Russel’s beeper went off. The sound so foreign and unwelcome, both he and Sal yelped at the intrusion.
Russell stepped back and tripped over the jeans that were crumpled around his ankles, landing on his arse. He snatched up the beeper vibrating across the floorboards and glared at its screen.
Sal sat up, a frustrated smile hovering on her mouth. “What is it?”
“Shit. I have to go. There’s a fire out at the Mackenzie’s. Shit, shit, fuck.” He yanked his jeans up, and shoved his feet back into his shoes.
“I’m coming with you.” Sal scrabbled off the kitchen bench and ran to the bedroom. She was back in less than a minute, jeans, boots and flannelette shirt hastily thrown on.
“No, Sal, you’re not trained—”
“Don’t tell me I won’t be safe. I can help, Russ.” She grabbed his head as he fumbled with the zipper on his jeans.
He looked into her eyes, saw the swirl of confidence and fear behind her words.
“OK.” She let him go. “But you do what I tell you.”
“I’ll lock up,” she said switching the stove off at the wall and moving their uneaten dinner to the sink.
She followed him quickly out to his ute, her heart thumping in time with the maelstrom of thoughts in her head: his fervent kisses, calloused touch and now this. She patted her shirt pocket, the asthma inhaler sitting reassuringly against her chest and opened the ute door.
Russell’s mobile trilled in the centre console and Sal picked it up.
“We’re on our way.”
“Sal?” It was Mack.
“Yeah, Mack. We’re already on our way to the station—”
Russell snatched the phone from her. “Mack? I’ll bring the truck. Where are you?”
“I’m at the McKenzies already, with Johno—why are you with Sal?”
“Later, dude.” There was a second of silence before Mack continued.
“We saw the smoke from Johno’s place and came straight over. It’s bad Russ, hurry. We’re doing the best we can with the bore pump.” He hung up.
“Shit. OK this is going to get nasty, Sal. When I pull up at the station, I’ll get the truck and you follow me in this. There should be some overalls behind the seat. Put them on now.”
She nodded, reaching behind the seat and dragged out the heavy clothing. She struggled into them as they pulled up at the station, sliding over the bench seat and into the driver’s side as Russ got out.
Russ screeched out of the station in the truck, sirens wailing, lights flashing. The CB on the dash squawked.
“Sal, it’s me. Over.”
She grabbed the handset. “Got you. Over.”
They reached the turn off to the back road out of town in record time. The McKenzies property was ten kilometres further along. Sal spotted the smoke as they rounded the bend.
“Follow me and pay attention. You’ve drilled for this in the shed, but this is the real deal. You need to keep your head and follow the crew. Don’t get any stupid ideas and whatever you do, don’t take your mask off. Over.”
“Sal? You’re only a volunteer, so please be careful. Over.”
“I get it. Over.”
As she crested a rise in the road, she saw flames through the gum trees up ahead. Deep breath, Sal.
Sal pulled up behind the truck. Thick smoke swirled around the vehicles like an early morning fog. Stepping out of the ute, she tasted it as it rushed down into her lungs. She spun around and pumped on her asthma inhaler three times, drawing the ventolin down through her swelling airways. The noise was incredible. There had been a slight warm breeze back at her cabin, but out here it howled, feeding the flames and carrying red hot embers further from the house, spot fires igniting beyond the tree line towards the back of the property.
Sal stood rooted to the spot taking in the raging beast before her, its heat so intense she felt her skin dry and crack as the air around her sucked the moisture from it.
Russell loomed up in front of her, a masked apparition, and shoved a breathing apparatus in her arms, before he disappeared back into the churning smoke. She tugged the mask on and tweaked the oxygen valve feeling the pressure in her airways ease.
“Mack? Johno?” Russell stood still a moment, listening for their replies. He’d thought they would be watching for the truck but he hadn’t seen them yet, hadn’t seen anyone apart from Sal.
He’d told her to stay by the truck, but once he’d left her he realised how alone he felt in that moment. He never felt alone on a job.
The roof was well alight, the insulation fuelling hungry flames that were devouring the roof, spurred on by the hot northerly wind. Russell cocked his head, reading the wind and estimated sixty kilometre gusts. At the least.
He called again, and was relieved to see an ashy Johno loping around from the back of the house, his face already blistered. Russell pushed him in the direction of the truck, shouting over the howl to get some gear on.
He needed to find Mack, to know he was okay and hadn’t done anything stupid, but the seconds were racing by and he had to get the hose on the house. Fast.
He turned back to the truck with a frown just as Mack popped up beside him, materialising from the haze like a sooty wraith.
“I think Harry and Suze are still in there!” He yelled, his eyes watering from the heat, leathery face streaked with tears and sweat.
