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Line of Fire

Chapter 1

"Daddy," my daughter asked, "where is the red flag?"

It was a good question. And, unusual for Grace in her current developmental phase—technically, she was mid-latency, although I tended to think of her stage of development as the pre-devious—the query was posed without apparent subtext.

We were in the middle of a Sunday-night family dinner discussion about the danger posed by the tinder-dry grasses that carpeted the hillsides around our rural home on the eastern slope of Colorado's Boulder Valley. Lauren, my wife, was cautioning the family—mostly me—about engaging in any outdoor activities that might create even the smallest spark. Lauren's warning did have a subtext; she had already asked me—twice, she would be happy to note—to take my car in for a tune-up. The thing had backfired a couple of times over the weekend.

Grace's older sibling, Jonas, a boy who had antennae tuned to things dangerous or nefarious, real or imagined, responded to his sister in an I'm-the-big-brother-I-know-what-I'm-talking-about tone that a Red Flag Warning was in effect for all of Boulder. "And that includes us." Jonas stressed this in case his sister had forgotten where she lived.

Jonas had a subtext. He was on the cusp of adolescence; he almost always had a subtext. When he said "us" to Grace, he meant "you."

During other recent family discussions Jonas had produced ample evidence that his younger sister often managed to get herself excluded from general rules of family conduct, and he'd argued convincingly that her parents, mostly her father, let her get away with it. Where my personal parenting was concerned, Jonas had a valid point: I had a sweet spot for my little girl that could interfere with better paternal instincts. I had pled guilty to cutting Grace the undeserved slack and promised to work on it. Jonas seemed to be disarmed by my candor.

I decided to ignore the subtext Jonas included in his comment to his sister about the fire risk. I ignored it because I wasn't in a refereeing mood, and because Gracie wasn't involved in too many activities that generated sparks.

In reply to Grace's earlier question, I told her that I didn't think there was a literal red flag flying anywhere in town to warn residents about the extreme fire danger along the Front Range. In a preemptive effort to forestall whatever verbal jabs might come next from Jonas's direction, I added, "But your mother and your brother are right. We all need to be careful. It's very dry out there."

Jonas nodded in agreement. That, of course, worried me. Even his nods tended to have subtexts. He said, "It's a virtual flag, Grace."

Jonas had a way of rolling his eyes that could be so sly it was almost criminal. He did it then. Before Grace could react to the eye roll—I had no doubt she would react to the eye roll—Lauren jumped in. She said, "It's so dry. And it's been so windy. I never thought I would miss the summer monsoon season, but I do. Where were the monsoons this year? It's already Labor Day. Where is all our rain?" She sighed. "Maybe we'll get an early snow."

Line of Fire
by by Stephen White