“Move, Dave!” Shelby screamed into her mask as she ran towards her crew leader. Her hands connected with his back, pushing him out of the way.
The branch came crashing down in a hail of smoke, sparks and thunder. It slammed down on her left shoulder, knocked her helmet and breathing apparatus off. Charred earth dug into her cheek and chin before heavy darkness took the place of smoke and dust.
This was the worst bushfire the Sunshine Coast Hinterlands had experienced; and on Christmas day, of all days.
A sharp light darted across her vision and a myriad of muffled voices echoed around her as…
Shelby spun on her heel to find herself back in Maleny in her Nana’s kitchen.
“Oh God…” She slapped her hands across her mouth. “I’m dead!”
“He’s not here this very moment, and no, not yet.” Nan’s bright, hazel eyes shone with love from where she sat at her old wooden kitchen table, chopping green and red maraschino cherries.
“Well, those nuts won’t crush themselves. Wash your hands and get to it.” Nan said as though there were nothing odd about their current situation. Nan had passed away ten years ago.
Shelby looked around her. Everything was just as she remembered, down to the multi-coloured crochet blanket hanging over the well-worn leather couch. How had she gotten from the bushfire to here?
“Well, come on then,” Nan urged and returned to the cherries.
Shelby silently obeyed her grandmother. She pulled off her bulky fire-proof jacket, and hung it on the hook on the back of the kitchen door. She washed her hands and came to sit opposite Nan.
“If I’m not dead, why am I here, Nan?” She dug a hand into the container full of walnuts, and dropped them on the wooden chopping board in front of her.
“Can’t you remember what happened, Pumpkin?” Nan stopped her chopping, frowned, then turned her attention to the slices of sponge cake soaking in Old Brown Sherry.
“I was fighting a fire and saw a branch about to fall on Da – my crew leader. I – I pushed him out of the way but … I think the branch fell on me…” Shelby swallowed back her tears, “I am dead!”
Nan’s plentiful bosom heaved as she chuckled, “Not quite. And there’s another reason why you pushed him out of the way, isn’t there?”
A flash of light and distant muffled voices drew Shelby’s gaze toward the front door. Tendrils of smoke drifted in from beneath the door and through the keyhole.
“Where am I?”
Nan put down her knife and reached across the table, placing a leathery wrinkled hand on Shelby’s. “You’re here with me. It’s kind of a halfway stop between there.” She nodded up towards the ceiling, “and home.”
Shelby asked herself.
“To decide, of course.”
“How did you…”
Nan gave Shelby a knowing smile.
“What do I need to decide?” Shelby asked as she picked up a large sharp knife and began to chop and crush the Walnuts.
“Whether to return with me or go back home.” She stood up and walked over to the fridge, “Aaah… the custard’s chilled.” Nan pulled a small silver pot off the shelf. “When I saw the branch fall on you, I asked for a favour in return for one of my favourite Christmas trifles.”
“God eats trifle?” Shelby asked, shocked.
Nan chuckled again. “Oh, I’m sure He’ll want a taste too, but it’s for another…”
Nan came to sit back down. “Now, will you slice those peach halves for me, please?” Nan aimed the business end of her small kitchen knife at a bowl of peach halves soaked in syrup on the table beside her. “You were always afraid of being left alone. From the day your mum dropped you off at my front gate and vanished into thin air. And the day when you found I had simply not woken up. And especially, when you put your life before Dave’s. I was given a peek deep into your heart at that moment. You’d rather have died than loose him. Even though you’d never confessed your feelings.” Nan scooped a tablespoon of red jelly from a bowl which appeared from nowhere, and spread it out across the first layer of soaked sponge.
A sharp prick in Shelby’s arm, and another in her leg made her jump. They were followed by the muffled voices. She looked down at her arm. Nothing!
“Why’d you never tell him?”
“How I feel about him? That would be insane, Nan!”
“He’ll be half a man if you decide not to return.”
“How so? The only person who’s ever loved me was you,” Shelby scoffed as she returned to slicing the peaches.
Her head shot up. “Dave?”
She squinted when her Nan’s face wobbled and distorted. Through a haze, a pair of eyes she’d quietly fallen in love with the day they’d met, appeared. Blue as the brightest sky reflected off an ocean.
Then from Nan’s wrinkly old lips spilled a voice she knew better than her own, Don’t you die on me! Do you hear, Shelly! Hang in there…
Dave’s eyes remained staring back at her form Nan’s face.
“You’ve loved him secretly for a while, now haven’t you?”
Shelby had no words, but only nodded.
Nan reached across the table and picked up a few slices of peach, spreading them across the jelly before adding the custard and nuts, and then another layer of sherry-soaked sponge cake. “It’s not been as one sided as you might have thought Pumpkin. You’ve just been too afraid to notice.”
“But what if I take the leap and fall, Nan? If it doesn’t work out… I have no one… I only have you.” Tears trickled down Shelby’s cheeks as Nan sprinkled the red and green finely chopped maraschino cherries on top of her Trifle.
“You’re not unlovable Pumpkin. Stop trying so hard to convince yourself that you are.”
“I can’t lose someone else, Nan…”
A shiver ran across Shelby’s chest.
Shelly don’t go, hang in there!
“I want to go with you.”
A tingling sensation rippled down her breast bone and the voices grew dimmer, but Shelby’s mind returned to the sad, crisp blue eyes of a man who’d just lost his greatest love.
“And will you be happy knowing you gave up on a chance to have your own family? Love is not something anyone should fear.”
Another tingle, closer to a static shock this time, travelled across her chest and into her heart.
“I will always be with you, Pumpkin.” Nan reached out and stroked her face.
Shelby looked into the blue eyes that weren’t Nan’s but called to her with such love. His devastation at her loss reached out and wrapped itself around her heart.
“He really does love me!”
“Yes, Pumpkin, he does.” Nan smiled.
Sharp, ice cold fingers tore across her chest, jolting her where she sat.
“I love you, Nan. I’ll never forget you.” Shelby cried.
“And I will always be with you.” Nan’s face and the kitchen faded in to a soft darkness.
Muffled shuffling. Pain. So much pain returned to the surface of Shelby’s consciousness. With effort, she forced her lids to open, revealing a blurry green fog which surrounded her, and a large yellow lump slumped in a chair to her left.
Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached as though she’d swallowed red hot embers.
The lump stirred, and her focus improved. “D-Dave?”
“Shelly!” Relief and love edged the hoarseness of his voice.
Dave jumped up and came to stand beside her, his face close to hers as his fingers stroked her cheeks.
“Wh-where am I….”
“Sh, don’t speak. You inhaled quite a bit of smoke. You’re in the emergency department at Caboolture hospital. They’re waiting for a bed to open in High Care. God, Shelly, I thought I’d lost you… you saved my life!”
Dave’s voice broke, as diamonds sparkled across the azure of his gaze. He was still dressed in his protective gear and his face was covered in soot which streaked as the tears toppled from his eyes and tumbled down his face.
Shelby reached up and cupped his cheek bringing his face down to her, their lips touching and sending another shock right down to her toes.
“Always knew you two would end up together. Think we knew it before you did, though.” Raf, the large teddy bear in their crew , smiled as he pulled open the green privacy curtain.
Behind him stood a man, tall and blond, with eyes of coal, and dressed in black scrubs. In one hand he held a sickle and in the other, Nan’s Christmas Trifle.
Thank you, Shelby mouthed.
The man smiled before the remainder of their firehouse crew walked straight through him toward her bed.