I didn’t say anything, but Tsuno must have realized the change in our relationship, because he seemed to consciously avoid bringing up anything about Niimori. It wasn’t just that, either. Whenever I got teased about the girl I’d rescued from the bar, he would throw me a lifeline. When I finally asked him why the change in a relative newbie, and one who was so cheeky he never seemed to care much for his betters, Tsuno answered sympathetically. “You’ve been so down lately, Adachi.”
I never was good at concealing my feelings the way Niimori was. It was no big deal, since I still hadn’t come face to face with the man in question, but that couldn’t last forever. I was thinking about that on duty one night, when prep orders echoed around the building.
The first call came from a home-owner who lived near the scene. They stated there was a column of smoke rising from the shopping mall that had closed the previous month. The second call came from a passerby, who said there was smoke and he’d heard what sounded like an explosion from inside. And then a third call, the command center staff informed us over the radio, had come from Niimori, who was supposed to have been off-duty that day.
“According to Niimori, he was able to confirm multiple points of origin: the second floor west end, the first floor east end, and the third floor around the movie theater entrance.”
“What’s Niimori doing there?” Harikawa asked the radio, but the command center seemed bewildered.
“I don’t know, but apparently the arsonist is still in the building, and Niimori said he was going in to go look for him…”
The OB and I were the only people who knew that Niimori’d been slinking around searching for the arsonist, so it was only natural that the command center guys didn’t have the whole picture.
“Idiot.” Harikawa, normally so gentle, spit the word out like he was trying to fling it out the window.
“Is he at the scene without any equipment?” the engineer asked from the driver’s seat in a half-amazed, half-scared tone, and a chill ran up my spine.
Flames weren’t the only potential cause of death in a fire. There was smoke, too. High-temperature smoke burned your lungs and respiratory tract. The ceiling, the wallpaper, might all have oil-based coatings, and they could ignite at high temperatures and transform, spewing poisonous gas.
Even without any of that, there was the fear of carbon monoxide poisoning. You had to crouch in order to avoid the rising smoke and gas, but if you weren’t used to it, moving around quickly and trying to find an exit in that position was difficult.
Your field of vision ended up restricted with the smoke, and if you panicked, you’d never be able to make calm judgements or find the exit. And before you knew it, the smoke, and the gas, and the flames would fill the whole room.
Suddenly I remembered Niimori stretched out and face up after the factory accident, and my face stiffened.
When we arrived at the scene, the frightening images only expanded. A pumper truck from one of the other departments had immediately begun hosing the building down, but the smoke showed no signs of shrinking back.
“The sprinklers aren’t functioning. And be careful – there are still some furnishings left inside.”
My palms started sweating as I listened to the commands. I thought about the fact that Niimori was somewhere in that building, and my heart beat like an alarm bell.
“There aren’t any flames on this side yet, so let’s get inside from here and conduct a search.”
Following the captain’s orders, we entered through the back of the building, where there were indeed no signs of fire. Since we were in a bit of a tight spot, we carried an extra bombay to use on victims. We circled the floor, calling out. There was total chaos inside.
Display stands, push carts, cardboard boxes, plastic panels, they’d all been left behind. I could hardly see, and the light on my helmet wasn’t enough to make out anything in the total blackness inside the mall. Just as the smell of smoke reached my nose, the captain stopped.
“Face masks on!”
I obeyed and put on my black rubber-tipped mask. After fixing it over my mouth, I opened the valve on the bombay I had slung over my back. I took a deep breath of the air spilling into the mask, and my anger started to cool.
Rushing was no good. How many search and rescues had I carried out, and in far worse fires than this one. I decided that once I found Niimori I was going to tell him off and I didn’t care what he had to say about it. Leaping in without looking was my gig, and it was Niimori’s job to yell at me afterwards. Was he enjoying this role reversal? I was going to tease him for all it was worth.
It was going to be fine. Surely he’d found some safe location in this huge building.
Usually, we searched in teams of four, but the mall was so large we’d broken up into pairs.
As we moved farther in, the smoke got denser. I couldn’t see any flames, but the smoke was ominously thick.
The building itself was rebarred concrete. Even if the furnishings caught on fire, the construction method should keep it from spreading. The fact that there was this much smoke pouring into the mall made me think the arsonist had used some kind of accelerant.
— What the hell was he thinking, going into a place like this by himself?
Just as I felt my anger at Niimori turning into something like fear and worry, I suddenly heard a little cough. I caught my partner’s eye, and we both ran towards the sound.
In the shadow of a giant pillar, a boy had collapsed. It was the kid from the bus stop the other day.
