I know it as soon as I wake up. There’s a surprising clarity, a lens that’s found its focus, followed by a sickening dread. I want to hide under this soft blanket and retreat to sleep, but I know I can’t. It’s our last day here, possibly forever.
Will is sitting at the foot of the bed, his body blocking my view of the television, as he watches the news with the volume very low. I can hear a bit, I can hear enough.
“Massive wildfires still burning… six thousand acres… no containment… more homes destroyed…” the newscaster is saying, trying to act appropriately somber. Still, she sounds to me like she’s finding this all a little too exciting, her voice persistently lilting upwards.
I pull myself to a sitting position just as the station cuts to commercial. The ad for a weight-loss program is jarring and reminds me: this is not happening to everyone.
Will stands. “You’re awake, good.” He starts to pace around the bed, babbling, and I wonder how long he’s been up. “I think today’s the day they do a mandatory evacuation, probably this afternoon, so we should get out of here before that happens. Also, I texted my sister, so she knows we’re coming.” I know he’s overwhelmed and trying hard not to let me see it. “I made coffee,” he adds, softer as if it’s a typical day.
“We still have water, right? We should shower if we can.” Will nods. “You go first, and I’ll check on Mr. Gillespie. Did you —?”
“I asked my sister, yeah. She does not love the idea of taking in a stranger, so we’re really putting those Christian values to the test, but she said fine.” He lets a smile flicker across his face, an involuntary twitch of his mouth, then gets serious again. “I don’t think he’s going to come with us, though.”
“Yeah, well…” I don’t finish. It’s not a good time to fight.
Will suddenly becomes aware that he isn’t dressed, and scurries off to the shower as if he should be embarrassed around me. I watch him go. I think it’s adorable, after all this time, even now. Once he turns on the water, I get up and get ready to go next door.
It hasn’t rained in weeks, and even this early in the day it’s so hot that it feels like the air itself is gasping for breath, choking on the ever-present smell of smoke, caught like the rest of us between wanting to run far away and stubbornly wanting to stay.
I cross the shared backyard, once the home of my future garden, to our neighbor’s house, and before I can even knock, he’s opened the door, smiling. “I knew you were coming,” he says, amiably.
“Good morning, Mr. Gillespie,” I say. He’s in his sixties, I’d guess, but moves slow, like a much older man, and he lives alone here. I’ve never known him to have a visitor, aside from me.
“It’s John,” he says, opening the door wider for me to come in. “I’m not your tenth-grade social studies teacher.” He always says this, and I don’t know why he so consistently chooses that specific detail or why I feel so uncomfortable calling him by his first name. He’s been unfailingly pleasant to us, in the two years we’ve lived here, but not outgoing. He always waves back, never first.
“John,” I repeat, looking around his living room. I’ve been in here, always briefly, just a few times, and I’m struck how his house, identical to ours but mirrored, seems so much smaller on the inside. “We’re going to go very soon, and I wanted to make sure you have somewhere to go. If not, we —“
He holds up his hand to stop me.
”I want to show you something,” he says, and gestures for me to wait as he walks towards a piano that doesn’t look to have had much use. He takes down a framed photo, then hands it to me. “This is Darlene.”
The woman in the photo is beautiful, her confidence striking. She’s holding the reins of a mechanical bull with one hand, and the other hand holds a cigarette in the air, either triumphant or defiant. Her auburn hair falls away from her face in a bit of a blur, indicating this is an action shot, not posed, but her smile is flirty and strong, like she sees me, like she’s performing for me.
“I was photographing a bucking competition at a bar in 1981, and that’s when I met her,” John says, not looking at me, or seemingly at anything at all, stroking his beard. His facial hair is mostly gray, but the rest of his hair is still flecked with red. “We fell in love that night, like a storybook, like all the stories and movies said it would be, and we moved out here. This is where we were going to have our babies and our dogs and —“ he stops.
“You should bring that picture,” I say, anxious to keep him on track.
“Oh, I will.” His eyes are still somewhere else, on something so distant, or so close that I can’t see it.
“Good,” I say. “We really want to get out of here before everyone else gets on the road, so I’ll come back in just a few minutes to get you and whatever you want to bring, all right?”
“I’ve lived here alone for almost thirty years now, and you’re the nicest neighbors I’ve ever had. Thank you.” His voice cracks a bit like he might cry.
It can’t be more than twenty minutes later that I return. The back door is open, but I knock anyway and call his name. No answer. I venture into the house cautiously, still calling his name. Nothing has changed since I was just here, except now the owner of the house and the picture he was holding have gone missing.
“John? Where did you go?”
His walls are all covered with photographs, some black and white but mostly color, some large prints of landscapes, but mostly neatly arrayed rows of polaroids. I don’t see any of the people, nothing like the still-missing photo of Darlene.
“John?” I call, louder, my voice echoing a bit.
The house is disturbingly still, and tidy. The bed is neatly made, and there are no dishes in the sink. It’s so ordered that I could almost forget the chaos bearing down on us, if not for the hazy quality of the sunlight that filters in.
“John, we have to go.” My voice is growing desperate. I check the basement, and I check the front yard. I replay our conversation in my head — did I make it clear that I was coming right back? — and realize what I’d missed before.
Panicked, I go back to Will, who is waiting by the car.
“We don’t have time,” he says. I want to protest, and Will sees it on my face. Patiently, he points to the other neighbors preparing their cars, preparing their escapes. My eyes dart to Mr. Gillespie’s house, desperate for some last-minute sign of him, but there’s none, just smoke, strangling the air. I climb into the car, wordless.
As we get a bit of distance, I’m afforded my first real look at the fire that’s coming to destroy our home. I imagine it closer, taking hold somewhere inside our little house and devouring it from within. I picture John’s row of polaroids, warping and fluttering into ash. Finally, I see that mechanical bull in the heart of the conflagration, bucking and whirring, with Darlene atop it, triumphant, her hair like fire, and her free hand waving us goodbye.
I turn to Will, who faces forward, grim and determined, like he believes the future is a place he can drive to.