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ASHES OF ARIES
Up ahead a white Bronco painted with the Fire Department logo and equipped with klieg lights was parked diagonally across the road, forming a barricade behind a row of orange traffic cones. Standing in the middle of the road, a firefighter in a yellow Nomex suit and a matching helmet was waving a red flag with one hand and making the stopping signal with the other. I braked, my heart racing. As I came to a stop I rolled down my window and a gust of smoky wind pushed into the cab.
"My family's house is back there," I blurted, hearing a tremor in my voice.
His thick, square hand rested on my open window. I noticed his fingernails were dirty. The face that leaned in looked sunburned.
"Sorry--there's no access to this area, ma'am. They've closed both ends of Camino del Norte. The fire's burned past El Montevideo."
Burned past El Montevideo. That was the street my parents lived on. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
"What about Via de Fortuna? Can I get through that way?"
"We're advising people not to go past this point."
He hadn't really answered my question. I must have looked stricken because his face softened and he spoke in a reassuring voice.
"The Montevideo area was evacuated a while ago. I think pretty much everyone got out."
I was trying to comfort myself with that when a beige Taurus pulled to a stop along the shoulder behind me. In my rearview I watched a man get out and walk toward us. As he approached I recognized Randy Twain, the television reporter I'd seen at the Fielding estate earlier this morning.
"Hey buddy," I heard him say as he neared my open window. "I need some help here."
The firefighter turned to him attentively.
"Whatcha need, Randy?"
"My photographer's back there covering the fire." Twain pointed beyond the roadblock, into the thick of the smoke. "We've been keeping in contact by cell phone." He held up his cellular, as if to prove this last statement. "But it's spreading fast and she needs to get out of there. Can you give me a lift to pick her up? She's off road and that piece of shit-" he pointed to his Taurus with disgust "-isn't going to cut it."
The firefighter shook his head.
"Sorry. I can call a unit from the field but I can't leave my post. I've got to stay here and keep traffic from getting past."
"Damn, Zev, I need some wheels. How long will it take a field unit to get here?"
The firefighter shrugged apologetically.
"I don't know. They're pretty busy right now."
Twain had called the firefighter Zev, so I assumed they were acquainted. I saw an opportunity and jumped at it.
"I'll drive you back there," I said.
Twain looked into my truck, noticing me for the first time.
"Really?" he asked hopefully.
"Yeah. Hop in."
The firefighter crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me, but didn't object. I met his gaze, hoping I looked worthy of the task. Twain circled around to my passenger side and climbed in.
I put the truck in gear and Twain gave the firefighter a nod.
"We'll be right back, don't worry."
Zev's sun-bleached brows pulled into a scowl. Friend of the newscaster or not, he clearly was uncomfortable letting a couple of civilians drive into the fire zone.
"Careful in there, and make it quick."
I gave him a thumbs-up and hit the gas before he could change his mind.
Twain mumbled gratefully to me as he twisted around in search of his seat belt.
"Thanks for helping out. Jane's young and gung-ho. Which is great, of course, but I'd feel sick if anything happened to her. So thanks, really." He looked at me more carefully now. "Hey, aren't you the woman who was at the Fielding place this morning?"
I answered in a grim monosyllable, not feeling capable of small talk. Outside, the smoke was thickening. With each passing yard the crummy visibility was getting worse. My survival instincts were on red alert. I wanted to know that my parents were okay, that my childhood home hadn't burned to the ground. More than anything I wanted to wake up from this nightmare.
"I have my own reasons for wanting to drive back here," I said. "My parents live at the end of El Montevideo."
"Oh God." His voice was genuinely contrite. "I'm so sorry."
Headlights beamed our way through the smoke up ahead. As the car loomed toward us the driver leaned out his window. I opened my own window to hear what he had to say. Barely slowing as he passed, the driver yelled:
"Don't go back there!"
My throat tickled and I let out an unladylike hack. I shut the window again and Twain's cellular rang. He answered with a worried hello. After a brief pause he said:
"I understand. I'm on my way." He was using his modulated newscaster voice but it didn't quite hide his rising panic. "Look for a white truck. We'll pick you up roadside." He clicked off his phone with a beep, a troubled look on his face.
"What's she doing back here without a car?" I asked.
Twain leaned forward, as if putting his nose to the windshield would help him see through the thickening haze.
"She did have a car, one of the station's Explorers. She parked it and got out to videotape the fire. Then the wind switched directions and the flames made it unsafe to get back to the Explorer. She says she's heading up the road on foot. I can barely understand her, she's breathing so hard. Can't this truck go any faster?"
The smoke was now a dense gray, swirling outside the windows.
"I'm not going to speed when I can't see where I'm going." My voice was sharp and bitchy--a sure sign that I was afraid.
It was early afternoon but dim as evening outside. I could make out no more than fifty feet ahead of me, and barely recognized my old neighborhood. Without warning, a glowing hunk of wood thumped against the windshield, sending a shower of red sparks up and over the cab.
"Shit!" I gripped the steering wheel harder. "This is officially dangerous."
Even as I said it, the truck began to rock unsteadily, pushed by the hot, angry winds. I looked over at Twain. He was gripping the dashboard, eyes wide, the color drained from his face.
"I don't know about this," he said uneasily.
Another voice, this one from the inside, spoke to me.
It'll be okay. Keep going.
Now the air was filled with a storm of flying embers, swarming like giant red fireflies in the gray smoke. Through the haze I could barely see the eucalyptus trees lining the road. Their branches waved in the hot wind as if pleading for help. I pushed harder on the gas pedal, sensing time running out.
The wind shifted and the smoke cleared enough to see that up ahead one of the towering trees had burst into bright orange flames. Twain jerked in his seat.
"Jesus! Let's get out of here!"
He reached toward the wheel to turn us around. I pushed his arm back and kept my foot on the gas. The conflagration in the eucalyptus had started a chain reaction. The two adjacent trees were now beginning to burn, their flaming branches sending thick black smoke into the wind.
"Hang on," I said. "She's just over this rise." I hoped to God I was right.