The Smokejumper

Paige Kaptuch | Fiction

It’s been an hour since they stripped Katherine of her surgical privileges at work, and she arrives at the soccer team pool party with her low back cinching corset tight. Her daughter, Mae, gallops to the pool while Katherine silences her dinging phone—it’s her attorney, but she will not ruin this afternoon for Mae. Someone offers her a glass of chardonnay, but she tells them she’s on call. No one ever questions that.

The red rock towers and spires of the sprawling Monument wilderness loom above the pool of frolicking girls, the adults day drinking in the heat, all bonded by the rigor and time suck of competitive youth sports. Pop music pumps from the outdoor speakers. Whose house is this? She can’t remember—it’s hard to keep the soccer parents straight—who lives here with this modern xeriscape patio, the big French doors flowing into the minimalist living room, views of the golf course? The Smokejumper waves at her from the outdoor kitchen where he’s on grill duty. He’s in board shorts and a ragged t-shirt, day-old salt and pepper scruff highlighting his jaw, and she has the urge to go to him, tell him what’s happening to her, but she doesn’t know if she can bring herself to say any of it out loud. Yet.

She grabs a La Croix instead and participates in a comfortable bitchy conversation about summer camp sign ups. She makes Boston’s camp scene sound incredible (it was) and worries the moms will ask, again, about why she and Ben, at the prime of their careers, moved out here. The high desert sun is strong and her skin is already burning through the gauzy red poncho thing she bought at Target along with a larger swimsuit for Mae. Their bodies are both aging, which often fuels disruptive scenes involving clothing and how it doesn’t fit. Thirteen years ago, pregnant with Mae during residency, she worked her ass off, worried she wasn’t taking good care of herself, and then with five weeks off for maternity, she went back to enduring the long hours at the hospital, a fussy baby who wouldn’t sleep, unreliable nannies who often bailed on overnights when she was on call, and Ben, in a critical care fellowship, acing his boards, training for marathons, making sleep a priority.

The Smokejumper whips off his shirt and runs to the pool, cannonballing to the delight of the 13-year-olds. His splash feels almost violent and Katherine gets wet from feet away. All the girls are screaming as he picks up pubescent bikinied bodies and throws them into the deep end, one after another, his own daughter somewhere in the mix. The pool is churning. Katherine wonders how embarrassed Mae would be if she took off her poncho and slid into the water too. What would it feel like to have the Smokejumper throw her perimenopausal body into the deep end along with all the girls, her screams echoing off the red rocks surrounding them.

Her eye won’t stop twitching, and she lifts her sunglasses and presses her hand over it like a patch, reviewing which of her cases the med exec committee might be investigating from the past few months. Definitely this one: she’d done a routine hernia repair on a 23-year old and—long story—thought she saw a tumor on his spermatic cord and made an incision in his scrotum, accidentally cutting his vans deferens. Effectively giving him a vasectomy. It wasn’t a tumor, just fat from the hernia she hadn’t fully repaired. She felt deceived by herself. When she tried to talk about it with Ben, he had been condescending instead of supportive. You should never cut into the scrotum—what were you thinking? There’s been a brain fog she just can’t shake since moving to the valley. Last week, she fainted during a case. The anesthesiologist caught her before her head cracked on the floor.

The Smokejumper proclaims he’s getting out. The girls grab his slippery torso and slide off while he uses his triceps to launch onto the pool deck. They cling to his legs while he flails. Mae hangs back giggling but not touching, Katherine notes. Mae understands boundaries. The Smokejumper’s body glistens, browned on the arms and neck and legs, tattoo sleeve up one arm, his front strong, pale, unapologetic. He runs to flip burgers on the grill while one of the Dads grabs him another beer. The girls throw pool toys at him and one falls on the grill, plastic sizzling. He puts his beer down, and jumps in the pool again to everyone’s delight—picking girls up and throwing them again and again like pieces of Styrofoam while the hot dogs burn unattended.

Ben arrives, blinking in his scrubs looking like a withered old man—why didn’t he take a second to change? Why didn’t he bring sunglasses or a hat? His bald spot will burn. He’s been growing a beard, a big dirty looking one as is the trend around here. He looks older, greyer, like he’s trying to hide his shame. Like he doesn’t want her to kiss him ever again. He grabs a beer and before he can get to her, the other dads close in on him.


