Free fall is a hypothetical term. The reality of the definition is that no fall is affected only by gravity. Wind resistance plays a sizable role, as does the obstacles that can cross the path of the fall. Still, falling and wondering if you’ll ever stop can be a very real and frightening experience.
Kris thought the training had prepared him for the worst and no fall could undo him. That was before the four-alarm fire on Crescent Street. That was before he’d been a second too slow to get to the window’s safety. That was before he tried to be a hero.
“Never be a hero.”
Kris could recall the Group Commander’s words from the first day of training. The phrase had been tucked away in his brain for so long that he wondered if he had dreamed it all. He should have listened, but that was his problem: he never did.
“Allen? Allen! Get your ass out of there and back on that ladder!”
Dang, he’d never heard his partner scream like that before. He had to wonder what their Chief was probably thinking at that moment. “That stupid fucker is going to get himself killed,” most likely. His boss was anything but politically correct. He cared, though. You couldn’t look Deputy Chief Eber Lambert in the eye during even the small blazes and not know that he cared. The camaraderie among the men was what cemented Kris’s decision to join the Los Angeles Fire Department. It was a new family in a place he could barely call home. Somehow, he’d fit right in with the rest of the tough necks.
“There’re more people in here!” Kris would have screamed back if it wasn’t for the oxygen mask. “I heard him yelling and I’m not leaving him to die!”
For nigh on ten years Kris had been with the department, two with the Search and Rescue Squad. He’d dropped out of college after signing up for his first EMT courses. Business classes at UCLA were not giving him the fulfillment he sought. Kris wanted to help people. Furthermore, he wanted save people, from themselves or from forces they couldn’t overcome. A simple mention of the military pitched his parents into fits, but being a paramedic was something they could get used to. It took two years of classes and one year of experience, but Kris came out better for the wear. Once he’d proven he could handle the stress of dire situations, he’d upped the ante to becoming a firefighter. He had no family of his own and the pay was better, as were the benefits. If only his dad would stop crying every time he brought it up.
“Allen, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but that building is going to fall around you any second. Listen to Giraud. Get back on the ladder. Now!”
Eber Lambert had never been shy about treating Kris as a third son. He was a divorcee and had plenty of time on his hands to keep a fire lit under their butts at the station, but that didn’t stop him from including Kris in the firehouse family and as an extension of that, his own family. Kris was the same age as Eber’s younger son, Neil. They got along as well as you would expect from a mild-mannered southern boy like Kris and smart-lipped cynic like Neil, which is to say involving alcohol and politics was never a good idea. Eber regularly compared their dysfunctional friendship to the dysfunctional relationship between Neil and his older brother, Adam, who was basically a myth to Kris until he returned from an extended theatre company tour in Europe.
The craziest part of their myriad of a family was not that Kris ended up tipping ass-over-elbow the second he laid eyes on Adam Lambert, scenester in pursuit of stardom. The craziest part was that Adam felt the same way about Kris. As they say, though, dating your boss’s son is never a good idea. Three years of dating, a civil union, and two adoptions later, Kris and Adam were still proving them wrong.
“Allen! Where are you? I’m ordering you back on that ladder. Do you hear me? Oh, shit! Allen!”
Kris blamed his hair loss and need for hair restoration on his two precocious children. Dylan and Kristine were a handful and Kris thanked God every day for bringing them into his life. It was difficult with his twenty-four hour shifts and Adam’s rehearsal schedule, but thanks to Adam’s mom Leila, daycare, and now, school, they made it work.
It was insane to Kris to think back on how much his kids had grown. He could recall changing diapers and the late nights when Kristine was fussy with colic. Dylan had scared the family months prior when he had fallen out of a neighbor’s tree while attempting to prove that he could climb it after being told to keep his feet on the ground. Kris’ connections with the emergency room staff remained steadfastly intact though he’d been out of his paramedic job for nearly a decade. Kris worried about his children constantly, but that was just his overprotective nature. Dylan and Kristine were good, healthy, happy kids. There wasn’t much more that two fathers could ask for. In fact, with Kris’s next promotion, he and Adam were thinking of adopting a third.
