That’s the thing about this city; once fire catches, it spreads faster than any of us can imagine.
It was just another ordinary day when it happened, nothing incriminating about the cream-colored clouds above our heads. The sprinkler ran in the backyard, fighting an ongoing battle to keep the wilting grass alive.
Mother sat out on the porch swing, gently rocking back and forth as the tips of her sandals scuffed the dusty floorboards. A puzzle book opened in her lap and her sunglasses perched precariously on her slender nose.
After a day well spent, the sun was starting to fall back behind the forest, casting a long shadow across the lawn.
As I lay on my back, watching the sky turn all shades of pink and orange, my eyes started to fall closed. A blissful peace surrounded me on these late summer afternoons, my worries all brushed aside by the gentle gusts of wind.
But with the wind came a different smell, a toxic one. The smell of burnt wood and destruction.
I didn’t understand at first. When the nauseating smell of thick smoke started leaking under the newly-painted fence, I was too caught up in my daydreams to notice.
When Mother called to me, I didn’t think twice.
“Camilla, come quickly, sweetheart,” she told me, panic making her words faint and breathy.
I hopped up from my spot on the ground, pulling my degrading flip-flops back on my feet. After hours in the sun, the skin was already starting to burn. Maybe I should have listened to her earlier when she reminded me to put sunblock on.
“Honey, I need you to come inside with me. Right now.”
Why didn’t I hear how terrified she was with that very sentence? If only I had known how bad things could get in a matter of a few hours.
Inside, the radio echoed through the kitchen. Voices on edge, provoked by a dreadful type of anticipation. I let the wind blow the screen door closed and pulled out a stool at the kitchen counter to sit down. Snippets of the conversation registered, the fear finally beginning to reach me.
The forest is a desert, with hardly any rain in months.
Dry wood burns faster.
Extreme efforts are being taken to keep the flames from spreading. However, you should be prepared to evacuate, in case of the worst.
I nervously twirl a strand of sun-bleached hair around my finger, watching Mother turn up the volume of the voices.
If I had a second chance, I wouldn’t stay home waiting. I would have left long before they forced us to. Here, a headstart could have made the difference between life and death.
About an hour later, the advice turned to orders, “Everyone must evacuate immediately due to the imminent threat of death.”
“Camilla, hurry along to the car and get inside. I’ll be there right away,” Mother told me, waving in the direction of the street. Cars lined up down the road, barely an inch between each vehicle. Our neighbors desperate to leave their homes before the fire caught.
I pulled open the rusted door of our van and sat down in the passenger seat, biting my lip as more and more cars joined the endless line. Not much time left at all.
Mother joined me minutes later, hurriedly jamming a key inside to start the engine. We inched up into the cluster, everyone else reluctant to make room. Both of us slowly becoming more conscious of every second that passed.
Seconds turned to minutes which turned to hours as we made our way across town and away from the menacing plumes of smoke. I turned back in my seat a few times, only to regret it. The mile-high inferno devoured any building in its path, like lava flooding our town.
Soon the line was barely moving at all, the vehicles in front of us keeping us trapped in place. The flames were starting to catch up to us, in the helpless position we were in.
Small fires were popping up on the side of the road as if the inferno was shooting at us. Crackling and burning, I couldn’t escape the sound.
Ash now thickened the air, hanging in a thick mist around us. Blurry headlights broke through the clouds, flames reflecting off mirrors and windows. The orange flames licked everything in sight, filling my nose with a sickening smell.
I pulled my thin shirt up over my face, doing my best to filter the air. The coughing was contagious, everyone around us bending over as the dust-filled their lungs.
When the car filled with impenetrable heat, and we looked back to see fire inches away from our skin, it was already too late.
I screamed as the flames licked my fingers and singed my hair, my voice blending in with the thousands around me.
“Help us escape,” I shouted, praying someone will stop to save us.
“You run through the fire, it’s the only way out," Mother instructed, urgently.
I took her hand to run with her, but she untangled her fingers from mine.
“I can’t move, I’m not going to make it. Save yourself while you have the chance. I love you, darling,” she whispered, her voice suffocated and barely audible.
“Run, Camilla, and don’t look back,” she told me, shoving me out of the car as flames engulfed it. I caught a glimpse of her ice-blue eyes before the smoke blinded me.
My bare feet throbbed as I ran over the coals, my shoes lost in the struggle. Everything hurt; it hurt to breathe, it hurt to run, it hurt to scream. All I could hear was fear, in the shouts around me, in the voices in my head shouting at me to run faster, in the racing of my own heart.
My legs started to give out on me, leaving me to stumble into the piles of embers.
Then, as quickly as it came, the pain disappeared. Leaving me numb in its absence.
And everything went black.