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Story Time Contest: Hero Edition
8th Jul 2012 at 4:48 AM
Thanks: 38 in 1 Posts
Sunset Valley looked like nothing was wrong. The town centre nestled against the lush green of hills and trees. The golden sun warmed rather than seared, and no smoke hung in the valley air. Gardens were in full flower, and brick and white plaster of heritage-listed buildings remained unstained. If people appeared grim as they went about their business, it was an unnoticeable undercurrent to a beautiful day.
Zoe Anderson wasn’t sure whether she hated these days or loved them.
She paused, eyes as distant as her thoughts. The day had been busy, but as the sun sunk into the horizon, custom slowed and she had too much time to think. She wandered back to the kitchen, where Greg, cook and owner of the Kitty Kat Kafé, swiped a cloth over the counter.
“Coffee’s up,” he growled, even though she stood in front of him.
Behind her, Liz Handel chuckled. She wasn’t even pretending to work. Her normally cheerful face was downcast, her attention fixed on the café’s television for the 7 o’clock report.
“...Fires continue to sweep across the state as summer temperatures rocket...”
A hint of sport, one assault. Everything else focused on the fires, and the woman’s immaculate makeup and pleasant countenance contradicted the horror of the stories. Zoe’s face softened with sympathy; the solemn tone of the newsreader was sincere, even if actually looking unhappy was against network regulations.
Coming in to work without driving through swirling ash that carried the taste of death was amazing. Knowing it was a deceptive lull, and at any moment the raging fires would flare again and coat her beautiful town in smoke and cinders... then Zoe hated the good days.
Knowing the greenery was a mixture of hardy natives and false life, that beneath was tinderbox and dynamite ready to spring forth into an inferno... then she hated them more.
Every time the CFA*, along with the town’s small fire brigade, thought they’d managed to get a lid on containment, another fire would break out from its silent smoulder and they’d have to start over.
As the newsreader rattled off her lines, Zoe’s eyes drifted over the few patrons in the café. It was fitting, in a way. Jill, half asleep at her table, was the Chief’s daughter. Her mother and brother were volunteers. She would be too... just as soon as they let her. Matt Dennis was CFA and Zoe’s best friend. He waved her over with a lazy smile.
“Not working?” She slid a coffee in front of him.
“Been on call all day.” Matt shrugged, and his mouth twitched in irritation. “Don’t.”
Zoe frowned. “Don’t?”
“I wasn’t going to.” Zoe tilted her chin and tried to look stern as she slid into a seat, ignoring Greg’s grunt from across the café. “I was going to say you should be home sleeping.”
“Not here visiting you. Apology was implied.”
“Well, you ‘don’t’ either.”
”Read your mind?” Matt’s irritation dissolved into another grin.
He laughed and obligingly changed the subject. “I hate this place.”
“I think it’s cute.” Zoe smiled.
”You would. It’s garish.“
“Well, there’s a reason you think that.” She pointed at his shirt. “And you don’t have to come.”
“Who’d make sure you knock off on time then?” Matt’s gaze flicked away. He took a swig of the coffee as if it wasn’t scalding.
“That was only once. You know they really needed me here,” Zoe murmured, a faint blush tinging her cheeks.
“Your ex was in.” This time Zoe changed the subject; she didn’t repent when Matt gave her his best puppy-pleading look. “You need to talk to her.”
“Okay. Which ex?”
“Matt! Kirsten, of course.”
“She’d be the latest, right?” Matt continued to avoid Zoe’s eyes.
She heaved a sigh. “I hope so. You can’t have broken another girl’s heart already, surely.”
“Do one night stands count?”
Zoe opened her mouth and closed it, then closed her eyes – though that was as much to block out Matt’s smug smile. She laughed. “You’re incorrigible.”
“I don’t even know what that means. And you should be angry at me. You know, women united and all. Not laughing.”
“Talk to Kirsten. Then maybe she’ll stop talking to me. You won’t have to worry I’m being taken advantage of.”
“You need to be less nice to women with me. You know they’re not going to last.”
“What am I meant to do? Ignore them?”
“Might be worth trying,” Matt muttered.
