Exclusive First Look
Deo volente. God willing.
I rub at my chest as I get off the plane. The mountains hit me first, and then the air. Everything is bigger out here. Everything seems thinner, lighter, colder. Sharper. I am in the best shape of my life, and yet I still find myself gasping for breath as I walk up the stairs into the airport. No matter. I had read that the altitude affected the lungs, but in time, they’ll adjust. I will adapt, just like I’ve adapted to every other sudden change in my life.
My mother’s voice telling me that Latin phrase.
Blood on the bathroom floor.
Get a grip, I tell myself. I grab my bag and step outside. Finally, a pick up truck pulls up in front of me and the passenger window rolls down.
“You Jared?” the girl asks. She has long dark hair and pretty green eyes. I try not to analyze her beyond those two details.
I nod, wary, but she just leans over and shoves the door open.
“Let’s go, hotshot,” she snaps. Once I toss my bag in the bed of the truck and climb in, she gives me a tight smile. “I’m Cora Fletcher. Office manager and assistant for the superintendent. We’re gonna go meet him and then get you settled in your government housing for the next five months.” Her smile turns more wicked as she adds, “If you can last that long.”
“God willing,” I find myself answering.
“You religious, Jared?”
I shrug. God has always been a touchy subject.
She pulls away from the curb. “Well, some think God doesn’t exist out here. How can God let millions of acres burn every year?” Her fingers tap on the steering wheel. “Some swear they see God in the flames, themselves. Retribution for sin. Cleansing holy fire.”
I shake my head. “Which are you?”
Cora starts laughing. “You just broke the first rule of fire camp. Don’t ask what people put their faith in.”
When I booked my plane ticket for Washington--replacing the district with the state, irony at its finest--I knew I was actively running away from my personal horrors in D.C. I loved going to school there and then later, working as a firefighter to defend the city. I loved the rush of running into a building that’s not safe for everyone else. Now, I’m about to run into the largest fires in the country. Am I crazy?
Cora clears her throat. “For the record, I didn’t want to come pick you up.” Her hands flex and relax on the steering wheel over and over. “But I’m the lackey nowadays. The boys have started training.” She glances over at me again.
I turn toward her, not one to back down from a challenge.
“What does your mother think about you being out here?” she asks.
I blink. “Um—”
She waves her hand in the air, as if that will erase her words. “Never mind. I hate talking sometimes.”
I reach for the car radio, but the button doesn’t work. I click it again, then flip through stations, switch to satellite radio, CD, AUX, getting almost desperate in the need to fill this awkward silence. Nothing happens, not even static. I sit back in my seat and turn my attention to the mountains. They’re in the distance now, but we’re heading in that direction.
“What’s it like here?” Damn it, I can’t keep quiet.
She heaves a sigh and scratches at her head. “The land? Or the people?”
“It’s a lot different than Texas,” she answers.
I squint at her. “I’m not—”
We lapse into silence again. As the highway slants upward, and mountains loom before us, I start to wonder if I haven’t made a mistake. Why didn’t I just run home? Why do I have a need to prove myself to the universe? My home burned down when I was nine, and I haven’t been able to let anything go since that day. Every imperfect moment is burned into my brain.
Maybe Cora is right and the flames are God’s retribution, and we have to pay for our sins through his holy fire. Or maybe he’s abandoned us all.