Amid dystopian summers of orange suns and hazy pink skies, a seemingly dormant spark finds a way to once again ignite…
by: Amy Marques
Everyone knows that California is the best place in the world to live. If you don’t mind wildfires, earthquakes, and rattlesnakes, that is. There might be the odd bear or mountain lion, but only the serious hikers seem to run into those, and Andy liked to stick close to home.
Staying home was harder than it used to be. Andy once thought of go-bags as the dust-collecting depository of flashlights and clothes too old to be worn and too sentimental to be donated. At least that’s what it had been like when he was growing up. But every year the wildfires seemed to grow bigger and nearer until summers had become a dystopia of orange suns and hazy pink skies.
Andy wasn’t sure if it was smoke or social media that had Sandra pulling out the go-bags multiple times a week. She unpacked and repacked, muttering under her breath about full tanks of gas. Most of the time Andy went along with it although, as far as he could tell, all he needed were car keys, his phone, and a credit card.
Not that he’d tell Sandra that. He knew to pick his battles and she was far too keen on all the powdered toothpastes and the energy bars that tasted like high school gym socks. Andy drew the line at eating expiring provisions, though. The first time she repacked bags with new packets and suggested they eat the old ones for lunch, Andy put his foot down.
“But it’ll go to waste,” Sandra said. “You’re always saying how you hate wasting food.”
“That isn’t food.”
Sandra scowled. If there’d been a door close enough to slam, she’d have slammed it. As it was, she turned a little too fast and marched a little too firmly on her carpeted way back to the kitchen, but she didn’t argue. Andy didn’t put his foot down often, but once he did, he rarely budged.
The first time they evacuated, the smoke was so thick the car headlights barely made a dent in the haze. Never mind that the fire was 100 miles away and no warnings had been issued for their area. Never mind that half the country was inheriting smoke from the fires upstate and nobody else was leaving. Never mind that Andy was halfway into his sourdough recipe and he’d lose the starter and have to begin again from scratch.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Sandra said over and over to anyone who would listen.
“But the fire is nowhere near our house,” Andy said.
“Yet!” Sandra tossed the word over her shoulder as she struggled to pull their wedding picture off the wall.
Andy shook his head, but he reached behind her to steady the frame, then headed to the garage to grab the bubble wrap. He called Jim and asked if there was a spare room in the bed and breakfast. Jim had a room, but Dora’s girl had moved on and they couldn’t find anyone to man the kitchen, so they weren’t serving breakfast and the linens hadn’t been changed since the last guests left a couple of weeks ago.
“That’s okay,” said Andy. “We can handle the food.”
“I’ve packed enough packets for three to five days,” Sandra called out from the other room.
Andy didn’t respond. He neatly boxed apples and oranges, then placed garden greens lightly on top. He packed some eggs and his seasoning mix. He’d make them both an omelet in the morning.
The car was so full that the fluff ball had to travel on Sandra’s lap. It wasn’t a dog. Dogs are loyal creatures with adoring eyes and conversational barks and this thing was a demented beast with deceptively tiny teeth. The yapping alone was enough to drive a lesser man into insanity.
Andy was not a lesser man, but he did suggest they leave it behind.
“What? Do you want Stan to die?” Sandra covered its ears.
Andy spent most of the drive trying to decide which was worse, the yapping or Sandra’s attempts at soothing baby talk. At least the drive to Jim’s was short.
The second time they evacuated, Sandra made Andy promise he wouldn’t sneak back to the house. He thought she hadn’t noticed that he’d gone back home to his sourdough and big screen, only returning once the bread was baked and the sun had set.
By the fifth time, Sandra had taken to chanting. This is not a drill! This is not a drill! She double checked if the good hairdryer had been packed. Nobody worried about phone chargers anymore. They had extras at Jim’s. But really, given that last time Andy had oiled the creaky door, fixed the leaky faucet, and left a nice lounge chair out in the derelict garden, Jim told him to just keep the key and use the room whenever he wanted. They were there half the time anyway. Andy thanked him and packed a can of paint. He could paint the back fence next.
The eighth time, the fire was closer, and it wasn’t just Sandra watching the news. She’d tried to volunteer with the county to work their social media pages, but they fired her after the first twenty doomful posts. The receptionist at the sheriff’s office called her fiancé, the fire chief, and said, “It’s her or me! And if I ever see that yapping dog again, I just might kill it!”
