Danny straightened and walked toward her, his body filling the distance between the corridor’s walls. As he stopped in front of her, he swept his hard stare over her face. “I was buried under a thousand pounds of debris. I lost part of my colon, all of my spleen, and a quarter of my liver. Not as dramatic as a hand, granted, but as long as you’re bringing that kind of crap up, let’s be accurate. And how about you not tell me how I’m supposed to feel? Thanks for giving me the suicide tip, though. I’ll put it in my back pocket for later.”
The memory of him in that ICU room made her nauseous. “I’m not suggesting you weren’t hurt.”
“Oh, I guess I misunderstood the nothing-has-changed-for-you part. Sounded to me like you think it’s been a cake walk on my end. But yeah, I got that wrong. Clearly.” He leaned forward. “It’s not like I single-handedly maimed one of the best firefighters this city had and then spent three months trying to walk again. It’s not like I was stuck in the belly of the beast with you. It’s not like you and I were both surrounded by that fucking monster that’s been picking off members of our department one by one, year by year—”
As he recoiled, Anne took a step forward and lifted her chin. She was tall for a woman, but he still managed to dwarf her by a good six inches and more than a hundred pounds. Not that that his size advantage mattered when she was standing up for herself.
“You don’t get it.” She shook her head. “Fire isn’t a beast. It isn’t evil. It’s not an animal that prowls around and takes revenge for all of its buddies we’ve killed by extinguishing them. Jesus Christ, Danny.” She motioned to his tattoos. “You’re taking everything too personally—”
“What did you just say.”
“You heard me.”
“I—” He looked to the ceiling. “Wait, actually, this is a relief. Because the fact that you just told me I shouldn’t care about my friends and my family being killed in the line of duty means this is a fucked-up dream—”
He yelled over her. “—and I’m about to wake up hungover and pissed off that I have to go to work!”
Anne stared up at him and wished like hell she could give him the realizations that had come to her over the previous months of suffering and change. But you couldn’t do that. People had to earn their evolution. Or not.
“You got it all wrong, Danny. Fire is like cancer. It doesn’t care what it kills. We mean nothing to it because it’s not alive. You’re not battling a beast. There’s no monster there. It’s exactly the same as a rogue set of cells that wipes out a young girl or an old man, a rich person or somebody who’s poor. My father, your brother, and Sol all died from doing a job. Not because fire stalked them and took them down.” She raised her prosthesis. “This happened to me because of my job. And I had to decide whether or not I was going let random circumstance, in a risk pool I was well aware of swimming in, ruin my life or not. I wasn’t a target. I wasn’t singled out. It was a danger I accepted, and I got hurt, and everyone who’s been injured or killed made the same calculation and just happened to come up short. I’m not saying you shouldn’t mourn the people we’ve both lost. What I’m telling you is . . . don’t let that fire we both went into willingly a year ago kill you by default. You made it out in fact, don’t give that blessing up.”
She waited for him to respond.
And the longer he was silent, the sadder she became. “I don’t want this for either of us, Danny. And I am sorry, I am so . . . sorry . . . that I fucked up and you came to get me, and things went bad. I never wanted to put anyone in that position, but certainly not you.”
After a moment, he whispered, “Why am I different?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
“It’s because of what you’re doing to yourself right now. I knew this was how it would go in the aftermath.”
“Oh, so you think I’m a pussy,” he muttered. “Thanks.”
“The strong do not wallow. They don’t drink themselves into a stupor, they don’t fuck around at their work, they don’t throw punches at their friends. They move forward. You did what you had to do to me. What I told you to do to me. And instead of moving on from that, you’re using it as an excuse to self-destruct.”
His face became remote, a mask settling into place. And then when he took a drag on the cigarette, he exhaled over his shoulder.