We are featuring two of our 2020 contest 1st Place winners’ writing entries. These are for the First Chapter and Flash Fiction categories. The Short Story winner declined to have it printed on the web site. Possibly she has a submission out on it. These will be on our web site until January 31, 2021.
First Place in the First Chapter category is Clare Frank for her story “BURNT ~ The Story of California’s First Female Fire Protection Chief”
BURNT~ The Story of California’s First Female Fire Protection Chief
PART ONE: BAPTISM
1965, Spokane, Washington
Mom, Dad, and the priest fucked-up my baptism. It wasn’t their fault. They’d followed the rules, which are relatively simple in the Catholic church: a priest dribbles holy water over an infant forehead reddened from screaming. It cleanses original sin—the sin of being born. I’m sure Mom held me tight over the baptismal font, same as she had with my five older siblings. But I imagine Dad changed it up, muttering something like “tetelestai”—Christ’s supposed last word on the cross. It means, “It is finished.” I was their last child—the last soul they’d dutifully created and set on a righteous path with blessed water. But this wasn’t a proper baptism for me.
An Indian pundit revealed the flaw years later when he read my birth chart. “Fire, fire, fire. Never seen so much fire,” he said in a lyrical accent as he traced dots and numbers on a cryptic scroll with his dark, boney finger. He looked at me: a fit, freckled twenty-something with a strange mix of confidence and self-doubt. When he asked, “What is your work,” I told him I was a firefighter. His mouth broke into a massive, yellow-toothed smile. A breathy laugh escaped. “Ah. Cosmic joke,” he said. He looked at the chart, then back at me, and laughed again.
Until then, I hadn’t understood: fire, not water, is what cleanses me.
Chapter 1 ~ Matchsticks
2013, State Fire Headquarters, Sacramento, California
I needed Bud to weigh in, so I called him on my cell from the bathroom stall inside the Shady Lady Saloon. A few blocks from fire headquarters, the modern speakeasy’s velveted high-back booths and roaring twenties décor made for a comfortable meeting place after work.
“They want me in Andy’s job,” I whispered even though I had the restroom to myself.
“Ken and Red? What’d they say?”
“Red said I got the top score. I told her I didn’t want the promotion. She gave me the look, then Ken asked if I trusted them, at which point I lied and told them I had to pee.”
“Are you in the bathroom? Don’t answer that. Look, I don’t think you have a choice.”
“Of course I do. It’s my life.”
“Who picked Shady Lady?” Bud asked.
“Red suggested it.”
“Who ordered the wine?”
“It’s over. They’ve made their pick. The wine is to celebrate, not cajole.”
I held the phone to my ear, sat on the toilet with my pants up, and thought about the bizarre unfolding of this impending promotion. In my rookie firefighter years, I’d aspired to reach the rank of captain, if I could make it that far. Once I did, I swore I’d go no further. Captain is the last rank that rides on a fire engine. But I kept going. And now, the director and his chief deputy were lobbying me to become the chief of fire protection, a position eight ranks higher than captain, and successor to the director if something took him out of play.
Part of me was flattered. It was an impressive job and I’d be the first female to rise to that position. But the other part wanted to steer clear. I had twenty-two months before retirement and liked my current gig as a two-star chief a floor away from the executive suite at State Fire Headquarters. Two stars were plenty. Why trade them for unknown headaches.
“You there?” Bud asked.
“Yeah. I’m here. It’s just weird. I never wanted this. Pretty sure I still don’t. But is it my duty? Who’d fill behind me? What if I can’t come home to you on the weekends? What about Brody? Maybe I can get out of this.”
Bud listened to my non-sequitur ramblings. He’d grown accustomed to them over the last seventeen years. “I’m proud of you, Sweetie. Enjoy the wine.”
“Love you too.” I hung-up and out of habit reached back to flush. Shit. Drought year. Shouldn’t have done that.
When I slid back into the booth, Red smiled and asked, “How’s Bud?”
