It took the fire crew twenty-eight minutes to begin fighting the fire. Gearing up and getting to the trucks and out onto the road had taken less than two minutes. The call had included a few details: all available responders; industrial warehouse fire; thirty-foot flames; hundreds of civilians nearby, dozens still trapped inside. The last piece of information was the specific company name.
The truck's sirens carved a path through the Sunday morning traffic. Church-goers leaving their eleven o'clock services stepped from choral music into the bright sunshine and watched as two screaming fire trucks rumbled and hissed and honked their ways through stop signs and red traffic lights. The congregants mouthed silent exclamations to God and drew their worried hands from forehead to chest, then shoulder to shoulder.
The sirens blared for twelve minutes before the trucks rounded the last concealing building and the fire fighters saw the flames. They'd seen the smoke for nearly the entire drive. It was thick and black and fanning out in the wind at about three hundred feet, pushed upward by a thrashing blanket of flames nearly covering the entire building.
Beside the tower of smoke and fire, a high spray of water was soaking the asphalt in the parking lot. A fire hydrant had been ripped from its piping and the water, now free, stretched upward and outward into the autumn air. A crowd watched from a Starbucks parking lot a few hundred feet away as the high mushroom of water descended in two sudden jolts, and then fell from the air completely. Once the broken pipe had been locked, the fire fighters could use the other two hydrants nearby to begin battling the flames.
No one person in the crowd saw the full series of events that lead to the fire. Had the fire crew known precisely which people to interview in precisely what order, they'd have discovered the origin of the blaze driving her leased 2018 Mercedes Benz GLA 250 SUV to her three-story brownstone to drop off the spoils of her shopping and reapply her makeup before heading out to her second yoga class of the day.
The fire had taken more than sixty percent of the Costco by the time the Fire Chief arrived. People screamed over the roar of the flames and pushed past each other in their frantic escape from the bulk-wholesale-items-fueled inferno. Some ran across the lines of stopped traffic. Some scrambled over hoods and car roofs and leaped into hedges. Others ran out into the street and into the arms of spectating strangers, until hundreds of people were standing and hugging and crying and watching the only Costco for over a hundred miles burn.
The Chief walked through the flailing crowds. He walked past their manic zig-zagging, he stepped over the clumsy ones who'd fallen to the asphalt and lay there, tucked, fetal, rocking back and forth and moaning. When one hysterical man ran straight toward him, the Chief raised his knee and slammed his size thirteen boots into the man's chest. A squeal left the man's throat and shriveled in the wind as he flew over a nearby cart return corral. He bounced off of the side of an Escalade and fell to the ground. He stayed there with a few others, unable to breathe, and when finally able to breathe, he was crying. The Chief continued toward the Costco entrance and stood, squinting into the heat, and waited for the fire to blink.
The stare into the hellish heat lasted four full minutes. Finally, the fire blinked.
“That's what I thought,” the Chief sighed before spitting a wet glop of chew on the ground. Some of it dribbled into his beard. He didn't wipe it off.
“Oh, thank God!”
The Chief turned toward the squeal. A slight man in khakis and an apron was running toward him. The little man leaped over a few fallen customers and threw his arms around the Chief's broad chest.
“Thank God you're here, praise be! We're saved, we're all saved!”
The man was crying and laughing and trying to connect his hug across the Chief's back. The chest was too broad and the man's fingers couldn't reach, so he tried to dig them into the Chief's flesh. He expected his fingers to sink into the skin. He expected to feel fat and somewhat relaxed muscle, maybe ribs. Instead, he thought for a moment that in his excitement he might have missed the Chief altogether and grabbed the cylindrical cement base of one of the many parking lot light poles. As he squeezed, he thought maybe he'd mistakenly grabbed onto a whiskey barrel wrapped in warm bacon, or found himself hugging the the leg of a brontosaurus.
The girth and warmth were reassuring, and he held on as if to let go would mean certain death.
Suddenly there were hands on him. Rather than human hands, the hands of a giant, and they gripped his shoulders and pushed him out of his desperate hug. When he opened his eyes, he was staring at the Chief's chest and a sort of face made from his tears and snot and slobber. He had buried his face in the Chief's shirt and cried an eerie jack-o-lantern, an ink blot test whose answer was “embarrassment.” When the man looked up and started to apologize, a warm hand slapped his face. Before the pain fully registered, the man thought he smelled old hickory and tanned leather.
