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Line of Fire Excerpt

Chapter 1

"Daddy," my daughter asked, "where is the red flag?"
     It was a good question. And, unusual for Grace in her current developmental phase—technically, she was mid-latency, although I tended to think of her stage of development as the pre-devious—the query was posed without apparent subtext.
     We were in the middle of a Sunday-night family dinner discussion about the danger posed by the tinder-dry grasses that carpeted the hillsides around our rural home on the eastern slope of Colorado's Boulder Valley. Lauren, my wife, was cautioning the family—mostly me—about engaging in any outdoor activities that might create even the smallest spark. Lauren's warning did have a subtext; she had already asked me—twice, she would be happy to note—to take my car in for a tune-up. The thing had backfired a couple of times over the weekend.
     Grace's older sibling, Jonas, a boy who had antennae tuned to things dangerous or nefarious, real or imagined, responded to his sister in an I'm-the-big-brother-I-know-what-I'm-talking-about tone that a Red Flag Warning was in effect for all of Boulder. "And that includes us." Jonas stressed this in case his sister had forgotten where she lived.
     Jonas had a subtext. He was on the cusp of adolescence; he almost always had a subtext. When he said "us" to Grace, he meant "you."
     During other recent family discussions Jonas had produced ample evidence that his younger sister often managed to get herself excluded from general rules of family conduct, and he'd argued convincingly that her parents, mostly her father, let her get away with it. Where my personal parenting was concerned, Jonas had a valid point: I had a sweet spot for my little girl that could interfere with better paternal instincts. I had pled guilty to cutting Grace the undeserved slack and promised to work on it. Jonas seemed to be disarmed by my candor.
     I decided to ignore the subtext Jonas included in his comment to his sister about the fire risk. I ignored it because I wasn't in a refereeing mood, and because Gracie wasn't involved in too many activities that generated sparks.
     In reply to Grace's earlier question, I told her that I didn't think there was a literal red flag flying anywhere in town to warn residents about the extreme fire danger along the Front Range. In a preemptive effort to forestall whatever verbal jabs might come next from Jonas's direction, I added, "But your mother and your brother are right. We all need to be careful. It's very dry out there."
     Jonas nodded in agreement. That, of course, worried me. Even his nods tended to have subtexts. He said, "It's a virtual flag, Grace."
     Jonas had a way of rolling his eyes that could be so sly it was almost criminal. He did it then. Before Grace could react to the eye roll—I had no doubt she would react to the eye roll—Lauren jumped in. She said, "It's so dry. And it's been so windy. I never thought I would miss the summer monsoon season, but I do. Where were the monsoons this year? It's already Labor Day. Where is all our rain?" She sighed. "Maybe we'll get an early snow."

Chapter 2

My first psychotherapy session of the new week started routinely enough the next morning. But by 7:57—I noted the time as I pressed 911—I had my hands, one atop the other, between my patient's breasts.
     At that moment, I would not have thought that my day could have gotten any stranger.
     I would have been wrong.

Twelve-plus hours later I was exiting the elevator on the third floor at Community Hospital when I heard Sam Purdy's distinctive Iron Range patois.
     "Hey, what the heck are you doing here, Alan? Is everybody all right?" Sam managed to extend the o in doing long enough that it had earned its own url.
     "Yeah, we're all fine," I said.
     I was as surprised to see my friend as he was to see me. I moved in for a quick hug before I recognized that my impulse, as Boulder as the Flatirons, was not mutual. Embracing was a form of greeting that Detective Sam Purdy tolerated begrudgingly, almost never in public, and certainly not when he was on duty.
     He was on duty. I could see the bulge of a shoulder holster beneath his sport coat. I stopped a few feet away while I explained that I was checking on a patient who had taken ill that morning.
     "What about you?" I asked. "Are you here because of the fire?"
     The fire was on everyone's mind.
     He gave it some thought. "Indirectly," he said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "So you know, it's even worse up there than they're saying on the news. I've heard reports that over a hundred homes have been lost already. It's completely out of control."

My office was only six blocks away from the sharp rise of the Rockies in west Boulder. I first saw smoke rising above the mountains late in the morning. Within an hour I could smell the smoke as well as see it.
     The Red Flag Warning was no longer a fire drill.
     My patients, scheduled back-to-back almost all day long, had kept me apprised of the fire's progress. In between sessions I used my phone to monitor the news online. The wildfire was being called the Fourmile Fire, named after its starting point up Fourmile Canyon above Wallstreet, not far from Gold Hill.
     Each new patient I saw reported fresh bad news about the fire's march and the horrendous damage it was doing. Although the blaze wasn't currently threatening Boulder proper, it was apparently devastating the rugged residential areas in the mountains above Boulder, especially up Fourmile Canyon and up Sunshine Canyon. The pioneer treasure that is Gold Hill had been spared, barely, but flames were consuming dozens of homes in the surrounding canyons and on the nearby ridges.

