Colin sat at work in the kitchen. He delivered Chinese food but normally Monday was his day off. He was doing a favor for Mr. Zhao filling in this Monday, and it wasn’t a very busy day. Autumn was the season that brought Colin flashbacks from his past. Tonight was his last night delivering Chinese. He was finally making enough from his books and as a teaching assistant to quit this job.
Colin’s mind traveled back to the events that had brought him to the present.
Last Week in August 2004/ Friday of Labor Day Weekend
Colin Callahan’s family took their vacation the last week in August down at the Jersey Shore. They rented the same house in Belmar every year, surrounded by other vacationers from the New York City Irish community. His ma worked as a teacher at the Middle School for Writers and Artists in Chelsea; a school Colin hoped to attend next year because Colin wanted to be a writer. His da was a firefighter, one of New York’s Bravest. Kathleen and Rory’s great-grandparents immigrated to New York from the same town in Ireland in the early thirties, searching for a better life. His great-grandfather, Shea Callahan, became a proud United States citizen just before he became a fireman. Both Colin’s father and grandfather followed Shea Callahan’s example.
Kathleen was a practical woman. Colin wasn’t born until 1993 when Rory and Kathleen felt they were financially stable. They were already well into their thirties. Kathleen felt she had fulfilled her duty, but Colin shone like the light of Rory Callahan’s life.
However, Rory Callahan couldn’t stay away from fire. Fires mesmerized him. So when the emergency horns blasted in Belmar that Thursday in August, Rory chaffed at the bit. “Kathleen, I’m going over to the station to see if the guys need an extra hand.”
“Rory Callahan, you promised to take Colin rollerblading down on the boards this afternoon.” Kathleen put her hands on her waist and tapped her foot on the linoleum floor.
Colin begged his father, “Da, you promised.”
Colin was short for an eleven-year-old and had a lean build. He had a shock of golden blond curls and luminous green eyes. At school, they teased him and said he looked like a girl. Colin’s da was the brightest spot in his young life. Kathleen took care of Colin, but she doted on Rory. Both Colin’s and Kathleen’s world revolved around Rory’s sun.
“Aye, I did promise you we’d go tonight. How about this, you come with me, and we can watch the fire together, and then we’ll go for ice cream in Bradley Beach.” Colin knew his da, and this was the best deal he was going to get, so he took it.
“Okay, Da. Let’s go see the fire.” Colin smiled. His time with his da was precious. He knew many of the boys in their Staten Island neighborhood who lost their fathers to the World Trade Center attack; Colin was glad his da made it out alive.
Whenever Rory pulled a shift, Colin worried about his safety. Rory told him his fears were foolish. “The World Trade Center was a once in a lifetime tragedy and the government established the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that it would never happen again.”
Somehow, that didn’t lighten Colin’s fears. Terrorists didn’t trouble Colin. His father did. He knew his da. The man was in love with fire, and she was a lover who could kill.
Rory took his battered old blue Chrysler, checked to make sure Colin was buckled into the front seat; then they followed the sound of the sirens.
They found the trucks at a rundown hotel now a rooming house near the border of Belmar and Bradley Beach. The residents were mostly older men down on their luck. Taking Rory aside with Colin standing beside his father, the Belmar fire chief told Rory, “This place is a dump. The wiring is shot—it has no working sprinkler system, and the residents are unruly and uncooperative. The inspectors wrote the owner up for seventy-two code violations last month.”
“A place like this in the city would already be torn down and replaced by upscale condos,” Rory told the chief, chuckling.
“The town was about to shut them down and condemn the building. It’s a firetrap, and it’s going to burn to the ground and we can’t do a thing about it. If I were a betting man, I’d say the owner hired an arsonist.”
Rory used to work with the chief in Manhattan. Jim McMann knew what he was doing. Rory inspected the perimeter of the boarding house and concluded that his former colleague was right. The fire was burning too hot and had engulfed the structure too soon. Someone had used an accelerant.
“You need to get the people out,” Rory said to the chief as Colin watched the firefighters carry out the residents. The firefighters seemed exhausted to Colin.
The men were frantically trying to get the tenants out of the building before it collapsed around them, but the residents weren’t cooperating. One of the Belmar volunteers came out with severe smoke inhalation and was in no shape to go back inside even though they were short of personnel. All of the local guys knew Rory, so when Rory said, “I’ll take his gear and help out,” Jim nodded his head and signaled the volunteer to give Rory the equipment.
Colin knew his ma would murder his da if she had any idea that Rory went to fight a fire with him waiting outside. However, Rory was a firefighter through and through and was incapable of bypassing a fire.
Colin watched his father go into the burning building four times and bring out four old men in a fireman’s carry. “Is there anyone left?” the chief asked his worn out crew.
As soon as the question was out of his mouth, a shout came from a window on the second floor. An old man waving a bottle of whiskey said, “Which one of you fucks is coming to get me?”
The worn out volunteers were trying desperately to keep the fire from spreading to the adjacent buildings. There weren’t enough men, so Rory Callahan went in one more time. Colin waited. He waited some more. Finally the chief said, “Somebody go in and see what happened to Rory.”
Tears were pouring down Colin’s face. He knew his da was in trouble. He broke free of the arms of the volunteer who came over to restrain him and ran into the burning building to find his da.
As Colin entered the building, Rory had just made it down the stairs with the struggling drunk. Rory watched in horror as a wall collapsed, and a piece of burning molding fell and landed on Colin’s cheek. Colin seemed to try to brush it off, but it stuck to his skin. Hearing Colin’s scream, Rory handed the old drunk off to the volunteer who ran in after Colin Rory pried the molding off of his son’s face Picked him up and took off through the door. They made it out just before the building collapsed. “Colin, Colin, what have you done?” Rory was in tears. The volunteer kicked the drunk out the door and pushed through the crowd with Rory holding on to Colin. They made it to one of the waiting ambulances gathering to treat the firefighters and the fire’s victims.
