By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I walked toward the nearest tree and flung the bottle onto the concrete at its base. The glass shattered and the bottle’s contents burst into flames, whiffs of sweet cinnamon overtaking the smoke for only a moment.
A tendril of foul air slithered down my throat and I convulsed, overtaken by a coughing fit as I turned back toward the house. I slammed the door behind me, barricading myself from the growing heat outside.
With the windows boarded up, the only light in the room came from the glow of the old television set in the corner. A small puddle of cinnamon whiskey shone red on the tile floor, right where Mom had toppled the bottle before passing out on the couch. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a roll of paper towels to clean the mess. Mom snored beside me as I worked.
Before heading upstairs, I propped her head up on a pillow, making sure that she lay on her side, and switched on the carbon dioxide scrubber in the corner. I hoped she’d sleep all the way through the night this time—I didn’t know where she hid her extra liquor bottles, and she was bound to wake up and look for them herself.
I grabbed a mask off my nightstand and shoved it into the pocket of my hoodie. After closing my bedroom door, I crouched and pulled the black suitcase out from under the bed. In it was plenty of clothes, my tablet, and the envelope stuffed with my life savings. I hurried to the closet, grabbed a few extra masks, and tucked them into the suitcase too.
Buried within the suitcase was the note I had been writing. I dug around until I found the single sheet of yellow legal pad. It was folded and crumpled, but still legible. I’d have to rewrite it in the morning anyway. I gave it a few passes to make sure it still read well, noting the places that needed extra work before tomorrow.
Will it be good enough by then? Will it ever be good enough? I tucked the note into my back pocket before heading downstairs.
I had hidden my plans for so long, like the suitcase under the bed, but was this the right thing to do? It had to be. There was nothing else I could do at this point.
I have to get away.
Mom still lay sleeping on the couch as I threw my mask on and walked out the door. The fires all around cast a hazy light through the smog, and the heat was enough to make me sweat beneath the black polyester of my hoodie. I ventured out into the road, as far away from the flames as I could get, and walked.
Dozens of firetrucks passed as I went along. Another dozen were parked on the shoulders, and enormous hoses hooked onto the stout, black fire hydrants that popped up every hundred yards. I kept my head low and walked past the firefighters as they sprayed columns of liquid, battling the whipping flames as they inched closer to the blocky, concrete houses. A pair of firemen to my right doused an inferno that blazed up the side of one building, throwing billowy gray clouds into the night. They ignored the fires shooting higher and higher into the trees.
After a few minutes, I ducked off the road and down the driveway of my girlfriend’s house. The fires hadn’t reached this part of the neighborhood yet, so the path to the back door did not present any danger.
I knocked and put my ear to the door, hearing a faint “Come in,” mingling with the loud music and blaring television. Katy stood in front of the room’s only window, applying duct tape to the seams in a vain effort to keep the fumes from sneaking in. I hurried to shut the door behind me.
“They weren’t supposed to start burning till tomorrow,” Katy said. “They’re all liars.” She flattened out the tape, giving it a smack as she said the word “liars.” The blaring music and sirens on the television were disorienting so I sat on the futon and took off my mask, tossing it onto the cushion beside me. The air in the room was better than outside, but smoke mixed with the pumpkin air freshener made my stomach roll.
Katy finished patching the window before sitting and turning the music down. Her parents didn’t care that I was there so late. They liked me, and they knew why I usually left home at night.
“Officials have decided to begin the Light a day early this year due to favorable conditions,” said the news reporter on the TV. “According to the latest forecasts, we can expect rain in the coming weeks. Not what you want for a proper Light, right Tom? We’ve gotta get rid of that jungle that’s grown up over the last year.”
“I hate that they call it the Light,” Katy said, throwing up air quotes. “There’s nothing light about it. It’s bright for a few days while the fires burn, then it’s dark for weeks because of all the smoke. They’re killing just as many people as trees. It’s disgusting.”
I shifted my gaze from the television to the colorful posters hanging around the room. A few were from concerts, but the majority of the walls were decorated with signs that she made for attending protests or rallies—phrases like, Smoke Rises, Life Falls, Let Them Live, and It’s Hot.
