September 2, 2001
There were too many funerals.
Jamie Bryan locked eyes on the casket anchored atop a specially fitted
slow-moving New York City fire truck, and that was her only thought.
Too many funerals. So many that this one-like those before it-was
steeped in tradition: the haunting refrains from fifty bagpipes, the white-gloved
salute, the lone bugler sounding taps, the helicopter passing overhead. Jamie
knew the routine well. Hundreds of dignitaries and several
thousand uniformed firefighters lined Fifth Avenue outside St. Patrick's
Cathedral, the same way they'd done five times already that year.
A sad melody lifted from the bagpipes and mingled with the early
"I hate this," she whispered without moving.
Her husband stood a few inches away, tall and proud, his blue uniform
pressed crisp, right hand sharply at attention near his brow. He squeezed
her hand. No words came, no response to her statement. What could
he say? Funerals were part of the job. Sometimes ten a year, sometimes
twenty. This year was the lightest yet. Only six so far-six men like Jake
who went to work for the FDNY one morning and never came home.
The funeral music swelled, and Jamie Bryan could feel the walls, feel
them growing and building within her. The first bricks had been with
her since the beginning, back when she first considered marrying a New
York City firefighter.
Back when she and Jake Bryan were just twelve years old.
"I'm never leaving New York City." They'd been playing tag with
neighbor kids outside his house one day that summer. Everyone else
had gone in for dinner. "I'll be FDNY like my daddy." Certainty shone
from his eyes as they made their way onto his front lawn. "Puttin' out
fires and savin' people."
"That's fine for you." She'd dropped to the ground and leaned back
on her elbows. "When I grow up I'm gonna live in France." She stared
at the hazy humid New York sky. "Artists live there."
"Oh yeah?" Jake flopped down beside her. "Before or after you
She lowered her chin to her chest and raised her eyebrows at
him. "What makes you think I'd marry you, Jake Bryan?"
"Because ." He twisted his baseball cap and shot her a grin.
"You love me. And you always will."
That had been it, really. They didn't date until high school, but
after that summer Jake Bryan had been the only boy for her.
"What do you see in him?" Her father peered at her over the
top of his newspaper the day after her eighteenth birthday. "He'll
never be rich."
Jamie had rolled her eyes. "Money isn't everything, Daddy."
"But security is." Her father let the newspaper fall to the table.
"You'll get neither from Jake."
Anger had flashed like lightning across Jamie's heart. "How can
you say that?"
"Because." Her father had rested his forearms on the table, his
expression softer. "It's a tough job, fighting fires in New York City.
The danger's always there, Jamie, as close as the next call." He
gestured in the direction of Jake's house. "Look at his mother. She
lives with the danger every day. It's in her eyes, part of who she is.
That'll be you one day if you marry Jake Bryan."
Her father and Jake's were both Staten Island men, hardworking
New Yorkers who made the commute to Manhattan every day.
But the similarities stopped there. Jake's father, Jim, was a fireman, a
chaplain who always had something to say about God or
the importance of faith.
"What good thing has the Lord done for you today, Jamie?"
he'd ask, grinning at her with piercing blue eyes that would light
up the room.
Jamie was never sure how to answer the man. She had no practice
at giving God credit for the good things in life. Small wonder,
really. Her father, Henry Steele, was an investment banker who
had built a small financial empire with nothing more than brains,
determination, and self-reliance. At least that was his explanation.
Their family had lived in the same house where Jake and
Jamie and their daughter, Sierra, lived today. In an elite section
of Westerleigh, not far from the Staten Island Expressway and
the ferry ramps. The sprawling two-story colonial had a finished
basement and a built-in pool in the backyard. Back then Jamie
and her sister had been friends, just two years apart and living
the charmed life of summer beach parties and winter vacations
in the Florida Keys.
All of it compliments of Henry Steele's hard work and ingenuity.
God got no credit at all.
"A man doesn't need anyone but himself," he would tell Jamie
and her sister. "Religion is a sign of weakness." Then he'd shoot
a pointed look at Jamie. "Of course, when a person fights fires in
New York City, faith might be a necessity."
