In Catherine McKenzie‘s forthcoming book, Smoke, a wildfire threatens to overtake the small Rocky Mountains town where Elizabeth, an arson investigator, lives. Not only is she in the midst of a painful divorce, but she’s in danger of losing her home and everything in it, too. Meanwhile, her ex-friend, Mindy, is thrown for a loop when she learns something shocking about a man she’s trying to help. To find out what Elizabeth and Mindy can save—and what is best left to burn—pick up Smoke on October 20, 2015.
But first, read EW‘s exclusive extract below:
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Smoke. Everything about it had always meant away to her, so now that she was safe at home, it was a smell that didn’t track.
But it was smoke she smelled—green campfire smoke—tugging at her consciousness, telling her to wake up, wake up, wake up!
Elizabeth’s eyes opened. Ben was snoring softly beside her, out like the dead as he always was, and despite everything.
The tang of smoke was both stronger and fainter now that she was half-awake, and she wasn’t sure if she’d dreamt it. She knew she should get up to check, but she hesitated, like you do in the middle of the night when you think you might have left the oven on.
I should get up, you think, but maybe it’s nothing. I can fall back to sleep, take up my dream where I left off.
Something was on fire.
Something close, or something big.
Elizabeth’s feet hit the cold floor. She shivered through the pajamas she’d put on after she and Ben had finally decided they’d said enough for the night and climbed wearily into bed.
She followed the scent through the house, stopping to check that the smoke detectors were working. They were. They should be; she checked the batteries religiously with the change of season. She felt herself relax and then tense again. The fire wasn’t in the house, but it had to be close.
She stopped at the window at the end of the upstairs hall, scanning the horizon of jagged mountains until she saw it: a stack of smoke and heat wavering in the moonlight, racing up into the night, obscuring the stars.
She did a quick mental calculation as to distance and size, a computation she’d performed what felt like a thousand times before, and then went to wake Ben.
“Wake up,” she said, shaking his shoulder harder than she needed to. “There’s a fire.”
From: Nelson County Emergency Services
Date: Tues, Sept. 2 at 2:32 A.M.
To: Undisclosed recipients
Re: Cooper Basin Fire Advisory
A fast-spreading ground fire has started at the edge of the Cooper Basin. Housing structures are threatened. Responding crews are clearing the area. Nelson County has issued an evacuation advisory for the entire Cooper Basin, and the area of West Nelson bounded by Oxford and Stephen Streets. Residents are advised to pack important papers and personal items and be ready to leave on short notice.
A temporary shelter is being established at Nelson Elementary. Classes are suspended for the day, and parents are asked to keep their children away from the school. Parents will be contacted directly by the administration regarding the resumption of studies and their location
More information is available at http://www.nelsoncountyemergencyservices.com.
Further advisories will be issued as necessary.
We have a fight—Ben and I—about where to go.
In fact, first we have a fight about whether we have to go anywhere at all.
“You’re freaking out for nothing,” Ben says when he’s shaken the sleep from his brain and understands that the fire isn’t in the house but I want to leave anyway.
“We’re in the evacuation area.”
I show him the e-mail I received from the county’s emergency services unit, my phone’s glow creating a halo around his face.
He reads it, slowly, meticulously. Doubting me, I can’t help but think, even when it’s clearly within my area of expertise.
“We’re in the evacuation advisory area,” he says as he hands me back the phone.
He’s right, but I know how quickly things can change, particularly in a year like this.
Look at how things have changed between us.
“Right,” I say. “As in, you’d be well advised to skedaddle before it’s too late.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“As if the fire cares what time it is? Please, Ben, will you . . . will you just this once let me have my way?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I don’t answer him. Instead, I start pulling clothes from the clean laundry basket where they’ve been sitting for days, neither of us taking responsibility. We’ve had this kind of standoff about a lot of things lately, communicating through the things not done, the words not said, our inaction as loud and grating as an unfixed faucet’s slow drip.
I shove the clothes into the backpack I use for my running stuff. “I’m going. You want to stay? Fine. But I’m going.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come. All right? I’m coming.”
I add some of his clothes to the bag. It smells faintly of sweat, but that probably isn’t the most important thing right now.
Ben shuffles to the dresser and puts on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. In the bathroom, he collects our toiletries, grabbing my face cream when I remind him.
We work silently for the next ten minutes, gathering laptops, closing windows, unplugging appliances. It’s only when we’re standing in the doorway, me balancing the plastic crate where I keep our in-case-of-emergency papers against my hip, that the obvious strikes us.
