How long have we been in this house? It might only be days, seems more like months (or has it been years?) There’s no sense of time anymore, no indication that anything has ever been different.
I can hear the baby crying; my oldest daughter Blaire is yelling at him to shut up. Julie, my wife, is yelling at my daughter to stop yelling at the baby. This has been our lives for too long now.
I’ve only been awake for about ten minutes pretending to be asleep so I can avoid the day for as long as possible. I don’t dare look outside the window, the shades are shut to keep out reality. When things stay the same this long, after a while you don’t care anymore.
It isn’t much longer when I hear the creak of the narrow stairs. I know it's Julie, I can hear the baby cooing in her arms as she gets closer. The clock on the nightstand says 10:07am.
“It would be nice if you helped me. I’m tired too,” she says as she pushes the bedroom door open.
I stare at the baby boy in her arms, his brown eyes, his brown skin. Against Julie’s white complexion he looks foreign to her. I wonder if I could ever have another child? Then I remember I’ll probably never get out of this house.
“The others aren’t awake either,” she says.
John and Sarah have a bedroom on the third floor of the cabin. Sarah’s daughter Hannah sleeps in the other room up there with my daughter. Although my daughter more often sleeps between me and Julie, along with our son. One happy family.
“You sleep too long. I need more help from you,” Julie says.
I don’t say anything. I’m tired of hearing her bitch all the time. And sure, I could be more useful but I want to wake up from this nightmare already. Every morning that I get up nothing has changed at all.
Upstairs in the 3rd floor bedroom John and Sarah lay there with their eyes closed. A small fan spins cool air across their half naked bodies. They can’t open the windows unless they want to wake up choking on the thick smoke that will pour in if they do. Every night they bake in their sleep and toss and turn, and Hannah whines from the other bedroom like a cooking calf.
They’ve been dozing and waking for hours. The normal routine is not to rise until at least two in the afternoon when the room begins to heat up again. A strategy that allows them to skip some hours in the day so they can be closer to going back to bed again. It's a way to at least ignore the nightmare of living. The dream world is more interesting, although they are both finding that even there, the nightmare has begun to creep in.
“I dreamt of getting out of here,” John says, his eyes opening and Sarah wriggling to his side, sighing heavily.
“Where did you go?” She asks.
“You didn’t get anywhere...”
“We always choke to death.”
“I don’t like to hear about it. It makes me anxious.”
“It isn’t ever terrible. It’s not a nightmare. It’s salvation.”
“Until we wake up,” she says.
In the living room Julie is changing the baby's diaper. Blaire is watching TV with Greg. He is feeling a hunger in his belly but is immovable. He feels like a rock. A weighted down boat on a shore with no water to carry him.
Julie opens the fridge and looks inside the white pizza box. “You better eat that pizza before I do.”
“Do you know how weird that is?” he says, his eyes looking glazed over.
“About the fridge and the pantry… about the TV.”
“This is old news now.”
“But it’s strange.”
“It’s our life now.”
“To be honest I’m sick of the pizza. I still want it… don’t eat it,” he says.
The air quality outside hasn’t changed. The sky is still orange. It's as if a bomb has gone off and filled the entire world with its destruction. The news anchors say the same thing every day, about the fire that is burning through the Plumas national forest. About the sixty-five structures that have been burnt, the “mostly cabins” John repeats as he comes down the stairs matching the words of the news anchor on the Tv.
“I’ve seen this shit too many times now. Why do we do this to ourselves?” he says.
John puts his hand on Greg’s shoulder in a friendly way and says, “I think it's time for a Manhattan.”
Into two glasses he pours the Woodford Reserve over the large square ice cubes. He pours in the bitters, the vermouth, he drops in a blood red cherry and dribbles in cherry juice. He doesn’t measure anything out anymore. He’s an expert.
John sits down on the couch next to Blaire and takes a sip of his Manhattan.
“What do you say we kill ourselves today?”
Blaire looks at him disturbed. Tears form in her eyes.
“Its a damn shame we don’t have anything more substantial to do it with other than kitchen utensils,” he continues.
“That could be messy.”
“WILL YOU STOP,” Julie screams. Blaire gets up from the couch and goes to her mother and both of them go downstairs.
John takes a drink of his Manhattan and sits quiet for several seconds. He sighs, the creaking upstairs announces that Sarah is finally ready to join the living.
I never wanted this. I never wanted to be stuck in this Airbnb for the rest of my life. Everyday is exactly the same orange. And the Tv plays the same shows in the exact order everyday. You can only play Jenga so many times, or games of Sorry! Sometimes I sit and stare at the wall in the bedroom and scream. Downstairs I make myself a glass of Bourbon.
“You’re alive,” John says when I sit next to him.
Hannah comes downstairs thirty minutes later. The sight of her breaks my heart. Every single day it doesn’t get any easier and every morning she looks even more devastated. She doesn’t bring up going back to school anymore, she doesn’t talk about her friends. She doesn’t really say anything at all. If she wasn’t ten years old I would offer her some of my bourbon. It's the only thing that I look forward to, that and the one slice of pizza.
This whole trip was only supposed to be four days. I still remember arriving and the excitement we felt when we entered into the three story cabin. The girls ran up the stairs and trampled through the rooms. On the drive to the cabin we could see the plume of a growing fire in the distance, a great mushroom cloud of smoke. We had looked forward to a relaxing weekend by the lake. If only we had known that we would never leave the cabin.