“Get a hold of yourself,” the Chief grumbled. He looked down at the state of his shirt and sighed. He grabbed the employee's head and used the frazzled hair to clean off some of the moisture and snot. When he let go, the little man stumbled backward, dazed. The Chief looked to the name tag.
“Braxtyn? Your name is... Braxtyn?”
The man nodded. The Chief did not.
“Well, I'm not calling you that.” The man's tears were creating streaks in the ash and soot on his cheeks. The ash was in his hair, on his clothes, and the Chief had his name. “For the rest of the day, your name is Ashley. Are you ready to get to work, Ashley?”
The Chief ripped the name tag from his chest. He did it so suddenly that Braxtyn squeaked.
“No, not Braxtyn. Your name is Ashley.”
“Good. Let's walk, Ashley.”
The Chief headed West to the side of the Costco not yet fully ravaged by the flames. He looked to the front of the building, then toward the back, and chose the back. His boots boomed against the asphalt and he took two strides for every six dainty tip toes from Ashley.
“Keep up, Ashley,” he groaned.
As he stepped around the corner of the building and caught sight of the loading bays in the back, the Chief stopped suddenly. Ashley continued his frantic tip toeing and didn't notice the Chief's stop until he ran into him. His face slammed into the Chief's back and he felt his nose crunch against the rippling curves of muscle. He wondered for a moment if he'd managed to stray from the Chief's side and run face first into a redwood tree wrapped in hot silk.
The impact knocked him to the ground, and the Chief didn't help him up. The Chief didn't even turn around. He was too busy scanning. He looked to the first loading bay. An eighteen wheeler was halfway into the store, and it's back end had obviously caught fire shortly after a massive collision. The back of the trailer had blown out, sending a cascade of broccoli cheese and chicken tortilla soup spraying out onto the asphalt. The Chief surveyed the truck, the burn patterns on the trailer and the side of the building, the boiling soup, and grunted. He turned his head toward the front of the store, then skyward, and shook his head, laughing. He was admiring the destructive forces of nature, the power of single mistakes, and marveling at his own ability to understand such things.
“Clever girl,” he mumbled. The flames seemed to intensify for a moment, arcing out toward Ashley and the Chief, as if reaching for them. Ashley stumbled backward away from the sudden flame rush and fell to the ground. The Chief stared back and blew a single, dismissive breath out of his nose. The flames fell back.
“Have you ever been hunted before, Ashley?”
Ashley stood up and tried to brush the dirt from his butt.
“Have you ever had a beast pick up your scent... known that it was after you, that it would do anything to catch you?”
“I don't think...”
“Have you ever turned back to face your pursuer and locked eyes and seen into its murderous soul? Have you ever looked through a window into your own destruction?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Shut up, Ashley.”
The Chief knelt down and rubbed his hand across the ground. He let the dust and grit collect on his palm and looked at it before blowing it out into the air.
“Do you want to know what happened?”
Ashley wiped his eyes again and nodded.
“This is where the fire started, this loading bay when this truck slammed into the building at thirty-two miles per hour.”
“How do you know it was thirty-two...”
The sentence stopped when the Chief's knife hand hit Ashley in the throat. Ashley grabbed his neck and fell, coughing and wheezing for breath, and the Chief closed his eyes and winced.
“Don't... interrupt me, Ashley. The truck slammed into the building at thirty-two miles per hour. Punctured gas tank, sparks from the collision, boom. The explosion blew out the trailer's guts, sent all of this soup scattering about. What a terrible waste of good soup. But that didn't cause this.”
He held his hands up to the mountain of smoke boiling into the sky and blotting out the sun.
“This... is something more. I'm thinking gas line, broken by the impact or by shrapnel from the explosion. Unless...”
The Chief squinted into the ravaged loading bay and had his answer.
“Unless the truck barreled into the forklift parking area. That would have been the second explosion, and that could have set off the gas lines. That would've spread through the store quickly. That would explain the flames so near the front doors. The explosion would have sent forklifts flying in every direction. The paper towels and toilet paper would've gone up quickly. The breads and pastries were easy targets. By the times the flames spread around to office supplies, the store was gone. We never had a chance.”
Ashley's throat finally opened up enough for him to desperately suck air in and blow it out. There was a phlegm to his cough, a wetness. Probably blood, the Chief thought.
