My iPhone tells me that it was 04:27 am when I called 911. More irritated than alarmed, I leapt out of bed from a dead sleep when I heard the smoke alarm go on. It had been beeping repeatedly a couple of days ago unnoticed by my parents who were talking in the next room. I had dragged a small table nearby to yank the battery and stood there waiting for a break in the discussion to ask where the replacement batteries were. Finally, I gave up, set it down, and filed it away in my mind for later.
My parents live in Morgan Hill, California. I love the place but I never lived there as I’d been out of the house for a couple of years when they bought it. My brothers, born a decade after my sister and me, consider it their childhood home. On the weekends I helped work on it though, pouring cement, digging fish ponds, fixing roofs, and trimming trees. It was a fixer-upper like the house I learned to work on at our place in North Carolina, with lots of charm, bricks and wood, and a sagging front porch whose foundation needed a boost every three or four years. It took us kids years to appreciate the skills we learned doing this kind of work, plus the mechanical stuff with the cars and my motorcycle and the tractor, plus the garden and orchard and chickens and my sister’s horse and the rabbits that multiplied endlessly so that rabbit fricassee was a regular on our dinner menu.
This house and the shop and the shed, like the property I grew up with, remained far from perfect, and that’s the way they liked it; charming in its idiosyncrasies.
The alarm wasn’t beeping; it was screeching. I strode down the hall in a tank top and my dad’s sweatpants because I had forgotten to pack my own. Around midnight I’d woken up cold and raided his bottom drawer. I chose the soft, gray cotton pair with the crosshatch on the knees. When Dad had his stroke we got him a wardrobe of sweatpants as he recovered from bedridden to wheelchair to walker and then back on his own two feet, so there were lots of cushy sweatpants in that drawer.
Dad wasn’t home because he was with my sister in Dallas visiting my nephew with his new job as a senior herpetologist at the Dallas zoo. So now it was just me and my mom and their big old dog Tucker, more gray than black and in good health but like my parents getting a bit deaf and creaky and slow. In fact the whole reason they kept their old minivan in the drive between the house and the shop was because they were sure that when the time came they wouldn’t be able to haul Tucker’s 75 pounds into the SUV to take him to the vet. The minivan’s slider door is just inches from the ground so they knew they’d be able to drag him on a blanket into the back.
My parents’ house sits at the end of a dead end road in an underdeveloped neighborhood above a creek that runs year round. One side of the house is half buried into a hillside studded with pines and oaks glowing evergreen in the golden grasses humping higher into the landscape, peaking and diving and undulating. Formerly chicken farms and apricot orchards, this land is now vineyards and McMansions and standard issue developments all culminating into the downtown where the annual Morgan Hill Mushroom Festival is held, sister to the Gilroy Garlic Festival. The roads are narrow and winding and sparsely trafficked. Bicycle clubs are a local nuisance in neon but that is the price you pay to live in a place of beauty and isolation.
It is paradise at the dead end of a one-way lane that ends one house short of a Christmas tree farm.
I walk fast through the narrow hallway, dogleg right and then left around the stairs to the basement, past my dad’s office, veer left again at my mom’s bedroom door, then turn into the kitchen and through the dining room and finally into the living room where, oh shit, there really is a fire.
It is a bright cheerful fire dancing orange and yellow about waist high in the far corner of the house behind my dad’s easy chair next to the wood-burning stove. It gives off a white clear light and I can see everything as if the lights are on; the chair and the stove with the front door exiting to the porch, the television and bookshelf lining the opposite wall that is shared with my mother’s bedroom, the couch and the carpet, yards and yards of old carpet between it and me and the linoleum in the dining room and kitchen. My mind briefly attempts to resolve the why and latches onto the possibility that an ember had jumped out, forgetting that the wood-burning stove hasn’t been used in a decade or more.
I look down at my iPhone, which I had unconsciously picked up from the night table, and punch 911 while screaming at my mom in the adjacent room.
FIRE MOM! GET OUT! FIRE! GET OUT!
I hear her say WHAT? and I yell, FIRE! FIRE! WHERE’S THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER!?
IN THE KITCHEN BY THE REFRIGERATOR she yells back. My mom wakes up fast and early, at 6 in the morning or earlier.
OKAY BUT GET OUT. GET OUT!
I sprint through the dining room to the kitchen to find the fire extinguisher, but in a whoosh that sounds exactly like the word whoosh, the kitchen fills with smoke and I am blind and choking.
MOM GET OUT I scream again because now I know the fire extinguisher is no longer an option and I have to get out, too.
The space between the refrigerator and the back door is about the length of the span of my arms spread wide. I am there in a second and twist the knob to the old wooden door and it opens, thank god because my eyes are burning and I can’t breathe and there is clean, cool air outside where I can be in a second. I can see it despite the smoke rushing out and the fire coming at me, attracted by the same clean cool air I am desperate to reach.
Except between me and outside is the metal door with the heavy security screening and I fumble to find the lock as I drop to my knees where I instinctively know there is more air. It’s a deadbolt and I twist left and push.