A few months earlier on the first day of soccer practice, Mae had been nervous, saying she was too fat, too slow, and begged Katherine to stay and watch. But you made the team, Mae! They want you. You’re good! The desperation in her eyes worked and Katherine stayed. The move across the country to a new school and soccer club halfway through the year was harder on Mae than Katherine had anticipated. She’d only thought of her and Ben and his affair with one of their anesthesiologist friends at work. The therapist said Katherine should call the shots—if Ben wanted to heal this marriage, then he’d have to follow wherever she wanted to go.

Mae’s young British coach sent the team through a series of warm-up drills involving running through a ladder, high knees, hair swinging like show ponies. There was something in their innocence, the routine on the green grass below the red of the rocks rising, soothing and pure. The cliffs circled the city keeping them in and the Grand Mesa loomed above to the east.

The other dads from the team stood behind Katherine in their bearded cluster holding beers as if soccer were so boring, they needed to make it a party. Katherine listened to their discussion about dirt bikes and regular bikes, hunting tags. A man galloped past them. He wore green heavy clothes and a worn trucker hat, as if he’d just come from doing ranch work somewhere. An elderly golden retriever trotted after him and settled on the sidelines while the man started warming up the goalie, his shots causing her to dive. The dads noticed him too.

“That Eric Jones? He’s assistant coach?”

“Haven’t seen him in forever.”

“He still on Tabegauche? Smokejumper?”

Katherine’s heart thudded with interest and she started looking these things up on her phone, impatient for results. Tabegauche, one of the Ute tribes who inhabited the area, were skilled with horses, but in 1881, the government moved them to a reservation in Utah. The local wildland fire module unit was also named Tabegauche. She learned Smokejumpers are specialized wildland firefighters who parachute out of airplanes to provide an initial attack. She watched him, picturing him jumping off a plane, the type of courage it must take to jump into smoky air.

The girls were lined up for a scoring drill. Mae received a pass with a defender pressuring her and took a shot that sailed over the goal. The British coach’s voice sounded sharp from afar. The Smokejumper squeezed Mae’s shoulder and patted her back. A small warmth bloomed in Katherine’s chest.

A few days later, when he sat down on the grass next to Katherine during a water break, the Smokejumper introduced himself. He need not introduce himself because Katherine couldn’t stop thinking about him, asking Mae what she thought of her coaches (just a shrug). Katherine scoured the internet for hours, immersed in the world of wildfire fighting, hotshot crews, smokejumpers, fire shelters. She marveled that all the years she spent in medicine and across the country, she missed entire other universes of professions she had never considered, entire other ranges of injuries and ways people could die.

There were devastating stories when you explored wildfire fighting but the Smokejumper’s story was of survival. At a fire in Montana a few years back, he and his crew had been trapped when the wind changed the fire’s direction in a canyon. It was coming for them, fast. They deployed their emergency shelters in a rocky clearing—many had only done this before in training. In the photo, the shelter just looked like a piece of aluminum paper cocooned over a body. Like the shiny blankets they give out at the end of big city marathons. The wind sounded like a freight train. Debris fell on them. They’d had to dig holes to breathe into and hold their shelters down because the wind was so strong. It felt like they were burning as the fire passed over their bodies. It was hard to trust the shelter was working. They were aware of people in the past freaking out, lifting the shelter, and running to their immediate death. It felt logical to leave the shelter, but none of them did, haunted by the stories. When it was over, they came out alive. They had the worst headaches of their entire lives. Dehydrated. Metal tools had melted. The rest of their gear was destroyed. In the article she read, they talked about the training, the education—it had worked to save them. She turned the oven up to 500 degrees with the pretense of baking a frozen pizza, just to breathe in the heat, wondering how one could sustain feeling trapped in something that was supposed to save them.

“What do you do, Katherine?” He was the only parent who had ever asked her. He spoke with a certain sensitivity. He had kind eyes. His face was leathery, aged an extra ten years she thought.

“General surgery. Over there,” she gestured as if embarrassed, toward Grand Valley Community Hospital rising as the tallest building among the sagebrush in the lot next door. “We just moved here. For the sun.”

