Hurtling through the shrouded cover of the burning town of Paradise, Frank’s fingernails carved deep into the black leather of the steering wheel. He did not appreciate the mechanistic sound of a cocking shotgun, or the way the gun’s silver barrel scattered little beams of vermillion light in his personal space. The twelve-gauge muzzle pushed into the side of his forehead, while he bit his lower lip.
Frank couldn’t believe his luck after minutes before he had narrowly escaped death by fire, only now to find himself on the wrong side of a gun. Earlier this morning, he had stared up at the pitch-black fortress of smoke that rose like a dark tide out of the mountains. Back burns, fire breaks and any thought of containment were useless when it came to controlling this magnitude of fire. For the people on the west side, the wind was a blessing and for the unlucky souls to the east, it was their damnation. Every town cradled eastward in the Sierras was bound to be devastated. Already at least ten thousand structures had been lost.
As a volunteer firefighter, he was the last one to take the retreat order. On the way out he would pick up any stragglers as well as his sister’s dog. He still had not forgiven her for the final choice she made and how it all ended up. Before she turned away from this world two years ago, he remembered the sorrow that had taken over her eyes. Those light blue eyes that were a mosaic of emerald and russet brown. He knew his decision to leave last was less than smart, but he was a prideful man who had always had a keen sense of duty to his community.
Frank came to regret his decision. He hadn’t planned on picking up a man on the side of the road who now held him at gunpoint and set his truck on a new course. Instead of taking the next left and saving his sister’s dog, he was now racing into the eye of the fire tornado.
“Do not even ask to slow down. It ain’t happening.”
Frank never gave birth to any words knowing it would not matter anyway and pressed harder on the gas pedal. The prodding muzzle lifted off his temple. The blood flowed back into the violated area of his scalp and the pale white circle of skin turned to a slight pink. He thought better of side eyeing his captor. Here, in the town of Paradise, driving seventy miles an hour in a thirty miles per hour zone, Frank prayed. Pretty quickly his atheism was incinerated when he saw cabins engulfed in nightmarish fire. Frank started to pray to a god he didn’t know the name of and impatiently waited to hear back. Oh, I am going to die anyway, might as well try.
“Why do you wish to throw your life away?” asked Frank.
“She cannot be saved,” said Frank. “This scale of wildfire is like no other we have ever seen. Twenty percent of California is burning. The best you can hope for is to die through asphyxiation. Most won’t be so lucky. If she truly is still in the cabin’s basement, all you will find is——”
“Shut it and drive.”
Frank’s eyes seared with smoke while sweat dripped causing his vision to blur. He had no choice but to take a hand off the wheel to wipe his eyes clear. Sparks smacked into his soot-covered windshield as if a portal to hell had opened releasing the Devil’s horde of fiery creatures. All around them flame-coated pines cracked and exploded violently, vibrating the already unsettled driver. Frank knew rounding every curve led deeper into the fire, lowering his odds of survival. Why at a time like this was he worrying about his sister’s dog, Wally, who was trapped at home a few miles behind him? That adopted mutt was the only remembrance of his sister, and he loved the warty old fleabag. He would have turned around right away if it were not for the guy with a gun. The battered chassis of the truck continued to barrel onward through the ravished town of Paradise.
“My daughter is alive. You’ll see,” said the guy with a country twang.
While Frank continued to sweat it out, the man with the gun turned his face out of view, grimacing at the idea of losing his daughter. His attention shifted off Frank for a moment as he recalled holding her tiny pale hand, praying that her wasting disease would not take her away from him. His soul would die strand by strand as he would run his fingers through her five-year-old hair, and it would fall out with each gentle stroke.
“Take a right here,” Frank’s captor said.
Frank obeyed. The truck lurched, swinging them both to the left side. He took his foot off the gas for a moment before remembering the gun and pressing back down.
Rounding the curve, both riders found themselves faced with a wall of fire. A pine had fallen with its branches swarming with flames, dancing, and leaping twenty feet in the air. If not for the light of the fire, the black smoke from the pine would have made the road impossible to see. Instinctively Frank hit the brake.
“C’mon hit the gas you moron!” The shotgun muzzle shoved back on his already tenderized scalp and this time drew blood.
Frank put his foot to the floor. The fire truck surged forward, a thirty-ton machine of power rumbling onward reaching nearly sixty miles per hour.
As the truck smashed into the tree, a downed trunk with burning branches was instantly transformed into a cloud of embers and coals. The remnants of the trunk swung outward like a lever and rolled down the hill. A fiery log of death no doubt crushing any curious small mammal unwise enough to peek out of its burrow.
The truck survived the collision but not without leaving a tree-sized dent in the bumper and hood. The blazing crimson truck continued to careen down the debris-covered road with the determination of an escaped convict. Frank caught his breath, turning to face his captor.
