Contest #112 shortlist ⭐️


American Contemporary Drama

CW: fire, natural disaster


“What the hell am I supposed to do with these?” I gaze at a packet of zinnia seeds that were tucked in with the supplies I just picked up from the Red Cross. “Masks, gloves, goggles – seeds? Seriously?!” I squeeze my eyes shut as I hold onto the scream that is forming in my throat. I stuff the seed packet into my back pocket.

It’s the first time I’ve seen what’s left of our property. James and I wanted to drive up in one car, but one of us had to grab the hazmat stuff while the other dropped the girls off at grandma Jane’s. I beat him here.

Growing up in the Sierras I took the wind in the trees for granted. I never feared the sound of the wind pushing the forest canopy around, I found it musical. The soothing limb songs seemed to make everything right in the world. 

The limbs are silent now, and everything is anything but right in the world. The needles that buffered the breeze and created tree harmonies are gone and the green rustle against blue, sunlit sky - a memory. As far as the eye can see, charred forests dot the landscape like an abysmal graveyard. The only sound I hear is my breath and the rumble of distant fire engines. The birds and squirrels and deer have either been fried to powder or fled to safer woods.

The silence is a gift today because even the slightest breeze is a trigger for me now - sending my mind tumbling back to the night that everything changed.

My foot sinks into a deep pile of soot and ash. It’s light like fresh snow, but dust-dry, powdery, it stains everything it touches. Another step and the fine ash poofs into the air, floats and lingers, then settles. Before me - a lone chimney, river rock hearth, melted metal table, melted appliances, melted window-frames, miscellaneous items I don’t recognize. The melted remains of the place I call home. 

The ash-powder has leaked into my new shoes. They were donated by a do-gooder who didn’t realize that folks like me would need boots in the days to come. My cynicism mimics my new position in the world. Displaced. At least the sneakers are new. Nothing makes you feel homeless quite like getting your neighbors donations of threadbare towels, used underwear and stained clothes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful. I just genuinely hate these sneakers. They fit ok, they just aren’t what I would pick. Neon orange and black with red shoestrings. They remind me of the reason I’m here, the reason I’m wearing donated sneakers. Fire.

I contemplate the crimson shoelaces as they pop through the dismal ash. The bizarre juxtaposition makes me shake my head.

It’s been a long month and I’m breathless from exhaustion and toxic air. The AQI is above 400 again and it’s making me edgy. It’s like breathing in a constant reminder of loss. It permeates the senses for hundreds of miles in every direction. During the day a huge plume of smoke forms over the eastern horizon, like an atomic explosion. As the cooler night air settles in it pushes the strangling smoke downward, into the lower elevations where it slithers through neighborhoods, seeps through windows and spreads the reek of burned up treasures. 

I don’t care about me, but it rips at my guts that my girls will carry this burden with them for the rest of their lives. James and I call it the haunting. We know intellectually that the stuff that burned, was just stuff. Our children aren’t mature enough to see it that way. All they know is that their favorite toys, the only home they ever knew, the place they felt safe – was there one minute - and the next, POOF, turned to smoke. 

The authorities told us we could sift through the rubble for personal heirlooms - as if anything could survive the goliath flames that decimated my home and community. As if….  How does a person comb through an apocalyptic pile of ash in search of …heirlooms? It feels like a sick joke. I have no idea where or how to begin so I decide to wait for James.

It could be worse. 85 people didn’t make it out when the winds blew through Paradise. I always thought it was tempting fate to give a town that name. It’s a tragic irony that the entire place burned, completely, to the ground. Paradise Lost.

Twenty-nine days is an eternity when you are living in the haunting. I wonder if the people of Paradise are still living it. If they still smell smoke? It’s in our clothes, our hair, the few possessions that we managed to cram into our vehicles before the voluntary evacuation warning became mandatory. It’s in our throats, our tastebuds, our nostrils. 