She felt like he was looking for more, because he kept staring at her, and she turned and looked ahead. “Which one is your daughter? Sadie right?”

“Two braids, blue shorts—he pointed at the girls gulping from water bottles. A few had two braids and blue shorts, including Mae who was the tallest one, the most developed one.

“I don’t think I’ve met Sadie’s mom yet?”

“Liz. She’s guiding raft trips in Utah right now—another few weeks away.” He seemed to admire and hate it all in one sentence.

“And you’re a Smokejumper?” And then she realized he’d never told her this about himself, that she was just some nosy outsider.

“Oh. Well, I used to be.” He seemed amused. “I’m mostly a guide now. I’m on SAR too.”

“What’s that?”

“Search and Rescue.”

“Ah, right.” She felt foolish. And nervous. He was so frank. “Have you ever rescued anyone?”

“A few people.”

“For what?”

“Stuff on the river, falls, lost hikers…”

“Have you ever lost anyone?”

He moved closer. His breath smelled like straight vodka, and she almost threw up but she wanted him to put his unshaven face still closer. “Have you ever lost anyone?”

She took a beat, thinking about what to say because it was a complicated question. Some girls from the team walked by and he pelted them with two balls while they jumped and laughed. The British coach blew the whistle and he got up.

The second time they talked on the grass, the Smokejumper asked what she liked to do. She sat there, stumped, because her entire life seemed like work, Mae, soccer, Ben’s affair, and the move. She told him she liked running the trails above the valley but she was afraid of getting lost, and he nodded seriously—he’d take her up and show her some cool stuff. Her stomach flopped and they made a plan before she could process what the medical marriage counselor would say.

He met her a few days later at sunrise. She was outfitted in her new trail vest, flasks, Boston Marathon tee, which she realized too late was pretentious and city slicker when she saw him in work shorts and a button down and maybe there was a water bottle in his pocket? He smiled. He said they’d have about 3,000 feet of gain and he offered to run her pace, hike the switchbacks, whatever she felt good with.

The climb was brutal, up from desert prairie, hills of sagebrush, past sandstone against black rock, and up steep sidewinding red scree slopes—higher than she’d done by herself in previous weeks. It was hard for her to talk, and she felt embarrassed but he seemed to love doing all the talking—went on about Sadie and the soccer team, the intense pressure on the girls to perform. He had his opinions on what the valley had to offer kids, and if they should be required to go somewhere else for a few years after high school to see the world. This valley could trap you. He talked about the motorized paraglider he’d built himself, how it offered a new view of the valley. He’d take her up sometime! They didn’t see another soul the entire climb.

They left the main trail onto what seemed like a hidden game trail, continued climbing through a forest of junipers and scrub while he went on about guiding and Liz’s work with the rafting outfitter and how he was the default solo parent for most of the season. He’d decided he might rejoin Tabegauche again if Liz let him. He was going to talk to her when she got home. She never had any service out on the river and it was hard to keep up with each other.

Finally, they reached a sandstone bridge, maybe 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, and he motioned for her to follow. It was like walking on the sky.

She stopped in the middle because she wanted to see him reach the other side before she did. And then she looked down. It was sickening, the drop 3000 feet to the valley floor. She looked back up and hurried forward before he could notice what she’d done. They came around the corner to a large amphitheater with sheer red canyon walls on one side and a cliff drop-off on another. There was nowhere left to go.

He squatted on the sandstone, drawing a circle with a stick. “The story goes….thieves used to hide stolen horses here back in the day. They’d bring ‘em all up that single track and over the bridge and bam—stick them here in this natural corral. See those stakes? They’d cut off the narrow path here to the bridge with barbed wire so the poor mares couldn’t escape.” He walked over to a tangle of rusted wire that looked like a lasso and nudged it with his toe.

She got chills. It was hard to imagine this small area filled with horses.

“And if the rustlers got caught up somewhere and couldn’t make it back, many horses would starve, die of thirst. Some would see the water down there and jump off the edge, trying to get to it.”

