My dad built the house we grew up in all our lives. In between shifts, using up every weekend for two years, asking for small loans every now and then, and adding new installations to the structure whenever he saved up enough money. My mom worked too, pitching in to the construction costs whenever she could, but mostly using her salary to feed my and my sisters, and pay the rent for the crappy studio apartment we all lived in. It was hard work, and I think my dad got a tetanus shot in the middle of it all, but by the time I could start walking, it was through the hallways of our family home.
Every memory I have from when I was small is in that house: climbing onto the roof with my sisters and getting chewed out by our mom when she found out years later, my grandpa teaching me how to crawl down the stairs safely when I was four so I wouldn’t crack my head, getting into countless pretend battles in the backyard which led to real crying. Not from me, of course. And maybe most memorably…
“Dad, can we just go inside?”
“We’re almost done digging, it’s easy after that.”
“I’m tired!” It was a hot day, and I was only seven.
“So am I! But it’ll all be worth it.” My dad had gotten it into his head that we should plant a tree together, an idea he would claim I loved for years after the fact. “Don’t you want fresh oranges every morning?”
“Oh.” He stopped mid-dig. “Well, you’re gonna love them.”
He was wrong, I hated oranges as a kid, I always thought they were hard to peel. But when our tree started sprouting its first batch, even I got a little excited.
The reason I remember that day so well is because that tree is still out there in my parent’s front yard, a little bit thicker and a whole lot taller, its branches weighed down with the oranges we haven’t picked in years. I looked at it as I spoke on the phone.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m sure.”
“But don’t you want to come visit your father? He’s asking for you.”
“I’ll head over tomorrow. Today I have a lot of work, and I already drove all the way out here this morning.”
“I know honey, but-”
“You guys were the ones who went to the hospital without telling me ahead of time. I come to the house and it's empty, how’s that supposed to make me feel?”
She didn’t respond, I knew I took it too far, but it was a long drive.
“I’m sorry mom, I’ll go tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Love you too.” I hung up.
I looked around at the rest of the house, admiring my dad’s handiwork. It was beautiful, arched wooden beams on the inside, stone chimney, big glass windows that spilled light into the living room.
“We grew up like kings didn’t we.” I asked no one in particular, trailing my fingers on the stitching of our old ugly couches, the one thing we kept from that crappy studio apartment. Those things were older than me; I think we named them at some point, too long ago to remember though.
I tried to focus back on my laptop, some of my work had spilled into the weekend and I was left to work in this empty house, but I couldn’t concentrate, and turned on the TV.
It was a normal broadcast at first: weekend sports updates, a fluff piece about a panda at the zoo, something about the open market, but then something about a fire.
It seemed innocuous at first, the anchorman said it was small and deputies were on their way to snuff it out right now, but it was also the dry season, and it was only a few miles from home. Things only escalated from there.
A few minutes later my mom called again, telling me how her friends had told her about the fire and how I should be careful and all that other overprotective mom stuff. I shrugged it off.
The news station started to do more coverage on the flames, saying there was another brush that had caught fire a bit south from here, but that evacuation wasn’t necessary yet.
I went outside and smelled it, the smoke, but I couldn’t even see it.
The neighbors started to pack their cars, a few of them evacuating well before our phones started blaring with WEAs. And then they did.
Pick up trucks and police cars filled the neighborhood, giving people instruction and deploying some volunteer firefighters to enter the forest behind our home. Sirens filled the air, and now everybody seemed to be fidgety.
I asked if it was time to evacuate, and was told it wasn’t necessary, but people kept doing it. It seemed like the end of the world; the smoke, the sirens, people abandoning their homes, but you couldn’t even see the flames! Couldn’t even feel the heat, not until the fire was already there.
When I saw the flame, just a flicker through the treeline, that’s when the bright red fire trucks filled our street, when the firemen and cops started knocking on doors and giving out orders, when the panic ensued.
My mother called me throughout all this, and so did my sisters, all telling me to get out and meet them at the hospital. But I couldn’t just leave. I saw the fire pushing forward, I heard the sirens and crackling of the fire getting louder, I felt the pricking of dry heat on my face, but abandoning my home...It’d be like giving up what my father built. While he was weak, I had to be strong, I had to do something.
I did the obvious, took the photos, documents, and expensive electronics, loaded them all up in my car. I went back for more, looking through closets I didn’t know we had, and rifling through my sister’s belongings and trying to find my mother’s jewelry, if she had it, I wasn’t sure.
I told my family I had already left, but kept looking, trying to reach a point when it would be okay to abandon this house, when it would be nothing but bones. But even then, even if I managed to take the old couch set, and our childhood beds, and every other thing that signified we had been alive in this time, here, even then it wouldn’t be enough. Because I knew my father had nailed the floorboards himself, and hoisted the beams, and varnished it all. This soon to be tinderbox was irreplaceable, and I couldn’t move it. I felt like the shittiest son.
I placed my sister’s old keyboard and a blanket that might’ve been knitted by my mother in the back seat, when a fireman appeared next to me.
“You have to go, son! You can’t stay any longer! You got enough!” His voice was hoarse, probably so after repeating this phrase to so many others, but he wasn’t right, this wasn’t enough.
