The Last Valley
Ashes to Ashes (99 cents on Kindle & Nook, for a limited time only!)
Sample Passage (from “Ashes to Ashes”)
The wind had started picking up shortly after the ground jumped, but I don’t think we really noticed it—I didn’t, anyway—until the sky started to go dark. No one panicked, as sudden storms had blown in before on everyone who lived in the mountains. All of us, even those people from the flatlands who were just up and helping for the weekend, had a story or two about being out in the mountains on a sunny day when a storm had rolled in so quickly and so fiercely that you were out of breath and soaked before even having a chance to comment.This didn’t look like one of our normal summer squalls, though. This was a wall of black descending on us like something out of the dust bowl era. Claire happened to spot it first, mumbled something unintelligible but alarming, and pointed. We all turned and several other sounds, many of them intelligible but better left unprinted, escaped our lips.We were above ten thousand feet and the black, roiling wall that rushed toward us was that tall again, it appeared. Some said later it was a grey wall, but the sun had just begun a-westering and backlit the whole thing, making it appear black to me. Whatever color, it soon bathed us all in its dark shadow, and then it bathed us in darkness itself. A darkness you could literally taste, for it coated our tongues and nostrils and, it seemed to me, rapidly filled the lungs.It was ash.Those of us who lived in the mountains during the fires had experienced ash before. I could remember being outside, playing catch with my brother by the light over the door of the barn, while a wildfire blazed twenty miles away and the flakes of ash in the cone of light looked like snow. When it first happened, we were all a little wary of breathing it in, but after a while we stopped caring, though some people wore those paper masks like you see at hospitals. My mother thought we should all do that, but even she only wore hers for about two days before ditching it.
The wall that crossed the great divide and descended upon us in the Selkirk that day was ash, but it only took us seconds to realize it was not from any run of the mill wildfire. Someone muttered something like, “They must’ve nuked Denver!” but even I knew the wall was coming from the wrong direction for that. And it wasn’t hot ash, it was cold, as if it had been carried to great altitude before coming our way.
The day was warm, though, so the thought of fall-out occurred to us all, making us flinch from the flakes as if they were hot. There were forty-something people in our work crew that day and most started making for the vehicles, holding hands with others so as not to get separated in the quickening darkness. Some swooned, many screamed, and we all showed varying levels of panic—from continued screaming, to being rooted in place, to (as in my case) running for the vehicles without thought to anyone else. I was interrupted from my selfishness by almost running over my sister. I helped her into our pickup truck’s cab, then started looking around to see who else I needed to help.
The problem was: I couldn’t see much of anything.
Holding my arm over my mouth and nose, as if that might help when early evidence said it didn’t, I stumbled around for a bit before becoming disoriented and, blessedly, running into my own truck. With the last of my senses about to depart, I scrambled to the door and climbed in, thinking only of myself. Claire—who was alread
“I don’t know,” I replied, barely able to get the words out with my breath coming as it was in ragged gasps. I couldn’t tell if the air were really that bad or just looked bad, but my lungs were taking their cues more from my eyes than my brain or the air itself and, so, were feeling clogged.
I knew there were other people out there and part of my brain said I ought to try and find them, but I was frozen in the cab. Part of my brain wanted to blame it on my sister and a need to take care of her, a part of me said I was just chicken, but I honestly think it was the rational part of my brain that said wandering around in that mess was nothing more than suicide. So I held onto my sister as the dark thickened around us and the truck rocked in the wind.
I tried listening for other voices, but I could hear nothing over the moan of the wind. It wasn’t the loudest wind I had ever experienced, but it was constant and—pretty soon—my brain had shut off almost all auditory perception. I zeroed in on the sound of Claire’s breathing, realizing she had stopped crying but still clung tightly to me. I thought about making some crack about how she was cutting off the circulation in my chest, but realized I was holding just as tightly to her.
“Do you think this hit Mom and Dad?” she asked. They had gone into town for a date night and weren’t expected back until late. I pulled out my phone, hoping it had come back to life, but it was still just a very light paperweight. Claire looked at hers and found the same result.
“I would imagine so,” I said in reply to her query. They were twenty something miles away or so, and in a different part of the valley, so it was possible the wall of ash had missed them, though I was pretty sure they would have seen it from where they were. That made me pause, for I figured their first concern was for Claire and I, though maybe they wouldn’t be too worried, not knowing what it was that was hitting us or how strong it was. I hoped they wouldn’t try to come and find us until it had passed for there was no way they could safely drive to us. I hadn’t tried to drive Claire and I out of there because I had no confidence in being able to see the road—which wasn’t a great road under the best of circumstances, as I could well attest after having knocked the oil pan off the truck earlier in the summer on a perfectly clear day.
We sat there expecting the wall of dust and ash to pass on over in a matter of minutes, but it didn’t. When a good fifteen minutes had passed and I noticed the fine layer of ash forming inside the truck, I grabbed some facial tissues and told Claire to hold one over her mouth and nose. I did the same while digging around under the seat and finding an old sweatshirt I had shoved down there one morning when it had been cold enough at the start of the day to merit wearing one. Drawing my knife, I cut off the sleeves, then split them open and beckoned Claire to follow my lead and tie the cloth on like a bandana. It was stuffy, but I felt like it provided us a little protection. It probably looked ridiculous, but in the limited light it was hard to tell.
Our next priority was going to be water, but I wasn’t too worried. There was most of a case of bottled water in the back of the truck and I was counting on grabbing us each a bottle as soon as the wind let up. If it didn’t soon, I told myself, I could hold onto the side of the truck and feel my way to a couple bottles and then back to the cab.
Of course, once that thought was in my mind, the thirstier I became. When it didn’t seem like the wind was letting up—even though it was only a few minutes since the thought entered my head—I turned to Claire and said, shouting above the moan of the wind, “I’m going to get us some water!”
“Don’t leave—“ she implored.
“There’s some in the back of the truck. I’ll hold onto the side the whole time.”
I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, “Tap on the side of the truck so I can hear you and know where you are.”
“Um, sure,” I nodded. Then, I surprised myself for it was something I had never said before, “Say a prayer.”
She nodded and watched fearfully as I opened the driver’s door and slid carefully into the wind.
I shut the door to keep as much of the ash away from Claire as possible and slapped at the side of the truck as I made my way toward the back. I knew I needed to only travel five feet at most, but with the high winds and the ash and all, it seemed like a mile at least. I reached over the side of the truck bed and felt the case of water. Tapping a couple more times, I leaned in and picked up the whole case. I couldn’t tap as I made my way back to the front, but I kept one elbow pressed against the truck so that I could tell where it was. I felt the indentation of the door handle sooner than I expected and held the case of water against my hip with one hand as I opened the door with the other. I slid the case into the seat, followed it, then shut the door.
I turned on the dome light just long enough to assure us both that we were together in the cab, then turned it back off. “Have some water,” I said, though I could hear her opening one already. I put the rest of the case in the back of the cab, a space that the manufacturer claimed was for two passengers but was too tight for human consumption.
“I guess we should be sparing,” she mumbled. “Just in case.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I replied. I had a large serving in my mouth but realized the wisdom of her words and took my time swallowing it. Meanwhile, I quickly screwed the cap back on.