Carolyn Bishop lives in the Northern California mountains. She recently earned her MFA in writing from Pacific University, Oregon, and is currently working on a collection of linked short stories. Carve Magazine is her first publication.
You press your forehead against the kitchen window, trying to see details in your garden, heat presses back like a fever. It’s been two weeks since a trailer’s dragging chains sparked into dry roadside grass. Now, heavy smoke lies low over town, creeps up the watersheds, makes the sweet mountain air smell sick. Last you heard, 80,000 wilderness acres have burned, twenty-five miles west of here. And when a scorched tree falls, flames hurl like dragon’s breath from its stump. The local t-shirt shop cranks out tourist tie-dyes that say, “Summer of Smoke 2009” on the front, and on the back “S.O.S."
Your nine-year-old son, Johnny, and his three best friends play video games, watch movies, shuffle in and out of the kitchen in their socks foraging for food in the fridge, in the cupboards. They came with controllers and DVDs, water bottles and cheese puffs, gummy worms and grateful messages from their parents. An army of underage defectors craving company. They like your HEPA filtered air-conditioning, the flat screen TV bigger than a crib mattress; they ask to borrow Bo’s mattress for a floor couch. Bo, three years old, stands at your side chewing on the ear of his blue elephant; he hates his crib, so you say sure.
Each afternoon the wind kicks up, blowing west to east, making you increasingly uneasy. At the far edge of your property, hundred-foot ponderosas sway, their needles shaking, still green so far. They’re your standing army, giving oxygen and being tall, making you feel safe. But you know they’re also the sticky, oily fuel fire craves.
You tie a wet handkerchief over your nose and mouth, bandit-style, and step onto the deck to water the browning sword ferns and lank petunias. Sour air curdles deep inside your nose. Bo tracks you through the window. You smile but he can’t tell.
Fine white ash, like a dusting of snow, covers the picnic table, the shed roof, the car and truck side by side in the driveway. You stare at Rob’s pickup, and the way ash fills the long crack in the windshield and wonder, for a moment, if he’ll ever come for it.
Inside, the dog clocks another hour of sleep. You sit on the floor, pet his snoring head.
You decide to banish the gloom in the house and make popcorn and cold chocolate milk. You string Christmas lights on the bonsai, the dog watches you with one eye. It’s okay, Mickey, you tell him. I know, he says.
The boys run screaming down the hardwood hallway and slide into the living room, one at a time, and measure the distance. They ask to play outside. You tell them there is no outside, only this space station.
Your fifteen-year-old daughter glares at you on her way to the bathroom. “They’re trashing the house, Mom,” she says. “Why are they still here?”
You look her straight in the eye and say, “Megan, we’re all getting through this together. They’re having fun. What’s wrong with that?”
She looks at the lit-up bonsai.
“This isn’t funny, Mom. You should be more serious.” Her sense of humor seems to have vanished with her dad. You think, though she hasn’t said, her boyfriend’s left too. The first one never lasts, you warned her, but now she blames you as if the shakeup in one relationship corrupts the sanctity of another. You saw her last night in the yellow-mooned yard burying the necklace her boyfriend gave her, handling it like a dead bird.
She brushes past you. You follow. She flings the bathroom door shut in your face. You stand there, mind blank. Since filing for divorce, you’re so easily lost. Like you’re tapped out of some vital parenting resource and can’t restock, or don’t want to.
Megan starts crying, flushes the toilet, turns on the shower, and yells over the water, “We could lose our house!”
She’s right. You could. You wish you could tell her otherwise.
Every morning, you scan the Internet looking for rain but the National Weather Service gives only Hazardous Air Quality alerts. And anyway, along the Pacific Coast Range in August, all you’ll get from a storm is dry lightning, empty thunder.
Three more days go by. Megan wields her irritability like a weapon. She only talks to the dog, her cat Fiona, her phone. She’s even ignoring her beloved Bo to make her point stick you more sharply. It’s working. You feel the shared interior space shrinking. You suspect she’s texting with her dad, but of course you can’t ask her what he says or thinks. It’s none of your business anymore.
Now and then messages ping through to your cell phone, friends keeping track of you and you of them. Is your car gassed up and facing out? You guys have enough food up there, batteries, face masks, bottled water, wine? Your smart friend, Eve, with her firefighter husband, says the fire’s now seventeen miles, two towns, and three firebreaks away. Only thirty percent contained, in steep inaccessible terrain. Likely to delay the start of school for the kids and going back to work for you. What if it doesn’t rain until Halloween? You glance outside, then crawl upstairs.
. . .