Damn. She had a strong mom gene. She also looked the part. Red hair curved in exacting waves—the same every day—framing rosy cheeks and kind, knowing eyes. While motherhood seemed her strong suit, finance wizardry had landed her in Ken’s chief deputy spot.
Ken caught the waitresses’ eye, swung his finger in a circle for another round, then added, “Oh, and a plate of fries for the table, please. Extra crispy.”
This fucker knew what he was doing. Pretending like he had nowhere to go and all night to ply me with alcohol and crunchy-fried deliciousness. He sipped his wine and looked around the room, waiting for me to cave. People usually did for him. His tightly cropped salt and pepper hair, piercing blue eyes, and lean jawline made a statement. But a boyish sincerity softened the look and melted his adversaries.
I refused to look him in the eye and reached for a box of penny matches kept at the center of the table—meant for those who needed an outdoor smoke break between drinks. I opened and closed the matchbox drawer, always needing something to keep my hands busy. Balancing the matchbox on a corner, I flicked, spinning it under my index finger. Flick. Spin. Flick.
My mind darted back to the box of matches I’d lifted from the kitchen drawer at eight years old, readying myself for an escapade with Fat Pat. I’d slid the full-size matchbox into my sweatshirt pouch-pocket before sneaking out the side-gate and meeting Fat Pat at the corner street-sign between our houses. We nodded to each other, tapped the street pole, and pulled hoods up to conceal our identities. Her impossibly thick, wavy hair, the origin of her nickname, peaked out underneath. Even if it hadn’t, anyone who looked out a window on this autumn Saturday afternoon, would know it was us—the two third-grade besties up to no good but incapable of real harm.
We walked towards the orchard, swiveling our heads to make sure no car or pedestrian had eyes on us.
“Clear. Let’s go.”
Scurrying onto a dirt driveway, we took cover behind an overgrown perimeter hedge that concealed a fabled abandoned mansion. Like Navy Seals, we crouched and moved inland. The thirty yards felt like a formidable trek with short legs and adventure-level heart rates.
The mansion revealed itself to us all at once: chipped paint, cracked windows, and the absence of life or belongings. We crept into the ghosted courtyard piled with dry needles and leaves a light wind moved from time to time, making us jump.
Teachers and Smokey Bear had told us countless times, “Don’t play with matches.” I scoffed at the people who came up with the slogan. This was the seventies. Coming out of Vietnam with a wave of counterculture, the authorities should have changed it: “Go ahead, light a match. Uncle Sam wants you to.” But as written, the refrain served as a dare. And Fat Pat and I loved dares.
“Did you bring ‘em?” she asked.
“Yup.” I pulled out the box of Diamond Strike Anywhere Matches.
Fat Pat’s eyes got big. “You brought a whole box? Won’t they notice?”
“Nah. We always have a bunch for home-liturgy candles.”
“Dad holds church at home when someone is sick. He was a monk before he met Mom.”
“Wow,” she said. Then we gathered dry needles, made a small pile, and squatted beside it like swamis.
I slid the box open. “You wanna go first?” I offered.
“Let’s do it together.” She picked a match from the box. I selected one too, then closed the lid and set the box down with the scratchy surface faced up.
“One, two, three!” We struck our phosphorus tips. A gust extinguished our matches before we touched flame to tinder. We struck again, match after match. Each time, the wind toyed with us, keeping sustained fire at bay.
Thirty matches later, we finally had ourselves a five-inch campfire.
“Stoke it,” I said, mimicking Dad instructing my brother Mark. The only boy, Dad expected Mark to carry the art of fire to future generations. But I tagged along everywhere with Mark. So, what he learned, I learned.
Fat Pat threw more needles on our miniature fire. They shrunk instantly, like cotton candy melting on the flame’s tongues. I rushed to find thicker kindling, collecting small-branch litter congregated in the courtyard’s corners.
“Keep it going!” I said. Panic had set in. I hated failure and sensed our fire would go out.
“Dump them in the middle!” Fat Pat yelled as I ran back.
