by C.C. Russell
Last night just past eleven the sparks began to jump the fire line.
I was on the back porch smoking a cigarette, ironically enough. The breeze was picking up – blustering itself up into a wind, unusual for this time of night. The mountain was bright enough, even near midnight, that there was a glow washing over the house. You could have assumed that it was sunrise if you didn’t know better. The police scanner erupted panicked voices through its persistent chatter. Quadrants called out for support. Within minutes it was clear that control, if one can really control a blaze of this size, had been lost – completely and totally lost – in the matter of half an hour. We had finished packing whatever would fit into our vehicles by then. Up and down our street, we had finished making choices. We had finished hoping. I could see Carl leaning on his deck railing in the flickering shadows. “Hell of a thing,” he had said when I first came out. He said it in a quiet, drunk voice, his eyeglasses reflecting the blaze. “Hell of a thing.”
I flicked the ashes off of the end of my cigarette. I didn’t smoke anymore, hadn’t for years. It was an ancient pack that I had found when cleaning out the bedroom closet – obviously I hadn’t fully trusted myself to quit back then. Obviously, I thought that I needed that hidden backup, the one emergency pack long forgotten in its hiding spot. The tobacco was stale, didn’t taste anything like I remembered. But I cherished the burning in my throat, the pain and the slight rush to the head that followed. I had sent Elizabeth on down the hill an hour earlier, said I had to make one last sweep. She had cried, said she didn’t want to leave. At seventeen, it’s harder to let go of your life. At seventeen, things matter more, everything seems irreplaceable. I told her to get down to town, to her mother – to get there safely. I told her that it would be ok. On my sweep of the house, her room was immaculate, cleaner than I had ever seen it. Her bed made, her dresser shrunken without the ever-present piles of clothes that hadn’t quite made it into the drawers. Nothing was left in there. Some clothes on the edge of no longer being in style, a few school textbooks. So little that she could bear to leave behind. Her tiny, pure gift to the fire.
The rest of the house was not left in such a kind state. Piles on the floors, pathways through strewn clothes and knickknacks. So much that we are willing to leave behind in an emergency as we become older. Framed photographs, cookbooks, crayon-scrawled art on the fridge. So much that we accumulate without really meaning to. Those sentimental old mixtapes we no longer have a way of playing, T-shirts now two sizes too small, letters from a day when communication took longer. So many things that end up meaning nothing to us in the end. The nostalgic detritus of a life lived too long in one place.
I finished the cigarette and dropped the still-lit butt into the brush. I heard Carl toss a bitter laugh my way while I carefully threaded back through my home. Out the front door, I paused, key in my hand. I shrugged my shoulders and left it unlocked. Looters would just go through the windows if I were to lock it. I slid the key into my pocket, climbed into my SUV, slowly backed out of the driveway and gunned the engine on the desolate highway towards town. Ahead of me lay my family, safe. Behind, only a hungry glow of sky, a scar of orange light and what we could leave in appeasement.
C.C. Russell has been published here and there across the web and in print. You can find his words in such places as Split Lip Magazine, The Colorado Review, Cimarron Review, and the anthology Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone. He currently resides in Wyoming where he stares at the mountains instead of writing. You can find more of his work at ccrussell.net.