Book excerpt: ‘A Firefighter Christmas Carol and Other Stories’
Lt. Douglas Brown uses fiction and inspiration from Dickens’ classic novella to spotlight first responder PTSD
In this excerpt, a burned-out firefighter named Elliot has met the fiery Ghost of Christmas Past, and she is taking him on a journey through his life to show him where he had lost his way. We join Elliot and Christmas Past already in the bucket at the end of a forever-stretching ladder, speeding above a crowded freeway. This scene is about the final straw that broke Elliot as a person.
By Lt. Douglas R. Brown
It was a gorgeous afternoon, a bit chilly with not a cloud in the sky and no Christmas decorations in sight. They were above a freeway with stopped cars backed up for miles.
A sick feeling grew in the back of Elliot’s mind. As they continued past the stopped cars, his eyes widened and he realized where they were headed. He shook his head.
“Oh no. I’m not doing this anymore.” His voice lifted in volume. “Take me back to the station.”
“I’m sorry, Elliot,” Christmas Past said. “You must see this.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. The thought of what was ahead was too much to take. “This isn’t fair. I’m not doing it. I refuse.” He tried to stop the bucket, but it continued speeding over the line of stopped cars. Some of the drivers stuck their heads out of their windows to see what was holding them up.
Angry and desperate, Elliot searched the bucket for something to stop the vision. He found an extinguisher, pulled the pin, and aimed the nozzle at Christmas Past’s flaming head. With his eyes closed, he squeezed the handle. A blizzard of snowy chemicals engulfed her. He emptied the entire extinguisher before he took another breath. He lowered it to his side.
She waved her hand in front of her face until the chemicals dissipated. “Are you quite finished?” she asked. Her flames appeared even more brilliant than before.
He tossed the extinguisher aside and clenched his fists in front of his chest until they quivered in frustration. “Damn you,” he shouted.
She stared back, emotionless.
He wanted to punch something, but all that was nearby was the control panel. He instantly regretted it the moment his knuckles smashed against the metal.
“Do you feel better?” she asked.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. He took a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. It wasn’t her that he should be mad at. Resigned, he nodded a single time.
The bucket approached a semi-truck with a smashed front end and its trailer jackknifed across the road.
About twenty yards in front of it, an SUV sat cockeyed with its crumpled rear bumper where the back seat should have been. Medic 22 and Engine 22 were already on the scene. A Rescue truck rode the berm alongside the line of traffic. Several police cruisers were parked all over the grassy median. Police officers stood in the path of the bucket holding white sheets up like curtains.
“Why are they doing that?” Christmas Past asked.
“So everyone else doesn’t see the little girl.”
Elliot’s tears threatened to spill even before the bucket passed through the makeshift curtains. On the other side was a special kind of controlled chaos that firefighters learned to live within. Sal raced to the medic truck for more supplies while Carl looked for a vein for an IV on a skinny little arm that lay limply by his knee.
The younger Elliot knelt over the sweet, innocent face of a seven-year-old girl. She was unconscious. To look at her face, one would think she was merely gazing at the sky, daydreaming. Most of her injuries were internal except for her lower leg twisted into an S-shape and her unnaturally pointing foot.
“Hold on, Katie,” the younger Elliot cried. “We’re going to help you.”
While Elliot and the crew worked, Katie’s parents knelt beside him and whispered prayers throughout the ordeal. They never faltered.
In the bucket, Christmas Past touched Elliot’s shoulder. “This is the moment when it happened, huh?”
The tears were flowing down his cheeks. His gut twisted. Someone stabbed him repeatedly from inside his chest. He nodded. He watched the person he used to be pause and drop to his heels. His shoulders slumped. A medical helicopter circled overhead.
“What did you see just then?” Christmas Past asked.
Elliot stared from the bucket, a tourniquet cutting off his words.
“Elliot, what did you see?”
He bowed his head and stuttered in a breath. He didn’t want to answer.
“It’s time you face what broke you.”
“You have to. Tell me what you saw.”
His voice wobbled as he answered, “I saw the life leave her.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw whatever made Katie Katie leave her. Sometimes when it happens, you just know.”
“But you were still trying to save her. Tell me how you were so sure she would die.”
“It was in her eyes. I don’t know if she could see me, but I felt like she was begging me for help. And then, at that moment, she wasn’t begging anymore. Whatever we did from that moment on was pointless. I’d heard that the eyes are the windows to our souls, but I never fully understood what that meant until then. When I close my eyes at night, when I look at my daughter, I see Katie. She was looking to me—her last hope—and I failed her. When her eyes went blank, my heart died too, I guess.”
“But you didn’t fail her. There was nothing more you could do.”
He bowed his head. “Yeah. That’s what they say.” After a few seconds, he looked at his past self who was struggling to place a tube down Katie’s throat. He whispered, “I’m so sorry, Riley. I wish I could have helped you.”
“Elliot, that’s not your daughter lying there.”
Elliot put his hands over his face. “I meant Katie.” Without the anger, he had nothing but emptiness inside.
About the Author
Douglas R. Brown is a fantasy and horror writer living in Pataskala, Ohio. He began writing as a cathartic way of dealing with the day-to-day stresses of life as a firefighter/paramedic in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a lieutenant assigned to a ladder truck on the city’s south side. He has been married since 1996 and has a son and a few dogs. "A Firefighter Christmas Carol and Other Stories" is his sixth release, joining his catalog of fantasy and horror novels.
Douglas R. Brown