And so Jamie waited month after month for something terrible
to happen to Jake's father. But in the end it had been Jamie's father,
not Jake's, who died the tragic death. One evening when her parents
were driving home from the ferry, her father lost control at the
wheel, careened off the road, and wrapped their car around a telephone
pole. By the time paramedics arrived at the scene, both her
parents were dead. Jamie was twenty that year, her sister, eighteen.
Their parents carried a million dollars' life insurance each, and
a lawyer helped the girls work out an agreement. Jamie got the
family house; Kara got a full ride to Florida State University and
stocks. They were both given enough savings to last a lifetime, but
no amount of money could stop the arguments that developed
over the next few years. An ocean of differences lay between them
now. It had been five years since they'd spoken to each other.
Three years after the death of her parents, Jamie remembered
her father's warning about Jake's job as she stood by and watched
him graduate with his fire science degree. Weeks later he was
hired by the New York Fire Department. The next summer Jake
and Jamie married and honeymooned on a Caribbean cruise, and
since then Jamie hadn't been more than a hundred miles from the
But she no longer wanted to travel the world. Sights from a
dozen exotic countries could never rival the pleasure she felt simply
loving Jake Bryan.
"You don't have to work, you know ." Jamie had mentioned
the fact to Jake just once-a month before his first shift with
FDNY. "We have enough money." Jake had bristled in a way she
hadn't seen him do before or since.
"Listen. Fighting fires in New York City is part of who I am,
Jamie. Deep inside me." His eyes held a hard glint. "It's not about
The bagpipes stopped, and a sad silence hung in the air.
A bugle cry pierced the quiet morning, and the lonely sound of
taps filled the street. Jamie stared at the coffin again. The dead
man had been a proby, a probational firefighter still serving his
first year with the department. This time deadly smoke, fiery
flames, and falling ceiling beams weren't responsible.
The man's engine company had simply responded to an auto
shop on fire. For several minutes the proby worked a massive hose
reel at the side of the engine, then he climbed back into the cab.
His buddies found him not long afterwards, slumped forward,
dead of a heart attack at twenty-seven years old. Just five months
after graduating top of his class.
He was the fourth fireman to suffer a fatal heart attack in ten
The bugle rang out its last note, and in very little time, the sea
of blue began to break up. Jamie and Jake held hands as they made
their way back to his pickup truck and headed home to Sierra.
The image of their four-year-old daughter filled Jamie's heart
and for a moment dimmed the deep ache there. Sierra had Jake's
blue eyes and Jamie's trademark dimples. No one knew where
Sierra had gotten her blonde silky hair, but she was a beauty, inside
and out. Days like this, Jamie could hardly wait to hold her, to
soak in the warmth and hope of her precious laugh. The girl had
held both their hearts captive since the day she was born.
Jamie stared out the truck window.
Manhattan smelled of warm bistros and cabbie exhaust fumes. It
didn't have a downtime. The sidewalks teamed with people as much
now as they would on a weekday. She keyed on a couple about the
same age as she and Jake, dressed for business, walking briskly
toward some lower Manhattan destination. The two exchanged a
smile, and for a fraction of a second, Jamie wondered, Do they know
about the dead fireman? Do they spend time pondering the fact that men
like Jake are willing to die for their safety?
Jamie shifted and slipped her hand into Jake's. Of course they
don't. Unless they know a firefighter or police officer, unless they regularly
attend the funerals, why would they? She leaned back in her seat
and looked at Jake. The silence between them was heavy, and
words didn't come until they hit the ferry docks.
"When's the last time you had your heart checked?"
Jake glanced at her. "What?"
"Your heart." She swallowed and tried to find a neutral tone.
"When's the last time you had it checked?"
"Jamie ." Understanding flooded his eyes. "I'm fine. There's
nothing wrong with my heart."
"I'd rather have the doctors decide."
"Honey, heart attacks are part of life." He worked his fingers a
little more tightly between hers and kept his eyes on the road.
"Not just for firemen."
She stared out the window again and let the air ease from her
lungs. Did he always have to read her mind? Couldn't she keep even
a little fear to herself? He would never be honest with her as long
as he knew she was afraid. Every time he sensed her concern, he
had the same answer. Not me, Jamie . I'll be careful . nothing'll
happen . And now this. There's nothing wrong with my heart .
They pulled into line at the Whitehall terminal and inched
their way onto the ferry. When they'd driven up as far as they
could, Jake slipped the truck into park and faced her. His voice
was a gentle caress. "I'm sorry."
