The Hero Rush
by Scott D. Coon
part 1 of 2
I watched the spoon whirl in the garbage disposal until the fire siren, wailing from my phone, ripped me from the haze of my withdrawal. The docs had me on forced medical leave for another two weeks and for good reason; I couldn’t even keep oatmeal down. Still, the firehouse never took me off the on-call list. I didn’t have to go, I didn’t want to go, but I needed to go. It was the only thing that could clear my head.
Turning off the disposal, I went to my closet. Standing there with a t-shirt in my hands, I locked up again, unable to decide. It didn’t use to be like this. Once upon a time, little Franklin was gonna grow up to be a superhero... and, once upon a time, he did. But that was before the “toggers” got me.
Six months ago, I was a completely different me. Our squad had responded to a fire at a togger breeding house. If the little monsters got their fangs into you, they’d feed on your adrenalin, while spitting back something like LSD mixed with either uppers or downers, depending on the color of the togger.
Half of all fires in the county were tog-houses now. You needed very high temperatures to get toggers to breed, something that started plenty of fires all by itself. But then there were the turf wars. The breeders would set each other’s houses on fire and we firefighters would get stuck in the middle, fighting off toggers while putting out fires.
I remember gearing up in front of that burning tog-house six months before, when Lt. McKinney walked over with our newest rookie in tow. “It’s your turn to teach one, Franklin,” he told me. I’d finally been with the department a whole year and this was the last step in my training. “You’re taking the new guy in. Meet George.”
“I’ve met George,” I said. “Lock your gear down and stay on my ass,” I told George with an eager smile across my face.
Lt. McKinney chuckled. “Get to it, Superboy!” I had my shirt on that day. I always had my shirt on before that day. It bore the shield of my second favorite superhero.
George and I took the front door. Before kicking it in, I glanced over at George. Even through his mask, fear radiated from his eyes. They really drilled the fear of toggers into you at the fire academy, as if school and TV didn’t do enough of that.
“Don’t worry about the toggers,” I told George. “They’re almost always in jars. Besides, you should be excited; this is your hero day! After this, you’re gonna be a real life superhero! You ready to get in there and save some lives?”
He nodded. I took another look at those eyes behind the breather. George was good to go. I kicked the door off its hinges. Black smoke billowed over us. I charged in, a fierce smile cutting across my face. It was the hero rush.
* * *
I can still remember the first time I felt that rush. It was long before the academy... I think I was almost seven. Heat poured off the sidewalks in shimmering waves but I still wore the cape from my costume from the previous Halloween. My Mom couldn’t get me out of it. The poor woman nearly died, watching me jump down the stairs as if I could fly.
One sunny Saturday, a stray dog cornered Lucky, the neighborhood cat. The mangy dog looked like it was going to eat the poor thing. I had to do something, because that’s what Superman would do. So, I jumped in, right in... in-between in. I remember it vividly, hands on my hips, chest out, my tiny cape fluttering on the rare summer breeze.
I don’t know if it was the shock of seeing me or if it was the screech my Mom let out when she stumbled upon that scene, but the dog took off. The cat was safe and Little Franklin was a hero! A superhero. I had the rush.
My Mom had a rush of her own. “What are you doing?!” she screeched as she grabbed me by the arm.
“I’m going to be a superhero like Daddy!”
Those words bleached the life from her face. At the time, I knew why but I didn’t really understand why. All I knew was that Daddy was ‘gone’ and ‘not coming back’. He’d been a firefighter on an aircraft carrier until one day when two men showed up at our door. I wandered in to catch the part about how many lives Dad had saved when a plane landed, its engines on fire. Dad saved the pilot and three others, the Navy told my Mom before Aunt Donna swept me away.
“You are never going to join the military,” she told me sternly. “Your father gave everything to the military; that’s enough... enough for our whole family. I need you to promise me that you will never join the military. Can you do that?”
