Aubrey & Darragh

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Please, Mrs. Mason, you need to come with me." Aubrey took the older lady's hand carefully. She was in her nineties, and while her mind was still as sharp as ever, her body was fragile. He didn't want to bruise her. "The firefighters said we need to be out of here in ten minutes. The fires have jumped the break and the wind's pushing it this way."

"What about my house?" Mrs. Mason froze, staring at the house she'd lived in for almost fifty years, and tears welled in her faded blue eyes.

He wanted to tell her it would be all right. That the firemen would get there in time. That the monster fueled by dry wood and endless winds wouldn't devour all her material memories. He wanted to, but he couldn't. Because he was pretty sure their homes were going to be destroyed and they'd have to rebuild once the ashes cooled.

"You can stay with Mom and me. We have your photo albums and things you want. Plus Wiggles and Snowflake are safe. All the important irreplaceable things have been taken out." Aubrey shot a quick glance at his small bungalow just a few feet away from Mrs. Mason's house, his heart breaking. "We can always rebuild a house. We can't rebuild memories."

Aubrey knew he had to be strong for her, but he wanted to yell and throw things...mostly stones and dirt at the approaching flames. He'd come to Northern California to start a new life. His cute little two bedroom-one and half baths cottage was the first step in getting back on track. Now it was going to go up in smoke and Aubrey would be back at the beginning.

Mrs. Mason took a deep breath, straightened her thin shoulders and squeezed Aubrey's hand hard once before turning away. "You're right, Aubrey. I'll stay with you until I can make arrangements to go live with my daughter. She's been nagging me for months now to do so. I guess this is God's way of pushing me to make that decision."

He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to believe in a God who would use a natural disaster to convince a little old lady to move, but whatever worked to get Mrs. Mason in his car and headed to safer ground.

As he was helping her climb into his MINI Cooper, two fire trucks roared into her driveway. He paused to watch twenty men jump off and begin to rush around like busy ants. Like said ants, their movements looked like chaos, but Aubrey could tell it was coordinated to the point where everyone knew their jobs without having to be told.

"See...they're here. I'm sure they'll wet down the roof and surrounding area. Maybe we'll be lucky."

The unladylike snort he heard come from Mrs. Mason brought a smile to his face.

"Don't lie to an old lady, son. It's not nice." She patted his hand. "I've accepted what's going to happen. Now like you said, we need to get going. I'm sure your mother is waiting for us. You can ogle the firefighters some other time."

"Mrs. Mason," he gasped in mock indignation as he felt his cheeks heat, and he knew it wasn't from the fire. "I'm not ogling anyone."

The sound of her giggle brought a hint of happiness to his heart. She'd been so quiet and worried while they packed up her house that he was concerned she wouldn't recover from the loss. Yet it looks like he was freaking out for no reason. She'd lived through worse, as she often reminded him. Her house burning down was traumatic for a minute in the grand scope of her life.

He'd have to take a page from Mrs. Mason's book. Take a deep breath then let it go, Aubrey, he could hear his therapist saying. This is just another challenge for you to face and learn from.

"Sir," one of the men called out.

Aubrey made sure Mrs. Mason was settled comfortably and her window was down before he shut the car door. He turned to watch the man jog up to them.

"We're leaving," he said before the man could say anything else.

"I can see that." The man towered over Aubrey, which wasn't new. Practically everyone, except for ninety-year-old ladies apparently, was taller than him. "I'm Lieutenant Darragh O'Flannery. I just wanted to make sure there weren't any pets left or anything else that you might be coming back for."

Lt. O'Flannery took off his helmet to swipe his arm over his soot-covered face and Aubrey promptly forgot what the man had said. Tired hazel eyes met his then there was a flash of a bright white smile, standing out in the dirt-streaked skin. The bulky turn-out gear didn't give Aubrey a good look at O'Flannery's body, but he had a great imagination and figured he had to be in good shape to haul all that equipment around along with the hoses and stuff.

"Don't worry, young man. Aubrey has made sure all the pets were taken out yesterday. We were just packing up the last few things I wanted to save before we left. We're heading out now." Mrs. Mason spoke when it became obvious Aubrey had lost all ability to get his brain hooked back up to his mouth.

O'Flannery shot Aubrey an amused but knowing look before he replied, "I'm glad to hear that, ma'am. We'll do our best to save your homes. These fires have been giving us fits since they started. The wind doesn't help."

"Aubrey and I know you'll do your best, Lieutenant. Don't we?" Mrs. Mason reached through the open window to poke Aubrey in the side.

He jumped. "What? Oh right. As long as no one gets hurt, rebuilding isn't too bad. I mean, it'll give me a chance to make a house that's mine, right? Instead of a house I have to tweak to get it the way I want it."

Shit! Shut the fuck up, Aubrey. He doesn't want to listen you babble. It's not like he doesn't have a ton of stuff to do right now.

Mrs. Mason giggled again and Aubrey scuffed his feet in the dirt of his driveway. O'Flannery studied him for a second, making Aubrey wonder if he wanted to say something or if he was waiting to see if Aubrey was actually done talking.

"Lieutenant," another man shouted.

"Right. Well, be careful getting out of here. We closed the road, but I'll radio down to let them know you're coming. It was nice meeting you." O'Flannery removed his glove then shook Mrs. Mason's hand. When he shook Aubrey's, he seemed to linger for a moment...or that could have been Aubrey's wishful thinking.

"Stay safe. You as well, Lieutenant." Aubrey managed to say without spilling all of his secret fantasies he'd had over the years about firemen.