Hannah cries when the smoke gets strong, and for her books. I cry for Hannah's books too. I cry for a lot of things when I am alone in the shower, especially for skin and hair that don’t reek of smoke. I scrub and scrub until my skin is raw, but it’s still there. The psychiatrist called it “phantosmia.” “It’s an olfactory hallucination.” Whatever. All I know is I smell smoke. Constantly.

For 29 days I have been walking around in this smokey, internally unhinged stupor, trying to hold it together for my girls as I scrounge up clothes, toiletries and toys. I search in futility for some semblance of normal. We have been living in a portable classroom at my grandmother’s church. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the make-shift shanty villages of tents and RVs that have sprung up in parking lots all over the county. I wonder if the other fire refugees hear the Code Red message over and over in their heads too. 

A fast moving fire is encroaching your area, mandatory evacuations are enacted for the town of Grizzly Flats, Get Out Now!  

Wait, what? CalFire announced this morning that the fire was moving southwest, away from us.

Maggie had milked her dad for another bedtime story and the two were cuddling on our new sofa. We splurged on a Labor Day sale, even though it meant we’d have to move a big piece of furniture cross-country when escrow closed. 

James and I look at each other. We know that we need to move quickly.

Hannah had conked out early. Field day at school had worn her out and she was sleeping peacefully with a Dr. Seuss book spread open across her chest. I gently rub her shoulder.

“Hannah," I whisper, "I need you to wake up. We have to take a little trip.”

She doesn’t budge. 

“Come on Hannah, wake up.” I jiggle her waste. 

“No!” Hannah pushes me away, wraps her arm around Peaches and pulls her comforter over her head.

“Hannah.” I say forcefully, “you have to wake up.”

“No! No!!” Hannah scoots to the far side of the bed and stuffs her thumb in her mouth - Something she hasn’t done in several years. 

Panic scurries up my spine. “Hannah, we have to go - NOW!” Not waiting for another no, I wrap Hannah in the comforter and scoop her up.

James is already in the truck with Maggie and the dogs. The smoke is thick and I can barely see the driveway. James flashes the headlights to help me see my Jeep. 

Hannah screams and fights as I plop her on the seat and reach around her to fasten the seatbelt. “I want my bed! Mommmmmy!” Hannah’s shriek penetrates my heart. She kicks at the back seat. “I want my bed! I want Peaches!” 

Oh no! Peaches. The stuffed dog must have fallen when I carried Hannah to the car. Too late to go back. 

As I settle into the driver’s seat James calls. We agreed to keep each other on speaker phone if we had to evacuate. Thank god we decided to pack both cars when we got the first evacuation warning. 

As we pull onto Grizzly Flat road my heart feels like it will pound out of my chest. “Oh my god, James, can you believe this?”

“It’ll be ok” he says, “just stay calm."

“I’m trying.” I look over my shoulder at Hannah. She’s sobbing. “It’s ok Hannah, it will be ok. Right daddy?” I want James to reassure her.

No response.  

“James?… JAMES??” Panic sets in as I realize the cell tower is down. I try to follow James' truck closely, but cars keep cutting in front of me from side roads. Embers the size hailstones start raining down around us and a tree explodes with fire on the hill ahead. The sound is indescribable. 


“Hannah,” I say with a fake calm. “I know you’re scared, mommy’s scared too. Nothing’s going to happen to us.” It’s a necessary lie. 

I turn on Disney songs and crank up the volume. 

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon

Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?

Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Tonight the colors of the wind are kiln-hot, orange and scarlet-black, glowing tongues that lick at my tires while tentacle flames crawl along the hills from burnable thing to burnable thing. It’s evil, terrifying, beautiful, alive and the snakelike hiss is terrorizing. I turn the music louder.


James' leaky tailpipe echoes through the canyon of toothless trees. We have driven these twisty roads hundreds of times, but with the street signs burned up and the landmarks gone, it all looks foreign, post-apocalyptic. His eyes widen as he walks toward me. The fine lines around his eyes have deepened and the frosted edge of his hairline has broadened around his temples. 


