live.
            The burly guy whispered something in the ear of a thin balding man who then raised his hand.
            "You carried two people at a time during the DuPont apartment fire, is that your limit?"
            "Well I only have two arms," I joked, flexing my biceps. He wasn't as amused as the others.
            " My full kit with breathing apparatus weighs 65 pounds plus whatever gear I'm hauling, so two people is no big deal." I explained. Fire fighting requires a lot of brute muscle, I once saw Roscoe carry out two people, one under each arm.
            "Are your powers genetic?" the thin man followed up. There was something about the way he asked that set off my internal alarm but I couldn't tell exactly why.
            "Not that I'm aware of," I said. The answer sounded vague and a forest of hands shot up.
            "What I meant was, my parents do not have any of these special skills. Sorry.” They persisted with more questions along that line but were disappointed and it pained me to realize they were more interested in conspiracy drama than answers.
            The questions turned back to specifics about my flying. Do I feel weightless when I'm in the air, can I hover? Am I ever afraid of heights? Stuff I never considered and had no ready answer so there were a lot of  "I don't know " responses, even without Stori's prompts. This ended up frustrating everyone, including me.
            "Can you give us a demonstration of your strength?"
            "I'm not a trained seal who performs on command," I snapped, my growing irritation showing.
            "Are you involved with a government project to develop super soldiers?" A nerdy guy in thick glasses put in. Where the hell did that come from, my expression implied.
            "No," I said, as in that's ridiculous.
            "Are you an alien?" he continued.
            "Are you kidding?" I retorted. I was humoring him but he wilted under stares from the others.
            "Have you been approached to have any scientific testing of your powers?" I was about to answer when I got a cue from Stori.
            "No comment."
            "Would you be willing to be tested?"
            "No comment. And the term I prefer is special skills," I evaded before more follow up questions were posed. Stori tapped her wrist to remind me the time was running out. I indicated I had time for a few more questions.
            "I'm getting hungry." I playfully patted my stomach but truthfully, all this talking was wearing me out.
            "When you were in the National Guard, were they aware of your skills?" the guy looked too clean cut and precise to be a regular reporter and I noticed he didn't introduce himself.
            "No they were not," I said in an icy tone and he got the hint.
            In fact, I was sorely tempted to reveal how much I had hated the Guard. I dislike authority figures pushing their power trips on me and the Guard was full of them. Ask me nicely, explain your reasons, no problem. Bully or demand I obey--screw you.
            "When did your co-workers and Chief Mallin find out about your skills?" that was a tricky one and I glanced at Stori but there was no easy way around this one so I fudged to save face.
            "A few weeks before the DuPont fire," I replied, and I could imagine everyone at work breathing a sigh of relief.
            There was a momentary pause at the unexpected response and I had the feeling I had dodged another controversy. Curious. An older woman from the Washington Post broke the tension with an obvious question.
            "Why did you keep this a secret for so long?" Ah yes, I was waiting for that and swept the audience under the white canopy with a wave of my hand.
            "What do you think? How are you all reacting to this?" came my rhetorical response.
            They knew all too well how people reacted and a lot of it was due to their manipulation. He's a fake, a fraud, a demon, a government agent. The usual knee jerk speculation Victoria--Vic so eloquently spoke of in her original article that, ironically, set all of these events in motion. I spotted her sitting with her arms and legs crossed, a wisp of a smile evident, as she knew exactly what I was talking about. The reason for the lawsuit became clear to me as just another publicity stunt.
            "How do your parents feel about--"
            "None of your business," I cut the man off coldly. I recognized him as one who had been harassing them.
            "Has the President or other government officials contacted you?"
            "No."
            "How about the FBI?" someone asked quickly. I narrowed my eyes at the slender black woman whose hair resembled the foam cover of a microphone.
            Clarissa Jones was a reporter from a local paper credited with being the first person to reveal my name. She was far more ambitious than her boss realized when she was hired as the token minority. I glanced at Vic who looked equally peeved. They vaguely knew each other but it was not a friendly acquaintance.
            I paused longer than I should have. I had not taken the time to think about how the government would deal with me and I was about to answer "no" when I saw Stori clutch her necklace.
            "No comment."
            That generated another forest of hands. I was beginning to panic at the dark implications of this line of questioning and my energy was seriously flagging. I held up my palms imploring patience.
