Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write for the ACTION and/or ADVENTURE Genre (11/13/14)
TITLE: Check Line
By Rachel Barrett
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Phone ringing. Fumble for it, groggy. “Yeah?”
“Decker, the fire's jumped the line.” The words shatter my sleep and I'm awake in double-quick time. “We need you out in Cemetery Canyon right now. Brief you when you're here.”
Moonlight streams in the windowpane, bright enough so I can find my pants on the floor. Don't have room for any second thoughts—there's just one objective to center on.
The wife-sized bundle under the quilt rouses. “Deck?”
“I've gotta hurry, Maddy.” Stamp one foot, then the other, into heavy lug-soled boots and I'm ready for action. “I'll call when I can.” I lean down to kiss her quickly, then sprint out the door.
Still awake. After twenty-seven years, I should be used to these nighttime calls. Deck was an experienced smokejumper before we married. Dry Idaho summers keep him in practice. But in the wee hours, I don't think clearly. Irrational fears stalk in the shadows.
So much for sleep. Grabbing my robe, I venture into the kitchen for some coffee.
Shale crunches under eighteen boots as we hike the mountain flank. Headlamp beams flicker eerily through the smoke, and a crackling roar rises over the ridge, straight where we're headed.
No time for fatigue, or fear, or wishing I was home in bed. Wildfire is one enemy that gives no quarter.
Crew boss points out the spot. “Backfire got away. Check line might hold it. Let's move!”
Like Snow White's dwarfs, we string along the ridge, shovels in one hand, Pulaskis in the other. No need for headlamps now, as the massing flames spotlight us. Glancing at that inferno is like a look-see straight into hell.
Don't think. Just dig. Make the dust fly like your life depends on it.
I tuck my feet up in the big armchair, cat purring in my lap, doing her best to knead the tension from my left thigh. Maybe reading will quicken the lonely hours. Reaching the coffee table is a stretch from my perch, but I snag a book with one finger and fish it up.
Something about Idaho wildflower species. Works for me. Anything's better than facing the worry-pictures printed on my brain.
A slip of paper flutters out—no, a photograph. Nabbing it as it falls, I flip it over. My heart skips.
I thought I'd lost that picture, the one of Ally with her dad, the summer she came home from college. They stand together, grinning, clad in smokejumper suits like lumpy marshmallows. The Michelin twins, I dubbed them.
That summer, Cemetery burned.
Flames skitter through the trees, pluming in the canopy. Sweat burns my eyes, and memories fly up like debris glancing off the blade of my digging tool. No. Not now. Distraction is first cousin to a blunder, and I can't afford any mistakes, not out here, fighting to save homes and lives.
I see Ally's face, like it's painted on the fire below. A weight heavier than the choking smoke settles into my chest. I should have taken that jump. Not her.
I can't think. Can't even pray. All I see is a mishmash of images. Ally swinging out the door to answer the emergency call, assurance in her smile as she waved. I'll be careful, Mom. Love you.
The parachute malfunctioned, they said. Details were few. All I'd understood was that her expensive safety net had betrayed her—left her dangling, fishnetted in a tree, as flames bulldozed through the canyon.
Work became a distraction for me, a check line of my own to divert the firestorm of loss. After five years, Deck hardly knows me anymore.
Now he's out there in that same deathtrap. I wonder if he even knows I love him.
Keep digging. Don't quit. Lungs burning in the smoke, hands cramping around the Pulaski. Shouts punctuate the continuous greedy crackle, bouncing off my ears.
“Deck! Get out of there!”
Someone yanks the Pulaski away from me. Reality sets in as the fire races through the trees around us. Sparks burst and wheel in the branches. Together we run, boots pounding the brush, driven by the pure, basic instinct of survival.
He should have called by now. Checking my phone for the thousandth time, I toss it down.
The phone vibrates, stabbing queasiness through my stomach. I dread these calls. “Hello?”
“Maddy, it's me.”
AUTHOR'S NOTE: a Check Line is a temporary fireline constructed at right angles to the control line and used to hold a backfire in check as a means of regulating the heat or intensity of the backfire. http://www.nwcg.gov/pms/pubs/glossary/c.htm
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