JOHN AND KEVIN McALEESE meet most mornings at their mother's house on Tennyson Avenue in Baldwin. They gather there before going into Manhattan to search for their little brother, Brian.

John, a city firefighter, and Kevin, a city police officer, sip coffee brewed by their little sister, Maureen, who is now 30 years old. It's bad coffee. They tease Maureen about it, and she tells them they should be grateful she got up and made it. They nibble on bagels in their mother's kitchen.

Ann Marie McAleese and her late husband, Jack, also a city firefighter, had brought up five children here, in the house on Tennyson Avenue. Eventually the brothers push away from the kitchen table and match up their big boots and collect their gear, John's radio slung bandolier-style, and they head off to look for their brother in the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers.

It was Kevin who first found Brian's truck. The windstorm triggered by the collapse of the towers had dusted it white and ripped away its hoses and equipment. The front end was smashed.

John eventually found Brian's truck, too, but only after the hulk had been towed to a side street. As a firefighter, he knew to look inside for the "ride sheet." There was Brian's name on the list of those who made the last run.

One day the phone rang, and it was Kevin's 8- year-old daughter, Catherine. "Daddy, I think Uncle Brian is alive. He's in a hole, and he's dirty. He's drinking water from a puddle." "You think so, Catherine?" "I really think so, Daddy." "We're hoping to find him, honey. We're hoping to find him."

John says. "This has kicked our family straight in the face. But we're just one family in 5,000."

The talk at night on Tennyson Avenue inevitably comes around to Brian, and the last time everyone spoke to him and what he means to the family. Brian and Dawn had taken the kids to the beach on the Sunday before the attack. Robert Moses, Field 5 - where the family met almost any summertime Sunday, and anyone who wanted to meet them there was welcome. Ann Marie calls her youngest son a "doing father." She remembers him that Sunday. He had scooped out a big, protective hole near the water for Liam, 2. He had made sand castles with Jack, 4. Then, he had splashed into the surf with the eldest, Brianne, 5 1/2. "That's how I see him - running down the beach and diving into the water," Ann Marie says.

"He was such a good daddy." Brian lived life brightly. He served lobster tails at his kids' birthday parties, where he would spend way, way too much time making sure the balloon bouquets had an equal number of balloons. Counter to departmental regulations, he wore a green beret when he marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan. He would snatch his mother's good crystal for a picnic at the beach. He loved to engineer surprises. Once, he heard his mother and sister were dining at a favorite restaurant, and he secretly called and put the bill on his credit card.

Brian's enthusiasm for life stood out even in the McAleese house, where the siblings hire Irish singers for all-night house parties and where, in one rowdy teenage brawl, one brother tried to punch another through a window pane. Jack McAleese didn't like the earring Brian wore home one day, so Brian kept it in his pocket until he got outside.

His parents ordered him to sell his motorcycle, but he hid it at a friend's and gave Maureen rides down to Jones Beach when they were supposed to be at Saturday evening Mass. Yet, there also was a softness with Brian. Once a friend of the McAleese family died, a former firefighter in his 80s. He wanted to be buried in a uniform of the fire department but no one had one. Brian had a brand new one - the navy-blue uniform known in the fire department as a "Class A." He went to the funeral home and presented it to the undertaker, who told him the man already was dressed in a suit. "He's dead," Brian said, "so let's undress him." "I don't know if I can do that." "Let's do it together." So they did, and the old man wore a Class A in his casket. The McAleeses love to tell that story, but they're starting to get talked out.

The hours that have passed since Sept. 11 have dissolved into one long day. The family tries to break up the draining routine with days at a friend's beach cabana at Point Lookout. That's where they went Sunday. They had the radio on, and Pat heard a line from a new song by U2. You've got stuck in a moment And you can't get out if it. "That's us," she thought. "That's our family."

Without a formal declaration from authorities that no one else has survived the attack, the McAleeses are left only with a sense of determination to find something that might comfort someone, even if it's someone from some other family. When a rescue worker unearthed a firefighter's helmet at the site one day last week, a huge cheer rose from the men there. All for a helmet. "The bond down there between people is that everyone knows someone who's in there," Kevin says.

John McAleese estimates he knew 40 people lost. He goes to funerals almost every day. The firefighters' bond starts when many are rookies, when they enter burning buildings for the first time. Like boys grasping their father's hands in a crowd, they hold onto their lieutenants' coats and walk closely behind. Eventually, they let go and walk with more confidence into the flames. "Guys from my house," John says of his firehouse, "are all looking for guys from my house, but they're also looking for my brother."

But some days Ann Marie wants the boys home, at the house on Tennyson Avenue with the girls and Dawn and the grandchildren. Her family is her strength. The more she has around, the stronger she feels. Even the babies. "Kevin, please don't go in there anymore," Ann Marie says to her eldest son on one of those days. "Look, Mom," says Kevin, "if we can find anything, for anyone, we need to go." Ann Marie and the daughters speak with hope about Brian's fire department ring, given to him when his father, Jack McAleese, died in January. They wonder if the ring could be found. The ring is gold and has a red Maltese cross with Jack McAleese's unit number: 10685.

The Maltese cross has been the trademark of firefighters for generations. It has its origin in the 11th century, when a similar badge graced the armor of the Knights of St. John, who guarded Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Arabs of that era used crude bombs containing flammable oils, and the knights distinguished themselves by fighting the fires to save their comrades in arms. Over time, the Maltese cross became the symbol of firefighters everywhere, including men such as Jack McAleese, who served for 25 years with the city fire department, as well as his sons John and Brian.

The inside of Brian's ring is engraved with the name of his father: John J. McAleese. Of course, the McAleese brothers would love to find that ring. Brian has always said he wanted to pass on the ring to his own son Jack. Finding the ring wouldn't be at all like finding Brian, of course. It would not be like that. But, it would be something.