Katy poked me with her elbow. I turned to meet her gaze and she smiled, beaming as bright as the walls all around. She leaned closer and give me a small kiss. I pulled away.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“Nothing. Just a little unwell.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her what was on my mind. She was used to my quiet moods, anyway. The note would explain it all.
She leaned her head on my shoulder and focused back on the television, changing the station until she landed on a documentary about the Light.
“Advancements in gene editing technology led to science’s magnum opus,” said a disembodied voice. “A cure for world hunger. Crops could now grow beyond their full size in a fraction of the time, with less water and fewer nutrients. The world rejoiced, but not for long. Nature, twisted and unthinking, adapted in a way that we could have never predicted. In competing with our creations, the natural vegetation underwent a period of rapid evolutionary change, far surpassing anything we could have created in a lab. Now, over 50 years later, the government has tried to convince us that burning the Earth once a year is the only way to prevent the flora from killing us. But we all know it’s the fire that will choke us out.”
“Have you been writing any?” she asked. “This is the kind of thing you should be writing about. People think they can just ignore it and it’ll go away. It’s past time we did something about it.”
I shrugged. “I try. Some days are better than others.” I thought about the note in my back pocket. I had written the first draft a month ago and revised it a thousand times. It’s still not good enough.
“You’ve just gotta keep at it. You can’t give up. It might be easier if you start writing about the Light, letting people know how it actually affects us out here.”
My stomach rolled. She was so passionate about the Light, but I hated everything about it. Talking about it, thinking about it—everything.
“It’s out of our control,” I said. “There’s nothing we can do at this point.”
The television cast a cool blue glow in her glasses. “Some things take time, and it’s been long enough,” she said, stern and sincere. “It’s the world we’re talking about. We at least have to try.”
The Light had begun long before either of us were born. There was no chance of change, this was permanent. Katy could stay and fight. I had to get away—I just wish I didn’t have to leave her. I avoided her eyes and she tugged at my sleeve. Tears welled in my eyes, threatening to break loose. I put a hand behind her head and pulled her close, holding her tight. Probably for the last time. I loosened up and she leaned back, kissing my hand as it passed beside her lips.
“Wow,” she said, giggling. “You reek of cinnamon.” She froze, realizing what she had said. I hadn’t washed my hands well enough after cleaning Mom’s mess.
“I’m so sorry,” she glanced at the TV, then back to me. “You said you’d tell me about your dad. Last year. You probably forgot, that’s fine. But—“ she paused. “Is that why your mom, you know…?” Her eyes fell to the floor. I couldn’t help but love how brave she was, and how outspoken she could be, but the question burned deep in my chest. I never told her why my mom drank, but she knew.
I stood before she could see the tears. “I should get back,” I said. “I need to check on her.” Mom would be fine—tonight wasn’t bad—I just had to leave before it became too difficult to say goodbye.
I rushed to the door, but stopped as my hand touched the warm handle.
Do I give it to her now? I reached for the note in my pocket.
It isn’t good enough. I can’t. Not yet.
I turned to look at her, though she didn’t know it would be the last time she’d ever see me. She gave me a small, soft smile and a gentle wave.
I have to do this.
I faked a smile and walked out.
The fires burned hotter and higher, now reaching the peaks of the trees looming in all directions. Though it was close to midnight, the horizon looked like an approaching dawn. I pulled my hood up and kept my eyes on the charred road in front of me.
What am I doing?
The plans had been set for months. Tomorrow morning I’d hop on a Greyhound and I’d never come back. Nobody would miss a 16-year old kid with an alcoholic for a mom. Life had to be better in the city, where the concrete was poured ten feet thick, and not even a blade of grass could be seen for miles. Nothing to remind me of this place. I had been worrying about other people’s problems for too long—Mom, the Light—I just had to get away.
My eyes burned. The world was a hazy nightmare. Smoke hung low and sirens wailed. A pang of lightheadedness struck me, and I realized that I had left my mask on Katy’s couch. I coughed and wheezed, hurrying to get back to my house and some semblance of fresh air. I could barely make out the faint shouts of firefighters over the ringing in my ears. Thick hoses littered the street, slithering like great serpents as a thousand gallons of water coarsed through them. I pulled my sweatshirt up to keep the smoke from penetrating my lungs, but every breath was a chest full of needles. I stumbled down my driveway, coughing and spitting as I rammed through the door and into the living room.