            " Look people, up until a few weeks ago I was just a regular guy doing a regular job.  I have no hidden agenda, no nefarious plans to take over Pittsburgh or the world. I want you to know I'm one of the good guys, okay?"  Checking my watch, it was time to go.
            "Please give me time to figure things out and I'll get back to you. In the meantime just let me do my job rescuing people and fighting fires. As far as my special skills are concerned they are for my work and not for entertainment. I only went public so I could use them openly in emergencies. Today was the first time I ever flew in public and I hope I don't have to hide anymore. You've all been very patient with me so far and I'm thankful. I will be accommodating  in the future as long as my family, friends and co-workers are not bothered. Please respect their privacy and mine. Thank you and good day."
            They tried to get in one more question but I had already picked up my coat. As I walked out, I saw the crowds still pressed against the steel barriers and I waved to their wild cheers. It was nice to see them react positively. Photographers rushed out to get a shot of my departure. I posed for the crowd to take pictures.
             I was about to leave when Stori shook my hand and surreptitiously pressed a note into my palm. I put it in my pocket with the pretext of retrieving my sunglasses and waved to everyone as I took to the air in a fast arch up and out towards the river. I wanted to fly high but remembered the airport flight path was right above so stayed just below the height of the tallest building downtown.
            I leisurely took the scenic route home and arrived to find a block party in full swing. Cars and people filled the street. Roscoe's entire family was in the backyard along with the Brown's mini blues festival. Everyone was having a great time and greeted me warmly after I landed in the alley.
            "What's the occasion?" I asked Roscoe as he tended a grill of steaks and brats while smoking a cigar.
            "Didn't you hear? The flying man lives here," he said. I was shocked-- what did he reveal?
            "You kind of gave it away when you flew off earlier," Roscoe said laughing at the look of confusion at my own stupidity.
            "Oh shit," I groaned. He laughed again and offered me some food and a beer which I gladly took. I sat down to chat with George and Roscoe's three equally large brothers. How his mother-- a petite woman--sired such big boys was a mystery to me. I went inside to change when I remembered Stori's note in the pocket of my coat. There was an address and a message: "Come to my house at six, look for the big X on the roof."
            Did she expect me to fly?

Fire Fly Chapter 8 Homework

            Thru the open window I could hear Mr. Brown playing the blues. He was always playing his guitar, parked under the big oak tree in the backyard picking out a tune. The doleful melody reflected my somber mood as I lay in bed and idly watched the window curtain move listlessly in the slight breeze. Sleep evaded me as the events of the last week twisted me in knots. Everything was different and I didn't like it.
            I was deeply conflicted. Along with the relief from the burden of hiding was the uproar caused by the dramatic revelation. If I had a rewind button I would have done it differently.
             I pushed the sheet off my naked torso and mentally went thru the list of do's and don'ts Stori gave me for the big show, laying around nude was probably a don't even in the privacy of my bedroom.
            I disliked brooding so I rose, putting on jeans and a tee shirt. Most of my clothes and stuff remained in boxes piled in the narrow living room next to the stairs. I started putting things away but lost interest after an hour when I got hungry. I wanted to go out for lunch but remembered being mobbed the day before when I went out for pizza. Everybody wanted to see the flying man.
            I walked downstairs and Della invited me in for a bowl of chili. She worked in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant and was a fine chef herself. She planned to open her own place but had put it off when the baby was born. I entertained Tina in her highchair while she cleaned up. Della was a tall, elegant figure with a creamy complexion and I kidded Roscoe that she was way too smart and good looking for him and he would agree with a hearty nod.
            "You got a bigger appetite than hubby," she joked as she handed me a Roscoe --sized bowl and a chunk of cornbread, it was true, I was always hungry.
            My energy restored by lunch I finished unpacking and went to collect mail from the P.O. box I had been using for years. I found a note in it informing me I had more mail than would fit in the little cubicle. I went home with a huge cardboard box, aghast to discover the public got my address.
            I made two piles: bills, magazines, a birthday card from Mom three months late, and  work related stuff I kept, the crazy shit I tossed.
            And I mean crazy. Lots of women, and some men, sent me everything from marriage proposals to naked pictures and most disturbingly, underwear. After the first surprise, I automatically put any strangely padded envelope in the toss pile. It was bizarre having strange women offer themselves to me: "I want to have your super powered love child." Instead of being flattered I was appalled. Call me an old fashioned guy, I believe that sex should be with someone you know and love.
