By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The pre-dawn sky above Garnett Ridge flickered, casting an orange glow into the starless, smoke-filled night. I stood on dad's patio, embers racing past me like dancing pixies, hopping and twirling and twisting and pirouetting on the hot wind that whipped down the hillside into the canyon. It was oddly beautiful. Magical, even.
I put out my hand for one of the larger ones, paper thin and aglow like a bioluminescent moth. It burned slightly as it settled on my palm and then went dark. I closed my fingers around it and felt it crumble to ash. Mila's barking was just barely audible over the roar of the fire as it raced up the backside of the ridge, devouring the White Firs and the Western Pines and the Atlas Cedars that covered the landscape. Dad loved those trees.
That was three days ago.
Mom and dad moved to Heavenly in the seventies. It wasn't much before then. A cluster of modest homes and trailers on the side of a logging road in the middle of the Oregon wilderness. When dad's paper company came, they built a new pulping plant. Subdivisions of split levels sprouted like mushrooms from the forest floor. Nice houses. Four bedrooms, a den, and a carport out front. Some even had swimming pools. The town expanded gradually up the side of the ridge. They built new schools and strip malls. A Walmart went up on the bypass road. Heavenly prospered in that particularly American way.
In the house, pictures of my mom and dad from that time used to line the mantle and the bookshelves in the living room. Those burned in the fire, of course, just like everything else. I remember one of dad, tucked away behind more recent photos – me in my cap and gown, the family on a trip to Cannon Beach – his thick mustache and parted hair swept across his forehead right to left, the top two buttons of his paisley-patterned shirt opened to expose a tuft of chest hair. In the image, his arm is around mom’s waist, fingers tugging at the hem of her white cotton shirt as though he just couldn’t help himself. He has a proud smile on his face. An immigrant with an engineering degree and a supervisor role for Weyerheimer Paper and a brand new home in a town called Heavenly.
I know every twist and dip and crest of Garnett Ridge. At least I used to. It was where I played as a child, running with the kids from the neighborhood, Bobby, who lived next door and was my best friend, and his sister, Annie, up and down the steep embankments, jumping mountain bikes off ramps we made out of dirt and plywood.
I called myself Grace then. It sounded normal, I thought. Graciela made me different. A brown skin girl with a Mexican name in a town full of Johns and Roberts and Jennifers with blonde hair and green eyes. When I would come home from those adventures in the woods covered in mud and with cuts on my knees and forearms, my dad would laugh and called me his little machona, his tomboy. I told him not to use that word, to act like an American, to speak English.
Later, when I was a teenager, I would sit on the boulders in Elk Gulch, drinking Natural Light beers and smoking pot and scrawling the names of our favorite grunge bands on the rocks with spray paint. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Janes Addiction. One time, I wrote "Welcome to Hellhole, OR" across a rock face. I thought it was clever. When I went back the next weekend, someone had crossed it out and written next to it, "Go Back to Mexico" in big black letters, followed by a slur that I cannot repeat.
Route 43 runs near the top of the ridge. There's a place where you can pull off on the side of the road and take it all in, the endlessly undulating dark green forests in every direction. In tenth grade, a boy in my class drove me up to that overlook and put his hand under my bra while I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to be anywhere else. I can’t even remember his name now.
I got out of Heavenly as soon as I could and never looked back. So did my brothers. Jaime went to L.A. the day after his high school graduation. Pedro to Silicon Valley when he was even younger than that.
On the night of the fire, Mila’s barking startled me awake just before the phone on my bedside table started beeping and buzzing furiously with alerts from the Oregon State Public Safety Commission issuing mandatory evacuation orders. I had been monitoring the spread of the fire closely for days, but when I went to bed earlier that night the authorities had sounded calm. A steady westerly wind was blowing the Jordan Ranch Fire away from Heavenly. The smoke that had hung in the air for days, irritating our eyes and burning our throats, had cleared, replaced by the smell of pine needles and dry grass. It looked like we had escaped the worst of it. I took Mila out for a walk and then fell asleep in front of the tv.