I fell victim to the pressure and did it. Bullseye. All the sticks landed right in the center of our fire, smothering what little flame we had left. I’d put out a fire with fuel.
My stomach sank as I watched the fire take its last breath. Fat Pat shrugged, like it didn’t matter. I glared at her. She was fun and my first best friend who wasn’t a sibling, but I thought she lacked dedication.
A twig cracked, or a door closed, or something. We looked at each other, then at the ashen pile. Our Converse sneakers squashed remaining embers. We fled, leaving behind the litter of our failed enterprise.
From my bed that night, scenarios ran through my head. An adult had probably followed us to the mansion and called cops at the smell of smoke. I knew from movies that cops had everyone’s fingerprints on file. Ours were all over the matches we’d left behind. I waited for the doorbell to ring and rubbed my wrists, prepping them for handcuffs. When it didn’t ring, I convinced myself that Fat Pat and I had manifested the sound, and no adult had come. So by now, the wind would have resuscitated embers we missed in our hasty escape. Conflagration was a certainty. I apologized to God and poked my head out from under the blankets to see if smoke had reached my bedroom yet. Eventually, I fell asleep into a nightmare that I’d burned down Ventura, California.
A week later, a twelve-thousand-acre wildfire raged through Ventura County—the Potrero Fire. Everyone talked about it. “How ‘bout that fire?” “We have to be so careful this time of year.” “Yeah, those Santa Ana’s can turn a spark into an inferno.” At night, I watched the newsfeeds on our black and white TV. White flames danced across the landscape. I thought they were beautiful. In hindsight, I realize what I feared during my venture with Fat Pat was task failure and getting caught. Nothing about fire—its power, heat, or flashy unpredictable movement—inspired fright in me. I must have intrinsically known then what the pundit saw later. I was meant to have a life with fire.
The Shady Lady waitress returned. I abandoned my matchbox for fries. “Look guys.” I led with my strongest argument. “I’m good where I am. You bump me up, now you’ve got two newbies fumbling around trying to make it work during a serious drought.”
Ken disregarded the point with a hand wave. “Red found a way to budget for overlap. We’ll appoint you early. You shadow Andy until he retires in six months. By then, you’ll be an old salt.” Ken took a slow sip, letting it sink in.
Red nodded. “While you’re shadowing Andy, you can groom the newbie behind you.”
They’d played an unexpected card.
I swilled wine in my mouth to buy time, spun my glass at its stem, then countered. “Why put all that effort in when you’re going to have to groom someone new in twenty-two months.”
They squinted and looked at each other. My freckles, ponytail, and juvenile spirit made them forget how many years I had in.
Ken shrugged. “We’ll deal with that in twenty-two months.” He was unflappable tonight.
They both stared at me. Bud was right. I wasn’t getting out of this.
I picked up the matchbox again and slid its drawer open, deciding the best use of the time was to give Ken and Red fair warning. “There’s two things you need to know about me.”
They raised their chins, urging the information out of me.
“First, I don’t know shit about silviculture.” Until I said it, I didn’t understand this was likely the real reason for balking at the promotion. Silviculture is the art and science behind forest management. The department grew from these roots. Managing California’s forest and rangelands led to protecting them from destructive wildland fires. Fire protection contracts all over the state followed as cities and towns spread into rural areas. The department amassed resources everyone wanted to access, which made it the biggest all-risk fire department in the nation with oversight for over eight-hundred fire stations, the largest firefighting air fleet in the world, and a management structure that resembles a small military.
The department’s fire protection scale didn’t bother me. It was that I had no experience on the forestry side. Ken had a degree in forest management and years operating in that realm. I had little interest in being the potential successor to a job I only knew half of.
Ken had anticipated this and rapid-fired his response. “Neither did Andy when he took the job. And most appointed directors only know one side. They learn the other on the fly. And there’s plenty of staff to advise you if you have to step in—which, you won’t, because nothing’s going to happen to me.”
Red’s hair bobbed in agreement.
I crunched on more fries, then picked a matchstick out of the box, and played my final card. “And second, I fuck shit up.”