I put the mask I’d been carrying for victims on him, and after a coughing fit, he opened his heavy eyelids.
“Are you okay? We’re going to get you out of here.”
The boy said something unintelligible, and when the other squad member picked him up, the boy impatiently removed the mask.
“You can’t take me!”
When my comrade scolded him, the boy continued. “That other fireman and my brother are still in here. I have to go look for them, they’re relying on me, and besides… still…”
His voice was hoarse, and his face stained with soot. Maybe he’d been near the flames.
“And my little sister,” the boy said again. “Still… somewhere…”
“I understand,” my comrade said. “Leave it to us.”
He put the mask on the boy again and held it there so the kid wouldn’t take it off again.
“Grab on, Adachi.”
My comrade held the boy’s side. I knew I was supposed to help him carry the boy to the exit, but I didn’t grab on. The exit wasn’t far. The kid only weighed about fifty kilograms, one person could carry him, even wearing equipment.
I contacted the other squad members on the radio, but no one had found Niimori, the arsonist, or the boy’s younger sister. Could it be that all three of them were still further inside, closer to the fire? This was precisely what I’d been afraid of, why I’d talked to the OB in the first place. Niimori and the kids surrounded by flames was the worst possible case.
“I’m sorry,” I said reflexively, and my comrade lifted his head. “Please, I have to keep searching.”
No one was looking in the area where the fire was still raging. A firefighter’s life was precious, which was why you couldn’t just wander at a moment’s notice into someplace where your own safety couldn’t be guaranteed.
But my head had been filled with horrible images ever since I’d heard that Niimori was still in here.
If they were still deeper inside even though that’s where the fire started, there was a high probability they were trapped somewhere, that they couldn’t leave. Was he injured? Had he ended up stuck somehow? I didn’t know, but if he’d ended up breathing in any smoke, it was only a matter of time.
Ignoring my comrade’s voice behind me, I pressed on in the direction of the thickening smoke.
“Adachi, don’t you go off searching on your own!”
I was immediately called to halt on the radio, but I ignored that too, and ran, jumping over the obstacles at my feet.
“If Niimori and the girl found the arsonist, there’s a possibility the two of them are near the flames,” I said.
This was a grave violation of protocols, and I knew it. They might even bust me from the rescue squad back down to regular fireman, or maybe there was some other worse punishment. I understood it all, but I had to keep going.
I knew, too, that the best decision would be to go back and exchange O2 tanks, that leaving the search of this area to the guys in the other squad was the professional thing to do, but I was terrified of turning my back on Niimori and leaving him in this smoke.
If anything happened to him, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
I ran up the stalled escalator, aiming for the other end of the second floor, where the flames were still going. The closer I got to the origin of the fire, the hotter the air was getting. Just as I let out a huff, I learned from the radio that they’d located the younger sister. There were only two people left unaccounted for.
Even wearing my fire-resistant gear, the heat was pressing in on me. I was dripping with sweat under my clothes. Once I found those two and got home, I was going to have a shower and a beer. And the beer would be Niimori’s treat.
“Mihaya!” I called out, but there was no response. I didn’t have enough time to search randomly.
As I came to a stop in the middle of all that smoke, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do, I suddenly remembered the cell phone.
If he’d made a call in, Niimori must still have his cell phone on him, even now. I grabbed hold of the vague spider’s web of a lead in the darkness, and when I rushed to call for the commander on the radio, the first words out of his mouth were to chew me out.
“I’ll write an apology or whatever later,” I said. “Right now, would you please make a call to the older brother’s cell phone. Or, if you can, call Niimori’s cell phone. Maybe I can pick out his ring tone.”
A few minutes later, I heard Niimori’s ringtone quietly, not too far from the flames.
I ran towards the sound before it cut off. But there was no one there, just the cell phone where it had plopped onto the short-pile carpeting.
Just as I swore and picked it up, the sound stopped. I couldn’t see Niimori, but I didn’t give up, and when I looked carefully around the dim, smoky interior, I noticed the staffroom door beside me.
I touched my gloved hand to the door, and after I’d confirmed that it wasn’t hot, I carefully opened it.
There wasn’t any smoke inside the room, but Niimori and a man I’d never seen before had collapsed in there.
The two of them must have rushed in here to take refuge from the smoke. Or maybe Niimori had used all his strength just to get to this room and had found the man here? Whatever, we could analyze the situation later.
“Two victims located, second floor, west end staff room, call for emergency assistance,” I said into the radio, and got an immediate reply.