It’s stuffy and quiet in your bedroom. You yank the ceiling fan’s chain and a whoosh of cool air blows the papers off your desk. You pull off your dirty socks, lay on the bed, prop your bare feet against the wall. You tap “Summer Rain” on your phone and slide the volume all the way up; close your eyes and the room fills with the wind-driven sound of fire-killing rain. You drift close to the edge of sleep.
A sound is coming, getting louder; the bed rocks, and a small head rises above the fog.
“Mommy?” A knee jabs into your side. You open your eyes, and Bo’s face blooms in front of yours. You sit up, bleary, and they’re all hovering by the bed; Johnny with his three friends, Megan holding Fiona, and Mickey smiling. How did there get to be so many of them? They look like they want something.
Your daughter shouts, “These kids are driving me crazy!” Sam says they’re starving but mean old Megan, he pokes a finger at her, won’t let them in the fridge anymore.
“There isn't enough food for them all!” Megan wails and elbows the pushy kid. You tell her you’ll go to the store, she rolls her eyes, “They’re piglets. And not in a cute way!”
You say, “Calm down.” She doesn’t. You tell just the boys you’ll cook something.
She points out they're not your responsibility, and you should call their parents. She says, “Dad would,” and stomps downstairs.
When she’s right about him, you feel a sick hurt you’re still unused to five months after separating. You decide to tell Johnny it’s time his friends went home.
He starts begging. He needs one to stay. Fire is so boring.
You ask Megan which one she likes best. She sees right through you. You tell Johnny, “Ben can stick around, if his parents approve.” Ben’s the quiet one. Johnny throws his arms around your waist. You arrange for pickups before dinnertime.
You stand in the kitchen, fridge open, oven on, perplexed, and impatient. Quesadillas and pickles with ranch on the side? You hear a tentative tap, tap, tap, a long fingernail on glass, and shut the fridge. At the front door, you find your friend Diane with a plate heaped high under foil. Her hip is cocked and her palm upturned, like a drugstore waitress. The only friend in your circle you don’t trust anymore, the only one you suspect of screwing Rob when he was busy being drunk and depressed because she was too. What you should do is swivel around and return to the kitchen. But the air is foul out there and she’s being generous, and you’re not sixteen.
Behind you, Megan slinks by in her slippers with Bo flung smiling on her back, and says, “Look out, Mom. She’s a weird one.”
You let Diane in.
“I baked for you guys,” she says and shuts the door with her butt. “Zucchini cake. With cream cheese, you can call it dinner if you want. I know you hate cooking and I grew so much zucchini this year. So...” She hands it to you and surveys the house. “Rob around? I mean didn’t he come to help you out?”
You lock eyes with her and start to take the plate but her hands are still on it. “No,” you say. And you don’t look down or away while you say, “Thank you, Diane,” then reach behind her, open the door, and keep quiet as she backs out.
. . .
When night finally comes, things seem more normal, dark is dark. You sleep a while, then wake up to pee at four a.m. Everything’s dead quiet. The house is slowly leaking, letting in the smallest, nastiest smoke particulates. They’ll lodge in your lungs and never leave. It creeps you out. You curl into Fiona and sleep longer. In your dream, it’s finally winter and you light a fire in the fireplace. The kids are wandering around wearing holiday PJs with feet, even Megan, and calling you by your first name, Katie, instead of Mom. You open your sticky eyes, shaken and lonely.
In the morning, you wake early to blue sky. You can’t believe it. You run through the house barefoot, sliding open windows. Mickey’s collar tags jangle as he jogs toward you, toenails clicking. Shhh, you say, fluffing his head.
You both step cautiously outside and walk around. Ash has drifted in tiny dunes. Birds sing and zoom as if electrically charged. Mickey orbits your legs, panting with joy. You toss a tennis ball, and as you watch it fly you notice a cumulus plume of grayish-brown smoke on the other side of the mountain, as if a glass wall is holding it back. Beautiful contrast. But is that your mountain? The last one between here and the fire, or a more distant one? You send out a text, see if anyone knows what happened in the night.
You try to remember what it means when air rises straight up like that. Stable or unstable conditions? High or low pressure? The word flammagenitis pops into your head, but that sounds more like a skin condition than a cloud formation.
Mickey retrieves the ball and shoves it into your knees. You throw it again, then hose off your car, letting the overspray make a dappled mess of the ash on Rob’s truck. The temperature is climbing fast. You shoot the water straight up, let it rain down.
Diane texts you, I heard they’re evacuating parts of town this morn. Not too helpful. You text back, Which parts? You wish you’d hear from Eve.
Megan pounds on the kitchen window. You wave and say, “Come breathe this!”
She runs outside, arms flailing. “Mom! They just came banging on the front door. Didn't you hear? We have to leave, now.”
Before you can say, “Who?” a billow of dark smoke rolls down the face of the mountain. A dam loosed. You stand stunned, watching black erase blue.
