Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

When You Die on the Radio

Everyone hears Hunger die on the radio, and no one can do anything about it. His mayday is admirably calm for someone who is burning. He’s breathing heavily, but he doesn’t betray any fear. It’s a textbook radio transmission, the kind the other firefighters hope they could make if they were trapped and blind in a smoke-filled basement. Even as the house groans and gives up its life, he’s confident that his friends will come for him.

• • • •

Trish flies home from the memorial service the night before she’s scheduled to be back on duty. She has spent twelve hours in Hunger’s home town, where he once chased a grounder into the woods and kept walking with the baseball in his hand, heedless of the shouts from the game, because he was disgusted by his teammates’ acceptance of an inevitable defeat.

Home is where Hunger would smear raspberries around his mouth and nose, bloodying himself with sweetness to terrify his hapless parents. Trish knows all these stories because he told them around the firehouse table, his food untouched, while others ate and laughed. Everyone would tease him when a call interrupted a meal, leaving him the only one unfed.

At the service, Trish sweats in her Class A uniform as she waits in line to console his family. She wonders how many of the people in the receiving line appeared in Hunger’s stories. Eventually, Hunger’s father peers through swollen eyes at her gold name plate. “You were Daryl’s officer, weren’t you?”

She imagines this man coming home to find his son on the kitchen floor, covered in fake blood. It seems terribly cruel that she laughed at this story only a month ago.

“Yes, sir,” she says. “Daryl was . . .” She falters, acutely aware that this is the first time she’s ever referred to him by his first name. Everyone called him Unger, the name sewn on his uniform, or Hunger, once he got a reputation for talking at the expense of eating. No one called him Daryl.

“He was,” he nods, squeezing her hand and smiling, an obligatory expression. If he blames her for failing to save his son, he shows no outward sign of it.

Another hand is already reaching past her, and she allows herself to be moved onward down the line by the pressure of others’ grief.

• • • •

The bearded men from logistics show up at the station the next day.

“We’re here to reprogram the radios,” says a man with a glossy ID card bouncing against his belly. “The mayday is stuck in the frequencies.”

The rookie firefighter is directed to bring the portable radios from the rigs—first the engine, then the ladder truck. One by one the radio handsets are plugged into a computer so the men can remove the channel containing Hunger’s mayday.

Trish sits behind the unkept desk, cradling one of the black plastic radios where it can’t be seen from the doorway.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Hunger says from the radio.

“Lieutenant,” the rookie calls from the door.

She turns the dial until she feels the silencing click. She can operate the radio controls by touch, through heavy gloves, with it strapped behind her right hip under the flap of her bunker coat.

“They’ve been looking for the last couple radios,” the rookie says. “We found one in the utility vehicle, but they thought you might have the other.”

“I’ll be right down,” Trish replies. She turns the radio back on, keeping the volume low enough that only she will hear.

Hunger has completed his mayday. She waits.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he begins again. He’s out of breath but still sounds calm. “I’ve fallen into the basement. Heavy fire. I’m trapped. I need help.”

On the corner outside the house, his friends watch flames erupt from a growing fracture in the roof. The walls of the house fold inward, like a reversed video of an opening flower, like collapsing possibilities.

Trish is among them. Hands reach out to restrain her. She would throw herself into the fire for him. She would burn, as she knows he’s burning. While she struggles, the mayday begins again.

“Hey, LT.” One of the logistics crew stands in the office doorway. “We need to finish reprogramming these radios. Your guy said you’ve got the last one.”

Trish holds up her hand. The mayday ends, and there is silence on the channel. Trish remembers the house fold, sending a shower of cinders skyward like freed souls.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Hunger begins his loop again.

“Why does it keep repeating?” she asks.

The man shrugs. “Don’t know. They say it always happens when someone dies. Something gets caught on the frequency. That channel will be useless for a few years until it clears up.”

“It’ll fade?”

“Yeah, eventually he’ll quiet down.” He shifts uncomfortably, and Trish wonders how much he’s paid to erase the memory of her friend. “Uh, we’ve got a bunch more stations we still need to hit,” the man prompts.