“Can I at least know your name if you are going to make me die here?”
Silence. The shotgun shifted uneasily in the man’s hands.
After a few moments of silence, he said “Jerry, Jerry Hawkes.”
This was not the first time that Jerry’s life had come close to an end. A few years prior, he had been hiking and came across an old rusted double spring bear trap. He only noticed it because a tiny black bear cub wailed in its clamped jaws. Its plush fur and little leg smashed inside spiked metal teeth. Little pink tendons hung exposed, and shards of bone were strewn around its flailing body. He could not help but run over to it regardless of the likelihood of a nearby mother. Getting on his knees he made eye contact with the little dying cub. Seeing those brown eyes reminded him of his daughter as he attempted to pry open the unforgiving trap. Behind Jerry came the distinctive sound of branches cracking and bushes being crushed. There was no time to get out his revolver. Almost instantly he was pressed into the ground, hands barely protecting his head. His body was thrown about in the grass like a ragdoll. She bit his arm and tore out red muscle, nerves and tendons and he screamed unleashing even greater fury from the momma bear. Slashing a razor blade claw across the side of his head, she nearly scalped him. Each new bite smashed into him like a sledgehammer armed with teeth. Then she suddenly stopped and leaned in to meet his face with hers. The hot breath from her snout filled his senses with the smell of blood, manzanita, and dead fish. Satisfied that Jerry was dead, the bear bounded away into the bushes. After a few moments, Jerry feebly pushed himself up to his feet however, nightmarishly the bear came barreling back out of the undergrowth. The force of the contact knocked him off a fifteen-foot escarpment into a ravine full of white thorn bushes. Jerry laid there in a semi-conscious state for a few hours, his blood staining the dirt and his mind drifting through dreams of pain and hopelessness.
Daddy come on, you’re gonna be late! You said you were going to be here.
The fire truck jerked, bringing Jerry back to the situation at hand.
“I assume you have buckshot loaded in that thing of yours? And that there is no way for me to convince you that we should turn back?”
“Yes and yes.”
“Are you going to shoot me if I turn around? Do you even know how to drive one of these trucks?”
The sound of the shotgun left Frank with a headache, ringing in his ears, and a hole in the cabin’s roof. Dark smoke poured into the front seat making both passengers cough and wheeze.
“What the—heck is—” his face red with coughing and gagging, “—is wrong with you.”
“Faster now! Next time it’ll be you with a gaping hole in your skull. No more looking in the rearview mirror. There is nothing back there you need to see.” Jerry grabbed the mirror and broke it off.
Mountain road curves kept Frank busy as the truck’s tires started to melt on the hot cement. Frank’s visibility was now limited to just ten feet in front of him. Great swathes of slate-gray smoke clouds blindfolded his windshield and filtered down through the new jagged hole in the roof.
Frank pointed at the roof, “I can’t see, I have to slow down.”
“I don’t care a rat’s tail,” Jerry gestured with the still warm gun, the words displacing the smoke wafting around his face.
Frank’s lack of visibility left him with no choice but to drive on top of the centerline. The road’s double yellow line quickly gobbled up by their machine of pumping pistons and revolving tires. From above it would seem that a melting fire truck was unzipping the yellow zipper of hell.
Somewhere above, the argent full moon failed to penetrate the deep black void of smoke. The fire created its own obscurity that had wrapped its onyx soul around Paradise.
Surrounded by the glow of maroon and cinnabar, white beams of the headlights skewered through the torched trees. The vehicle rattled over orange coals and roadkill passing the occasional doomed cabin. Trapped in their cabins, the forlorn souls were ringed by fire and at first sight of the truck, they became hopeful. Fear consumed them once more as the shimmering truck lights faded away.
Their backs pressed into their seats as the truck climbed suddenly upward. The climb was what Jerry was waiting for.
“Only a half a mile stretch to the top,” said Jerry. “Faster!”
The truck’s engine roared, guzzling gas and belching out exhaust. As Frank’s luck would have it, power lines slammed across the road directly in their path.
The silver muzzle prodded harder into Frank’s skin making it clear there was only one way to go. The chrome bumper battered into the pole of damaged wires blasting millions of neon yellow sparks all over the truck.
“You idiot!” yelled Frank.
Jerry brought the metallic barrel down hard on his skull. Frank’s vision went dark for a second. His foot instinctively pushed down the brake pedal.
Fortunately, no more blows came as the truck slowed to a stop.
Through his glazed eyesight, slumped against the driver side door, Frank watched as Jerry swung his passenger door open and sprinted towards a burning cabin. He disappeared into an entryway that billowed out black gloom.
Please die in there, thought Frank.
Frank sat and worried about that devilish chrome shotgun as he gingerly touched the gash on his scalp.
Studying his surroundings, Frank knew that the gift of fire had become a curse on mankind.
How did it get to this point?
