Wildfire - Lorraine Jeffery
It started like Moses’ burning bush, only it was a mesquite tree on the side of the mountain above our home and I didn’t hear a voice. It was only one short, squat tree and the fire looked easy to contain. I knew from past experience, that I wasn’t a very observant person, and so I assumed someone else had already called the fire department, but being cautious, I reported it anyway.
That spring had been unusually wet in Utah and the mountains had been lush with grass, rabbit brush and mesquite, but in the heat of summer it had all turned brown. “Dry gasoline,” my husband Jake had said, looking at the mountains. I stood by my window and watched in fascination until I heard the siren of the first fire truck. The fire had spread by then, but seemed to be going up the mountain, away from us.
The first farms in Orem, Utah were established in the valley where fruit trees could flourish, but as growth continued and the orchards were subdivided, residents moved up the sides of the mountains, for a view and cooler breezes. Jake and I had lived in the valley when our six children were small and then built our dream home on the mountainside where our final two teenagers were enjoying the benefit of having a bedroom and a private bathroom to themselves. And I had heard the usual “Not fair,” complaint from our other children who had always shared bedrooms while living at home.
There were no roads up to where the fire had started, so the firefighters trudged up the mountainside in their hot heavy gear, ready to fight the dragon that had spread much more rapidly than I had thought possible. I called Jake at work, told him not to worry if he heard something about the fire and assured him it would probably be extinguished quickly.
At three thirty, when I saw the neighborhood children coming home from elementary
school, it was still burning. Firetrucks from three nearby cities responded to help the local department.
Jason and Stephanie didn’t arrive home until after five o’clock. Jason had stayed for debate team and Stephanie had stayed for drill. The road up to our cul-de-sac was closed but they let local residents through and both teenagers looked through the dining room window at the mountain as they came in the front door. “That is so cool,” Jason said distractedly.
Stephanie, as expected, immediately contradicted him. “Not cool. Look at all that burned area. When it rains this fall the dirt is going to come rolling down in a sheet and we’ll have a mud lake in our backyard.”
“Well, yeah, there is that,” Jason conceded turning to me. “Have you talked to the firemen? Do they think we are in any kind of danger?”
I shook my head. “They’re confident they can get it out before it threatens any homes.”
I watched as some firefighters began to hack at brush and mesquite on the hillside above our house, building a fire break. But the fire itself was headed up the mountain to the north and I wondered why they would bother with a firebreak when our house was clearly not the path of the fire. As I was watching, I heard the whump, whump of a helicopter as water was dumped near a saddle higher up the mountain. I wondered how far they had to go for water.
I was late starting dinner because I had spent so much time at the dining room window watching the fire. It was still burning when Jake arrived home at seven. His large frame filled the front door opening as he walked over to the window and stared out. “We might want to pack up a few things just in case. . .” he said.
“Really?” I scoffed. “They’ll get it out. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“But the winds change at night,” he said. “Remember when the broadcaster talked about that? Instead of going up the mountain like they do during the day, the winds come down the mountain at night. At least that’s what he said.”
“The firefighters will tell us if they think we need to evacuate.”
“Yeah, they will,” Jake agreed. “Still, I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight, so I
think I’ll stay up for a while.”
“My hero,” I said forcing a smile. “Always willing to sacrifice for his large family.”
He looked at me, aware of the sparks between us and the tone of my voice. “Is there a problem?” he asked, his gaze piercing.
“Nope,” I said. “We have braised beef and fresh green beans for dinner, but the kids have already eaten.”
Just as Jason and Stephanie had eaten with their eyes on the fire, Jake and I did the same. It looked like it had spread a little bit south and I was aware of the strong odor of smoke and the ash, coming in around the door frames. After dark, it was difficult to see what was happening on the mountain so the kids returned to their homework, Jake retired to his office and I finished with the dinner dishes.
At nine o’clock the doorbell rang and we opened it to the smudged face of a tired looking firefighter. “Hi,” he said, shaking Jake’s hand. “I’m Captain Thompson, I talked to your wife earlier. We thought we would have this fire well under control by now, but the wind has shifted and it looks like it’s coming down the mountain. We’re still hopeful that we can contain it, but we don’t know for sure. We have extra help coming down from Salt Lake, but I thought I should alert you that you might want to find your insurance papers and decide what you’ll take if you have to evacuate.”