            The demands that I admit to being an alien, a government agent or an angel, and the secret to my flying ability tried my patience. I threw it all in the box in exasperation. There went a couple of hours of my life I'd never get back. Stori called to check on me and I told her how I spent my morning.
            "Oh good Lord, why didn't you tell me earlier. We have secretaries to handle that for you," She said, incredulous. I gladly handed over the task to her PR business along with the answering service for messages instead of wrangling with my constantly full machine.
            I was supposed to do some flying homework but a thunderstorm intervened, instead I went to a gym for some strength testing. I loved weight lifting but it had never been satisfying because I had to hide my strength.
            The gym was Roscoe's favorite haunt. It had a slightly seedy air to it with dark walls, a bare concrete floor covered with old rubber mats and bare lighting that was in serious need of upgrading. There was no air conditioning, just a couple of box fans in the rear door and windows and an overhead fan running so fast I expected it to take off with the ceiling. This was a place for real gym rats, not for the pretty boys trying to impress or be fashionably healthy. These were power lifters, off duty cops and jocks who didn't give a damn about the lack of a juice bar or spa, only that they had a lot of iron to lift. The only sound was the clank of metal, grunting and a radio loudly tuned to a local rock station.
            I obeyed the order to lay low by wearing sweats with a sleeveless AC/DC tee shirt and unshaven. I spent time warming up and slowly adding weight to get an accurate measure. I parked in a corner so as not to be noticed, working my way up to a squat of 560 pounds and a dead lift of 700, the kind of weight muscle--bound power lifters who eat steroids for breakfast pick up, not lean looking guys like me. I started benching my own weight and kept adding weight until I was up to 450 when someone noticed. The guy had a thick black handlebar mustache and was the size of a small truck. He watched as I finished my set and sat up sweaty and winded. He calculated the weight on the bar, his eyes wide in recognition. He blinked and with a small bow of respect, moved on. I checked off that task from my list.
            The next work shift was the opposite of the last. Rueben was gone so I assisted Darryl who was airy and enthusiastic, cracking jokes about everything he saw during a run. We got a call about a kid who got his head stuck between the bars of a wrought iron fence at a schoolyard. I managed to pry them apart enough to get him unstuck while his buddies watched in awe. He thought it was cool until I lectured him about doing something so stupid.
            Like last week, photographers followed us everywhere, hoping I would do something spectacular much to the crew's amusement.
            "Look, it's a plane, it's a bird, nah it's just what's-his- name," Kaz parodied to much laughter. I cringed at the comparison.
            There is a tradition that whoever has to speak to the press-- a task everyone loathed-- had to buy ice cream for the crew. Naturally the press wanted to talk to me.
            " Hey, get Neopolitan this time," Mike said, rubbing his stomach as he walked back to the truck.
            "Come on guys this is costing me a fortune," I complained to no avail.
            We got back to the firehouse and barely had time to wolf down some cold pizza when another apartment alarm came in. Jesus, not again I prayed. Fortunately it was a small fire put out quickly and the press vultures were disappointed. The guys from the other engine company were not amused by the attention. Don't blame me, blame them, I glared back.
            On my next day off I decided to get rid of the rising stress with a speed test. A storm had passed through, dissolving the heavy humidity, leaving the air clean and bright. Perfect for running.
            I walked to an empty racetrack at a nearby school. The feel of gravel under my feet brought back memories of my track days in high school. A thin, gawky kid, shy as hell but I didn't get picked on because the guys learned I didn't back down if challenged. Besides I was too fast to punch. Running helped channel my hormonal frustrations as well as develop my speed in a productive way.
            I warmed up for a few minutes with stretches and a slow jog around the track. I stepped up to the starting line and the familiar excitement rushed up. For me, the competition was about besting myself rather than beating the other guy. If I lost it suited me fine as long as I was happy with my performance. I usually won.
            "Hi there," a voice halted my reverie. I looked up to see an older man sitting on the bleachers holding a small white dog. I waved and he took that as an invitation to join me.
Despite a shock of white hair, he looked to be in good enough shape himself.
            "Training for a marathon?" he asked. I shook my head.
            " I used to run track in college. Good way to work the body after using the brain all day, I majored in business, " he said tapping his forehead, oblivious to his interruption of my workout. I fidgeted with my stopwatch.
            "Can I keep time for you?" he offered and I decided to have some fun.
