Patricia Boomsma is an Arizona lawyer and a recent MFA graduate from Queens University of Charlotte. She was an articles editor for the Indiana Law Review, and an editorial assistant for Qu magazine. Her publications include a book review in New Orleans Review and an article in the Journal of Modern Literature. Find out more at http://patboomsma.com/.
Fire and Ice
Not so long ago, a small desert town at the base of a range of high mountains decided to expand its tourism business by holding a rodeo and skateboarding competition on the same weekend. The town sent notices far and wide, hoping to attract the great horsemen and skaters of the land. They told of the glories of competition and the beautiful women in the contest for Mountain Queen.
Four sisters lived on a ranch to the north of the mountains. Paula was the most beautiful of these sisters, and she was a finalist for Queen. The sisters decided this would be a fine place to meet handsome and athletic men. So they packed up their RV with their best sequined dresses, fringed jackets, boots, and their most flattering swimsuits. The sisters trimmed the ends and braided Paula’s white-blonde hair, pumiced her feet, polished her nails, pitched in for a lovely blue dress. Paula and her sister Emily took turns driving the Silverado pulling the trailer with Blizzard, Paula’s elegant Appaloosa, and Misty, the family’s Quarter Horse. Their two sisters followed in the R.V, and set up in the campground near a group of men drinking beer around a fire pit, just close enough to walk to the arena and just far enough to avoid the brawls that inevitably occurred nearer the canteen. Paula and Emily drove to the stables, gave the horses food and water, brushed their coats, saddled, and mounted them for a ride around the arena. Paula sat up straight, thrusting her breasts forward, as she held Blizzard’s reins. The second time around, she bent down and whispered “Let’s show them!” into Blizzard’s ear, squeezing the horse’s sides lightly with her legs. When they passed the stables, Paula knew all eyes were on them.
Dark clouds blocked the white tops of the mountains, and grey threads of rain dropped halfway to the ground to the west, the air still too dry for anything but virga. Cold was coming. Blizzard shook her mane happily as Paula scratched her withers on the final cool down, glad to postpone the summer heat a while longer.
A handsome man approached. “Afternoon, miss,” he said. “My name’s Darren King. Can I help?”
“Thank you for your kindness, but no,” she said, not looking up as she brushed Blizzard’s sides.
“I expect you’re here to be our next Queen,” Darren said. “I know I’d vote for you.”
Paula looked up and smiled. “And are you one of the judges?”
“No. But I intend to win, and think it would be fine to share the stage with you.”
Emily joined them, a cat circling at her heels.
“This is my sister, Emily.” Paula said. “And this is Darren King.”
“And yet you haven’t told me your name,” Darren persisted.
“Paula,” she said.
“We best get back,” Emily said. “Our sisters will be wondering.”
“More beautiful ladies?” Darren asked. “It’s a good thing I have friends.”
“Do you now?” Paula asked. “Maybe we’d like to meet them.”
“We’ll be at Bulls’ Bar tonight. We’ll see you there.”
“Maybe,” Paula said. The cat followed them toward the campground, but turned to hiss at Darren as a final goodbye.
The clouds hung low, sleet fogging the windows of Aylain’s Escalade. She hoped the roads would dry in time for the street luge tomorrow. Or maybe not; she laughed a little at the slapstick scene that popped into her head of racers skimming haphazardly down a slick mountain road. Aylain loved the speed, the danger. Rodeos were fun, too, and winning the Rodeo Queen contests, which she pretty much always did. What she didn’t like were the dusty, crowded, stinking campgrounds and their communal bathrooms. Her cousin Ricky took their horses, and actually wanted to stay there. Good for him. She searched for a decent hotel where the judges might be staying, and not too crowded with retired rodeo riders and their fat wives. She considered the vehicles in the lot a good way to tell. Too many motorcycles were a no go; she was looking for nice F-450s or Ram 2500s, anything a wealthy horse breeder might have.
She pulled into the parking lot of a Dash Inn that advertised free breakfast. Perfect. Flowering red oleanders lined the front, shading a lizard that squinted at her as she passed, its webbed feet poised, ready to strike. The high school boy who checked her in could barely speak. She had that effect on men of all ages. When she asked where was the best place to go dancing, “Bulls’ Bar” was all he said.
“And where might that be?” Aylain asked sweetly.
“Just down the road about a half mile,” he stumbled. “It has a neon sign, and huge horns on the front door. You can’t miss it.” He slid her key toward her.