She turned to him. "For what?"
"For the funeral." He bit his lip. "I know how much you hate
A cavernous pit of sorrow welled within her, but she wouldn't
cry. She never did, not in front of him, anyway. "It's not your fault."
"You could stay home next time." He reached out and loosely
gripped her knee. "Lots of wives do."
"No." She gave a quick double shake of her head. "I'd rather go."
"Jamie ." The ferry gave a slight lurch and began to move
across the harbor.
"I would." She gritted her teeth. "It reminds me what I'm up
"Come on, baby." A chuckle sounded low in his throat, one that
was weighted in empathy. "When are you going to stop waiting
for something bad to happen?"
"When you work your last shift." Their eyes met and desire
stirred within her. They'd been married nearly a decade, but he
still moved her, still made her want to hold on to him an extra
minute or two every time they came together.
He leaned over and kissed her, the slow passionate kiss of a love
that didn't happen in spurts, a love that colored every page of a
life they'd written together. He moved his lips along her cheekbone
toward her earlobe. "Ten years is too long to worry."
"Nine?" He drew back, and his little-boy expression almost
made her laugh.
"Yes. You're almost thirty-six, Jake. You said you'd retire at
forty-five like your father. That's nine years."
"Okay, nine. It's still too long to worry. Besides . I love what
I do." Without waiting for a response, he worked his fingers up
beneath her rayon blouse and pressed his thumbs against her ribs.
"Almost as much as I love you."
She squirmed and couldn't contain a giggle. "Stop it!"
"Anyway, you're worrying about the wrong thing." He tickled
her once more, and when she twisted free, he held his hands up in
"Oh yeah." She caught her breath and straightened her shirt.
"What am I supposed to worry about?"
"Beating me at tennis."
"Okay." She forced a sarcastic laugh. "I could try to worry
"What? Is that arrogance in my fair damsel's voice?" He stifled a
grin. "You beat me in three sets last week, and now I'm no challenge?
Is that it?"
She let her head fall back and she laughed, this time without
reservation. "Okay . I'm worried, Jake."
"Good. And don't forget-today's Sierra's first lesson."
"Here we go." Jamie could feel the sparkle in her eyes. "She's
"Martina Hingis was probably four when she picked up a
Jamie's laughter rang through the cab. "You're crazy."
"About Sierra, yes." Jake's smile faded some." I don't know what
I'd do without her." He took her hand. "Or you."
"Me either." She settled against the door of the truck, still facing
Jake. "Sierra's perfect isn't she?"
Jake stared out at the harbor, and his eyes grew distant. "Being
a dad has given me these feelings ." He angled his head. "A love
I can't describe."
Jamie smiled, slow and easy. The cry of the bagpipes faded from
her memory, and one by one the clouds of fear lifted, breaking up
like morning fog over the water. Jake was right. Worrying did no
good. Especially when every day held so much life for their little
"Come on." Jake opened his truck door and motioned for Jamie
to follow. She did, and the two of them walked to the front of the
ferry, found a quiet spot against a railing, and turned to face the
receding New York skyline.
"It's breathtaking every time." She stared past the Statue of Liberty
and lifted her eyes to where the World Trade Center towered
over the rest of lower Manhattan. "You've been on every floor,
"Of the Twin Towers?" Jake squinted and gazed up at the tall
buildings. "Probably. Jammed elevators, chest pains, faulty wiring
in the office coffeemaker."
"And the bombing." She lifted her chin and studied his face.
"Don't forget about that."
"Yeah." He lifted one shoulder. "But the fire was out before we
"Still . it was scary. I remember it like it was yesterday."
"The towers are safe, Jamie. Stairwells run down three sides."
He narrowed his eyes and looked back at the buildings. "It's the
old warehouses and abandoned factories. Those are scary."
"I know." She gripped the railing behind her and studied the
city again. After a moment she shifted her gaze to him. "I'll try
not to worry so much. Okay?"
He slipped his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
"Okay. Besides, who of you, by worrying, can add an hour to his
life?" He paused. "That's from the Bible."
Jamie let the comment pass. Letting go of her fear was one
thing. Claiming some sort of help or understanding from an old
leather-bound book of ancient letters was another. But to say so
would only upset Jake. And the day was too beautiful, their time
together too short for that.