"You usually work this late?" Sam asked.
     His curiosity seemed sincere, not always a given. "I worked late today, but not this late. The patient I'm hoping to see was having a procedure when I got here a couple of hours ago. Every thirty minutes the nurses tell me I'll be able to see her in another thirty minutes. I'm going to try one more time. If that doesn't work, I'll come back in the morning." I paused. "Have you heard about any fire damage near Left Hand Canyon? I've been trying to reach Diane all afternoon."
     Diane was my friend and my longtime partner in our psychotherapy practice.
     Sam asked, "She lives where exactly? Pine Brook?"
     I said, "No, Lee Hill. Near Olde Stage."
     He nodded. "Then they were definitely evacuated. I haven't heard of any homes burning there yet. Farther up, yes. She's probably okay, so far."
     Those reports had been consistent all day long. The homes that had been destroyed were farther up in the mountains.
     But Diane being okay? That was a different question altogether.
     A few years before Diane had survived a devastating hostage situation outside Las Vegas. Her post-traumatic recovery had been tenuous at times, but I had thought she was turning the corner until the previous year's holiday season, when one of her close girlfriends was arrested for murder. Diane's decline after that fresh insult was precipitous. She began spending like a Kardashian. She had almost stopped coming into the office for work. I rarely saw her.
     I didn't explain to Sam that I was as worried about Diane's emotional reaction to the fire as I was concerned about her safety. He would have lost interest.
     I asked him what brought him to the hospital so late in the day.
     "A John Doe was involved in a single-car accident on his way out of the hills. Car was packed full of shit, like he was evacuating. But his injuries don't add up. Pattern doesn't match the impact. Lucy and I are lending a hand because the department has everybody focused on the fire. Turns out your name came up at the scene. I was going to call you about it tomorrow."
     "Yeah? How did my name come up?"
     "No big deal. I need to see if you recognize somebody. We can do it in the morning."
     I consciously allowed his big head to fade out of focus. The clock over his shoulder in the nursing station of the nearby intensive care unit told me it was a few clicks shy of nine o'clock. I was going to miss my kids' bedtime no matter what. I lowered my voice to ICU reverential. "Hey, I'm here. My tomorrow is crazy. If I can help, I'll help. No apologies necessary."
     "I wasn't going to apol—"
     "I know you weren't." I smiled.
     "You sure?" he said.
     I hesitated. Sam noticed the hesitation. He said, "You want to do your visit first? I'll be here a while."

My first patient that morning had been a forty-two-year-old woman who worked as a statistician at the Commerce Department labs on the south end of Boulder. Although she dressed the part—her work outfits nailed the nerd at the National Institute of Standards look—she was actually a generationally misplaced hippie. She spent a lot of emotional energy looking back over her shoulder at decades and opportunities she was sure she had squandered while following rules and guidelines her instincts had long told her to ignore.
     She started that day's session by telling me she hadn't slept well. She punctuated the comment by pressing the side of her fist against the center of her chest at the top of her rib cage. Reflux, she thought.
     "I had a dream, too. I should talk about that."
     From another patient that transition might have sounded like a loose association. But not from her. She would never have wanted me to think of her as someone who wasted my time complaining about heartburn and insomnia. Or work, or friends. Or her husband. She wanted me to think of her as a patient dedicated to growth and change.
     Ten minutes into our session she suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my!" in a high voice that caused me to think of Dorothy and of lions and tigers and bears. She—my patient, not Dorothy—sucked in a quick volume of air, held that breath, and pushed the knuckles of both fists into her upper abdomen. She closed her eyes in a tight wince. Moisture began shining through the powder she had dusted near her temples.
     I thought, Oh shit. I had witnessed one heart attack in my life. What I was observing looked completely different from that earlier MI.
     But it felt exactly the same.
     I said her name as I stood to offer help. She began to stand with me but crashed to the floor before I got close enough to break her fall.
     By the time I slid the coffee table out of the way and dropped to my knees beside her, she was unresponsive. I felt her neck for a pulse. I did not find one. I listened for a breath. I did not detect one.
     I thought I was keeping cool, reacting well to the crisis, at least initially. I checked her airway before I called 911. Help on the way, I readied myself to start CPR.
     I placed my hands between her breasts.
     And that's when my progress stalled.
     I was stumped trying to remember anything at all about a Bee Gees song that I was confident I detested. It was likely that I detested the entire Bee Gees catalog, but confirming that fact would have required a grand review, something I would be reluctant to do in any circumstance and not something that was a good use of my time given where my hands and my attention resided at that moment.
     The specific Bee Gees song I was trying to recall had been featured in an online article that had identified it as the perfect song to recall in moments like the one I was experiencing.
     Oh God, what is it? The song's lyrics had something-something in them about a mother and a brother that never made any sense to me. Shit!
     Two inches. One hundred beats. Yes! The article suggested two-inch chest compressions with each thrust, and one hundred compressions during each minute of CPR. The purpose of that particular Bee Gees song was to help find the rhythm that would achieve that target pace of one hundred beats a minute.
     Suddenly, I recalled the chorus: Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive.
     The chorus led me to the beat: out loud, I started singing, "Ba, ba, ba, ba. Ba, ba, ba, ba," to time my compressions. When the clock indicated I was nearing four minutes of CPR, I paused and lowered my ear to my patient's mouth to listen for breath sounds while I spread my fingertips on her neck to search for a pulse.
     I found neither. When the EMTs arrived moments later, I was feeling no confidence at all that my patient was, well, staying alive.
     The instant the ambulance departed, I called Daniel, my patient's husband. I knew from her psychotherapy that she felt certain he'd been having a long-term affair with a woman who was a customer of his bicycle shop in Longmont. "I know who she is," my patient had told me. "She has this . . . great butt, and calves that are . . ." She did not finish that sentence. "Some of us can't spend all our time in spinning classes."
     She and Daniel were discussing separation.
     I explained to Daniel that his wife had collapsed in my office after suffering chest pains. I told him that her heart was beating and that she had begun breathing on her own by the time the ambulance left for Community Hospital.
     Daniel said he was on his way there.

 

Line of Fire by Stephen White

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