I didn’t know what it was like to have your life stolen.
Until it happened to me.
Two days before
My mom’s phone rang. I looked at it, the ringtone drumming at my brain. I hated that ringtone.
“Someone’s calling.” I said, handing her the phone.
She picked up the phone. “Hello?”
She listened for a bit, then hung up. “PG&E said they might shut down our power. Due to the ‘high winds.’”
I rolled my eyes.
Pacific Gas and Electric, or better known to locals as PG&E, had been serving Northern California since 1930.
“Yeah, but we should stop by the store and get some water anyway. We’re on a well, the water won’t pump without electricity.”
“Also, we’ll need soup you can eat cold. We won’t have a microwave.”
The summer was hot and sticky as I rode my bike down Skyway. My best friend, Tommy McMarcus, was by my side on his bike.
“Wanna stop at CVS and get ice cream?” He asked, as we neared the faded white and red sign.
“Sure, why not?” I said, and we steered our bikes into the parking lot.
The trees were full, but they were slowly turning red and orange from the changing seasons. It was November, after all. The trees were overdue for turning colors.
We walked in and selected our flavors (Drumsticks for both of us) and brought it to our favorite cashier, Garcia.
“What are y’all up to today?” She asked as she scanned our ice cream.
“Not much. How ‘bout you?”
“Just workin’. But I’d rather be in this air conditioned buildin’ than in the valley farmin’.”
“True.” We were near Redding, not that close, but still, our heat was terrible, making us susceptible to wildfires.
Y’all have a good day.” She said after we had paid and she handed us our bag.
“You too!” I said, and we ran outside and opened our chilly treats. They were a welcome distraction from the heat, even in November.
“What would you do if Paradise ever burned down?” I asked Tommy.
“Why would I ever think like that, Virgo?”
“I don’t know, but the Carr fire was a few months ago, and that was pretty bad. What if it happened to us?”
Tommy shook his head. “I try not to think that way.”
“Ohhhkaaaayyyy.” I said.
One day before
“Half of Paradise is without power,” Mom said. “But not us, thankfully.”
“I bet people are outraged.” I said.
“Oh, Virgo, they are. I’ve had about twenty people call into the dispatch that their power was off.”
Mom was a 911 dispatcher for Paradise.
“I can’t believe people would call 911 for that.”
“You’d be surprised what people call 911 for.”
That day after school, me and Tommy did the natural thing: Rode our bikes around, no destination in mind.
“It’s really windy today.” I said.
“Yeah.” I said. I’d had to tie my hair back, it was whipping around my face.
“We should probably get back.”
And so we went back early. I wish we had stayed out later, that I had spent more time with him. I wish, but wishing doesn’t change the past. Nothing can.
The day of
I sat in class, looking forward when my phone rang.
The teacher gave me a look. “It’s my mom,” I explained, and she shooed me into the hall.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Vir. I’m on my way to pick you up.”
“There’s a fire, headed towards Paradise. I’m at the house now. Anything special you want me to grab? I’m grabbing you a backpack of clothes.”
“Uh,” I listed off what I wanted.
“Got it. On my way now. Love you.”
“Love you. Bye.”
I couldn’t believe it. A fire? Headed towards us? No. No no no no.
“All students, please report to the gymnasium. Please remain calm.” A voice crackled across the intercom.
No no no no.
I was not remaining calm.
Students started to file out of classrooms, surrounding me in a tidal wave, pushing me forward. I looked out the window towards the Feather River, and I saw it.
It scared me.
It was close.
The tidal wave of students flooded the gymnasium.
“We are being asked to evacuate. We have called all your parents, but if they do not arrive in a timely manner, they will be notified and you will leave with a staff member.” Mr. Gregorio, the principal said.
No no no no.
My mom was coming, at least.
“We need to move to an outdoor area.” Mr. Gregorio said, even though we all felt what he didn’t say. We need to move to an outdoor area that is less flammable.
I shuffled outside with the tidal wave. Rain floated down from the sky.
A drop landed in my hand, and I discovered that it wasn’t rain, but ash.
This is the apocalypse.
Finally, the secretary comes and Mr. Gregorio calls students. Their parents are here, he says. He finally calls me.
Mom sees me and runs over. “They let me leave because I had you to pick up. Lets go, quick.”
Once we were on the road towards Chico, Mom swore and yanked the car off the road.
“I forgot your father.”
Dad’s ashes were in an urn on the mantle. He died when I was two. Some of him was in the San Francisco bay. Other parts of him were scattered in his favorite places. Some of him was in an urn on the mantle.
“It's fine, Mom, we have to get out of here!”
“No! I won’t leave him.” Mom got back on the road, headed towards central Paradise.