“Mom. Come on,” Megan yells.
You grab Mickey by the collar and get inside. You go straight to the closet under the stairs where the family corkboard hangs, layered with paper scraps. Little messages from the past. Soccer schedules and snow days, emergency numbers from a time before cell phones. You dig a little and find the evacuation list. Pulling a pin, a Rob note flutters to the floor. Hey Wicket, mind a meet? You suddenly want more of him than just his sloppy handwriting. Pissed off at yourself, you stuff the note and list into your pocket. It hits hard that this mess is all yours now, you resolve not to fuck it up.
Opening the boys’ door, you laugh at the way they’re crashed in sloppy comfort. You shout, “Wake up, guys! Cal Fire wants us to head out. Shut off the electronics, get your stuff, don’t forget chargers, phones, and a change of underwear. Ben, text your parents, you’ll ride with us, once we find a motel in Redmond we’ll meet up for burgers. Got it? And Johnny, anything you can fit in this one suitcase you can bring. Just stuff you can’t replace, okay?”
Disheveled zombies, they nod and start moving like a single organism. Ben mumbles, “Should we bring our controllers?”
“Will they work on the fire?” Megan snarls. “Idiots.” She’s dragging garbage bags full of her things down the hall.
You tell her she can’t take all that.
“There isn’t room, honey. Just essentials. We’ll be back in a few days.”
“You don’t know that. What if it all burns down? You didn’t even put sprinklers on the roof or cut the tall grass!”
It’s true. You didn’t. But you de-branched the trees to ten feet above ground with your pole saw, that’s something. Megan’s missed most evacuations because of summer camp. What does she know? “Listen to me,” you say, “they save the neighborhoods, plus there’s a firebreak cut along the ridge, and an army of firefighters working the containment lines.” But this fire, even to you, seems different. Probably just the missing link of Rob. He had a knack for reassuring you: It’ll be okay, I’m sober, I’ll take care of it, no need to worry.
Always the hurricane’s calm eye.
Megan keeps walking toward the car, yells over her shoulder, “There only isn't room because we have an extra kid and you can’t drive the truck!”
You let her go.
A bullhorn blares from the road. How’d everything change so fast? Damn. “Hurry up, guys!” Think. You set Bo down and tell him to stay with Mickey.
What do you really, really need? Run up to your room, scan for what you love. There’s no way to choose between things. Throw some clothes into a backpack and grab the computer, the charger, the file folder marked Important Documents, and the framed photo of Meg, Rob, and Johnny with Mickey and Tonka as pups. You kick yourself for being nostalgic and take it anyway. Even though you and Rob have a rule forbidding texts, you send a quick one: Heading your way, evacuation mandatory, keep in touch, kids may want to see you. Send. Shit. You want to take back keep in touch.
Bo stands at the bottom of the stairs smiling and holding tight to Mickey’s leash. You ask where Johnny went. He says, “To the car. I got Mickey!”
“That’s good, Bo.” You take the list from your pocket, but you already know what to do. Pack up pet food and bowls, empty the snack cupboard into a shopping bag (don’t forget Fruit Loops for you), close windows, switch the propane and A/C off, soak five bandanas and put them in a Ziploc, take water bottles from the fridge, face masks for all, shove hissing Fiona into her crate, grab kitty box plus litter, get Bo’s small suitcase you packed two weeks ago, hold his hot little hand while you survey the interior of the house, trying not to picture it gone. It’ll be okay. Leave a light on. Chocolate, car keys. Go.
. . .
A hush inside the floating car, a strange unspooling of the thread that tethers you to this place, that Rob built so much of it himself, that Bo was born here. A familiar sense of having forgotten some pivotal thing hangs over you. In the rearview the orange sun spangs off the tight-shut windows, as if urging you to take the house too.
At the fork in the road where your driveway meets two others, Bill and Betty’s beater Chevy cuts in front of you. Bill’s arm shoots out the window. You figure it’s an apology wave, but with them you never know.
At the bottom of the dirt road, a volunteer firefighter directs traffic. It’s strange, this crowd—the neighborhood (if you can call it that) is usually so empty, its houses scattered and tucked behind tall stands of trees, set back down long dirt roads. You wave and nod like you’re in a parade, but it feels more like a funeral. Cars and trucks stuffed with possessions and pets. Worry hovering like a hymn.
You caravan down the mountain highway along the Teal River toward the inland valley… you wonder if the few decent motels in Redmond can accommodate so many evacuees.
