Kmart is burning on TV. So is the church and hospital. I pack my toothbrush, underwear, and cash in a duffle. I consider the family photos. I don’t want them, but I know I should, so I toss them in a plastic grocery bag.
“Stay put,” the sheriff says from inside my television set. “We have a specific evacuation plan. Stay put until we give you word to go.” Flames cast a Halloween-orange glow behind him. I open a bag of tortilla chips, glancing at the nutrition facts as if the world wasn’t burning around me.
The fires began several years back. Ripping through the vineyards and woods up north. Destroying beachfront homes, lush suburbs, and crisp hills to the south. Autumn winds carried enough ash to cover my truck in a thick layer of grime and turn the skies red.
Somehow, I never imagined the fire making its way here. Daddy built this home decades ago, nailing and sawing while Mom tutted after Matty and me in a trailer parked on the edge of the lot. My childhood memories are set more amid the bones of the house than inside the finished place itself. I traipsed through piles of wood and cold sheets of tile, scraping my knees and getting splinters in the soft pads of my fingers. Once, Daddy caught us kids chasing each other with screw drivers, running around and around an exposed post. When we saw Daddy standing there, Matty and I stopped dead. He pulled us by the scruffs of our necks to the woodpile so the neighbors wouldn’t see and spanked us until our bums bruised like apples.
Slowly and then all at once, Daddy finished construction. One of the photos in the grocery bag shows the four of us in front of the one-story house. Mom, tired in a long skirt, cigarette pinched between tobacco-stained fingers. Daddy wearing overalls and a gummy grin. Bare-chested Matty, 6, sucking on his thumb even though he was far too old for it. Me in a faded dress, staring dumbly into the distance.
Working on the house had sustained Daddy. He existed best amid chaos and unbuilt things. Finishing was the problem. He and Mom rotted in place after that. I left as soon as I graduated from high school, moving an hour away to a little lakeside tourist town. I took a few community college classes and paid my bills working at a roadside fruit stand frequented by rich families driving to their vacation homes. I’d stand behind the register eating the scarred peaches we couldn’t sell, watching the mothers in their linen clothes sift through baskets brimming with cherries and test the firmness of avocados in their hands, planning the meals that would make their families happiest. Out in the parking lot, the fathers leaned against the shaded car and the kids, already in their swimsuits, threw rocks at each other and squealed.
That summer, I met a man who I married too fast because he seemed kind. Ours was a fine life while it lasted.
(The fruit stand burned to the ground not long ago. The whole town did, all the way up to the edge of the lake. When it happened, I imagined those families and my ex going up in flames, too. Poof. Gone.)
During that time, I hated going back home to visit. The house made me feel restless and tired all at once. But after Matty died in a boating accident, after Daddy had a heart attack, after my marriage soured and ended, it’s where I found myself. It was supposed to be for a little while, just to help Mom out.
Only once, over a microwaved dinner, did I dare mention my big, empty dream of moving across the country and setting up somewhere new. Mom, who had boarded a train to California from Oklahoma when she was 17 and never looked back, stared at me from beneath her thick glasses as she chewed a forkful of overnuked fettucine alfredo.
“Where’s there to go? There’s nowhere else,” she rasped. “This is the promised land.”
“You have cheese sauce on your cheek,” I said. And that was that.
The funny thing—considering my circumstances, anyway, with skies smudged and gray—is that it was the cigarettes that killed Mom. She smoked her whole life, even at the end. I stole one from her when I was a teenager. I didn’t light it, just popped it in my mouth and stared in the mirror a while. I felt different with it, more adult. Mom found it secreted away in my sock drawer and made me smoke a whole pack while she watched. “You want to smoke? Then smoke.” My throat aches now like it did that day, as sore as if I’d rubbed it with sandpaper. Every breath ragged and cut short. My lungs don’t want this toxic air. Smoke has seeped into the house all day, even with closed windows. Wildfire mixed with the stink of something far worse.
Despite my intentions, once Mom passed the house seemed to cement me into place. In the years since, I’ve continued to treat this home as temporary, though it’s contained me for most of my life. Cabinet knobs loosened and fell off. The walls split and flaked. Stains settled into the already dingy carpet.
