If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.
Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. It is free through tomorrow on Kindle.
I will be looking for people to provide advanced reviews of the book on Goodreads, so if you are interested in that, let me know. I will send you a free copy of the book to read in full for that.
To explain why there is a part two to last week’s chapter: originally this section was going to be a prologue to the book (I posted it on here originally a few month ago), but I’ve decided to drop the prologue and move it down here (right with the scene where Jason arrives at the fire scene and before Ellie talks to Lucy) to help the story flow better. Tomorrow I will share Chapter 20, which will focus on what happens after the fire.
Chapter 19 Part 2
A few minutes later, smoke curled down Jason’s throat, choked him, burned his eyes, reminded him he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and he should have waited for back up.
He couldn’t stop, though. He had to keep walking, one boot-clad foot in front of the other, gloved hands feeling the wall.
A life depended on it.
“Help . . .” Ann’s voice quivered with panic, barely audible.
“Don’t move, Ann. I’m coming. Keep talking to me, okay?”
She was in the kitchen. He knew that, could tell where her voice was coming from, but he couldn’t see beyond the thick black smoke to reach her. Was he in the living room or the dining room at this point? It should be the dining room, but where were the tables and chairs?
A series of coughs to his right changed his direction. He kept walking, slammed his arm off a door frame, glad the fire suit was padded. Air puffed into his mask from his oxygen tank, but the smoke still stifled, making him gag. Maybe it would overtake him before he could get to her. The coughing had stopped. He needed her to cough, to make some sort of sound.
He heard nothing but the crackling of the flames licking up the wall, across the ceiling of the kitchen.
His foot hit something solid, almost sent him sprawling. He regained his balance, crouched, moving along the floor, his line of sight demolished by the smoke. He yanked the gloves off, felt the floor, cool to the touch. His hand bumped against warm, soft flesh.
Now an arm and a shoulder. He shook the shoulder gently.
“Ann, it’s me, Jason Tanner. Can you hear me? I’ve got to get you out of here. Are you hurt?”
A soft cough from the direction of the body told him she was at least alive.
“I’m going to lift you and we’re going to get out of here, okay?”
He couldn’t fling her over his shoulder. She was too fragile at her age to be carried like a sack of potatoes. Instead, he slid one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, carrying her like he might a small child. Her head fell against his shoulder as he lifted her.
“No, ma’am. It’s Jason. You’re going to be okay.”
“John . . .”
She was lighter than a sack of potatoes, that was for sure. There was almost nothing to her.
Standing he looked through the smoke to where he knew the back door was. He couldn’t carry her through there. It was already engulfed in flames. He pressed his back against the wall and slid along it, slamming into the Hoosier cabinet. He knew that meant he was only a few steps from the kitchen doorway.
If he hadn’t visited this home so many times over the last year, he wouldn’t have known that the kitchen led to a small hallway, the dining room into the living room and then a foyer to the front door
He winced when his hip slammed into the dining room table. Ann moaned and he pulled her tighter against him, breathing hard. Above him flames crackled, wood snapped, the fire ripping across the ceiling, shredding the wooden beams between the floors.
“John . . .”
“We’ll be out soon, Mrs. Weatherly.”
But he wasn’t really sure of that. He had thought the living room was right in front of him, but now he was bumping against walls he didn’t remember being there. Had he turned wrong and ended up in the laundry room instead? Or maybe even a bathroom. He felt out with a gloved hand, touched a wall, then something hard, metal. The washer. He was in the laundry room. The laundry room that didn’t have a door or window.
He turned around slowly, making sure Ann’s head stead safe against his shoulder. Smoke poured from below and above him now. With the fire spreading across the top floor, he wondered how long it would be before it fell down on him.
“Jason!” Cody’s voice boomed from somewhere to his right. He felt for the wall, moved forward a few steps and stopped when his foot kicked into a doorframe.
“Jason! Are you in there?!”
“I’m coming!” His breath fogged up the shield of his helmet as he spoke.
At least had the sound of Cody’s voice to follow because he was even more blind that he had been before. “Move, Tanner! The roof is coming down!”
Shuffling he tried to ignore the crackling and snapping above him. In front of him red and orange roared along the wall, blocking his exit. He took a deep breath, curled his upper body around Ann and kept moving. After a few steps, he felt a hard pull on the front of the turnout gear, hands yanking him forward into bright light and cool air.