“I promise, Mommy.” It was an easy promise to make and even easier to keep. I never wanted to be a sailor or a soldier, even back then. I didn’t think of my Dad like that. I wanted to grow up to be a hero like my father, the legendary firefighter, not the sailor.
She pulled me close. I could feel her shaking, a sensation that would never leave me. I’d have to be her hero, too; to do that I’d have to keep myself safe. In my young mind, this too seemed easy; after all, I was going to be a superhero! Nothing would get me. But Mom would worry; I’d have to protect her from worry somehow. But not fighting fires was not an option; it was already set in stone; I’d felt that rush and there was no turning back.
* * *
Once I had that first taste, it had me. The hero rush became my addiction and I was riding high on George’s first day out, kicking in that tog-house door and charging through that black wall of smoke.
Heat gurgled through the floor. “They must have the breeding rooms down there,” I told George as we started our checks. Hiding them in the basement made it harder for the cops to find the heaters with their IR scanners. After clearing the first floor, we found Mark and Barry closing up a bedroom on the second.
“Did you clear that room?” I demanded. I had no authority but they’d only been with the department a couple more months than I. We were all a part of the expansion to deal with the drug outbreak.
“Dude, anyone in there is dead,” insisted Barry. “The room’s crawling with toggers.”
“Did you check the closets?!”
They just looked at me.
“What if these assholes have kids in here?! Jeeze...”
I went in alone and shut the door behind me. A box of broken jars spread across the floor. Red toggers climbed the walls and ceiling. The things didn’t look much like the frogs their DNA had come from. They had no face and no mouth, just a pair of tiny, black eyes where a head should’ve been. They breathed through a ridge of holes on their backs and fed through four fang-like needles that grew where flippers were supposed to be.
Those surreal fang-feet could puncture a soup can. They showed us that in a training video at the academy. Some lab guy swabbed a can with sweat and the crazy thing attacked it, broke its fangs in half on the metal but got through. Then it went after the next can and broke its fangs some more.
Our Tri-weave Dragon Coats were designed to deflect heat and they did a great job of it but they were worthless against toggers. Dragoneers Inc. rolled out some trial gear in a few departments in New York but those little monsters had a knack for finding every seam and every flap. Once DI had their anti-togger gear locked down tight, you couldn’t wear it into a fire without risking heat stroke. So, for now at least, all we could do was stomp and kick.
I was alone in that room with the red toggers climbing the walls, and one jumped at me. I swatted it away. Its stilt-like needles clicked across the ruined hardwood as it scurried back. A flick of my foot sent it sailing into the wall, hard. It wouldn’t be coming after me again but its sisters had started to gather. I needed to clear the room fast.
As I checked the two small closets, I had to keep turning and turning to keep an eye on the gathering toggers, stomping on them or swatting them away when they got too aggressive. The smoke kept getting thicker. The rotted floor threatened to cave under my feet. Time was running out.
While I was looking under the bed, a togger dropped from the ceiling and landed on my butt. I snatched it and flung it into a wall. If they get on your back, you can’t get them off, not before they get those fangs into you. Rookie that he was, I still should’ve brought George in to watch my back.
Standing up, I found the toggers circling me. I kicked them into the walls as I made way toward the door. That’s when I noticed the hope chest. It was big enough; I had to check it. Still kicking toggers, I crossed the room and opened the chest. A small boy lay inside, unconscious from the smoke but still breathing. As I put a mask on him, I felt it; it was near the top of my spine, just below my shoulders; a togger had its fangs in me.
A rush of anger poured through my body while confusion wrapped my mind. The walls melted. My heart raced. It was a red one, an upper. The yellows were downers. Both were hallucinogenic.
Outside, the others were calling to me but I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t understand anything. The world made no sense but part of me held onto one, very important thought: get the boy out of there.
As I reached for the boy, the chest grew deeper. The bottom kept sinking and sinking and I kept reaching and reaching, my arms growing insanely long as my hands chased the boy into the sinking depths. Frustration piled on anger. I wanted to punch everything but I had to focus on saving the boy. Finally, I had him. My elongated arms snapped back like rubber bands, nearly knocking me off my feet.