Her stomach turned. It didn’t seem real—but there was the truth. “Awful. So selfish of them.” She wished she didn’t know. It was like finding out about Ben’s affair. There had been rumors and she wished she could go on forever without knowing.

He went and stood near the edge of the cliff. “Come look. It’s ok, it’s safe right here.” His voice softened. “This is what the horses would have seen.”

She tried to play it cool. But there was something terrifying here. A reckoning. She crept over. This was where they were supposed to embrace, but instead he held her hand. He knew she was scared.

The view over the cliff was stunning. She couldn’t see her house or the hospital or the valley. They were too far back.

“I like to fly my para right through there—he pointed out to where the canyon walls opened into a perfect gap across from them, a thruway between the valley and what was back and into the greater beyond.


Ben stands in the bearded dad cluster at the pool party laughing with the group about something. Avoiding her. She hasn’t told him yet, about her conversation with the Chief Medical Officer, but from his body language across the patio, she can tell he knows. Ben is on the Med Exec Committee. He must have had to recuse himself when her name came up for discussion. It strikes her suddenly—he’s known about this coming.

She needs to get out of here. She calls for Mae, who emerges from the water and covers herself immediately with a towel, bare feet dancing on the hot cement. As Katherine turns to thank the host, she sees the Smokejumper coming. Maybe they can talk. Perhaps they can plan another trail adventure. She wants to feel like a passenger again, someone who can be led somewhere and not even have to think about it. But he’s pulled away by a group of the girls into some game involving a ping pong ball and she feels a tug of jealousy. Mae, intent on joining the game, runs to Ben and asks if he’ll stay a little longer with her and he agrees.

Katherine drives to the trailhead near home to call her attorney. Home is just a dark cave, full of boxes still not unpacked, piles of laundry, an empty fridge. The sun dips behind the rock towers making it darker here sooner than further down in the valley. There’s no one around and she hikes for a bit as they hash out options for next steps. She’s been named in a malpractice case already. The hospital might require her to do remedial training, like having to repeat residency all over again and she’d need to leave this place, go to a bigger city for that. What do you want to do to keep this job? What about Mae? Ben? What else can she do after all these years of work? She pictures herself slinging bags at the airport, taking orders at the cafe, coming home to Ben in his scrubs, his tales of the traumas in the ER that evening, the dead in his eyes—the job he hates, the place he didn’t choose to live.

When she pulls into the driveway, Mae, still in her tie dye bikini, flees the garage and charges to the car, angry crying. She yanks open Katherine’s door with the dramatic strength of a teen in crisis. “Dad’s being mean! I didn’t do anything!”

“Woah. What’s the problem?”

Ben appears at the garage door holding a beer. Still in his green scrubs. Grim. “I’m trying to talk to her about the hug with Sadie’s father, but she’s not listening.”

“What do you mean?” Katherine pulls Mae close.

“He was just hugging me goodbye,” Mae cries into Katherine’s chest.

“No,” Ben argues. “It was inappropriate. Too long. Private—inside near the bathroom. I saw him rub your back when I walked in. That’s not how a friend’s father or a coach should be hugging you.” He looks at Katherine for a moment, his face betraying his calm voice because Mae isn’t looking.

Katherine sees his terror. But she’s resentful of it. It’s not earned. “Like what do you mean?” She keeps her voice neutral. No big deal. NBD as Mae would say. “Show me.” She decides she doesn’t believe him.

He approaches, presumably to demonstrate the inappropriate hug, while Katherine reflects on how, if he hugs her, it will be something they haven’t done in months. But Mae is crying indignantly in her arms. Her hair is still wet and perfumed with chlorine and her scalp is burned and Katherine feels as if she’s failed her once again.

“He grabbed my arm so hard and it hurt!”

“Who did? Sadie’s Dad?” But Katherine knows the answer.

“No. Dad did. And he embarrassed me. Everyone saw. And Sadie’s Dad’s feelings were hurt. Dad swore at him. He said the f word.”

Ben turns from them, shaking his head, and walks inside the same way he left the therapist office after he gave the sorry reasons for his affair—that Katherine wouldn’t let him touch her anymore, that she was always angry at him, that she wouldn’t let him love her. These are things she was supposed to be working on since they moved.

