Woo-hoo! Here we go.
Day one of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!
The walls shook.
My favorite sunset photograph crashed to the floor. Again.
Why the Air Force felt the need to fly so low over the houses was beyond me. Whole sky up there, guys. Geeze.
I picked up the frame and checked the glass. No cracks, thank goodness. I hung the photo back on the wall with the rest of my collection: landscapes, animals, daily living, the greatest of the great. Someday my photos would be featured in galleries across the country. But first I had to graduate high school and get my butt off Maguire Air Force Base.
One more year—that’s all that separated me from the real world. The clock wasn’t ticking fast enough. Not for me, at least.
Settling back down at my desk, I flipped through the pages of August’s National Geographic. Dang, those pictures were good. NG photographers had it down. Emotion, lighting, energy …
I contemplated the best of my own shots hanging around my room. Would they ever compare?
Another jet screamed overhead.
Dad came in and leaned his bulky frame against my door. “Redecorating?”
“Not by choice.” I blew a stray hair out of my eyes. “Are they ever going to respect the no-fly zone?”
“Then next time you have my permission to shoot them down.”
“You want me to shoot down a multi-million-dollar jet because a picture fell off the wall?”
“Why not? Isn’t that what the Army does? Protect the peace and all?” I tried to hold back my grin. Didn’t work.
He grimaced while rubbing the peach fuzz he called a haircut.
So much for sarcasm. “It was a joke, Dad.”
A smile almost crossed his lips.
Come on, Dad. You can do it. Inch those lips up just a smidge.
His nose flared.
Nope. No smile today. Must be Monday—or any other day of the week ending in y.
The walls shuddered as the engines of another aircraft throttled overhead, followed by an echoing rattle.
Dad’s gaze shot to the ceiling. His jaw tightened. So did mine. Those planes were flying way too low.
My stomach turned. “What—”
“Shhh.” His hand shot out, silencing me. “That sounds like …” His eyes widened. “Jessica, get down!”
A deafening boom rolled through the neighborhood. The rest of my pictures tumbled off the walls.
Dad pulled me to the floor. His body became a human shield as a wave of heat blasted through the open window. A soda can shimmied off my desk and crashed to the floor. Cola fizzled across the carpet.
My heart pummeled my ribcage as Dad’s eyes turned to ice. The man protecting me was no longer my father, but someone darker: trained and dangerous.
I placed my hand on his chest. “Dad, what…”
He rolled off me and stood. “Stay down.”
Like I was going anywhere.
As he moved toward the window, he picked up a picture of Mom from the floor and set it back on my dresser. His gaze never left the curtains. How did he stay so calm? Was this what it was like when he was overseas? Was this just another day at the office for him?
The light on my desk dimmed, pulsed, and flickered out. The numbers on the digital alarm clock faded to black. That couldn’t be good.
Were we being attacked? Why had we lost power?
The National Geographic slid off my desk, landing opened to a beautiful photograph of a lake. The caption read: Repairing the Ozone Layer. I would have held the photo to the light, inspected the angle to see how the photographer achieved the shine across the lake—if the world hadn’t been coming to an end outside my window.
I shoved the magazine away from the soda spill. My heartbeat thumped in cadence with my father’s heavy breathing. “Dad?”
Without turning toward me, he shot out his hand again. My lips bolted shut as he drew aside the drapes. From my vantage point, all I could see were fluffy white clouds over a blue sky. Nothing scary. Just regular old daytime. Nothing to worry about, right?
“Sweet Mother of Jesus,” Dad muttered, backing from the window. His gaze shot toward me. “Stay here, and stay on the floor. Keep the bed between you and the window.” His hands formed tight fists before he dashed from the room.
Another plane soared over the roof, way too close to the ground. My ceiling fan swayed from the tremor, squeaking in its hanger.
I trembled. Just sitting there—waiting—it was too much. I clutched the gold pendant Mom gave me for my birthday. If she was still with us, she’d be beside me, holding my hand while Dad did his thing—whatever that was.
But she was gone, and if all I could do was cower in my room while Dad ran off to save the world again, I might as well forget about photojournalism right now.