All around me, the smoke had congealed into night. The door was nowhere to be found. Another togger stabbed me in the thigh. Rabid anger raged through my body. “Get out of here!” was the only thought I had.
With the boy in my arms, I ran blindly into a solid wall. It only made me angrier. I charged again into another wall. I don’t know why I thought this was a good plan but I ran over and over again into the walls until one turned out to be a window.
Outside, everyone looked up as a firefighter exploded from the second floor window, a child in his arms. I don’t remember that part, or the part where I landed... or the part where I threatened to strangle the EMT if he didn’t save the kid.
* * *
What I do remember is waking up in a hospital; the kid was two floors below and doing just fine, they told me. My Mom wasn’t fine at all. She’d raced across two states to come be by my side. I didn’t want to live that far away from her but it was the closest department with a program I could get into without a long wait or a college degree. Now she was changing jobs and looking for a condo out here.
On the phone, it had been easy to keep it from her, how bad things were some days, days when I couldn’t even keep down oatmeal. Once she got out here, I’d have no choice; I’d have to be better for her sake. During my two weeks in that hospital’s detox ward, the worst two weeks of my life, I swear Mom looked worse than me at times; that only made me more determined to get past the toggers.
After the hospital, I had six months of mandatory leave. Toggers were no joke. Toggers were also the first addictive substance I’d ever put in my body... unless you count the sugar and caffeine from when I was a kid. But even the sugar was taken away after the Lucky incident; my Mom decided I was too hyper for sugar. Caffeine just happened to go out of my diet with the sugar... and I never looked back. After all, if I was going to be a super hero, I needed to condition my body for it.
I still had two weeks of mandatory leave left when I stood there staring at my t-shirt, the spoon silently resting in the garbage disposal, the siren still screaming from my phone. I didn’t have to go, I didn’t want to go, but I needed to go. It was the only thing that could clear my head.
The t-shirt was one of many, each just like the other, blue with a red and gold shield upon the chest. I didn’t deserve to wear that t-shirt just yet so I put on a white one instead. Then I grabbed my gear and left.
Out in the hallway, my neighbor, Dave, was fumbling with his keys. “Howdy, neighbor,” called Dave. Looking me over, he asked, “Fighting fires again?”
“No Superman shirt? Never saw you heading for a fire without your shield on.”
Like he was one to judge. I can’t even count the number of times I woke up on a Friday night to him doing his “Dave’s not here” bit while his rowdy friends bellowed in the halls. Dave had moved in right after I started at the department. He had finished his undergraduate work and was now working on his master’s degree in engineering. I don’t know how he could engineer anything while he was on whatever I was smelling from under his door. Legal or not, I didn’t want any part of whatever he had going on over there. Still, he was always polite, always said hello, and kept it down when I had to sleep... after I talked to him that one time.
One day, we ended up walking in together and I just couldn’t help myself; I asked him, “How can you put that stuff in your body and still handle school?”
Dave laughed. “What ‘stuff’? The stuff you can smell? That’s nothing. There’s worse stuff that’s just as legal but a lot less smelly... But getting drunk on a Friday never hurt my test score on a Monday. The way I see it, Franklin, bad habits are bad only if you can’t manage them.”
“I don’t see much management going on in the tog-houses I have to keep putting out,” I grumbled at him.
“Toggers?!” Dave laughed again. “No one can manage toggers. I don’t know what Genetic Pharmaceuticals was trying to make, but what they made was a monster.”
From there, the conversation devolved into a lecture on “habit management” and “informed intoxication.” I wasn’t interested then and I wasn’t interested now. So when he caught me heading out with two weeks of mandatory leave left and no t-shirt on, I didn’t answer him. I just walked away with Dave’s eyes following me down the stairs.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Scott D. Coon