Zoe pushed to her feet, scooped up the empty cup, and turned back towards the kitchen with a low laugh. “You’re rude enough for both of us. I don’t know how they keep falling for you.”
“My amazing looks and charm. And everyone knows the good guys love dogs.”
“Hitler loved his dog.”
Zoe’s smile stayed as she ambled back to where Greg drew elaborate designs on coffee and Liz hurriedly pretended to wipe down a table. “He single again?” Liz asked casually.
“You don’t want to go there, Lizzy.” Zoe wrinkled her nose and grabbed one of Greg’s coffees.
“I do,” Liz muttered. Wiping her hands and wandering back to the counter, she ogled Matt. “I definitely do, sweetie.”
Zoe ignored her with practised ease – Liz had had her sights on Matt for years. Another news report flashed onto the television. Zoe froze as the newsreader’s sombre words penetrated.
“...And as another blaze flares up, believed to have been burning in the undergrowth since late last night, Fire Chief Brandon Maybe has issued a statement confirming rumours that the long, hot summer is not only to blame for the fires – many are a result of arson. Police are currently following up leads...”
Anger flared in Zoe.
Jill jumped to her feet with a cry, then drooped as if struck.
“Well, I never.” Liz planted her hands on her hips.
Matt rose more slowly, his body impossibly still. He was angry, but not surprised.
Zoe didn’t see any of them. Her vision swam in red as the words rebounded in her head like a bullet shot. Deliberate... of all the fucked up... Fire seemed to flicker in her normally gentle blue eyes.
She frowned. Awareness penetrated: her hands were toasty warm. She looked down. Flames spilled from the coffee cup she gripped. They danced in deceptive beauty. Her breath caught, and a rush of terror swept aside her anger. She slammed a hand down atop the cup and doused the flames. She stood, shivering. She didn’t dare look up. The newsreader droned on in the background.
“I’m going to text Dad. I bet he knows about it.” Jill whipped out her phone.
“Probably. But I doubt he’ll tell you,” Matt almost growled.
Jill sniffed, her voice choked up. “Yes, he will.”
Zoe pushed away her terror. Liz still watched the television, Greg hadn’t even turned at the announcement, and Jill blinked into her phone, obviously trying not to cry. Matt met Zoe’s gaze, sombre, but that was all. If he’d seen, he wouldn’t just be sombre.
Liz dropped into a seat as Jill punched viciously at her phone. “Of course, we already knew. It’s not nice to have it confirmed though.”
“I didn’t know,” Zoe said quietly.
Liz shot her a pitying look. “
Bless your soul, you've got your head in the clouds.
Zoe, sweetie, of course someone’s been lighting them. You’re too ready to believe the best of folk.”
Zoe dropped her head. “But... why? People have died.”
Greg banged a plate down. “Maybe they think it’s for the best. My people used to let the fires burn for the land. You folk are scared of them. Or maybe they just like the rush.”
“Greg!” Liz turned on him. “There’s a difference between controlled burning and this... devastation. You’re a cruel man with no heart.”
Zoe stepped in between them. “Please, don’t. Greg wasn’t saying that to be mean, Liz.”
Liz glared. “But it was. You wouldn’t understand, Zoe. You live in town. You’ve never had to deal with the fires up close and personal.”
Zoe swallowed heavily. Memory rose to swamp her, shoving through the gap in her defences the anger – and the fire – had made. The crackle of flames, heat that should burn, choking smoke crawling down her throat and clawing at her eyes, screams...
“Going on break,” she pushed the words out and bolted.
“Break? But you’re knocking off in—”
The back door closed on Greg’s words. Zoe slumped down onto a crate. Even now, it was still hot out. She ignored the rough splinters poking through her dress and pushed her face into her hands.
She sat, unmoving. Her eyes burnt with memory, but she had long run out of tears.
Eventually, Matt appeared to help her silently away. He didn’t say anything, and Zoe was glad. He didn’t know. They’d been best friends for 10 years, but he didn’t know. If he did, he’d hate her for the freak she was.
*Country Fire Authority
1500 (including footnote), 15 pictures
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