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1

No thunderstorms this time, just the fires.

The sky was a strange tinge of orange-yellow and grey. But still they were no further away from it.

Jeff Gould turned from peering out the windshield to view the motley group who had raced for the school bus as the news broke in Ronald that the fire was turning to sweep down on their town.

“They asleep?” Lloyd Rooney, the bus driver, asked.

Jeff swung back to face Lloyd. The busdriver’s hands tightly gripped the steeringwheel. “No,” he said. “You can’t expect them to.”

“I know,” Lloyd replied, his eyes peered into the dusk beyond the windshield.

Jeff wasn’t sure whether the sun had set or the smoke blotted out the light.

So murky, so hard to see.

The bus slid. Lloyd quickly spun the wheel. There was a thud and the bus lurched.

“Sorry,” he said quietly, the sweat beading on his forehead. “It’s this road.”

Jeff steadied himself and held onto the rails with both hands. He thought about returning to his seat. It was the height of lunacy to detour a school bus onto an unmade side road. But there was no arguing with the sheriff. The fire front had charged through Stampede Pass; the towns from Nelson and Lavender in the south to Easton in the west were all lost - and Ronald had been next. As so often happened in Washington State, the fires had been so sudden. Fleeing east to Arden seemed the only answer. But they had been detoured.

The sheriff wouldn’t take no for an answer. He had ordered them onto the side road. They had no choice.

“Do you know where we are?” Jeff asked.

“Not a clue, not this far out.” Lloyd replied, his eyes glued to the blackness ahead.

Jeff sighed. He smiled over at Claire. She was taking this well. Her fair hair and green eyes sparkling in the dimness; she still had it - even after seventeen years of marriage.

“We’ll be okay,” he whispered.

She smiled back, only half-heartedly. She didn’t believe him.

He glanced at Lee. The boy was asleep. His Nikes not quite reaching the floor and his thin body scrunched into the corner of the seat.

How could he sleep through all this? His home town was being destroyed and he was asleep. Jeff moved carefully back to the seat and ran his fingers through his son’s hair. He didn’t wish this situation on anyone, especially anyone Lee’s age. He was only fifteen and still a boy in many ways.

Except for the constant noise of the wheels on the rocky road outside, the bus was silent; the lack of noise hanging thickly over the bus like the sea of smoke outside. The bus was full; forty or more destitute people with only the possessions they could manage to carry as they ran from their homes. The children, scared and wide-eyed, held their parents with one hand and toys in the other. The adults tried hard not to break down. Their brave faces etched with worry.

Now, no one felt like talking.

Through the grimy back window, Jeff could see the horizon brightly lit with glowing red and yellow; like a sunset in hell. So dark out front and so red and bloody out back. The bus swerved again and Jeff grabbed the bar near his seat for extra grip. He turned to face Lloyd. The black man whimpered as he struggled to keep the bus under control.

“You okay?” he yelled.

“Yep, this bus just ain’t built for this kind of thing.”

“Want me to take over?”

“No, I’ll be fine.”

The bus shuddered violently as it passed over a grate in the road. The forest outside was a blur and none of it looked familiar to Jeff. He turned to scan the faces of the people from his town. Their worried looks did nothing to help him relax and he could think of nothing other than the fire sweeping down the main street of Ronald, devouring all in its path; the house he shared with Claire and Lee, his office, their history all wiped out.

He smiled at Joanne Beaman who was sitting at the back of the bus. She didn’t smile back, only looked straight through him. Her grey suit almost matched the tips of her hair. Jeff had been on the way to fix her television when he had heard the news of the fire. How quickly the normal world can be destroyed.

The bus swerved again, then skidded. There was a heavy bump, and the sound of metal and glass as the bus collided with trees. It swerved violently to the other side of the road. Someone screamed and then there was a moment of silence. Jeff looked at the broken side window. The bus tilted as it skidded, its undercarriage shuddering. It balanced for a second, tilting on its side, then rolled and dropped away. Jeff watched helplessly as Claire tried to scamper to his side of the bus. He held his hands out for her, but she was tossed to the side as the bus rolled. He hit the ceiling hard, but his only thoughts were for his family. There was a blur of people and screams and yells as the bus continued to roll and slide. Metal hit metal. Undergrowth was crushed. Sparks flew and there was a burning smell in the air. And then, a sudden sickening lurch to the left. Then nothing.

Silence.

The dust settled and the panic began.

Jeff picked himself up from the ceiling. His wife and son were nowhere to be seen. The bus was overturned, and people were everywhere. He raced down through them to find Claire and Lee. The windows in the bus were shattered, and some of the framework torn away.

“Jeff!”

He turned to see Claire, thrown into the back corner. Lee was beside her, trying to help his mother.

“Dad, I think she’s hurt,” the boy said.

He squatted beside them, “You okay?”

“I think so, just hit my head,” she tried to smile.

“We better get out of here, I don’t know where that burning smell is coming from.” Jeff helped Claire to her feet. “Lee, go and see if Mr. Rooney is okay. See if he can open the doors for us.”

The boy nodded and dashed up to the front of the bus. Jeff took Claire’s hand and they began to follow. They walked past the others. Some were beginning to get up, others were crying, some silent. Jeff scanned the bus and all the destruction. The group seemed fine, or at least able to make their way out of the bus.

“Everyone okay?” he asked.

People moaned, nodded their heads.