Wasn’t. Gonna. Happen.
Taking a deep breath, I crawled across the floor and inched up toward the windowsill. Sweat spotted my brow as my mind came to terms with what I saw.
Flames spouted over the trees deep within the adjacent forest, lighting up the afternoon sky. The fire raged, engulfing the larger trees in the center of the woods. I reached for my dresser to grab my camera and realized I’d left it downstairs. Figures.
I gasped as the flames erupted into another explosion.
The photojournalist hiding inside me sucker-punched the frightened teenager who wanted to dash under the bed. This was news. Not snapping pictures was out of the question. I flew down the stairs. The ring of the emergency land-line filled the living room as I landed on the hardwood floor.
Dad grabbed the phone off the wall. “Major Tomás Martinez speaking.”
The phone cord trailed behind him as he paced. His fingers tapped the receiver rhythmically—a typical scenario on the days he received bad news from the Army. I stood rapt watching him, hoping he’d slip up and mention a military secret. Hey, there’s a first time for everything. I’d have to get lucky sooner or later.
“Yes, we lost power here, too … Yes, sir … I understand, sir … Right away, sir.” He hung the receiver back on its stand and glanced in my direction. “I told you to stay upstairs.”
“What’d they say? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you after I find out.” He snatched his wallet from the counter and slipped the worn leather into the back pocket of his jeans.
“You’re leaving? Now? Did you hear that last explosion?”
“I know. That’s why I’m being called in.” He picked up his keys.
“For what? You’re not a fireman.”
His gaze centered on me. I shivered. Dad in military mode was just. Plain. Scary.
“It’s a plane. A plane went down.”
The memory of the low-flying jets and the rattling of what must have been gunfire seared my nerves.
“Went down or was shot down?” The journalist in me started salivating.
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
The door creaked as he pushed down the handle. The blare of passing sirens reverberated through the room.
“Why would they shoot down a plane?” I glanced at my camera bag perched on the end table. My shutter finger itched, anticipating juicy photos to add to my portfolio.
“Everything will be fine. For now, just stay in the house.”
“Stay in the house? But this is like, huge. I want to take some pictures.”
His jaw set. That gross vein in his neck twitched. “You can play games later. Right now, I need to know you’re safe.”
“No photojournalist ever made it big by staying safe.”
“Maybe not, but many seventeen-year-olds made it to eighteen that way. Stay here. That’s an order.”
The whooting of a helicopter’s blades cut through the late afternoon sunshine. Butterflies fluttered in my gut as Dad disappeared through the screen door without so much as a backward glance.
I ran to the window and brushed the curtain aside. The Air Force pilot who lived across the street ran to his jeep, a duffle bag swinging from his arm. Lieutenant Miller from next door left his house and exchanged nods with Dad as they both slipped into their cars.
The sound of another explosion smacked my ears. The ceiling rattled, and I steadied myself against the wall. How many times could one plane explode? I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax. I lived on a military base for goodness sake. The Army and the freaking Air Force were stationed next door. You couldn’t get much safer than that.
Flopping onto the couch, I clicked the power button on the remote control three times. The blank television screen mocked me. No electricity, idiot.
Another siren howled past the house. My gaze flittered back to my camera case. When in my lifetime would I get another chance to shoot pictures of something like this?
“This is crazy.” I slid my cell phone off the coffee table and dialed my best friend. No service. Ugh!
I grabbed the corded phone. Her voicemail answered: “Hey, this is Maggs. You know what to do.”
“Maggie, it’s Jess. Where are you? The whole world is coming to an end outside. Call me.”
Another helicopter zoomed over the roof. How many was that now? Three? Four?
My gaze trailed to the name above Maggie’s on the contact list.
The part of me that feared the chaos outside yearned to call him. Bobby would come. Leave his post if he had to. Protect me. But did I really want Bobby back in my life?
Not after he and his MP buddies beat up poor Matt Samuels. All the kid did was take me to a movie. It wasn’t even a date, but Bobby didn’t care. If he couldn’t have me, then no one could.