“What time is it, Ashley?” the Chief asked. Ashley was still on his hands and knees hacking the ground's dust into tiny tornadoes and trying not to die. The Chief rolled his eyes at the fact that Ashley was still unable to move or speak. He reached down and grabbed Ashley's wrist to look at the watch. He looked at it only as long as absolutely necessary before letting it fall back to the ground.
No grown man should be wearing a Hello Kitty watch, the Chief thought.
“Nice try,” the Chief muttered. He looked behind him, then back to the building. He closed one eye and used the other to check angles, to see lines of action between him and the store, between him and the line of parked cars behind him.
“She's good, I'll give her that,” the Chief said. He leaned back and laughed, repeating how good “she” was. Ashley was starting to get to his feet when the Chief grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him upright. Before Ashley could stabilize, the Chief grabbed him by the jaw and pointed his face toward a certain point in the flames.
“Do you see it?” he giggled in Ashley's ear. “ I mean can you believe her, how sneaky, how messed up she is? Unbelievable.”
Ashley didn't see it. He squinted in the direction the Chief was pointing him, but couldn't see what the Chief could see.
“I've made it this far so she isn't that good. But she is getting better, I will give her that.” With that, he let go of Ashley's face, threw his head back and laughed, and then slapped Ashley on the back. The blow sent Ashley back to the asphalt with a whimper.
“Sorry there, Ashley, I just... I'm impressed. I hate to say it but I'm impressed this time. I'm glad you're here to see it because I think people wouldn't believe me, but her tactics are evolving. I'm going to have to watch my P's and Q's from now on. That will be fun.”
Ashley started to get up. The Chief held out a hand.
“Nope, Just stay right there, Ashley. You're not going to want to be standing up right here if I have any idea what I'm talking about. In fact,” he said, grabbing Ashley's wrist and rechecking the watch, “if my calculations are correct...”
The Chief stepped back. He stood tall, chest out, chin up, and closed his eyes.
Amid the cracking and popping of the main fires, a muted explosion boomed from deep within the blaze. The Chief smiled and Ashley looked in terror toward the Western wall and watched as time seemed to slow. The wall ripped open and flames and smoke and debris blew outward like a blooming flower. Ashley was barely able to raise his arms to a defensive position before a line of broiler chickens rocketed out from the belly of the store like canon balls and flew directly across the space between the two men. The chickens hissed by on their way to a light blue mini van parked across the lot. The flying chickens exploded through the windshield and both the driver and sliding passenger doors, and when the van settled after the impact, two small plumes of smoke rose from the holes in the doors and windows and curled into the sky.
The mini van's alarm sounded for a few seconds before warbling and cutting out.
“What the hell is going on?”
Ashley couldn't take it anymore. Fire and explosions and flying roaster chickens and psychic, abusive fire Captains, it had all been too much. After nearly burning to death, only to be slapped in the face, neck chopped, thrown to the ground, insulted, and nearly decapitated by flying poultry, Ashley was done being abused.
When he jumped to his feet and stomped toward the Chief, the Chief didn't seem to have heard him. The Chief was too busy staring at lines of action, again. But Ashley was done being ignored.
“Hey, did you hear me? I asked you what the hell is going on?”
The Chief nodded absently. He was scanning from right to left across the parking lot, squinting, eye brows furrowed.
“What the hell is going on, indeed?” he whispered.
“What?” Ashley yelled.
“Finally, you're asking the right questions, Ashley.”
“My name isn't Ashley, Chief!” He spit the word “Chief” out like it was rotten. The Chief turned and looked at him. He watched the fire blazing in Ashley's eyes and smiled.
“Well, why didn't you say so?” he said.
Before Braxtyn could answer, the Chief was stomping away toward whatever curiosity had taken his attention earlier. Braxtyn followed, staring into the chicken-sized holes of the now flaming blue mini van as they passed it.
“The fire, Braxtyn, the fire wants me. She wants me, wants to consume me. Since I was a boy. Since I scrambled out of the house fire that took my mom and dad and little brother, she has wanted me. Ever since she gave me these.”
The Chief stopped and turned and pulled at the collar of his shirt. The skin beneath was rippled and scarred as far down the Chief's neck and chest as he'd revealed, and Braxtyn knew the scars went farther. Words like “scorched” and “scales” and “hideous” flashed into his mind. It looked like the surface of Mars.