He felt the urge to flee but something wouldn’t let him go.
His thoughts were interrupted by the two silhouettes that stumbled out of the front door. Jerry’s arms were wrapped around a small body with the shotgun still slung over his shoulder. Both figures collapsed right outside the cabin.
Darn it. Why me?
Kicking his door open and hopping down, he sprinted towards them.
A little girl that must have been Jerry’s daughter was sprawled out with her face buried in the ashen dirt. She looked small but at the same time aged, more than you would expect for someone so young. A brown velvet sweater decorated with pink and yellow polka dots was wrapped around her delicate shoulders. Jerry on his back remained unmoving.
Frank carefully lifted the little girl up and carried her slumped body over to the fire truck. Setting her down in the backseat of the truck he felt a slight pulse and positioned her head so her airway would remain open. She is still alive.
Climbing up into the driver’s seat, Frank willed himself to close the door, but his arm faltered, and he cursed. Shifting his vision from his outstretched arm to the bleary glass, he saw that Jerry had not budged. The cabin behind Jerry was now a tower of flame.
Getting out of the truck, Frank sprinted to Jerry. He hooked his arms around Jerry’s drenched armpits and dragged the soot-covered dead weight towards relative safety.
The dark sky ebbed with streaks of crimson. In those amorphous clouds of smoke and gas, shapeless patterns crowded into phantom figures that left Frank paralyzed. He rubbed his eyes with one hand, but the specters did not disappear. Red eyed cows plowed across the ragged skies, their brands glowed amber with fire. Hooves made of steel, shadow tusks for horns and a gail of hot wind blew over the land from their wide nostrils.
Frank froze in place and dropped Jerry’s limp body on the ground as he backed away.
The hell tornado continued to whip spiraling circles around the three earthly fire bound souls. All Frank could do was helplessly watch the sky.
The cold maw of the abyss yawned as it spilled out streams of ghostly horses. The rolling plumes of leaden haze thundered. Frank saw cowboy spirits riding hard, releasing guttural and mournful cries that deafened his ears. Their entry into this world fueled the fire and burned down Frank’s sense of reality.
Gaunt faces of riders emerged from the cloaked blackness. They rode on the backs of hoofed beasts. Leaping over cactus clouds pronged with flames, quarter horse phantoms snorted tongues of fire and pranced in the sky.
Frank plugged his ears as their wordless shriek echoed across endless skies.
Separated from the truck by a span of thirty feet, he instinctively sprinted back towards the truck, passing Jerry’s prone body.
An unseen root wrapped around his ankle. Frank landed hard and a couple of his teeth shattered. The taste of warm liquid iron filled his mouth.
Frank flipped onto his back. Through a thin film of blood that was dripping from a new veiny gash in his forehead, he saw Jerry rise to his feet, his murder weapon cradled in his arms.
“You were just going to let us die in there.”
From his supine position he looked up at the sky again, confused as to why Jerry was not seeing what he was seeing.
“Get up and show me how to drive this thing.”
Scrambling to his feet Frank hobbled towards the driver’s seat. Leaning into the cab, he rotated the battery knob. After turning the knob, he climbed up into the driver’s seat and pushed the truck’s ignition switch. A high pitch sound indicated that the power was on. Pressing the engine button, the truck roared to life. As Frank was disengaging the emergency brake, he noticed Jerry with his hands on the steering wheel and the shotgun resting on his lap.
Lurching forward, Frank grasped the silver barrel, tearing it from Jerry’s grip. Simultaneously Jerry kicked him in the chest, sending Frank flying out of the truck onto his back still clinging to the shotgun.
Popping up to his feet, Frank leveled the shotgun at Jerry as the truck started to move down the hill. In the truck’s rear window, Frank caught the eye of the now awake little girl gazing in his direction.
Frank watched the girl with her hands pressed up against the glass. She was dark with soot and on her wrist dangled a charm bracelet.
He looked down at his own wrist, his sister’s bracelet. Frank thought about his sister and reminisced about her final note to him before she made her choice. He had memorized every word:
I hope that this isn’t our final goodbye but if it is, maybe my decision was a mistake, but then again maybe that is what makes us human in the end, that we make mistakes.
Maybe in the next existence we will meet again and I can tell you all about how I feel now; maybe I’ll appear in the slideshow of the many images that will be set in motion when your life comes to an end; maybe when you join me I’ll be holding our little Wally, his pink tongue poking out of his toothless mouth; maybe we will meet again and you can bring me my bracelet; maybe this isn’t our last goodbye and I will be one of those hummingbirds you smile at as they hover over your wisteria; maybe I’ll be a tiny raindrop that lands in the cupped palm of your hand; maybe, just once, you will look up at the night sky, and see an ochre streak of light that lets you know that I am coming home to sit beside you.
Always think of me in that way Frank; never think of me as anything less than your sister.