“Hose!” Russell shouted back, pointing to the truck and running for it, not even checking to see if Mack followed, just knowing he did.
The three of them rolled the hose out, attaching the pump to the tank Russ had parked beside. Mack and Johno heaved on its length, running it out towards the house. They yanked on it, letting Russell know they were ready and he turned the valve, feeling the power of the water surging through the hose. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder to check on Sal, but she wasn’t where he’d left her.
Damn it, woman!
He ripped his attention back to the truck in front of him, strapped a spare tank of oxygen to his back and pulled his helmet down.
The house was too far gone to go in. He prayed no one was inside.
Sal stood mesmerised by the scene playing out in front of her. The noise was horrifying, like nothing she’d ever expected. Corrugated roofing screamed as it was wrenched from its support, rivets exploding off like gun shots. The flames roared, consuming the house in a spectacular frenzy of orange, yellow and white flames. Black smoke, so thick she couldn’t see through it, poured from every window and out the gaping hole where the front door had been. Ash carpeted everything and it coated her in a thin film that felt silky when she rubbed her forehead above the mask.
The house drew her in, its dying pleas reaching deep within her. She started towards it, captivated by its death throes.
She crept around the side of the house and saw movement in a back window. A small hand thumped in vain on the glass. Her heart stopped in her chest when she realised it belonged to a child.
Without thinking, she ran up the back steps and dropping to her knees, crawled into the house, acrid smoke blanketing her as she forced herself to concentrate on her training.
Stay low, eyes open, use your hands. Her hand went up instinctively to her inhaler, still nestled in the pocket of her overalls. She immediately realised how stupid she had been but she couldn’t turn back. She had to find the child.
“Hello?” She yelled through the oxygen mask. Her voice sounded muffled in her own ears. There was no way to gauge if anyone would hear her over the cacophony surrounding her.
Feeling her way along, she came across a corner and turned right, remembering where the window lay in relation to her entry point. She created a mental map in her mind, tracking her movements. It was no use her going in if she couldn’t find her way out again.
She inched her way along, feeling as if an eternity had passed between each shuffling movement.
She had seen the child in the second window to the right of the back door. The darkness of an open doorway to her right meant she wasn’t far off.
A tremendous crash brought her head around. A cave-in of burning roof beams blocked her exit.
Fuck! Her mind screamed. Oh God. Stay calm, Sal. Keep going. Just keep going.
She squeezed her eyes shut, banishing the tears that threatened.
A hand grabbed her wrist.
She screamed into her mask, opening her eyes. It was the child, his eyes wide and red raw, his face a sooty mess of ash, tears and snot, crying and coughing at the same time. She pulled him close to her and ripped off her mask, jamming it down over his head.
With the mask off, she realised the full horror of her situation. Her whole body resonated with the vibration of the fire, the wailing of the house falling apart around her. The only thing she could see in the darkness, were the flickers of light coming from flames above and behind her.
The child clung to her, his small body heaving with the effort of staying alive. She felt her own airways closing and knew she didn’t have much time—her inhaler was no match for the poisonous fumes filling her lungs with every passing second.
She held the boy close to her and with her other hand, dragged the two of them into the room he had come out of. She pushed the door shut behind them, frantically trying to stem the flow of smoke.
The window was made up of two large panes of glass, the bottom one sliding up; but he lock was painted over and wouldn’t budge.
Another crash boomed behind her as the roof over the hallway fell in, a spray of grit and ash shot under the door and into the room, covering them. The boy cried out behind the mask and clutched at her arm.
Through the gloom she made out the trappings of a small child’s bedroom. A race car bed, a wooden toy box filled to the brim with Matchbox Cars and Transformers and a bedside table with a nightlight shaped like a pirate monkey. She made a mental inventory of the objects, her pulse racing along in time with the ridiculous thoughts that kept jumping over themselves — pirate monkey? What the hell is that? Then a thought struck that made sense.
She snatched up the nightlight.
“Stay here!” She yelled into the boy’s ear. She dropped him on the bed and threw the quilt over him. Covering her eyes she propelled herself at the window, slamming the nightlight into the glass. It went right through and she allowed herself a smile as cool fresh air rushed into the room. She cleared the remaining glass and dropped the nightlight into the garden bed below the window.
The door to the bedroom was smoking, flames licked at the ceiling as they wormed their way through the cracks around the door.
Picking up the boy, she stood him by the window and lifted the mattress over her head. She had to turn it on its side for it to fit out the top half of the window and using her last vestige of strength, she pushed and shoved, until the mattress sprung out into the yard below.
Without a second thought, she picked the boy up and leapt out of the window, launching him even further as for a split second she realised she wouldn’t make it on to the mattress.
The boy landed on the edge, rolling into the middle. Sal missed, landing on her side, her right arm extended in a futile attempt to break her fall.
