By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The trailer door clanged loudly behind me, but I tried to ignore it as I looked up at the trees around me. Deep, opulent red swatches, blending into golden, iridescent ambers. The colours mixed and blended, not only between trees but within single leaves, waving and roiling in the air like the very heart of nature itself was on fire. Evergreen trees sat dappled throughout, providing a counterpoint to the symphony of autumnal change that danced around them. They were stalwart, indifferent to the seasons, as if to serve as a reminder that not all things change.
As I walked down the stairs, I was certain that I wasn’t one of the evergreens. I had changed. It’d been twenty five years since I left this place, determined to find a better life for myself in the world outside. Breathing in the crisp fall air I can remember how I felt then. How badly I wanted to leave this wild place for somewhere more civilized. I can’t believe I grew up here, in a trailer parked permanently in the middle of absolute nowhere. It had taken work, hard work to drag myself out of this place and build myself a better life. Hard enough work that I hadn’t taken care to look back. Driving in, I’d needed to stop and ask for directions twice. Suffice to say, no one recognized me on my way in. Finally I’d found the beginning of the overgrown turnoff from the nearest highway. Barely distinguishable from the road. Our driveway. Another 40 minutes on that and I’d made it here.
Sometimes it seems as though a person stays much the same over the course of their life, sometimes it takes going back to see how much has changed. Well I’ve been back now, and long enough to see the change. Spencer though, he’d been the good son. He stuck around and inherited this dump. He was an evergreen. At least now that Mom had been buried, I could tell Spencer I’d be leaving. Hearing a rustling noise, I walked out around the back of the trailer to see if I could find him.
By the time I rounded the trailer, I saw that the leaves were in fact on fire. Spencer stood at the end of a long column of leaves, one thumb hooked into the strap of his faded blue coveralls, the other hand holding a still-lit butane torch. On the ground beside him sat a long metal rake. The line of leaves stretched out in front of him in my brother’s best approximation of a straight line, before reaching a gigantic pile of leaves in the clearing behind the trailer. My eyes followed the fire, as it similarly followed the column, racing away from Spencer along the line of leaves towards the pile. At the bottom of the pile I could see a small swatch of red, unnatural even for this stage of autumn. It was the jerry can. The goddamn jerry can.
Before I could call out, not that calling out would do much at this late juncture, the fire reached the end of the leaf wick and hit the leaf bomb. There was a great FWOOSH as the leaf pile caught, the fire sucking in all the air. I saw the yellow cap of the jerry can go flying as the fire exploded outwards, sending the pile of burning leaves up into the air to rain down like hillbilly hellfire.
“You idiot,” I shouted at Spencer, but that too must have been pulled into the fire because he didn’t react to me at all. He just kept staring at the fire with a moth-like intensity and intelligence.
I watched the burning leaves begin to settle on top of the trailer, and even from my vantage point could see them begin to catch some of the dried leaves collected up there. Within seconds, small fires began popping up across the trailer’s roof.
“Do you have a fire extinguisher?” I called to Spencer as I looked for a ladder to get on top of the trailer.
“Woohoo!” He said, setting down his torch as he gave the fire a round of applause.
I ran a full loop around the trailer, but couldn’t find a way onto the roof. By the time I’d made it back around front again, the entire top of the trailer was alight. I ran up to the front door, hoping to be able to grab my things, but the ceiling was already collapsing in and I could see fire spreading across the floor. Spencer’s stacks of magazines caught fire, turning quickly into pyres that burned and toppled, spreading the fire further. I watched the cover of Guns, Girls, and God curl and blacken under the flame before turning back to find Spencer. Turns out poverty was highly flammable. I felt an anxiety rising in my stomach at the loss of my phone, my computer, my wallet.
“What were you thinking?” I asked Spencer, finally drawing his attention away from the burning pile.
“Hoowee! Fastest I’ve ever cleaned up leaves before!” Spencer’s eyes were wide, still not seeing anything but the excitement of what he’d just done. He gripped both straps of his coveralls like a child on a swing set, asking to go higher.
“Damnit, Spencer, you could’ve killed me. And haven’t you seen the news? There’s a fire ban. You could’ve set the whole forest on fire, if you haven’t already.”
Spencer looked down, not taking his hands off his coveralls, and surveyed the ground by the forest.
“Hell you’re right. Looks like you’re fine though. Could’ve been bad though. Probably would’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for that.
“Yes, you would have.” I respond, grateful at least that he’s finally taking things seriously.
“Like them gender reveal parties. This was kind of like those I guess.”
“Yes it was.”
“‘Cept the gender was leaves.”
Spencer looked past me now, finally realizing that his trailer was now fully engulfed in flames. I watched his face as he arduously struggled towards understanding that this was not just more leaves burning. That this was not good fire. This was bad fire.
“Well, hell.” He took two steps forward before a loud cracking sound came from the trailer as a large section of the roof collapsed. He stopped and looked at the fire. Finally he turned to me with a noncommittal shrug.
“Bought time we renovated anyway.”
His indifference annoyed and frightened me. How could he care so little? Didn’t he realize my things were in there? My livelihood?
“Better call the fire department.” He said.
I turned and looked at him.
“My phone was in there,” I said, gesturing to the fire behind me, as a trailer wall toppled over.
There was a pause, another infuriating wait, as he mulled it over.
“And you figure it won’t work anymore?”
“Somehow I doubt it,” I said, the fire crackling in agreement. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my car key.
“I’ll drive into town and get help,” I said as I began walking to my car.
As I approached the far side of the trailer where my car was parked, I noticed my gas cap was open. Underneath the gravel was wet, leading off in a trail towards a shimmering puddle. I watched a spark float down like a malicious lightning bug, settling down for a drink in the gasoline puddle. Instantly it lit, and the fire raced down the trail and up the side of my car. I stumbled back as the car detonated, an explosion far larger and more violent than the first. Bits of Volkswagen lay scattered around in all directions. I watched as a tire - front left, I think - rolled lazily down the driveway and out of sight. When my head stopped reeling I took inventory of myself. I still had all my fingers and toes. I looked over to where Spencer had been and saw him hooting and hollering, more giddy even than before. Evidently I still had my idiot brother as well.
“Right,” he said, holding a hand out towards the burning metal husk that once was my car.
“After I doused those leaves I thought I’d top up your tank a bit.”
“Of course you did.”
“For the ride home ‘nd all.”
Exasperated, I put my head in my hands. Was this why I’d never come back? Had I known, somehow, that if I came back I’d never leave? Stuck, like those dinosaurs who stepped in a mudpatch just too thick to step back out of, only to be swallowed up and fossilized. Gawked at by paleontologists.
“What the hell do we do now?” I said. “We have no phone, we have no car. We have no way of letting anyone know we’re in danger.”
In the distance a bird, possible an owl, called out.
“It’s getting darker,” I continued. “And we’re going to get eaten alive by wolves.”
Spencer looked at me with his typical vacant expression. I couldn’t tell if he even understood me, blood of my blood. Finally, just before I was about to start walking myself down to the highway, he spoke.
“So you want me to send a message to the town?”
“Yes, Spencer. Of course that’s what I want. Do you have a phone, because somehow I doubt it.”
Spencer patted his pockets, as if checking for a phone.
“No, never found fit to get me one But I have an idea.”
“Brilliant. And what’s your grand idea?”
“A smoke signal. Saw it in a movie once. Send up an SOS signal with smoke. But for that we’ll need something to burn…”
He trailed off, his eyes scanning the ground. After a moment he bent over and picked up the rake from where it lay in the grass.
I walked over to him and snatched it out of his hands.
“I’ll start raking.”