“Man down! Man down! Allen, can you hear me? Report in, Allen! Are you all right in there?”
A tow rope was useless when half of a building had ripped through it, though that tow rope was probably the only thing that had saved Kris’ life during the fall by slowing his descent. He didn’t know how long he was unconscious, but he woke up to darkness and sweltering heat. The oxygen mask was battered. He could hardly see anything through the visor as it was, so off it came.
Gasping, Kris struggled for breath while every piece of him began to ache as the adrenaline receded. He saw two of everything and heard nothing but the ringing in his own ears. The smell barely fazed him. It was a familiar mix of soot, smoke, and burning carpet, wood, rubber, wiring, and textiles. The heat was the biggest issue. It was pushing him down from all angles. He wanted to strip out of the suit, but it was the only thing that was protecting him from any blaze that crept into his location. Right now, embers and ash surrounded him and it was situation FUBAR. He was in serious trouble if he didn’t get help before the oxygen ran out.
Moving closer to the floor was harder than Kris expected. He had to cut himself loose of the now useless tow rope and find the strength to crawl and find his radio. He could hear it screaming at him as his head cleared. Wrestling out a flashlight, he swept a look across the floor and saw that the radio had landed a few feet away amongst the debris. Pulling and pushing with his arms and legs, he managed to inch over the short distance and put a gloved hand on the radio, sighing graciously at his small victory.
“Allen! Allen! He’s not responding! Get me those blueprints, now!”
“I’m here,” Kris breathlessly croaked into the receiver. “It’s Allen. I’m alive.”
As soon as he said the word alive, Kris remembered the civilian he’d been trying to save. Grasping the radio to his chest and rolling onto his back, flopping around like an upturned turtle, Kris forced himself to sit up and do another sweep, looking for a body. His light landed on a hand, which lead to an arm, which lead to a slack face and closed eyes.
“Hold on,” Kris called out weakly, not caring if the man could hear him or not. “I’m comin’!”
Chief Lambert shouted on the radio when Kris didn’t respond back immediately to the next hail, but Kris was concentrating on getting across the floor covered with debris, which he shoved out of his way as he went. When he got to the body, he found a pulse, but it was weak and the man’s breathing was shallow.
“Are you hurt, Allen? Damn it, did we lose you?”
Kris took a shallow breath of his own, strangled by the heat, and pressed the oxygen mask over the civilian’s face. “I’m fine. Just shook up,” he panted into the radio before swallowing over his dry tongue and slumping down closer to the floor. “I got a live one down here. He’s busted up real bad.”
“We’re looking at getting you some help in there. Just hold tight and don’t ignore another transmission.”
Kris nodded a little. “Roger,” he said before setting down the radio and grabbing his flashlight so he could assess his new patient’s wounds. There were multiple burns and abrasions, and Kris knew with the way the right arm was twisted, it was broken. There’s was no telling about the internal damage and he didn’t want to move the guy if he didn’t have to, so he cleared himself a spot to sit next to the man and drooped back to prop himself up on a piece of fallen flooring.
Minutes passed before the Chief was on the radio, again. It was procedure to take the blueprints of the building and estimate where the downed man was located, and if he was conscious, have him talk command through what had happened.
“Eighth floor, second unit,” was all Kris could say for where he had been. “I hit stuff on the way down. Knocked me out. I’m guessing I fell at least half that if not more.” He paused to breathe and momentarily had to take the oxygen from the civilian for himself.
“How’s it look from outside? Feels like the whole building’s on top of us.”
“Kris,” it was Giraud’s voice, now. “They’re going over the layout with the building commissioner. You hang in there, buddy.”
More procedure. Kris knew they would come for him; he just had to wait. “Where – Where’s Adam?” he stammered, mouth so dry that it was difficult to talk.