We passed pickups filled to the brim with possessions, RVs, and traffic. Lots of it, thickening by the minute, just like the smoke.
The sky darkened as we headed towards the center of town. Mom hooked a sharp right onto Pearson, and then followed it through its curves. The sky darkened still.
Mom pulled fast into our driveway at the corner of Pearson and Pentz.
Fire had started to appear around us. “I’ll be right back!” Mom yelled over the sound of popping propane tanks. They sounded like bombs, so loud and sudden I knew I would feel them for the rest of my life.
Mom rushed in the house as the roof combusted into a tall flame. “Mom!” I yelled.
I knew it wouldn’t take long for the fire to get to the attic, then spread to the rest of the house through insulation.
I tore off the seatbelt, my fingers like jelly. I threw the door open and rushed to the house.
Mom had just grabbed Dad and was coming to the door. “Go, Virgo! Go!”
I rushed out of the burning house. It wasn’t my house anymore. It was the flames’ house. They made that evident.
Mom ran behind me, carrying Dad. We broke free from the house just as it exploded into a fireball.
The sky was as dark as midnight.
“Go, Virgo! Go!”
The smoke was so intense I collapsed into the car, coughing.
“We’re okay, baby.” Mom said through coughs.
“We’re not out yet. Go!”
The car shot forward.
Fire closed the road in front of us. “No no no no no.” I mumbled.
Mom stopped the car. “We have to go through it.”
“I am going to drive through that flame. Be ready.”
She put the car in drive and slammed her foot on the gas. The car charged through the wall of fire like it had been manufactured to do so. But it hadn’t. It was just a Camry.
Mom didn’t slow down. She kept her foot hard on the gas, driving at speeds that were fast, but not too extremely so.
The fire was keeping pace with us, though. At one point, it was ten feet behind us.
I didn’t see it coming.
Well I’d been white-knuckled on the door handle and staring straight ahead, the fire had snuck up close on Mom’s side.
A tree fell just as our car went under it. The tree and its flames landed on the Camry.
“Gah!” Mom said. The car wouldn’t go further. The heat, the pure heat surrounded the car. Propane tanks popped around us. Bombs.
Then, I heard two closer pops. The car sank down on Mom’s side.
The tires had exploded. We were officially screwed.
Luckily, I knew we couldn’t be that far from Clark. From people.
“Are you okay? We have to go!” I yelled.
“I can’t!” Mom said. “My shoulder- It’s stuck!”
Sure enough, the tree had her shoulder pinned down.
“Go!” Mom yelled. “Don’t worry about me!”
Tears gathered in my eyes as what she said sunk in. “I won’t leave you!”
“Get Dad! And our backpacks! Go!” She looked at me. “Virgo. I love you, baby.”
“I love you, Mom.” Salty tears slid down my ash covered face.
I grabbed Dad and pulled out a t-shirt to put over my nose and mouth so I wasn’t breathing in the smoke.
“Goodbye, Mom. I love you!”
“I love you too, baby. And never say final goodbyes.”
I staggered away from the car, looking at it.
It caught on fire.
“NO!” I started to run towards it, but it grew unbearably hot and then, it exploded.
“MOM!” I sobbed.
I turned. I had to make it to Clark and find a ride. Quick.
I ran across the hot asphalt towards the road. I heard honking and luckily, soon I saw headlights!
I ran to the first car I saw and knocked on the window.
It whirred down. “Hello?” A man with a button down and fedora appeared in place of the ash covered window.
“Hi.” I said, my throat breathy. “Can I please have a ride? My mom….”
The fedora man looked sad. “I’m sorry, sweetie, but I’m full.”
I wanted to cry harder. “Oh, ok, thank you.”
I went to the next car. A middle aged woman with curly bronze hair rolled down the window. She reminded me of Mom so much I started to cry.
“Whoa, honey. Are you okay?” She asked, a look of concern on her face.
“No.” I said. “But are any of us?”
“True. What's wrong?”
She seemed to understand, and nodded. “It’ll be a tight squeeze, but you can fit your belongings in the back.”
I opened the door and climbed in the tall 4-Runner. I held Dad close to my chest.
We made it we made it we made it.
One month after
How are you? How’s Redding? How are you holding up? I heard about your mom, and I’m so sorry.
Sorry for such a short letter. I just needed to reach out.
Thank you for writing. It was such a joy to find your letter in the mail.
I’m doing pretty well. It’s been difficult to adjust, not just from moving but also from making the town transition at the same time as I enter high school.
Reddings nice, at least it's not a pile of ashes, so it's got Paradise on that, I guess.
I’m holding up nicely, but I think about her everyday. It’s hard not to.
I also can’t stop thinking about the last thing she said to me. “Never say final goodbyes.” That was real wisdom. And I think about it every day.
Thanks for reaching out,