Every time, he resisted. But it was like an unbearable itch, burning into him, a need to know that singed his nostrils with smoke.
They were being seated at a restaurant when he saw the waitress recognize him. He held out, keeping his eyes on his plate when she came by, feeling his parent's stares drilling into him. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut. But as she handed them the check she paused and said to him, "You're that guy, right? The one that went into the fire?"
And it burst out. "Do you think I did the right thing?"
He heard his father's huff of breath, knew his mother had turned her head away, his sister had shut her eyes, but he kept his eyes fixed on the surprised face of the girl in front of him. She fiddled with her blonde ponytail.
"I mean…you do what's good for you, right…?" But her eyes avoided the pink, drooping side of his face standing out in high contrast against the rest of his dark skin. "Um. So, anyway, you guys have a good day!"
In the car, his father exploded. "What do you want, Travis, somebody to come and fawn all over you, boy? We moved past that stuff when we moved past all that religious trash. You know the law. You know we don't judge people no more! You want her to tell you what a good thing you did? You know that's unhealthy, you know that's rude as all get out."
"You need to think about other people." His mother said, her voice quiet, but hard. "How are you making them feel? Every time you ask that question, and you want praise for your choice, how do you think it makes the ones who chose differently feel?"
He sat in the backseat beside his sister, who had her arms crossed and her jaw stuck out. "I thought you said the counseling sessions were going well," she snapped. "You're so embarrassing! That doctor whatever is a quack, Mom."
"Tessa." His mother scolded. "The doctor is doing his best."
Travis stared out the window and remembered smoke and flames.
Six months ago he'd been walking home through a poorer neighborhood. A lot of the houses were historical but their tenants or owners weren't able to refurbish them to their proper historical glory and had to leave them falling down. He'd smelled the smoke first, a harder, sharper smoke that made his stomach clench in unease. And then he saw her, long before he saw the building burning in front of her. She was bent double, like someone was kicking her in the stomach, and holding onto a crying toddler. "My baby!" She screamed. "My baby!"
On either side of the burning house, her neighbors were quietly hosing down the sides of their own houses, backs towards her pain.
But Travis felt her voice cut into him. She was fear; she was desperation. There was nobody coming to help her, at least not in time. When they passed the Tolerance Law five years ago they had to disbanded the volunteer fire department in favor of a randomly selected, government organized fire department. Response times were notoriously slow. He saw her clutching the toddler's shoulders, heard her over the crackle of the fire, "Stay here, okay? You stay here! Be a good boy! Mommy will be right back!"
He didn't even think. He just ran, dropping his backpack as he darted across the street and raced the woman into her own home.
Five minutes he was in the building. He inhaled the smoke. He was set ablaze as a wall burst into flames as he passed. He dropped, rolled and kept going. He found the baby, scooped it up against his chest, and turned and ran.
When he came out into a burst of fresh air there were lights and shouts all around him. He had a dim memory of dingy yellow canvas arms reaching out to pull him to safety. The baby left his arms at some point.
Two things he remembered clearly. One: the neighbor, one of the ones that had been busily hosing his own house down, stood against the white backdrop of the house, surrounded by the deep greens of summer lawn foliage, glaring at him. The depth of loathing on his face made Travis cringe back, stumbling away from him.
Two: They were strapping him onto the stretcher to be taken to the hospital. A head appeared in his vision, blocking the blue summer sky. He couldn't see the features clearly, but hot tear landed on his face and he knew it was the mother whose child he'd saved. "Thank you," she sobbed, "Thank you. You're a hero."
Those two memories were the clearest pictures that remained in his conscious mind.
The doctors did what they could for his burned face and arm at the hospital, though the mass of pink, burned skin bubbling up from the right side of his face and arm would probably never go away. It would stay with him like a badge, announcing to the world that this boy had ignored the Tolerance Laws.