“Guys!” Cody shouted next to his ear. “We got a patient!”
Ann was lifted from his arms, and he stumbled forward off the front porch, pulling at the mask, falling to the ground on his hands and knees as he gulped fresh air into his lungs. Behind him he heard the snapping of wood and the shattering of glass. The top floor had caved in. Hands snatched him under his arms, dragged him forward across the grass, further away from the burning house, as he continued to gag and gasp for air.
“Did Denny get out?!” he yelled as soon as he could breathe again.
He looked up, his vision blurred by sweat and smoke.
Denny was guzzling water a few feet away by the fire truck, pouring it over his head and then drinking again. Two other firefighters, James Lantz and Duane Trenton, stood above Jason, breathing hard, wiping sweat and soot from their faces. Jason realized they were the ones who had dragged him across the yard. Cody hooked an arm under Jason’s, helping him to his feet.
“No one is sure where John is. Denny was in looking for him, but the flames pushed him back. See any sign of him?”
Jason shook his head, taking the fresh bottle of water Denny offered him. “I could barely see anything in there. Ann was in the kitchen. If anyone else was in there I couldn’t see them.”
He couldn’t have seen anything. What if John had been in there? Somewhere on the floor near his wife?
He sucked the water from the bottle down in one gulp, then quickly looked up at the firefighters still battling the flames, trying to save the house even though they all knew it would be a total loss.
“Breathe in.” Brittany pressed an oxygen mask against his face and hooked the band behind his head. “Sit.”
Brittany wasn’t afraid to order the first responders around if it was for their own good and sometimes even when it wasn’t. Jason sat on the ground, legs bent, popping his arm on his knees as he breathed deep, coughed, and breathed deep again.
Ann’s pleading voice inside the house replayed in his mind as he sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. “John.”
Horror shivered through him. Oh God. No.
“Cody!” He pulled the oxygen mask off his nose. “John’s still inside!”
He leapt to his feet, but Cody pivoted fast, pressed his hands against Jason’s chest. “Slow down, big guy. You aren’t going anywhere. The second floor’s collapsed. There’s nothing we can do.”
“She tried to tell me. Mrs. Weatherly. Ann. She — she couldn’t breathe, must have passed out, but she was calling for John. I didn’t understand. I should have —”
Cody shook his head. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe John is at the store or somewhere else. You couldn’t have carried them both out, anyhow.” He placed both hands on Jason’s shoulder. “Look at me, Tanner. If John’s gone, it isn’t your fault. You did all you could. We’ll know more when the fire is out and the fire marshal gets here.”
Jason nodded, pressed the mask back to his face and breathed in deep, glancing to his right and watching the paramedics attending to Ann as she laid prostrate on her backon the stretcher.
Part of him knew Cody was right.
He couldn’t have carried both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly out of that house, but if he had only stopped to listen, to understand what Ann had been saying, he could have tried. He could have pushed forward a few more feet, found John if he was in there.
He raked a hand through his damp hair, clutched at it, and let out a long breath into the oxygen mask. His mind raced.
Maybe John Weatherly hadn’t even been home when the fire broke out. Maybe he’d pull into that driveway any minute in his old blue 1970 Lincoln Continental and be perfectly healthy and alive. Jason slumped back against the side of the fire truck, fought the emotion grasping at his throat. Something deep in his gut told him John wasn’t going to pull into that driveway.
Not ever again.
He was inside that house, now almost down to the ground, flames shooting up from what was left of the first floor.
Ann hadn’t mistaken Jason for her husband.
She’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was still in the house.
His jaw tightened as he heard the ambulance siren wail, saw the red lights swirling. It took him back to nine months before, to that rainy day in the lower field, when it had been his dad being loaded into an ambulance. He had felt emotion stuck in his throat that day in the lower field too and he had swallowed it down hard, shoving the fear of losing his father tight inside the same hollow spot in his chest where he’d shoved his heartache over Ellie walking away.
He hadn’t had time for emotion then, and he didn’t now. He shoved his guilt over John right against his shame from that night with Lauren Phillips, right against the grief he still felt over the loss of his grandfather, right against the hurt he’d caused Ellie.