“Second floor west end fire in process of expanding. The hook and ladder is attached to a window at the central staircase on the second floor, east end. Can you get them that far?”
“Yeah, understood,” I answered, and looked at the two of them. I could only carry one of the back at a time. I patted Niimori’s cheek and watched for a response, but he didn’t regain consciousness. Even when I shouted, neither one of them responded.
Maybe I was just being brave for Niimori’s sake, but once I’d found the two of them, I didn’t waffle as to which one should take priority. I picked up the stranger and turned back to Niimori, still unconscious on the floor.
“I am absolutely coming back. I will not abandon you again.”
I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I couldn’t stand not to say it. I left the room and closed the door.
The smoke had gotten even denser. Every second was precious.
I put one foot in front of the other, feeling panicky, and cut across the flames, listening to the ominous sounds of the concrete cracking in the heat, and when I arrived at the place I’d been ordered to, the bucket of the hook and ladder had been raised perfectly into place.
“There’s another person, I have to go back. Take care of this guy please.”
I handed the unconscious man off to the bucket guys, and went back into the flames without bothering to listen to their objections.
But as I started running, my bombay started screaming, a high pitched beep. I didn’t have much oxygen left.
In situations like this, I was supposed to put on my breathing apparatus. And no matter how depressed I was over Niimori or what I regretted, I should have paid attention to my tank. Maybe if I’d never said anything to the OB, I thought, the next time the boy contacted Niimori, maybe he would have told me about it.
Then he wouldn’t be in here alone, and maybe we could have gotten some comrades on board.
Don’t think about it. Now is not the time to be thinking about that.
With no way to turn off the ear-splitting noise, I returned to the staff room, to find the flames were licking at the carpet and charring the door. From there, they were spreading over the dark wood paneling on the wall.
Given the way the flames aimed for the door in such a straight line, the carpet in front of the door must have been soaked in something beforehand. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the criminal had been attempting to commit suicide and had set it up so that this room burned best.
The sound of my own breathing reached my ears, mixed with the bombay alarm – it seemed I was just about out of oxygen.
Don’t panic, I muttered silently to myself. If you panic, you really will use up all your air. Then how are you going to rescue anyone? It’s okay. There’s still a few minutes left. That’s enough time. It’s plenty. You will absolutely save him.
The flames stood quivering in orange and red, and I thought they were pretty, even in that moment.
I saw that this horrible fire had singed my fire-resistant gear, but I wasn’t afraid. When I imagined this light incinerating Niimori, on the other hand, I was so scared I couldn’t stand it.
My feet cramped up with fear and panic. My stomach slowly rose, and I started to feel like I was going to throw up.
Pull yourself together. How many years have you been doing this?
I forced myself to swallow my stringy saliva, and cautiously opened the door. The doorknob was hot, even through my glove, but the flames hadn’t entered the room yet.
I ran towards the final victim, relieved. When I lifted him up, he called my name faintly.
“Adachi, your alarm’s going off,” he said, in a voice so soft I almost couldn’t hear it. The room was filled with so much smoke I couldn’t see the ceiling.
“Ignoring orders again, huh,” he said. “You’re gonna… get yourself fired.”
His tone was calm, even at a time like this. I was so relieved to hear him chatter, I wanted to cry.
You ignored a lot even for you, leaping in all by yourself, were you trying to make me come rescue you?
“Yeah, this time was my fault.”
When our eyes met, Niimori seemed to read my mind, and he uttered his first apology.
It was too weird, and I felt like a bad sign. He had to stop.
Anyway, to be forgiven so easily when he’d been that pissed at me, that was even scarier.
I closed the valve and took off my mask, putting it on Niimori’s face. When I looked at the gauge, there wasn’t but a few minutes left in the tank. But Niimori and I had both gotten top grades in the no-breath crawl at the academy.
I coughed, spitting out a breath full of smoke. The air was hot, and that was all it took to make the inside of my lungs sting.
“The tank’s almost empty, no more talking,” I warned him, even as I was having a coughing fit, and opened the valve back up.
I heard Niimori give a little cough into the air that spilled into the mask.
He was conscious at least, but when I picked him up, he didn’t even have the strength to hold on to me by himself. He weighed about as much as I did, but I didn’t feel any of it.
Just as I leapt out into the flames, I heard Niimori call my name – “Kousuke…” – but it had to have been a mistake.
He’d never called to me like that, never once.
A gravestone with the name Niimori carved on it stood in the middle of a cemetery not far from where Mihaya’d taken me on that first failed date. The calendar had turned to fall, but the sun’s rays still beat down harsh in the middle of the day.
