The next four hours were unspeakably awful.
According to the radio and the cell alerts we kept getting, the safest evacuation route meant driving east through Loup Loup Pass, which meant everyone would be stuck together on the same two-lane highway, inching slowly away from the fires for the next sixty miles. If another fire broke out blocking the way, we’d be fucked.
“You think this is a good idea?” I asked Gage in a low voice. “I know the road south is closed, but—”
“The road running north is on fire,” he said grimly. “And the fires are even worse to the west, so this is the best we’ve got. Who are the girls?”
I gave a startled laugh. “Sorry, I forgot the introductions. That’s Rebecca and Anna, they’re Carrie’s kids. She’s out of town. Shit, girls—have you talked to her?”
“I texted her while we were waiting in your car,” Rebecca said. “And again when we started driving. She didn’t answer. I’m worried about my dad.”
“I’ll call her,” I said, reaching for my phone. A robotic voice told me it couldn’t complete the call as dialed. “Crap. Can’t get through.”
“Did you get my messages earlier?” Gage asked. “I tried calling, too, but no luck.”
“Got nothing from you, but I had no problem talking to Margarita in Olympia,” I said. “Guess it’s all about where you are and who you’re trying to call.”
We reached the edge of town, and the truck slowed. I looked out to see a line of cars ahead of us, moving slowly through the smoke. “Wow. I didn’t even realize there were that many people in Hallies Falls.”
“Me, neither,” Anna said, her voice still tight. “Are we going to get stuck here and burn up?”
“No,” Gage said firmly.
“What about your friends on their bikes? Will they be safe?”
“They don’t have the protection of a cab, but they can go a lot faster than us,” he replied. “They’re probably driving along the shoulders of the road. Biggest danger is some dumbass in a car hitting them in the smoke.”
Suddenly I realized something. “Gage, your motorcycle . . .”
“What about it?” he asked.
“We left it.”
He gave me a quick, tense glance. “Of course we did. It’s just a bike, Tinker. The world is full of them. You left your car and your house. All I care about at this point is getting you out of here alive.”
I gave a short laugh, because of course he was right. My Mustang was down there, too. But it was still nice to know he cared about me more than his bike.
As we climbed slowly up the ridge, I was able to look down to see massive flames tearing through the trees north of my home town. There were also police cruisers moving through the streets, their headlights turned on to cut through the smoke, but I only spotted one fire truck.
“Where do you think the rest of the firefighters are?” I asked Gage as we wound our way along the hillside.
“Probably south of town,” he said. “Earlier today they called for volunteers, so things must be even worse down there. The danger seemed to be from the south—nobody saw this coming.”
“It feels like the whole world is burning up,” Anna said. “Do you think we’ll lose our house?”
“All I care about is Mom and Dad,” Rebecca told her, sniffling. I glanced back to find her eyes red and scared. “Dad’s down in that. Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Your dad is smart and safe,” I said, wishing I felt half as calm as I sounded. “He knows you’re with me, and he knows you’ll stay safe. You have to trust that he and your mom can take care of themselves, because they can. Once we all get away from here we’ll find them, and you’ll be safe again together. That’s all the matters.”
The girls nodded, although I couldn’t tell if they believed me. I was too busy trying to believe myself.
We’d just reached the top of the ridge when I heard the first airplane engines.
Gage pulled around a curve and suddenly a big jetliner passed by, headed straight for town. And I do mean big—it was big like a plane that carries passengers on cross country flights, and it even had rows of windows along the side. As we watched with wide eyes, it swooped low over Halle’s falls, dumping a massive plume of red from its belly.
“What’s that?” Rebecca asked, her voice quivering.
“Fire retardant,” I said. “They’re dropping it over the town to try and save it. They’ll coat as much as they can, maybe save some of the buildings.”
“I hope they spray our house,” Anna whispered.
Yeah. I hoped they sprayed mine, too.
• • •
It took us hours to reach Okanogan, and I was terrified every minute of it. Amazingly, Mrs. Webbly and my dad had managed to keep the girls calm. The bunk in the back had been folded into a bench seat, and they put down a small table. Dad was teaching them how to play poker. Mrs. Webbly was teaching them how to cheat.
Fortunately, I got cell service back once we’d cleared the valley, my phone pinging rapid-fire as text after text from Carrie downloaded. The girls’ phones were doing the same. I dialed Carrie’s number and this time she answered.
“Did you get out okay? Where are the girls?” she demanded.
“They’re in Gage’s semi with me,” I said, turning to see them watching me anxiously. “It’s your mom.”
“What about Dad?”
“Have you heard from Darren?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s fine,” she said, her voice strained. “They’ve got him and the other volunteers doing excavation work—trying to control and stop it. I’m not sure it’ll work. I saw the fire jumping the river as we drove away.”
“Where are you now?”
“Headed east,” she said. “Toward Okanogan. You?”
“Probably on the same road as you,” I said, slumping back into the seat. “Thank God for that. You want to talk to the kids?”
“Please,” she said. I turned and handed the phone back to them as Rebecca burst into loud tears.
“Ladies, please try to keep it under control,” Gage asked, his voice tense. “I’m trying to concentrate. Visibility is shit.”