Anna heard the sirens in the distance, their warning wail muted by blocks of wood framed houses. Instinctively she listened for the nuances in tone and pitch that would tell her if they were drawing closer or would pass by into another part of the city. The sound grew louder, overshadowing the muted TV and its unfunny sitcom. They'd turned off Geary, she decided, down Fillmore, or probably closer, Steiner maybe or even Scott. She strained to hear.
It was Steiner. The sound would have been harsher, more grating if the trees and hills of Alta Vista weren't between her and the engines to mute their wails. It was a big fire. By her count, at least three engines had already responded. She listened again.
San Francisco is a city obsessed with fire. It has good reason. It's a town made of wood. Building after building of frame crowd close to each other. Up and down steep hills they jostle for space. When one of them burns it's not just a question of whether you can save it, but whether you can save any.
She rested her head against the cool pane of glass and told herself she was being ridiculous. There was no reason to be concerned. Even if there were, she couldn't do anything about it. It was stupid to even think about it. She was just bored. Ben was right, she should take a class or something, anything to fill up the hours and keep her mind from dwelling on how lonely she was.
Anna sighed and turned from the window and went into the bedroom, kicking off her shoes as she went. Oops, not a good idea. She picked them up and stumbled over the dog as he tried to get to them before she did.
"No, you bad boy," she scolded as she rescued the high heels. Patrick growled in frustration at being denied his opportunity to chew.
"Tough!" She snarled back at him.
He'd already destroyed one pair this week. Sure they were old, but they'd been Caovilla's for god's sake. Bought in the good old days when crowding six roommates into one small apartment had been hell on your nerves, but great for your budget and the occasional splurge.
She'd really loved those shoes. So had Ben. Especially when she'd worn them with nothing but that black silk teddy he'd bought her on their first Valentine's Day. Oh well, she didn't even know where that was anymore. Probably packed away with the rest of the stuff she never used.
Did she smell smoke? She went to the window and opened it and breathed in deeply. It was there, the tang of wood burning, the aroma that had been so soothing in her childhood in Michigan and now made her heart beat faster in fear and...
The sirens stopped. The silence was almost worse than the noise had been, certainly more ominous because that abrupt cutoff of noise could only be heard when the engines were very, very close.
Anna grabbed her coat and keys and ran lightly down the stairs. Patrick whined at the top, looking at her with piteous eyes. Obviously he thought if Anna was going for an extra walk, the least she could do was include him. It would probably be a good idea, he'd been so bad lately, chewing and whining, nervously pacing for hours.
He wasn't like that when Ben was around. The dog had been his bright idea and from the start, he'd spoiled the little beast rotten. Patrick had gotten used to having him around all day and now he missed him. He wasn't the only one.
Don't, she stopped herself. It's not Ben's fault that he's not around all that much. He had nothing to do with the budget crunch that cut his department and made them so short staffed everybody was working doubles.
Anna looked at the begging dog. Looked like she and the pooch were both going to have to try to be a little more understanding. Of course that was easier said than done, especially when you went days without seeing your husband and then only to pass each other in the hall.
Anna tried to be the good wife, she really did. She just wasn't always very successful at it. The fight this morning was a prime example. It's just that she'd never envisioned marriage as a solo act. It would have been easier to take too, if when Ben was home he tried to at least pretend it was where he wanted to be. But as the temporary overtime stretched into weeks and then months he grew more distant, more anxious, obsessed with the job even when he was supposed to be taking a break.
Damn him, at least he could pretend to feel bad about spending so much time away from her. A lot of other guys still thought she was hot looking even if Ben didn't. The party tonight had been proof of that. When she showed up alone, she caused quite a stir among the married men - and more than one angry glance from their wives.
To hell with it. She reached for the leash and didn't get it off the hook before the dog was at her side, panting and standing on hind legs. She snapped the clip on Patrick's collar, opened the door and stepped outside.