Aubrey forced his body to move around his car then climb behind the wheel instead of watching the man walk away. He got the engine started and backed out slowly, pausing for a minute so Mrs. Mason could take one last look at her house.

"So many memories," she whispered. "Births and death. Happiness and sadness. Yet I still have all those moments in my mind. This has been a place to store them, nothing more. I can create a new space for them somewhere else if I want. Let's go, Aubrey."

"Yes, ma'am." He took a quick peek at his place then headed out.

He'd only had his home for a few months. Not enough time to make lasting memories in it, but he'd miss it when it was burnt to the ground. Yet Mrs. Mason was right. He could create a new home and memories after it was over.

* * *

"Are we good here? They won't be trying to get back for something they'd forgotten?" Anson Jamieson, Darragh's best friend and fellow firefighter, asked when Darragh rejoined him.

Darragh nodded. "Yes. They both seemed quite sensible about the evacuation. The lady said the pets had been moved yesterday. There were just a few things she'd wanted to save before they left. I wish everyone cooperated like those two."

Anson grunted. "It would certainly make our jobs a little easier."

"Come on. Let's get the hoses out and wet down the houses and the ground around them," he ordered as he settled his helmet back on his head.

While they did what they could to save the properties, Darragh found his mind wandering back to the young man he'd met. Aubrey was what the elderly lady had called him. Was he her grandson or just a nice neighbor? It certainly reflected well on Aubrey that he was helping the lady instead of allowing her to fend for herself.

Unfortunately, Darragh had run across a lot of people while doing this job that were like that. Looking out for themselves was far more important than helping their fellow humans--or animals for that matter. He didn't understand that outlook on life. They were all in this adventure together. It made sense to help each other out so they would all survive then sacrifice one to get ahead.

"He seemed like he was your type," Anson said ten minutes later when they were taking a break.

"My type? Do I really have enough of a type that you'd notice it?" He bumped their shoulders together.

"Hey, I'm observant," Anson protested.

Darragh chuckled. "You're only observant when the guy I'm interested in is standing near a female. If there isn't a woman in sight, you have no clue what I'm looking for."

Anson tried to look offended, but he couldn't pull it off. "All right, asshole. You might have a point there. I have seen the guys you've brought to some of the firehouse picnics and that kid could be a match for them."

His friend was telling the truth. Aubrey ticked every box on Darragh's list of what he was looking for in a man. While Aubrey might be short, Darragh had no doubt the man could take care of himself. The toned muscles in Aubrey's arms and legs said he worked out--or at least did some kind of physical activity.

"Though I've never seen you with a guy who dyed his hair," Anson pointed out.

"Oh there were a few. They just didn't color it green and blue like this guy," he informed Anson. "Have to admit it's intriguing."

Anson nodded. "But a MINI, Darragh? Isn't that a little stereotypical?"

"Just because you like big trucks to overcompensate for deficiencies elsewhere doesn't mean we all have to make up for our shortcomings like that."

Some of the other guys had been listening to their conversation and joined in, teasing Anson about his monster truck obsession. Darragh let them joke and relax a few minutes longer. They'd been working almost non-stop for the past two weeks ever since the fires started. His entire unit was going to crash hard when they were finally done.

"All right, guys. Let's finish this up. Maybe we'll get a long enough break for lunch after this is done." He smacked his hands together as he stood. To be honest, right at that moment, all he wanted was a cold shower and lots of soap to wash off the soot. He was pretty sure his skin was permanently streaked with it.

"Hey, LT. We found this hidden under some bushes about halfway up the hill in the back of the blue house." One of the newer guys held up a pitiful little ball of fur.

Darragh took it, cradling the kitten in the palm of his hand. "Were there any others?"

The guy nodded. "Yeah, but they were dead. This was the only one still alive. We buried the others where we found them."

A little pool of sadness filled Darragh's heart. Nature could be cruel at times, yet at least this one survived. He rubbed his thumb under the kitten's chin and got a rough purr along with a pathetic meow for his kindness.

"Grab a towel from the cab," he told Anson before getting a bottle of water from where he'd been sitting.

He'd rescued his share of animals, so he knew how to do a quick check to make sure there was nothing else wrong with it. He rinsed off the dirt and soot, but did his best not to soak the animal. None of them could leave right then to take it to the vet, so once he made sure nothing else was wrong with it, he'd wrap it in another towel and set it in the cab.

"That will be fine for now," he told the kitten after wrapping it in the towel before he set the entire thing on the floor of the cab. "You'll be safe and out of the way. We'll get you to a vet as soon as we can."

The kitten meowed again, curling up in a tiny ball as though it understood exactly what Darragh had said and would wait patiently.

"Who do you think it belongs to?" Anson inquired as they headed back to the hoses.

"I think it's a stray. Aubrey and his neighbor didn't mention losing a cat, and something tells me Aubrey wouldn't have left if he was leaving anything behind he wanted." Darragh shrugged. "I'll take it to the vet after our shift, then see if I can get a hold of him. If it does belong to someone, he might know who."

Anson slapped Darragh on the shoulder. "You're just using that poor kitten as an excuse to see that cute kid again."

Darragh rolled his eyes and gave Anson a slight shove. "Shut the fuck up, Jamieson. Now haul ass. We still have two more houses on this road to check before our shift is over."

Before he started wetting the ground down again, Darragh glanced up the hills behind the houses. Smoke billowed into the bright blue sky, signaling where the front line of the fires were. They had thought they'd gotten a handle on it a couple of days ago, but then the winds blew harder and it flared into an inferno again.

He had no doubt the damage would run into the millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres burnt. It would be several more weeks before they put it out. He just hoped no people died and that his fellow firefighters stayed safe while they worked the blaze.