She pulled her radio out of her chest harness. “Mayday! It’s Kayla. I’m here with the firefighter who warned us. We’re cut off from the exit route, and heading for a meadow downhill from our last position.”
“Kayla? Oh, thank God!” A man’s voice crackled out of the radio. “We tried to go back for you, but everything’s burning.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Pete shouted. Kayla. Her name is Kayla.
And he really needed to focus right now.
Kayla continued, “We’d love to chat, but we need to get the heck out of here right now. Catch you on the other side.”
“Copy that. Stay safe. Remember your training,” the man on the radio said. He sounded calm, and somehow the reminder about training helped push down Pete’s rising panic. “Check in when you can.”
“10-4.” Kayla thumbed off the radio and stuck it back on her harness.
Then, to Pete’s pleasure, she reached for his hand again.
“Okay,” she began. “Let’s—” She stiffened. “Oh, crap! That’s on fire, too!”
Pete followed her gaze to their intended route. Shit. This is bad.
“Don’t panic, or we’ll really be fucked.” He squeezed her hand.
She squeezed back, hard enough to make the bones in his hands ache through the thick leather gloves they both wore. “But we’re trapped!”
“Not trapped, not yet! Look!” Pete said urgently. “Those are only two-foot licks, and it’s all grass.”
“I don’t know—” Kayla shook her head. She cast a glance back the way they’d come, and recoiled.
Pete didn’t have to look. The heat from the blaze behind them pressed against him like a heavy blanket.
There wasn’t anywhere else to go. They were surrounded, and there was way too much heat to either retreat back uphill or keep going on this trail to the pond.
“Look, we can’t stay here, not with that motherfucker roaring up behind us,” he said, trying to tug her forward. “We just gotta get through those trees before they start burning, too. Meadow’s on the other side. Swear to God.”
Kayla stared nervously at the low barrier of flames and licked her lips. They looked plump and soft, like they’d be fun to kiss and nibble and…
Not now, Pete told his libido.
And not later, either. He was an inmate. It wasn’t like he could just ask her out for a dinner and movie, assuming they both survived this shitstorm.
“Crap. You’re right.” Kayla said, having apparently assessed the situation and come to the same conclusion as Pete had “Okay, let’s do this.”
She let got of his hand, and Pete regretted the loss of that connection.
“You know what? I don’t even know your name,” she continued, quickly unsnapping her backpack straps and shrugging out of it.
He stared at her as she let her pack drop to the ground.
“I mean, if we’re going to do this death-defying stunt and actually run towards a fire, I’d like to know who my fellow nutcase is.” Then she began laughing. “Oh, jeez. I sound like an idiot!”
“No, you don’t. And I’m Pete. Pleased to meet you.” It was his turn to laugh now at the absurdity of this whole polite exchange in the middle of a fucking forest fire. “You’re Kayla, right?”
She nodded, bending to extract her fire shelter pouch from her pack.
“You ready, Kayla?” he asked. He added, ” We might get a little singed, but we’re gonna make it.”
“Okay.” She tucked the shelter pouch under one arm, and reached for his hand again.
His cat liked that. Pete liked it, too. “All right. Let’s go.”
Hand in hand, they began running.
Pete braced himself as they approached the line of fire in the grass that separated them from the grove.
“Now!” he shouted, and he and Kayla both leaped over the flames, as smoothly and coordinated as if they were dancers who’d been partnered forever.
They landed on the other side without being scorched.
Made it into the black! Pete thought. He felt like whooping with joy as they headed into the trees. Almost there.
Then the wind picked up, a sudden furious gust that scattered glowing embers like a blizzard, and Pete had never been happier about wearing fire-resistant clothes and a thick plastic helmet.
A few of the embers hit his face and neck, stinging fiercely against his exposed skin.
And the trees all around them caught fire, a deadly orange veil of flame sweeping through the canopy high above them. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Kayla slowed, looking around frantically. “We have to get out of here.”
But Pete had already spotted a possible escape route. He pointed at a break in the trees about hundred yards away. “That’s where we have to go. Run!”
Kayla didn’t hesitate. They both sprinted at full speed through the grove, the fire chasing them through the tree tops…and gaining.
Pete’s eyes stung and teared up from the smoke. His breath wheezed in his throat as he desperately tried to get enough air to breathe.
It was so hot now that Pete felt the exposed skin of his ears and cheeks start to blister.
Then they cleared the trees and dashed into the meadow.
They headed for the meadow’s center, hopefully out of range of any falling trees, in case the wind toppled one.
Pete looked around for an exit route. Mercifully, the grass wasn’t on fire, but the trees ringing the clearing were burning furiously.
No way out. We’re trapped. Shit.
“We have to deploy!” Kayla shouted.
He turned to her, and saw her recoil, her eyes widening behind her goggles.
“Pete! Where’s your shelter?”