Sandra booked them a hotel clear out of the county. She said it was because Jim’s place didn’t have enough water pressure, but Andy knew it was to thwart his sojourns home. By now, it didn’t matter. All the garden tomatoes had been eaten, and there was little left to fix at Jim’s.
“Aren’t you glad the roads aren’t full?” Sandra said.
Andy didn’t answer right away. He pondered the benefits of pointing out that it was midday on a Wednesday, and they were moving towards the closest fire, not away from it. But he saw the smug smile on her face and decided it was in his best interest to keep her happy.
“Yup. Smart of you.”
It was their longest excursion yet. They stayed a full three days before someone pointed out that Stan wasn’t really a service animal. Sandra fumed, marched upstairs to their room, and packed their bags announcing that the smoke had cleared and it was safe to go home.
Andy was almost sad to go. The hotel was next door to a new Italian café and the owner had quickly become an close friend. The place usually emptied out between the lunch rush and the evening crush, and Andy talked his way into the kitchen where he became intimately acquainted with every step and flavor on the menu. He had mastered the tortellini, but the precise thumb pressure required to shape cavatelli still eluded him.
“Come back, my friend!” Alberto handed him a bag of fresh gnocchi. “Don’t overcook, yes?”
Andy nodded his thanks and shook the chef’s hand. “When I come back, I’ll bring some of my seasoning mix.”
By September they were expert evacuees. Andy had long since stopped unloading what they now called the fire car, although he insisted on loading Sandra’s little beast into the kennel in the backseat.
By then, they had radios and designated phones and screens in every room. Still, when an actual evacuation order came in, Andy was the only one home to hear the alerts. He grabbed the book on his nightstand and pocketed his wallet before calling Sandra. She picked up on the first ring.
“I was running with Linda,” Sandra said.
Andy heard the tears in her voice and knew to keep quiet while she told him how she almost left her phone in her car because didn’t make sense to take it on her run because she wasn’t sure if there would be a signal on the trail and she would be talking to Linda anyway. But she had it on her and she had to run while alerts were beeping and all she could think about was that she hadn’t packed Stan’s favorite doggy toys and now what?
“Sandy? It’s gonna be okay,” Andy said.
“Should I drive to Jim’s?” The tentativeness in her tone broke him a little.
“Not this time, sweetie.” Andy kept his voice level and slow. “Park at Linda’s, I’ll meet you there.”
Andy stored the patio furniture in the garage, set the hose to stream mode, shuttered the windows, and pulled the ladders out from behind the tool shed. He could taste the smoke. Not that there was anything unusual about that; smoke had become the constant flavor of summer in the past few years, but this time the bitterness settled uncomfortably in his stomach.
“This is not a drill,” he muttered under his breath before heading back into the shuttered house. He grabbed the nearest tote bag and walked through the house one last time, scanning each room before moving on to the next. He bagged the door stopper pet rock with the missing googly eye that his nephew had made in preschool, the chipped mug they picked up on their first trip abroad, Sandra’s journal, a bag of gummy bears, the spare reading glasses, and the orange cardigan that hadn’t been flattering on Sandra even when it was new but had grown on him over the years. Last of all, he reached for the box on the top shelf in the closet of the spare room.
On his way to Linda’s, he considered suggesting they take both cars, but as soon as he saw Sandy pacing in front of her friend’s driveway, he discarded the thought. Her shoulders sagged when she saw him drive up and she didn’t utter a word, but the range of emotions playing out on her face made him want to pull her into his arms and hold her until the fear subsided. Instead, he cradled her cheek in his hand and smoothed back the strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail.
The road was congested. They had been practicing this for so long that they should have been ahead of the curve, but judging by Sandra’s increasing frustration, they’d botched this. With every mile put between them and the fire, she’d eased further into her usual self. The dog, who had mercifully slept, awoke in a frenzy and Sandra’s crooning replies to its yaps overwhelmed the radio. Andy turned it off.
“How will we know what’s happening?” Sandra swiftly turned the radio back on even as she scrolled through the latest posts on her phone. She located a map of the fire and propped it up on the dashboard, like the maps in airplanes that track the plane’s trajectory. Andy didn’t bother to tell her that the fire map was only updated hourly. He just focused on answering her questions.
“Your pills?” Sandra had already asked him about that one, but maybe this was her way of punishing him for forgetting the master list. She had a copy in the glove compartment, but it wasn’t color coded, so she claimed it wasn’t the same.
“Mmhm,” Andy said.
“The hose? Did you remember to pull out the hose?”