Rory immediately found an EMT he knew from the Belmar firehouse and got Colin a priority ride to the hospital to take care of his cheek. Colin screamed in pain. Rory feared it was a third-degree burn and knew it would scar. Following the ambulance in, Rory prayed to Saint Jude, the saint who interceded with God for help with impossible causes.
He made rash promises. “If Colin is okay, I’ll stop chasing fires, take my pension and find another line of work. I’ll be a better father and not spend so much time at the pub. I’ll…” Rory pulled into the ER bay right behind the ambulance.
Kathleen met them by taxi at the Emergency Room ten minutes later. The ER was overwhelmed with victims from the fire and the usual suspects from a Friday on Labor Day weekend. Besides the burn victims, there were two couples with severe injuries from a car crash involving a drunk driver, incidents involving accidently and deliberately discharged handguns, bar fights, heart attacks and heat exhaustion.
The respiratory therapist treated Colin for smoke inhalation, and there were other victims with more severe burns from the fire. Colin had to wait for treatment until some additional physicians the hospital called could arrive to deal with the chaos.
Kathleen, angry with Rory and the hospital for not taking care of her child first, had to be physically restrained by the nurse and given a sedative.
Thirty minutes later Rory started to complain in his loud booming voice, “He’s only a boy. He should be first on your list instead of these drunks.” Kathleen was still mildly hysterical despite the sedative. Finally, in exasperation, the nurse sent over an inexperienced first-year resident. He examined Colin.
The doctor talked to Rory because Kathleen although quieter, was still inconsolable.
“I’m Dr. Abrams,” Rory thought the resident was too young to shave much less take care of his child. However, he listened carefully to what the doctor said.
“Colin needs surgery to clean and remove the dead tissue from the burned area. I don’t know when the operating room will free up, and there are others ahead of him so I can’t give you a timeline. Once they finish in surgery, he’ll come down connected to an IV containing electrolytes and antibiotics. After he gets out of the recovery room, he’ll be transferred to a burn unit and begin to undergo treatment.”
“How long will it take?”
“At least twenty-one days for the initial burn to heal— longer if we have to do a skin graft. That could take an additional ten days.”
Rory grimaced. “Would he get better treatment in the city after your initial assessment?”
“Not really. We are a level two trauma unit and have a competent staff,” Dr. Abrams answered.
“I’m going to give him pain medication through the IV. Because it’s only his cheek and the other victims have more severe burns, he’ll have to wait his turn. I’ve called a pediatric plastic surgeon to take care of Colin. However, the doctor lives thirty minutes out, and then he’ll have to wait for an operating room to be free.” The resident walked away.
Rory made a decision. He took two steps and put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder. The doctor turned his head, annoyed. “I want him transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital on Sixty-Eighth Street in Manhattan. I’ll call Colin’s doctor. We come from the city. If he needs to be in the hospital so long, it would be a burden on both his mother and me to travel here every day, especially since I have shift work.” Rory’s face was stone cold. His boy couldn’t wait for an operating room to be free or for some unknown physician to show up.
Rory called Dr. Berger, Colin’s pediatrician, who worked out of New York Presbyterian, which was a level one pediatric trauma center. While Dr. Abrams made the calls necessary to transfer the Colin, Dr. Berger agreed to meet Colin at the hospital and take him immediately to surgery with the plastic surgeon waiting.
Colin went back to the city in a helicopter. Rory and Kathleen followed him after a quick trip to the rental to pack up their things.
When they arrived an hour later, Colin was already in surgery.
After some time, the surgeon came out to speak to Rory and Kathleen. “He has a third-degree burn. I can’t understand how they let him wait for treatment in New Jersey.” The doctor took out his notes.
“Whatever he needs, doctor. I have health insurance through the Fire Department. They’ll pay for his care.”
“You may want him to have a skin graft after the wound heals. But, he’ll have mottled skin if you go that route. The plastic surgeon will do his best. However, I’m afraid he’ll always have a scar, skin graft or no. Give us about fifteen minutes to get him settled in post op and then you can see him.”
Kathleen faced Rory and began to pound on his chest with her fists. “This is your fault. You couldn’t take him rollerblading like an ordinary father. You had to follow the sirens, and he was afraid and went in after you. What were you thinking when you went into that house when you had your son with you?”
“I was thinking about saving people’s lives,” Rory answered defensively.
“And you put your son’s life in danger—for strangers. It wasn’t your job to go into that house. That was your choice and no one else’s. You don’t work for the Belmar Fire Department.” Kathleen started to cry, and Rory tried to take her in his arms. “No…leave me alone. I’ll talk to you when your son heals and doesn’t scar from the burns your actions caused.”
Rory knew Colin was going to scar and started to cry. He knew his wife. Kathleen was stubborn and could hold a grudge. Rory was right. Kathleen never spoke to him again. Colin’s burn healed but despite plastic surgery, there was a pronounced scar on his cheek reaching from his ear to an inch from his mouth.
Rory decided against the skin graft, thinking the scar would be less pronounced than the mottled skin a graft would create.
. By the time, Colin came out of the hospital, Rory had moved to a small furnished apartment. Colin saw his da two or three times a week, but his mother remained immovable. Even though she still loved Rory, he was dead to her. She never re-married, obtained a formal divorce, or separation. On Wednesdays when he came to get Colin, Rory left money on the kitchen table, but Kathleen showed Rory her back and took the money without comment.