The heat was intense. This was the largest wildfire Jess had ever seen. The sky was black as night and filled with thick choking smoke that seemed to seep through her breathing apparatus. Her team had been at it for 36 hours nonstop now and it was catching up with them. She wasn’t sure how much longer they would last going at this pace but there was no one else to take over. Every firefighter in the state of California seemed to show up to help battle the debilitating blaze. Firefighters from Nevada, Oregon and Washington had also shown up in droves but it wasn’t enough.
Jess took a deep breath and kept going. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her teammate Shane fall to the ground. “Man down!” She screamed into her walkie talkie. She dropped her shovel and rushed to his side. Rolling him over, she yanked his mask off and began her inspection. He was barely breathing and his skin where it was not blackened by ash was devoid of color. Two other firefighters had joined her. “Get him out of here!” she cried. The two men carried their downed comrade away from the heat of the blaze. Shoving off the ground, she continued with her efforts. She realized she was close to collapse herself but she knew she could not stop. If this fire spread any further, there were innocent lives at risk.
A loud crack sounded behind her. She turned in time to see a large pine bearing down on her and the others around her. The tree had buckled under the flames and finally lost its battle against the destruction, toppling onto the fighters trying desperately to contain the devastation. “Jess!” her best friend and boyfriend Tyson Blackwell yelled out her name as he ran straight toward her. “Move your ass Taggert!” Her legs moved, propelling her away from the tree. She wasn’t going to make it. She was too exhausted, her muscles too weak from dehydration and she felt she was running in quicksand. Strong arms grabbed her and hauled her away. Tyson looked back at the tree and knew only one of them would survive this. Like an Olympic discus thrower, he launched Jess into the sky away from the hazard.
She rolled on the ground, narrowly escaping being caught under the tree. As it came crashing down, she saw Tyson’s face. He blew her a kiss and winked. ’NOOO!” she screamed. “TY!!” One last I love you and he was buried under the burning branches. “TY!!” she was hysterical with pain. The man she loved had saved her life, sacrificing his own. Her heart felt as if it would explode from her chest. He couldn’t be gone. He was supposed to survive this hell. They were supposed to get married and live the American dream with the picket fence and the kids and the dog. Now, all of that was gone. He was gone. She no longer cared to survive.
“Come on Jess,” a voice sounded above her as hands tugged her to her feet. “Don’t give up now. Don’t let Ty’s sacrifice be in vain.” She was hauled over a strong shoulder and carried out of the ring of fire. Unable to stop it, she succumbed to the darkness and lost consciousness. She let it embrace her and drag her under. This way, she didn’t have to think. She could just be.
Ty was given a full fireman’s funeral. The whole battalion was in attendance to give him a hero’s send off. Jess sat with his parents, trying to stay strong for his mother. She would break down when she was alone. Right now, she was too numb. She was saying goodbye to so much more than the man himself. Ty had been bigger than life and swept her off her feet before she knew what had hit her. They made a great team and he treated her as an equal on the job. She fell hard for him. She still couldn’t believe she would never see his sparkling blue eyes again, the sly sexy smile he always gave her or feel the warmth of his embrace as they lay together spent from hours of heated lovemaking.
She had suffered 2nd degree burns on her hands and smoke inhalation. She would gladly have suffered death itself if it meant her Ty could live again. As the mourners dissipated, she remained in her seat. She didn’t want to say goodbye yet. She hadn’t wanted to face his death until they were old and wrinkly, after a lifetime spent together. A large hand settled on her shoulder. She didn’t even move. The man sat beside her, saying nothing. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and bowing his silver flecked head.
“You know, it’s times like this that hit a parent hard in the gut. My baby girl is in pain and there’s nothing I can do.” Her father, Adam, had come from Montana the minute he’d gotten the news of Ty’s death. Jess’s chin began to tremble and the tears she had held back for days poured over her cheeks.
“Oh God Daddy what am I going to do now?” Adam’s arms circled around his daughter, gathering her close to him and kissing her head. Jess crumbled against her daddy, clutching his suit jacket in a death grip as she cried. She ignored the pain in her hands as she sobbed brokenly, letting the deep ache in her heart roll over her in waves. Adam held her tight, rocking her slightly as he rubbed soothing circles on her back.
“That’s it, honey. Let it all out.” A few tears slid out of his moss green eyes as he tried his best to soothe his daughter. His heart was broken for her and he understood her loss better than most. He’d said goodbye to the love of his life twenty years ago when his wife Pamela died. His whole world was ripped out from under him, just like Jess’s. His heart was still raw from her death but he had worked through his pain for the sake of his little girl. He wasn’t sure what would motivate Jess to pull through but he would do his best to be her anchor while she sailed the seas of devastation.
Her sobs had quieted down and her tears had slowed. She laid in her father’s big arms, head buried in his broad chest and drew her strength from his strong heartbeat. “I love you, Daddy,” she whispered. “I couldn’t get through this without you.”
“I love you too, baby girl.” He hugged her close and kissed her forehead. “You need some more time?” Jess shook her head and accepted the handkerchief held out to her.
“No. He’s not here anyway. I’m ready to go home.” Rising from her seat, she took one last look at the grave that held her beloved. Placing a kiss on the headstone, she let her father lead her away toward his truck. All her things had been packed from her apartment and loaded into the moving truck. Her teammates Shane and Matt were going to drive it to Montana while she rode with her father. Ty’s parents had come and taken his things that were left at her place. It had been a tearful goodbye. They didn’t understand her need to leave but they understood she had to be with her father. She tried to give the engagement ring to his mother Helen but she simply closed Jess’s hand around it.
“Oh no, sweetheart. You keep that. My son loved you. You keep that and remember how much.” With a kiss on her cheek, Helen left her in her bare living room. The ring was now buried with Ty. She had tied it to a rose and thrown it in the grave with his coffin. It would stay with him for eternity. She just couldn’t bear to keep it but she had wanted Ty to know how much she would miss him by giving a piece of herself to him, even in death.
The long trip back to Montana was spent mostly in silence. She slept most of the way, the toll of her shattered heart slipping her into the depths of slumber. Adam didn’t force her to talk. He just let her be, knowing she needed to process at her own pace and in her own way. She was on autopilot, the scenery passing by unseeing eyes. He knew that look all too well. It had been his for so long and it killed him to see it on his child. Jess would often reach for his hand in her sleep as if he brought her peace.
Finally the familiar sights of her hometown came into view. The warm comfort she always felt when she was here seeped into her numbed senses. A small smile curled her lips and she knew she would soon be home. Nothing had changed much in the last ten years and she found it strangely nice. There was a lot to be said for the welcoming feel of a small town and for a moment, she sunk into it. Turning down a dirt road right outside of town, her childhood home loomed before her. The split rail fence was still there, surrounding the old farmhouse she loved so much. The sprawling porch with the white rocking chairs beckoned to her.
The truck came to a stop and she jumped out, unable to wait to go inside the haven that had sheltered her for most of her life. Walking through the screen door, she stood in the foyer taking in the smell of cedar and spruce. Her father had left the house the way it was when her mother was alive. Jess had been eight when Pamela passed away but she still had vivid memories of her warm smile and soft voice. It felt good to be home. She just wished her homecoming wasn’t under such horrible circumstances.