“Shut your yap! You’re going to use all the air, you windbag.” A sigh. “Going to call him, right now.”
“Don’t let him come—” Kris began, but he was cut off by Matt.
“You know he’s going to come down here no matter what, dude, but I’ll make sure he doesn’t freak out and get the kids just yet.”
Kris sighed and dropped his head back to the wall of debris behind him. He swallowed though he had no spit, but it was the only way he could get his heart to stop slamming in his ears.
The more time that passed and the more chatter he heard on the radio, the more worried Kris became. It sounded like he was correct, the majority of the building had collapsed and he was trapped beneath the result of that. He was one of their own stuck on the inside, though, and he knew they were going to be risking life and limb to get him out.
“Don’t you do anything stupid, Matt,” he said to the radio with a shake of his head. “I already did enough stupid for the day.”
Matt shushed him. “I’ll dig you out with my bare hands if I have to. We’re gonna try something, hold on.”
Minutes ticked by, nearly thirty by Kris’s count, before there was a voice on the radio. “Allen?” It was Chief Lambert. “Allen, how much oxygen is left in that tank?”
Kris grimaced when he checked. “Not much. I’d say another twenty minutes at the most.”
“Well, here’s the situation,” the Chief started and Kris’ stomach dropped in fear before he heard the rest. “You have shit above you, right?”
“Yep,” Kris replied after angling his flashlight upward.
The Chief sighed. “If you can get to a room with more head space, you should be all right until the diggers get here. And if you can see some sky, even better.”
Kris nodded then, which was a bad idea because it made him dizzy, partly due to his likely concussion and also due to oxygen depletion. He knew what he had to do, though. He had to follow the cool air until he found someplace without debris trapping him and the fire together.
“I’ll start looking.”
“They’re fifteen minutes out and then, we’re coming to you.”
Confirming that last transmission, Kris took a moment to pull off his oxygen tank and set it next to the civilian wearing his mask. He shoved the radio down the front of his fireproof jacket, picked up his flashlight, and started crawling.
Making a clear path back to civie and his oxygen tank, Kris moved debris as he followed the cooler air sneaking in under the heat of the flames. He was drenched in sweat and felt like he was surely melting. All his years growing up in the Southern Midwest, it had never been this hot. It was too hot to breathe or think, he realized after meeting a couple dead ends and feeling dizzier by the second.
Eventually, he found the source of the air. There was the small crack, which he could fit a hand in and it was between where two collapsed structures met. He was dismayed that he couldn’t get the debris to budge out of his way to get to the cooler area and for his efforts, he was sent scrambling away as more debris slipped down and blocked the hole.
“Damn it,” Kris swore under his breath as he futilely glanced around for more debris that wasn’t on fire and looked like it would give way to a shove. He gave a few a try and was nearly burned by a blow-back when he kicked at some embers only to be met with a room full of fire. He couldn’t find a way out and the oxygen was slowly being lapped away by the flames.
Kris crawled back to the civilian and his oxygen tank. He sat down and leaned up against some of the debris. Momentarily closing his eyes, he realized how sleepy he was starting to feel as he wheezed for breath.
“Allen, we got a mover,” his jacket said to him. Preferring comfort over safety, Kris stripped off the heavy jacket and took up the radio.
“I don’t know how much time we got left in here,” he said, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. “I couldn’t find fresh air.” He paused to choke down another breath of hot air. “And I don’t know where we are.” Another pause. “Eber, I need you to tell Adam something for me.”
Kris looked down at the radio dubiously as it squawked at him while two voices fought for control until the Chief was back on. “You shouldn’t talk like that with your husband around, you know, but whatever you want to say to him…”
“Kris!” Adam’s voice burst out of the speaker. “Kris, babe, I’m here!”