It doesn’t budge and I remember, oh no, it’s this damn door, the door that’s difficult to figure out even in daytime and there are two locks; one’s higher and you have to get them just right to open, one left and one right, or one first and one second, or something, click click twist. I reach up again and twist one and then the other. The tumblers turn easily and click smoothly into place and I push, and I turn them again and push, but nothing, again.
Breathing is taking more effort and I waste energy by shaking the door in frustration, then, scolding myself, turn the locks again this way and that. I’m thinking, trying to visualize them, consciously slowing down, not rushing, systematically thinking, right right, push. Left left push. Right left push. Right left push.
Why the hell is this door even here with no crime and driveway alarms and a dog and nothing to steal, only some old computers and a television worth nothing, antiques and art and tools. But the tools, almost the only things of real value, that is to say, the only things a thief could resell, are all the way down the sidewalk and the stairs and across the gravel driveway in a different building altogether away from the fire.
My cheek is now pressed against the bottom of the door and I am trying to breathe but inhaling only the smoke flowing around my face, then I slide even further down on the tile on the floor so cool against my cheek brick red with its cream stucco or was it the fake wood now that looks so real like real wood or was it just what they were talking about for a while before they decided on the tile and then there is no more air, just hot dirty smoke that hurts my throat and my lungs.
Without knowing how, I’ve got the sweatpants off and onto my face and I am crawling, slithering on the floor by elbow, knee, elbow, knee, toward my mom’s room and closer to the fire, into the smoke and to the hallway, the only option out now, and under me the floor is made from smooth tile or fake wood that replaced the flooring that came with the house. Chosen because it’s easy to mop up as I remember from the many conversations and samples spread out on the kitchen table, and it doesn’t wear and the floor underneath is wavy so if we decided on real tile we would have had to level the whole thing and make it flat enough so the tile wouldn’t crack, though terra cotta would be nice but then there was the living room which is a step down and that’s harder to do with tile and my phone in my hand has a woman in it saying loudly and with authority “What is your location? What is your location ma’am what is your location?” and I am surprised there is somebody talking and so pleased that she called me.
I yell the street number and the city and MOM WHERE ARE YOU GET OUT GET OUT! And I hear her say I’M GETTING OUT! And I scream ARE YOU OUT? DO YOU HAVE THE DOG? and you say I HAVE THE DOG I’M GOING I’M GOING but you haven’t said you’re actually out so I stop by your door leaning in to look into the room where you were sleeping and ohmygod there is only black and your voice so far away and sparks and we’re screaming both of us and I have to turn my face away from the heat hot and black dark and smoke.
I can still hear you and have to trust you are out on the porch now heading to the stairs so I crawl the other direction on my elbows down the hall with my left hand keeping the sweatpants over my nose and my mouth and my right hand holding my phone with my elbow hitting the floor and my eyes burning in the smoke past my dad’s office into the narrow hallway.
I know I’m at the jag around the basement stairs because I hit my right cheek and then my shoulder so turn right bruising elbows and knees past a few paces more and veer right again by the guest room where I was sleeping minutes ago not and another turn left before I hit the other wall hard with my head and then my right shoulder again and finally into dad’s room where I don’t see the phone glowing any more. I hit the dark face of it with my thumb and it glows and a woman is on loud and saying, “Ma’am, ma’am, what is your location?” and I am so grateful for the white glow and maybe it was in sleep mode and I’m yelling the street number and the name of the town and not the street number and the name of the street. Again I yell the street number and the street name and I spell it twice because it is hard to understand and I add the name of the town again and now I am reaching up to the lock on the sliding glass door and it opens and I am out and breathing, coughing in the cold air.
Somehow the sweatpants are on again and I still have the phone in my hand as I run down the stairs onto the gravel driveway to the other side of the house screaming for my mom and finally I see you mom, walking slowly, so slowly, hobbling down one step at a time down the stairs bent over with your hand on the dog and I am so relieved, you have him by the collar and I meet you at the bottom and I grab you by the elbow hard despite your tennis elbow but I don’t think about it or my bare feet bleeding on the sharp gravel or the dog collar choking the dog too hard and dragging you both too fast because I am thinking about the car at the top of the drive next to the living room where the fire started and if it catches there might be an explosion.
We get to the white SUV that I used to go to San Francisco last week but I had parked it outside the gate and locked it and you are saying I never lock it why did you lock it? Because, mom, I’m not used to leaving cars unlocked so the keys are in my purse inside the burning house.
But there is another vehicle the dying dog minivan and I know the keys are in it because I moved it before I left for San Francisco and it is parked behind the gate secure. So we go there and I slide the minivan door open and we push the dog in and you are saying How did you know that the keys were in the middle console and I say MOM GET IN WITH TUCKER and you say No I’m going around to the passenger side and I yell JUST GET IN WITH THE DOG! and still you want to walk around to the other side but the other side is blocked by the wall so finally you walk around to the dog side again and then gravel is flying under our tires up and over the little rise past the garage and the house and down the driveway where we turn around by the mailboxes.