In pockets of heavy smoke, you flip on your fog lamps. Bo drifts off to sleep beside you in his car seat. Megan’s by the window, her feet on the cat crate, earbuds in, thumbs blitzing cell phone keys. Music in, texts out. She hasn't looked at you in thirty minutes. The boys, with Mickey on the floor, huddle in the right half of the backseat. Megan’s bags crammed in next to them. On their tiny handheld consoles, small explosions, sword clashes, grunts, and sirens.
Cars slow for a reason you can’t see. “What’s happening?” Johnny asks.
“Not sure, honey,” you say.
Without looking up, Megan says, “There’s a checkpoint at the crossroads. They’re making people sign out.”
“That’s smart,” you say. “Can you see it up there?”
“Lena just texted me. But I think it’s stupid. If people stay behind, it’s their own fucking fault if they die.”
“Meg!” you say.
She exhales, Whatever.
When did she get so dark?
Bo fidgets and grumbles in his sleep and pushes his bare feet against the A/C vent. It whines and whistles.
You come to a complete stop and Megan un-clicks her seatbelt and picks up her purse and duffle. “Mom, I’m going.”
“Lena and her parents are almost to the checkpoint and have lots of room in their car. And she wants my company.” She gently lifts Bo’s hand and elephant from her lap. “It’s cramped and smells like dog breath and dirty hair in here.” She kisses Bo’s cheek and pushes the door open. You reach across the car seat, grab her left arm, and yank her back inside and she lands hard on the seat.
“Shut the door,” you say. She slams it and the scent of burnt forest settles into the car. “Listen, Meg. You can go, but I need to know exactly where you’re going. I want Lena’s number and her parents’ numbers too.”
“Ask Dad, he has all of them.”
“I’m asking you, Megan. Now.”
She takes your phone, enters the numbers, promises to text the second she gets into Lena’s car, and to answer your texts. You ask her to switch Fiona and Mickey. She does, then leaves. “Bye Meg,” Johnny says to her back as she walks off. She’s one headstrong tenth grader, can hurt and scare you at the same time. So many things about her, a Rob redux. Good thing she’s a girl.
Johnny untangles his Game Boy cords and climbs over the front seat head first, sliding like a seal, with his hands walking out ahead of him, and does a half-cartwheel over Bo, landing with a muffled thud. Not how you would have done it but here he is, grinning. You say, “You’re so compact, so stealth.”
“I practice.” He looks out the window. “What’s her problem?”
“Feeling claustrophobic and crazy, I guess.”
“Who isn't? Can I wake him up?” he says looking at Bo. “I brought aliens with me.” He pulls little figures out of his pocket and sets them on the dashboard. “Don’t worry, Mom, they can fall.” He dangles a Spiderman toy from the ceiling on a strand of dental floss. The car rolls forward a little, Spiderman swings, aliens fall, Bo’s eyes pop open, stare, then close again.
You ask Johnny to let his brother sleep a little longer, it’s easier that way. He tells you sleep is boring, then thinks about it, “Unless you’re dreaming.”
“Well, maybe he is,” you say.
Finally, you spot the dim reveal of the checkpoint just ahead. As you pull up the uniformed woman lowers her masked face to the window and shouts, “Name?” You tell her. “Who’s with you?” You tell her. “Anyone left behind at this address?” “Everyone’s out.” She writes it down, “Okay. Drive on.” You glance at your phone, see that Megan’s with Lena, and drive on.
“Hey!” Johnny says, “Remember the fire when Dad stayed behind watering the house? And just you and me and Meg evacuated, and Dad and Tonka and Mickey stayed home? How old was I?”
“And the night Dad drove out the dogs barfed all over the inside of the truck!” Johnny kicks his heels against the dash laughing. “And when they got to the hotel it was so, so gross?”
“The dogs had to sleep in the yucky truck until the next day?”
“It was sick!” he says.
“It was!” you say.
“Mickey’s much better at car rides now,” he says with authority, rubbing his toes around in Mickey’s thick fur. Johnny looks so happy thinking about his dad and vomit.
You ask if he remembers the next morning when he and Megan snuggled and watched cartoons, eating Frosted Flakes out of tiny boxes, while you and Rob washed the dogs and cleaned the inside of the truck, then walked to the House of Pies and sat for two hours drinking coffee, sharing pie, and talking while the dogs laid out across the warm sidewalk blocking foot traffic, drying in the sun. Megan was proud and twelve, just old enough to babysit Johnny, and they had secret fun while you were gone, sly smiles between them when you and Rob came back. And somewhere in that sweltering summer you got pregnant.
Bo’s car seat digs into your side, and your calves keep cramping, but you can’t reach down to massage them with your seat so far forward. Fiona’s tragic meow loops through the car. Only Megan can calm her. You may lose your mind. You do tush lifts instead.
