By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. In the valley below our cabin, a grove of black walnut, sycamore, and cottonwood trees flickered and popped in the dawn. The stench of acrid smoke filled my lungs as I calculated how far the wildfire had spread overnight. How safe we felt before going to bed. Looking down at the tangle of mountain roads, I wondered fretfully which ones were still passable.
We had arrived two days before, a veritable lifetime ago. I remember my contentment then, my determination to spend some focused time with my children, as I pulled into the familiar gravel driveway. The cabin, set back off the road, was only visible from the valley around this time of year. But not anymore. Now, the leaves no longer hid its quaint, rustic splendor. And worse, this hideaway, the cabin where I had spent the best part of my childhood, was no longer a place of refuge. It now threatened my family.
Time was the enemy. The dry forest was tinder. The imminent blaze would race up the ravines and consume this mountain top: people, homes, all. In the time I’d been watching, it had started creeping up the lawn, flames licking at the wooden railing surround.
Already I heard the crackling and spitting of bursting sap as it filled the air. I stepped back, an involuntary retreat from the assault of the smoke. For a moment, I felt the year weigh upon me. The stress and trauma and loss, all pulling me down and whispering: you can’t do this. Perhaps if I were alone, I would have stayed on the porch swing. Let the fire swallow me whole. But, of course, I wasn’t, and I didn’t have the luxury of giving up. With one last look at the burning abyss before me, I summoned the necessary fortitude to act.
“Kids! Get up!”
Rory, the middle child, was the first to appear, his backpack stuffed to bursting with all of his treasures. At eight, he already shouldered the responsibility of being a big brother and I could see in his eyes that this was weighing heavily on him at the moment.
“Where are your sisters, Rory? We’re going to have to go down the mountain. The wildfire jumped the line overnight,” I said, both hands on his thin shoulders, my voice calm, but steady. I ignored the glow that now lit the cabin interior.
“Mom took Vivi and ran after Lola,” he said with a twinge of guilt. “She went through the smoke.”
“How could you let Lola go?!” My hands, calm just a moment earlier, were now shaking my son in fear. Horrified at my actions, I released him.
“I’m sorry, Daddy!” he cried, dropping his unzipped backpack. Plastic dinosaurs, marbles, and Matchbox cars spilled out, scattering in a spray of disorder. Disappointing his father and losing his treasures in the same moment was too much for Rory. He folded himself up on the couch and wept.
I wanted to comfort him, but there wasn’t time.
Where was my wife? My girls?
For a moment, I couldn’t move. Then the tingle of fear and muted adrenaline began to work its way up from the soles of my feet to my shoulders and catapulted me into action. I threw Rory over my back and ran, with him howling for his backpack, through the cindery living room. The glass windows were beginning to soften and cave, shattered slivers adding to the hazards I faced.
I was wearing walking socks, which afforded me little protection from the sharp limestone gravel. In my panic, I didn’t notice the shards of pain nibbling gently at my skin.
I ran as if dogs chased me. There was a hill, on the road leading to town, where a small grey house perched, with two big black sleeping dogs on the broken front porch. Whenever Moira and I jogged to town, for exercise or for ice cream, those dogs would wake up, and start to growl and bark, and they’d bound off and start chasing. It wasn’t funny the first few times, but then it turned into a joke. Moira and I got faster and stronger each time. The shared escape bonded us.
I ran like that now. I ran until Rory stopped crying from indignation and started crying from fear and pain. Blood trickled down my face and hands where gravel flew up and sliced my skin. The flying cinders would cauterize any injury, I thought bitterly. I ran to the end of our long driveway, dumped Rory onto the warm ground outside the cattle guard, and yelled, “If the fire gets too close, you run, okay? Run to town! Get safe!”
He nodded, his young face tear-streaked, and I started back to the house. My chest ached like it hadn’t before. When I got closer, I saw Moira running from the woods, looking desperate, her hands smeared with charcoal. She jumped onto the porch, carrying our older daughter, Vivian. Lola, the youngest, was nowhere in sight. Moira had a strange look on her faces. Even though crumbling beams, fiery-lit pinecones, and baubles of flame shattered over their head, she didn’t move from the porch.
