If he knew nothing else in the whole world, at least he knew that today was a fine day to die. Alexander Ortiz was hardly the picture of genius or perfection, but even he knew of the nobility of self-sacrifice. As a matter of fact, that was the only thing that had compelled him forward, into the fire.
He’d kicked in a couple doors with year-old sneakers, was pretty sure at least a couple toes were broken. It hadn’t mattered then, and mattered even less now, half a decade later. He’d rushed through the small, two-bedroom apartment, heard the young girl’s frantic whimpers from a side bedroom. He made it to her with a vault over a couch, used the momentum to land, spring through an open doorway behind it.
She wasn’t more than twelve at the time her mother and father had been fighting out in the hallway of the apartment building. She’d moused out to see the commotion when her father barked something lewd at her. Her mother huffed as she skittered back inside. Alex made it to his front-door, sensed from the sound of the distant, unaided slam that she’d bolted back inside and into hiding.
In a way, he had always sympathized with her. Alex’s own parents had been the same, short-sighted type to marry out of lust. When that fiery passion flickered, it found new breath in the exhalation of rage and fury. Even so, it wasn’t what compelled him to scoop her up in his arms that day. That feat was achieved from adrenaline and what was right alone. She didn’t deserve to die, least of all so tragically.
She was a whimpering, sobbing mess of terror and smoke-induced hacking coughs when he carried her from the building. The firetrucks had just rolled up, but even he was certain it would have been too late for her by then. He dropped the tailgate of a truck, helped her to sit on it as she gasped for air through smoke-tarred lungs and tearful mucus.
Alex didn’t leave her side the whole time the fire truck fought the blaze and the paramedics ran their tests. He wasn’t sure she’d have let him had he tried: She was clearly terrified of everything– probably her own shadow too. Having her own personal hero beside her was the only way she contended with the IVs and oxygen mask that day.
Alex never felt like a hero, but that’s the funny thing about heroes; the real ones never feel that way. Even now, as he lay dying in the street from yet another “heroic” act, he didn’t feel like one. He’d once more done what was right, protected that young girl who’d now aged enough to be considered a teenager.
Alex had watched Amy blossom from a slim, pretty blonde girl to a full-grown young woman. Presently, her face hovered just above his, her blonde hair framing an angelic face of subtle angles and still-forming curves. She was still too shocked to cry, but her brown eyes glistened with water all the same. Her mouth moved in that same, almost caricatured way it did when she sang choral warm-ups.
Amy’s mouth had always opened a hair larger than normal, as if it needed the extra room to echo the depths within. It was an instantly endearing quality. Most of the younger girls would’ve called her a big mouth, but never had time for the timid loner that she turned out to be. Or at least, as she had been when Alex had first, formally met her and her mother.
It was a banquet-style dinner, with a ceremony from the mayor’s office to award Alex’s heroism. He figured most people would have been humbled, felt as if nobility, but the experience was too surreal for him. He merely ate dinner with the young girl and her mother, Sara, the location just a little more lavish than the burnt-out husk of their apartments, or the identical dingy hotel rooms they’d been assigned by the insurance company.
Alex took the stage with Amy and Sara in tow, was given the opportunity to say something. He began with a thank you, then cleared his throat to attempt formality. He deepened his voice for the podium microphone, managed a few words, “I-uh… was just in the right time and place, and did what I expect anyone would do.”
That was it. That was his speech. He ended with another thank you, re-took his seat to enjoy the dessert course with the two ladies that had accompanied him, and shook hands with a few civic leaders afterward.
Two things came of that day, tangentially related but equally as pointless as he lay in the hot street with pain in his guts and fading vision. The first was a series of job offers from every, local tech company in the region. The comp-sci grad suspected most of the companies just wanted “the Hero” on their payroll, regardless of his skill. It seemed all the more apt after the offers doubled from an interview released by the Associated Press that detailed most of his life’s story, and therefore his qualifications.
He eventually took a job in the metro-area to stay close to Amy and her mother. Despite the obvious age-gap, and what on-lookers would call perversion at a glance, the two grew to become close friends. Sara allowed it, if only for that fact that it seemed to keep her ex-husband, Grant, away. The custody battle that took place nearly immediately following the fire was tumultuous at best. Were it not for Alex, Sara eventually asserted, Amy would have likely gone through worse than she already had.
As it was, Amy rode out the next couple of years with ease. Thanks to the aid of her hero, and her mother’s growing attraction to him. It seemed inevitable the two would be forever inseparable. Apart from his obvious affection for Sara, Alex agreed with the assessment. He’d have liked nothing more than to protect Amy, watch her grow old, independent, confident. As it was, all good things had to end, Alex’s life included.
In his final moments, he was never quite sure what had happened save that his last act was surely of selflessness. In truth, Sara’s ex had never worked through the divorce’s effects. Where Grant’s ex-wife and daughter were moving on, living their lives, he wallowed in self-pity and the bottom of the every bottle on-hand. He’d attempted to force himself into their lives time and again, was finally stopped for good by a pair of restraining orders. The court kept his drunken abuse out of Amy and Sara’s lives, but steeped his rage in the frothing pity-party.
It was almost without warning that he’d appeared in front of the trio’s new home, ready to ruin their lives once more. Sara was already at the front-door of the house when Grant pulled up, stumbled drunkenly from the door of his junker. He raged and shouted, compelled Sara in to call the police while Alex hoped to defuse the situation. Amy followed, as much unwilling to leave her hero alone as she was to be without him.
Grant’s slurred anger manifested in a one-sided screaming match before it climaxed. Amy, in her way, quipped back with her learned, quick wits. It only further infuriated her would-be father. Alex’s even-toned request that Amy go inside sparked that spewing temper that raged within Grant. In a swift motion, he pulled a thirty-eight on his daughter.
A shot rang out through the day-light. The next moments were a series of flashes before Amy found herself hovering over Alex as he lay on the ground. Blood soaked her hands, hot beneath the pressure she instinctively applied to his gut. In the background, sirens screamed toward them over the sprint-stumble of her father’s drunken fleeing.
Alex managed a few, confused words before his head fell back against the pavement, the life drained from his eyes. In his final breath, he’d managed to piece together what had happened, but all the same, the breath left his lungs and the life left his eyes.
The eulogy given by the young woman was short, punctuated by the constant stream of silent tears that made their way down her face. “He always said he wasn’t a hero, that he had never been one. But he saved my life twice, and… and gave me a reason to live in between… everyday. He showed me love I’d been denied, simply because he knew what it felt like. Alex wasn’t a hero because he saved my life. He was a hero because he lived the way hero’s do; by being what they want to see in the world. By making it as it should be, and not accepting how it is. He was my hero most of all, but in a small way, he was a hero to all of us. He made the world that much more special, and safe, and loving than it was.”
Beneath the dates of birth and death, two lines are etched forever into stone, “Alexander Ortiz, A Hero.”