“You really think it might come down this far,” I asked incredulously
“No,” he said shaking his head firmly. “I think we’ll get it, but we have to take precautions. Most of the time people evacuate, and then come back and everything’s fine.”
I was shaken when I closed the door, and that’s when I realized our children were standing on the stairs and had heard the whole thing.
“Holy shit,” Jason said wide-eyed.
“Jason,” I glared.
“Sorry,” he said. “But I guess I’d better gather up some of my stuff, just in case.”
Jake nodded. “Don’t worry about your clothes. They can be replaced. Just grab the things that you can’t replace and don’t use suitcases. They take up too much room. If you do take clothes, put them in a pillowcase.”
“I can’t get all my stuff in a few pillowcases,” Stephanie moaned as she turned toward the stairs.
“That’s the point,” I said. “You can’t take all your stuff.”
During the next half hour, I walked through the house and looked at all the things we had accumulated in the thirty years of our marriage, picture albums of the children growing up, books I had loved over the years, wall hangings from our trip to Thailand, the clock from Switzerland, the picture of Jake’s grandfather in the old oval frame. I gathered up the picture albums but left the framed pictures on the wall. They would take up too much room in their present condition, but if we really had to evacuate, I would take them out of the frames.
Jake was busy pulling our trust agreement, insurance papers, and tax returns from files in his office. “Are you going to take any clothes or mementoes?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said uncertainly. “I just don’t know where to start.”
I threw my favorite clothes on the bed, trying to decide how many pillowcases they would fill and questioning how many I should take. Delaying the decision, I walked to the window and for the first time, what I saw alarmed me. The fire was no longer moving north up the mountain—it was now moving south. There was a large patch of unburned brush and grass that ran just above the fire break. If the fire jumped the break, it was on a direct path to our house and our neighbors’ house.
I wasn’t surprised, when an hour later, came the notice to evacuate. We loaded our cars and watched the neighbors in our small cul-de-sac do the same. There were only six homes and we knew everyone. We were grateful for our three cars: the family van, our Camry and Stephanie’s old Chevy. With three cars, we had lots of packing space. Our neighbor to the south had loaded their boat, hooked it to their pickup and had it ready to move out.
As it turned out, we had enough room and I didn’t have to take our pictures out of the frames. As we loaded the car, Jake came down with our wedding picture in his hands. “You, miss this?” he asked looking at me quizzically.
“Oh yeah,” I nodded, reaching for it and not meeting his eyes. I stacked it with the others and soon our van and car were loaded.
We were the last to leave the cul-de-sac and by then, smoke was rolling over the top of our house and coming down the front like a gray blanket. Stephanie was driving her car, and she led the way while Jake and Jason had the van and I drove the Camry. Jake backed out next and waited for me. I took one last look at my beautiful home and started to back out, when I remembered and slammed on the brakes. I jumped out, the car still rocking, and ran for the front door. Running up the stairs, I rushed to my closet and grabbed my shoeboxes. Where is it? Where did I put it? I asked myself as I started frantically going through the boxes.
I heard Jake coming up the stairs yelling, “Diane, get out. We have to go. What did you forget?”
I couldn’t tell him. I had to find it and leave, but as I reached for the last shoebox, he stood in the door of the closet. “What are you looking for?” he yelled. “What’s so important that you’d come back for it? Come on.”
I ripped off the top of the last shoebox, and felt my whole body relax as I saw the almost flat manila envelope. “Let’s go. I found it,” I said, rising to my feet.
Jake stood uncertainly looking at the envelope. “What is that?”
“Something that’s special to me, but we need to go now.”
We hurried down the stairs, but at the door Jake stopped again and waved away the smoke. “What was so important?”
“I’ll tell you later,” I said quickly. “But not right now. Let’s go.”