Kris’ heart suddenly ached and he slumped where he sat. He tried to talk, but Adam’s voice had stopped what little brainpower he had. He didn’t want Adam to be out there witnessing this. No spouse should have to go through this. Kris nearly said as much, but all he could muster as he held down the talk button was, “I love you.” He let out a shaky sigh. “I love you so don’t do anything stupid when I’m gone.”
“Why are you saying that to me?” Adam sounded beyond upset. “They’re going to get you out!”
The ache was too much for Kris. He sat down the radio before going to his belly to get as low as he could go in hopes of grabbing what oxygen was left.
“Kris? Kris! Why aren’t you saying anything? If you think you can just go to work and be the hero and then die on me, you are fucking mistaken. Do you hear me?! Kris?!”
Prayer was something near and dear to Kris’ heart. He was raised a Christian and had never stopped going to church, helping the congregation, or praying. Everything he’d prayed for in the past seemed so stupid, now. He’d once prayed for Dylan to pass an English test. Now, he was praying for Dylan and Kristine to be strong and have wonderful lives. He prayed for the firehouse family in hopes that they would never have to succumb to this same fate. He prayed that the man he was trapped with would survive. He also prayed that Adam would be able to move on without him.
When his vision started to tunnel out, Kris resigned his body and closed his eyes, ready for death as his lungs burned for new air and he choked over and over as he tried to breathe. In his last conscious moments, he felt the debris and floor rumble as if something extremely large was pulling and shaking his world. Kris opened his eyes a slit to see debris crashing to the floor around him as light came through the darkness for him to follow. He was home.
“Daddy, what’s heaven like?”
Kris paused as he was tucking Kristine into the lavender sheets on her dazzling princess bed that she and Adam had conspired to buy for her fifth birthday. The headboard and footboard were both made out of pink, heavy duty plastic shaped into castle columns with fake windows with ornate bars viewing a garden. It was ridiculous to Kris, but he had buckled under the pressure when even Dylan had gotten into the mix, saying he wanted his little sister to be happy.
Swallowing roughly over his parched throat that he was certain would never be the same after the fire, Kris finished tucking Kristine in before he took a seat aside her. “I don’t remember anything, darlin’,” he said as he leaned over her to kiss the top of her head of soft brown hair. He kept one arm across her, perched on his hand, as he pulled back while she continued to pry.
“But Papa said you visited heaven! I want to visit heaven.”
Kris pressed his lips together as his whole body ached at the thought of losing his little girl, even for a moment. She was staring up at him with big, expectant green eyes and he was struggling to save face. He’d been easily moved to emotion since the fire as he ran across daily reminders of what he could have lost if his fellow firemen hadn’t reached him when they did.
“Not until you’re at least a hundred and ninety,” Kris said with a tight smile. When tiny arms reached up for a hug, Kris leaned down and gathered her up to his chest. He hooked his chin over her shoulder and held on tightly, petting her hair.
“I love you, Daddy,” she said in a small, sleepy voice.
His eyes squeezed shut and he breathed in the flowery scent of her bubble bath. He could never get enough of that smell. “I love you, too, baby,” he said in a hoarse whisper before kissing her hair one last time and tucking her back into bed. She was peacefully drifting off into sleep before he turned off her bedside lamp. Kris watched Kristine sleep for several minutes before he was slowly pushing up from her bed and leaving the room, being sure to stoop and turn on her Rapunzel night light near the door.
In the hall, Kris paused between his children’s rooms to put a hand to the wall and collect himself, which was more difficult than he thought it would be. He’d nearly lost all of this – Kristine, Dylan, and Adam – and he wasn’t sure if he could ever forgive himself for that. His kids would have had to grow up with only one dad and Adam would have had to go it alone. Kris told himself he wasn’t going to dwell on the ‘what ifs’ but it was damn near impossible to escape every bad thought.
Pausing outside of Dylan’s room, Kris could see that Adam had already put their son to bed and he was thankful for that. He wasn’t sure if he could handle another set of innocent eyes asking questions. Crossing quietly into the room, he leaned over Dylan to kiss the boy’s auburn hair, which smelled distinctly of Transformers artificial berry scented shampoo. Dylan murmured in his sleep and for a fleeting second Kris worried that he’d woken Dylan up, only to have him softly coo and settle once more.
