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Fireman's Carry
Author: Eli Easton

 

 

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Chapter one

 

Shane

A thick gray haze turned the day outside into a scene from a dystopian thriller. This was nuts. I could only see the road ahead for a few feet. There were no taillights to follow. Nope. All the traffic on this two-lane mountain road was going the other way—down. I was the only person insane enough to be going up. To my left, an endless row of headlights popped out of the dense smoke, one pair at a time, glowing like bedazzled pasties. They were the only guideline I had as I drove as fast as I dared. I had to get to Pops.

And what happens when I get him? The exit lane is hardly moving. We'll be trapped.

One crisis at a time, Shane. God! I couldn't think about that, couldn’t let myself go all drama queen. This was too serious. At least once I had Pops, we'd be together. At least I'd know he was okay.

I drove on, clutching the steering wheel and sitting up straighter. My windows were up tight, and I'd turned the air to recirculate a while back, but smoke seeped into the car. It clogged my nose and my throat ached. To my right, red glowing spots appeared, back in the haze. There were woods on that side of the road, I knew, even if I couldn't see much of them now.

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! The fire's right there.

It looked worst than it was, right? The firemen, or whoever, wouldn't let a whole road full of people burn to death in their cars. I brushed my long, dark hair off my face and unzipped my hoodie. It was getting a little warm in the car, but mostly it was panic making me sweat. I glanced down and grimaced. I should have worn something a wee bit more discreet for this trip, but when I’d seen the news this morning, I’d simply thrown on the nearest thing at hand before running out the door. Nothing like going on rescue mission in a candy pink hoodie that said BITE ME on it in big, rhinestone letters.

Never mind your clothes. Just keep driving.

I knew every bend in the road up to Crest Lake, every sign and weird tree. I'd lived in the little mountain town with Pops for my last two years of high school, after my parents kicked me out. And since starting at Sacramento State, I'd driven up here at least a few times a month. But I couldn't see anything today, and time slowed to a terrifying crawl. I trusted Mable, my 2001 Toyota Prius. She would drive into Hell for me and come out like a trooper. But it seemed more and more like that's exactly where we were going. With every frantic beat of my heart, the smoke got thicker and more fire appeared off to my right.

I was starting to hyperventilate, and driving too fast, when suddenly a blockade materialized across my lane. I slammed on the brakes.

I barely managed to stop—only inches from hitting the wooden barrier and the cop waving at me frantically. He had on a white N95 filtration mask.

I rolled down my window. "Oh thank you baby Jesus! I'm so glad to see you. You have to help me!"

The cop made a motion with his hand. "Turn around! Road's closed." His voice was muffled through the mask.

No. Damn it. I opened my car door and hopped out. I had to make him listen.

"Get back in your car and turn around!" the cop barked as I shut the door.

"Officer, just let me explain. I have to get to Crest Lake! My—"

"What part of the road is closed do you not understand?" the cop yelled at me all hard-ass, like some movie drill sergeant.

I gaped at him. I'd been rushing around like a maniac ever since I'd woken up that morning and seen the news. Now all that forward momentum screeched to a halt inside me and despair rushed in. Oh God. I wasn't gonna be able to get to Pops. He was going to die.

I choked back a sob and put my hands over my face, trying to keep it together. Crying wouldn't solve anything, and would only make this macho cop despise me—if my pink hoodie and me being, well, me didn't already. But I was just done. I'd finally found someone who should be the cavalry, and he wasn't even going to listen.

"Oh for fuck's sake," I heard the cop mutter. "Listen, kid—"

"Why is this car here? We need this lane cleared!" someone new shouted.

As if I'd come up here day tripping during a massive wildfire for the hell of it. I wiped my face and looked up, irritation making me ready to fight again. Four firemen, in heavy dark coats with yellow stripes and yellow hats, approached the barricade. A gray-haired man seemed to be in charge and he looked stressed. "What's the hold up?"

"This kid. I'm turning him around," said the cop.

"No wait!" I ignored him, pleading instead with the gray-haired fireman. "My grandfather lives in Crest Lake. I have to get him out. Please. Please help me."

The fireman grimaced, but his eyes softened. "He's probably already out, son. The senior center was evacuated. Anyways, road's closed. We need this lane for westbound traffic."

"Pops wasn't in the senior center! He has an apartment near the bakery. I know he's still there. I can be real quick. I promise. And—"

"What's his name and address?" the fire chief asked as he pulled out his phone.

"Uh… Bill Bower, or William Bower. He's on Pine Street a block off Main. It's 121 Pine, Apartment D. He's in a wheelchair, and he can't drive right now."

The fire chief was already tapping away while I fished the information out of my frazzled brain. While I waited for him to respond, I took a look at the other three firemen with him.

One guy was a heavy-set dude with a reddish-blond beard, probably in his 30s. The other two—holy hotness! They could have been brothers—dark-haired and classically handsome in that young-Cary Grant way, even behind their heavy-duty masks. Yowza.

The younger of the two looked away, as if eye contact with me would give him cooties. Whatever. I was used to getting that response, and I had more important things to worry about today.

The fire chief put away his phone. "He's on the refusal list. Mike," he barked. "Go with this young man and see if he can get his grandfather to evacuate. The apartment's on the west end of town and the fire's on the east, so you shouldn't have a problem getting in and out. But hurry it up."

"What? Why me?" said the younger of the two dark-haired guys, apparently named Mike. His tone was disbelieving, like he'd been asked to pick up dog shit.

The other dark-haired guy nudged him hard with an elbow. "Because Chief said so, numb nuts. And because you're the rookie. Don't fucking argue."

Mike reddened behind his mask. "Sorry."

"Just do it, Canali!" the chief snapped. "And hurry up! You're the last car through. Go! Go!"

We went, piling into the car in record time. The moment the cop and one of the firemen moved the barrier, I floored it.

"Slow down!" Mike said after about five seconds. "You can't see in this smoke."

As if he had to tell me that I couldn't see. Ass. But he was right. I slowed down. It's okay. They let me through. And I have a fireman with me. I'm gonna make it to Pops. Everything's fine.

I gripped the steering wheel, eyes straining to see the road.

In my peripheral vision, I saw Mike take off his N95 mask. I didn't have to look at him to know he was as good-looking as I'd thought. But so what? I'd known the minute he asked why me? that he was one of those knuckle-draggers who couldn't be bothered with a queer like me, so I refused to give him the satisfaction of even a glance.

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