by Michael Ribbens
Runestone, Volume 1
He was only trapped in the elevator for fifteen minutes, but some people are just looking for an excuse to drink their own urine. We found him slumped in the corner, looking altogether too self-satisfied. It would have been surprising if it was anyone but him.
“All right, up you go, come on,” said Joe. We hoisted him up and walked him through the hotel lobby. It was the ninth time in August we had rescued him. As a firefighter you don’t expect to have regulars, but that was Dave.
It had taken us a while to notice. His nondescript face and plain clothes made him difficult to recognize, and it never even crossed our minds that someone might be actively seeking out emergencies. Nobody’s that crazy. Who knows how many times we rescued him before we realized the pattern? He probably could have gone on that way forever if he hadn’t gotten greedy.
We were evacuating a burning apartment complex. I exited the building with a man over my shoulder and set him down on the curb across the street.
“What are you doing?” Joe yelled.
“What, I just got him out of there,” I said.
“What? I just got him out of there!” said Joe.
“What?” I looked at the man, but he was no longer sitting on the curb. He was making a beeline for a first floor window. We pursued, yelling at him to stop. Joe went through the window as I went around through the hall. We found him lying on the bed, apparently unconscious.
“Where’d he go?” yelled Joe.
“That’s him, right there!” I yelled.
“Seriously? How did he pass out so fast? Wasn’t he wearing a jacket?” We threw his arms over our shoulders and dragged him out of the building. We made an EMT watch him closely as we talked it over with the chief.
“He went back in?” he asked.
“At least twice,” I said.
“Was he trying to save somebody, or his stuff?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Joe, “but he kept going into different parts of the building and passing out.”
“It’s like he knew where we would find him,” I added.
The chief took off his helmet and rubbed his sinuses. “What kind of maniac…?” He sighed. “All right, lemme talk to him.” The chief walked over and took a knee in front of the man. “Some of my guys tell me you went back in. Wanna tell me why?”
The man said nothing, a trauma blanket draped over his shoulders. The chief gave him a lecture on the obvious: that emergency situations are no joke, and so on. The man sat quietly, just nodding and waiting like a child getting in trouble. The only thing the chief got out of him was his name: Dave. Eventually we had no choice but to let him go.
A couple weeks later we pulled him out of a house fire in Paxton. The next day he was found pinned beneath a parked Prius. Over the next two weeks he fell in the big tank at the aquarium, rolled down an escalator, and got his foot stuck in a chair at a regional spelling bee. Then, in his most ambitious feat yet, he took a window washing lift eighty-three stories up the Jefferson Building, soiled himself, and passed out.
The chief called a meeting.
“Look, we’ve all got theories as to why Dave does what he does. Honestly I think he’s just nuts, and that’s it. Either way, we gotta do something about it. I won’t have you guys putting your lives in danger just for him to get off on being rescued, or whatever. So next time you see him at an emergency, notify the police.”
The next day at a house fire in Jackson County one of the guys walked out of the building with a man slung over his shoulder.
“Is this him?” asked the fireman.
“Uh…I think so,” said Joe. We set him down by the truck and looked closely while EMT’s worked to revive him.
“He has brown eyes, right?” I said.
“I don’t remember,” said Joe. “I think it’s him, though. He has the…that’s his face, I think.”
“Yeah…pretty sure,” I said. I wasn’t sure. Dave’s face had a way of sliding out of your memory the moment you looked away from it.
They questioned him at the police station, but couldn’t nail him for anything. He just shrugged and blamed his bad luck. It was a losing battle. There was no precedent for this kind of behavior.
The chief called another meeting.
“All right, so this guy has a screw loose, but he’s tricky. If he wants to keep playing games, we’re gonna show him it’s not a game. From now on, we are putting a full rescue ban on Dave.”
“You serious? Can we do that?” asked Joe.
“Technically, no. But I don’t think the justice system is equipped to deal with this level of craziness. I’m making a judgement call: don’t save Dave.”
“But what if he’s actually in danger? We just let him die?” I said.
“If he can get himself in there, he can get himself out. We rescue people. We don’t play defense,” said the chief.
I was walking right under the alarm when it sounded. Ears ringing, I quickly suited up. Fire on Bridge Street.