At last, after taking two hours to travel thirty miles, you arrive in Redmond. Funky air reaches like a long afternoon shadow across the valley floor. You drive slowly down Main Street and the boys help look for vacancy signs. Miraculously Ben spots one right away. Pulling in, they cheer. Above the entrance a small hand-written sign reads: Pet Negotiable. You worry about the lack of s on Pet.
You ask Johnny how you look. He says, “Like my mom, silly!” You step from the car, elaborately stretch, then go ring the front desk bell.
A frumpy woman comes out and stands behind the counter waiting for you to speak first. You explain your situation, point to the overpacked car, beg for child and animal leniency. She goes back to discuss your case with her husband. He smirks at you over her frizzy head, then saunters forward, and says loudly, “That’ll be twenty-five dollars for the dog, fifty dollars for the cat. And all we got left is a king room. I’ll have to charge you for extra people. Fifteen dollars each. How many out there?” You say, just three, and ask if he has a rollaway. He says, “Nope, all gone.” He runs your credit card, while she stares at the car, then hands you a key.
You think, absurd, and say, “Thank you.” You really are grateful. You park in back and schlep the gang to the second floor. They marvel at the floral-sprayed scent of the place. You’re annoyed the fire smoke has followed you. At least inside the motel room you can forget about it in a way you couldn’t at home. Here, it’s not your smoke. You order a pizza, text Ben’s family, put your feet up, realize where you are.
. . .
For four days, you bounce around on the bed with Bo and Johnny, watch movies, play the motel’s old Nintendo 64, make superheroes out of paper cups and Kleenex, eat like college students. The king-sized bed holds all of you each night, including Mickey, and Fiona who purrs like an outboard motor. This motel novelty, after a month of home-lockdown, is a hoot. But the boys are getting restless and it’s still not safe to go back.
After everyone’s asleep you pace the outside hallway. To the east, you can barely make out the line between dark earth and black sky until a half-moon slips from behind the Sutter Buttes. You feel precarious and detached from home, a vague maybe-it’s-already-gone feeling. In your worn-out arguments with Rob, whenever one of you wanted to move back to the city the other wanted to stay in the mountains. By default, staying kept winning. Stop thinking, you tell yourself, never mind old stories. But there’s a difference between forgetting and not caring.
You hear the door open. “Mom?” Johnny says.
“What are you doing up?”
“Why are you out here?” he says.
“Thinking. Watching the sky.”
“Oh. Mickey was snoring again and I can’t shove him over.”
You take Johnny’s hand, he doesn’t seem in a hurry to go back inside, so you stand together under the huge valley sky, eyes on the rising amber moon.
He asks why shooting stars never crash into standing-still stars. You tell him you don’t know. He smiles and says, “I like it when you don’t know stuff, Mom.”
You lift his hand and kiss his rough little knuckles.
In the room, you wake Mickey enough to get him off the bed, and Johnny scrambles under the warm covers. You crowd in and tug a blanket corner for yourself and realize how badly you want a day and night alone before the call back to the mountains comes, which it will, ending this strangely comforting suspension of time. It’d be nice if Rob wanted to see the boys. Never hearing back from him bugs you. His not checking if you’re okay bugs you worse. You resolve to call in the morning no matter what you feel like in daylight. You go to sleep, tangled in sheets, hating love.
. . .
At nine a.m. you call. He doesn’t answer but calls right back. He says Megan told him everything. She mentioned Lena’s parents and the B & B in Mt. Shasta and the state you left things in at home. The state? He says Megan used the words vulnerable and dry. What B & B? He says he’ll pick up the boys at three o’clock. You tell him where you are, and hang up.
Fairly OddParents is on Nickelodeon and all you can do is laugh. Bo says, “Please keep it down Mommy, I can’t see the jokes.”
“I’ll try, honey,” you say and turn up the volume for him.
You assess your suntan-less face in the bathroom mirror and tell yourself things will be like this with Rob for a long time, might as well get used to it.
That afternoon, you’re walking Mickey in the weedy vacant lot next to the motel when Rob emerges rumpled from a car, expands to his full size, and dwarfs it. What is that ridiculous looking car? His girlfriend’s, probably runs on organic hemp seeds. He takes the exterior stairs, athletically, two at a time. Realignment of an alcoholic. His long spry legs always prettier than yours.
Bo opens the door and leaps weightlessly into his dad’s arms, his blonde head pops up like undone toast next to Rob’s and he looks right at you smiling and waving as the door closes. Startling how far that kid can see.
Whatever Bo says, if he says anything about spotting you, will be buried in the affectionate scrum of reunion. When they’re with Rob, they delete you.
Mickey drags you neurotically from smell to smell. Megan’s ringtone chimes in your pocket and before you say a word she says, “Can you pick me up?”
“In Mt. Shasta?”