No one looks outside anymore. But I do. It's part of my routine of hope. Ash scatters along the empty street like the tatters of first snow. No one is out. I open the slider and get a big whiff of the burning world.
I drink myself into a stupor and so does everyone else. The children watch on as we mumble and crawl on the ground like disabled heathens, terrified that tomorrow will come. The baby is always crying.
Upon waking the next morning I remember that it's my turn for the slice of pizza. But when I open the fridge the box isn’t there. I turn around and it’s on the counter. I open it. Empty.
“Who the fuck ate my pizza? It’s my turn today…”
Greg is on the couch and he turns his head slowly in my direction and says nothing.
“Did you eat my pizza?”
“No.” he says.
“Julie! Did you eat my pizza?” I yell down the stairs.
“What?” I hear her say, she walks to the bottom of the stairs and looks up at me.
“I said,'' Did you eat my pizza? It’s my turn and it's gone!”
“No, I didn’t eat the pizza,” she disappears around the corner.
I go back to the pizza box and it's still empty. Small crumbs of crust and crusted cheese linger in the box like murder evidence. John is still in bed… did he get up in the middle of the night and eat it?
“Girls!? Where the fuck are you? Did you eat the pizza!?”
Blaire is trembling in the corner staring at me.
“It wasn’t me,” she says. “I promise.”
Hannah is still sleeping. I bring my hands to my face in disbelief about what is happening. “I get it tomorrow then. Whoever ate it, I hope you enjoyed it." I go for the bottle of bourbon but discover its empty too.
“Are you kidding me Greg? You drank all the bourbon?”
“I haven’t touched the damn bourbon.”
“What the fuck is going on,” I say and collapse to the floor in dramatic fashion. The case of beer is next to me and I reach in and grab the only one left. “You drank all the beer!?” I shout.
“What are you saying?” Greg says. He comes over to me on the floor as I open the last beer.
“Where is the beer?” He says.
“That’s what I'm trying to find out. No pizza, no bourbon, and no beer.”
“Wait… do you think…?” Greg says, his eyes widening.
We race to the living room and turn on the TV. We flip the channels but it's all the same, nothing has changed there, same shows playing at the same time.
John comes downstairs to find us staring incessantly at the Tv with the remote between our hands, the channels flipping.
“What the fuck is going on?”
I run to the sliding glass door and push the curtains open and look out into the orange mist.
“Did you eat the pizza?” I ask without looking at him.
“It's your turn,” he says.
“Did you drink the bourbon? The beer?”
“Not yet. What is this all about?”
“The pizza is gone. The booze is gone. But everything else is the same.”
Julie comes up the stairs and looks at us and asks “what's going on?”
“We’re fucked,” I say. “Truly fucked.”
They search for any empty beer bottles. There isn't any. John volunteers to run outside and check the garbage. He covers his face with a wet t-shirt and goes out to the bear-proof trash can and confirms there is nothing in there but the garbage they threw away ages ago. In the recycle bin near the cabin there is nothing inside but some random recycled items. Before going back in he stops and stares down the street.
“Nothing,” he says as he comes back up stairs, the wet t-shirt is orange with toxicity.
“What is going on?” Sarah says.
“Its either good news or terrible news,” Julie says.
“God I hope it's good news,” Sarah says.
Before bed they convene in the living room together without drinking. Something they haven’t done in a very long time, if ever. They are all wondering what tomorrow will bring. Will the pizza be back? The bourbon? Will more be missing? Will the Tv still be playing the same things it has forever?
“What if the pizza is still gone? What does it mean?”
“Something is changing. It has to be a good thing.”
“Maybe we can finally leave?”
“Do you know how many times we’ve tried to leave?”
“Mommy… I don’t like this.”
“Its okay. No one does.”
“I don’t like when we leave…”
“No one is going anywhere.”
The night drags on. They play Jenga. They play Sorry! They drink water and wonder if it will be gone in the morning. When they go to sleep they fall into the darkness with hope.
Greg delays his waking like normal. But it’s different this time. He sits on the edge of the bed with his ears listening. He’s trying to know what the result is without going upstairs. It's silent.
The stairs creak as he goes up and when he gets into the living room the tv is off and everyone is sitting around on the couch and chairs.
“God damnit...” Greg says.
“I’m going out there,” John says.
“I have to try… we can’t stay here any longer. I can’t do this.”
“None of us can.”
John wraps his face in a wet t-shirt. He stands by the door with Greg behind him. The girls are in the living room staring out the sliding glass doors into the orange world. They watch as John sprints down the driveway and into the street. He heads south and rounds the corner headed west.
As he runs he can taste the toxic air pushing through the fabric deep into his lungs. The visibility gets worse the further he goes and the smoke, the ash, saturates the fabric protecting his face and his lips begin to taste sweet. He feels the burning in his chest. He coughs mildly at first and it suddenly turns into violent choking until he collapses. His lungs cease, his eyes water, and he feels a moment of bliss as he gags on the air. His lungs collapse. After several minutes of his body writhing on the ground his eyes bulge against suffocation.
He opens his eyes and sits up. He’s back in the cabin. Sarah is next to him.
“Fuck,” he gasps.
“Its okay. It was just a nightmare,” Sarah’s long fingers run down his sweaty arms.
He falls into her sobbing.
“Fuck,” he says.
“It’s okay. Just stay in bed today. It was only a nightmare.”