She would only walk a few blocks, she promised herself, a little exercise before turning in. It would relax her. And while she was out she could make sure the fire wasn't too close, assure herself there was no personal danger. It was a lie, but it made her feel less foolish to pretend.
It took a while to figure out what direction to go and she made a few wrong turns. She finally knew she was walking in the right direction when a wisp of ash drifted by.
She caught it with her hand and watched it dissolve on the tips of her fingers. Anna leaned down and sniffed the harsh oily smell. As she did she could hear the shouts and screech of metal in front of her. It wouldn't be long now.
Patrick whined and for the first time stopped pulling on the leash. He knew better than to get too close to fire even his mistress didn't.
She ignored him and turned the corner, confronting a tableau from her nightmares. The street was blocked off, police tape and barriers everywhere. A crowd of people stood frozen on her side. Most were just passersby's caught up in the drama, but some showed signs of the déshabillé of a night at home interrupted.
A young man and a woman holding a sleeping toddler stood close together as they strained to see what was happening. An old lady with curlers in her hair stood in a quilted pink silk robe clutching a snakeskin purse. Her glasses reflected the fire and her lips trembled as she licked them excitedly - it was obvious it wasn't her house burning.
Two coatless men in jeans and shirts stood off to the side clinging to each other. One of them was barefoot and he shifted from foot to foot in an effort to keep from freezing on the cold pavement. The other held on to him tightly, gripping his shirt with white knuckled fists, bunching it between tense fingers and crying quietly into the soft folds of material.
As Anna watched, the young father approached the couple, awkwardly gesturing with his hands how sorry he was. The barefoot man acknowledged him briefly and then turned his attention back to his distraught lover. The neighbor melted back into the crowd, joining his wife and looking relieved that he'd done his duty.
Anna wiggled her way to the front of the mob of people. It had taken her a while to find the blaze, but the firemen hadn't wasted those 40 minutes. Their efforts had been successful and they'd contained the flames to just the one three-story Vic. But the cost to house had been high. Large, ugly slashes of splintered wood surrounded gaping holes in the front of the house. The firefighters hadn't bothered with doors it seemed.
She watched as one of fireman separated from the others. He swaggered as he moved, and the hose he carried seemed almost weightless in his strong arms. Anna couldn't see his face, but his movements caught her eye. She felt a rush in her belly as she studied the line of jaw just showing under the hard edge of his helmet. She knew she was acting like a freak, but god, he looked so hot.
He was big and looked bigger with the gear he wore to protect himself. His shoulders were massive and so were his legs. He needed to be judging from the size of the hose he was holding.
She watched as he braced himself then turned back and nodded to his crew on the engine. A second later, water spewed from the nozzle he'd tucked securely under his arm. He leaned back onto his heels and pointed the powerful stream in the direction of the roof of the house next to the fire. He wasn't a moment too soon. A small explosion in the burning house sent a plume of hot ash and tar in that direction.
The crowd spontaneously applauded and the tense mood of the minutes before suddenly shifted and took on the aura of a night at a circus. The parents smiled to each other in relief and the old lady laughed in delight as flames still reflected on the lens of her glasses. Only the two men were still sober. The rest of the crowd avoided them.
The fireman continued to ignore everyone, but Anna couldn't take her eyes off of him. She watched as he swayed slowly back and forth directing the thick stream of water over the roofs and wood frames of the houses near the fire. His hips mesmerized her. What would it feel like to feel them hard against her, right now, right here, covering her body, thrusting into her, making her slowly lose her mind. She took a step forward before she realized she'd almost walked up to him. Dammit, was she going insane?
Thank god he hadn't noticed as the massive pressure of the hose took all his concentration. Even through the thick rubber of his jacket you could sense the strain against powerful muscles. His legs were spread and braced in black rubber waders which was good because now the jets of water that he was directing at the house were making their way back towards him in streams of water that swirled down the curb and up over his sturdy ankles.
.... There is more of this story ...