            "Sure," I said, handing him the stopwatch. He took his place a few feet in front of me as I crouched to a starting position. He gave me the signal and I took off.
            Once more I was running against the big man on campus, Tommy Lewsom or  "lose some" I used to taunt and I enjoyed beating him whenever we raced. Dad expressed disapproval of my prideful behavior, but the arrogant jerk needed to be taken down a peg every once in a while.
            I crossed the finishing line after four circuits for a mile run and slowed down, panting from the effort. I made a mental note to start jogging to stay in shape. The old man looked at the stopwatch then at me with a furrowed brow.
            "There must be something wrong with this young man, " He said in curt disbelief as he handed it back to me. According to the time, I just ran the current world record.
            " Yeah I guess so, " I said breathlessly. He bid me goodbye and hurriedly continued on his walk after rousing his dog from a nap.
            Well, I thought it was funny.  
             Just when I thought the attention on the flying man died down something would come along to remind me.
            I was working the eight to eight shift and at six a.m. I heard the distinctive sound of metal crashing into metal followed by a car alarm. The crew looked out the window to see a media van bristling with antennae had been rear --ended by another one. The media had been warned to keep clear of the firehouse and driveway and not crowd the narrow street.
            "Damn it," I spat. This circus was getting out of hand. We rushed across the street to check for injuries. The driver of the incoming van was bleeding profusely from a cut on the head, but it turned out to be superficial. He freaked at the sight of a blood but I calmed him down and had him apply a compress to the wound. Darryl dealt with the driver of the parked van. He had been asleep when hit and he struck the windshield, cracking the glass and his head. His passenger arrived on the scene, having gone off to fetch coffee and dropped everything at the sight.
            "Oh my God, is he alright? Will you have to fly him to the hospital?" he sputtered. This was no time for theatrics I informed him and his excitement instantly cooled.
            Properly chastised, he watched as we dealt with a possible skull fracture and got both victims into an ambulance which rushed off, leaving behind the reporter numb with shock.
            "Hey buddy come inside," Mike invited him into the firehouse to get his bearings and use the phone. He sat in the day room with an untouched cup of coffee while we talked quietly over breakfast. He finally came out of his stupor, realized where he was, and spotted me sitting at a desk. He tried to engage me in conversation but I made it clear I didn't want to be disturbed while I filled out the accident report. Rebuffed, he turned to Phil.
            He soon discovered Phil's bigotry and in the age of PC it was a gold mine of controversy. As he dug a tape recorder out of his pocket, everyone stopped talking and looked at him as if he held a poisonous snake. The captain walked by and politely but firmly suggested he leave. The guy knew he had stepped over a line. He put the device back in his pocket and meekly left.
            I watched the whole scene waiting to see Fabiano's reaction. He glanced at me, wondering if I was responsible.
            "Sorry sir, that was my bad call," Mike spoke up.
            It's one thing to be in the spotlight, it's another thing when it shines unintentionally on others. Fame doesn't just affect you, it affects everyone around you, I discovered. I wished more than anything to protect my friends and family from its intrusive glare.
            The day got worse. As I left the shift and headed to my car a man approached and asked my name. I figured he was an overeager reporter until he put an envelope in my hands.
            It was a subpoena. The woman I rescued at the DuPont fire, Anna Geraint was suing a columnist for slander when he called her a "delusional eccentric" and accused her of being in on a colossal hoax I was pulling. I was officially pissed at all the fraud, and phony rumors floating around.
            "Yeah I got one too, so did Vic. Don't worry about it," Stori said practically yawning when I called her. The PIO pretty much had the same response.
             "But this is all they talk about, it's asinine," I complained.
            "Yes, and her lawyer just wants to show off. When you come flying to the press conference all bets will be off. Forget about it." She wasn't the least bit concerned.
            " I could settle this bullshit right now," I suggested.
            "Nope, unless duty calls, you stayed grounded. Remember, you're in charge," She reminded me. Actually, she was in charge and I was beginning to resent it.
            I got off the phone steaming with aggravation. The more I mulled it over the more I found the timing curious. Here we were just days away from a press conference and a dubious lawsuit was threatening to muck it up. The whole thing smacked of grandstanding to stir up more controversy. The woman's beef was with the journalist not me and it reminded me to stay out of other people's problems.
            Maybe I was being paranoid but I couldn't shake the feeling something else was going on.