“Where are we going?” we ask simultaneously, then smile at one another the way we always do when we say the same thing in unison, though that almost never happens anymore.
“My parents’ place,” Ben answers.
“But—” I stop myself from saying what should be another thing that doesn’t have to be said.
We can’t go to your parents.
We’re getting divorced.
This is what we decided, earlier that night, before we agreed to go to bed because we were too exhausted and too sad to talk about it anymore. Besides, having arrived at the big decision—divorce—what did the rest of it matter, really? I didn’t care who got what piece of furniture, and though Ben might have had an opinion, he still cared enough about me to acquiesce to my “Enough” and agree that we should both get some sleep if we could.
We are getting divorced.
After ten years of marriage, and six years together before that. Divorced.
I still can’t believe it, even though I was the first to say the word, maybe the first to think it. When I’d allowed myself to ponder it before—during the worst hours of the last few months, in the moments when I’d think, I can’t take this anymore, I can’t, I can’t—I was sure that if I finally worked up the courage to say it, to ask for it, I’d feel relieved.
But I don’t feel that way. If anything, I feel worse. Like I really can’t take it anymore, only I’m not sure what it is I can’t take.
So we can’t go to Ben’s parents’ house. We can’t.
But we do.
Ben’s parents live in a ridiculously large house three miles south of town.
The town of Nelson—regular population: 23,194; tourist population: 100,000, depending on how the economy’s going—sits in a bowl surrounded by a series of craggy, snow-covered mountains that form part of the northern Rockies. Before tourism got big, the town’s main income came from the vast cattle ranches that filled the valley. These ranches have all but closed down now, and the land’s become home to Nelson’s wealthiest residents. Ben’s parents’ house rests on the edge of a thousand acres that used to hold ten thousand head of cattle. Now it’s an excuse for my father-in-law, Gordon, to call himself a gentleman rancher.
But that isn’t being fair to him, really. Because he is a gentleman, one of the gentlest I’ve ever met, and I love him, I do. I love Ben’s whole family—his reserved mother, Grace; his awkward little sister, Ashley; his uptight, middle-child brother, Kevin. And though they might have more money than is right or fair, life isn’t right or fair. If anyone deserves to have this much money, they are those people.
But their house is ridiculously large. It really is.
As we sit in our car, parked in front of the Ridiculously Large House, we have another argument about whether we should use Ben’s key to the guest wing and camp out in one of the spare bedrooms until morning, or wake his parents and tell them we’re here. Ben wants to let them rest, but I don’t think that’s right.
“The alarm’s probably on,” I say, reminding him of something I don’t need to, which is something I hate about myself but don’t seem to be able to change. “What if we set it off? Do you want your mother to have another heart attack?”
“Of course not. Jesus. Okay, okay, we’ll do it your way.”
I put my hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. This is really hard for me. I don’t know—” I swallow a sob as I look toward the window, focusing on the side-view mirror, the slightly-closer-than-it-appears night.
“I know,” Ben says, his own voice tight. “Me too.” “Do you hate me now?”
“Not even a little bit?”
He takes my hand and folds his fingers into mine. “Not one little drop.”
I turn toward him. “I don’t see how that’s possible. You must at least be angry.”
He gives me a sad smile, and my heart breaks all over again. “We should go in,” he says eventually. “Get some sleep.”
We climb out of the car, and I sling the backpack over my shoulders like I used to do in my school days. We stand facing the house, each waiting for the other to make the next move. The high-pitched rasp of grasshoppers fills our silence.
“I’ll go in first,” Ben says. “Give me a few minutes.” “You’re not going to—”
“Tell them? No.” “Promise?”
“I said I wouldn’t.”
I watch his back as he walks into the circle of light cast by the front porch lamps. A firefly blinks on and off, on and off, along the roofline. The smoke is fainter here, miles away from the fire. It’s only one of the night smells keeping me company, along with the aspens and the sagebrush.
Inside the house, lights turn on like dominoes. My stomach clenches, tight with worry. While I mostly believe Ben will keep his word, that he won’t bring our bad news into his parents’ house, not tonight, I can’t be completely sure of what he’ll do anymore. Waiting here, counting out the seconds like a child playing hide-and-seek, feeling the weight of the pack on my back, it feels like too many Mississippis have slipped by for Ben to simply be telling them about the fire.
And so, when Ben’s mother opens the front door and walks through the dew-laden grass in her bare feet to pull me against her breast in an uncharacteristic gesture of welcome, I do what I almost never do.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Lake Union Publishing.
Copyright © 2015 Catherine McKenzie. All rights reserved.