EXCERPT: RAIN OF FIRE
Gradually, the campground quieted. The guitar player put aside his instrument and everyone succumbed to the effect of the diamond clear evening. The moon sailed from behind a shoulder of mountain. First, a crescent edge, then half a coin; finally a faultless disk emerged to shine upon the forest glen.
Kyle pressed her cheek against the comforting scratchiness of Dad's wool shirt and struggled to stay awake for all of her sixth birthday. Yet, she must have dozed, for when she opened her eyes the fire had reduced to translucent crimson fragments. The moon rode cold and high amidst a sprinkling of heaven's brightest stars.
Her father followed her gaze to the sky. "I make it around eleven-thirty."
"Time for bed." Mom's lips pressed warm on Kyle's cheek, a hint of Breck wafting from burnished dark hair that matched her daughter's.
"Can't I stay up until midnight?" Kyle entreated.
Mom wagged a slender finger adorned with a turquoise and silver ring. "You've already been asleep for over an hour."
"But I just . . ."
Swinging Kyle to his shoulders with a chuckle, Dad carried her toward the Rambler station wagon where she and the family Golden Retriever Max slept. Moonlight cast shadows at odds with the lantern, making her feel like she did when she twirled around too much.
Dad placed her on the blankets and she smiled up into eyes the same green-blue as hers, turned down a bit at the outer edges. His soft brown beard brushed her cheek and he whispered, "Happy Birthday."
Frozen forever in memory, that was the last perfect moment.
A hard jolt struck. It brought her father to his knees behind the Rambler's tailgate.
Impossibly, the car seemed to drop, while Kyle's stomach swooped like she was on a Ferris wheel. The sensation was of a long fall, but it couldn't have been a second before the wagon bottomed with a jerk. It no sooner landed than it leaped and started jouncing as if a pair of giants jumped on the bumpers.
Max crouched but lost his balance. Dad made it up only to stagger and fall again. The lantern's wild arc threw erratic shifting shadows.
Kyle didn't know how to pray, only the ones that started "Now I Lay Me . . ." and "Our Father . . ." She cried into the night, "God, make it stop."
The ground rolled in waves. Braced in the back of the Rambler, she cracked her head on the side window and started to sob.
Dad was back on his feet, arms extended for her. She scrabbled toward the tailgate.
A rough wall of dirt heaved between them, a black ditch opening at the base of the scarp, deeper and wider than she was tall.
"Daddy!" she shouted into the rising thunder coming from earth rather than sky. The bucking ground threatened to throw her off the tailgate into the crevasse.
Pines as thick as Kyle began to whip as though their trunks would snap. The motion added an eerie howl to the din. Down the canyon, a grinding roar increased.
She looked for the place she'd last seen her mother.
"Mommy," she screamed, a raw ripping in her throat.
The lantern went out.
"Please, God." She prayed to wake in warm arms by the fire. They'd eat birthday cake and laugh because she'd dreamed this world turned upside down.
In the next instant, a great banshee howl struck and extinguished the brave blazes in the campground. At the same time, something black, immense and terrible bore down from the mountain. Kyle watched in horror as it blotted out the moon, leaving the most profound darkness she had ever known.
"I've been thinking about what we should do," Kyle said.
They sat for a moment in silence.
"Me, too," Wyatt admitted. "If Nick's right about magma pushing up the fault or under the peak, this is no ordinary situation where strain will be released. Each larger quake might buy a little time before the next, but who knows?"
"I went out a while ago and detected gas below the cabin. It's blowing away right now, but . . ." She envisioned red-hot melted rock pushing its relentless way toward the surface. Upon reaching a narrow conduit like the Saddle Valley fault, it would build heat and pressure until a fissure broke through to release lava . . .
Or the mountain could explode, blasting down the forest and crushing the cabin walls.
As if the earth could read her thoughts, a jolt shook the cabin.
At the shock, Kyle's own walls, the ones she had built inside her, broke down. Fragments of memory formed into sharp shards. Incoherent shades of black and gray were accompanied by a shower of sound and earth.
Her fists clenched on the sleeping bag and she closed her eyes. Pain stabbed at her, the awful sense of loss, flashing her back again to memories so ancient they should have been long buried.
"Kyle," Wyatt's voice was soft yet intent.
Small sparks of light exploded like fireworks as she lifted her fists and rubbed them against her eyelids. She didn't want to see, but . . .
She opened her eyes and took a jagged breath.
From across the length of sofa, Wyatt reassured her with his dark eyes. His free hand shushed across the sleeping bag and settled over her cold fingers. "You going to tell me about it this time?"
She acted on long-established instinct. "Tell you what? That any thinking human being would be scared sitting on this powder keg?"
"I am," he agreed.
The first jolt of the quake knocked the satellite phone off the chest containing the seismic station equipment. The second sent Nick sprawling.
Lying on his side, he had a view down the Saddle Valley and up the north flank of Nez Perce Peak. He told himself there had been plenty of tremors, so many that he should be inured to them by now.
This was different.
There was a noise like an approaching plane, but he didn't believe a military fighter would be in the vicinity. Rather, he suspected the frenzied rush of heated rocks and gases, hurtling up the final vent toward the surface. The din continued to grow.
He glanced at his watch. 1:12 p.m. Locating his camera, he figured there was no sense being the only one to see what happened next.
With hands that shook, he raised the Nikon and tried to focus. The quaking of the ground grew more violent and he lay on his stomach and planted his elbows.
He saw it first, of course, because of the great difference between the speed of light and sound. The peak in front of him seemed to shimmer as though seen through heat waves. Reddish cinders danced.
Then there was lift, almost in slow motion as the top quarter of the mountain peeled free. Seen through the telephoto, it looked as though Nick sat directly in the path of millions of tons of flying rock. He steeled himself not to flinch or stop taking pictures.
The concussion shoved his chest and he collapsed with his face in the dirt. Now, nothing was in slow motion. The explosion of sound first surrounded and then penetrated him. His bones vibrated. A sharp stab of nausea unsettled his internal organs and he feared losing control of his bowels. Pinned by the pressure wave, he lifted his hand and touched wetness on his cheek. His eardrums must be bleeding.
Here it was. What he'd desired, angled, and prayed for. In awe of Nature's display, he felt completely insignificant. What happened in the next few seconds would decide his fate . . . or at least whether he was to survive this initial eruption. There was no telling how many or how large subsequent blasts might be.
Whatever he might wish now, he was stuck with his decision.