“It’s hours from here, Meg. Why aren’t Lena’s parents bringing you back with them?”
“They’re not coming back yet. They’re going to Oregon to see family.”
“Well, they kind of have a responsibility toward you, don’t you think? It wasn’t your idea to go all the way up there, was it?”
“I wanted to come, but...”
You could go get her since Rob’s taking the boys, but you don’t want to. You have work to catch up on, calls to make, a joint to smoke, a book to read. You need a break. Plus the whole consequences aspect, she should have to deal with it. “What about Lena and school starting soon? Let me speak with her parents.”
“No! Mom. I just want you to get me, okay?”
The motel room door swings open and the boys come out laughing. Megan’s still trying, in a high-pitched voice, to convince you. You think maybe you’ll just live here in the vacant lot. Mickey quits scavenging and looks up when he hears familiar voices. His tail goes into full helicopter mode. He tugs the leash. You tell Megan you’ll have to call her back.
Now they see you. You feel doomed. You smile and wave and walk their way. You wish the boys didn’t look so cheerful, maybe you’re just selfish, but it grieves your heart to see them all together. What a lousy human being you can be. You watch Mickey’s old body noodle when he’s close enough to smell Rob. They all go for kisses and paw shakes, except Bo who wants up. You swing him onto your hip.
Rob stands there staring, “You look pretty damn good for a refugee, Katie.”
You smile, and remind yourself not to say anything stupid or mean. Divorce has turned you both into children on an unsupervised playground.
“I’ll keep them for as long as you need, okay?” he says. “Rayna’s out of town.”
Princess Rayna. “Sure,” you say. “Sound good, you guys? Take Mickey too.”
“No dogs allowed,” Rob says.
Bo says, “He’s not a dog!”
“Right,” you say. “We forgot.”
We, why did you say that? You hope Rob didn’t hear you but he’s grinning at you as if he did. Mickey likes you best anyway. They get into the clown car and drive off.
In the empty motel room, you try to work, but your mind’s too gluey.
Your phone starts playing “Emotional Rescue,” your sister’s self-designated ringtone. You flop onto the bed. “Hey, Jen.”
“I can’t believe you still have fire up there!” she shouts.
“We’re good at it. Hang on a sec.”
“You evacuated again?”
You wrestle your earbuds from Fiona, “We did. I’m in a little motel with the pets. You’d like it, it’s a mom and pop kind of place. But these two are strange. And mean.”
“Sounds charming. And the kids?”
“With friends, and with Rob.” You accidentally drop your tangled buds into your water glass. “Dang.”
“You okay? Katie, when are you going to get out of that dumb town? It’s wasting your life.”
She always says this—your whole family does. Nothing’s real but cities to them. You’re not in the mood to defend your rurality, as she calls it. You shake the buds and wrap Kleenex around them. Anywhere else sounds good to you right now, but you can’t tell her that. You say, “I don’t know Jen, we own our house, I have my job. The kids are content. You know?” You pause. What else? “Leaving is so much work.”
“Everything’s so much work,” she says. “Look how much work staying’s been. Best case scenario, your house burns down and you reboot with a wad of insurance cash.”
“Jesus, Jen,” you laugh. “I’m not sure I could fit back into a smaller place. It’s like we expanded here.” You stop talking. When your excuses bounce off her, they sound like what they are.
She says, “You have to go when the opportunity arises. Don’t miss your window. Promise me, huh?”
“I need to call Megan. She’s waiting for me.”
“You have to quit being in love with him.”
“I’m not in love with him. I’m in memory of love with him. It’s different. Like a slow repetitive fadeout. And, he’s a good dad.”
“Maybe,” she says. “But doesn’t that free you up even more?”
“I’ll call you back.”
“Hey, Katie? You don’t have to stay up there in your haunted house to prove moving there wasn’t stupid to begin with, or that you can handle it without Rob.”
“Bye, Jen.” As usual, she’s right. You want to scream, but then, for the first time in years, you think she might have made you feel better, not worse.
In the bathroom, you rummage through your kit and dial Megan, it goes to voicemail while you find airplane vodka and bubble bath, perfect. From the mini fridge, you take out orange juice and sit at the desk with The Elephant Vanishes and have a little afternoon party as the tub fills. The bath smells good. You’re hungry and the vodka works fast.
An hour later, you’re clean, a little pixelated, and still haven’t heard from Megan. You log into the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s incident website for an update. Containment line on fire’s east edge is holding, mandatory evacuation status for the Miner Creek area lifted. You give yourself a moment to feel something, but get nothing. Must be in shock then, happy shock, of course. You start cleaning the motel room, picking up what the boys didn’t take with them. Stray Legos, Play Mobile body parts, jellybeans stuck in the shag. When you’re under the bed collecting dirty underwear, there’s a knock at the door.