She gives up the radio. Hunger’s voice goes silent in his hands.

• • • •

People call 911, and the alarm shrieks, and they go. A woman with cancer wants to die at home, but in her final hours her family panics. They have the legal documents to insist that she go to the hospital. The woman is carried out to an ambulance, mute and enraged, and Trish feels nothing.

A man calls at 2:30 in the morning for a stubbed toe. He insists he cannot walk, and as they carry him down from the third floor, Trish hears a cardiac arrest dispatched a couple blocks away. The next closest unit is ten minutes away, but they can’t leave the man on the stairs. She remembers how angry this would have made her a couple weeks earlier.

The fire marshals can’t identify the cause of the fire. No one admits they threw a cigarette off the deck, or dumped out fireplace ashes concealing live coals hiding like malevolent spirits. Maybe an electrician rushed a wiring job, a fractional error in the house’s DNA that broke out in frightening disease six years later. It might have been one of a thousand actions insulated from their outcomes, karmic entanglements leading to serendipity or ruin.

On the way to the next call, she watches as cars try to outrun the engine, jamming into rows of brake lights as she wails on the siren. No one can be bothered to inconvenience themselves to help someone else. She wonders what would happen if the hidden lines connecting cause and effect became clear—if people could perceive all the means by which they expose or shield each other from the world’s cruelty.

She wonders if anyone truly deserves help.

• • • •

A citizen wants a meeting, which is never good. He’s a foot taller than Trish and his suit jacket is too tight around the shoulders. He keeps shrugging the sleeves as they ride up his thick wrists.

“Michael Stanhouse,” he says, extending his hand.

She pays attention to the way that men shake her hand. Usually they perform the act with a gentle formality, an unwillingness to engage as equals. Stanhouse crushes her hand, and she crushes his in return.

She directs him to the chair across her desk. He barely fits between the armrests.

Stanhouse’s deep voice carries a New Zealand accent. “I have a device that might interest you,” he says.

The rookie should have screened out someone who wanted to make a sales pitch. Trish makes a note to chew him out later. “You’ll need to talk to the department leadership. I’m just a station Lieutenant. I have no authority in purchase decisions.”

“I know.” He smiles, barely. The skin of his cheeks is stiff and rough as scar tissue. “I’m not here to sell you anything. I represent a group that has developed a lifesaving device. In light of your recent line-of-duty death, we thought you might be interested in it.”

He doesn’t use the word “loss” and doesn’t pause before he says “death.” For this reason alone, she doesn’t throw him out. She has heard hundreds of people express their condolences for Hunger’s loss, for his passing. She wants to shout at all of them: he’s not lost. He didn’t wander away. He was killed. He burned alive.

“The device integrates into the microphone cord of a standard radio,” the man explains. “If the user faces certain death, they activate the button and they’re instantly relocated to a nearby receiving radio.”

He reaches into a thick leather briefcase and emerges with a radio like the one she carries on her gear, oblong and unadorned save for the channel knobs and short antenna. It is solid in her hand, almost indestructible.

“Is that it?” she asks. “It looks just like one of ours.”

“No.” He sets it down on her desk. “This is merely for demonstration.” The thick fingers fiddle at the dial.

“US Coast Guard,” a man’s voice says. He sounds out of breath. “Mayday, mayday. This is the Western Reach. We’re at forty-one degrees twenty-three . . .” He falters, gasping, then recites more coordinates.

“What is this?” Trish asks.

“We’re sinking!” the radio says. “We’re sinking!”

The visitor leans across the desk and clicks the channel selector. “I programmed this radio to receive all maydays broadcast over the last few years,” he says.

“They removed Unger’s mayday frequency from our radios,” she says.

“That’s fairly standard,” Stanhouse replies.

The radio squawks. “Air traffic control, Sierra five seven six niner, mayday mayday! Complete loss of engine power. We cannot maintain—” The voice is broken off like a stick.

The large man changes the channel.

She hears thick, wet breathing. “He’s gone. I think we’re . . . on the west side of the col . . .” The voice slurs and becomes unintelligible. Then, “I’m sorry, love.”