“Hi yourself.” …. His eyes dart around in dismay. “My god.” 

“I know.” I wrap my arms around my sturdy man who is usually strong like the granite boulders of the Sierras. For a moment, he melts into a puddle of wax, then exhales a long breath, steps back and looks around. 

“That’s just bizarre,” he says with a snark. He points at the charred For Sale sign still standing at the corner of our property. 

“You can’t make this stuff up.” I say, trying to find humor in the moment.

“Have you gone through any of it yet?” 

“No, I decided to wait for you. Are the girls settled in at Mimi Jane's?”

“Yeah, but Hannah didn’t want me to leave. She kind of lost it. I told her we’d be back in a few hours and promised her ice cream. Remind me to stop on the way down the hill… She’s pretty messed up Chris.”

“I know. I wish I knew how to help her.” 

The reality of my child being damaged by this nightmare pulls the emotions that surge in my gut into my throat. I turn away and suck in a breath of burnt air, trying to be strong.

James embraces me from behind, slides a loose strand of hair from my face and kisses the tears that roll down my cheek. 

“We’ll get through this.”

“I guess.”

A CalFire truck rumbles up the road and pulls beside the Jeep.

“Hey there folks. Need anything?” The section crew chief asks. 

“No, we’re good. Thanks for asking.”

The chief’s face looks like rough leather that’s been drug through coals. The deep wrinkles on his brow are as black as his fingernails. He looks beaten-down, but his smile is sincere. “I’m really sorry we couldn’t save your place. The fire … it just moved too fast.”

“Yeah, we know,” James and I say in unison. 

“I’ve never seen fire behavior like this. It’s the damn drought. The dry used to be superficial, but now it’s deep inside the trees. If it had been a ground fire ….." His voice trails off. “My guys tried to cut lines, but they just couldn’t get ahead of it.”

James walks over and reaches out his hand, “I’m James.”

“Oh hey, I’m Mack.”

“We appreciate all of you so much.” James chokes up. “We’ll get through this … together.”

“Thanks, that means a lot. Anyway, I’m just letting folks know that there are some stump fires burning in the area so please keep your eyes open.”

“Shit! Really?”

“Yeah, unfortunately this sucker isn’t done yet. It won’t be out until we get a good soaking rain.”

Shaking his head, James thanks the chief for the heads up.

As the chief pulls away James places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “You ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” I swallow hard and grab the box of protective gear from the back seat while James grabs the shovels.

We begin to dig and sift through the lifeless rubble. 

Item 1. A tin soldier from James’ childhood. 

Item 2. A small clay pot. The pink geraniums I planted are gone, but the pot is strangely in-tact - still full of ashy-dirt.

Item 3. My grandmother’s cast iron waffle iron.

Items emerge from the ashes like little Phoenix’s. 

Sift and dig, sift and dig. 

Item 4. “Peaches! James look!”

“Oh my god … How? …” 

The ratty stuffed dog is singed-black like an overcooked marshmallow, but it somehow miraculously survived. I carefully pat off the ash and pull the charred dog to my chest as emotions swirl like a rip tide. James gently takes the stuffed animal from my hands and lovingly places it in a box. 

“I can’t handle much more of this.” I say through sobs.

James wraps his arms around me. “I think it’s time to close this chapter of our lives.” 

We load the day’s discoveries in the Jeep and head down the hill.


As we turn onto Grizzly Flat Rd we notice two men on the side of the road trying to put out a fire. James pulls off and slams the jeep into park. I pull over behind him.

“Stump fire!” One of the men yells. 

James grabs the shovels from the jeep and runs toward the smoldering stump. I call 911. The men are throwing dirt on the fire with bare hands. James hands them shovels and they start to dig, in unison, scooping dirt and tossing it on the smoldering stump. 