You turn and see Megan through the curtain standing there alone with her stuff. Oh, good, you think. Relieved you don’t have to drive to Mt. Shasta. You open the door, she comes in. You say, “How’d you get here so fast?”
“Greyhound,” she says. “And believe me it wasn’t that fast.”
You didn’t even know she knew how.
She drops her bags on the desk, and lies diagonally across the bed. You can tell she doesn't want to talk and her phone appears dead. Without it glowing in her hand, she seems like a different being. While she sleeps, you nestle into the armchair across from her with your vanishing elephant. An hour goes by, you need to pee. When you come back from the bathroom her eyes are wide open and you lie beside her and stare at the ceiling too. She says, “Where is everyone?” You tell her and she starts crying. Mickey comes over and licks her cheek. You hand her a Kleenex, she’s sobbing and hiccupping like a little kid. She says, “You mean I missed him?”
“I’m really sorry, honey. It wasn’t intentional. The boys needed more space to play. And just between us, they were driving me nuts.”
“And they wanted to see him. You gave them their way again, Mom.”
You say, “I asked Dad to come get them, Meg. It wasn’t their idea. If you want me to take you there, I will.” You feel a tightness loosen in your chest. You would take her there, and drive back home alone, but you’d rather she stayed with you.
And then Megan sits up, moves the pillows to a TV-watching position, and asks for the remote. She’s trying to do something besides watch TV but you’re not sure what it is. You wait while she flips through channels. Without taking her eyes off the screen, she says, “Lena’s house burned down.”
. . .
The next morning, you and Megan check out of the motel. You feel a little sad leaving the dumpy, uncomplicated place. Motel life seduced you this time. You stop by a market, pick up homecoming goodies for your empty fridge, then head out.
As you leave the flatness of Redmond behind, and begin the elevation climb home, you switch back and forth between feeling excited and terrified. You ask Meg, “How was Dad when you told him you were driving back with me?”
“He was fine,” she says. “He asked me if I was ready to see it gone. Said I should prepare myself for the possibility. I hate it when he goes all lecture-dad on me.” She pokes a finger into Fiona’s crate and scratches her small striped head. “I told him I didn’t want to think about it—I only want to worry if I have to. I said it’s dumb to plan-ahead in your head.”
“How’d he like that?”
“He said I was being sassy and to cut it out. I said I wasn’t, and hung up.” She turns to you. “I was just saying what I thought, and he didn’t like it.”
You beam with pride. That a girl! Finally, she’s pushing him a little more than she’s pushing you. Good to feel the joints of your relationship limber.
Optimistically, you’ve filled the back seat with a half-dozen grocery sacks, and they’ve been shifting with the curves. Bottles of wine and peanut butter and pasta sauce clinking in a continuous toast. The sound makes you nervous.
You ask, “Have you heard from Lena since you left the B & B?”
“Of course, she’s my best friend.”
How did you not know Lena was her bestie?
“They’re not even coming back,” Megan says. “Her mom said what’s the point standing around in the ashes crying. But what if Lena wants to cry? I mean, all of her stuff, just poof.”
You let her talk, wanting to be the kind of mom who listens, and keeps her mouth shut. It’s not that easy.
“I guess they were thinking about moving anyway,” she says, “but now they have nothing to move.” She fiddles around with her worn-out duffle straps. “That part really sucks, not having her at school.”
Abruptly, the familiar green outside gives way, and you’re in the fire zone, struggling to get your bearings in this strange, metamorphic forest. You slow way down, too shocked by what you see to move quickly through it. Landmarks and road signs have mostly disappeared, and the ones remaining are off-kilter or dirt-splattered. Somber oaks stand charred, and eerily human-like. Evergreens are black arrows pointing skyward. Spared leaves of white alders flutter like dead moth wings. Megan waves at the road crews already beginning to replace the melted guardrails. If only they could recompose the forest.
She becomes more subdued as you drive deeper into the devastation. You hear her whispering single words under her breath, Crazy, creepy, surreal.
If your house is standing alone on land like this, will you still want it?
Another half-hour, and you leave the highway and drive through downtown, then into the neighborhoods along the creek. Surviving homes steam majestically in the afternoon sun. But the further up you go the stranger things look. Suddenly every shrub and rooftop and bicycle is bathed in pinkish red. Tire tracks stripe the bright, dense powder on the ground ahead of you.
“It’s iron oxide,” you tell Megan. “They dye the flame retardant so pilots can see where it lands.”
“We have to breathe that stuff?”
You’re not sure how to answer.
“God, I wish it would rain,” she says.
Oh, rain. And now you’re picturing red creeks running into the Teal River. What an unholy mess.
