The Firewalkers

“Can you believe my parents used to set a timer for my showers? Five minutes a day.” Nula shoulders her orange backpack, re-ties her bootlaces. Buckie snorts and leans over, plucking a twig from Nula’s hair. Morning light pours yellow through the trees. Their throats are stung with smoke. They’re getting closer.

“That’s because your parents were rich.” Luessa’s two braids swing at her waist. The others chuckle, rolling their tarps. Showers are rationed to once a month for civilians; more frequently for members of the Elite Firewalker Squad, one of the supposed perks. The Office of Wildland Fire, overseen by the Department of the Interior, provides the Firewalkers with extra bathing vouchers when they return to base camp, but they rarely return to camp. On this assignment, EFS Team 6 has been in the field, no contact, for nine weeks already. They’ve been assigned to the Stony Ridge Megafire, 322,000 acres, zero containment. Due to unfavorable environmental conditions and staffing shortages, other federal agencies have pulled out, though this hasn’t been publicly announced.

“They were stupid rich. I’m sorry.” Nula laughs, grimacing at the memory. The apology is only a half-joke. She doesn’t tell the others that her parents’ wealth wasn’t the worst of it. She grew up with a shockingly green lawn, with an entire swimming pool, in a gated community. Their money was not just any money–Exxon-Mobil itself issued her father’s paychecks. She didn’t realize what this meant until an embarrassingly late age. None of these things are Nula’s fault, but still, she feels the heavy tug of familial guilt. She wants the others to know she can take a joke, that she’s self-aware, that she’s one of them, that her parents’ greed doesn’t lurk in her blood. This is the same reason she sleeps without a tarp, gives  away most of her meals: atonement.

“Don’t be sorry. We don’t get to pick our parents, hon.” Buckie unwraps her leg bandage, pulling brown pine needles from the woven elastic. She pads the wound underneath with fresh gauze. When she rubs sweat from her neck, her fingertips come away gray.

“Ridiculous, though,” says Nula. “Five whole minutes. Can you even imagine, now?” 

No, none of them can.

They don’t argue about who had it worse before joining the EFS, but Nula suspects she had it the least-worst. Nobody knows for sure, because they’re prohibited from discussing much of their pasts. They’re being monitored, somehow, both for compliance and for their own safety, though the limits of the technology are unclear. EFS membership involves strict rules: no last names, no hometowns, no discussing whether they were drafted or joined voluntarily. Only YOU can prevent forest fires! The recruitment materials still rely on the same pointed finger.

The forest crackles around them as they trudge in. Their faces are gritty, slick with sweat.

“Feel anything yet?” asks Luessa.

“Nope. You?” Buckie scuffs at the ground with her boot. The others shake their heads, so they continue on. Buckie’s been limping ever since Palomino Canyon. Nula’s concerned: Buckie’s too old to still be out here. After Buckie falls asleep that night, Nula mentions this in a whisper. Pony Daytona, who arrived at base camp with a shaved skull and a chop-shop motorbike, disagrees. 

“Buckie’s the best we got,” Pony hisses. “We need her.” Despite the concern, none of them can disagree. While Buckie snores softly, the stars glitter above them like shattered glass. Nula’s from the city; to her, the Milky Way is still extravagant, staggering. Out here, it’s razor-clear.

Pony Daytona is the exception to the no-last-names rule. She refuses a helmet, instead wears a backwards, tattered baseball hat with a Daytona 500 patch. Nobody’s asked, but they know Daytona isn’t her real last name. A young one like her, the overdone bravado, the scars peppering her arms and back–undoubtedly running from some terrible thing. They let her keep the name she wants, since she’s probably not breaking the rules anyway. They let her keep her bravado, false or not, because they suspect she needs it. She can protect her own skull if she wants. No one has the energy to argue, and Pony’s not someone to argue with, anyway.

The next morning, Buckie limps more, steadying herself on Pony’s scrawny arm, on Luessa’s shoulder. Nula offers, but Luessa and Pony always look for any excuse to get close. It’s clear that Pony’s in love with Luessa. Luessa loves Pony, too, but it’s a different kind of love. Those who have been with Team 6 the longest have seen Luessa handling a bent photograph by lantern glow: four teenagers, none of them smiling. Children or siblings, nobody’s sure. The photo, along with most of their packs and fourteen human lives, was lost in the Briar Road blaze months before Pony arrived, so she doesn’t know. Nobody talks about Briar Road. What a shitshow that was, an absolute nightmare. Nula shudders at the thought.

Around midday, a flock of crows bursts across the sky, scattering like buckshot. 

“Hang on,” says Buckie. She closes her eyes. “I think I feel something.”

“Here?” asks Nula. They all freeze in their tracks.

“You fucking serious?” Pony’s voice cracks with excitement. At the sound of her voice rising, a flicker of tenderness passes across Luessa’s face. If they had to guess about life before joining the EFS, each one of them would bet that Pony Daytona had it the worst.

They pull their dowsing rods from their packs. Nula’s is a rich scarlet, worn to a sheen: a branch from her parents’ cherry tree. A parting gift she helped herself to. When she left home, it felt fitting to take from their excess to redistribute water across the burning world, though here it just betrays her privilege. Pony’s rod is a bent and welded crowbar, because what else would it be. Buckie uses a rusted coat hanger, but she could use anything. They follow Buckie’s lead. Any of them can dowse at dusk, but Buckie’s the only one who can sense water in the midday heat.

Team 6 spreads out quickly, an organized web fanning through the woods. Rods pointed in all directions like spokes of a wheel. Where are Teams 1 through 5? They’ve been instructed not to ask.

