Sometimes saying goodbye can end up saving a relationship.
Breaking up with Caleb was the hardest thing Shaun had ever done. It left a huge hole in his home and in his heart. But feeling like he was constantly competing with Caleb's adrenaline-rush hobbies pushed him to make a stand...one he constantly second-guesses, especially now that Caleb's gone with his Hot Shots team for a big fire in California.
Caleb knows he's a lucky man. His family supports him and he's able to do what he loves for both work and play. It took losing Shaun, though, for him to realize that his priorities were out of whack. And now his luck might be running out as his crew gets trapped by a fast-moving fire line.
All they really need is a second chance...if Caleb can stay alive long enough to make it home.
Caleb heard a slight creak of the floor in the hallway and looked up from packing his gear. "Hey." He'd heard about the Northern California fires blowing up, so he wanted to be prepared if they got the call.
"Hi, honey. Dinner's ready anytime. Can I help with anything?" His mom lingered outside his bedroom door-well, former bedroom. It was a guest room now, even though he'd occupied it for the last two months.
He tried not to be irritated by the offer. To most people it would sound like an innocuous, sweet offer, but he knew that she still saw him as a kid-one who was always making a mistake. The mothering was getting out of control-it was time to cut the cord.
That thought made it easier to add a smile to cushion his answer. "No, thanks, Mom-I'm all done." For now. He zipped the partially filled duffle bag and set it on top of his half-packed suitcase. As soon as this fire season was over, he was moving out, even if it was to a studio apartment.
Don't need much more room than that by myself anyway.
He opened his mouth to say who knew what when he was rescued by a familiar ringtone-Johnny Cash. "Sorry, Mom, have to take this." He answered as the "flames burned higher." "This is Atwater."
"Caleb," his crew boss JT Melcher boomed. "How do you feel about California?"
"Will there be surfing this time?" he joked.
"Probably not, but plenty of hiking."
"Yeah, figures. When do we head out?" He went back to his bags and scanned them to get an idea of what he still had to pack.
"Tonight, so we can be on the ground working tomorrow morning before the winds pick up for the day. Shooting for a ten p.m. departure..."
Caleb listened with half an ear to the details then said good-bye as anticipation and adrenaline built, giving him a slight buzz. He packed by rote-four years with the Hotshots meant he had down exactly what he'd need. When he'd lived with Shaun he hadn't even bothered to unpack during the season, really-just did a token wash then stuck it repacked out in the garage-but his mom hadn't wanted to live with the smell of smoke, a scent he had long ago learned to ignore.
This was what he was made to do. He'd read somewhere once that one in five people were missing the "caution gene"; his family and friends would definitely say that he was one of them. He practically had his own examination room at the ER. If it wasn't from his job as a Hotshot or his hobbies of mountain biking, surfing, and rock climbing, among others, it was his talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time...
Hmm. Maybe his mom had a point to her smothering.
He tried hard not to think of Shaun's parting words right before the emergency room curtains had closed behind him for the last time, but they were burned into his mind.
"You're like an addict-you care more about your adrenaline rushes than anything or anyone else in your life, including me. I just... I can't do this anymore. I'm...done."
That had been after a surfing accident had sent him to the hospital with a concussion, a bad gash to his leg, and the memories of an amazing ride off The Point that had been one of the best ever until he'd clipped his board and lost it. He'd bailed on a weekend trip to Portland with Shaun when his friend Chase had texted that the waves at Tillamook Head were going to be epic. "We'll do it next weekend," he'd promised. But instead, the next weekend he'd spent slowly packing his stuff out of Shaun's house and making an embarrassing call to his mom and dad.
A familiar mix of guilt and resentment had him zipping his bags with more force than necessary. He should call Shaun, let him know he was leaving, but he wasn't sure he could deal with hearing his voice.
Four hours later, he texted him instead, right before he turned off his phone to try to get some sleep during the long drive.