When you come to your narrow dirt road, you slow way down and face Meg. “Listen, you know we’ll be fine no matter what”—whether you’re asking or telling it doesn’t matter. It isn’t true. Either way, everything is changed. Somewhere between June and September, years have gone by.
You turn into your long gravel driveway, and as you approach the level spot where the forks meet, Megan covers her eyes with her hands. “I can’t watch,” she says. “Tell me when we get there.”
You say, “Look, Bob and Betty’s is still here.”
But she doesn’t look. “I don’t care,” she says. “Honestly, I just don’t.”
You laugh, of course she doesn’t. You drive to where a pie slice of your house usually shows between the oaks and firs. You stop the car, and what you see doesn’t surprise you. You take Megan’s hands off her face and say, “It’s all right, honey. It’s okay.”
She lets out a little squeal and pounds her feet on the floor. “Oh my god. Oh my god!”
“I know. It’s good to see,” you say, but as the word leaves your lips it barely grazes your heart. The good you have in mind is different from Megan’s. Yours is about the house still being there even though you left the brown grass high and chafing and the roof bone dry. Good it didn’t burn down on your watch. A redemptive good. No Rob and the house survived anyway.
You look beyond her happy face to the two acres of earth that compose your property. Cleared trees lie dying in the driveway. Your smooth-trunked manzanitas, red anyway, are cut and bundled together in hideous clumps, doused in chemicals. A barren twenty-foot circle surrounds the house.
“Meg,” you say, “I’ll walk in from here, scope it out, and come back.” As you speak your body pulls away from your words. Panic, gone for years, ambushes you. Prickly sweat and a speedy heart. What if you tell yourself you’ll go straight to the bedside bottle of Ativan as soon as you get in the house? Cage that little demon. Good plan. Pathetic, you whisper.
Megan says, “Huh?”
“I said, I’ll go first. You and Mickey and Fiona wait here.”
She hesitates, nods okay, then says, “Who’s going to clean all this up?”
You’re not ready to think about that yet.
“I’m going to call Dad,” she says.
The two of you lock eyes. “It’s not his house anymore,” you say. “Let him focus on your brothers. I’ll text him later.”
You see Megan let out a breath. “Fine,” she says. “I’ll call Lena then.”
“Okay, good. Wish me luck,” you say.
“Luck,” she says.
You leave the car, and make first tracks into the fine red powder overlaying white ash, and think, bloody snow. Between fallen trees, the smell of fresh-cut wood surpasses the death scent of burnt fertilizer—an ironic component of flame retardant you’ve never understood.
At the back gate, you reach over and flip the latch, it makes its homey little click. You take offense, how dare it? You enter, but go no further. The forest debris strewn across the backyard alarms you. The fire’s wind must have been as fierce as the firefighters’ chainsaws. You wonder how long ago they left. You imagine the energy expended around here while you were away. All for a stranger.
You move toward the door, but severed tree limbs and cat-sized pine cones block your path. Johnny and Bo’s Tonkas and John Deeres are parallel-parked along the base of the house, right where they left them. You boot the rubble out of the way. You need to get inside, you feel shaky and lonesome. The day’s heat isn’t helping a thing. You bend to move a large manzanita limb lying across the porch. It’s hot to the touch. What the hell? You drop it quick and when it hits the ground sparks jump and die. You reach into your pocket for the house key and jiggle it into the lock. You go in.
The old air smells vaguely of burnt toast and coffee. Upstairs you sit on your side of the bed and pull open the drawer and hunt around for the bottle. You slip the pill under your tongue, let it dissolve. You wander from room to room, feeling like an intruder. You were so happy under this roof, automatically. Here was all it took. Now you don’t know. You’re relieved to be home and filled with dread too. Some sick mix you’ve conjured. Chill, you tell yourself, you’ll adapt, you always do. Anyway, it’s time to go tell Megan it’s at least all okay inside.
You turn down the thermostat on your way out, switch off the light, close the door behind you, and step from the house into little glowing embers. Stubborn, you think. You walk the length of the porch to the hose, and bend to open the spigot. But you change your mind, drop the hose, and straighten up. You stand there and watch the manzanita limb curling to life. Your foot starts scooching embers together, and you don’t try to stop it.
Over by the shed you spot the dead Christmas tree. In December, you needed three people to wrestle it inside and finesse it into the red and green stand, today you can pick it up all by yourself. You pause, holding that once soft-needled tree in your hands, then say timber like a prayer and let the dry noble fir fall over the embers. Little sparks a leaping. There, you think, that ought to do it.
You back away, calmly, flip the gate latch and leave. Ambivalence gone like a season. As you walk toward the car you alter your stride, drag a foot now and then, smearing your footprints on the rough red earth. •