“When each of my foster homes burned, I tried to tell people what was happening. I tried to tell them what the fire wanted. They put me on medication. Every blazing house I crawled out of, every burning car, the two crashed planes, the forest fires, seemed to make her more and more angry. As her anger grew, the fires grew. They killed everyone involved except me. Until just now, it had been almost three months since her last attempt. I was starting to feel forgotten.”
The Chief took off again. Braxtyn followed behind. His steps broadened and he kept up with the Chief. When the Chief stopped, he stopped. The Chief turned and smiled again. “You're learning,” his eyes said.
“The truck slammed into the loading bay, right?” the Chief offered.
“At thirty-two miles per hour,” Braxtyn nodded.
“At thirty-two miles per hour. But why? The driver fall asleep in the back of a Costco parking lot?”
Braxtyn shook his head.
“Heart attack? Seizure?”
More head shaking.
“Did he go nuts, crash on purpose?”
Braxtyn shook his head again.
Braxtyn looked around. He looked at the burning building, at the blackened truck and its trailer, still popping and warping from the heat. He looked to the line of parked cars behind the loading bay. They all seemed straight, parked directly into their respective spots.
Braxtyn looked again. All straight in their spots except one.
When he looked back at the Chief, the Chief was smiling.
“He swerved to miss that car?”
“He swerved to miss that car.”
The two stood side by side and backed up so they could take in the entire scene. A Costco on fire, a spouting fire hydrant, a car out of place, people running around in a panic, bedlam and chaos. To see it play in reverse, the smoke would tumble back into the flames and the particles would soar back in toward the building from all areas of the parking lot and nearby streets. The thousands of gallons of water would bind together and shoot from the ground, high into the air, and down into the ruptured fire hydrant line. When all water had returned, the hydrant would reattach from beneath the car that hit it. The truck would back out of the loading bay flames and all of the soup would fly back into the trailer before the trailer sealed up. The car that caused it to swerve and crash into the Costco would back up in front of another car, which would back up to a spill on the asphalt. A cart would swerve to avoid the spill caused by a woman dropping a can of pickles. The woman spilled the can of pickles when, as she loaded her purchases into the trunk of her car, an abandoned shopping cart rolled into her from across the lot. The cart rolled from behind a parking space previously occupied by a 2018 Mercedes Benz GLA 250 SUV, leased, where a gleefully oblivious Meredith Ellerson-Kennedy had decided to unload the items for her self declared house-warming party (the third of four) and simply leave the cart in the middle of the parking lot rather than walk it the nineteen feet to the nearest cart return corral. When she left her cart there and drove away, she lit the fuse on a catastrophe involving car accidents and major water line damage and the fiery destruction of a beloved staple of any medium-sized community, a Costco.
The Chief was standing next to the abandoned cart. The woman it hit, a Mrs. Carla Jensen, had gone, but her shattered jar of pickles was there, sparkling in the diminishing sunlight.
“You have surveillance cameras that cover this area, Braxtyn?” the Chief asked. Braxtyn said that they did, and the Chief knew he'd find out who was behind all of this within twelve hours. Unless...
“Braxtyn? Please tell me you store your surveillance data off site.”
When the silence passed three seconds, the Chief looked over to find Braxtyn smiling, almost laughing, as tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I bet management didn't think it would be necessary to keep the data off site because that would be a liability and an added cost and they thought nothing like this would ever happen, huh?”
Braxtyn shook his head as the tears fell.
The Chief looked down. At his feet, a single, singed hot dog lay there, smoking. He picked it up.
“One of yours?” he asked. Braxtyn took one look at it and nodded.
“Can this city survive the loss of its only Costco?” Braxtyn asked.
“Once a town has had a taste of Costco, it's difficult. Costco changes people. It's like wolves in Yellowstone, the ecosystem has changed. Where will people get their pictures printed? Where will they get ten gallon drums of Hi-C? Where else can you get a giant hot dog and a soda for a dollar-fifty?”
Braxtyn sniffed back against the tears.
“It might have been better to have never had a Costco at all.”
“I'm beginning to wonder if the fire is trying to kill me. Maybe she doesn't want me. Maybe she just wants to take everything I care about. Maybe she is going to burn everything around me until I have nothing. To lose everything you love is its own death, isn't it?”
The Chief took a bite of the hot dog and passed it to Braxtyn. He took a bite of the hot dog and passed it back. They stood, slowly chewing the salted, kosher meat, watching the flames dance and the smoke rise and the people scream, and quietly bore witness to Meredith Ellerson-Kennedy's careless murder of their hometown.