The static coming through Chelsea's radio joined the crackle of pine boards igniting. She and Mark Bowers dragged a five-inch hose into the partially burning house.
Out of the kitchen smoke billowed, dense and acrid. Blindly she put one foot in front of the other with a confidence she didn't possess.
Her labored breathing in the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus made her feel like a famous science fiction character. Breathe in. Breathe out. Pause. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Unlike the black-helmeted anti-hero, Chelsea would vanquish the fire and defeat the dark side. The imagery almost made her chuckle.
“The roof's vented," came over the radio.
“Good, we'll move farther into the room," Chelsea called back.
Soon the smoke began to clear. Now, they should be able to see the source and fight the fire. When relief would have overtaken her, Chelsea's heart sank as the flames came into view. She didn't like what she saw.
Fires don't start in the middle of rooms without some help. A sense of foreboding washed over her.
No one liked to bust a butt fighting a fire that had been set.
“Hey, who's buying the beer, this time?" someone asked over the radio.
“Whoever steps on the dead cat," another disembodied voice in her ear said.
“No cats. Probably rats," she commented. What the hell were they doing in an abandoned house? Her brother seemed to have to make decisions when none were called for and then he'd stick by it. No matter what.
The fat lady wasn't even humming scales on this blaze, but she would soon. “A few more feet, then I think we have the right spot."
Her partner, Mark, newer to the firefighting game, followed her reluctantly. He made her work twice as hard when he didn't pull the line with her.
Have to show these new guys that you couldn't let a fire defeat you. Or scare you. She burst through a thick cloud of smoke with Mark behind her.
The blue-flicked flames taunted her to try and tame them, climbing higher despite her efforts. She laughed. She hadn't met a fire she couldn't put out yet. Adrenaline hijacked her muscles, making her feel superhuman.
Flames flared to her right. She doused them, but more surfaced to her left. A spray of water took care of those.
“Is it getting worse?" Mark asked.
Chelsea could hear the squeak in her partner's voice over the roar of the fire, but didn't judge him for it. Once she had been a rookie and scared when she first entered a fire. Now she always worked inside.
The fire shifted again, and more smoke billowed toward her. Damn. What fueled this blaze beyond the average materials in a house?
A pair of men joined them. Their combined streams finally got ahead of the conflagration. Dousing it into submission.
Chelsea could see more of the room as sunlight streamed through the hole in the roof. Lines of fire radiated from the center. A decrepit and now charred refrigerator stood like a sentinel in an otherwise empty kitchen. She hesitated as a long forgotten memory tried to push to the surface.
She'd have to tell Brad.
A sinister scene from her younger days crept into her conscious mind. Another fire, or a bunch of them, that had been set. Accusations had swirled. Her bravado of moments ago left her.
Mark made a noise that brought Chelsea back to the present.
She gauged they'd been in the house fifteen minutes, and her air should be running out soon. She motioned for her partner to move forward, then she thought better. She wouldn't be a hero and risk her life for a house. She shoved Mark toward the door.
Someone had torched the place. She had no doubt. Her heart pounded in her ears. Sweat snaked its way down her back and she swallowed through a dry throat. The person had poured the accelerant in a deliberate pattern. As if mocking her.
Her lungs struggled to pull in enough oxygen for her body to stay on the job. Her adrenaline had taken the last train to Clarksville.
Chelsea squinted as a flash appeared and a wall of flame shot up between her and the guys on the other line. “What the hell?" She shoved her partner and the hose back toward them.
“Flashover." The deafening roar obliterated her voice. She shouted louder.
The wall to her right burst into flames. She redirected the spray until the fire died. What would she encounter next?
She labored for every breath as if the air came through felt.
“Chief, I can't see Jay and Wagner." Clutching the hose with now achy fingers, she willed the fire back as if it were a demon that rose from the ashes of her past.
With teeth clenched, she hosed down the base of the flame, eager for it to die.
“Wagner's down," she heard and knew the demon insisted on winning. Her SCBA buzzed. Five minutes before she'd have no air. Or less.
She motioned for Mark to help Carl Jay pull his partner out of the fire.
“Get out. The roof's caving," the chief yelled.
Mustering the last of her strength, Chelsea followed the other three to safety. Behind her, a loud crunch issued from the house like the last gasp of the demon they'd been battling.
The house fell with one final groan.