She tucks Mae in and trudges upstairs. She pours a glass of wine in the kitchen while Ben sits at the counter staring at his laptop.

He looks up. “You should have seen that guy hugging Mae. You would have flipped out.” He’s smug, as if he knows how much she needs the Smokejumper and is intent on destroying him.

This fills her with rage but she keeps her voice calm, even, changing the subject. “Aren’t you going to say something about work? Please don’t pretend you don’t know.” She keeps her voice even.

He closes the laptop. Takes off his gross black socks and nods, throwing them on the floor.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Kat. Don’t you think it’s good to take a break? You were making mistakes. You told me you were having a hard time.” He sounds irritated, as if this is her fault. As if her inquisition is out of line.

“You threw me under the bus. Admit it.”

“I swear. I didn’t. Why would I?”

“But you had to have known before me?”

“I recused myself when they brought your name up.”


“You’re missing the bigger picture. You need a break.”

“But why didn’t you tell me?”

“I said you should take a break months ago. Don’t you remember? But you didn’t listen and now look at what’s happened.”

Tears start to well from her eyes but he ignores her, only focused on his truth.

“I mean—some of the radiologists and oncologists haven’t been impressed with your biopsies. Your mastectomies and lumpectomies don’t look right. This scrub nurse told me…”

“You’re talking about me with a nurse?”

“They all think you seem off.” He strokes his beard and looks into her eyes, challenging her.


A few days after their adventure up to the rustlers’ horse corral, The Smokejumper invited her and Mae over after practice. They lived further down from the trailhead in a small ranch home on a lot filled with scrub and sage and juniper trees, with a large raised garden thriving in the shade behind the garage.

The girls ran toward the house, kicking off their cleats in the entry and disappearing. The Smokejumper told Katherine to go on in—he just had to get something. She walked in, weakly calling out to Mae for no other reason than feeling self-conscious, wondering if this was yet another thing the therapist wouldn’t advise. The rotting smell of the garbage disposal hit her before she reached the kitchen. The golden retriever was curled up on a nest of laundry. Was he sick? She went to pet him and he rolled on his back, legs askew, tongue hanging, as if he’d been waiting for her.

The Smokejumper burst through the door with a flourish, his arms filled with fresh greens and carrots. “From our garden!” He didn’t seem embarrassed about the dishes piled in the sink, the recycle bin full of beer bottles. He rummaged around and found a reusable grocery bag for the produce. “I’m guessing you guys don’t have a garden—I mean since you just moved here?”

“No. Oh, no there hasn’t been time. Thank you.” She wanted to eat it right there, with him.

“Ok now I’ll show you something cool.” He marched back outside and she followed, her heart skipping.

In the garage, he disappeared around a corner leaving her next to a pinboard with dirt crusted photos of firefighters. She stared, imagining them under the shelters, of the bond they still must have. There was a photo of a woman, she presumed was Liz, rowing a raft full of people getting sprayed. Her mouth was open like she was screaming but she was keeping the entire raft afloat. She was beautiful, in a way that devastated Katherine. If she hadn’t pursued medicine, if she hadn’t complicated her life, if she’d followed her passions and stayed outside, perhaps she would earn the same beauty too.

The Smokejumper wheeled something out that looked like a stroller, presenting it to her like a retriever dropping a toy for his person to throw.

Did he think she was pregnant? Why would she need this?

“Want to try it out?”

And then she saw that the two seats would hold adults. It had a big circular motor on the back. And presumably, that bag held the parachute. The sail.

She got in. Was this Liz’s seat? “Are we going right now?” What about the girls?

“It’s so great having the motor—you can just take off from the ground. No need to jump off anything. I love checking out the slot canyons from above. You can dip in and dip out with no consequences.”

“How do you steer?” She knew how scared she sounded. Cautious, nervous, out of place.

He smiled then laughed. “There’s a risk to everything isn’t there?” He picked up the bag. “Lemme just unfold this and we’ll go for a quick spin. The girls will be fine for a bit.”

Her phone started ringing. And dinging. Ben was texting from work. There was a complication with a case if she hadn’t already been called. Why was he involved?

“I have to go to the hospital,” she told the Smokejumper. She climbed out of the flying machine and started toward the house for Mae. She’d have to drop her at home, order a pizza, trust her to get going on homework alone.

