Fire Always Burns

By: Krista Lakes

Chapter 1


The dry grass crackled in the evening breeze. Pale green streaks at the base of the stems were all that showed it was alive, struggling against the heat of the summer sun and a rainless afternoon. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the clouds refused to release their water. A large sign with a bear in a hat declaring the fire danger “extreme” glared out over the road. A car sped by, the taillights fading into the setting sun. A red glowing cigarette ember flicked out of the open window, landing on the dark asphalt. It rolled gently, swirling in odd circles until finally resting on the edge of the road. The parched breeze puffed, pushing the small glowing light into the grass. It only took a moment for the spark to ignite on the dry tinder, small flames hungrily feeding on the thirsty weeds. The spark of disaster had been lit.

I leaned back against the checkout stand, waiting for something to happen. I had straightened the gum, organized the gift cards, and even wiped the conveyer belt twice, but there was nothing left to do except wait for a customer.

Conifer Grocery was the biggest grocery store for miles, but by industry standards, it was still a small store. It carried most of the items that the small town's inhabitants needed, and it was actually one of the local hotspots for teenagers to hang out. In the small town of Conifer, Colorado, it was the center of the town. It was a 45 minute drive east and out of the mountains to get to Denver, so most people just stayed in town. The long drive to the city made Conifer Grocery the heart of the town and the center of activity. Today though, it was dead quiet. I glanced at my watch. Only fifteen minutes left until the end of my shift. Fifteen minutes of torture. I adjusted my apron and smiled as one of the old regulars, Mr. Snyder, purchased a single loaf of bread.

"Hello there, Holly!" he bellowed. He was always overly friendly.

"Hey there yourself, Mr. Snyder. Lovely weather we're having," I replied.

He frowned, his gray bushy eyebrows knitting together. "Too lovely, if you ask me. I tell you, I've been living up here a long time, and I've never seen a winter with less snow."

I nodded to be polite, but I was pretty unconcerned. It had been unseasonably warm, and the lack of snow was disturbing many of the local residents. It was one of the most frequent things I was told while working the cash register.

"I tell you, in a mountain town like this, the snow is vital. The whole forest is like a tinderbox, ready to go," he added.

I agreed with him and finished checking him out. The old man thanked me and walked slowly to the exit, clutching his loaf of bread under his arm. I watched him walk out, wishing I could follow. Fourteen minutes left.

I didn't mind the warmer weather when I woke up to scrape the ice off my car to get to work, but I did keep hearing on the nightly news that if this heat wave continued, the summer fire season would be terrible. Summer seemed a long way away from now, though, so I was just enjoying the ice free car.

“Bored to tears yet?”

“Crying my eyes out,” I recognized the voice and turned back with a grin for my childhood friend. Andrew was one of the few bright spots about moving back home. He grinned at me, his blue eyes twinkling. He began piling food onto the belt in unorganized heaps. I quickly started scanning and sorting it, bagging it quickly as we easily fell into a conversation.

“Have you heard about Luke and Tyler's parents?” Andrew asked as he plopped two gallons of milk down.

“The divorce? Yeah. It sucks, but knowing Ray, I'm not really surprised. The guy works way too hard and Barb was just too high maintenance to put up with that. I hear it was pretty ugly when they started figuring out how to split their stuff up, especially who gets custody,” I said with a grimace. Andrew nodded.

“Luke says the judge is going to rule tomorrow on what is going to happen to Tyler. Poor kid. Luke is hoping the judge will let Tyler stay with Ray, but it doesn't look good. They usually side with the mom in cases like this.” Andrew shook his head sadly as he put the cereal up on the belt.

“How is Tyler handling it?”

Andrew shrugged. “If it was possible for that kid to get more quiet, this did it. He was actually looking forward to starting high school next year and being in the school play.” He paused, lowering his voice before continuing. “Barb wants to move to California to be with her parents. He's going to have to go to a big school. The kid is so shy that he won't try out for anything there. Luke is really worried about him.”

