Written for the 2012 Cotton Candy Bingo Prompt 'Wordless Communication'. Based on a very touching RL photo of a firefighter with a cat he rescued from a burning building. The person who posted the photo to Twitter did so with the comment that the firefighter looked a lot like Sean Astin. Well, there was a plot bunny if ever I heard one, and this story is the result. Manip at the end by me.
Elijah wasn't home when the fire broke out. But I was. I could smell it before I saw any evidence of it: an acrid odor that made me sneeze. And it made me uneasy, too. I knew it was wrong.
When the smoke first crept inside, like the fog on little cat feet from the poem Elijah sometimes read to me, I wasn't certain what to do. I had no means of escape, though I prowled anxiously from room to room, lashing my tail, and hoping that Elijah would come home soon.
But Elijah didn't come, and the smoke slowly filled the apartment, seeping through every crack. No little cat feet, this, but a lethal gray hunter more fearsome than any lion.
I batted at the door with my paw, but it was firmly locked. I jumped up on a windowsill and pushed ineffectually at the glass. I'd seen Elijah open the windows many times, but how he did it I couldn't say. On the other side of the glass I could see below me the pale ovals of upturned faces and flashing li ghts on giant trucks. I yowled and yowled as loudly as I could, hoping that someone, anyone might hear me.
The smoke thickened. The air grew suffocatingly hot. My eyes watered and my lungs hurt. I took refuge under the bed, but the hunter found me there, too, reaching for me with long gray fingers, not to stroke but to choke. Beneath the bed was my retreat when Elijah did something to upset me, like taking me to the vet or giving me a bath, and I wanted to punish him with my indifference. I'd pretend not to notice when he knelt down and tried to coax me out with a smile and a favorite treat. Eventually I'd condescend to emerge and accept the treat as my due, but only when I felt it wouldn't betray my dignity to give in.
Now though, I wished desperately for his smile, for the sound of his voice softly calling my name. "C'mon, Ginger. Come on out, please?" I wouldn't play hard to get this time, but head straight for the shelter of his arms.
When the smoke gr ew too thick to bear, I crawled out from under the bed. I could barely see, and I wandered in witless circles, light-headed and dizzy, calling piteously, Elijah, please come home. Elijah, I'm scared.
Then, some untold amount of time later, I heard a loud crash. It barely registered; I felt so faint, my mouth and nose scorched by hot acrid smoke.
Then, "Don't be scared, little one," a muffled voice said. "I've got you." Not Elijah's voice, but deeper. Gloved hands lifted me, and I was cradled in unfamiliar arms. Normally I would have fought tooth and nail if a stranger tried to pick me up. But I didn't struggle, not only because I was too weak, but because instinctively I could tell that here was someone to be trusted. "Poor little girl," he said, and through the swirling smoke I could see a pair of kindly green eyes behind a queer looking mask that covered his entire face. "But you're going to be okay, I promise." He started carrying me toward the door, ha nging drunkenly on its hinges, and he held me gently but securely, safe in his arms.
That is the last thing I remember. I fell into a kind of sleep, I suppose.
When I came back to myself, I didn't know where I was. I felt groggy and my eyes stung and my nose and throat hurt, but worst of all were my lungs that burned like fire. Kind green eyes, no longer shielded by a mask, smiled down at me, and my memory returned. It was the man who had rescued me from the apartment.
Above his head I saw trees and clouds and sky. We were outside, surrounded by the large trucks and the crowd that I'd seen through the window. Smoke poured from the apartment building and flames roared and licked greedily at the sky as if it were a giant bowl of blue cream. Other men, dressed in the same strange clothes as the one holding me, were spraying water on the building from long hoses.
"Well, hello, you're awake," the man said softly.
I wanted to butt my head against him , to let him know how grateful I was, but I discovered there was a mask over my face now, a tiny replica of the one he'd been wearing. It was uncomfortable, and I shook my head in protest.
"Shh, it's okay," he soothed me. "You need to wear the mask, just for a little longer. It's helping you to breathe."
I stopped struggling. He was right, for with every breath I took fresh air flowed into my lungs and the burning sensation gradually eased.