“I have a product that would have changed all the outcomes of these transmissions,” the man says.

Trish is overcome by cold anticipation of his next words. She leans across the desk and picks up the radio gently, as if it might explode.

“Channel sixteen lima,” the man says.

She can operate the controls by feel.

“I thought you might want to hear him again,” he explains.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Hunger says.

“I need to borrow this radio,” she tells Stanhouse.

• • • •

Within weeks, Hunger’s voice has begun to fade. It comes through in certain places, certain times, and falls into static in others. One night she can’t pick it up in the apartment. She stalks the floor in mounting desperation, holding the radio over her head. Static. She pulls on yesterday’s clothes and gets in the car.

The voice returns, fades, and comes clear again in a convenience store parking lot near a highway overpass, amidst the trash thrown away by strangers.

Every night she drives in search of it. The guys at the station look at the half-moons under her eyes and say it must be great to be single. They ask if she’s going out with the big guy who has shown up at the station a couple times, meeting with her behind closed doors.

She tells them to go fuck themselves, as she is expected to do. By now, people have remembered how to laugh at the table. There are days they walk past Hunger’s old locker, with its black garland and the photo from the day he took his oath, and don’t miss a step.

All the food that well-wishers left at the station is gone by now, except for some cans of immortal cheese dip stuffed in a cabinet, and a grocery store sheet cake no one could stomach, which the rookie keeps wedging atop leftover containers in the fridge. At the lunch table, conversation fragments into emptiness and the crew’s eyes pivot to the TV or fall into their phones. Trish catches herself thinking it must be Hunger’s day off, then remembers.

She marks milestones the way she did when she first started on the job. She runs her first fire since his death, a room-and-contents started by a forgotten candle in a townhouse where the landlord cut the power. She can’t be sure, but in the moments after the station alarm goes off, she feels like the crew is moving a little more slowly than usual, drawing on their gear as if they’re all under water, encumbered by an invisible thickness.

Not so long ago she stood in another yard as the house burned over their friend. What if the hands that restrained her then had yielded and unclenched from her still-smoking gear? Granted free will, would she have run back into that bright, tilting doorway? No one knows. She’ll never know. How are they supposed to believe in each other without that certainty? In its absence grows a hydra of possibilities: that Hunger died because she’s female, or incompetent, or afraid, or all three.

Usually they bullshit each other with particular vigor after a fire, but that evening the television distracts them. She could tease the engine driver for sounding a little too excited on the radio, or the rookie for fumbling the hoseline. Instead, she wolfs down her food, hoping for another call to extricate them from the quiet.

• • • •

“How does it work?” she asks Stanhouse on his next visit. She turns the small cube over in her hands. Inside the lid is a single button covered by a failsafe switch to prevent accidental activation.

Trish should have referred Stanhouse up the chain of command, but she doesn’t want to give up the radio carrying all the frequencies of the dead. She still hasn’t said she’ll take his lifesaving device, and he’s made no move to leave it with her.

“I don’t claim to understand it.” He spreads his hands, and she notes how rough they are, like a marble statue that has been chipped and eroded by centuries of weather. “I didn’t develop the thing. I’m just a spokesman.”

“The spokesman should be able to tell me how it works.”

Stanhouse looks around at the white cinder-block walls of the office. “Can you tell me exactly how water extinguishes fire?”

“Yes, I can,” she says. “So can every graduate of fire academy. Water expands about 1700 times when it transforms into steam, and in the process—”

“Okay, okay.” He holds up his palms in defeat. “The people who made this aren’t talking about it. It’s never been tested or used in the United States. Only overseas. But it works.”

“How do you know?”

“Do you have the radio I loaned you?”

Trish considers lying and telling him she left it at home. Instead, she reaches into her desk, trying to conceal her reluctance. Loaned. Stanhouse can take away the radio any time he wants.

He twists the dials. She notices he does it almost without paying attention to his hands’ movements. Something about that troubles her.

She can barely make out the damp, pained breathing over the static. “I think we’re . . . on the west side of the col . . .” Static floods the channel. “I’m sorry, love.”