I gritted my teeth as I slipped my phone back into my pocket. Suddenly, I wasn’t as scared as I thought.
Tucking back the living room curtains, I snooped on the neighbors gathering outside their houses. Mrs. Sanderson and the lady across the street both herded their kids inside, their faces turned toward the sky. The fear in their eyes struck me. What an amazing photograph that would have been.
A few guys began walking toward the thruway. One of them held a cheap, pocket camera in his hand. He had to be kidding. What kind of shot did he expect to get with that?
I let the curtain fall. Staying in the house was just too much to ask. This was the story of a lifetime. I couldn’t let it slip by without getting something on film.
Grabbing a black elastic band off the end-table, I twisted my hair into a pony tail. One brown lock fell beside my cheek, as it always did. I clipped that sucker back with a barrette and slung my camera case over my shoulder.
I hesitated at the front door. A picture of my parents hung askew beside the window. I straightened the frame. Mom’s smile warmed me, but Dad’s eyes bored through me, daring me to face his wrath if I touched the doorknob. I stood taller, strengthening my resolve. He’d understand after I got into National Geographic.
The odor of smoke and something pungent barraged my nose as I opened the door. A fire truck wailed in the distance, warning me to keep away. But I couldn’t. I pulled my collar up over my nose to blot out the smell and headed toward the main road.
A parade of emergency vehicles whipped by at the end of the street. Lights flashed and sirens blasted through the neighborhood.
The cacophony froze me for a moment. Nothing like this had ever happened before. We lived in New Jersey for goodness sake, not Saudi Arabia. I glanced back at the house. Keeping it in view made me feel safe, but I knew I needed to get closer to get a good shot.
This was it. The big league. I could do this.
Turning left toward the airstrip, I watched the last fire truck become smaller before its whirling lights passed through the gates onto the tarmac. The fire blazed well within the tree line, maybe even farther than I originally thought. The smoke reached into the sky, blotting out the sun. I raised my lens and waited for the clouds to shift and give me the perfect lighting—until a smack on my arm ruined my setup.
A smirk spread across her face. “Hey, Lois Lane. I figured you’d be out here.”
I sighed, watching a flock of fleeing birds that would have maximized the emotion of the shot—if I’d taken it.
“Lois Lane was a reporter. Jimmy Olsen was the photographer.”
“Whatever.” Her golden curls bounced about her face. “This is like, crazy. My dad took off like World War Three or something.”
“Yeah, mine, too.”
I shielded my eyes. The smoke rose in gray billows. Almost pretty. I raised my lens.
“You want to know the scoop?” Maggie’s perky form fidgeted like a toddler who couldn’t hold in a secret. She loved eavesdropping on her father, the general. Unfortunately, that kind of gossip could get you carted off by the MPs. Never stopped her though, and I adored her for it.
“You know I do. Spill it.” I brought the clouds into focus and snapped the shutter three times.
Her grin widened as she feigned a whisper. “It’s not one of ours.”
“What do you mean?” The stench in the air thickened. I covered my nose.
“The plane. They don’t know whose it is. Isn’t that exciting?”
“Heck yeah.” I raised my camera and clicked off ten successive shots. If a terrorist got shot down over American soil, Jess Martinez was going to have pictures to sell. This was the kind of break every photographer dreamed of.
I adjusted my camera-case beside my waist. “I’m going in closer.”
The air around us grew hazy. Maggie coughed. “Are you nuts? This is close enough for me.”
“Stop being such a wuss.” I tugged her wrist. It never took much more to convince her.
Maggie prattled on while I shot off round after round of gripping photographs. My heart fluttered as each preview image appeared on my screen. For once I was actually doing it. I was being the journalist I was meant to be, not the caged-up little girl Dad wanted. And boy, did it feel good.
The closer we came to the chained-link fence surrounding the runways, the more people gathered around us. A man, ignoring the whimpering Labrador on the end of his leash, gawked at the clouds. Click. Two women caught excited children and dragged them away. Click. The MP from down the street shouted, “Yes sir, right away sir,” into his cell phone and jogged from the scene. Click—all amazing images to add to my portfolio.