           

Saturday, August 12

Fire Fly Chapter 7 Changes


                                                                         Changes
The next morning most the news crews were gone except for a couple of foreign hold outs. I made a few phone calls, had a huge breakfast and prepared for the trip back. There were lots of hugs and farewells. Mom held on particularly long as she hugged me.
            "Be safe and don't forget us," she said, in an unusually solemn voice. I gave her a frown.
            "Of course, I'll call once a week and be back for Thanksgiving as usual," I assured her. She touched my face and gave me a sweet, yet sad smile. I was no longer her little boy and we both knew it.
             I intended to go on with life as usual but some things had to change. First, I needed a new place to live. Roscoe and Della had intended to convert the house they rented from George into a single dwelling by blocking off the second entrance and opening a doorway to the upstairs but George nixed it, instead offering the upper apartment to me, much to Roscoe's exaggerated disappointment.
            "Next thing you know more white folks will move in and there goes the neighborhood," Roscoe said, shaking his head melodramatically while George and I discussed the arrangement. I spent the morning packing. I would miss the small apartment with the view of the golden triangle-- as downtown is called, and went to the local market for some supplies on the way out. Mollie’s was the classic friendly neighborhood shop that had everything in one easy location. The staff was nice, especially one cashier, Sally. We always flirted with each other with playful, innocent banter. We would compliment each other’s fashion sense—both of us in uniform. This time she glanced at me as if I were an alien then rang up my purchases without looking at me or saying a word.
            I thought maybe she wasn't feeling well or had broken up with her latest boyfriend- she went through a lot of them. As I thanked her warmly, she practically threw the change at me, avoiding contact. I was thrown by the complete change of character.
            After I got to the car it I realized she was afraid of me. Plain old me, the Boy Scout at the firehouse. It dawned on me some people found my special skills frightening. I sat for a long time quietly mourning my diminishing innocence.
            At Roscoe's house I used the private, and convenient backstairs as the front door didn't work. Roscoe had a sign on his front door that read "please use the other door" with an arrow pointed at mine. Of course there was an identical one on my door pointing to his. It was confusing for deliveries but cut down on solicitors.
            As I had promised Victoria, I contacted the publicist and to my surprise Stori arrived an hour later at the front door. Roscoe, ever the protective bull dog, demanded identification before letting her in. We retreated to the sunlit kitchen so we wouldn’t disturb Roscoe's two year old daughter Tina and Grandpa George napping in the front bedroom.
            Stori introduced herself with a variation of the death grip from a tiny hand. She was a striking woman with straw blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and steel blue eyes set in an attractive oval face. Her height was the only average thing about her and she could easily be a model at thirty something.
            "Are you alright with Mr. Lionel participating in our conversation?" Stori inquired, a bit put off by the hulk next to me.
            " It's ok, he's my brother," I said with a straight face. Stori quirked up an eyebrow in curious amusement. She pulled out a blank hardbound notebook from her voluminous purse.
            "I want you to know how grateful I am for your help dealing with the media, it worked like a charm," I told her and she shrugged as if to say it was nothing.
            "Also, I don't make a lot of money so I don't know if I can afford your services." She put up a hand to stop me.
            " The privilege is mine. Any PR agent would kill to be in my position. Given your current public value I should be paying you," she laughed at her wit. "Vic informs me you are worth the effort. I was equally impressed with your handling of the press at your parents, I do hope they're fine," she said, her warm drawl softening her professional manner.
            She proceeded to ask me a lot of questions about my background, my job and people I knew in order to understand who she was representing, jotting the information down in her swift, florid handwriting. Satisfied, she moved on to the matter of prepping me for a press conference I would have to endure. She asked me what I planned to say and proceeded to veto most of it.
            " The first thing you need to learn, if Vic hasn't told you already, is never answer the unasked question. Keep your replies direct and relevant. Anything else is none of their business. You must always have the press dance to your tune, Figaro." She tapped the table with a well manicured fingernail for emphasis. I got the reference to the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" where Figaro plots revenge on the count.
            We spent some time discussing what they would ask, what I would reveal, what to avoid, and where the conference would take place.
            "As you know Chief Mallin's public appearance did not go well," Stori commented and my blank expression revealed my confusion.
            "Oh dear. You missed that." she said, putting a hand to her pearl necklace in alarm. She updated me on the disaster, including the controversial debate that I was a fake. I suspected this would happen once I went public.
            " Of course everyone wants to know how you fly," Stori said, pointing out the elephant in the room.
