When I interviewed a neighbor, a retired firefighter, to gain some insight on arson fires for a novel, we spent a lot of time on Davenport’s St. Elizabeth’s fire. It wasn’t arson, just a bad one. Local newspapers had reported on it a couple of times since I moved to the area. When I needed a ghost story for a local contest I mixed that story with my SEE YA Book Club experiences—this is the result.
The Last WatchBy Mary Davidsaver
It was the best Halloween party ever. Totally awesome. So what if I got home after curfew? Way after midnight. It was worth it. Even with my dad going all parenty about it. Going on and on about responsibility and the honor system. I would do it again if I had the chance—and he knew it.
I braced myself for the grounding. The extra chores. The “no computer time.” He threw a curve instead. He told me to pull on some sweats and get my warmest coat on. We are going out.
“What? It’s, like, 2 a.m. I have school tomorrow. What about that responsibility thing you were just talking about?”
“This is important. I’ll write you a note.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared me down. Sleeping in on a school morning that was sure to be a sugar-charged disaster had its appeal. I wouldn’t have any trouble catching up on homework tonight. I got ready to go out and met him in the car.
We drove through Davenport’s streets, past homes that were still lighted by Halloween decorations. I watched them go by without paying attention to where we were going, until we turned onto Marquette St. I guessed our destination would be the park and went back to staring at the passing scenery and sharing my dad’s stiff silence.
Instead of going into the park, we turned into the parking lot of Genesis Medical Center and parked in a remote corner.
I got out and followed along a couple of steps behind him hoping this would go fast. We’d meet up with whatever old loony pal he had up his sleeve, get my lecture, and then slide on back home. My warm bed was calling.
He stopped across the way from a small white building and checked his watch. “Not long now. He’ll show up at 2:40. Five minutes.”
“Ok, I’ll bite. Who are we waiting for?”
“Your great-grand father.”
I flashed on the old photo of me as a baby being held on his lap. I’m sure I was placed there for the photo op and then removed before I could do any damage to his suit. He looked ancient then.
I had to say the obvious, “He’s, ah, like, dead, isn’t he?”
“And he’s going to show up here. Next to the hospital parking lot.”
“He does it all the time.” As Dad looked at me the creases in his face seemed to soften. “We’ve all been here. It’s a tradition. And now it’s your turn.”
“But why …?” My question trailed off as the ghostly form materialized a short distance away.
“Because your great-grandfather was a firefighter and this here was his worst fire. It haunted him throughout his life.”
I looked around at the neatly mown grass. “There’s nothing here,” I said.
He swept his hand out in a wide arc. “It’s all here. Graves over there. Sixteen of them. St. Elizabeth’s was back over there. It burned to the ground on the morning of Jan. 7, 1950. Forty-one dead. Forty female mental patients and one nun, a nurse, Anna Neal.”
The apparition drew closer and became more solid looking. My father politely addressed it. “Granddad. This is my youngest.”
I could make out the old-fashioned firemen’s uniform. The cap set at the proper angle on his head. He was all spit and polish as he studied me. Then a crooked smile of approval crept over his face.
My nerves were getting to me at this point. “Is he going to say something, you know, profound?”
“No, none of them speak.”
“Them?” I stammered. “There are more … like him?”
“Yes, firemen, second responders, nuns. They all come.”
When a nun showed up next to my great-grandfather, I was still at a loss to believe what I was seeing.
“Is that the nun who died in the fire?”
“No. She helped to identify the …” Dad couldn’t finish the sentence. I knew his meaning.
“She didn’t die in the fire. And great-granddad didn’t either.”
“None of them did.” More men and women appeared around us and shook their heads.
“Then why are they here? Where are the ghosts of the women who died in the fire?”
“They are safe now.” Dad said.
“I don’t understand.”
“These spirits watch over those women who died in the fire so they can rest easier. So they don’t have to come back into this world and re-experience the tragedy. Granddad was always a firefighter first, and he chose to stay with them, the victims—to serve and protect—forever.” Dad paused. “Now you know why there are so many firefighters in the family.” Dad rested a hand on my shoulder. “Not everyone is up to the job. It’s your turn to decide.”
Great-granddad led all the ghostly others: the firemen, the second responders, and the nuns back towards the graves. They held their heads high as they slowly faded into the night, to go on with their vigil.
Dad and I left. Dawn would come soon and there was school tomorrow. I think Dad was saying something about my getting some sleep. I knew I wouldn’t. I had too much to think about. I buried my hands in my pockets to warm them up. This was awesome. So totally worth it.
©copyright 2017 by Mary Davidsaver. All Rights Reserved.