“Is there anyone who needs help getting out of here?”

No reply.

“I can do first aid,” Vanessa Beaman said as she helped her mother stand. “Let’s all get out of this bus and I can check you’re all okay.” Vanessa glanced towards Jeff and he nodded his head. She was a bright nineteen year old girl who was studying nursing and had done her mother proud.

Joanne Beaman was holding onto her daughter. She looked shocked and was gulping air, trying to breathe. Her hands moved in quick, fitful gestures.

“Anyone seen an inhaler?” Vanessa asked. “I need an asthma inhaler.”

“Is this it?” a young boy called from near the front of the bus. He was holding a small blue object in his hands.

“Thank you,” Vanessa said as the boy climbed over to give it to her. Joanne placed her lips around the inhaler and took two long puffs. Immediately she calmed down and was able to breathe once again. She nodded her head; she was ready.

The group made its way to the front of the bus where Lee and Lloyd were tugging on the lever for the door.

“It’s no good,” Lloyd said, “it’s stuck.”

The bus driver had a large gash down the side of his face and blood was cascading onto his shirt. Around him was the shattered remains of the front window and shards of glass sat in his top pocket.

“You okay?” Jeff asked.

Lloyd nodded and wiped away some blood, “But I’ve been better.”

He smiled and his white teeth appeared through the bloody river on his face. Vanessa knelt by him and tried to stop the bleeding with a T-shirt.

“Okay,” Jeff said to the group, “We’re going to have to go through the front window of the bus. It’s the only way out. Let’s do it quickly, but carefully.”

Jeff grabbed one of the suitcases now lying on the ceiling and reached up and cleared the frame of the windshield of any slivers of glass still remaining. Then, one by one, they climbed out the front window and down into the darkness below.



The scene was like a disaster area. After everyone climbed from the bus, Vanessa found many people who were seriously injured. Jeff counted twenty-three people lying down, all cut and bloody, waiting for Vanessa. Claire was helping Vanessa and Joanne patch up some of the wounds, but the others stood around unable to help or understand what had happened.

It had been a grand day.

The horizon was dark now. The sun must have set, but it was hard to tell through the smokey haze. One long night ahead. To the south and west the fires still raged. In the distance the dancing red curtain of flame and destruction still rose into the night sky. Did Ronald still exist? It hardly seemed important now.

The bus had slid down an embankment and was now resting in a small gully which was sparsely populated with small groups of trees. Jeff had scouted around and checked that there was no petrol leak from the bus and no chance of broken or loose wiring starting a fire or explosion. The trail of destruction was clear to see even in this dim light. The bus had hit another pocket of loose gravel or dirt and Lloyd had been unable to control the slide. It had careened off the side of the road and down the embankment. At the bottom of the embankment the bus had lurched through a large chain, barbed-wire fence, half flattening and half destroying it. The fence was ten feet tall and stretched on out of sight. Maybe the owners of the property had heard the crash and would be on their way to help. Unless they too had been evacuated due to the fires.

At least no one was killed. There was hope yet. Jeff stood to the side of the bus, and wondered if they could tip it back onto its wheels. The bus itself didn’t look too damaged. If only they could get it the right way up maybe they could drive back onto the road.

“Any luck?” he asked Lloyd.

The bus driver’s face appeared at the window, “No show. The motor just won’t kick over. I don’t think it’s dead, but there must be something loose in the engine or something. Think you can have a look?”

Jeff shrugged, “I’ll look, but I’m an electrician, not a mechanic.”

Lloyd climbed out of the window and walked towards Jeff, “And I’m just the driver. I don’t know how we’re going to get to the motor. But we can try.”

Jeff and Lloyd walked back towards the makeshift first aid site. The black man’s face still bled, even with a bandanna covering the wound.

Jeff was about to ask him how he felt when he noticed the other passengers standing and looking off into the distance.

Lee came running up the Jeff, a smile on his face, “Dad! Dad look, it’s true!” He pointed into the darkness.

“What? I can’t -”

“Johnny Lowe and Pete Milligan went to look for help. They only got a ways off there and they saw these people coming from the forest to help. They came back and told us and now the people are coming. Ain’t that great?”

Jeff smiled, “It sure is.”

He peered into the night and saw them too.

“A damn miracle,” Lloyd muttered.

On a small hill no more than a hundred yards away stood the crowd. Dozens of people had come to help; Jeff couldn’t count them all. He figured there must be a town not far from here and they heard the crash and came to help. They had strong flashlights and were shining them on the group now. Criss-crossing them with light, they surveyed the damage. In their other hands they had what looked like shovels and other tools. Help had arrived.

“Hello!” Jeff called to them.

Silence.

“We need help down here. We have injured people!”

Silence.

Jeff glanced at his wife and smiled.

“Can you help us?”

Nothing.

Jeff’s smile disappeared.

“Hello!” came the reply.

Finally.

“Who are you?”

Jeff winked at his son. “We were heading towards Arden and got detoured. Our bus crashed and we need help!”

Silence.

The night sky behind the people on the hill was suddenly filled with colored swirling lights. The crowd parted and the lights of patrol cars shone through the dark at the group below.

“Police, Mom,” Lee said. “We’ll be fine now.”

Jeff began to walk towards the group, “Thank you for helping us!”

He felt it before he heard it. It flew just past his head. He heard the rapport and then the ricochets off the bus.

Then the bullets came in droves.





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