The hoarseness and wet respirations don’t quite obscure the deep voice, the accent. It’s Stanhouse.

“You?” Trish asks.

“It was me. Three years ago.”

She’s not quite sure what question to ask first. “Who were you talking to?”

“My wife. In basecamp. Everyone was trying to sound brave, but all the experienced climbers knew we were done. My client and I were above 8000 meters. We’d been injured in an avalanche, and neither of us was in any condition to walk down. Weather closed in, and that was that.”

“So you used the devices to escape?”

“We only had one. Single use. It belonged to my client. I didn’t even know then that technology like this existed.” He shrugs. “Rich people, you know? But he refused to use it.”

“Why?”

Stanhouse set the radio on the desk between them. “Like I said, it’s only for cases when death is inevitable. The cost is very high. My client didn’t want to guess wrong and deploy it without good reason.”

“Sounds like you had a pretty good reason.”

“Not good enough. He froze to death waiting for help.”

• • • •

Trish wakes up to men yelling in the chasm between the buildings. She puts a palm to the frosted glass and watches the bellowing shadows. She imagines them painted with raspberry juice, staggering under the pain of imaginary injuries. They round the corner, the voices fading.

When she tunes the radio to Hunger’s frequency, she receives only silence. She paces the room, seeking a fraction of his voice, but she cannot find him.

Stanhouse meets her at the convenience store, knocking once on the passenger window before opening the car door and dropping into the seat. He’s unshaven and bundled into a large coat. Trish knows there are hours in the night when the body struggles to stay warm, solitary stretches when it is painfully apparent to anyone awake that they are utterly alone. That’s when people call 911 for afflictions that would seem tame in daylight.

She holds up the radio. Hunger’s voice is thin and distant.

“Why is he fading so fast?” she asks. “Your transmission is still strong after three years.”

“Lots of reasons. I had a stronger radio, for starters.”

“Is it because of me?” Trish stares out at the bright storefront. “Because I’m listening?”

He shifts, the coat rustling. “Maybe. Probably.”

“And no one is listening to you?” She turns off the radio. “No, I guess they wouldn’t need to. You came back.”

Sleet begins to pit the windshield, smearing the streetlights.

“Are they ghosts?” she asks. “Trapped spirits? Or just a weird glitch in the radios?”

He doesn’t answer for a while. “More than a glitch,” he says at last. “Maybe before radios, before maydays, they manifested in another way. We happened to build the right kind of technology to trap them.”

“He’s so close,” Trish says. “If your device works through the radio, can we pull him through? We could connect with his mayday transmission and activate it.”

Stanhouse shakes his head. “It only works one way. It has to be pushed at the point of origin.”

“Then I’ll connect it to this radio, tune into his mayday, and go to him.”

He shifts, his elbow prodding the door. “You mean, send yourself through the radio, back in time to when he broadcast the mayday?”

“Exactly.”

Stanhouse sighs and fumbles at his back pocket. “Let me show you something,” he says, pressing at the screen of his phone. After a minute, he hands it across the car.

The image is bright white, as if the exposure has been dialed up too high. It shows a patch of snow. A bent arm enclosed in a tattered blue jacket emerges from the drift. A waxen bare hand curls like a bird’s claw. A pair of boots is barely visible in the frame, as if someone is napping under the snowbank. It’s a man—no, two men, embracing—engulfed in white.

“That’s me in blue,” he says, pointing. “It’s a bit hard to see. This is why the device is only meant to be used when death is inevitable.”

Trish exhales. “I don’t understand.”

He accepts the phone again, the screen illuminating his pitted, tight features. “You can’t save yourself,” he says. “You push the button, you die. You transmit a copy for the people on the other end. It’s an act of mercy, not survival.”

A man outside the convenience store bursts out laughing, and Trish wonders how joy and sorrow manage to coexist in such close proximity. She shakes her head. “What was it like?” she asks.

He struggles to slide the phone back into his pocket. “I remember my hands were so cold I could barely get the device open. I pushed the button, opened my eyes, and I was curled up in our tent in basecamp, beside the transmitter. I could feel the warmth of the heaters on my face. I felt like I was burning. But up on the mountain, the person who I was until that moment died. The person who actually pushed the button is still up there.”

