BRAVING THE BLAZE - EXCERPT ONE
“I know volunteering sounds crazy, but I’ve got to do this.” Ginger Warby locked her fingers together and sat down on her best friend’s floral-print sofa.
Brenda whirled around in bewilderment. “This has got to be the most idiotic thing you’ve ever thought of doing. Why? Why would you even try? I know how terrified you are of fire.” She flopped into the mauve recliner next to Ginger, her face still rumpled in disbelief. “Look at cooking school.”
Ginger took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. So she had flunked out of culinary school. She’d done her best. She couldn’t help it if she couldn’t set her Crepes Suzette…or the Bombe Alaska…or…or the Lobster fra Diavolo on fire. Three little dishes. There’d been plenty of other meals she’d fixed to perfection.
At least she’d managed to get over her fear of gas stoves and barbeque grills while she attended school. She’d made progress. Well, as long as they didn’t have a flare-up of flames. The image of the time her T-bone steaks dripped grease and sent flames roaring up through the grill popped into her mind. She’d gone screaming out of the class as her classmates roared with laughter.
Before she’d chosen culinary art for her career, she should’ve realized where there’s heat, there’s fire. Why did chefs prefer gas stoves to electric anyway? Someone somewhere had to start a new trend.
“You’re afraid of a sparkler, Ging.” Brenda shook her head in skepticism.
“I’ve gotten better though. You just don’t understand.”
“I know my best friend just told me she’s planning to put herself in the middle of the biggest wildfire Utah’s ever seen, but she’s afraid of a match. You’re going from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Somebody has to talk some sense into you.”
How could Ginger explain all of her reasoning? Especially since the death of Brenda’s brother, Barrett, had a lot to do with her decision. Only a week had gone by since his funeral. Ginger hoped she could get over her fear and at the same time understand Barrett’s tragic death.
“I just feel strongly about going, Bren. I really want to face my fears. And besides, they desperately need help on this fire. I’ll just be one of the camp crew, anyway.”
Brenda reached for her hand. “So face your fears. But putting yourself in the middle of a one-hundred thousand acre wildfire is just plain nuts.”
“Could you stop mentioning that?”
“Wildfire, wildfire, wildfire.”
“You can’t even face the word, let alone face the actual fire.” Brenda hit her palm to her forehead. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Barrett, does it?”
Ginger noticed the glassy look in her best friend’s eyes. “No, not really. As I said, they need the help. Let’s talk about you. What’ve you been up to since we last talked?”
“And your hair!” Brenda stared at her with a horrified look. “You cut off all your gorgeous butter-colored hair for a fire? Since we were eight, you swore you’d never cut it.”
“It was always getting in my pots of soup. I’m…I’m glad it’s gone.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t want it to catch on fire. I’ll be much safer with my hair short.” She didn’t want her terror to show, so she ducked her head.
“But did you use a scythe to cut it? My gosh, it stands out everywhere.”
“Still not happy with this discussion, Bren,” she returned in frustration.
Brenda clicked her tongue. “I still can’t believe you’re thinking of doing such a crazy thing.”
“Not thinking; I’m doing.”
“Not thinking is right. Daniel doesn’t even want to face that monster.” Brenda sobered. “I don’t want to lose someone else to a fire.”
Ginger’s heart lodged in her throat. “I know, and you won’t. I’ll just be doing camp duty, and you need Daniel here with you and little Darcy. How are things with the two of you?” Ginger asked, still hoping to change the subject.
“Have you talked to Sage yet?” Brenda asked instead.
Ginger sighed. How could her friend manage to bring up every subject she’d been trying to ban from her mind?
“I’m sure he’d want to discuss this plan of yours.” Brenda leaned back in the recliner with a raised brow.
“I…I haven’t seen him since the funeral.” She dug her nails into her thumbs until she couldn’t stand the pain any longer. Sage had gotten over what she’d done years ago. At least he acted like he had forgiven her. She just couldn’t forgive herself.
“What do you think he’s going to say about this?” Brenda crooked her neck, scanning the backyard for her daughter. “I shouldn’t let her outside in all this smoke, but she gets tired of being cooped up. And frankly, I’m not sure the air is any better inside than out no matter what they say on the news.”
“Come on. Let’s talk about something else besides the fire. What’s been going on since we last talked?” Ginger asked.
She knew her friend well enough to know she wouldn’t let the subject drop, but she didn’t want to hear another word about Sage or the Tushar fire. Ginger’s anxiety would explode through the roof if they kept talking about the subject. She already felt like running back to Salt Lake with her tail between her legs.
Convincing herself to come back home for Barrett’s funeral after flunking out at school was bad enough, but volunteering to fight her biggest trepidation on earth stressed her out to the max. She again tried not to think about being seventeen and the events which lead up to her phobia. The images flashed in her mind. Darn. Didn’t want to think about that memory. Could she ever put the experience behind her?