I felt guilty about the disrepair. But if the place burns to the ground, then what would that work have amounted to? Nothing but a pile of ash.
I crunch on another chip. I’ve eaten so many that the salt turns the inside of my mouth raw. I wish I had salsa. The air howls outside.
I’ve seen pictures of burned up houses, everything turned to cinder except the fireplaces pointing to the sky, accusing. It seemed strange that those relics would remain, except for the unremarkable fact that they were built precisely to withstand flames. To not burn. I’d gone to a museum for one of my community college classes where they displayed photos of artifacts in situ. I’d begun thinking of myself that way lately. In place. Maybe they would find me here, in situ, dead of smoke inhalation or else just a row of teeth and charred bones beside the fireplace Daddy built brick by brick.
Addresses for mandatory evacuations scroll along the bottom of the TV. People on screen cry into each other’s arms, faces red and puffy from tears and smoke.
I reassure myself. My neighborhood hasn’t been called.
The whole town can’t leave at once. That’s what went wrong up in one of the fires up north. The flames swept the place without warning, late at night. Everyone there tried to flee the inferno by car, but they clogged up the roads. Dozens of them burned alive in their cars, the blaze hot enough to melt the aluminum wheels. A horrible end.
Just wait, I tell myself.
It becomes an incantation: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait…
Then the power shuts off with a whoosh, bathing me in darkness.
Soot has obscured the windows, so I rush to the front door. As I turn the knob, it’s like opening an oven with a blackened roast inside. The stench pours in, stinging my eyes. Sweat instantly prickles on my forehead. As I peer out, one word escapes my mouth: “Fuck.” Flames flicker on neighbors’ lawns and crackle in trees. The wind sends constellations of embers skittering along the ground.
I hear it before I see it: the low roar of combustion. A sound not unlike an approaching freight train. In the distance, I can make out an even greater firestorm closing in, fast. Part of me wants to stay, remembering the orders barked at me from the television, but I know I can’t. I grab my things and go.
Charging down the driveway, I can’t remember the last time I ran. My knees feel thick. If I try to get inside my truck, I know I’ll be trapped. But how much time do I have before the soles of my shoes turn to goo? Until I grow exhausted? Until the fire overtakes me? Something explodes nearby—a tree, engulfed in an instant—and know I need to move faster. I throw my bags to the ground to lighten the load and the glass in the photo frames shatters.
My body moves faster than my brain, knowing where it needs to go. A couple of months earlier, the squeals of the neighbors’ grandkids splashing around the pool had echoed down the street. I learned to swim as a little girl at the lake where I’d later live, Daddy throwing me out far to force me to kick my way to shore. I remember my heart throbbing in my chest, silty water flooding my nose. What I would have given for a pool like this. Now, as a grown woman who hasn’t swam in nearly a decade, my animal instincts propel me toward it.
My neighbors’ fence is locked, so I pull myself up. They usually keep a mean little dog in the yard, barking like he means business, but he’s gone. I wonder when my neighbors disobeyed orders and left—minutes earlier? Hours? I was stupid for staying, stupid for thinking someone would beckon me to leave. My shirt catches on the wood posts, which scrape my bare skin, but I manage to free myself and clamber over.
The pool shimmers, miraculously full and reflecting back the hellacious skies. Dead bugs, leaves, and ash float on the surface. A half-inflated dinosaur pool floatie droops on its edge.
I glance back in the direction from which I came. Somehow, I know that the house, the neighborhood, everything will burn. A jolt rushes up my spine—fear, certainly, but something else, too. A little thrill at knowing that, whether I get out dead or alive, this undoing will set me free. That there are places beyond this, and choices besides being the fireplace among the ruins.
I take a final gasp of hazy air and plunge under.
Lexi Pandell is a freelance writer and former Wired editor based in Oakland, CA. Her non-fiction has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, and others. Her short fiction has been published in Otherwheres and will be published in Akashic Books' forthcoming Berkeley Noir anthology. She was awarded the Wellstone Center’s Emerging Writer Residency for her novel-in-progress in 2018, and this manuscript was also a finalist for the 2019 James Jones First Novel Fellowship.