Trish imagines Hunger walking out of the house wreathed in fire. She takes his gloved hand and leads him out into the yard. The others surround him, their hands patting away the clinging flames, wiping him clean like a newborn child.

Stanhouse doesn’t meet her eyes. “To my wife and friends, the person who activated the device was dead. They couldn’t accept me. Then a couple climbers spread a story that I took it from my client to save myself. No one trusted me anymore, even after the pictures of the bodies came out. It destroyed my career and my marriage.”

“But you’re still here,” she says.

His laughter forms a short-lived cloud. “Well, not still here. Technically, I’m only three years old.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” Trish presses him. “Can it be done? Could I go back to get him?”

“You’d die in the process. Maybe, in some parallel universe, you would show up just as he’s delivering the mayday, but back here, you’d be dead. Even if it were possible, imagine how that would affect your firehouse, your family.”

Trish thinks about the quiet over the station dinner table, the way the crew pulls on their gear a little more slowly when they get a call. She wonders if anyone would miss her the way she misses Hunger.

When he extricates himself from the car, she finds the device left in the seat. She drives it home without touching it, and carries it inside like a live grenade.

• • • •

She rations the time she spends on Hunger’s frequency.

Hundreds of other maydays still come through clearly. She can’t stop listening, despite surges of guilt at contributing to the slow erosion of their signals. She drives out at night to catch them like falling stars.

We’re falling. We’re sinking. I’m trapped. We don’t know where we are. Tell my son I love him. Please help us. Please respond. Mayday. Emergency. Pan pan. Help me.

Theirs is the only anguish she can feel, as if she’s tuned to receive grief. She listens while speeding on the highway and sitting behind the shuttered public library. She drives endless residential streets like the one where Hunger burned, full of identical houses and copied lives, remarkable only for their disasters.

She listens until she’s so exhausted that she wonders if she’s finished chasing their misery. By the next night, she’s ready for more.

Trish thinks of the cancer patient who wanted to die at home, who watched with hot eyes as they carried her out. Trapped in a weightless body, standing inside a burning house. So near to safety, yet unable to reach it.

• • • •

She finds the floor plans in the Line of Duty Death report. It shows the precise location where Hunger was found under the debris, less than twelve feet inside a basement door, down a shallow staircase from the back yard.

The report doesn’t quite match her memory, but she was frantic in the immediate aftermath of the fire, slopping through steaming wet ash as hoselines arced over her shoulder to cool the remaining flames. Lights sent her shadow deep into the cavity at the heart of the burned house. Cold sloshed over the tops of her boots.

She memorizes the map of the basement. That is where she’ll arrive.

While her crew sleeps, she pulls a spare SCBA from the equipment closet and stashes it in her car. At the end of the shift, she takes home all her gear, instead of stowing it in the metal lockers that line the engine bay.

She sleeps most of the day, throwing away her final hours. She knows, from having seen people die, that most people’s hours are wasted. She can’t bring herself to do anything different with the few she has left.

At night she attaches the device to the mayday radio and drives in search of Hunger’s signal.

His words slur. The voice crackles and dies as she visits all the locations where he once came in clearly, as if he’s fleeing from her. She hears a single mayday, cool and certain. It stabs her in the chest, a spasm so unexpected that she pulls over and waits to see what will follow. Is she dying?

But it passes, and she resumes looking. At last, turn by turn, the signal leads her back to the house on the corner.

She’s not sure what she expected. The last time she was here, the house was a skeleton of burned uprights brooding over the sunken lake of the basement. Little cinders floated on cold ink before winking out and submerging.

Instead, she finds an intact structure, unmarked by the events she remembers. The windows are bright. It’s like all the others, monotonous but with all the usual possibilities for happiness. It looks almost as it did just before the fire tore open the roof like a monster escaping its confinement, the refined violence and sorrow confined within each of these boxes distilled into heat and light, shredding the paper rooms in search of the sky.

