Chuck Wendig is always coming up with flash fiction ideas, and that’s awesome. Last week he had everyone submit an opening line, and this week? Pick one and run with it. Rad. I chose Nate Harada‘s, and the following is what happened.
My grandmother once told me that the first and deepest emotion of all men is fear. It took me a while to understand. Through high school, I thought she was full of shit. Boys with their pants around their ankles, hands shoved down their y-fronts or fumbling with their boxer flaps showed more drive from lust than anything else.
The night Tyler and I met the fire changed everything.
We never did hear how the fire started; most likely a cigarette flicked out the window of a car. Summer was dry as dust that year, and the tiniest spark would grab a hold of the hillside like a starving dog with a steak. When the sirens started, we figured the station at the bottom of the twisting road would take care of it.
The fire spread. Slow at first, smoke curling through crackling bushes, then all at once, devouring trees and garden sheds with equal gusto. The ashes danced and twirled in the air, spinning from the heat into dust devils and pulling the flames with them. The Mitchell’s house went up first, then the Garcia’s. Within ten minutes the entire subdivision was smoldering.
Tyler and I had been in the back of his stepdad’s truck, hands down each others pants and fumbling around. He was my first real boyfriend, and I wanted him to be my first everything so bad I could practically taste it. The radio was on and playing the classic rock station as the truck sat in shadow, just out of the streetlight’s buzzing yellow glare.
“It’s hot.” The bead of sweat trickled down my forehead, threatening to pool in my ear.
“You want more, babe?” Tyler grinned, fingers moving faster. Mick Jagger crooned about painting doors black in the background. I pushed Tyler off me and sat up, scowling.
“No, I mean. It’s actually hot.” I took a deep breath, then coughed. “And smokey.”
Tyler frowned, sitting up in the bed of the truck, and looked around. “Huh. Yeah, really sm–” His words trailed off as his eyes widened, looking through the back window of the truck’s cab to the road and hillside beyond. I turned to look, curious as to what made him go silent.
The world was on fire, and it was coming toward us. We had parked at the top of the hill in a half-developed cul-de-sac. No one came driving up this way at night, so it was the perfect place to smoke a bowl and fuck after the sun went down. One main road in, one main road out.
And it was hemmed on both sides by flames.
With a scream of strangled terror, Tyler jumped out of the bed of the pickup, diving into the driver’s seat and shoving the keys into the ignition. “Get up here!” he yelped, gunning the engine to life. I didn’t wait for him to unlock my door; I slid through the open back window and landed on the sticky leather seat with a thump. Before I could shift to actually sitting up, the truck leaped forward, throwing me against the dashboard as it squealed around a corner.
We flew down the dark road, flames growing brighter with every block passed. Bits of burning cinders and ashes began to rain on us and Tyler pressed the truck harder, its engine groaning in protest as our speed crept up. Fifty. Sixty. Seventy miles an hour and then we were driving through the gaping jaws of Hell, flames reaching out to slap the truck as we passed burning lawns and tree forts on the streets we knew so well.
Tyler got to the bottom of the hill faster than expected, I think; he nearly rolled the truck taking the last curve. Firefighters scattered and a police car lit up, following us half-in pursuit, half-in escort until the flames were only a glow in the rearview mirror. The truck slowed, then stopped. I could hear the cop yelling for us to show our hands through his loudspeaker.
I looked at Tyler nervously. He was crying. Crying. Big, gulping sobs, with fat tears running down his cheeks. I understood what my grandmother meant, then. The screech of the cop’s loudspeaker hit us both at the same time, and we raised our hands in unison.
The next day we sat, he and I, on the rooftop of the Shop-n-Go half a mile away from the only home he ever knew. Flames still licked at the sky, bright orange against the sooty grey-black of the billowing smoke. Our wrists were bruised from the handcuffs from the cop. After we explained what happened, where we came from, what we saw, he let us go. Figured we had the piss scared out of us enough already that taking us to the station would be a waste. Besides, he had to get back to helping with the fire evacuation.
I put my head on Tyler’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything; he was too set on watching the flames march down the road away from the destruction. It was too late for him; his mom and stepdad weren’t able to get out in time. The firefighters found them in the burnt out shell of their car in the driveway. Tyler stayed with me and my grandmother for a while before tracking down his dad and moving out to Nebraska to live with him. Dunno what happened to him after that.
I still think of him, sometimes. When I catch the Stones on the radio. When old trucks rumble down the street, going too fast. And in the summer, when the smell of burning hillside takes me home.