by Chris Butler
Mitch heard the tire blow out and the car skid to a halt on the loose gravel track. He let the water pail fall back into the well and loped down the path to the edge of his property. Out on the horizon, he could see the glow and the smoke. One thing at a time, he told himself, one thing at a time. He pulled the gate open and went out to where the car had stopped at the side of the road.
A young girl, she did not look old enough to drive, got out of the car and dusted herself off. He didn’t recognise her. She had left it late to escape the wildfire racing towards them. Mitch was choosing to believe the fire would veer away from him and from his home, but the girl should have been long gone from here.
“You okay?” Mitch asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. She stuck out her hand, “I’m Bridget.”
He shook her hand with a no-nonsense single pump. “Mitch,” he said.
She glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to him, frowning. “I need to get out of here,” she said, “and so do you.”
He could smell the smoke in the air. “Not me,” he said. He looked at the blown tire. “You got a jack and a spare? And a wrench?”
“Gods, I hope so.” She went to the trunk of the car and opened it up.
He took the wrench when she handed it to him. He tossed it into the air. In his mind, it was a fire torch tumbling end over end. He caught it again, casually, without seeming to look for it as it fell back into his hand. He saw the girl’s eyes widen in surprise. “I was a juggler,” he said, explaining.
She passed him the jack and then started to undo the clamp that secured the spare wheel. “What, like in a circus?” she asked.
“Yeah, in a circus.” He looked past the car. The signs of the approaching blaze were clear to see. “I learned all about fire back then. A lot of us used it in our acts. You’re right to get as far away from here as you can.”
She hauled the spare to the edge of the trunk. “Could you help me with this?”
Together they lifted the wheel down, and Mitch set to work jacking up the car. “Aren’t you kind of young to be driving?” he said.
“My sisters taught me how. It’s not hard. They all went out fishing two days ago and they didn’t come back yet. I spoke to my aunt on the radio and she ordered me to get myself into town.” She paused, and then said, “Why don’t you come with me?”
He had crouched down and was working with the wrench to free the flat. She stood near him, and as he turned his head towards her, he had a good view of her long, tanned legs. He dropped his head again, and brushed a Harlequin bug from his tattered shirtsleeve.
“Can’t leave,” Mitch said. He pulled off the useless wheel and pushed it away. It rolled a little, then fell over, kicking up a cloud of dust. “Anyway, wind’s going to change direction. I know how fire behaves, and I can sense it. It’ll turn back.”
He mopped his brow with a rag from his pocket. It was hot out in the open. He looked up, shielding his eyes. She moved her head between him and the sun overhead, and her hair glowed crimson.
“Ever been wrong?” she said.
In his mind, he was back in the circus ring, throwing fire torches into the air, keeping them in motion, round and round, over and over. “Once,” he said. He pushed the new wheel onto the axle.
“Once? What happened?”
He picked up the wrench and started tightening up the wheel nuts while he spoke. “It was a long time ago, performing the juggling act in front of a big crowd. Maybe the biggest crowd we ever had. I knew the second the fire torch left my hand that I’d thrown it a little too hard, spun it a little too fast. I should have let it fall, but it would have been embarrassing. So I took a chance. I stuck out my hand to catch the torch, not knowing whether it would be the handle or the flame that would fall into my grasp. I caught it without any hesitation, took a firm hold of it. I still have the scars.”
“Show me,” she said.
Copyright © 2018 Catching Fire by Chris Butler