            " I honestly have no idea how I do it. It's completely natural to me," I answered blandly. I rarely give it a second thought but this stunned them.
            "Well there's no avoiding that topic," Stori said curtly, making another note in her book.
            She insisted I fly to the conference but I was reluctant. Being airborne in broad daylight was unnerving and I was afraid of someone trying to shoot me down as some had threatened.
            "I'm not entirely ignorant of the speculation going on around me," I stated with confidence, but I had been out of the loop and was playing catch up.
            " You don't know the half of it," Stori said with heavy emphasis. In addition to the numerous rumors, Victoria had been subjected to an enormous amount of professional jealousy and badgering from her peers.
            " Everyone wants to either interview you, expose you as a fake or incinerate you in a media auto-de-fe," Stori repeated Victoria's conclusions, shaking her head heavily.  I hadn't realized how hard this frenzy had been on her. There was a deep silence as I stared at the floor wondering what I had gotten everyone into.
            "I think it's time for a drink," Roscoe announced, heaving his frame out of the chair. He reached into a cabinet above the fridge and brought out a bottle of bourbon while Stori fetched three small glasses from the dish rack on the counter. Roscoe poured each of us a shot and proposed a toast.           
            "Here's to my little bro, may he be as good and humble as ever." We clinked glasses. Once revived Stori returned to the elephant.
            She proceeded to bombard me with the kinds of questions that would be asked. How fast can I fly, how high, what's my range? How strong am I really? I started to hyperventilate as my anxiety rose. Stori stopped and put a comforting hand on my arm.
            "Darling, I'm only trying to show you what you're going up against. I strongly suggest you figure these things out now so you can give them accurate information or they'll just make things up." Her smooth voice had a calming effect on me.
            I made a mental list of how to figure this stuff out. In the meantime, it was total blackout until the conference. I wasn't to let anyone-- that included family, friends and co -workers-- talk to the media. Stori was relieved to learn that no one but the present company knew where I lived.
            I told her I had to visit the Bureau's Public Information Office and she agreed. We worked on a list of things he could refer to until the press conference. Up to now the bureau put up a stone wall to the media because of lack of information. We had to give the poor slob something to offer to the wolves.
            Stori advised me to go to work, resume a normal schedule and keep in touch with her. After consulting a calendar we decided to hold the press conference in two weeks--provided there was no rain or a thunderstorm to cancel it. Time enough for her to handle all the arrangements and for me to do my homework. The meeting was adjourned to everyone's satisfaction and just in time.
             The next day I stopped at the district office to meet the bureaus' version of public relations. The nameplate on the door, William F. Abernathy, sounded familiar and as I entered, I instantly recognized the man who greeted me.                       
            “Bill, what a surprise,” I beamed, greeting my old academy comrade.
            “Neil, you son of a bitch, it’s about time you showed up," he said with cheerful annoyance as we shook hands. Bill still had his movie star looks; tall, auburn hair and square jaw. His uniform was tailored and impeccable.
            “How the hell did you end up here?” I asked.
             He shrugged and nodded at the array of photos, and certificates on the wall including the Distinguished Service Award. There was a newspaper clipping next to it. A few years ago during a call, he had placed his breathing mask over the face of a toddler and carried her down two flights of stairs out of a burning building.
            There was one particular drill in the academy everyone dreaded, 'the maze'. It required us to enter a pitch black, smoke filled building wearing our mask and breath off the tank then search for a 180 pound mannequin. Hypothetically, if you took your mask off because you were too hot or ran out of air, you would be killed by the heat or toxic gases.
            The idea we would be doing this in a real fire terrified everyone as we crawled around, sweeping an arm out in front to find the body in five minutes or less. The drill took its toll on everyone.
            "You're too late Abernathy, the victim is dead from the heat or smoke," The instructor informed him on his second attempt.
             Bill sat on the ground in dejection, his face flushed and sweaty. He wanted desperately to be a firefighter to please his father, a district chief, he often failed from over exertion. I offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet.
            "You'll get it, just relax so you can think clearly," I encouraged. He gave a halfhearted nod and walked back to the engine.
            “You finally learned to relax huh?” I kidded him and he shrugged humbly.
            He got his badge of courage to impress the old man and promptly got himself kicked upstairs to safer work. If anyone was suited for this job, Bill was it. He was articulate and understood the game.