“She can stay here,” he offered. “We can get her some dinner. She can spend the night if you need. No trouble. I totally get it. You have to save someone.”


In the span of a few days the Book Cliffs corralling the western edge of the city catch fire. From a distance they look like they’re made of pure pinched sand, but the Smokejumper has told her they rise over 8,000 feet and there’s a lot of forest up there, you just can’t see it from here. At night, she can see the orange flames. Ash falls from the sky, twisting and twirling down on her car. The sun glows like a bloated red death star.

While Mae is at school, Ben sleeps after an overnight shift and Katherine sits at the kitchen window watching the smoke plume that will never die.

Later, at soccer practice, the other dads stand in their cluster. The Smokejumper isn’t there but she notices a barefoot woman in a cowboy hat who she hasn’t seen here before. It has to be Liz. She’s wearing a long skirt and a tank top, her arms sculpted from days on the river. Katherine wants to go to her, introduce herself so it’s not awkward later when she’s off with the Smokejumper again, but some of the dads walk over to chat with her, circling her so Katherine can’t get through.

When Ben returns home the next morning, she’s crouched down in the garage, tying her trail shoes.

He stands over her. “I told you—running in this air is like smoking two packs of cigarettes in an hour.”

“I don’t care.” She stands. Is he blaming her for moving them somewhere with wildfires? For being the new guy in the ER who has to take most of the overnights for the next year?

“You know that creepy soccer Dad—the one who I caught hugging Mae at the party?”

She stiffens. They hadn’t spoken of the Smokejumper again. She had chalked up that night to Ben being tired, too many beers. Nothing to discuss.

“Soccer club director’s wife was on my shift. I told her all about it and she validated me. Agrees this guy is a predator. He’s too handsy. And he’s got a major drinking problem. Haven’t you noticed he’s been showing up to practice totally lit? Anyway, she told her husband.”

It feels as if her insides are freezing up. “What will they do?” She tries to seem detached from it. It’s someone she doesn’t know.

“No one really wants to touch him with a ten foot pole—there’s the daughter to consider—so they’ll just pull him from coaching, keep an eye on him when he’s around.”

Since when was Ben such a moral person? He’s waiting for her to applaud him but instead she starts running out of the garage, running to the trailhead without saying goodbye.

She starts up the way she went with the Smokejumper. It feels harder than it did on their adventure a few weeks prior. Usually rage powers her, but she feels weak and slow. She finds the game trail, following every turn, as if he’s there leading her. The musky odor of bighorn sheep hits and she sees them shrouded in smoky mist, blocking the trail. A male with the longest thickest horns curling back behind his head stands sentinel. Babies and mothers startle and skitter sideways as if they know she must make it through.

She crosses the natural bridge, hungry to reach the spot where they stood alone together. There’s still been no call from Med Exec with a decision, but if her life boiled down to this spot, this memory, things could be ok. She could come up and sit here every day until she felt ready to come back out and start over.

In the natural corral, she sees the circle The Smokejumper drew for her. It’s so hot and she’s dizzy, despite drinking from her flask. She goes to the edge of the cliff for one look before turning around. A male collared lizard, emerald green, poses and performs pushups on a rock. A strange blast of wind rustles the junipers, and then, a sound, like a fly buzzing and then a thing suspended in the air above the valley, flying fast toward her. It’s a man in a chair, a rainbow parachute above him, the circle motor on his back like a giant fan propelling him toward the canyon. To her. Is it him? Does he see her? She can’t move—wondering if he’ll be able to land on the ledge and put her in the tandem chair he’s reserved for her, and whisk her away, up high between the canyon walls and beyond like he’d promised.

Instead, he passes her, turning his head as if desperate for recognition. He’s too low, and with canyon walls surrounding him, he flips upside down, the parachute tangling on some rocks. The contraption slams into the side of the canyon across from her and he hangs quietly, the thing caught on a ledge, while the motor buzzes like an injured insect. She whips out her phone to call for help. No service. She opens her mouth to scream but nothing comes out. And he hangs there so close, yet unreachable across the huge drop off, the motor still going, ruffling the branches of a juniper tree.