The following is an excerpt from The Blaze by Chad Dundas, out January 2020. It is reprinted with permission from © G.P. Putnam & Sons.
The Blaze – excerpt
Ransacked. The word dragged down his spine like the tip of a dagger. Just inside the door a large bookcase had been tipped over and lay partially blocking the entryway. Books jumbled on the floor around it. Peering past the corner of the front closet he saw a small living room and the open doorway to a cluttered kitchen. A lamp burned on an end table, but otherwise the house was dark. The couch had been pulled away from the far wall and the contents of two large cardboard file boxes dumped on the coffee table. Manila folders and loose papers fluttering in the breeze.
Matthew knew he should get out of there, grab his phone from the car and call the police. He’d half turned back toward the open door when he noticed the bits of flattened snow spread across the rug. Small, diamond-shaped chunks that looked like they’d fallen from the tread of someone’s boots. A part of his trained soldier brain was still alive inside him and it kicked on, slipping back into combat focus. Whoever had trashed the house had done it recently. It was possible the intruder was still lurking somewhere inside. The thought should have scared him. Instead it pushed him forward, stepping over the bookcase and into the room.
He followed the trail of snow to the kitchen, where the house’s sliding back door stood half open on its runners. His mind said: Escape hatch. A few cabinet drawers had been pulled loose, silverware and dishes all over the linoleum floor. Matthew stooped to retrieve a large chef’s knife and noted that this part of the house looked as if it had been tossed in a rush. Most of the intruder’s attention had been paid to the living room.
The knife was dull and flimsy but he carried it to the back hallway, seeing no snow on the carpet there. The two doors—bathroom and bedroom, he guessed—were shut. Everything looked dry and undisturbed. When he was sure the rest of the house was quiet his pulse eased back to normal and he returned to the kitchen. There was an old rotary phone on the far wall and he stepped through the pots and pans to pick it up, trying to decide if he should dial 9-1-1 or call the landlords.
A blur of motion caught his eye through the open yawn of the sliding door. A figure dressed all in black was making its way across the frozen river, already halfway and clamoring as fast as it dared on the ice. It was too far to gauge the person’s height or even tell if it was a man or woman, but from the way it moved Matthew knew it wasn’t a skier or fisherman. Before he knew it, he was into the yard, following a fresh set of diamond-tread boot prints past the porch swing to the river embankment. His own new hiking boots felt good on his feet, but he slipped going down the incline, skittering a few yards on his ass before pulling himself upright. He got to the river’s edge just as the figure reached the opposite bank and started up the mountain. In a few seconds he would lose sight of the person in the thick stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.
“Hey!” he shouted, feeling foolish, but not knowing what else to do. His voice echoed off the cliffs as the figure spun around, pausing when it saw Matthew standing seventy-five yards away with the knife in his hand. Whoever it was wore tight-fitting winter sports gear, a dark hat and a balaclava that covered everything but the eyes. It could’ve been an hour, maybe just a heartbeat that they stood staring at each other, before the figure broke off and ran into the trees.
Matthew’s gaze followed, noticing for the first time a new housing development halfway up the mountain. He saw no lights on and realized the condos there were still under construction. Installation decals on the windows, one panel of bare Tyvek yet to be covered on an exterior wall. No one lived there yet. After the short climb from the riverbank the figure could cut through the complex’s parking lot to the highway without anyone seeing. There might be someone waiting there, or a car stashed on one of the turnoffs from the main road. The rational part of Matthew’s brain knew he couldn’t catch the intruder now that they were gone from view. Still, he started out onto the ice, cupping his hands to his lips as if he might call out again.
He’d taken two experimental steps before he realized he’d made a mistake. The ice here was covered by a layer of slush that had begun to eat away at it. If he’d looked first or tested it with his weight he would have noticed it was thin and lighter in color than on the rest of the river. But in his rush he stepped out thoughtlessly, not seeing he’d chosen the wrong place until it gave way beneath him like a trap door.
The sound of the ice breaking was no louder than a snap of his fingers. He dropped four feet into the frigid river. The cold snapped him stiff, every bone in his body trying to jump out through his skin. He bobbed to the surface once, sucking a breath before the current took him under again. He slipped beneath a shelf of ice, eyes shocked wide, briny green water filling his nose. The knife slipped from his hand and brushed downriver like a silvery fish. Through the murky water he saw the underside of the ice tumble by overhead, the dim light of day behind it. He imagined the river pulling him all the way out into the frigid lake. In just a few minutes, he would be dead. His body would drift along the lake floor, food for fish and frogs until the spring thaw. Eventually, some fishermen would find him tangled in a beaver dam or a group of kids would discover him bloated and bobbing at the bottom of a swimming hole.
Then the gray sky reopened above him. He came up for air in a slush-filled eddy, gasping, just his head and shoulders above water. It felt like he’d been under for an hour, but he saw in an instant the current had only dragged him fifteen feet downstream. He could still see his dad’s house at the top of the embankment. An air raid horn went off in his ears, blasting one word: SWIM. He stretched and kicked, his lungs on fire from shock, the animal instinct to save himself sizzling like a live wire. He took two perfect strokes, swinging his arms overhead like some forgotten swim coach must have taught him twenty years ago. His muscles uncoiled as his fingers cut the current, tapping into strength in his core and low back he didn’t know he had.
He was still close to shore. The water around him wasn’t deep. In less than three seconds he’d propelled himself to the bank and with a lunge managed to hook a hand over the tip of a rock. The river ripped against his grip, the rock’s sharp edge cutting into skin, but he held on. Belly-down, he swung his other hand over the rock and hauled himself inch-by-inch out of the water.
Chad Dundas’ debut novel, Champion of the World, was a 2016 Boston Globe Best Book of the Year as well as a finalist for the David J. Langum Sr. Prize for Historical Fiction and Reading the West Book Awards. His short fiction has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Sycamore Review, Sou’Wester and Thuglit. Since 2001, he’s worked as a sportswriter for outlets such as ESPN, NBC Sports, The Sporting News, Bleacher Report and the Associated Press, among others. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and children.
Original music by Catlofe.