He stood in the doorway while I ran for the car, and then he ran across the street and got back into the van. I backed the car out and followed Jake and Stephanie down the road and past the roadblock. It all seemed unreal. This morning I had woken up in my bed, in the house we had lived in for ten years. I knew my neighbors, I knew where the closest grocery store was, where the beauty salons were located and where all the fast food outlets were—in case I couldn’t reach my kids on their cell phones. This was my neighborhood and my life. Could that all be gone in one night?
I thought of all the silly little things I hadn’t packed and could not, in good conscience, explain why they were important. But I told myself, tomorrow morning they’ll lift the evacuation order and you’ll have all those silly little things back. Everything will be fine.
But it wasn’t. The next morning when I woke up in the Holiday Inn, Jake was already sitting at the small desk talking to someone on the phone. Sunlight was seeping in around the dark drapes and I squinted at the lighted clock—6:07. I stayed in bed and listened to his conversation, but when he said quietly, “It’s all gone, then?” I knew. I rolled over and cried into my pillow mourning my many memories associated with that house. I also thought about all the silly mementoes I had left behind, that mattered only to me.
In the adjacent rooms, I let Jason and Stephanie sleep a little longer, but they knocked on our door about seven o’clock and, while still standing in the hall, looked at us expectantly. “The fire jumped the break line and our house burned,” Jake said solemnly and his voice caught.
“All of it?” Stephanie managed to squeak. And when Jake nodded, she stepped into the room and gave me a bear hug. I could feel her body shake as she cried. Jason tried not to cry, but he kept shaking his head as if unable to make it real.
Rather than face anyone, Jake brought in some sausage muffins and juice from a local deli and we ate a quiet breakfast while we called our four older children, and then relatives and friends. Help and assistance poured in, from family, neighbors, our church friends and even strangers. Everyone seemed willing and happy to help in any way they could.
After the initial jolt, Jason and Stephanie seemed to almost enjoy the extra attention they were getting. Friends called and offered to take them out to lunch and they begged to go. Since there was nothing to do in the motel rooms, we relented, feeling sure their friends would drive them by the house.
We were anxious to see it too, so we drove a loaded Camry back to the cul-de-sac. The road block was gone and although there were a few firefighters hosing down embers, we were able to park in front of the still smoldering pile of rubble where our house had been. It was gone and so was the Jensen’s house to the south of us. The other four homes had escaped, at least somewhat unscathed. The siding on the neighbor’s house to the north, had buckled on the side closest to our house and was scorched, but the house itself, had not burned.
Jake had called the insurance company early that morning and they promised to get back to him quickly, assuring him that his homeowners’ policy would pay for our motel and living expenses until we decided whether we wanted to rebuilt or buy somewhere else.
“Of course, I told him we want to rebuild,” Jake said that afternoon. “What else would we do?”
“Live somewhere else,” I said quietly, leafing through a magazine I had bought earlier at a Target store where we were buying some things we needed immediately.
“Why would we do that?” he asked irritably. “It was the house you and I both wanted, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “But sometimes we change our minds about what we want.”
“What’s gotten into you lately?” Jake asked. “And don’t say, ‘the fire,’ because there was something before that.”
But before we could continue the conversation, the kids came in with their friends, talking about the fire and the Jensen’s. “They’re totally undone, Mom,” Stephanie said. “I mean all Mrs. Jensen can do is cry and she can’t believe you’re not all broken up too.”
“I’m sad,” I said quietly. “But crying isn’t going to bring anything back, and after all, it was just stuff. We’re all okay.”
Both Jason and Stephanie looked at me before Jason said quietly, “Yeah, it was just stuff, but it was my stuff and I’ll miss it.” And for once, Stephanie didn’t disagree with him.
“Your Mom was so brave,” Jake said grinning. “She went back in the house when smoke was pouring over the top, to get something really special to her. Pretty brave of her, don’t you think?”
Jason and Stephanie nodded. “So, what did you go to get?” Stephanie asked.
“I’ll talk about that sometime,” I said. “But right now, let’s decide where we’re going for dinner.”
* * *
It ended like the drifting ashes of Jerusalem as Nebuchadnezzar’s charioteers turned their backs on that defeated city. A week after the fire, Jake suggest a “talk” about our future.
“I turned in the report that my boss wanted last night, so I can come home early today,” he said. “We can go somewhere for lunch and talk.”
