Chapter 2: Smoke and Ash

Start from the beginning

Roberto grunted as he lifted the body over the edge of the tailgate. It rolled onto its side, but together, Tara and Roberto managed to push it beyond the gate.

Charlie jumped up beside the body, whining, before Roberto could lift the tailgate. He had to drag the dog by the collar, until Tara could gather him into her arms and carry him to the cab. He sat in the back seat beside Nicole, who held her face in her hands. Charlie whined and put his head on her thigh, looking up under her blood- and ash-smeared hair.

I hope she wasn't looking at us putting Alan's body into the truck. God, that was awful. So undignified.

Roberto threw the truck into gear and gunned the engine. They flew through the gate and down the road, now barely recognizable through the smoke and under the ash.

Tara looked down. Black soot streaked her shirt and pants, and her running shoes were grey. She did not dare look into the vanity mirror in the sun visor.

Roberto was even sootier, a black smear across his chest and reaching up his throat and chin. His hands spread soot across the steering wheel and gear shift.

Tara found her water bottle, now nearly empty, and passed it to Nicole. Now's not the time to worry about germs. Nicole looked up barely long enough to see the bottle and shook her head.

"Take some. You need it," Tara urged. "Go on." As if to urge her to comply, Charlie poked his nose into her shoulder.

Nicole took the bottle, gulped, choked and spat water on her knees and the back of the seat. She coughed twice, then drained the bottle. Tara took it back as gently as she could.

She rocked to the side as the truck negotiated a tight turn, but the main road toward the highway was much smoother than the backroads they had navigated to the winery.

Tara was still kneeling backwards, and she and Charlie nearly slid to the floor when Roberto braked suddenly. "What the—"

She recovered and turned. Red and blue lights flashed in the smoke ahead, and then they could see a police car, parked across the intersection with the highway. A highway patrolman in a reflective vest climbed out and waved his arms, indicating they should stop.

"It's not like I was going to smash right into his car," Roberto growled.

"Where the hell did you come from?" the cop yelled. "Didn't you hear all the roads into the valley are closed?"

"We have a body in the back," Roberto answered, nodding toward the back seat. "Her husband."

The cop was fresh-faced, young and nervous. Even in the dimness and ash, his face shone with sweat. Fear or heat? Both, Tara decided. He looked at Nicole, who was sobbing quietly, shoulders still heaving.

The cop moved his light to the truck bed. "Oh, my god." Tara could see him shaking. "I—you—oh, my god." He turned away, bending over, trying to breathe—which was not easy in the smoke. Finally, he turned back to them. His eyes were rimmed red. "You better go to the evac center in Barnestown. There's medical help there." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "And a morgue, too."

"Okay. Thanks."

The cop hustled to move his car and Roberto turned onto the highway, driving away from the smoke. Tara could no longer see any blue sky, even to the west. A bilious yellow spot in the smoke showed where the sun was sinking below the horizon.

She turned to look past Nicole out the rear window, and saw one of Alan's legs at the back of the truck bed. She only realized then that the shoe was missing. She thought of the first day she had met Alan.

Wildfire, Chapter 1: An Open DoorWhere stories live. Discover now