They both cocked their heads.
“I’m not afraid of taking chances, so I do. Nine out of ten decisions will be good. But that means in a day requiring a hundred-decisions, I’ll have ten fuckups. You’re used to Andy, who has a more calculated style. The good news is, I’m a master at fixing shit I’ve broken because I’ve done this my whole life. So, my batting average might equal Andy’s, but it’s going to cause you a lot more grief.”
Red looked sideways at Ken. All three of us knew he didn’t have a lot of patience. Missteps made him nervous. Insecure. He preferred calm seas. I was letting him know that if he put me at the helm, I’d deliver, but it would be a choppy ride. I struck the matchstick and we all watched it burn to my fingertips.
Red blew it out and advised Ken in her motherly voice. “Ken, you’re just going to have to be good with saying, ‘Clare, unfuck this.’”
The juxtaposition of her tone and words sent Ken and me into a giggling spree. In moments like this, Ken reminded me of my brother Mark. And my willingness to go from a straight-talking chief to a child made Ken trust me. I was like him. Competent. Fun. Volatile.
We demolished the fries, toasted to good times ahead, and tipped the waitress. I slipped the matchbox into my pocket on the way out, thinking “It’s just twenty-two months.” I imagine God smirked, knowing those months would bring a batch of funerals, a drought crisis triggering record-setting wildfire destruction, and a murder that would mire the department in scandal.
# # #
First Place for Flash Fiction, a really brief short story form. The word length for this was 500 words. The Winner was Russell Jones for “Blood and Snow.”
Blood and Snow
Wild snowflakes blew into the tent as Bruthar pulled aside the fur-lined flap. From within, the cries of a woman in labor beat against the walls, challenging the wind to a contest of howls. Three elderly women, each wrapped in strands of brown cloth and huddled around a prone, naked figure. One of them looked back as the light and cold rushed in.
“Chieftain Bruthar.” She nodded to him, then turned back to assist in the birth.
“How long?” Bruthar’s voice rumbled forth from his chest.
“Not long now,” one of the women said, though none of them looked up. “The head is almost through. The child has the mark, we can already see it.”
Bruthar crossed his arms under his bushy red beard and stood silently at the rear of the room, listening to the wails of the young woman, whom he’d bedded.
“The sign is clear from the scalp, across the left eye and down the neck.”
“And the sex?” Bruthar relaxed his posture and took a step forward.
The midwives continued their work.
“It’s a girl.” one answered.
The cry of a babe echoed the declaration.
“Damn devils! There’s a witch in the village!” Bruthar thundered. “Only a male bearing the mark can bring us glory. A witch has cursed this birth. The child must die, so another—”
“No!” came the ungodly scream of the mother.
Bruthar drew his broadsword from the sheath on his hip. The confines of the tent hindered movement, but his task was simple enough. He lumbered forward as the elders scrambled away. The naked woman lay clutching the baby, matted blonde hair stuck to her face and defiance in her blood-shot eyes.
“Give it to me, Elda.” Bruthar beckoned with his free hand. “It must die.”
“Never!” Elda clambered to her feet, hunched and feral. A stone dagger, gripped in her fist, lashed out and cut into Bruthar’s thigh, sending him down on one knee.
Where had she gotten the blade? He tried to bring his sword around, but it tangled in a toppling pile of hides. The roughly-hewn stone knife opened his throat with a single, swift slice. Bruthar collapsed, his right hand clamped over the rushing crimson gash. With hate-filled eyes, he gazed up at his lover. Her sweat-glistened form crouched, ready to strike again. Gritting his teeth, he tried to stand, but strength fled his body like a routed army.
His guards would stop her. Didn’t they hear? Blasted wind! As his blood drained, he watched one of the elders wrap Elda in furs like the rest of them. The girl tucked her bundled child within the warm folds and shot one last glance at Bruthar. Sorrow and regret dwelt there. What has she done? Doom, doom will befall the tribe…
She flipped up a hood and followed the remaining women into the storm, the last thing he saw before darkness fell.
# # #