“Okay, okay.” I knew I should go, flee as fast as I could; sweat ran down my shirt and got into my eyes, my hands were trembling from the adrenaline pumping through me, and I could feel the burning in my throat as my lungs slowly filled with smoke, but even then... “Just one more thing.”
I ran inside to my first, and maybe only, home, and when I came back, I was empty handed. So the fireman asked, “Ready now?!”
“As I’ll ever be.”
Back in the hospital my family and I watched as the fire overtook our neighborhood, and a few surrounding ones. We sat together beside my father, sunken into his hospital bed but still gripping our hands with force, telling us through our tears how it was just a house, and how it was insured. This last comment made us chuckle, because it wasn’t money we were mourning, it was him, and all the effort he put into giving us a home. Taken away now.
My mom and sisters left for the dining hall, they hadn’t eaten in a long time, which left me and my dad still watching the news.
I tried to offer comforting words, but knew the old man didn’t need them, so I spoke of my thoughts instead.
“Isn’t it funny, or rather, not funny at all, how trees take decades or centuries to grow, but are turned to ash in seconds. It’s like, despite all the time the tree spent on growing, and spreading out into the sky as far as it could reach, it only took a few minutes for the fire to eat it all up.” There was silence. “It’s unfair. Decades versus minutes and the latter had the last say.”
My dad took my hand and smiled softly.
“How sad it is when good things end. But sadder still when they don’t even begin.” He said, “I think Dr. Seuss said that. It was on your fifth grade graduation card.”
I laughed, and smiled sadly, just like him.
“You know, you don’t have to act so strong all the time.”
The next day we sat around my father’s bed, looking at all our old photos. It had been years since any of our albums had seen the light of day, but I guess sometimes it takes a fire…
“Look!” My older sister said, “There’s the bouncy ball we always got stuck on the roof!” She was thirty this year, and working as an associate at her law firm.
“Remember,” My little sister said giggling, “Remember when we used to climb up there through my window?” She was twenty and getting a degree in something about math.
“You what?!” My mother shouted, “You never told me this!”
“Goddamnit Ellie,” I said, “We almost got away with it.”
My dad laughed as my mom scolded us as if we were still kids, only now she allowed herself to swear like a sailor in front of us.
“Guys,” Jenna -the older one- called, “You gotta see this.”
“What is it?”
“Channel 14 sent out a helicopter to look over the affected areas, it passed by our house, look!”
She showed us her phone, and there was our neighborhood, almost entirely black and grey like never before. It was hard to look at, but in the middle of it all, was a spot of green.
“Is that…” My mother ventured.
“It is.” My father whispered, “It’s our front yard.”
Our house was black, burnt like everything else, but our front yard was safe. And if the phone weren’t so small, I think we would also be able to see a bit of orange in the middle of it.
“Did you do that, honey?”
“I, uh…” A huge smile spread through my face, “I turned on the sprinklers before I left. I guess it protected our lawn and nothing else.”
There was a beat, and then a huge eruption of laughter. My sisters kissed me on the cheek, my mother on the forehead about a dozen times, and even my dad patted me on the back with more strength than I thought he had.
The absurdity of it all was wonderful, and I think we would’ve kept laughing for half an hour more if my dad’s laughs didn’t turn to coughing. We all tried to keep smiling, but when his coughs turned more violent, our unease turned to panic.
“Call the nurse!” My mom yelled at me, for the first time in years, but I just stood there, looking at my dad.
“I got it!” Someone said behind me, and suddenly the room was filled with medical professionals doting over my father, pushing the rest of us out. I couldn’t explain my fear at that moment, worse than the fire, worse than anything before in my life, that is until...
A few weeks later, we were told to say goodbye to my dad, for good.
It broke each and every one of our hearts. My sisters cried for hours, and my mom didn’t speak. The fire seemed so far in the past, a day when our biggest problems were so tiny we couldn’t believe we were ever so lucky.
And all of a sudden, two months had passed since the day of the fire, and my father’s hospital bed sat empty, the covers neatly folded awaiting their next patient. All the while we were back at the house he had built, charred now, but still recognizable.
Morbid as we were, we decided to hold a picnic on our old front lawn, still green as it had ever been, the orange tree still standing, swaying under the weight of its own fruit.
“Come eat, Jackson, I made sandwiches.” Mom.
“Stop staring at that thing already, it’s just a tree.” -Ellie.
“Leave him alone.” -Jenna.
“I know, I know, I’m going.” -Me.
I looked at the oranges, thinking about what I talked about with my dad on the day of the fire. About how quickly things can end, and how quickly the fire took everything here. Except for this tree.
“You know dad told me something a while back, on the day of the fire. He said something like...uhm...hold on it’s on the tip of my tongue.”
“That it’s sad when things end, but it's even sadder when they don’t begin.”
“That’s it!” I said, “That was gonna bother me all day.”
“Cool quote, dad.” said Ellie.
“That’s beautiful dear.” said Mom.
“I think Dr. Seuss wrote that.” said Jenna.
“Anyway,” My dad plucked an orange off the tree, “Did I ever tell you guys how it was Jackson’s idea to plant this tree?”
“Oh my god.” I groaned.
“Yeah,” He continued, “It’s because he loves oranges. Right, son?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Can’t get enough.”