“Luke has always been a better parent to him than his actual parents. The judge should let him stay with Ray just so that he can stay with Luke,” I replied as I bagged the last of his items, hitting the total button on the register.

“You want to get together tomorrow with everybody for Luke? We can either celebrate or mourn. Either way he will probably appreciate the support.” Andrew said as he swiped the card through the reader.

“That sounds great. I'll ask around. Say hi to your mom for me.” I smiled as I handed him his receipt. I wished I could come up with something more clever to say to him. Something that would make him laugh, something that would give me a reason to spend more time with him. Since coming home, I hadn't been able to see much of him since he was busy with work. He didn't know the real reason for me dropping out of school and moving home, but I hadn't seen him enough to be able to tell him.

“I'll tell her. She was supposed to come do the shopping today, but she didn't feel up to it,” Andrew suddenly looked years older, as though time had played a cruel joke by making him the parent to his mother. He shook his head, the age shaking off of him like water from a dog. “Luke should be back up from Denver by 3, so how does 3:30 in the usual spot sound?”

“Sounds great. I'll see you then!” I answered a little too cheerfully. He didn't seem to notice as he picked up his bags and headed for the door. I watched him leave, feeling the butterflies dancing in my stomach at the thought of seeing him again tomorrow. When I could no longer see him through the door I glanced back down at my watch. Only eleven minutes left.

▪▪▪

"Holly, can you stop at the hardware store and pick up the parts I ordered?" my dad asked as I finished my breakfast.

"Sure- I'll stop there on my way to work. Do you want me to pick something up for dinner?" I answered putting my empty bowl in the dishwasher.

"Nah, I'll be at work when you get home, so I'll make that rice thing you like and put it in the fridge." He sipped at his coffee, wincing at the heat.

"Ok. I'll see you later tonight then," I kissed his cheek as I grabbed my keys off the kitchen table and headed out the door.

The car was cold, but it was a short drive to West Hardware and the heat was barely going by the time I got there. The door chimed as I walked in, the smells of tools and wood filling the air. Andrew stopped organizing the shelf he was working on and walked over to greet me. The store was empty other than the two of us.

"You here for the parts your dad ordered?" he asked smiling.

"You must be a mind reader," I answered, returning his easy smile. He laughed, raking a hand through his light brown hair. He had let it grow out since I had moved back, not long by any standard, but just shaggy along the edge of his collar. Combined with the light stubble on his jaw, I thought it made him look rugged and dashing. He thought he just looked lazy.

"Yup. I must read minds. Or maybe it's that he has been in here every day this week asking about them. They're in the back, I'll go grab 'em," he said with a laugh as he turned towards the back room. I leaned up against the counter, looking around the small shop. It had looked the same in here for as long as I could remember. A big metal sign hung over the register: WEST HARDWARE: A FAMILY BUSINESS. Ray West, Luke's father, ran the store. I remember the day he bought it, all of us kids running around the store hyped up on cake and punch while the adults congratulated Mr. West.

The store was Mr. West's pride and joy. Ray spent every waking moment he could in the store. I could easily see why Barb was ending their marriage. Ever since he had bought it, she had been second fiddle to a hardware store. Luke and Tyler both pretty much grew up in the store, playing with screwdrivers and hammers instead of GI Joes. As soon as Luke was old enough, he started helping his dad run the store. I knew Luke wanted more of an active role in managing the store now that he was older, but it was clear that Mr. West still saw him as a kid.

Luke had earned an associate's degree from the local community college and was taking online classes to work towards a degree in business. He wanted to run the store more efficiently, but his dad refused to change anything about the store. I knew times were getting rough, and the slipping economy didn't help. Luke had some great ideas to bring in more business, but Ray was stubborn and didn't want to change. It was a point of contention between the two of them, but Luke still held out hope he could change his dad's mind.

"Alright, here are the parts. Your dad already paid for them, so you are good to go," Andrew said carrying a large package out from the back room.