Pushing to the front, I slipped my fingers through the metal fencing. The paved tarmac sprawled before me, backing up to the trees. Soldiers on the far side of the airstrip formed barricades against the tree line. I centered my lens between the silver links and chronicled their maneuvers.
A breeze whipped up. The heat slapped my face like sitting too close to a campfire. I covered my lens to protect the glass as the people around us flinched and backed away. One woman ran, crying into a hankie.
“Should we be able to feel the heat from this far away?” Maggie asked, shielding her face with her arm.
I shrugged, unease settling on me as the smoky cloud arched toward us. The breeze stretched the formation, driving it north over our heads and toward the houses.
My stomach did a little fliperoo. The spunky, fearless photojournalist slipped away, leaving a scrawny, slightly-unsure-of-herself teenager behind. “I gotta go.”
“My Dad told me to stay inside. He’ll be calling on the house phone any minute to check on me.”
“The major’s getting more neurotic every day. You’re almost eighteen for goodness sake.”
“I know, but I still get the While You Live Under My Roof lecture every day.”
The ground rattled. Another billow of fire wafted into the sky. I steadied myself, transfixed by the sheer magnitude of the ever-growing bank of smoke.
Wow, did I want to just stand there and use up my memory card—but I wanted to not get grounded more. I began walking backward, snapping off shots with every step.
Maggie strode beside me. “Do you ever stop taking pictures?”
“Not if I can help it.”
I shimmied open the front door. On the far side of the living room, the corded phone rattled on the receiver, mid-ring. My keys clanged to the wood floor as I sprang toward the table to grab the handset. “Hello?”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Nowhere. I was—in the bathroom.” I clenched my teeth, holding my breath. Would he buy it?
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Why?”
I could imagine his Major Martinez no-nonsense expression on the other side of the phone. “Listen, it’s really important that you stay inside tonight. I’m sorry I can’t be there, but I need you to lock the doors, and stay away from the windows.”
I crinkled my forehead. Sweat settled across my brow. “Why? What’s wrong? There’s nothing, like, nuclear or anything, right?”
There was a pause on the line. “No—nothing nuclear.”
I drew the curtain back from the rear kitchen window. The smoke cloud over the woods had darkened. The smell of burning pine tickled my nose as a humming tone on the other end of the call agitated my ear.
Dad spoke muffled words to someone else. “Jesus H. Christ,” he whispered, returning to the phone.
“Dad, is everything okay?”
“Please just promise me you’ll stay inside tonight.”
Yikes. His Major Tomás Martinez voice had drifted away. That was his ‘daddy’s scared’ voice. I hadn’t heard that tone since the night Mom died. I shuddered. “Dad, if things are that bad, shouldn’t I be with you?” Silence lingered, and a scratching noise reverberated in the background. “Dad, is someone else on the line with us?”
“Jess. I am asking you to stay inside and lock the doors. Can you do that for me … Buttercup?”
My breath hitched. Crud. That meant something. Buttercup was a word he and Mom used when something was wrong. Something was definitely up. “I got you, Dad. I’ll stay inside. I promise.”
“Thank you.” He paused. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“Yeah, okay.” My hand trembled as the phone clicked back into the cradle.
I checked the front and back door and ran to the stairs. The fire cast a magnificent glow behind the trees outside my bedroom window. I slid down the screen and clicked off a few rounds of shots, hoping to catch the eerie blues and pinks behind the shaded leaves. Whoa. New favorite sunset shot for sure.
Settling down on my bed, I started scrolling through today’s pictures. Something was weird about the fire, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. Flipping through June’s National Geographic, I glanced through the photographs of the explosion in Nanjing China. The colors in my shots were so much more vivid, more dynamic, more, well, colorful. Not that I knew anything about explosions, but something itched that little button inside that told me I had something special.
The lights suddenly flicked on. I gasped and laughed at myself. Perfect timing. I settled at my computer, hooked up my camera, and started the upload. I couldn’t wait to enlarge those babies.
[end of chapter one preview]
So there we are! The first chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. What did you think? Do you have questions, comments, thoughts on life at a military base? I’d love to hear your thoughts!