Aylain settled into her room, spreading bottles of moisturizer and make-up across the counter. She brushed her hair until a haze of red surrounded her head that looked like fire in the mirror. Loose, she decided. She pulled on her jeans, chose an emerald blouse and red boots. No jewelry tonight.
The crowd seemed to part as Aylain arrived, men offering her a place in line as women scowled. Once in, Aylain drifted toward the band, ignoring many offers while she scoped the club. That’s when she saw her, the girl in a white Stetson standing very close to a fine-looking man in a plaid shirt and tight jeans. Paula. Was there no getting away from her? They’d gone to the same high school, alternated the same boys, traded turns for the various queen contests – the only woman who was any real competition. Paula’s companion was suddenly the most interesting man in the room. Aylain kept out of Paula’s line of sight. Surprise always gave an edge.
Aylain accepted a beer from a man who too quickly asked if she wanted to leave with him. She did not. Eventually the man in the plaid shirt came toward the bar, and Aylain followed. When he noticed her, she could feel his interest. She smiled, then turned toward the bartender.
“What are you having? I’ll buy,” he said.
“Rolling Rock,” she said. “Thank you.”
“I’m Darren King,” he said. “What’s your name, pretty lady?”
“Aylain,” she said quietly, close to his ear.
“I need a smoke,” Darren said, leading her out a side door. He pulled out his cigarettes, tapped the pack against the wall, pulled one out and offered her one. She shook her head, but made sure she was in the path of his smoke.
“Luge starts tomorrow; will you be there?” he asked.
“Absolutely!” she said.
“Need to rest up tonight, but how about we get together after that?”
“And here I thought you were a cowboy.”
“Oh, I am. A cowboy with many talents.”
Aylain nodded, and gave him her warmest smile.
“Can I walk you to your car?” he asked, as they headed toward the door. “I came with my buddies, so need to round them up.
“No; I’m good,” she said.
Darren lifted the edge of his hat, then turned. Aylain watched him as he walked slowly toward Paula, shaking hands with a number of cowboys on his way. Rest up my ass, she said under her breath, a slow burn rising as Darren pulled Paula onto the dance floor.
The morning rose clear, with fresh snow on the mountains. Darren kissed Paula’s cheek as he put an arm in the leather jacket covering his black racing suit.
“Good thing it’s cool today,” Paula said, pulling at the tight material surrounding his leg. “I’d hate to wear that thing in the middle of summer.”
“What’s up for you today?”
“I’ll take Blizzard for a run, then hang out with my sisters.”
“Have fun,” he said, throwing his sled and helmet next to him in the cab of his truck.
The curved road up the mountain was blocked, only one lane open for the shuttles. Hundreds of cars were already parked in a field, and Aylain stood with clutches of people standing at a makeshift bus stop, her long red ponytail moving in the wind.
“Helene! So glad you came,” he kissed her on the cheek, and put an arm around her shoulder.
“Wouldn’t miss it. Got here as early as I could. And it’s Aylain.”
“Beautiful at ten at night and at six in the morning, no matter how you pronounce it.”
Darren warmed standing next to her. He sat behind her with all his gear on the ride up, his arms crossed on the back of her seat. Hay bales lined the street, many with banners advertising equipment sellers and the Downhill Racing Federation. A huge arch formed of hay bales and balloons marked the starting line. Raptors circled the sky, often dipping down to see what was happening to their usually quiet mountain.
“I need to do a couple of practice runs,” Darren said, pulling on his gloves. “See you later?”
“You will,” Aylain said, heading toward a stream of people with steaming paper cups in their hands.
The day was a blur of speed. Darren easily qualified, with lesser riders careening into hay bales in front of and behind him. At noon he joined Aylain at a picnic table in the sun. A little boy threw bits of bread toward the gathering ravens. Aylain’s face glowed.
“Someday I’m going to try it,” Aylain said.
“Nothing like it,” Darren said. “I love horses – love training them and riding them - and the rodeo, too, but this is, well, a rush. At every corner I think I’m going to fly off the edge. A roller coaster with no safety features.”
Paula nodded. “My uncles have racing thoroughbreds. Maybe that’s where I learned to love speed.”
“Have they run the Derby?” Darren asked.
“Sure. And I got to wear some pretty great hats,” Aylain said.
Darren took her ponytail in his hand. “It would be a shame to hide this lovely hair,” he said, then kissed her.