I barked a few more violent coughs before calming, my breathing beginning to settle. The lights were on, and Mom stood over me, her eyes wide with fear.
“Are you alright?” she said, helping me up and over to the couch, where an enormous scrapbook lay open. I nodded, dusting the soot from my clothes and sitting beside her. I glanced between her and the book, wondering why she was awake and lucid. She picked up the scrapbook and placed it in her lap.
“This is you,” she said, pointing to a toddler wearing an enormous pair of fireman’s boots. “Those were your dad’s boots. You loved wearing them. You wanted to be a firefighter like him.” She sniffed.
Hints of cinnamon floated toward me as she flipped through the pages before stopping at a family photo. My mom, my dad, and I stood in front of an enormous oak tree, smiling. I had my small arms wrapped around one of my dad’s legs, and Mom leaned up against him, holding tight. I knew the old tree in the photo no longer stood—it was burned in the Light that killed my dad 10 years ago.
“I hate cinnamon,” she said, voice cracking. “But still…here I am, nothing changed. I’m so weak.”
I put my arm around her.
“I’m weak, but I always had your dad. He was strong enough for both of us. You’re so much like him.”
She ran her fingers over the picture, pausing on my dad’s face as if she could feel the his warmth through the page.
“I know you’re planning to leave,” she said. “I saw the suitcase on your bed.”
I pulled away and looked at her, my heart racing—I must’ve forgotten to hide it before I left. She wasn’t furious or hurt—she was ashamed, like a child who had been caught in a lie. “Mom...” I started, but she cut me off.
“I don’t blame you. You learned it from me. Since your dad died, all I’ve done is run away from my problems. I crawled into the bottle to hide from the world that has caused me so much pain—taken so much from me. But I still have you, and I’ve let you down.”
My mouth hung low in shock. She had evaded every conversation about drinking since I was young—bringing it up often induced a trip to the liquor cabinet. It was always her crutch, especially during the Light. Some of my first memories were looks of pity from other parents that saw us out in public. It was too late for an apology—why is she saying this now?
“I... Mom, I—“ The words caught behind the lump in my throat, and whatever thought I had had sputtered out like a dying flame. Was there anything that I could say at this point? Why bother explaining myself?
She put a gentle hand on my knee, the soft feel of a mother’s touch. “I’m not telling you that you should stay or go. Only that I understand. I just want you to know that I’m done with this life. I’m done running and I’m ready to face this, no matter how hard it is. I know you don’t trust me, and you shouldn’t. Just know that I love you, and I can do this. I have to try.”
As she spoke, her gentle hand became a confident grip. Her back straightened and I felt that she meant every word. The sadness inside her still burned bright, but beneath that I could make out the embers of determination and hope.
Is that enough for me to stay?
I brushed her hand off and rushed out of the room. The sound of crackling flames outside pushed against every side of the house, and it felt as though the walls were closing in. My head pounded as I thought about what Mom said—running away from her problems.
Isn’t that what I’m doing?
I slammed the door behind me and slunk to the floor. The damage was already done—I had to leave. Every time she picked up the bottle she had cut me open and added another scar. It would be impossible to mend our relationship at this point. Too hard to fix the damage that she had caused. It was out of my control, no use trying.
What am I saying? Why does this sound so familiar?
Then I realized.
I fumbled around in my pocket until I found the tattered sheet of yellow legal pad, careful not to rip it as I unfolded the page.
Dear Katy, the note read. I skimmed through the part explaining my plans to run away, and there it was:
I’ve always ignored conversations about the Light—I’m sure you’ve guessed why. It’s easier for me to avoid, but right now there’s no denying or ignoring, only accepting. Our world has burned long enough. You and I may not be on the same path right now, but know that I support you. Keep fighting for change—even if it’s hard, and especially when it feels like it’s impossible. Like you always say, we at least have to try.
I dropped the paper onto the nightstand. It had taken me so long to write those words. Words I could never find the nerve to tell her in person. Words to encourage her to keep going, and to never give up her efforts to change the world. She knew what it would take, and she knew how hard she’d have to work to get there, but still she didn’t give up.
I shouldn’t give up.
My sweatshirt threw ashes into the air as I took it off and shook it out. I turned to the suitcase on the bed and began to unpack.