            “And look what you were hiding all this time. No wonder you scored better than us at the tower drills,” he said with mock outrage. It was easy for me to hike up five stories in full gear hauling an eighty pound hose. We had a good laugh over that history.
            " Had I known, I could have better handled the press clusterfuck after seeing you in Mallin's office," he tried to look cross but his wide grin gave him away.
            “You were there? Damn, I didn't recognize you." I said, stunned.
            "I'm not surprised, you looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights," he said highly amused.
             "No kidding. Sorry I would have come by sooner, but I’ve been busy," I said, ducking my head in embarrassment. 
            Bill was unfazed and we got down to business. I explained what we had planned for the big press conference and answered any questions he had.
            “Good, now when the big dog comes around, I got something I can throw to them so they don’t go digging in the trash,” he said with relief. The “Big Dog”, as he called the press had a habit of relying on unreliable eyewitness accounts for a sound bite if the PBF didn’t talk to them.
            He offered to deal with the union representative, who was another grandstanding pain in the ass, and as ambitious as the Chief. Bill had a good grasp of the situation and I told him to call me or Stori if he needed anything.
            “Fine, I can't have you hogging the spotlight Mr. Bigshot,” he teased.
            “ You keep the press at bay and you can still be the poster boy for the bureau,” I shot back.
            “Deal.”
            We shook hands with a promise to get a beer sometime. I wished my relationship with the press could be as cordial as my meeting with Bill.           
            I got to work afterwards, parking at the rear entrance as I always do. A swarm of photographers were buzzing around but I ignored them.
            The firehouse was busy at the change of shifts. Besides the regular debriefing, Captain Fabiano went over the bureau’s usual media policy- no talking to the press.           
"Especially about me," I interjected. That was met with good natured ribbing from the guys but the new crew regarded the insider attitude with cool reserve. As the meeting ended Fabiano handed me a note from Mallin requesting a meeting ASAP. Stori said not to talk to anyone, including him. I tossed it aside.
            '"You can't avoid him forever," He said, tightening his jaw in disapproval. I sighed in resignation at the inevitable. He stopped Rueben as he passed by.
            "You two in my office. Now."  It was the tone he used when we were in trouble and we exchanged ominous looks for another trip to the principal's office. Once seated Fabiano looked just as uncomfortable as he toyed with a pen.
            "I know things have been . . . strange. . . around here since Neil's histrionics and the fall out. That's tolerable and we can deal with that right?" Fabiano shot me a glare and I nodded obediently. He turned to Rueben, who was pleased to see that I was the target of the captain's wrath.
            "What is not acceptable is the big freeze between you two," his voice grew harsher as he went on. "I'm also displeased that you didn't come to me first before putting in a transfer, Ehler,"
he continued. I couldn't bear to look at Rueben. Guys transfer to other companies all the time, but I was as furious as the chief.
            "Captain I have my-"            Rueben began.           
            " I'm not fucking done yet," he cut him off and Rueben flinched under the scolding.
            " Rueben, you'll work with Darryl, meanwhile, I expect you two to stop acting like spurned lovers," he ordered.
            We got the message. I had no problem with Rueben I wish he would talk to me. I missed his kinship and wisdom.
            "Good, now you two kiss and make up," he said, then left us alone.
            We sat side by side, our emotions tumbling within like clothes in a dryer. I glanced out the window and watched a father holding his son's hand as he pointed out the firehouse. I smiled as it reminded me of the early thrill of wearing a fire fighter's uniform and little kids looking up in awe.
            "I've always been impressed with your ability at this job," Rueben suddenly spoke and I turned to him.
            "It's not easy to see all the tragedy out there and walk away from it unscathed. You build up a kind of armor, like the gear we wear, to protect yourself. I always wondered how you had that armor from the beginning and now I know," he said carefully.
            "You're a damn good fire fighter but I just can't wrap my head around your--abilities." It was almost condescending the way he said it.
            " Where I come from it's just not philosophically possible and I can't get over it," he said, looking at his hands as he fidgeted in obvious distress.
            " I don't understand them either but I accept them and I hope some day you will too," I replied after a time.
            We never spoke like this as Rueben wasn't a touchy feely guy, no easy handshake, a slap on the back or a friendly hug from him. He got up and left the room, quietly closing the door after him.
            When one transfers, it's shrugged off as a given to move from one place to another. But when a fire fighter dies everyone mourns. The brotherhood is a big deal. I felt like Rueben had died. After that shift, I never spoke to him again.