They only altered one thing when they rebuilt: the address. Someone took advantage of the house’s location at the end of the block to give it a new number. Trish figures no one wants to buy a house where a young man died, calling for help, his voice trapped in the ether, tormenting those who cared about him. The old number will fade into old real estate records and web searches.

Trish feels the stab in her chest again, and recognizes anger.

Hunger’s voice calls mayday, mayday, mayday, as clearly as the first time.

• • • •

She dons her gear outside the car, aware that this must look strange to anyone peering into the night from a nearby window. The SCBA is heavy and reassuring against her back.

She reviews her plan: orient herself, find him, clear debris, drag him to the door and up four steps to safety. She envisions the layout of the basement. She’ll need to orient herself by feel in the black smoke, matching the corners with her memory.

It will be hot—almost unbearable. She prepares herself for the sudden shock, the unnerving sensation that her flesh is cooking within her gear. The bees will be stinging her ears, even protected under an insulating hood.

She gets down on the ground beside the car and lies as flat as she can, consciously loosening her shoulders. Staying low will protect her from the worst of the heat.

It occurs to her that she hasn’t left a note or given any explanation for what she’s about to do. Maybe, in this timeline, her body will be found beside the car, in full gear, like a sacrifice or an atonement. Cause of death: unknown.

Trish twists the channel dial. There are many empty frequencies on the radio, where voices have faded into exhaustion or been scraped clean by listeners who, like her, could not let go. She keys the mic, wondering what her own personal mayday should sound like.

She’s fallen through a hole burned in the world. She’s sinking. She’s falling. She’s trapped. She needs help.

She manages a few seconds of silence before releasing the mic. What does it matter? Nothing that she has said until now has made a difference.

Hunger’s voice is only a few clicks back on the dial. The failsafes covering the device confound her gloved hand for a few seconds. Trish hugs the ground. She takes one long, measured breath, as if she’s not afraid, and

• • • •

“Wait. Wait.” Stanhouse’s face is in front of her mask, his hands against her gloves. They fumble over the radio. His eyes widen when she doesn’t immediately let it go. “Just wait a second,” he says, his voice suddenly calm. He releases his hold, his eyes locked with hers.

Trish’s breath is loud in the mask. She’s wasting air that she’ll need in the house. She unclips the regulator.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Answering your mayday,” he replies.

She rises to her knees, and he follows suit. “I didn’t say anything,” she tells him.

“I know. I’ve been listening to it for the past two months.”

She recognizes what he’s saying, but her mind can’t quite chase the implications.

“No,” Trish says. “You don’t have the right to interfere. I’m going back.”

“You already went,” Stanhouse says. “You’re already gone.”

• • • •

Somewhere she appears in the searing light, a hand fumbling for another gloved hand. She yells over the noise of combustion, the howl of the house being devoured. Hunger ceases struggling. Someone has come back for him, as he knew they would.

Fire filters through darkness. An alarm wails: low air. Only a little life left. Debris sends fireflies into the smoke. She groans as she pushes aside tilting beams, freeing him.

Then, a vertical rectangle of light, hands reaching for them, people shouting. They collapse in each other’s arms in the heat-wilted grass. He’s laughing.

Still on his back, Hunger smolders, as if he’s a malevolent being that just stepped through a gateway on to a suburban lawn. Trish rolls up on one knee, and with gloved hands begins unbuckling his SCBA. Her face is somber through her pitted facepiece.

“Are you hurt?” she yells over the roar of the fire.

“I don’t think so.”

She methodically removes his gear, exposing him again to the night, careful not to burn herself.

“That,” Hunger laughs, “is going to make a hell of a story.”

She does not answer.

Somewhere, she dies on the sidewalk outside the reconstructed house, alone.

Then someone goes back for her.

• • • •

The lunch table goes quiet the next time Stanhouse rings the doorbell. The rookie jumps up to get the door, and Trish notes the sudden silence over the plates. Moments ago, the crew was talking and laughing. Other stories and storytellers have gradually stepped in to take Hunger’s place, knitting together the rough edges of their shared wound like a scar.