“James, look!” I point up the hill to a three-foot spot fire kicking up in the ground cover. James bolts up the hill and starts shoveling dirt onto the flames, but the fire keeps spreading. I snag a blanket from the back seat and run up the hill. James grabs the blanket from me and quickly spreads it over the flames then pats it down with his hands. He screams. “Auugh!” 

“Oh my god!” James are you ok? 

“Yeah,” he answers, pretending to be fine. 

Sirens sound as a Cal Fire unit arrives. Four guys jump out and start dousing the flames with retardant. “Help! His hands are burned!” One of the hot shots runs to the fire truck for a first aid kit as James starts to wobble – he’s in shock.

“Dude you need to sit down.” The hot shot helps James back to the truck and assesses the burns. “Damn man, you need to get these checked out asap.” As he bandages James’ hands the two men rush over. “If you hadn’t stopped… god only knows what would have happened.” They point to unburned cabins on the hill.

The drive to the hospital is surreal. We are numb, silent. The emergency room is unusually vacant and the triage nurse rushes us back.

“What’d’you do? Try to put out a fire with your bare hands?”

“Uh, well… yeah kind of.”

The nurse cocks her head to the side. “Oh my god you’re not kidding are you?”

“Not so much.”

“Grizzly?” She asks.

“Yeah. We were heading down the hill and ran into a spot fire. Crazy day.”

I guess so.


Several weeks pass, the fire is still active in north county, but it’s finally contained. Mile after mile, toothpick trees stand as a memorial to what was. Much of the rubble has been cleared where hundreds of homes once stood.

James’ hands have healed, Hannah has started smiling again, and the smell of smoke has dissipated from my psyche and nostrils. Insurance claims are being processed, goodbyes have been said and our cars are packed for the long journey to our new home in a greener, wetter state.

James and I take one last drive to Grizzly. The weather forecast says 25% chance of rain, and even though the wind is blowing black clouds across the sky we don’t believe it. We’ve fallen for that trick too many times. The wind triggers me far less these days and I actually look forward to hearing the soothing wind songs in the trees again. Just not here.

We pull up in front of an empty lot. 

“You ready?” James reaches across the cab and squeezes my arm.

“Yes. It’s time,” I answer with certainty.

We get out of the truck and walk to the middle of the lot.

“Hang on a sec,” I rush back to the truck and grab a clay pot from the back seat. I slip a packet of zinnia seeds from my pocket and tear the paper corner - "here." I tap several seeds into James’ scarred hand - then mine. We carefully tuck them into the ashy-dirt inside the “heirloom” pot. 

A gust of wind blows through the skeleton trees and I feel a drip on my nose. Then another on my cheek. James too. We lift our eyes toward the sky and it opens up. Rain. Glorious, miraculous, wet, wonderful rain. We break into laughter, then cry, then hug, ... then lovingly place the pot in the center of the vacant lot.

“You ready?”

“Yes. It’s time”

September 25, 2021 01:37

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Penni Warford
18:18 Nov 06, 2021

Seeds is based on the recent Caldor Fire that scorched a wide swath of the Sierras in Northern California. It is loosely based on true events and written in honor of a dear family who lost everything in Grizzly Flats.


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Michael Regan
22:17 Oct 01, 2021

Wow - very powerful. I loved it. Just one thing - don't trust your spell checker it should be 'waist' not 'waste'. I have been using Google Docs - it picks up those types of mistakes for me.


Penni Warford
20:22 Oct 03, 2021

It seems inevitable that at least one misspelled word makes it past. Sigh. Yes, waist, not waste. Ugh. Thank you.


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Ashley Slaughter
23:18 Sep 30, 2021

Another great story! I absolutely loved the descriptions of the colors of the wind following the Disney song. Great reference and beautiful language. Congrats on the shortlist! :)


Penni Warford
20:23 Oct 03, 2021

Thank you Ashley. You are very kind and your encouragement means a lot. Smile.


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