"You're one smart kitty," he said. "I wish I knew your name."
My name is Ginger, I told him, but of course he didn't understand me.
After a time, he eased the mask from my face. "How's that?" he asked. For answer, I started to purr. Very gently, he raised a soot-covered hand and stroked my head. I'd only ever bonded with one human, and that was Elijah. But as I looked into the eyes of the man who rescued me, I knew that even if I never saw him again, a bond would exist between us forevermore .
And then I heard a voice, a most beloved voice, call my name. "Ginger! Ginger! Oh thank god you're safe." Elijah appeared, pushing through the crowd. I'd never seen him look like that, almost frantic, and his face was wet with tears. He ran up to me, his arms outstretched, and the man handed me to him. I wrapped my paws around Elijah's neck and hid my face against him and purred louder than I ever purred in my entire life. "Oh Ginger." Elijah clutched me, his wet cheek pressed against my head, and he was shaking like a leaf. "I was so scared. I thought I'd lost you." Then he said to the man anxiously, "Is she all right?"
"I think so," the man replied. "She inhaled some smoke, but I gave her oxygen and she perked right up. Still, I suggest you get her checked out by her vet as soon as possible, just to be on the safe side, Mr..."
"Elijah, please. Elijah Wood."
"I'm Sean Astin."
Elijah shifted his grip on me and held out a hand. "I don't know how I can ever thank you, Sean," he said in a voice that trembled. "You saved Ginger's life."
"You don't have to thank me," Sean said, taking Elijah's hand between both of his and holding it comfortingly. "I'm just glad we were able to get her out in time."
Their handclasp lingered, and because I'm a cat and have a sixth sense about these things, I could tell that a special silent communion was occurring between them - and I was glad. Elijah sometimes said that I was the only constant in his life because he couldn't find the right man to love. Several boyfriends had come and gone since Elijah found me as a kitten, wet and shivering in an alleyway where I'd been abandoned, and as far as I was concerned, none had been worthy of him. Sean, though, he was worthy of my Elijah.
Elijah said, "I better get Ginger to the vet," and withdrew his hand, reluctantly it seemed to me.
"Can I give you my number?" Sean asked. "I'd appreciate it if you'd call to let me know how she's doing."
"Of course. Ginger is partly yours now, Sean, and she always will be," Elijah said. You see why I love him so much? For a human, he's very smart. He understands things.
I spent three days at the vet, being poked and prodded and pilled and even bathed. To be honest, for once I didn't mind very much. I still felt shaky and weak, too weak to clean myself properly (and I was filthy with soot), and besides, I didn't have a home to go back to yet. Elijah explained to me that we had to find a new place to live because of the fire. We lost everything, except each other.
On the second day Sean came to visit me. It created quite a fuss at the hospital. Elijah showed me my photo in the newspaper. There I was, cradled in Sean's arms as he carried me to safety in one photo, and in another I was staring intently into his eyes as he stroked my head: that moment when we bonded forever. Elijah told me that I was now famous and people were calling Sean a hero. I had to agree with them, because he was definitely my hero. And Elijah's, too. I could tell by the way he looked at Sean as they sat side by side on the floor in the hospital and Sean held me on his lap.
Sean is still our hero, but he's something more now. You see, when I left the animal hospital, I went to stay with Sean! He invited me and Elijah to live with him until we could find a new home. I could tell right away that Elijah wasn't going to look very hard and Sean didn't want him to. One night, Elijah mated with Sean, and that settled matters. We were there to stay.
We're a family now, me, Elijah and Sean. He has a beautiful house with a big yard and a bigger bed with room for all of us - including his Golden Retriever Jessie, who I must admit isn't all that bad, for a dog. He lets me boss him around and he makes a nice soft cushion to nap on.
Elijah says he learned a valuable lesson from the fire, that things aren't important, only liv es. He's right, of course. We might have lost our possessions, but we gained something infinitely more precious: our hero, Sean.
(To see all the original photos and more about the real hero firefighter, go here: http://bigwallydog.blogspot.com/2007/11/yesterday-my-aunt-send-me-link-to.html)