“Love you,” Kris mouthed more than whispered before he crept out of the room.
Kris’s shoulders drooped with exhaustion once he was in his own bedroom. He pulled off the navy, long-sleeved LAFD shirt to reveal a brown beater and took the shirt, which would normally be discarded on the floor, over to the hamper to avoid pissing off Adam. This was Kris’ first night home from the hospital and he wanted everything to go perfectly, meaning he didn’t want to fight and he didn’t want to cry. He just wanted peace and love, and wow he sounded like a hippie, but that was truly all he wanted.
He took a seat on the edge of their California king-sized bed and rubbed his tired eyes. The heat and smell of the fire haunted him. He considered shedding all of his clothes and taking his third shower for the day. Water would hide the tears that had been threatening since he laid down Kristine.
Kris was stumbling toward the bathroom as he hiked the beater up his bruised back when Adam padded into the room with two glasses of water. Turning around, Kris pulled the shirt off entirely and averted his gaze after seeing Adam’s concerned face. “I was just going to take a cold shower,” Kris softly explained.
“Another one? Babe…” Adam sounded as worried as he looked. Kris had trouble meeting Adam’s gaze over the past week in the hospital. He knew he’d messed up more than he could put into words and that he was lucky to be alive, and he deserved every lecture that Adam could give him, but Adam hadn’t lectured Kris. He’d fretted and fawned, and never left Kris’ side.
Kris sighed shakily and threw the balled-up shirt in the general direction of the hamper, not caring where it landed. He let his arms fall with his palms open to Adam. “It’s the heat,” he said and ran a hand through his thin hair, eyes still on the floor. “I can’t get away from the heat.”
Kris watched as Adam sat the glasses to two coasters on the bedside table. When Adam took his hand, Kris made himself peer up to meet Adam’s worried stare. Kris swallowed roughly and felt his words catch in the back of his throat. “Adam, I…” he started, but was shushed by a kiss on the cheek. Adam’s lips were soft and Kris’ pressed together in a moment of weakness as Adam carefully hugged him. Kris tucked his face against Adam’s shoulder and wept.
When Kris finally stopped pawing at Adam and curled his fingers tightly in the back of Adam’s shirt, Adam pulled away and quietly took both of Kris’ hands. “Come on,” he whispered. Kris sniffed up his tears before following Adam into the bathroom. Adam let go of Kris and began stripping by the dim light of a small, bulb-less night light. Wiping his eyes, Kris sighed heavily as he watched. It felt like years had passed since he last saw Adam’s body.
“Do I need to help you out of your jeans?” Adam asked and Kris would have laughed if that wasn’t a serious question.
Shaking his head, “I’ve got it,” Kris replied as he threw open his fly. He paused to watch Adam trail over to the walk-in shower and turn on the water, but only the cold water. Kris blinked as water shot forth and filled the bathroom with sound. “You’re going to freeze,” Kris said.
“Does it look like I care?” Adam asked indignantly as he arranged two towels on the rack outside of the shower.
Something of a smile twitched on Kris’ face. “No,” he replied and pulled off his jeans, underwear, and socks. He was the first into the shower and though it felt like his skin might jump off his body, Kris took to the cold water as relief spread through him. Hands on the shower walls, he braced as he let the cool water run over his back and send chills through him. Slowly, the flush in his body and the feeling of the heat lapping at him began to recede.
Arms wrapped Kris from behind and reminded him that he was not alone. He lifted his head, but he didn’t move to be closer to Adam until there were breath and lips on the back on his neck. Slowly turning around, Kris stepped fully into Adam’s embrace and relaxed his body as he loosely returned the hug. They stood there for several seconds and held each other until Kris felt a shudder run through Adam’s body. Instinctively, Kris pushed against Adam to back him away from the cold water.