Paula arrived in time to see this tender moment. She had sensed something this morning, and now she knew. Darren kept touching the redhead’s face and hands. A cold knot built in Paula’s chest, and a plan for revenge began to form. She pulled up her hoodie, got in line for the bus, then watched out the window as it turned around and headed downward. She saw the redhead kiss Darren and walk toward the shuttle line as he walked toward the course. As Aylain neared the bus, Paula recognized her, and a little bit of fear chilled her. Paula did not like to lose.
The Queen contestants had been interviewed, gave their speeches to the judges, over a month ago. Now the finalists would model their finery. Darren stood along a back wall in the shadows near the entrance to the town hall. He’d watched Aylain and Paula arrive with a growing sense of dread. He knew he’d have to choose.
“Aylain!” Paula said, hugging her like an old friend. “It’s been too long! I see life has been treating you well. And what a beautiful dress. The sequins really work on you.”
“Paula, what a surprise!” Aylain said. “And you’re just as beautiful as you were in high school. This will be like old times.”
“Our glory days, for sure,” Paula said.
“It will be great to compete again,” Aylain said. “I’ve always said competition brings out the best in people.”
The other women moved away, patting their hair or pulling at the fringe on their dresses or a loose thread where a bead should have been. One started rubbing at her boot, hoping to shine away a scuff.
“Your attention please!” The Mayor, a burly man in a bolo tie, stood at a microphone on the dais. “Let’s give a hand for this year’s finalists for Mountain Queen. They are all winners! They have already won over the judges with their poise, intelligence, and knowledge of horses. Now our judges have the difficult task of deciding who will be Queen”
The small crowd, made up mostly of local ranchers and cowboys hoping to find a date for the night, clapped half-heartedly during the speeches thanking the judges and everyone else for all the time they spent organizing the event. More men, and a few women with small girls dressed in frilly western attire, drifted in until all the chairs were full.
The applause grew when the Mayor began introducing the contestants, who climbed the stairs, pirouetted, then stood to the side as the next one was introduced. But there was a notable gasp, almost a stutter of silence when first Aylain and then Paula entered. Aylain wore a green that matched her eyes, Paula was in blue with seed pearl fringe that rustled against her matching boots. Little girls pulled on their mothers’ hands, pointing.
“Aren’t they all lovely?” the mayor asked the crowd, and much clapping and hooting ensued. “See them again tonight at the arena where they’ll demonstrate their skill with their horses.”
At the rodeo grounds, the contestants, now in more serviceable clothing, lined up on their horses just outside the arena gate. They followed each other in, waving at the audience as they circled, smiling their flashiest smiles. Paula and Blizzard did a two-step during their salute. Not to be outdone, Aylain and her sorrel Paint, Blaze, did a kind of fast spiral, Aylain standing at each salute. During their individual routines, each contestant went to the center of the arena, walked her horse in a tight and then a large circle. The best riders moved quickly, their horse stepping high and sure, their dismounts acrobatic. Paula received standing applause and foot stomping as she entered. Aylain came tenth, to an equally enthusiastic din. As Aylain began to dismount, a cat jumped from the fence in front of her and hissed, causing Blaze to stumble and Aylain to hesitate, just for a second.
They waited restlessly, until finally the Mayor’s voice boomed across the public-address system:
“And this year’s Mountain Queen is,” the Mayor paused for effect, “Paula Hau! Come on, Paula. Take a turn around the arena for us.”
Paula mounted Blizzard, holding her reins with one hand and waving with the other. Darren leaned over the edge, throwing flowers to her.
Aylain burned. She was sure Paula had sent that infernal cat to distract her. The ground began to rumble and move, and Blizzard reared up as a mound of earth sprouted in front of her. Darren pulled himself over the sides of the stands, and grabbed Blizzard’s reins. Children screamed and the stands shook to fall. Those nearest the exits ran, while those in the middle pushed forward. Officials urged calm until another, stronger quake collapsed their tower, cutting electrical wires and sparking fires in the hay.
Ricky quickly covered Blaze’s head. He’d parked near the stable, so he and Aylain loaded their horse into the trailer. Fire caught the dry brush and burned towards the stables. Ricky threw the truck keys to Aylain. “Get them out of here,” he yelled, running to help with the remaining animals. A glow and a cloud of smoke rose from the long dormant volcano in the middle of the nearby mountain range. Fire trucks, paramedics, and police began to arrive in a jumble of flashing lights and sirens. Aylain put the truck in gear, and pulled out of the lot ahead of most of the terrorized crowd.
