Ash drifted down, dusting their lives and lungs grey while hell’s fingers scuttled across meadows, sprang over rivers, and sprinted between trees.
Mother Nature thwarted every effort to contain the flames, scoffing at prayers for rain and instead delivering dizzy winds and dry lightning.
The billowing smoke plumed so large that it developed its own weather system—creating more lightning, igniting more fire, and belching more smoke.
Sari leapt as high as her little legs could muster, dancing on their driveway face flung upward, tongue flung outward, to catch the charred white flakes that pirouetted from the eerie red sky.
“It’s snowing, Mamma!”
Dahlia waited at the front door. “That’s not snow, bubs. It’s ash, from the fires.”
Flakes peppered Sari’s eyelashes and salted the shoulders of her black Timbits tee-ball jersey.
“Come inside. It’s bath time, then bedtime.”
“Bye Daddy!” Sari pecked her father on the cheek.
“Bye bubs.” Paul gave her a squeeze.
Paul met Dahlia’s eyes as their daughter crossed the concrete and fumbled up the steps. Despite the sepia-toned evening, he put his sunglasses back on, as if they could shield him from her branding stare of devastation and derision.
Dahlia held his shaded gaze while ushering Sari inside. “You’re late.”
“She hit a homer. We stopped for ice cream.”
“You should have called.” She was tired of being excluded.
“Sorry.” He was tired of being sorry.
Sari stood in the kitchen where she used to dance on her dad’s feet, her heart full of tears and wishes and why nots, peering beyond her mom’s stiff silhouette to watch her dad drive away.
Burn it all down.
Despite the exhaustive efforts of heroic crews, the wall of wildfire arrived on the sloping doorstep of their lakeside town three days later with a percussive war cry of popping embers and scattering sparks.
Dahlia was prepared. She’d watched the reports closely, packed the recommended three days-worth of supplies, parked her car facing the street, and moved the propane barbeque away from the house.
When the order was issued, she calmly loaded the car, locked the front door, and walked away idly wondering if the cowboy casserole in the fridge would still be edible when they returned.
“Are we picking up Daddy?” Sari asked from the back seat without looking up from her iPad.
Dahlia squirmed at the dart of guilt that struck her gut. She selfishly hadn't intended to include him in their departure plans.
Paul would be unprepared.
He used to pluck her phone right out of her palm. “It’s impossible to be happy if you read the news 24-7,” he would say. “Bad news, worse news, fake news. Who cares what Trudeau is crying over today when we’ve got TACOS!”
Then he would chuck the phone away and fling Sari up into his arms and the two of them would chant: “Ta-cos! Ta-cos! Ta-cos!”
No—Paul probably didn’t even know about the evacuation order.
Instead of following the flock to the highway, Dahlia motored three blocks back and pounded on Paul’s front door.
“Dahlia?” He held the door open in one hand and a tin of cold brown beans in the other.
“Pack your bag.”
“We’re evacuating. Pack a bag. Get in the car. We leave in two minutes with or without you.”
It took Paul 58 seconds.
Burn it all down.
They fled the fire alongside their neighbors in the orderly fashion of Canadian chaos, following the signs and obeying the emergency responders deployed to direct their migration.
Dahlia waved a minivan ahead. The driver inched into the crawling queue and waved back in thanks.
“I want Bunny,” Sari whined from the back, the breach in silence startling both her parents. “Mamma didn’t pack Bunny.”
“I’m sorry, bubs,” Dahlia said. “Bunny will be there when we get back.”
Paul gave her a sharp look, accusing her of making promises she couldn’t keep.
She longed to lash back about unkept promises but held her tongue for Sari’s sake.
“Well, I suppose if you forgot Bunny…” Paul grumbled, trailing off into a silent, uncalled-for, accusation of her thoughtlessness.
Unprepared, careless Paul.
“It’s just stuff,” she mumbled through gritted teeth, trying to justify her lack of sentimental foresight. “Besides, I’m sure the house will be fine. They won’t let it get that far.”
But even as she spoke, she thought of her grandmother’s handwritten recipe cards in the drawer beside the fridge, her mother’s wedding pearls in the jewelry box beside the bed, Sari’s tattered baby blanket folded neatly in her treasure chest.
She also thought of the crooked cupboard that Paul never fixed, the box in the closet that fed her resentment, and the scars on the wall gouged by the mugs she’d pitched at his head.
Flames spun and spat in the scarred ditches along the road, feet away from their car. Charcoal trees just beyond crumbled and tumbled.
It was closer than she'd thought.
Burn it all down.
The Red Cross emergency check-in centre was set up in a school gymnasium on the other side of the lake.
It was organized; it was overwhelming.
As they shuffled forward in their designated line, Dahlia overheard a tear-choked woman apologizing for not having brought her son’s birth certificate. The attending volunteer was apologizing in return for making her think it was an issue. The boy in question was sitting cross-legged at his mother’s feet watching Power Rangers with the volume dialed to the max.
On the other side of the gym, a gruff man balanced precariously on his cane while awkwardly cuddling an ornate cuckoo clock. He was explaining to a patient volunteer that his parents had brought it from the old country and he would be damned if they carried it all that way just for it to burn up.
At the far door, a young couple argued with the pet coordinator about their yappy ball of fur, determined that it should be allowed to stay with them and not abandoned in the designated kennel space.
Sari was silent and wide-eyed, grasping her father’s hand and lamenting the absence of Bunny. They followed Dahlia from table to table, until they were finally told they had been assigned a room in the Super 8 down by the beach and were free to go.
It was cramped but clean, even if it did smell of smoke.
Their window faced the water, even if it was more blood than blue.
“Dahl.” Paul beckoned her over. “Look.”
A crowd had gathered on the beach below. Flames blazed bright against the descending dark on the distant shore.
Dahlia closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the glass, wondering if it was possible for a heart to sink and fly at the same time.
The wall that penciled Sari’s growth spurts was rubble.
The family photos were gone.
The bed she’d refused to touch for nearly a year was ash.
A smoky sonata of despair wept from the beach as they witnessed it all burn down.