“You don’t have to stay in here,” Kris said with a feeble shove.
Adam laughed, though it sounded pained. “You’re an idiot if you think I’m going to let you do anything without me, now,” he softly spat and held on. “And I mean anything. You’re not going to the doctor or taking the kids to school or even going to Starbucks without a chaperone.”
Kris smiled and his chest ached. “What about work?”
“Kris,” Adam started before he became a little shrill, “if you don’t take that desk job my dad is offering—“
“I am. I am,” Kris assured him. “I was just checking.”
Adam grumbled before he sighed and pressed his face into Kris’ neck. “I love you so much, you stupid stupid man,” he said against Kris’ wet skin.
Kris lifted his face and so did Adam. Kris bit down on his lower lip. Though he could barely make out Adam’s features in the dark, the dim light caught the shimmer of Adam’s eyes, which made him start to crumble. “Adam, all I could think about in that building was you and the kids, and I – I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he stammered.
Adam cut him off with a kiss that was so needy and deep that Kris’ toes curled against the floor of the shower stall. It was the first kiss that Adam hadn’t held back on since Kris had been in the hospital. Somehow, Kris managed to get the water turned off without letting go of Adam. They continued to kiss and grip each other with such wanting that Kris felt like he was twenty-five and falling in love again.
Drying off became a two-person job and Kris was grinning by the end of it as Adam dragged him closer to the night light and roughed up his hair. “So hot like that,” Adam whispered before kissing him. The giddy delight Kris was getting from each kiss began to wane as the fatigue set into his body.
Kris laughed softly as he ducked away. “Okay, I think I can put my pants on myself.” Adam helped anyway.
When they were settled into bed, tangled up in each other like two young lovers, Kris nuzzled his face against Adam’s hairy chest. He was fully prepared to fall asleep when Adam asked, “Do you know how much this family loves you, Kris? I mean, do you really know?”
Kris started to pull away, unable to look at Adam. “Apparently, I don’t if I have to go play hero to someone else,” he said, suddenly upset all over again.
“That’s not what I meant,” Adam was quick to reply as he hauled Kris back into their embrace. “You are a hero, Kris. To the kids and to me, and I want you to think about that before you put yourself on the line. We love you and can’t live without you, and I think you know that.”
Kris sniffed and nodded. “You’re the most important people in my life,” he said as his voice started to crack. “I don’t want to let you guys down.”
“Just don’t take us for granted. That’s all I’m asking,” Adam replied with a brush of a kiss against Kris’s cheek.
Shaking his head, “Never again,” Kris said tightly. “Never, ever, again,” he added forcefully before Adam was cupping his face. “I love you,” Kris croaked as he went for another kiss.
Kris and Adam both stalled and looked toward Kristine’s voice calling from down the hall.
“I’m on it,” Adam said before he pressed a quick kiss to Kris’s mouth and slipped out of the bed.
“She wants me, though.”
Adam frowned. “You need your rest. Papa can handle this.”
Kris sighed and deflated into the sheets, which he looked to swimming in when he was in their large bed by himself.
“You know you’re their hero, too, right?” Kris asked as Adam pulled on a t-shirt. He saw Adam shake his head and guessed that he was rolling his eyes. “I’m serious,” Kris said. “I’m Super Stupid Dad. You’re Super Mad Talented Dad with a matching cape.”
Adam laughed quietly. “Kris, if you get me a cape—“
“So getting you a cape,” Kris interrupted as he made himself comfortable. “With your name in sparkles,” he added in a rumble as he stretched a cramp out of his leg.
Adam glanced back at him from the doorway. “And I’m so mauling you for it when you’re strong enough,” he whispered before Kristine called, again. “I’m coming, baby,” Adam said as he slipped away, down the hall.
Though he was trying to wait up for Adam to return, Kris passed out within minutes with a prayer on his lips, thanking God for giving him such a wonderful man to love.