Tracy was incredibly lucky.
Escaping the fire from the sixth story of her apartment building would have been enough. A combination of careful planning, fortunate necessity, and simple good luck left her better off following the disaster than she'd ever hoped to dream of, prior to the fire.
It was a coincidental meeting with a stranger at the storage building that had proved the greatest boon. While pulling out an old computer to tide her over, someone had stopped with a wide-eyed stare, and shortly thereafter informed her about the ghastly painting she'd ended up with when her mother died. Her mother had loved it, and that was reason enough to keep it, but not to put it anywhere except in a dark storage building.
Her decision to use a climate-controlled storage facility proved another wise choice when the painting auctioned for over two-hundred-thousand dollars.
So now Tracy owned her home, her new car, and had a solid nest egg at thirty-seven years old. With her son moved out of the house and off to college on a full scholarship, she had few worries, and many luxuries that she'd never expected to enjoy.
Even all that couldn't dull the melancholy when she returned from yet another date that was going nowhere. Two years of never making it beyond a second date would break down any woman's hopes. A quick whiff of her light chestnut hair confirmed the smell of cigarette smoke that she expected, and sent her straight to the bathroom.
Tracy showered, changed clothes, and settled in to relax and watch a movie. She had the next two days off, so she could afford to stay up late for once. The opportunity to avoid the depressing evidence of Valentine's Day that filled the hospital at this time of year was quite welcome, as well.
About an hour into the movie, two sets of headlights speeding down the road attracted her attention. She then noticed a strange glow reflecting off the siding of the house across the street, and realized what it was just before the sound of sirens reached her ears. A dart to a window confirmed her fears. A house only three lots down was fully engulfed in flames.
Tracy hurried through the house to change her clothes and snatch up her first-aid kit. She hadn't ignored the needs of others when her own life was turning upside down, and she wasn't about to do so now.
When she reached the house, she saw the paramedics already working on three children and a woman. A fireman stumbled through the thick, billowing clouds of smoke with a stocky man slung over his shoulder. The paramedics were overwhelmed, as two were performing CPR on the women, so Tracy hurried to the fireman when he sank down to his knees with his burden.
Tracy dropped to her knees next to the violently coughing fireman, and immediately recognized that the man on the ground wasn't coughing. She felt for a pulse, and didn't find one.
The fireman tore off his helmet, pushed a sweat-dampened lock of his short, dark brown hair from his forehead, and said, "He's not breathing," before coughing again.
"No pulse," Tracy confirmed, a little surprised to recognize the young fireman who had guided her out of her burning apartment not so long ago.
"Clear!" One of the paramedics shouted, confirming that the man in front of Tracy wasn't the only one in serious danger.
The young, soot-covered fireman started chest compressions, still coughing. Tracy wasted no time in giving the victim mouth-to-mouth. After a minute or so of no response, Tracy tore open her first-aid kit to retrieve her AED.
The fireman recognized the portable defibrillator and stopped his chest compressions. Tracy readied the device and offered a little prayer. Just as she discharged it, she heard one of the paramedics yell, "She's stable! Pick it up! Pick it up! We've got another one!"
Tracy smiled when the man on the ground sucked in a gasp of air just as one of the paramedics arrived. She and the fireman both stepped back as the paramedics went to work.
"Thank you," the fireman said, tears streaming down his cheeks, and then he hurried toward the children near the ambulance.
"Can I do anything to help? I'm a nurse," Tracy offered.
"I think we can handle it now, but this guy is lucky you were here with that AED."
Another ambulance arrived at that exact moment. With a second set of paramedics on the scene, Tracy gathered up her kit and got out of the way. She took on the task of calming her neighbors, letting them know that everything was under control, and guiding them back away from the fire.
She was weary, frozen, and dirty when she returned to her house several hours later, once it was obvious that the firemen had the blaze both contained, and knocked down.
Tracy awakened late, and walked over to a window shortly after she changed out of her nightgown. The house down the street was a mere shell, though it was still standing. As best she could tell, neither of the houses next to it had suffered any serious damage. One of the fire trucks was still on scene, though it appeared that the firemen were packing up.
When she went to the bathroom, Tracy could smell the reek of smoke coming from her clothes in the hamper — both those she'd worn when she hurried to the fire, and those she'd worn to the bar for her date.
That determined her first order of business for her day off.
With the laundry started, she settled in for the rare treat of watching afternoon television. She had absolutely no idea what was going on in the soaps that she used to watch regularly, and all of the romance was a bit depressing, but she enjoyed it anyway. The constant barrage of cupids, hearts, and flowers during the commercials was even more difficult to handle, and Tracy ended up flipping to a business channel every time the commercials started.
When an odd roar that set the windows to rattling drew her attention away from the television, Tracy could see little more than a wall of white. Though she knew that bad weather was in the forecast, the sheer violence of the storm took her by surprise. When she walked over to the window and looked outside, she knew that the storm must have just started. Despite the thick, horizontally blowing snow, little had reached the ground yet. That changed rapidly as she watched, and she was glad that she didn't have to go to work for the next couple of days.
The knock at the door a short while later startled her, and her first thought was that the wind had blown something against the door. The next knock followed rapidly on the heels of the first, and she knew it for what it was.
Who is crazy enough to be out in this storm? She wondered as she walked to the door. She recognized neither the truck in her driveway or the man standing on the porch, at first, but she realized who he was when he turned toward her, away from the wind.
Tracy hurried to the door and opened it, fighting against the force of the wind trying to slam her into the wall. "Hurry — come in," she called over the roar of the storm.
The fireman stepped inside, shivering and wearing an embarrassed grin.
"Are you crazy?" Tracy asked with a laugh. "What are you doing out in this?"
"I didn't think it would be this bad. That will teach me not to listen to my mother." He held up a wrapped package, one side of which had a quarter of an inch of wind-blasted snow plastered to it. "I wanted to thank you."
"For what?" Tracy asked as he handed her the package, which had a good deal of weight to it. "You're the one that walked into a burning building."
"I got yelled at for it, too. For that, and for doing it without putting on my respirator first. I want to thank you because that was my uncle. You saved his life. He, my aunt, and my cousins are all doing fine, thanks to you and the paramedics." He nodded toward the package and said, "Open it."
Tracy's cheeks warmed. "I'm glad that they came through it okay. You didn't have to come out in this to bring me a thank you gift."
"I wanted to. Go on, open it."
Her cheeks still a little red, Tracy peeled back the paper, and then opened the box inside. She let out a sharp gasp upon seeing the bottle of Cognac inside. "Oh my god — I can't accept this. It's too much."
"I won't take no for an answer," The fireman said, holding up his hand when she tried to hand him back the package. "The whole family chipped in for it. I thought you'd like it, because I remembered you saying that you wished you had a nice bottle of brandy when I first met you, after all the excitement was over."
"It's just ... I ... I don't know what to say. I don't even know your name."
"That makes us even. Steve."
"Tracy," she reciprocated. "You're right. I love it," she said, and then laughed.
"At least have a glass with me. It will keep me from feeling so guilty about accepting such an expensive gift." She turned toward the kitchen, but then paused and turned back to ask, "Uhm, you are old enough to drink, aren't you?"
Steve laughed. "I'm twenty-one, by all of a month. I'm legal. I've never had brandy before."
"Well, if you're going to like it, then this will surely spoil you. I haven't had anything this expensive since my honeymoon."
Steve pulled out his cell phone and said, "I'd better call my mother to let her know that I'm okay, and to get the I told you so's out of the way."
Tracy chuckled, remembering similar situations with her own son. "I'll get some glasses."
.... There is more of this story ...