The night was bitter cold but so windless that if you stood still only your nose and finger tips felt it. The dry snow crunched and squealed as the ambulance drivers turned their wheels to back onto the bay to drop off the two patients inside. It was Christmas Eve and the only people working that night were those who got the short straw. But they were trying to make the best of it.
“Got two from the fire down the street,” said the paramedic named Woody in a thick Philadelphia accent.
“I wondered what was going on,” Dr. Hilton said as he whisked by. “I saw the helo with its big light seemingly suspended over downtown.”
The department was so busy that hardly anyone noticed the two people being placed in the hallway. But the smell of smoke was so strong that no one could ignore them for long. A whiff of their kerosene-singed hair was enough to turn your stomach. The man sat with his bandaged hands still shaking in pain, his face covered in soot.
“Giuseppe here tried to go back into the apartment,” Woody whispered to Carol the charge nurse as he tilted his head to point at the man. “But the crew stopped him with his hands on the burning door.”
“His kid was out, then just as the crew was bringing out the parents, the kid slipped away and ran back inside yelling for ‘Hombre.’ They said that was his dog. It was a Chinese fire drill out there. First the kid is out, then he’s back in. Then the parents are out and they try to go back in. It was nuts.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Where’s my baby?” the mother wailed.
“Maria, they’ve got three guys looking for him in the building right now,” the medic said. “They’re really smart guys. I know Goldsmith, Franky and Merlin. They won’t stop looking for him.”
“I hate to say it,” he whispered to Carol, “but I think that kid is probably toast by now. That fire was a real hell hole by the time the squad got there. To tell you the truth, I don’t see how anybody could get out of there.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” Carol said crossing herself and raising her hand to her lips.
“Is anybody going to see MY kids,” an obese woman with a hair net bawled from the corner. For some strange reason, she had chosen this night to bring all five of her children to the ED for minor complaints. They all climbed around on the gurney while she sat passively. Dr. Hilton just shook his head.
“They would have to take the last bed in the house,” he muttered. Despite the obnoxious tone in the mother’s voice, Billy Shepherd – the security guard who normally was outside herding people across the street – was giving the kids a big pile of Christmas candy.
Everyone tried to go about their business with good tidings and cheer. But they just couldn’t. It was Christmas Eve. Everyone seemed to slog from patient to patient trying to ward off the sense of foreboding that hung over the night. Finally Dr. Hilton got around to the man with the hand burns. “I see you are not from here in the city,” he said, trying to make small talk.
“No,” the man muttered, staring out the ambulance doors. “We just moved here. We’ve got relatives here. But they didn’t have room for us to stay with them. So we moved into a basement apartment. But it didn’t have heat.”
“Oh, so you were using Kerosene heaters?” Hilton got the picture. Giuseppe just nodded. His shoulders slumped as he broke into tears. The doctor had heard the whole conversation between Woody and Carol and had decided not to play into the cruel deception of hoping for a good ending.
The night wore on and the staff attended quietly to patients who moaned and bleated from time to time. The staff tried to spread some good cheer. Holly wore her antlers with tiny bells and gave out small gifts to the patients. One of the unlucky administrators tasked with being Santa showed up in the ED and shouted a lame Ho Ho Ho. But each time the radio crackled everyone stopped to hear the news from the scene of the fire. One by one Francis “Franky” Osman, Henry Goldsmith, and finally Reginald Merlin emerged from the fire empty handed. Each time the mood in the ED became more bleak.
“Truck 12 to Emergency Base. You guys are not going to believe what just happened. That little kid just walked out of the fire with a mangy mut of a dog in his arms.” The ED erupted. A few of the patients, having become aware of the staff’s worry, even began to applaud.
“Praise God,” Carol whispered to herself with glistening eyes.
“How bad is he burned?” Dr. Hilton said, returning to business at the base station radio.
“I’m not sure he’s burned at all,” the fireman on the other end said. “He’s got puncture wounds on each hand.”
“Apparently the dog bit him a couple times when he tried to carry him out,” the medic explained. “That mangy little rat. We’ll be to your place in a few minutes. Out.”
“All is well that ends well,” Woody said.
“We’ll see if he looks good when he get here,” Dr. Hilton warned. The child’s parents had been moved to a quiet room anticipating the worst, so they didn’t hear the good news from the radio. Dr. Hilton decided not to tell them anything until he had a chance to assess the child.
Dr. Hilton was not prepared for what he saw as the ambulance rolled in the door with the tiny child. The boy’s hair was literally still smoking. Every inch of his pajamas appeared to have been burned off. His skin was totally exposed and covered with soot. But on closer examination he saw no burns. Not one. The tiny Chihuahua, likewise, was covered in soot but without a single burn. The little boy, appearing to be no more than five, just sat calmly, stroking the shaking dog.
“Did the dog bite you?” Dr. Hilton asked as he carefully examined the boy.
“Damned dog,” one of the nurses muttered looking over Dr. Hilton’s shoulder in the crowded exam room.
“He didn’t mean to,” the little boy explained to the group. “He was just scared. So I just sat down with him until he got brave.”
“What’s your name, little guy,” Dr. Hilton said, finally smiling as he realized that a little soap and water would make him good as new.
“Manny,” he said with a sly grin. “But my mamma calls me E-Man-U-El.”
“You know what, Manny?” Dr. Hilton said with a satisfied sigh. “I think it’s time to go talk to your mother. I believe I might just have some good tidings.”