“Anything?” Nula calls.

Pony’s jittery. The crowbar twitches in her small hands. “Maybe!”

Buckie limps over, paces slowly. Her coat hanger tugs earthward. “Yep. Right here.” 

Luessa dashes to them. “You sure?”

Buckie raises an eyebrow. The others encircle them. The Firewalkers grip their axes, the only official tools they carry, and let the steel blades sing water up from the earth.

The specialized methods of the Elite Firewalker Squad have not been revealed to the general public. All civilians know is that the EFS makes progress where smokejumpers don’t. 

When water finally rises to the surface in a muddy glimmer, they rest their axes and shoulders. From their packs, they withdraw bottles, handkerchiefs, dirty clothing. Ceremoniously, they strip down to nothing.

“Ready?” Buckie asks solemnly. There’s a moment of silence, as close to prayer as any of them get. The moment of silence is not listed in the EFS training manual, but they observe it anyway, a necessity only learned through experience. Buckie delivers the final blow. A bright fount of water bursts forth and geysers upward. They close their eyes, let the spatter fall upon their faces, watch the droplets shimmer and prism against the sky. They open their mouths to it. It fills their bottles and soaks their filthy clothing, which they wring out. In the high sun and the sheen of the spray, their faces gleam like angels.

“Okay, team,” says Buckie finally. “Pack up, head out. On to the next.”

Groaning, Team 6 turns their backs to the geyser. They put on their underthings, knot the heavier layers to walking sticks. According to the multi-sensor clipped to Nula’s pack, the relative humidity is nine percent. The clothing will dry quickly as they march. In this state of undress, the largest scar on Pony’s abdomen is a fat purple welt. No one looks directly at it.

A quarter mile farther, they perform the ritual again. Dowsing rods, axes, geyser. From here, the smoke is a dramatic, terrible beauty. Churning pyrocumulonimbus clouds: when a fire grows large enough, it creates its own weather system. They gulp water greedily, since they can refill here. They’re making good progress, but who knows when they’ll find water next. Two massive spouts behind them already, drenching the forest. A partial containment line. Nula swells with pride.

Pony catches Luessa looking at her and smiles. “What ya thinking about?” Pony asks, hoping the answer will be her.

“My family. Why I joined. Shit like this would make them proud. Oops.” Luessa winks. The others exchange nervous glances. “What? Come on. You don’t think they’re still monitoring.”

Team 6 is quiet. This is what they thought: what they had been threatened with, and promised.

“Seriously? After Briar Road?” Luessa’s voice rises. “Don’t any of you get it? They’re not monitoring us! Nobody’s fucking coming!”

“You volunteered for EFS?” Nula is incredulous. “You left your family?”

“Time to move out,” Buckie says quietly. “More ground to cover, before nightfall.”

The next day, Buckie feels no water underfoot. None of them do. Luessa’s silent. Pony bites her lip until it bleeds.

In the shade, they ease Buckie down to rest, where Nula’s multi-sensor says it’s 92 degrees. A bee lands on Buckie’s forearm, and she cups her hand over it. She squeezes the sweat from the pearly hair at her nape, dribbles it into her cupped hand. The weak bee wriggles at the liquid. “There, there,” she murmurs. 

“Just kill it,” Luessa sighs. “You’re gonna get stung.”

“Where there’s a bee, there’s a hive.” Buckie prods the insect with a fingertip. “Where there’s a hive, there’s–”

“Something blooming!” Nula interrupts, thinking of her parent’s cherry tree, bursting with spring glory, a lifetime ago. Blooming growth means water.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Luessa says. They all know she’s right, but they do. They do.

The next morning, Buckie can’t walk at all. “I’ll catch up with you,” she says softly, slumped against the tree. Her wound oozes dark through the bandage. “There’s work to do.”

“Of course not,” says Luessa.

“No fucking way.” Pony paces, rubbing her arms.

“Don’t you dare worry about me.”

“We’re not worried,” Nula smiles. They dip fingertips in someone’s contraband sugar packet, bringing grains to Buckie’s tongue. They tell stories, pool their rations. If their throats weren’t raw with smoke, it might have been a party.

At sunrise, Buckie is still. Her skin is waxy and blanched, eyes closed in gentleness. The bee is gone, too.

When they bury her, Nula drives her cherry rod into the ground to mark the spot. She’s relieved to leave it behind. She solemnly tucks Buckie’s coat hanger into her own pack. Pony charges into the forest with a sound like choking.

“Give her a minute,” Luessa says, when Nula starts after her.

“We don’t have time.”

“We’ll make time.”

“That’s not how it works.”

But they do wait. When Pony Daytona finally returns, her eyes are nearly swollen shut, though she’s no longer crying.

“Come on, motherfuckers. Let’s do this thing.” Pony elbows past them. From the top of the next ridge, they can see a black wall of clouds, impenetrable as a fortress. Embers sizzle on their shoulders. When they glance back, they see two faint spouts of water shooting up from the treetops below–thin trickles from here, but still spraying. No one talks about how Pony’s crowbar tugged downward yesterday, even at noon. It’s a thin bubble of hope that might burst if they think about it too pointedly. Given that Pony’s the least experienced, letting her break trail is against EFS regulations, but they let her take lead for a while. No one’s monitoring them, anyway.


Molly Seeling is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and former firefighter based in rural Colorado. Her work has been published in Landing Zone Magazine, with work forthcoming in Awakenings Journal. She is currently querying her first novel.