Justin waited at the end of Bobwhite Lane to flag Miranda down. She couldn’t be more than a few minutes behind them, and he wanted to be the one to stop her. Things looked far worse than they were.
At number thirteen, her son was sitting in the open cab of Engine 3, wrapped in a blanket, holding Marvin. The cat, despite his role in the unfolding events, was peacefully settled in his boy’s lap, cleaning his paws.
Miranda’s Camry appeared around the corner of Coturnix and Justin took a deep breath. This part of the job was always the worst for him. The car was already slowing, even as he waved. He didn’t need to look behind him to know what Miranda was seeing as she approached. The scene was all too familiar to him–cruisers, an ambulance, the engine…
It didn’t always look worse than it was.
The window started to slide down. “What’s going on? I–Justin?”
She barely stopped the car before throwing it in park and getting out. He put out an arm to stop her. “Miranda. Elliot is fine. Your house is okay.”
“I need to–Elliot–“ She blinked at him as his words sunk in. “What happened?”
“Hey, breathe.” He stepped into her field of vision, braced her elbows, and spoke firmly to hold her attention. “The cat knocked over a candle in the kitchen. It caught on a cloth or a towel. Elliot did good. He called 9-1-1, the crew said he smothered it with a small rug and got out. He was outside with Marvin when we got here.”
“They’re okay? Can I go over there? Justin, I–“
“I know. Let’s move your car out of the street and walk over together, okay? They’re clearing the scene. You’ll be able to go inside as soon as we’re sure there’s no danger. In the meantime, I’m going to give you two the keys to my place.” He resisted the urge to touch her cheek; he was in uniform and she was in shock. “It’s too cold out here, and you’ve got dinner in the car.”
“I don’t care about dinner, I just–“
“I know, but you’re going to be hungry when the adrenaline passes, and the house is going to need to ventilate before you should be back inside.”
He radioed a colleague to let them know Elliot’s mom was coming through, and moved her car while she walked ahead. Jogging to catch up while carrying a good-sized sushi order was tricky, but he was by her side when she got to her driveway. Elliot saw her coming and jumped down, scattering the cat. Marvin, sensing an ally, leaped from the ground to Justin’s shoulder, digging in with his claws to stick the landing.
Justin winced at the weight and the stabbing claws, but let the cat perch while Miranda and her son held each other. He heard the boy’s tears and Miranda’s shaky reassurance. He even thought he heard her whisper, “Goddamn Marvin.”
When a high-end sedan rounded the corner a few minutes later going way too fast, it didn’t surprise Justin to see the guy from the weekend before hop out of the car. He’d taken the cat and the sushi (which he secured in the fridge before leaving Marvin alone) to his house, but Miranda and Elliot were still in the driveway talking to his chief, a police officer, and the paramedic.
He went to help his crew clean up get back to the station, but it was hard to ignore Miranda’s distressed voice arguing with her ex. His heart sank, watching Elliot shuffle into his father’s car while Miranda cried.
His crewmate, Lacey Harrington, watched the family drama unfold as well. “Sucks more on Christmas, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” He hated the thought of Miranda alone in her smoke-scented house for the night. “She’s got a sister nearby. I wonder if she thought to call her family.”
“What’s going on there, Pearson?” Lacey said softly. “I know she’s your neighbor, but…”
“I really like her, Lace.”
Lacey punched him lightly on the arm. “Then finish your shift and go get her, dummy.”
He sighed. “I haven’t even known her a week, and now I’m just one of the first responders from her Christmas fire.”
“Chicks dig firefighters,” Lacey said. “Why do think I joined up?”
Justin laughed. He’d kept his distance from the station crew since his parents’ passing, preferring the semi-anonymity of his online friends, but Lacey’s good-natured ribbing was a reminder that they were his family, too.
The chief released the engine crew, and led Miranda into the house to go over the damage. She glanced over her shoulder at him as they passed. She’d been strong for her son, but she was all alone now, and he wished he could stay behind and reassure her.
“Chief,” he said. “Hold up.”
He joined Miranda and the Chief near the giant ornament. “Miranda, I’ve got to go back to the station, but Marvin and your sushi are at my place. Make yourself at home there when you’re done with the walk through. Call your sister, okay?”
The Chief nodded–both an acknowledgement and a dismissal. Miranda drew in a shaky breath. “Oh no. Ari…Thank you.”
Justin left her there with the Chief, wishing it was his house they’d visited instead.