After this wildfire, would she be able to go back to school and face that flambé? Would she get her degree? Would she ever be able to do anything without being frightened? She mentally shook herself. She had to move forward, or otherwise she’d never be able to move on with her life.
“So then Daniel and I took little Darcy to Hogle Zoo, and do you know what she said when she saw the monkeys?” Brenda’s eyes sparkled with love for her little daughter.
Ginger shrugged, but couldn’t manage to control the flashing images of smoke, orange flames and sizzling trees which played over and over in her mind. How could she when smoke already burned her throat like eating suicide chicken wings basted with Tabasco sauce, hot pepper flakes and chopped chilies for garnish. It amazed her that a fire so many miles away could fill Brenda’s house with so much smoke the place looked like they’d landed in the middle of a smoker’s convention.
“Hey, are you listening?” Brenda asked.
“Uh, yeah. Little Darcy is adorable.”
And the story of Darcy and the monkeys was sweet, but Ginger had to admit she didn’t have her full attention on the story. Despite her determination to face her pyrophobia head on, black fear consumed her thoughts. At this point, she wished she’d have stayed in her safe little apartment hundreds of miles away. Being here brought back too many memories. Seeing Brenda made her return especially difficult; she looked too much like her brother. The thought of Barrett’s death made her chicken croissant sandwich from lunch do the funky chicken in her stomach.
How could Barrett have gotten trapped in a fire on his farm? What had sparked the flames? Could it have been equipment like they’d said? A van riding the rim of a blown tire on I-15? Another cigarette thrown from a passing car? There’d been lots of possibilities but no answers. If the police thought the fire looked suspicious, why weren’t they investigating further?
The Tushar fire had everyone’s attention, that’s why. It claimed her thoughts too, but she couldn’t forget about Barrett. Having been more than good friends with him at one time, she unequivocally wanted to know all the circumstances surrounding his death. Unfortunately, what had taken his life happened to be fire, making this all the more difficult for her to confront.
Barrett and Ginger’s brother, Sage, had been best friends. Along with her and Brenda, they had been the awesome foursome through their school years. They’d done everything together. She’d been surprised Sage and Brenda hadn’t married. As for her and Barrett… The thought stung like a thorn pricking her finger picking blackberries on the family farm. More memories she didn’t want to think about right now.
She needed to pay attention to Brenda. She did care about the everyday life of her best friend, but an overwhelming, terrifying dread clogged her brain. She needed to push her phobias aside and listen.
Brenda jumped to her feet and headed toward the kitchen. “I think we could both use a glass of cold iced tea.”
If only they had enough tea to put out the wildfire.
BRAVING THE BLAZE - EXCERPT TWO
Dean Harward pulled his sunburst-colored Jeep Wrangler into his brother’s driveway. He rummaged through his overstuffed glove box until he found a paper towel to wipe the sweat and soot from his face. Despite putting on deodorant this morning, he stunk. The sweltering heat contributed to his ripeness and also added to the dangerous conditions of possibly the all-time worst fire in Utah.
He had to remind himself again why he needed to face another fire this summer. Yes, that important commodity—money. The pay lined his pocket for the veterinary program at the University of Colorado, but he didn’t like the high risks involved with firefighting. This summer would prove even more hazardous than usual.
“Come on, Dixie,” he said, ruffling his dog’s fur. “Let’s go meet the family.”
Dixie barked and jumped from the jeep. Dean slipped from his seat onto stiff legs, stretching his back from the long ride.
“Is that you, brother?” Jason said, stepping out the screeching screen door.
Dixie rushed toward Jason and jumped on him with enthusiasm.
“Whoa, Dixie. You about knocked me over.” He wrestled with her in a playful mood. “You need to teach your yellow Lab some manners.”
“I’ve been too busy. Besides, she’s a good dog,” Dean said, meeting them on the porch.
“Are those dark bags I see under those blue eyes? It couldn’t be just from the drive. And I swear I see gray in that brown hair of yours.” His brother grinned.
Dean ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “I doubt gray, maybe ashes. And as far as tired: I had a long drive, a tough semester and long nights with Dixie pushing me off the bed.”
“I told you not to get that started. You’ll never get her to stop sleeping with you now. When you get married, Dixie will be sleeping between you and your wife. Mark my words.”
“Just because it happened to you and Amy with Duke, doesn’t mean it’ll happen to me.” He laughed and ran his hand across Dixie’s fur again. “And besides, I’m planning on never getting married. You know that.”
Jason motioned for him to sit on the porch bench and then opened the screen door for Dixie to go in and play with the kids. “Still down on marriage I see. As your older brother, I want to advise you it isn’t all that bad.”
“I’ve seen what marriage did to all three of my brothers. It’s made you all fat and lazy and none of you fulfilled your dreams. This is one Harward who is going to be a veterinarian come hell or high water.”
Jason frowned toward Tushar. “I wish we had some of that high water to put out the blaze. Tushy is spreading through the mountains like a herd of stampeding cattle. They might have to start evacuations here. The air quality is reaching dangerous levels. I’ve got hay to get in, but I’m afraid to even start a piece of machinery since Barrett Sands burned to death on his farm.”