“Where’s Rory? Where’s Lola?!” Moira shrieked, holding Vivian in a death grip. “Where are my children?”
I resisted the urge to wrest Vivian from her arms, as Vivian looked wild-eyed, frightened more of her mother than what lay below. Moira had always looked calm, cool-- almost too cold. I married her for it. She was the practical one. But now, her face only looked wild and torn with shock and grief. Her eyes, her deep black eyes, were the only things at odds with this crazed expression. They looked as if she were merely calculating the yearly deductible for our insurance.
“Rory is just ahead. Find him. Head to town,” I ordered.
“You find Lola!” she spat, manically. Her eyes drew back like slits in her aggrieved face, her lips pulling back to show an almost feral grimace. “You. Find. Lola,” she repeated in a preternatural calm voice.
Torn between shaking her into action and the terror for my daughter, I settled on flinging my hand towards Rory and spitting, “Go!” My voice had the same sharp bite as the crackling bark of the trees, but I didn’t stop to see if Moira had heard me. Instead, I spun on my heel. The pain lancing up my leg brought the world into sharp focus. I jerked around.
Lola was only seven, no doubt terrified beyond rationality. I knew that Moira had followed her out of the cabin, so there would be no point returning there even if it weren’t engulfed in a firestorm by now.
If Moira had lost her in the smoke, where was she now?
Moira sped off and caught up with Rory, who was paralyzed by fear and sitting at the end of the driveway. She pulled her two struggling, terrified children off the driveway, closer to the house, into the clearing toward the Jeep waiting in the gravel turnaround.
She could hear her husband frantically shouting their daughter’s name: “Lola! Lola!” He disappeared into the inferno of the forest in search of their lost child. As she’d known he would.
Moira shepherded both of her children into the backseat and got behind the wheel. She brushed her hand on the brow of the one asleep on the passenger seat beside her. Lola was the picture of innocence, lost not in the blazing forest but, instead, in dreamless slumber. Her face was thin and pale, milky-white, like a ghost, but more solid and perfect. Poor Lola.
Guilt threatened to overwhelm her then. My god, what have I done? But Moira knew she’d had little choice. She thought back to the months of constant worry after her husband had lost his job and the family slipped ever closer to poverty, savings dwindling.
“It’ll be okay, hon. Something’ll come up. You’ll see,” he had assured her. And he’d been right.
That something had come in the form of an email from their insurance company, informing them that their coverage had been upgraded to include any loss, damage, or injury suffered as a result of the raging California wildfires. If either of them passed away in a fire, the insurance company would pay out double the coverage amount.
Moira hid the email from her husband and agonized over it for days. It seemed both a blessing and a curse in one. Financial salvation, at the cost of one of their lives. Could she really sacrifice her husband, the man she’d loved with all her heart for nearly 20 years, to save their children?
Could she live with herself if she did?
Could she live with herself if she didn’t?
The decision had been made for her when he suggested they go up to the cabin in the woods for the weekend. “The change of scenery will do us good. When we get back, things will look different,” he’d said. She took his words as a sign. The preparations had been easy.
Moira slipped a sedative into Lola’s bedtime glass of milk. When the rest of the family was asleep, she carried her youngest daughter out to the Jeep, knowing full well that her husband would risk his life trying to rescue the child if he believed her lost in the blazing wilderness.
Striking the match had been the hardest part. The wind had extinguished the flames of the first two, almost as if urging Moira to reconsider her actions. She’d nearly given up then, but devious plans, once lit, tend to take on a life of their own, attaining a momentum that cannot be easily reversed. Like a fire.
As if confirming this point of no return had long since been passed, the wind had died and the third match stayed lit.
Moira had let the tears fall, angling them carefully away from the fledgling flame as she lowered it to the parched undergrowth.