Sunday afternoon, the neighborhood next to ours catches fire. We sit with our neighbors, Cord and Jamie, on their deck and stare at smoke and fire engines and helicopters dropping water on orange flames a mile away. We’re safe where we are, the blaze the other side of the lake, the wind blowing it to the east. So we sit. We stare. That’s all we can do.
“We should probably take a shot now,” Cord says after a few minutes.
“We probably should,” I say while Eli and Slade race around the deck and propane tanks explode across the lake and black clouds rise like mean skyscrapers.
We eat fish tacos and take a tequila shot there on Cord and Jamie’s deck, the smoke sometimes black, sometimes white, the children oblivious to the trees and cars and houses burning so close by.
“What would you grab if you had to evacuate?” Cord or maybe Jamie asks. Kids and pets, I say. A laptop, possibly. Important documents, if there was time.
But everything else, the furniture, Eli’s and Slade’s drawings, the flat screen TVs, the china we’ve never used, would be left to burn. Some of that stuff matters; most of it doesn’t.
The next afternoon, which is Labor Day, the phone rings.
“Your dogs are down at the lake,” a neighbor tells Sally.
“At the lake?” Sally says. “That’s just wonderful. We’ll be right there.”
From the waterfront park, smoke still snakes above the trees from the neighborhood just across the narrow lake. 24 houses have been destroyed, we’ve heard on the news. 30 more damaged. 4000 people evacuated. We swim at our waterfront park and laugh about our dogs escaping and watch Eli and Slade bound off the boat dock into green water.
“Helicopter, Mommy! Daddy! Helicopter!” Slade exclaims each time a helicopter buzzes us with a giant sack of water sloshing underneath it like a saggy boob.
By that afternoon, a wildfire is igniting houses 15 miles to the north of us, and another, this one to the west, has grown to over 6000 acres, and another, east of town, has roared to over 25,000 acres. In our front yard, the air is the color of copper, and flakes of white ash drizzle on the grass. From which fire, we can’t tell.
As hazy dusk settles, someone pounds on the front door just after we put the boys to bed. Sally and I look at each other.
“Fire at Running Deer and Jack’s Pass,” a woman we’ve never seen yells and runs up the driveway. Running Deer and Jack’s Pass. That’s a block away.
Horns honk outside and Sally gets the boys up and I push Snurp in the cat carrier and we grab the laptop and leash the dogs and locate birth certificates and find car keys.
“Fire at Running Deer and Jack’s Pass,” I hear again somewhere as I open the front door and step into purple twilight.
At Jack’s Pass and Running Deer, the spot of the fire, I see a jeep, a car, and a motorcycle stopped in the road, but nothing burning. A dozen or so people stand on the edge of the street, looking down a steep hill. Cord is among them. He’s holding a shovel.
“Where’s the fire?” I ask.
“We just put it out,” Cord says.
“How’d it start?”
“Some dude threw a bottle rocket out of his truck and then drove off.”
“You’re kidding me,” I say. “Some prick shot off fireworks? That’s not dumb; it’s deliberate.”
All this week, lying in bed, washing dishes, parking my car, I’ve been thinking this: What if the wind hadn’t died down just a few minutes before? What if nobody had been there to see the smoke in time at Jack’s Pass and Running Deer? What if that asshole in the truck had started a fire that swallowed Slade or Eli or Sally?
It didn’t happen, I tell myself. We’re all fine, I remind myself.
And I feel better then. But not much.
When I was in middle school, my father told me the story of Beowulf as we drove home from Des Moines on a black February night. My old man, an English professor, explained the notion of fate in that poem and how, in many ways, the story was existential. Existentialism didn’t mean much to the 13-year-old me.
But this did: “In Beowulf, it’s not if the monster comes but when,” my dad said that evening. “The monster always comes. King Hrothgar. The other characters in the epic. They all accept that in the middle of the night, the monster comes.”
And I think that’s what I’ve really been thinking about this week. The monster in the truck shooting the bottle rocket. The monster smoking in the woods. Smirking. Biding. Coming for you. Coming for them. Coming for me.