The first chapter from the novel in progress
A fire raged in the San Gabriel Mountains. Acres of pine and brush reduced to cinder every hour, disappearing in waves just as they had been for the past two weeks with little containment. Firefighters battled the flames with hoses wherever they could find a foothold on the steep hillsides, as aircraft dropped red baths of retardant in massive sweeps over the treetops. Despite their efforts, the thick column of smoke widened over the Los Angeles basin now that the wind had taken an unfavorable view of the nearly 13 million residents to the south.
On such a blistering September day, when summer had still not given way to fall, all movement was sluggish. Hot air. Hot asphalt. Sweat on your back. Ash sprinkled over the city as far down as Wilshire and laced the oxygen with smoke.
James Clay fought the lethargy such an atmosphere bred. Fortunately, he’d taken refuge in Morton’s for lunch. The recirculated air conditioning only contained a hint of brushfire. James had been living here long enough to be initiated in the natives’ keen sense of danger, where even the slightest whiff of ash caused you to survey your surroundings.
All around him, businessmen in power suits brokered deals over buttered filet mignon as socialites from some TV show he did his best to ignore chatted about nonsense. If the Angeles National Forrest weren’t ablaze just 30 miles away, he would have seen the regular lunch crowd going about their business as usual. James knew better. Against the muffled chatter and scratching of knives on bone china, he couldn’t shake the smell of destruction, however faint, as he and Natalie sat in the corner table they used to call “theirs.”
While he counted the seconds for their waiter to deliver their meal, Natalie took turns between sipping her goblet of iced water and turning the saltshaker in rings on the linen tablecloth. She was never at a loss for words. She’d just come from the downtown courthouse arguing…well…actually, James wasn’t really sure which case she was currently working on. Today wasn’t the only lunch date they hadn’t been speaking over lately. Recently, James had recently upped their retirement savings allocations without asking for her input, and Natalie had purchased the groceries in the same fashion. Their current work projects weren’t even on the other’s radar. He just knew she looked stunning in her pressed Jones New York pantsuit, the one he bought for her birthday last year. Her blond hair draped over her shoulders, the straight strands highlighting the subtle pinstripe on her charcoal gray jacket. She always dressed impeccably. Friends liked to say how the rising litigator and the business wiz looked great together. Coming from the advertising world, James knew better than most how looks can be deceiving.
Before he could even think of the words, he heard himself say: “I want to make this work.”
She looked up, her sapphire eyes marred by conflicting arguments. The point James took away from her expression was a long, unseen glimpse of the woman he knew, the woman he hadn’t realized just how much he missed until that moment.
“Me, too,” she said.”
The corner of her mouth cracked into a grin as the waiter slid their Prime New York strip and Chicken Christopher onto the tablecloth.
After a few bites, the rest of the meal lingered on small talk, but content didn’t matter. When it came time to return to their respective offices, James and Natalie left the cool of the restaurant and returned to the heat and ash out on Figueroa.
Shoulder to shoulder, they walked a ways without a word—their slight stiffness returning back in the real world. Passersby rushing back after their own meal breaks forced the couple to bump into each other a few times. Finally, their discomfort melted as one hand found its partner for the first time again.
They enjoyed the contact a few moments longer until something caught James’ eye.
“Wait here,” he said.
He dropped her hand and jogged into the street, leaving Natalie on the sidewalk.
The traffic broke just in time, and he made his way across the boulevard. Outside of a French café stood a cart vendor selling flowers. Knowing his secret wouldn’t remain that way for long, James turned around to peek at Natalie. Curious, she strained her neck to see what he was doing. Then she saw the flowers and couldn’t contain her grin.
James searched the cart’s inventory hoping to find a couple lilies—her favorite. The white petals bloomed next to some pink roses. He peeled away a few stems from the vase and turned back toward his wife, making certain his body hid the selection. Natalie shook her head at him, not so much because of the flowers, but because she’d lectured him on this topic many times before they were married: He just couldn’t cross the street whenever he wanted. This wasn’t New York. Be she wasn’t from New York. James knew a city’s pulse and could determine the right moment to cross and when to stay put. He knew Natalie didn’t appreciate holding his hand when he dragged her across a street against the red. So once they moved to LA, he was supposed to play by the rules of her hometown.