Frank’s finger hovered above the trigger. His instinct to fight for his life urged him to pull the trigger on the man who sat in front of the wide-eyed little girl.
Jerry slammed the driver side door shut as the truck continued to roll on its downhill trajectory.
Frank lowered the shotgun.
Backing off towards the firestorm, Frank watched as the truck picked up speed and raced off down the road they had arrived on.
Frank let himself weep now as the shimmering hunk of metal slipped into the smoky void. He stood all alone in the driveway of the burning cabin. All around him, trees hissed, and the wind battered his ear drums. A little patch of cement was now the only firebreak between him and the flames. The cabin sprayed out fiery debris that rushed across the pavement.
Here I come Dolores, thought Frank.
Frank had always aspired to one day die in a way that was memorable. But there was nothing memorable about the impending wall of crimson death that flickered around him. Soon, he would be incinerated and become just another number, another casualty of senseless destruction. He would be forgotten to time and creation.
Frank looked up at the swirling void above him, hoping for some rescue such as the beat of helicopter blades or a sudden change of weather with a miracle of water. Perhaps another smoking fire truck would come barging through the gloom to pick him up and drive off into the blazing sunset.
No one came.
It was just him and the silver shotgun. Firearm cradled in his arms.
The fire encroached closer.
Standing in the center of the shrinking safety of the driveway, Frank watched as his clothes caught fire. He tore off the flaming tatters and found himself standing bare as a newborn baby. The crematorium began cooking him with its wagging tongue. His vision wavered and he turned towards the volcano of a cabin.
Piles of bright planks and charred beams fell leaving a gaping hole and the doorway morphed into a bright orange oval. Out of this scorching portal came a muscular and bulky fiery horse. A long face spilling out a mane of flaming hair. He traced the contours of its bulging leg muscles that betrayed its power. The raging beast of white fire sucked in air and wood as it slammed into the concrete.
On its back, a crowned rider with a set of ruby eyes—if blood orbs could be called eyes. A jet-black shadow forming a dusky pulsating body. The monstrous figure moved closer to Frank.
The rider extended a dark hand like tendrils of squid ink diffusing into seawater.
Frank raised the shotgun and fired, crackling the air as his shot struck nothing and ricocheted off what was left of the cabin.
The shotgun fell from his limp hand.
The rider’s hand remained extended as wisps of black curled around his forearm and wrapped around his body as if he were a dead pharaoh. He fell victim to a certain type of hopelessness that one faces when confronted with the monstrous black hole of the unknown.
Then he thought of Dolores.
Time passed millisecond by millisecond as the brilliant fire-curtain of this world began to roll back, and all began to morph into silver glass. A great silence fell over his soul, and he felt a wave of self-realization that revealed to him his own selfishness. Frank wanted to tell his sister that he was sorry for having taken her for granted and that now he wanted to make everything okay. He had always loved her unconditionally and Frank now understood her choice.
Swirling through his mind, his sister appeared with her copperish brown hair falling across her forehead, her cheeks pink red with kindness, her slight smile warm, and her eyes, those light blue irises with shining specks of bronze and green. Those eyes were focused on him.
Frank remembered his dreams where he would reunite with his sister and hug her, tears running down his cheeks falling onto her shoulder. He longed to sit with her again by the green pond, watching ducks dive out of sight into the depths.
All that mattered to him was commitment to those who he loved. Acceptance—true loving acceptance—of his sister was everything that he could have asked for in this final moment, and now he was satisfied with the life he had lived.
As all his senses began to leave him, he heard his sister’s words echoing clearly in the chaos he was leaving behind:
We will meet again…
Frank smiled and laid down as the world collapsed down into him granting him restful sleep, closing the weary eyes of a man who had now found solace.
Somewhere far down the hill, fleeing from a fiery world, a little girl’s face pressed up against a passenger side window. In the sky, she saw red eyes framed by muscular black hides stampeding into the funnel of the fire tornado. Bone-white grins of clenched teeth chased after the sleek shadows. Figures twirled cords of formless lassoes, with their curved backs leaning forward on their steeds. Deathless eyes set on the horizon of infinity, riding forever across the endless skies.
Keeping her eyes on the road disappearing behind them, the little girl waved at her past and for the first time she felt strong. Her attention turned to the sky, following the trail of the riders. Through her tears, she searched for the face of the man with the gun, but she found no sign of him in the sky.
As her arm grew tired, her hands rested on the cold glass. She was too young to put together the words that could have described what only she and Frank had seen.
Ghost riders in the sky.
This story was originally printed in Fiction on the Web.
Aidan Alberts graduated from UC Santa Cruz Spring of 2022 with a B.S. in Earth Science. Since graduating, he has learned that he prefers books over rocks. The Karl Lamb short story prize was awarded to him for his story Hymn.
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