This story is by Kaylee Garling and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Black smoke veils the forest. Thicker than a winter’s blizzard. And less survivable.
Heat lifts steam from the ground beneath my heavy boots. Prepares the earth for the scorch that follows.
Ten days. That’s how long we’ve been battling the wildfire. Exhaustion has come and gone, my body as dry as the twig that breaks beneath my next step backward. But I will fight, until my dying breath.
Sunlight filters through the overheated trees. The trunk next to me pops, threatens to ignite. I hold strong. Try not to lose my grip as countless pounds of water churn through the hose my partner and I clutch between the fingers of our soot-covered, leather gloves. My wedding band makes a permanent imprint through the fourth finger. A symbolic line, reminding me of my promise to my wife and kids. To return home once this is over.
Sweat pools in the ridges of my eyes. I wish I could rub them clean, but must keep my hands on the hose. I blink. Once. Twice…then refocus on the flames.
Guide the hose. Keep it untangled. Have an escape route.
A mouse scurries out of its hole next to my foot. Takes to topside. It’s gray fur disappears into the underbrush as it tries to rush away. I’ve lost count of how many animals I’ve seen trying to escape.
We give another step to the fire’s offensive gain. Against it, we’re nothing but flesh and bone. It’s hungry. Coming for us. There’s nothing we can do, but hope our pitiful defense holds.
We reach a short meadow where crews have cleared the area to create a fire line. A small stream winds down the middle. The heaven-sent view of snow-capped mountains to my back is at odds with the fiery hell to my front.
More crew members stand with the water truck two hundred feet away, coiling the extra hose with lowered heads, ready to retreat if the blaze jumps this line, like it has the last three. Their rounded shoulders tell me all I need to know: the fire is winning. They’re as sleep deprived as me, but remain fueled by the same adrenaline that propels my veins. It’s an addiction, an energy below my skin, deeper than my soul. I can’t get away from it. From fighting. From winning against the powerful forces of nature. The unexpected turns of wind, earth, and fire.
We will win. We must. Or we die.
I refuse to die. I will fight, until my dying breath.
Two homes stand in the distance. Cabins. Beautiful in their boastful design. I’d kill to own something that grand. Too bad my job doesn’t pay what they’re worth. But it contains something more valuable, what dreams and nightmares are made of. You just have to decide which side you’re on. And unlike those homes which stand just beyond the next fire line, waiting to be devoured, I choose life. To not stand still, but to keep moving. Even if it’s one step in the wrong direction. Someday, it’ll be in the right direction. And I will keep going until my life’s burned out.
I concede another pace. How many more must I give? I’m tired of giving. I want to reach into the fiery jaws, grab it by the throat, and choke.
My muscles cramp. But rest won’t come. Not until the work is done.
Pressure brushes my back. I turn, expecting EJ from my team to tell me it’s time to quit, but nobody’s there. It must be fatigue. Delusions. I’m too tired to sort it out.
A debris column collects to my left. A funnel, about to dive into the inferno. Heat waves surround me, tell me it’s time to go.
I grab my partner by the shoulder, motion to abandon post. One signal is all it takes. He’s down the escape path.
Sparing the fire one last look, I turn to follow. But movement catches my eye.
A gray horse, illuminated by fire, rears and bucks against a light blue lead rope that’s held captive between a low-lying branch and tree trunk. Sweat shines its dappled coat. Fear foams its mouth, spraying through the air as it shakes its head. Droplets of blood fan out from its right ear. I can’t just stand there. Can’t watch it die.
I charge into the flames, rage for rage, and grab the rope. It snaps against my palm. The horse jerks it out of my grasp.
My bones cry out as I pound my boot down on the branch. Try to dislodge the rope. It doesn’t budge. But the fire does.
I abandon the rope, go for the horse’s halter. I’m clumsy to untie the headstall with my protective gloves. Clumsy to dodge the horse’s hooves as they strike. A hoof comes down on my toe. I grit my teeth, and yank the top of the halter over the horse’s bloody ear. But that’s all I get. The horse is too frightened for help.
The horse’s tail catches fire, sending it forward. Its broad chest slams me into the tree trunk, bounces back, then retreats to the other side, pulling the rope in my direction. I duck before it cinches around my neck.
I tried to save the animal. I failed. I choose life. My life.
I will fight, until my dying breath.
Thrusting through the haze, I head back the way I came.
A wall of flame climbs skyward, blocking my escape. I need a way out. Any way. I spin. Dodge. Kick. There’s nothing. My promise of returning home disappears with my escape route.
Lunch splatters against my visor. Acidic. Blister hot. I wipe my mouth. Focus.