“Sure,” I said. “But I think we need to talk where it’s more private. I’ll get something from Kneaders and we can eat here in the room. Okay?”
Jake was fine with that and came back to the motel about one o’clock. We ate the sandwiches and I picked at my salad while sitting at the cramped little desk next to the bed. When Jake had finished, he leaned back in his chair. “I’ve always liked eating out, but this experience has about cured me. I’m ready for some home-cooked meals again.”
I nodded my head. “I’m sure you are.”
“So,” Jake continued, “we need to look for an apartment. The insurance will help with
that. We can’t stay in this motel while we rebuild and we have the go-ahead from the insurance company. I’m not sure the money will cover all of the rebuild, but it should cover most of it. There are always new building regulations and we may have trouble getting them to cover things that were not part of the building code ten years ago, but they’ll be good for most of it. If we have a shortfall, we may have to take out a loan.”
“We don’t have any money put away somewhere that we could draw on?”
Jake looked at me incredulously. “Any extra money put away? You’ve known about every account we’ve ever had. There’s no extra money. Why would you even ask that?”
I ignored his question, and asked one of my own, “You remember that special thing I went back into the house to get?”
“Of course,” he said, grinning. “My curiosity has been eating me alive. Tell me it was one of my old love letters.”
“Not exactly,” I said, handing him the manila envelope.
He looked at it curiously, opened it, and then I watched the color drain from his face as he looked from one picture to another. He didn’t say anything as he returned the pictures to the envelope.
“How did you get these pictures?” he finally asked.
“Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not,” he said. “How long have you known?”
I leaned back in my plastic motel chair and took a long breath. “Good question,” I said. “You’ve commented before about how unobservant I am, and I guess you’re right. I had a feeling about your long hours, the things that didn’t seem to add up, but that’s all I had—a feeling. Nothing I could prove. No name, no idea who she was, no idea if it was over or continuing. And, you are such a big family man. The father of five sons and one daughter. The family is so important sort of man. For a long time, I was embarrassed by what I was thinking and kept talking myself out of it.”
Jake looked sick and he squirmed in his chair. “So, what changed?”
“I decided maybe I shouldn’t be the one who was embarrassed. As you know, Irene Lester and I have been friends for a long time. And even though she doesn’t work directly in your office, she’s close by. I made an appointment, took her to lunch, took a deep breath, and shared my concerns. Interestingly enough, Irene fancies herself a closet detective. She actually enjoyed stalking you. It seems like you’re pretty unobservant too and pictures from the outside café and lobby of the Marriot Hotel weren’t all that hard to get. Some quick cell phone pictures and I had my proof. It took a little more work to find the hidden bank account.”
“You went back for the pictures?” Jake said quietly as if trying to comprehend. “You ran back into the house for proof?”
“Yes,” I said as my hands clenched. “And if you’re wondering if those are the only copies—they aren’t. I saw a lawyer yesterday and he has copies.”
Jake put the envelope on the small table and took a breath, “So, you don’t want to rebuild?”
“Nope,” I said. “I want my share of the insurance money, my share of that secret account and whatever else the lawyer says I can have, and I plan to live somewhere else. To start over in a new neighborhood, and I guess you can do the same.”
“Wait,” said Jake. “I didn’t say anything to you, but I was going to. I didn’t plan to have an affair. It just happened. You know I love the kids and I do love you. We’ve built a thirty-year marriage and I’d decided to break it off with Gloria and work on getting things back where they should be. Honestly, I was going to end it.” I saw desperation in Jake’s brown eyes. “I had planned on telling her last week, but with the house burning and all. . .”
I stood up and reached for my purse with shaking hands. “Doesn’t matter now,” I said through tight lips. “I have an appointment to look at apartments this afternoon. We’re not rebuilding—not when thirty years burns clear to the ground.”
Lorraine Jeffery has a bachelor’s degree in English and her MLIS in library science. She has won poetry prizes in state and national contests and published widely in various journals and anthologies, including Clockhouse, Kindred, Calliope, Ibbetson Street, Rockhurst Review, Naugatuck River Review, Orchard Press and Bacopa Press. She lives in Orem, Utah with her husband.