Darren helped Paula dismount, then they ran toward the trailers. Bursts of flame illuminated an unblinking iguana along the path. Paula stayed with Blizzard while Emily and Darren went to rescue their horses.
“Wouldn’t you know it?” Paula said to Blizzard. “The time I finally beat that bitch Aylain, and it will always be known as the year of the fire.”
Blizzard shook her head and snorted in agreement.
As Paula waited, she saw rivulets of red snaking down the mountain. Their ranch was on the north side! She pulled out her cell phone and dialed home; no answer. Fear chilled her. They had to leave! She called Emily.
“Can’t talk now, sort of busy,” Emily screamed into the phone.
“The volcano!” Paula shouted back.
“The volcano! It’s erupting! Mom and Dad don’t answer!”
Emily swore, and Paula heard her explaining.
“Darren says just go. He has room for my horse,” Emily said. “Go! Keep calling.”
By now the exits were clogged with cars, trucks, trailers, RVs. Suddenly the earth moved again. Car alarms added to the general din of sirens and screams. Paula called her other sisters, hoping they had already left with the RV. All she got was a disembodied voice saying all circuits were busy. She pounded the steering wheel. They were all going to die. She rolled down her window, stuck out her head trying to see around the truck in front of her. A drop struck her head. Then another. The icy rain soon came down so quickly that Paula could no longer see the cars surrounding her, but it seemed the areas of orange were getting smaller. After about a half hour the torrent slowed, and Paula bolted out of the truck. Paramedics were pulling people from under collapsed grandstands, while police and cowboys were trying to cover the injured awaiting transport. The Mayor had a bullhorn, and was telling everyone that the exits needed to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. As Paula approached the stable, she saw Emily and Darren standing under an eave wrapped in a blanket, kissing each other.
Paula asked a police officer if there was any word about what was happening at the volcano.
“The volcano?” he asked. “That hasn’t made a peep in a hundred years.”
Paula pointed at the widening orange rivers in the distance.
The officer ran toward the command station, gesturing and nodding with two other men.
Her dad answered this time. No, they weren’t leaving. Their side of the mountain was still covered in snow. Just a little smoke cutting through the moon.
Aylain careened into the parking lot of the Dash Inn just as the rain began. She put her jacket over her head and sprinted inside to collect her things. She stabled the horses about twenty miles out, then drove aimlessly for a while, finding herself closer and closer to the volcano. How beautiful it was, even from this distance. She heard the roar of a landslide, saw the billowing tower of ash with fire and sparks bursting upwards into the night sky. She drove to Ghost Lake at the base of the mountain, as near as she dared get. The snow that always covered the top was gone; rocks and trees and ash slid down its sides. The moon peaked out with decreasing frequency, and soon the only light came from inside the mountain. Melted snow joined the ash and downed trees into a mountain stream, then sped into the lake. She must have dozed, waking as the haze lightened. She went toward the lake, dead fish and broken trees lapping at its sides. Undeterred, she covered her mouth and nose with a scarf as she listened. All she found were a family of ash-covered deer lying like toppled lawn ornaments.
Emily seemed not to notice Paula’s silence on the drive home. The ash cloud made it difficult to see, just a vast expanse of grey and a strange quiet. When they reached the north side of the mountains, they discovered the rain had become a snowstorm, and the roads toward their ranch had not been plowed. They pulled into a diner. Everyone inside stared at a television as video of the eruption played and replayed. Ten known dead. Many more missing. Animals and trees in the path of the lava wiped out.
Suddenly a picture of Paula flashed on the screen followed quickly by pictures of fire trucks and smoldering buildings.
“Fires broke out just after the Queen was crowned at this year’s rodeo,” the reporter said. “Three know dead and hundreds injured. Sadly, many horses had to be put down.” The scene shifted to the Mayor kneeling next to a wide-eyed mare.
“Long live the Queen,” a woman said.
The newscasters’ perky sad voices began reporting about the snow, how accidents on the interstate had killed seven, and thirty-four more had been airlifted to the local hospital. Much of the area was without power. The newscast flashed an aerial of the mountain range showing pure white on the north and east, smoldering grey with patches of orange on the west and south.
“Won’t be much coming from the orchards this year,” one of the truckers at the counter said. “Snows came too late.”
“Better snow than fire,” another said.
Paula drank her coffee slowly, hoping the roads would clear soon.