I’ve trained for this. Seen countless videos. Prepared for this moment. But never thought it would come. And so the dream becomes the nightmare.
Red hot embers lick up grass, disintegrating before they’re a foot off the ground. Even with my protective gear, my chances remain zero. I’m a dead man.
Dead. The word ricochets around my mind. I refuse to let it stick. I’m a fighter. I will fight, until my dying breath.
I fall to my knees. Start digging. Digging for cover.
My gloves’ leather fibers burn into the tender flesh of my fingertips. The warmth of the earth melts through my knees. Pain narrows my breath.
My futile efforts die. The fire’s too hot. The flame too fast.
I’ve never thought about dying. Never considered it. It couldn’t, wouldn’t happen to me. Now I realize how wrong I was. How fragile life can be. How thoughtless I was to take it for granted.
I drape my Nomex shroud. Refuse to accept the fact that I’m about to die. Instead, I imagine the future I wish to see.
I wish I could sweep my wife into my arms, rest my chin atop her hair. Hair that I’ll sweep behind her ears so I can see her beautiful face. Lace our fingers together. Feel the way her hands fit inside mine, so small, yet so capable. I know she’s strong enough to make it without me. But I hope she won’t have to.
If only I could hear my twin four-year-old boys’ laugh as we play catch in our backyard, with the sun setting over the mountains, the breeze to my back. Teach them how to hold the ball so their throw will be more accurate. Show them that to be an honorable man is more important than winning or losing.
Tears force their way over the brim of my lashes. I can’t hold back. Even though I have no regrets, the wishes remain, stubborn as the rose bush in our front yard. The rose bush that needs a good trim.
My fire shelter deploys. Attempts to shield my vital organs and breath of life. Hands, arms, feet become vulnerable as I secure the corners. It won’t be enough. But I need to try. I will fight, until my dying breath.
Heat crawls up my spine. Muscles react on instinct, throwing my frame back. As I arch, my balance falters. I fall. Weightless.
“Dear Heavenly Father, please take care of my family. I love them. I love Thee. If it’s Thy will, bring me home. I surrender this fight into Thy Hands.”
My body tingles with grateful humility that God has given me the opportunity to surrender my life. Offers me the chance to remember those I love, His last gift before fiery teeth rip my body and soul apart.
My skull cracks on impact. Helmet jars forward. The crunch of bone shatters my vision. Flames louder than a lion’s growl wash over. Devouring.
I admit defeat. Accept the darkness that settles over me. Take a single breath. Release it into death’s suffocating grip.
Death quiets my pounding heart. Calms my aching body. Seals the cracks in my skull. Death is graceful. Serene. Welcoming.
A bolt of light gashes through the darkness. A hand reaches. Fingers extend. Beckon.
My soul yearns to get up and fulfill my fate. To see my parents. Grandparents. Experience their loving embrace after years of absence.
“Luke!” I lift my gaze toward the muffled, yet familiar voice. “Luke!” My eyes focus on a hand, follow it to an arm, a face. EJ stares down at me. “Luke! You okay?”
Am I? Knives lance up my burnt back, sides, head. Not dead. Not yet.
“He’s alive! He’s down here.” EJ’s voice is an echo in the back of my skull. Both booming and distant. His words stick on repeat: He’s alive. He’s alive. He’s alive.
EJ slips a hand under my neck, dislodging my jammed helmet. “The rescue crew will be here soon. Just stay still.”
Smoky air twists my lungs. But I gulp it down anyway. It’s air. Real air. I’m alive.
“Past us. Hit the line and stopped.”
EJ shrugs. I pray my sacrifice wasn’t in vain.
“Where are we?”
He takes his time to answer as he surveys our surroundings. “It looks like an abandoned, grown-over, bear’s den.”
Inside the hole’s cool embrace, clean air begins to seep. My lungs let out a joyous cry.
“How did I get down here?”
A divot forms between EJ’s eyebrows. His answer, a question. “Err… you fell?”
The memory stands at a distance, but tastes real. I reach out and touch it.
The fire. My body bent back. I fell. Not to my death. To my life.
Tears of relief spill onto my cheeks. I have no regrets, only wishes. Wishes to fulfill.
“It’s okay, bro. I’d cry too if I were you. You’re dang lucky to be alive. We all thought you were dead once you disappeared. Guess all those prayers do mean something.”
Prayers. “Thank you. Thank you.” The words croak through my cracked lips. I send them heavenward. Know that God hears. And answers.
I will fight, until my dying breath.
No. No more fighting.
I will surrender. Surrender to His will. God did much more than I could do for myself. He saved me.
I will surrender, until my dying breath.