Welcome to part two of Just Count On Me... the short story that bridges the Bradford series with my new series, Counting On Love that starts on June 11th :)
The crew all reacted at once. Without another word, they ran for the rig, going through their checklists by habit and tearing out into the night, siren wailing within minutes.
The Bradford Youth Center was the non-profit center that kept kids off the streets and gave them a place to go when things got shitty at home—as they often did for the kids in that part of the city. Sam and Sara’s dad, David Bradford, had founded the center and it was still run under the supervision of the Bradford siblings and supported by David’s trust, private donations and lots of volunteer hours. Many of those hours were put in by the Bradfords and their friends and spouses.
Sara was the acting Administrator.
“Who’s there right now?” Dooley asked as they all sent their wives text messages.
“Sara’s there,” Mac said, feeling cold seep through his body as he let the reality in.
“Jess was supposed to go over tonight too,” Sam said, his voice tight. “Dani’s at home with the twins.”
Their crew worked the seven p.m. to seven a.m. shift so it was about bath and bedtime at Sam’s house.
“Morgan and Eve?” Mac asked about Dooley and Kevin’s wives.
The girls were all friends. It wasn’t uncommon for one or more of them to show up at the Center to help with something or just to hang out.
“Morgan’s at the B & B,” Dooley said. Morgan owned a Bed and Breakfast just outside of town. “She had a couple checking in tonight around eight.”
It was seven thirty six.
“Eve’s at home,” Kevin said. “She’s been going to bed really early the last couple of months.”
Eve, Sara and Jessica were all pregnant, due within days of one another, but the pregnancy and morning sickness was hitting Eve the hardest.
Mac pulled in a relieved breath. At least they weren’t all at the Center.
The pain in his stomach wasn’t any better, but he was glad the others were safe. Sara was at the center. That was a fact. And until he saw her and held her again, he wouldn’t be pain free.
Mac slapped a big hand against Dooley’s chest before the man could get the rest of the words out. “Don’t you fucking be sorry. More than half the girls are safe and Sara and Jess are going to be, so just shut the fuck up.”
Dooley just nodded.
“They’ve got procedures,” Kevin said in the calm voice they all depended on at times like this. “They have smoke detectors and emergency exit plans. Sara and Jess are smart. It’s going to be fine.”
Mac appreciated the words. They were true. But they didn’t do a thing to make him feel better.
Sam took the next corner sharply and they all hung on.
“Someone should call Ben,” Kevin said, pulling out his phone again. Ben was Sam’s other brother-in-law, married to Jessica. He was also a trauma surgeon at St. Anthony’s. “He working tonight?”
Sam shook his head, gripping the steering wheel to the point his knuckles turned white. “He might be there too.”
Ben was fond of the Center and spent a lot of time there, as they all did.
But if Ben was there tonight, it meant that their young daughter, Ava would be too.
Fuck. Mac gritted his teeth and gripped the bar on the door by his seat. They had a siren. That was the only way to speed up the trip and Sam was doing everything he could to dodge the cars that were slow to get out of the way.
“I can’t get him,” Kevin said a moment later after dialing Ben’s number.
“Dammit,” Dooley muttered.
Sam and Mac weren’t even able to say that much.
Finally they came to a screeching halt in front of the Center.
There were already three fire trucks on scene and an ambulance.
“Dixon and his crew are here,” Dooley said, bailing out.
Mac took in the details of the scene on autopilot. There were smoke and flames coming from the window on the east end of the building. The end with the kitchen.
A wave of nausea swept over him and he had to stop and force himself to breathe. He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, pulling air in through his nose and then letting it out through his mouth.
The right personnel are already on scene, they’re taking care of things, he told himself.
He lifted his head and looked around, fighting the urge to run into the middle of the chaos. But that would only add to the commotion. He knew better. He had to give the guys room to work and he had to get a hold of himself.
He scanned the scene. There was a small group of kids huddled together near a tree on the west end of the building. Two others were sitting in the back of the ambulance, breathing through oxygen masks. Dooley was there getting a report from Sierra, one of the female paramedics on Dixon’s crew.
Kevin put a hand on his shoulder. “Do I need to worry about you going in there and making things worse?” he asked.
Mac looked over to find that he had a fistful of Sam’s shirt. Clearly Sam needed to be held back. Mac understood that. They were trained emergency professionals… but this was personal.
Firefighters were running around and yelling, but Mac knew from experience that their actions were carefully orchestrated. They knew what they were doing.
Him barging ahead, shoving people out of the way and knocking down the front door wasn’t going to do any good.