The parking lot was empty except for a few bystanders. The hose team immediately launched into their practiced sequence as Joe asked around to see if there was anyone inside. It was an office building, one of those generic brick and glass constructions that always have space for lease. Thick smoke hurried out of two upstairs windows. A cleaning lady was in semi-hysterics. “One man. Upstairs, he was…he wouldn’t wake up. Upstairs.”
Joe nodded to me. We strapped on our masks and hustled for the front door. The lobby looked like a Call of Duty level: a mess of crackling light fixtures, paper scraps, and grey smoke. We breached the door at the top of the stairs. Smoke twice as thick filled the room.
“Fire Department!” I yelled. “Anybody up here?” A faint cough somewhere to the left. We pounded boots along office carpet to find Dave slumped over a keyboard in front of a computer. He was dressed for the occasion, in a sensible white dress shirt and blue tie. He could have fooled anybody who hadn’t already rescued him thirty-five times.
“Dave!” I yelled through my mask, shaking him. “Wake up, sir! We need to get you out of here!” No response. “Look, we’re not gonna keep rescuing you if you do this.”
Joe shook his head. “All right, we’re leaving now, last chance, Dave!” he said.
“Dave!” I shook him, but he was stubborn. The floor shook and rumbled as something crashed nearby. “Dave, let’s go, man! Come on!” I yelled. Joe pulled me by the shoulder. I looked back as I left the room. Dave just sat there.
We stomped back into the cool air. The handful of people in the parking lot looked at us with wide eyes. Joe put out his arms.
“It’s all right everybody. There was somebody up there, but, uh, he wants to stay.”
“What?” somebody said.
“He’s kidding!” I said. “There was no one up there. Everything is under control.” They looked at Joe with disgust.
“But, but, but…” the maid grabbed my arm, and I took her aside.
“Ma’am, I understand what you think you saw, but stressful situations can confuse the mind. Trust me, I’m a professional, I’ve seen it many times. So what you need to do now is relax and stay calm. Allen?” I handed her off to an EMT and met Joe on the other side of the engine.
“Thanks for making me look like an asshole,” said Joe.
“We can’t tell them we left somebody in there! How are we gonna explain that?” I said.
“He does it on purpose!” said Joe.
“I know,” I said, “Why? That’s what they’ll wanna know. And what would we say? We don’t know why the fuck he does it!” I threw my helmet against the pavement. The bystanders looked at me. “Sorry, everything’s under control. You can go home now.” Joe shook his head. I picked up my helmet and went to help at the hose.
A week later the chief called me into his office.
“Still no Dave, huh?”
I shook my head no.
“You’re sure it was him, right?”
“Good. Then he’s learned his lesson.”
“Think he got out?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said. “Why don’t you take tomorrow off? You need a break.”
I tried relaxing, then cleaning, then exercising, but I couldn’t shake the thoughts. It was Dave we left behind, I was almost entirely sure. But that still didn’t make it make any more sense. I decided the healthiest thing to do was embrace my obsession and do something practical about it. I bought a big sheet of poster board and pinned it to the wall of my apartment. At the top I wrote: “Why, Dave?” Underneath it I made a list of answers:
He’s doing an experiment.
He has a fetish for being rescued.
He’s writing a book about fire rescue.
He likes the danger.
He likes the attention.
He’s after some twisted Guinness World Record.
My pen snapped, and I had to go scrub off the ink.
The local news was in the middle of a live report from the scene of a burnt-up KFC.
“…indicated that the fire began when a member of the kitchen staff accidentally tipped a tray of oil onto an open burner. We spoke with one survivor of the incident.” They cut to a clip of a man wrapped in a trauma blanket. His face was smudged, and a bit of his beard was singed off. He had brown eyes.
“I was in the bathroom, and I noticed that the door handle was hot. So I knocked on the door and yelled, but then the smoke was too much, and I passed out. Apparently a fireman broke down the door and saved me. I’m lucky to be alive.” He looked at the camera. The bastard looked right at the camera like he knew I was watching.
I returned to work at the station with enthusiasm.
“You ok?” Joe asked.
“Just happy to be back to work. I got bored at home, started to go a little crazy.”
“You seem a little crazy now,” said Joe.
“Do I?” I laughed a little too loud.
