Here’s my entry for the first Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (the post for the original March draw is here). In case you didn’t know about this challenge, there’s a video here explaining (and showing the third draw), but the quick version: I used a deck of cards (three suits) to randomly put together a genre (in this case: romance), a location (in this case: a fire watch tower) and an object (in this case: a VHS cassette) and challenged anyone who wanted to play to write something over the next week, with a maximum of 1,000 words.
I ended up being inspired by something Jeffrey Ricker said, and went with a meet-cute romance, though with my usual lens of something spec-fic.
Where There Was Smoke
When his search for more about Richard Grant led to fire watch towers, Sal once again felt like he’d been born late.
Not really. A student of history loved history, but the present—being legally protected, say—was good.
But a forest job with minimal contact? Sounded great most days. Way better than chasing queer ghosts.
Not literal ghosts, of course, although ghost-hunting had helped. His first awareness of Grant had been due to an overwrought 80’s ghost-hunter episode.
Homo Haunt of Fire Watch 17.
It started with a footnote a buddy sent him, but forgotten queer history was his field of study. Sal tracked down the paper itself. The footnote referenced the defunct television show, and he’d endured bidding online with fans for the episode.
Winning a VHS cassette hadn’t felt like winning. He’d had to buy a VCR just to watch it.
The host—bleached 80’s hunk with a penchant for speaking as though required to use fifty exclamation marks per half-hour episode—had delighted in the story of the haunted fire watch tower and disappearance of the man who’d signaled the rare root fire that destroyed most of the forest. The ranger was never seen again. The queer thing came later: the host claimed police found “things” in the man’s house, “tainting his hero with homo!”
Sal hated the 80’s.
They’d filmed the episode in Fire Watch Tower 17. The host and his very buxom episode guest both claimed to smell smoke. There was even an onscreen haze in the air itself before they’d run—he shirtless and she barely buttoned—and claimed the haunting a success.
It wasn’t riveting television, but the history panned out. Richard Grant indeed called in the first signs of root fire, and he likely saved many lives of the small town that was razed to the ground by the sudden explosion of flames.
And then he vanished.
And later, yes, “discoveries” were made.
Climbing into the tower, Sal decided it was a lovely place to spend summer. He wondered how much of the original structure was intact. It was rented via online reservations now. Most fire watch towers no longer served their original task.
It had been a whim, but this would be a quiet place to collate his research and write up the chapter for his book on Richard Grant. He cracked screened windows and cross breezes cooled the place.
The bed looked comfortable. The desk was small but functional. And the view—three hundred and sixty degrees—was incredible.
Obviously, the forest had grown back over eighty years.
“No queers forgotten,” Sal said. It was his motto. He put the photograph of Grant up on the desk. It didn’t hurt the man in question resembled a young Oliver Sachs, circa leather-jacket-and-motorcycle. Grant wore a park services uniform, not leather, but he did it very well.
Born in the wrong year.
History crushes sucked.
He’d been editing for hours when he sneezed. His eyes watered, too. He frowned, blinking, and then it hit him…
He stood up, and turned, wondering what—
The smoke vanished. The smell, the sting, all of it.
He coughed once.
“Okay,” he said.
He sat back down. Grant’s disappearance was everywhere; his lap-top, notebooks, and scanned newspapers. After reporting a root fire ready to destroy the valley, he’d just disappeared. Assumption claimed he made a run for it, got caught in the smoke or flames. The tower had withstood, but the smoke would have been too much.
Sal read it all again. If only there’d been a way through.
The smoke was back. He stared, seeing it curl in the air around him, then rose from the chair. He wasn’t losing his mind. This was smoke. He turned—
It was gone.
“Nope,” Sal said. He grabbed his papers, files, lap-top and charger, and packed it into his backpack. He’d hit a motel, or sleep in his car, but screw Fire Watch Tower 17. He turned again, ready to leave.
The brightness of a summer day greeted him. Which wasn’t right, given how late at night it was.
Also, Richard Grant was staring at him.
“Where did you come from?” Grant said. He eyed Sal, not worried or even upset. Just curious.
Sal supposed he looked like a camper.
“You…” Sal managed. He turned again, and the daylight vanished.
It was a spot, he realized. A spot in the tower. An angle of looking. A very specific place, too. Sweat broke out across his forehead, and he retreated, turning slightly.
Richard Grant was still staring at him, only now he looked surprised. Sal wondered if he’d been popping in and out.
“You’re even more handsome in person,” Sal said. Which was dumb. It wasn’t exactly the most important thing.
“I’m sorry,” Sal said. “It’s just…” Just what? “There’s a root fire. This whole valley. It’s… It’s going to be bad.”
Richard Grant turned and grabbed a small CB radio within seconds. He didn’t hestitate. Sal looked out over the sunny day. He didn’t see smoke. Not yet.
Richard’s voice never rose, but by the time he was done reporting, it had begun. Sal could see plumes of smoke appearing all around them. The roots of the trees had caught fire, beneath the ground. It would be death out there, any moment.
He just had to pivot, and turn, and he could go home.
He vanishes, Sal thought. He just vanishes.
“Richard,” he said.
The ranger turned. He saw the smoke. He nodded at Sal. There was respect in that nod. And understanding, too. They were both likely to die now.
Sal held out his hand.
When Richard took it to shake, Sal pulled and turned.
Richard Grant knocked him over, heavy. They landed hard.
In the dark.
No daylight. No smoke.
They were face-to-face.
“Um. Hi,” Sal said.
Richard rose on his elbows, looking down at him. Still calm. Still handsome. “What… Where?”
“Actually,” Sal said. “It’s more of a when.”