“I’m the one who said I’d leave an arsonist to die, too, huh,” he muttered.
Despite the declarations of his trainee days, he’d leapt into the flames without a single piece of equipment in order to save that arsonist – how contradictory.
The man he’d saved was transferred to a detention facility after receiving treatment at the hospital. The trial still hadn’t started yet, but he was facing down multiple arson charges, so I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many years the judge might sentence him to.
In the end, he’d kept his lips sealed as to why he’d committed the arsons, even to this day, but he had apparently said that he’d intended to end his own life that day.
It was his younger brother who’d told us. A few weeks before they’d started the prank calls, he’d gotten his brother’s last will and testament in the mail, and so he and his sister had fished around their apartment for clues as to their brother’s whereabouts. They’d discovered a notebook with a map of the area on a piece of scrap paper and dots next to certain buildings and empty lots. Places marked with a circle were likely targets, and places with a doubled circle were definite targets. Apparently they’d recognized the pattern fairly early on.
Why the criminal had left behind such an important notebook, no one knew. Maybe he’d simply forgotten it, or perhaps he’d wanted to be stopped. The morning of the day he set the mall on fire, he’d emailed his sister an apology. Realizing that their brother intended to commit suicide, they’d headed to the one remaining place marked with a double circle, and called Niimori to ask him what they should do.
Niimori, it seemed, arrived on the scene, listened to their story, and then entered the building as he was putting in his call to the department. The two kids waited outside, but eventually they couldn’t stand it any more, and went in after him. Niimori had no clue where the criminal was, and breathed in an extreme amount of smoke, running around looking for him.
“You always seem so cool and composed, but sometimes you get weirdly obstinate and then you head off in even more absurd directions than I do,” I replied. “Although that’s probably what made me fall in love with you in the first place. I know we did the confessing and the physical connection back to front, and so things got complicated, but I just didn’t know how the hell I was supposed to get you to have faith in my feelings.”
Yes, it had started with sex, but if that was all there had been to it, I wouldn’t have ended up liking him after we slept together only once – I’m not that dense. Not that there’s any point in telling him that, I muttered at the gravestone.
What would a firefighter who had himself died on the line thanks to an arsonist think of my half-grumbling half-doting complaints? Just as I wondered if he might find it kind of disgusting, I heard Niimori’s ill-humored voice. “Don’t talk to my dad about weird stuff, and in such a casual tone. Gonna get yourself cursed.”
He picked up his water-filled, plastic bucket and stared at me with a suspicious scowl.
Niimori had talked to me about the way his behavior had changed after that first time we had sex. “I can’t trust any attitude that changes that quickly,” he’d said. “Once the heat cools off, the attitude’ll change right back again.”
I didn’t know if I should just be happy at the slight shift from “I can’t believe you because you betrayed me,” to “I can’t believe you because your attitude changed too quickly,” or if I should feel aggrieved that he still didn’t fully believe me even though I’d risked my life to save him, but when he invited me for a grave-visit, I felt like I’d been allowed to touch Niimori’s heart, and I was overjoyed.
“I’m not getting cursed by the person I risked my life to save. Don’t you have anything else to say?”
“I treated you to that beer, didn’t I?”
“So your entire life is equal to one full mug of draft beer?”
Niimori’d been in the hospital for almost two full days after the fire. Apparently, he’d been trying to take the arsonist from that staff room when he’d collapsed because of a taser blast. That was when he’d dropped his cell phone. After he went down, the criminal took a sleeping pill and waited for the flames to consume them both. But in the end, he hadn’t been able to make it to Heaven.
I heard later on from one of the kids when they came to visit Niimori at the office that the first word out of their brother’s mouth when he came to had been, “Why?”
“Not my life,” Niimori answered me, “yours.”
“One beer isn’t going to cover that kind of yelling. I almost died.”
The commander had blamed both of us equally. Including the flack I caught from the captain and all the older guys, I think that’s the most anger I’ve ever had directed at me in my entire life.
I was told I’d have to give up the orange jumpsuit, but at least I wasn’t canned.
I’d violated orders, but I had rescued the arsonist and Niimori. Niimori’d gotten utterly chewed out, too, but that was because it was his day off. He had at least called in before going in to rescue people though, so he wasn’t canned either.
The investigators were pissed though, since Niimori’d ruined their reputation, and when they came to his hospital room to discuss matters, their words were sticky with hatred. Of course, Niimori ignored them all, looking like a dog who’d successfully swallowed an entire raccoon.
“It’s plenty for a guy who exposes my personal inclinations to my entire family whenever he wants,” Niimori replied.