But the pixies that danced around me on dad's patio made clear that the wind had shifted. I watched as the fire topped the ridge and started making its way down the near side. A row of cars on Route 43, their lights dimmed by the thickening smoke, stood strangely still, horns blaring. "There are people in those cars," I said out loud, a rising panic in my voice. I turned back toward the house and saw Mila lunging against the sliding glass door between me and her, pawing at the latch. My Honda hatchback was in the driveway and I glanced at it momentarily as I opened the door, taking my eyes of Mila. It was only for an instant, but it was enough for her to slip past me.
Her full name was Milagra. His miracle. She was a rescue, but dad always said that it was Mila who had rescued him. Mila was part pit bull and part spaniel, white with brown spots and a short snout. Her eyes turned down at the outside edge in a way that gave her a sad look.
Dad got her right after mom died eight years ago. I told him that it was a mistake to get a dog, that he just needed to focus on himself for a while, that a new puppy would be too much work. But Mila got dad out of the house. She gave him something to do other than grieve. He took her for walks and gradually started talking again to the neighbors. He started smiling again. He used to let Mila sleep next to him in his bed, on the side that used to be mom’s.
When I would call him from my house in Portland on Sunday mornings, Mila was always there in the background, our conversations punctuated by dad calling her over to him so that he could scratch her behind her ears. Dad would regale me with the latest stories of Mila chasing rabbits in the backyard, even though she had long since grown too old to be much of a threat. “Just a couple of viejos with arthritis in our knees,” dad would say, chuckling to himself.
The day after tomorrow will be three months since dad passed away. It was his neighbor, Sally, who found him. Sally, who was the mother of Bobby, my best friend who I ran with in the woods and who still lived in town in one of those new developments that sprawled out into the forest. Bobby died in the fire along with his wife and two children, stuck in traffic as the flames engulfed his SUV. Sally is missing too. “Presumed dead,” like so many others in Heavenly.
"He looked peaceful. Like he was just taking a little nap." That's what Sally said when she called to tell me the news of dad's death. I got in my car and drove out right away, pulling to the side of the road when I could no longer see through my tears. I should have been there with him. I knew he was sick. It wasn’t a secret or anything. My brothers came too, and we cried together and drank too much and looked at those old photos on the mantle and then cried some more. We buried him in the cemetery in Heavenly next to mom. The next day Jaime and Pedro went back to their lives. Jaime to his restaurant in L.A. and Pedro to his young son and wife and tech job.
I volunteered to stay behind. There were things to do. The house needed to be sold and Mila would need a new family. My one-bedroom condo in Portland was no place for her. She would be miserable there. I figured at the time that it would be just a few days, maybe a week at most. I don't know what kept me here longer than that. There was always some reason to stay, it seemed. The gutters needed to be fixed. There was paperwork to complete for dad's estate. It was harder than I expected to get someone to adopt a dog as old as Mila. Maybe I enjoyed Mila's company too much to give her away to some stranger. Maybe I liked Heavenly more than I wanted to admit. Or maybe I couldn't just walk away.
Nothing is left of the house now but the brick chimney and the tar driveway and a few wrought iron patio chairs, stripped of their paint and stained a rust brown by the flames. The fire took the rest. It was three days before they said it was safe to go back to Heavenly, and even now smoke still drifts from the blackened trunks of the biggest trees. Standing in the unrecognizable place where dad's house used to be, I call Mila’s name until my voice is hoarse. I know it's stupid. I know that she won’t come running out of the woods, her fluffy white and brown-spotted tail wagging back and forth, her sad eyes looking up at me for a treat. I know that my suffering is nothing compared to what the family of Bobby and Sally and so many others from Heavenly are experiencing. It feels selfish. I call her name anyway and hope for a miracle.
I’m sorry that I didn’t come earlier. I’m sorry I wasn’t with you at the end. I'm sorry that I ran away from this place that you loved. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t save Mila. Lo siento, papa.