* * *
Going to NoCal for a big one. Just thought I'd let you know.
Shaun stared at the text he'd discovered on his phone this morning, controlling the urge to rush to the computer and look at just how big "big" was. He'd thought it was bad when he'd lived with Caleb and heard all the scary details, but it was infinitely worse not knowing anything.
"God dammit," he muttered. Toby thumped his tail uncertainly on the floor at the sound of his voice. "Not you, boy. Daddy's off trying to kill himself again."
Toby's ears perked up at the word "Daddy" then he looked intently at the door. Feeling guilty for getting the dog's hopes up, Shaun sighed then headed for the entry. "Walk?"
Nails scrabbled on the floor as Toby wasted no time in wagging over to join him, and soon they were both suited up for their outing-Toby with his collar and leash and Shaun in his running shoes.
While he walked, he tried not to picture where Caleb was this morning. It didn't help that his brain was inserting mental snapshots of injuries from the past and adding smoke and fire to them. Of course there was a lot of truth to the fact that he'd seen firsthand the results of Caleb's fearlessness.
He knew that every relationship had points of contention, little things that became hot buttons. They'd been fortunate in that they coexisted very well together under the same roof, in sync with things like daily habits, opinions on cleanliness, and of course their sex life and intimacy had been off the charts.
So really, the only issue between them had been Caleb's propensity to find creative ways to injure himself. "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room," Caleb always said. His hobbies were cool, yes, but dangerous. At first he'd just watched in awe-proud and a bit panicked at the same time.
The pride never lessened, but every time Caleb ended up with a new injury or simply had a close call-and there were a lot of close calls-Shaun was faced with even more dire scenarios than he ever would have thought up pre-Caleb. And those were just his hobbies. His seasonal job with the Cascadia Hotshots was the worst of all.
Searching the internet for Hotshots in general turned up results that included all too many memorial sites-photos of young men, and some women, who were gone far too soon.
Odds were that Caleb would come out unscathed...but there was never an off-season for Shaun's concerns. He held his tongue and made sure to plan fun things for them to do together. It was disheartening that Caleb never seemed to take his worry seriously-in fact, he would tease him about it, calling him "Mom" or rolling his eyes.
Shaun had taken it good-naturedly for the most part...and spent the fire season half holding his breath. It was only when Caleb's idiot friends had started coming first more frequently during the off-season that he had finally been pushed over the edge. Because, to his way of thinking, when Caleb had stopped making him at least a top five priority, he had to salvage some self-respect and take a stand.
A stand that had started in the ER and had ended on his front porch.
He would have been the one to leave if it hadn't been his name on the mortgage. He still felt horrible about telling Caleb it was over and in the next breath telling him he had to find somewhere else to live, but he knew that Caleb had the option, at least, of staying with his parents if not one of his buddies.
Was the aching hole in his heart and his empty house worth drawing the line?
He swallowed and looked down at Toby, who still perked up every time he heard a car door outside, waiting.
Probably not-but what's done is done.
When he got home, rather than shower and get ready to go to work, Shaun instead flipped on the TV in time for the morning news. After a couple of local headlines, they went straight into an affiliate report from California.
"...and the extreme temperatures and high wind speeds today are the worst possible news to firefighters on the ground, who are concentrating on keeping the fire from reaching populated areas. A state of emergency has been declared by the governor, and assistance is pouring in from surrounding states. Meanwhile-"
Shaun picked up the remote when the video footage he had been intently scanning changed back to the studio and the female newscaster, droning on about the number of acres and dollar estimates. He turned off the television and glanced at his laptop, but decided he'd be better off getting through his workday first.
After he'd showered and dressed, he pulled out his phone and reread Caleb's brief text. Before he really thought about what he was doing, he'd typed a response.
Thanks for letting me know. Keep me posted and be safe.
He paused then typed Call me when you can, then erased it, then typed it again.
Fuck it. He hit send and shoved his phone into his pocket.