Andy started to nod again, but realized she’d need more. He placed a hand on her thigh in what he hoped was a comforting gesture.
“Yes, Sandy. I pulled out the hose and brought in the lounge chairs,” he said.
And could see the next exit from here, but at the rate they were moving, it might take hours to reach it. The air conditioning had stopped working two evacuations ago, but the mechanic refused to work on the car packed as it was and Sandy refused to have it unpacked, so here they were: parked in the middle of the road with a full tank of gas, a yapping dog, enough powdered food for ten lifetimes, and sweat tracing a line down his back.
Andy clipped off his seatbelt and got out of the car.
“Where are you going?” Sandra frowned.
“I’m hungry.” He didn’t wait for her response, nor was he inclined to explain further. Andy grabbed an unopened box of girl scout cookies from the trunk and armed with his most charming smile, walked towards the car in the next lane that blocked his access to the shoulder of the road. It didn’t take much to convince the young family to aid him in his cause.
He kept his smile firmly in place as he returned to his seat and buckled back in. The little girl in the backseat held up a cookie and waved excitedly at him. Her father backed his car up, just a bit. It was enough. Andy avoided Sandra’s gaze, hoping to delay the questions.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” Sandra said.
“You’ll see.” Andy maneuvered the car through the gap, onto the shoulder, and onto the off ramp.
“Unbelievable!” Sandra opened her mouth as if to say something else, then pressed her lips together and looked out the window. It’s not that he liked seeing her upset, but he rather appreciated the lack of conversation.
The radio host continued to list shelters and evacuation routes. If you don’t have to be on the road, avoid these routes to keep them clear for emergency vehicles and evacuees. Again, evacuation orders have been issued for the following locations, North of…
Andy knew the area so well that each mentioned landmark brought up a memory. The intersection where the watermelon truck used to park every summer when he was a boy. First the father, then the son, until the grandson decided it was best to just drive the extra two miles into the farmer’s market and sell their melons there. The gas station where they’d always stopped to fill the tank and buy an unnecessary drink and a snack before heading toward the lakes. The aspens and the way their leaves clapped in the wind, a round of applause for any hiker who ventured their way. It was unthinkable that they could be touched or lost to fire.
Andy was grateful for the flow of traffic, which allowed just enough of a breeze to bring a modicum of relief from the heat. The car was packed so full that their seats had been pushed forward to make room, and his knees kept banging on the dashboard. He glanced at Sandra, but she kept her face set in determined neutrality as she silently scrolled on her phone.
When he pulled into a shaded parking space in front of the restaurant, she barked out a laugh.
“Sushi?” Sandra hissed out the word, so it almost sounded like a shush.
“Would you like some, too?” Andy said, keeping his voice cheerful and light.
“I can’t stand it when you act all calm!” Sandra crossed her arms over her chest.
“I’m hungry,” Andy shrugged.
“We’re evacuating from a fire! What part of this are you not getting?”
“When the going gets tough…” Andy smiled at her, ignoring the dangerous flicker in her eye. “I’ll be right back!”
He took his time in the restaurant, although he knew his order — and Sandy’s, whether she’d admit to it or not — by heart. The blasting AC was a relief, but Sandra would never agree to leave the dog in the car alone. So while they packed his order to go, Andy went into the restroom and wet the nape of his neck. He couldn’t imagine what it was like for firefighters in the roaring heat. Grateful for small mercies, he added iced drinks to the order and made sure to over-tip.
When he walked out with the food, Sandra was standing outside of the car, tears in her eyes. He cocked his head and walked a little faster. They were out of immediate danger, had been for the past many miles. But Sandra had never been good at maps and maybe he’d underestimated her worry.
“We’re okay, Sandy,” he said. “We’re far enough.”
“You packed my dress,” she said in a barely audible whisper.
“What?” The takeout bag was hooked on his pinky finger, hands occupied with the large drinks, and the weight of the bag tugged uncomfortably.
“The dress,” Sandra repeated, tears streaming down her eyes. “You packed my wedding dress. I…”
Andy smiled. He set the bag down on top of the car and put one arm around her in a sideways hug. He kissed her forehead and whispered into her hair.
“But of course. I always remember the important things.”
Amy Marques grew up between languages and cultures and learned, from an early age, the multiplicity of narratives. She has penned three children’s books, barely read medical papers, occasional blogs, and numerous letters. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in The Dribble Drabble Review, Flying South, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Potato Soup Journal, Ariel Chart, Sweetycat Press, and Flash Fiction Magazine.