Up in her office, she tosses the device across the desk. Stanhouse catches it, flips aside the failsafes, and pokes at the button. There’s no tension in it, as if a spring has broken inside the mechanism. “You can keep this if you want,” he says. “One-time use.”

She shakes her head. “You knew I would use it, didn’t you?”

“No. But I thought you might.”

She points over his shoulder, at the framed picture of Hunger in his uniform. “He’s still dead.”

“In this world. In another, you saved him. Can I have the radio?”

She hands it over the desk, concealing her reluctance. Stanhouse turns the volume knob and selects a channel. His hands again move with strange efficiency that troubles her for a moment.

She hears a faint, electronic hum, then silence.

“He’s gone,” she confirms. “No more mayday.”

“That’s not his mayday,” Stanhouse tells her. “It’s yours.”

The channel is quiet. Trish remembers the last minute of her life, when she geared up to enter a fire that had burned down to ash months ago, and pressed herself against the cool earth as if the air itself were aflame.

“I didn’t know what to say,” she says.

“You will,” he says, “eventually.” He twists the volume dial without looking, and her stomach lurches as she recognizes the practiced gesture.

“You’ve been listening to that radio, too,” she says.

He nods, and she at last understands.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve gone back to save someone, is it?” she asks.

“You’re the fourth,” he answers, not meeting her eyes.

“And every time, you die?”

He shifts his mass in the chair. “I just couldn’t let go of the maydays. Most of them, I can’t do anything for: plane crashes, sinking ships. If I showed up, I would just be an unexplainable body in the wreckage—”

“Or in the ashes,” Trish interrupts. “You wanted to go back for Hunger. You’d probably listened to his frequency so many times it was half-erased by the time I tuned in. You just didn’t have the training or equipment to get him yourself. But you knew another firefighter would.”

“I thought you might have a better shot. But it had to be your decision.”

Silence falls between them.

“It was,” she says at last. “And I get why you’re doing it. But you don’t have to die for all those people.”

Stanhouse gazes out the window behind her desk. “I don’t really have anything else left. I’m already working on a plan for a fishing boat that sank in Alaska sixteen months ago.”

She laughs at the audaciousness. “How do you plan to explain your sudden appearance on a boat?”

“That’s one detail I still need to work out.”

Trish points at the radio. “Explain this, then. Your mayday from the mountain is still coming through loud and clear. Why not go back and save yourself?”

“Would you?”

Trish sighs, and Stanhouse reaches into his bag. “I’ve still got a few of these left,” he says, waving another device. “When I’m down to one, I’ll go back and make sure my client makes it out.”

She has the sudden image of him, bulked up in cold-weather gear, emerging from a blizzard to confront . . . himself. “If the original Stanhouse survives, will there be two of you?”

“I’m not sure how it’s going to work. But the old me can go back to his life. I’ve got other things to keep me busy.” He stands.

Trish wishes he would stay, even if only a few minutes longer. “When you go back for the crew of the fishing boat, you’ll die in this timeline.”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “This is why I’m the perfect guy for the job. No one will miss me.”

“I will,” she says.

Stanhouse smiles. “Thanks. I’m sorry you’re stuck in this timeline. I wish you could have your friend back.”

The rookie appears in the doorway, asking a pointless question that betrays the fact that he has been sent here to spy on her and the station’s visitor. This is how her crew members show their affection. She’s going to give them all some shit about it later, as she’s expected to do.

She calls the rookie back. “Did you ever hear the story about how Hunger would smear raspberry juice on his face and scare his parents?”

The rookie shakes his head.

“I’ll tell you about it at dinner,” she says.

In time, she’ll tell all his stories, returning over and over to a world untouched by fire. Those moments will resonate over the table, supplemented and replaced as new faces bring their own tales, inhabited and abandoned as old homes, as all things burn and are remade.

Adam R. Shannon

Adam R. Shannon is a career firefighter/paramedic, speculative fiction writer, aspiring cook, and steadfast companion of dogs. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Nightmare, Apex, and Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die. His story “On the Day You Spend Forever With Your Dog” was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award and appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. He’s a graduate of Clarion West 2017.