That week I was the first one ready for every call. I set speed records as a wheelman and hose leader. I pulled nine cats out of a burning fifteenth story window. I axed through an unlocked door to get to a burnt bag of popcorn in an office microwave.
The chief called me into his office.
“You feeling ok?”
“Yeah. Totally fine,” I said.
The chief leaned back in his chair, sighed, and rubbed his face.
“You think he’s back.”
“He is back. He just stepped up his tactics. He has a beard, but not always. He thinks he can get away with it. I’m gonna get him.”
“And do what?”
“I’m gonna find out why he does it.”
“You think he’s gonna tell you?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll figure it out.”
The chief sighed. “At some point you may have to come to terms with the fact that some people are just nuts.”
I nodded. Maybe. Not yet.
The next week there were no emergencies. Which was fine. I could wait. Same with the next week. And the next. No accidents, no incidents, no fires. Three months later the chief was joking that we might be out of a job. Poster boards now covered three of the four walls of my apartment.
He wants to be a firefighter.
He’s trying to relive a traumatic experience.
He just has really bad luck.
He’s a demon.
He has short-term memory loss.
He’s an alien.
I forgot to sleep sometimes. The chief told me to go home.
I walked into my apartment. The news was on. My heart punched. Fire at the Patterson Center. I ran to my car and raced to the scene.
“Go home, man, we’ve got it under control,” Joe said, trying to hold me back.
“He’s here. He’s here. He’ll be here, let me find him.” Joe shook me.
“Hey! Buddy! We’ve got it, ok? We’ll keep an eye out for him. Go home.” I nodded and backed away. When he turned around, I sprinted around the corner to the other side of the building. The conference center was huge, burning with reckless heaviness. I ripped open a glass door and entered a hallway. I darted from room to room through the smoke and raining sprinklers. I was more agile in jeans. Why don’t all firefighters work this way? A beam collapsed and rammed into my side. I gasped for breath and saw blood on my hand. A figure on the floor by the bed. I crawled into the room and started laughing.
I hobbled out of the burning building with Dave over my shoulder, triumphant.
“What are you doing?” Joe yelled.
“I got him!” I yelled, dropping Dave to the pavement. “What were you doing in there, huh, buddy? Think I don’t know who you are?”
Joe pulled me back. “You need to calm down,” he said. EMTs rushed forward to attend to Dave. People were staring at me.
“I figured it out!” I yelled. “I know why you do it! YOU THINK IT’S FUNNY!”
“Coming through here!” Another fireman exited the building supporting a man in a button-down shirt. He helped the man onto a stretcher. It was Dave. I looked at the man on the ground. It was Dave. I looked into the crowd. Dave was standing there. So that was his game. He hired lookalikes. Or clones, maybe. Yeah, throw that on the big board. Well played, sir. Bravo.
“Are you ok?”
Oh yeah, it’s all coming together. Hahaha. Hahahahaha.
“Sit down. Dude, you need to sit down.” Hahahahahaha.
The chief called me into his office the day I got out of the hospital. He looked at the report for a long time. Finally he spoke.
“You peed too, huh?”
I didn’t look at him.
“You accused seventeen people of being Dave and then laughed until you peed.”
I didn’t look at him.
“Do you have any idea how happy I am you weren’t wearing your uniform?”
I looked at him.
“Do you have any idea how angry I am about everything else you did?”
I didn’t look at him.
The chief sighed and rubbed his sinuses. “You’re fired, man. Go home and get some rest.”
I slept for a long time. The doorbell woke me up. It was Joe, with Chinese food. I shoveled lo mein into my face while he sat patiently. Eventually, Joe cleared his throat.
“I uh, came by while you were in the hospital. I took down, the uh, the poster boards.”
“So what are you gonna do now?” Joe asked.
I shrugged, polishing off the fried rice. We chatted about mundane station things for a while, and then he left, promising to come by later.
I stood by the window and looked down at the street. From this angle, they all looked like Dave. I opened the gas valve and found a box of matches. Some people are just nuts.
Michael Ribbens is a senior at Calvin College studying digital filmmaking and writing. He won Calvin’s talent show as freshman by doing standup comedy. He has since performed comedy in a number of events as a comedian and a member of Calvin Improv. He is the co-writer and producer of Calvin College News, a 10-episode news satire, and a contributing writer of the Calvin Chives, another news satire.