"Thanks. How are Ray and Luke doing today?" I asked, picking the package up and heading to the door. Andrew held it open for me and followed me to the car to help me get it in the backseat.

"They left for the city about an hour ago. Both nervous as hell. I have a bad feeling about today," he said grimly as he held the car door open for me.

"Me too. Thanks for the package. Dad thanks you too," I closed the car door to the back seat. "I've got to get to work. I'll see you in a little while," I said sliding into the driver's side door. Andrew waved and headed back into the shop, turning to watch me drive away. He waved again as I turned onto the main road, his smile fading as I turned.

Andrew. We've been friends for as long as I can remember. I lived on the top of the mountain and his house was only a couple of miles downhill from me. In our mountain community, that pretty much made us next door neighbors, so growing up we were always together. Our friendship was cemented the first day of kindergarten when he shared his crayons with me because I forgot mine. He even let me use the blue one and didn't get mad when it broke. "Now I just have two!" little Andrew had told me. It was an easy and perfect friendship, the two of us always together. Things felt natural when I was with him. I felt like me when I was with him.

Andrew was the first boy I ever kissed. It was the day after my 13th birthday and boys were starting to become interesting instead of gross. We were walking home from the bus stop together, when he told me I was pretty. No one but my dad had ever said that to me, so I turned and kissed him on the lips, trying to replicate the kisses I'd seen in movies. It had felt so awkward, and yet somehow so right to kiss him. Kissing looked so easy, so natural in all the movies, but in real life it was a disaster. He had just stood there, not doing anything but turning bright red. We walked the rest of the way home in silence.

When I tell people that Andrew and I never kissed again after that, they often don't believe me. It seems strange to them that two high school kids would never act on their raging hormones and at least have made out. My college roommate had laughed when I told her none of us ever messed around with one another. She never understood that I had made a promise in high school to never date any of my closest friends. It was probably why we were all still friends.

The road curved and I hugged it a little too tight, hearing the parts slide on the seat behind me. Some days I missed high school. No, that wasn't right. I didn't miss high school, I missed my friends and having the perfect excuse to hang out with them all the time.

Andrew, Luke, Britney, and Eli were still my closest friends despite us all going in different directions. Andrew and Luke both stayed in Conifer after graduation for family reasons; Britney moved closer to the city to go to school, but still worked at the local Mexican restaurant as a waitress on weekends and breaks. Eli got a job down in Denver and was working his way up the corporate ladder. I had gone off to Boulder on a scholarship.

I wished I had never left. School had been easy for me in high school and I had made my academic scholarship easily. Unfortunately, I made some poor decisions in college. I snickered at myself as I turned off the main road. Poor decisions? That was the polite way of saying I screwed my life up. My poor decisions forced me to come back home in disgrace and failure.

Only Luke knew the true extent of my poor decisions, and I had no intention of telling anyone else. Not even my dad knew. It was too shameful. I had to find a new path for my life. I knew I didn't want to work as a grocery clerk for the rest of my life, but I couldn't go back to the life I had in Boulder. I had lost myself there, and I was still picking up the pieces, putting myself back together.

I parked in the back of the parking lot and headed into the store. I was excited to see all my friends after my shift. I had missed them all when I was away at school, and because of all our busy lives, we hadn't all been in the same place since summer. I was most excited to get to spend time with Andrew though. Even since I had come back, we hadn't been able to spend much time together. At least I saw him more than when I was in college. While I was away, we had talked on the phone. Andrew and Luke both came up to visit a couple of times, but it just wasn't the same.

I had been nervous to come home and be a failure in everyone's eyes. I knew Luke hadn't told anyone what I had done, but I still saw judgment everywhere I went. Except Andrew. When he looked at me, he saw someone worthwhile. He just treated me like I had never left, and I realized just how much I had missed him. I wouldn't have made the poor decisions I did if he had been around.

I sighed and put my work apron on, punching into the clock. Time to get my head out of memories and get ready to start my shift. Only a few hours until freedom and friends. I wondered how many people were going to reference the weather today as I headed to the checkout stand.

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