Excerpt from River of Fire

RIVER OF FIRE

© Kristine Simelda, 2016, River Ridge Press

EMERELDA

Krystal is nearing the end of her favorite dream when the dogs in the kennel begin to howl. Anxious to get back to sleep, she tries to ignore them. But this isn’t destined to be a night of blissful slumber on the Caribbean island of Emerelda; a series of ear-splitting explosions cause her to sit straight up in bed. When her eyes fly open, Sophia, the savvy Doberman who is her faithful companion, is staring at her in alarm. Krystal searches under her pillow for her flashlight, then mistress and dog venture onto the upstairs veranda. Something isn’t right; the usually fresh evening air is hot and thick with the putrid smell of sulfur. Choirs of frogs and crickets have ceased their regular singing. Though no moon or stars are visible, the valley is filled with an eerie glow.

“What’s wrong, girl?” Krystal whispers to the dog.

A few seconds later she has her answer.

A colossal bolt of lightning arcs high across the mountain setting off a spray of phosphorescent sparks. Tiny rainbow-colored shards fall from the sky like candied rain. But this is not a passing shower. No. As she gazes in fascination, the sharp drops cut mercilessly into her eyes. Temporarily blinded, she is caught off guard by the next round of blasts and knocked off her feet. Sophia huddles close while Krystal lies sprawled on the warm, cracked tiles and tries to get her bearings. When she peers across the valley, she is shocked to see that her surroundings have been dramatically altered. The cliffs above the river gorge are simply no longer there. In their place is a gaping abyss filled with crimson-colored lava.

Krystal feels the house shudder and shift. The veranda, twanging like a banjo string, breaks cleanly away from the rest of the house leaving her and Sophia stranded mid-air. The building wobbles back and forth on its foundation for what seems like an eternity, and then, uttering what sounds like a final gasp, her home surrenders to its fate for the second time in a decade. Unlike its agonizing consumption by fire, beams snap, floors collapse, and walls topple in a matter of minutes.

Krystal clings to Sophia with all her might. When she finally finds the courage to peep over the railing, she sees that the rest of her home has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Yet somehow she and the dog are unhurt! She takes a deep breath, touches the lucky Zemi stone that perpetually hangs around her neck, and then expresses thanks for their salvation. She is rewarded for her reverence by the arrival of a cloud of lung-searing gas.

CALIFORNIA

Adrian snaps back awake when the Jag bounces over a series of lane dividers on the highway. He has been on the campaign trail for weeks now and is in dire need of sleep. Stopping at the guardhouse, he inserts his passkey, and then turns up the lane that leads to his home in the posh, gated community. The big house is completely dark. Max barks once when he enters through the garage. His wife’s car is parked inside. He pushes the button to close the big metal door. Once inside the house, he flips on lights and pads around the first floor looking for his spouse.

“Honey,” he calls as he climbs the elaborate staircase to the second floor. “I won.”

When he enters their bedroom, the first thing he notices is the note on the nightstand. Adrian, I want a divorce.

“Perfect timing,” he sighs wearily as he takes off his tie and jacket.

He had hoped that Carolyn’s abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs was a thing of the past, but the intensity of the gubernatorial race set her off again. And once she started drinking, he knew from experience she couldn’t stop. His campaign manager, George, had repeatedly warned him about his wife’s political liability. And as much as he hated to admit it, Adrian had recognized sensed the potential for embarrassment, almost felt like it was a blessing she had turned her back on the crusade leading up to his election.

Adrian unlocks the French doors that lead from the bedroom to the veranda and steps across the threshold. Out of the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of something odd sparkling in the pool below him. The dark shape of an inflatable raft is floating in the deep end where the moon plays off Carolyn’s huge diamond engagement ring. His wife is pressed, face down, into it. He races back downstairs and dives in. He drags the raft to the steps and lays her unconscious body across the nearest lounge chair. Then he picks up his cell phone and dials three numbers: the ambulance, Carolyn’s therapist, and, of course, George.

BAGHDAD

Jason is dreaming of the farm back in Ohio. In his dream, his mother Krystal is training one of her horses to jump over a series of poles in the paddock. He and his brother Adrian are on duty adjusting the rails on each side of the hurdle, raising or lowering the bar as necessary. Each time his mom and her mount fly over the fence, she drops the reins on the horses’ neck and blows each of her sons a kiss. But wait! Not fair! Adrian is getting all of her affection! No matter how Jason repositions himself, all the love somehow bypasses him and goes straight to his big brother.

When he bolts awake, Jason is extremely disoriented. The last thing he remembers is the guy from the Red Crescent visiting his cell in Baghdad. Everything after that is a blur. Rolling onto his side, he is surprised to find he is sleeping on a cot with a pillow instead of a hard dirt floor. He reaches out to touch the notches he makes on the wall of his cell in Iraq to keep track of time, but the marks aren’t there. In fact, nothing is the same. Instead of high stone walls, he is surrounded by plywood partitions and chain link fencing. Lights blink on and off, and garbled words spoken in his native language float in and out of his consciousness. Distant speakers play a scratchy version of his native country’s national anthem.

Jason rises unsteadily to his feet in an attempt to get his bearings. His head is pounding and his ears are ringing. He is urinating in the corner when he hears the sound of a buzzer. A slot in the steel door opens and a plastic container slides onto the concrete floor. He knows through years of experience that it can be a long time between meals in prison, so he picks it up.

“Best I try to eat something,” he mumbles to himself.

As Jason sniffs at the food, he remembers the night he told Krystal he had decided to join the Marines. Joining the military went against everything she believed in. But his longing to power trip with his buddies had overridden his respect and affection for his mother. If only he could go back in time and tell her how he really felt about her, maybe she would forgive his foolishness. After all these years, maybe everything would finally be all right.

THREE DAYS LATER

Krystal pushes her way through the masses of stunned survivors that are overflowing onto the tarmac to embrace her dear friend Abdullah. Against all odds, her former ally has found his way back to the island of Emerelda. But time is short. A helicopter bearing the official seal of the State of California is just about to land when the river of scalding mud, sizzling rocks, and simmering lava reaches the airport. The pilot leaves the blade turning and scans the crowd. “Krystal Sutherland?” he asks when he spots her. His mirrored sunglasses reflect the fiery drama unfolding all around them. “Adrian sent me. Hurry! Come on board!”

Krystal, Sophia, and her group of friends and neighbors are more than happy to obey. The Sikorsky takes off just as the terminal bursts into flames. Those left on the ground gaze longingly upward, shielding their eyes against the stinging volcanic dust whipped up by the chopper. It wheels in the air and then soars northward through the dark plume of smoke that is still spewing from the angry volcano. A muffled explosion causes Krystal to look back. Beyond the steaming delta caused by the fusion of the river of fire and the Caribbean Sea, a mighty tidal wave is gathering force. She watches in horror as it crests and heads straight towards her fellow Emereldans. They simply stand there, feet rooted in their homeland, as the huge wave swallows them alive.

No one speaks much during the first few hours of the flight, as if they’ve made some sort of mutual pact not to talk about the disaster. The shock is still too fresh in their minds. As time wears on, people drift into their own private space to rehash the incredible events of the last few days. Each of them is trying to imagine what might lie ahead, all are hoping for a brighter future.

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