Since the fire, the gloomy air between us had disappeared, but our relationship hadn’t made much progress.
Niimori seemed not to remember much of when I’d carried him out of the building, but he did apparently understand that I’d rescued him, at least, so that was enough. There was no reason to get demanding. I just wanted him to know that I would never betray him again.
“I’m less terrible than the guys you’ve been going out with thus far – I mean, not by much, but still. They didn’t surprise you by being happy for you, though?”
“My grandfather, I don’t know, but my grandmother certainly cried enough. She opposed it, but she opposed my being a firefighter, too, and I did that in the end too, so.”
“But you’re on command center duty now, that’s not dangerous. Can’t she just overlook it?”
Except that in Niimori’s case, it wasn’t his day job that was dangerous, it was the way he leapt into trouble on his own on his days off. The criminal’d been arrested this time, but if a second or third arsonist came along, he’d do the same damn thing – that was the scary part.
“Yeah who knows about next year, though,” he said, ladling water out of the bucket and pouring it into a vase. He arranged the flowers we’d brought.
“You have,” I hesitated, “aspirations?”
“Who knows if they’ll amount to anything or not, but… Anyway, I’ve gotta keep my eye on you, make sure you don’t die.”
I’d finally gotten the answer I’d always hoped for, and I was dumbfounded. Niimori turned to me, narrowing his eyes like a determined cat. He looked so haughty like that, so full of self-confidence and proud, so cute.
I was overjoyed that we’d be able to go out on calls together again, that Niimori had managed to clear his hurdle.
I was elated, too, that I’d regained his confidence as a comrade. Maybe it was just lip service, but I felt like he’d finally approved of me in a genuine way, and my mouth fell open.
It seemed Niimori had heard me when I told him I wouldn’t abandon him, even if he hadn’t been conscious for it.
“Yeah, please do,” I said, “watch over me until the day I die.”
He must have thought I’d come back with something smart, because he seemed surprised by my response. His eyes flashed open in surprise and then he abruptly averted his gaze without saying anything.
“So we came to the cemetery today to tell your father you’re coming back to the line?”
Of course, just because he wanted to didn’t mean it would happen, but that wasn’t the issue here. He wanted to come back, and I was happy to think he even could.
“No…” Niimori, on the other hand, seemed strangely inarticulate. “That’s not… I brought you along today…”
He hesitated, and then grabbed my hand in his. For a second, I was so surprised I didn’t quite know what was going on, but when I looked at Niimori, his one ear that I could see was as red as it had been when he was drunk.
“I thought,” he said, “I should introduce you.”
“Is that… as a colleague?” I asked timidly.
“I wouldn’t have taken you all the way out here if you were just a colleague,” Niimori answered in a sulky tone.
When I didn’t say anything, Niimori looked at me. “You have no self-awareness, you’re the one who just said ‘until the day I die.’ You’re the one blurting all kinds of embarrassing crap.”
I couldn’t find any words, and when my silence persisted, he told me off. “Say something, Jesus.”
I knew from his tone that he was just embarrassed that he’d held my hand, so to compensate for my lack of words, I squeezed his hand even stronger.
Niimori hung his head, his face redder than ever, and threw some abusive language in my direction. “I can’t believe I was brought down by you, how humiliating.”
But his face stayed red, and he didn’t even attempt to pry his fingers loose, so the mood didn’t fall an inch.
Although, I couldn’t understand what had brought on this sudden development. As I quietly rubbed his fingers, wondering if it was because I’d carried him under my arms like I’d done with Ishiwatari, or if he’d been moved by my kindness, Niimori suddenly started muttering.
“Before, you said I wrote the character for ‘person’ on my hand,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘person.’ It was ‘water.’ When my dad was dying, he couldn’t even speak, and he kept floating in and out, and he wrote it on my hand. I couldn’t even get him a glass of water, and he couldn’t have drunk it anyway, so it always stayed with me. The first time I went out on a call, I remembered it, and…”
Looking at his sad profile, it occurred to me that surely his father wasn’t worried about anything so mundane as that.
“Are you sure it was water?” I asked.
“What’s that mean?”
“I mean, ‘Mihaya’ – he wasn’t trying to write your name?”
I figured he’d been trying to call Niimori’s name, just like I had when I was searching for him in that mall, but he couldn’t find him. His dad had to write it with his fingers.
It wasn’t anything more than a guess, but the second I said it, Niimori turned to look at me, dumbfounded. “Uhhh,” he started, his voice shaking. “You mean I shouldn’t regret it, what happened that day?” He blinked slowly.
That was the first time I saw Niimori cry.