Still, he itched with the desire to do exactly that.
“No. I’m good,” he told Kevin.
Kevin met his gaze, studying him. Finally he said, “Don’t make me regret believing you.” Kevin Campbell was the nice guy of the bunch and the most laid-back, but he was a big guy with a rock solid sense of right and wrong, and if you fucked with him, he’d knock you on your ass.
Mac took a deep breath and then gave him a nod. “Promise.”
Kevin strode toward where Cody Madsen, the fire chief, was standing talking into his headset, directing his crew. Kevin kept a hold of Sam’s shirt, like Sam was a four year old who couldn’t keep his hands out of the candy bins. But Sam wasn’t fighting Kevin’s hold. He probably knew, deep down, that he needed his friend to keep him in check.
Mac turned at the sound of his name. It was Conner.
“Where is she?” he asked without preamble.
Conner looked exhausted. He had soot smudges on his clothes and face, his eyes were blood shot and he pretty much looked like hell. He and his crew had already put in twelve hours and fires with multiple possible victims were always hard.
He shook his head. “They haven’t brought her out yet. We’ve treated about twenty kids. You have any idea how many might be here tonight?”
Mac felt the chill that had permeated his body on the ride over, seep deeper and begin to freeze. No. Sara had to be okay. She had to. Too many people needed her. Elijah needed her, their baby needed her, and Mac would, quite simply, die without her.
He cleared his throat, determined not to be a reason for anyone to pull their attention from the fire and the people inside. If he freaked out, passed out or punched someone else out, the cops and paramedics would have to attend to him rather than the people who really needed them.
“There could be up to fifty, but there’s not really an attendance sheet, you know? It’s whoever shows up,” he told Conner. “Can’t the kids tell if someone got out or not?”
“They’re trying to take a roll call but they’re pretty shaken.”
“Not sure yet. Kids say they were using the microwave, but no other appliances.”
“Jessica’s probably in there too,” Mac said, feeling that he was on the verge of beginning to shake. He was ice cold. He recognized the signs of shock, but he also knew he had to keep his shit together. If he couldn’t help, then he shouldn’t have come.
Making himself look back to the Center, he knew that there was no way in hell he could have stayed away. So, he just needed to hold it together.
“I’m calling in the rig from Methodist,” Conner informed him. “We haven’t had a lot of work to do yet. All those kids got out on their own and we’ve treated only two for smoke inhalation. No burns. But if there might be twenty more kids inside, I’m gonna need some help and you guys aren’t going to be any good to us.”
Mac started to protest. They were all here. “We’re the best crew in this city.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll give you that, when it’s not this personal,” Conner said. “But not tonight. Tonight you’re civilians.”
He started to turn away to talk to the man who’d just approached them, but Mac grabbed his arm. “Dixon.”
Mac swallowed hard. “When they pull Sara out, I want you to make it personal. Got it?”
Conner didn’t say anything for several seconds. Then he gave a short nod. “I got it.”
Mac gave him a nod back.
Then Conner gestured to the man next to him. “Mac, this is Shane Kelley. He’s a buddy of mine, an offensive lineman for the Hawks, and a cop. That last part is the important part right now. If you try to go into that building, he’s going to knock you down or shoot you.”
Mac felt his eyes widen. He knew Shane’s name from some of his own cop buddies. He was one of the best. He’d also watched the guy play football. The he’s-going-to-knock-you-down thing would hurt. “You got me a watch dog?”
“Something like that.” Conner slapped Shane on the shoulder and headed for his rig.
Shane gave him a grin. “You’re not the only reason I’m here, if that makes you feel any better.”
Mac shrugged. “Nothing’s really going to make me feel better right now.”
Shane nodded and started in Cody Madsen’s direction.
“You’re not going to stick right by my side to make sure I don’t do anything stupid?” Mac asked.
Shane glanced back at him. “I’m a pretty good shot even from a distance.”
Mac looked over to where Conner was already calling in another ambulance to be there for the victims they expected out of the building. He was right to make the call. He was right to keep their crew out of there. No way could even Dooley or Kevin stay detached enough to do their job effectively. One third degree burn on one of the kids they cared about and they’d be a mess. If it was anything worse…
Mac shut that down. That definitely wouldn’t help.
He watched Cody stride toward Conner and say something just before they both broke into a run toward the building.
It was the damnedest thing, but if Sara needed attention he wanted it to come from Conner. Conner would make sure everything was above and beyond for Sara.
Just like that fucking stuffed dog.
Come back tomorrow for Part Three of Five of
Just Count On Me!