The crunch when she hit the ground reverberated through her and she lay unable to move, think or breathe. She turned her head and saw the boy, the mask still on his stunned face. He reached his hand out to her, small fingers touching her shoulder.
Then it all went black.
The Crossfield fire crews arrived not long after Russell and the boys got their hose positioned. Two big tankers screeched onto the property, the men jumping out before the trucks had even stopped. The yard around the house was churned up under heavy wheels and the boots of the fire-fighters. The Crossfield chief ran over to Russell who stood checking the levels in the water tank.
“Jim! Thank fuck you’re here. I’ve had Mack and Johno on the hose, but my vollie has gone missing—”
“Missing? Right. We’ll get on the back of the house, and I’ll send my small tanker out to the perimeters and get those spotties sorted.”
“Roger that.” Jim clapped Russell on the shoulder and took off towards his crew who were running their hoses round the back.
Russell tapped Mack on the shoulder and yelled in his ear.
“I have to find Sal! Crossfield’s taking the back and the spotties. You right here?”
Mack nodded and turned back to the fire in front of him.
Russell went back to his ute, hoping Sal might have decided to hunker down, but the cab was empty.
Scanning the space under the house, he spotted something thump to the ground on the other side of the house. He took off at a sprint, rounding the side of the house as Sal leapt from inside, to a mattress on the ground. He saw the McKenzie boy beside her and his heart skipped a beat.
He was by their side in seconds. The boy was conscious, crying silently into Sal’s mask. He bundled the child up and ran to the trucks out front, screaming for the medic from the Crossfield crew. He laid the boy down in the tray of his ute, and took off again.
He got back to Sal as the house began to cave in, firing shards of hot metal and melted plastics out in to the yard.
He hoisted her into his arms and she cried out, coming to from the jolt of pain as he lifted her.
“Russ— ” but before he could answer her, she passed out again. He ran, holding two fingers over her neck, searching for her carotid pulse. He found it, weak and thready, but she was still breathing. Just.
“What the fuck was she thinking?”
“I dunno Mack, but—”
“I mean ferchrissakes she almost killed herself! A fucking vollie! The Association is gunna have our balls for—”
“I get it Mack. Just shut up for a minute.”
Johno came sprinting around the edge of the clearing holding a large med kit and slid to a stop on his knees.
“Ambo’s are almost here, boss. She okay?”
Russ heard the concern in his voice and looked up at his crew, hovering beside him as he cradled Sal in his lap. He quickly strapped an oxygen mask to her sooty face and turned the valve to the tank.
“Yeah I think so. How’s the kid?”
“The Crossie medic has him sorted—they reckon he’ll be fine.”
“And Harry? Suze?” Russ saw the look that passed between Mack and Johno.
Sal stirred with a moan and her breathing came in hoarse gasps. She fought the mask Russ pressed down over her face.
“Lie still, woman.”
Awareness flooded back and Sal struggled to sit up, but a streak of pure fire running from her neck down into her groin forced her back down; specks of light darting across her vision.
“Oh GOD!” Her voice was muffled behind the mask and Russ instinctively tightened his grip around her.
“You’re okay. You’re fine. The ambo’s are almost here—”
“The boy! Oh God! The boy! Is he okay?” He could see the frantic throbbing of her pulse in the hollow of her throat.
“He’s fine Sal. You saved his life, you stupid girl.”
“Mack!” Johno pulled the big man back and spun him around but it was relief, not anger that coursed over his face. “Come on mate let’s get back to the job.”
A faint wail reached Russ as he watched Mack and Johno bound off toward the Crossfield trucks. He pulled the mask off so she could talk.
“Russ I’m sorry! It was stupid, I know but I couldn’t help it, I—”
“Shh I get it. I know what it’s like… a magnet… it’s…” He shook his head and tried a smile. “Stop talking and concentrate on breathing.” He put the mask back on her and gently thumbed a tear from her cheek. He saw the light in her eyes as she dared him to understand; to acknowledge that the fire within her had also ignited a blaze of his own. He nodded.
The paramedics bustled around Sal, wrapping her in foil blankets that reflected the dying fire in a ghoulish parody of that which had almost killed her.
Russell forced himself to watch—torn between two needs; her and the beast behind him. He held her sooty-faced stare with his own and as the door of the ambulance swung shut, he caught her smile and he knew — it was inside her now —as much a part of her cellular structure as it was his. The fire had left a brand on her soul. He took one last look through the back window then turned back to the dying house. First things first.
Challenge: To write a story in the action adventure genre
Required Word Count: 3000
Actual Word Count: 3000
- In a Southern Garnet [FGC#3] (imnotthemessiahjustaverybusymum.wordpress.com)