Meanwhile, she waited and pressed the crosswalk button like a good citizen. When the light finally turned green, she looked both ways before crossing to meet him.
James laughed, knowing exactly what that angered grin meant. He took his change from the flower vendor when the blare of horns and tires ripped through his ears.
He froze the second rubber peeled on road. Knowing the car was not far behind him, he whipped his head around in time to see a red Chevy pickup run the light.
Pedestrians scattered to safety. Some leapt backward. Others ran further into the intersection hoping to make it away in time. Except one.
James froze as the car struck Natalie.
Her knees buckled. Her head flung back. Her body hit the ground, limbs bouncing without control. Only then did the truck stop.
James’ legs wouldn’t move. Not until he felt the adrenaline burn through his veins like acid that snapped him into action.
He dropped the lilies from his hand and plunged into the sea of traffic. Brakes screeched, horns bellowed, and however furiously his legs pumped, they still didn’t carry him fast enough.
The Chevy’s bumper idled over Natalie’s leg. Blood began to spread through her clothes, the color matching the rust on the fender. Before James could reach her, he heard gears grind.
The pickup reversed five feet, forcing approaching witnesses to leap back onto the sidewalk. Then it sped around her body.
People ran after the truck, pounding on its side panels to stop the hit-and-run. As the car passed James, he locked eyes with the driver for a moment. The man’s low-slung baseball cap couldn’t mask the coldness of his steel gray eyes, or the jagged scar etched into his left cheek that cut like saw teeth.
There was nothing James could do. The driver disappeared in a cloud of ash and exhaust as he ran another red light to make his escape. James didn’t see any plates or other kind of identifying marks, but he was more focused on reaching his wife.
He held out his hand. Dodged a pair of on-coming taxies. Then fell beside her, the gravel chewing his knees through his suit pants as he slid to a stop.
She was still alive. Fear gripped him more because he even considered that she might not have been. He quickly inhaled, only now realizing he hadn’t been breathing.
Her eyes darted around, searching for some sign of coherence. James slipped his fingers between hers and tried to soothe her trembling with his touch. She must have felt his hand, for she looked up to see who was there. Finally, her eyes found his. A faint glimmer of hope reflected there. James couldn’t be sure. He could have imagined it—hoping himself.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said. “You’re going to be okay.”
He looked over her body to assess the damage. No broken limbs that he could see, but he couldn’t be sure. Her arms and legs were scratched up, her business suit torn at the knees, her white blouse spotted with red. He couldn’t find the wound that caused the bleeding.
A crowd had begun to form around them. People emptied from office buildings and restaurants. Lunch meetings were halted mid-breath. To James, everyone was a blur. Some held up their hands to stop traffic and yelled back at drivers who laid on their horns. Others pressed cell phones to their ears, mumbling something about a woman needing emergency assistance.
But she wasn’t just a woman. She was his wife. And this wasn’t supposed to happen.
He looked again at her ripped pant leg and found a sizable gash. He ripped off his necktie and wrapped it around her thigh. Natalie cringed as he knotted the silk to stop one source of the blood flow.
He didn’t notice when the ambulance arrived, but the paramedics’ response was not swift enough. The crowd parted to allow the vehicle through. Two men pulled James aside to check her breathing, check her pulse. Her hair spread out like flames around the neck brace they slipped on to immobilize her. He watched the efficiency with which they lifted her onto to stretcher and strapped her down.
Natalie, James, and the EMTs seemed to be sucked inside the rear of the ambulance in a single rush before the doors closed in on them. That’s when someone banged on the roof and yelled, “Let’s go.” The sirens blared, and they were off.
The heat inside had to be reaching record temperatures as the vehicle leaned away from the turns. Still, he held her hand.
Her first word brought the smallest sliver of relief.
“I’m right here, baby. Don’t worry. We’re going to get through this.”
One paramedic shifted his eyes up at James, briefly taking his attention away from Natalie’s vitals.
James slid his fingers over her platinum wedding band. Its shimmer caught his eye in beats as the ambulance bounced through the mid-day traffic, taking them down the most unexpected turn in their short, six years of marriage.