“I heard about that. Too bad. Wasn’t there something suspicious about his death?” Dean asked, pulling the paper towel out of his pocket and wiping the sweat dripping off his forehead again.
Amy appeared, smiling. “Hi, Dean. How about a refreshing glass of lemonade?” She sniffed. “And a shower?” She smiled and handed the glasses to Jason so she could pour.
Dean did smell as bad as a gorilla’s armpit. “I just wanted you to appreciate my ugly brother here.”
He had to admit Jason had picked well. Amy was a gem. Their nice home and three wonderful kids were a beautiful testament to that. But her amazing qualities didn’t change the fact that Jason was a farmer eking out a living on a hundred-acre farm in Beaver instead of an agricultural specialist like he’d planned.
And his brother, Kyle, hadn’t faired any better. He ended up with Charlotte in Logan working intermittent construction jobs instead of becoming an architect in New York. Even his little brother, Corey, now worked on home computers instead of getting his graphic design degree and moving to California to work for Pixar. Suzie getting pregnant with twins within the first couple of months of their marriage had put a stop to that.
Dean didn’t plan to get roped in the same way. Keeping women out of his life was the best decision he’d ever made. A lot of the guys at college had fallen like dead birds, getting snared by women they’d met on campus. The first thing they knew they were engaged, married, dropping out of school and working two jobs to support a family. A woman wouldn’t get in the way of his dreams.
“Thanks, honey,” Jason said. He kissed Amy on the cheek and then handed Dean a cold glass.
Jocelyn cried out. The boys squealed with laughter.
Amy jumped to her feet. “Oh, dear. Problems.” She rushed inside the house, the screen door slamming.
“So what do you think started the fire that killed Barrett?” Dean asked Jason.
“The fire pattern around him looked like someone had taken a drip torch and circled him. Strong winds rushed the fire toward the highway which didn’t even act as a barrier. They actually had to pull firefighters off Tushy to save the surrounding homes and farms near Manderfield.” Jason took a long drink. “They tried to blame his death on the van of fourteen illegal aliens who were also killed. They thought a blown tire and the sparks from riding the rim might’ve ignited the fire. But that theory doesn’t make sense—not even to the investigators. The wind had been blowing the other way. It clearly appeared the fire started in Barrett’s field and moved toward the highway. The investigators are considering a hot piece of farm equipment started the blaze, but I believe that like I believe a politician is honest.”
Dean savored the cold liquid as he swallowed. He’d heard about the van of illegal aliens. Had the smoke shrouded the driver’s vision and he’d swerved off the road? The sheer number of people in the van would’ve made the vehicle unstable enough to overturn. A blown tire could have added to the cause; however no one had lived to tell the story. The accident still didn’t explain the unusual fire pattern.
Jason refilled his glass. “I know any kind of spark can start a fire,” he continued. “But, Barrett hadn’t been out on his tractor or even his four-wheeler. He was moving sprinklers by hand right near the interstate. His farm borders I-15.” He swiveled the ice in his glass. “I don’t buy the whole story, but I’m still not too excited about jumping on my tractor in this heat. I’m also not too crazy about you heading into that fire.”
“You never are, Jason. Besides, they don’t put smoke-chasers in the middle of a fire. They save that for the experienced guys. We just tag along and put out little hot spots. That’s all. You know this is the quickest way I can earn enough money over the summer to continue college.”
“There are other things besides becoming a vet.”
“Not for me.” He squirmed like a worm on a hook. “So you’ll take good care of Dixie?”
What a ludicrous question. Jason would spoil Dixie as much as he did his three kids.
“She’ll help keep the kids entertained. Duke’s getting old and prefers to shade up.”
Squeals of laughter and rowdy barking came from inside, and Dean smiled. He handed his drained glass to his brother. “Tell Amy thanks for the drink, and next time I’ll wash off with a garden hose before I see her.”
Jason came to his feet, his face as blank as a washed blackboard. “Where are you going? You’re not leaving already? I thought you’d stay the night.”
“There’s a truck going up this evening. I’ll have an extra night I can help beat back the flames. Tushy’s already burned from I-15 south-east across Blue Valley into Birch Creek Mountain and Kent’s Lake.”
Concern furrowed his brother’s brow. “You take care.”
“Not to worry. I’ve done this before.” He turned to leave.
“Not like this one, Dean. They’ve already lost eight good men,” Jason said.
Dean looked over his shoulder. “Neither rain nor sleet nor fire will stop me from returning for Amy’s fried chicken. You tell her that.”
He slid onto the seat and fired up his Jeep. Truth be told, heading into Tushy didn’t have him feeling too ecstatic either. A woman could stop him from fulfilling his dream, but so could the fury of an uncontrollable fire.
He wouldn’t turn back. He might need the money, but he had a bigger reason. Tushy raged through the state, consuming homes, destroying forests and killing wildlife. A man couldn’t turn his back on that.