We made it.
We have shelter. Shelter and mobility and communication. We are not shivering in inadequate clothing at the end of the road like refugees with sooty faces and bare feet waiting to be rescued. We are self-sufficient. Is self-sufficiency the reason I dragged us the other direction all the way over the rise on the gravel driveway past the shop and the now raging fire to the shelter where the van was parked? My mother did not argue the point and I think I would have done it anyway had she objected.
In the minivan, in the shelter of the vehicle, in the relative quiet, I look at my phone and it’s dead because now I remember my service doesn’t extend to this very rural area and I was using your WiFi at the house and that means the electricity is burned up or dad’s office is burned where the modem is melting under his desk.
I turn the engine off and there is silence. We stare at the house watching the smoke and flame and my mind is still racing on what needs to be done. I think who is closer, which brother, and because my phone doesn’t work I grab your phone. And then we are wrestling for your phone, you say Use your own phone and I say My phone doesn’t work without WiFi here and wonder for a second why we both grabbed our phones and still have them gripped in our hands. They are our lifelines to the outside world. Not our shoes or shirts or pants or money and credit cards which are extraneous but our phones which are essential.
I am stronger so win the phone and call Jeff in San Jose because I know Jeremy is in San Francisco and he answers and I babble, “We’re all okay we’re all right we are out and Morgan Hill is burning.”
It’s four in the morning and it takes a moment to let him know it’s the house only and my sister-in-law Kathy is saying what, the town what? and he says, “Can I come?” and I say “Yes! Bring clothes we have no clothes and we’re hungry” setting off a chain of events with his family gathering clothes and food that will delay his arrival.
Finally there is nothing else to do and in the quiet we turn to each other and I say “We’re out we’re alive” and we hug and then look out again at the house burning, all the furniture, art, photographs. I look at our phones and think maybe it isn’t so bad that we’re so joined to these devices that we pick them up unconsciously rather than leave them too far away from us because that would be disconnecting from everything and maybe no trucks would be coming now until somebody woke up and not a chance would that be Phil next door who is 90 and lives alone now because he lost his wife last year to Alzheimers.
I check my recent calls to look at my 911 record to make sure I really made it and how many minutes ago and if somebody is really coming. I see the call lasted two minutes. This gives me pause. What happens when you dial 911 from a cell phone? The cell call hits the nearest tower and the call is routed to the Highway Patrol dispatcher who hears “Morgan Hill” and “fire” and transfers the call to the fire department in Morgan Hill and hopefully stays on the line but I don’t know. I relive the experience, now realizing that the call was probably hopefully being rerouted as I yelled for mom and attempted to unlock the kitchen security door my god that 911 operator does have quite the job I would like to hug her then gave up to crawl across the floor and down the hall past mom’s room and the office and the guest room to dad’s room where I heard the operator who appeared in my phone as she never gave up demanding my location.
I now know that it took only two minutes for the fire to dance its fancy little dance and transform itself into a raging smoking killing monster. I look at the house, the flames and smoke and I look at my mom shaking with cold in her thin robe in the passenger seat and the what ifs start rolling again.
Such as, what if had heard the alarm only 30 seconds later we may not have gotten out.
Such as, what if I hadn’t gotten sick after the conference and instead headed north for my meeting and to visit my friend in Sonoma leaving mom and the dog alone in the house.
My mom is wearing her thin robe and slippers and I am wearing my dad’s soft gray cotton sweatpants which have been turned inside out to be used as a respirator and then right side out again and my feet are bare and now I am feeling the cuts and where blood has stuck debris to the soles. There are two thick moving blankets in the car, the kind with quilting and some sort of rough silver-gray coating. We bundle up in them still shivering because it never occurred to either of us to turn on the engine and run the heater but we would probably still be shivering even if we were warm.
Just as I think about walking to a neighbor’s to wake them up in case I didn’t say the address correctly after all a man strides by, his hair disheveled, intent on getting to the house. He stops when he sees how big the fire is with flames shooting up into the sky and I roll down the window and he turns, surprised because I don’t think he saw us in the parked van and his eyes are wild when he asks, Is it your house? I say yes, my mom’s house and he says Are you all right? and we say Yes we got out and he asks if everybody is out, and we say Yes and he asks again and we say Yes it was just us, dad is in Dallas and the dog is here, too.
His name is Mike and he knows my parents and his dogs knows my parents dog as he lives just a couple of houses down. My mom says he is a hazmat guy, the kind of firefighter who deals with toxic fires, and he says he has his radio on all the time and when he heard the name of his street, our street, he woke up fast and ran outside down his driveway. I imagine him bursting out of his house running turning right toward the dead end and my parents’ house. Was he thinking two people in their eighties are in there and how would they get out? Of course he was. He knows about dad’s stroke and mom’s bad ankle and so he is so very relieved to see us and confirms that the fire trucks are coming and stays with us talking as his head swivels between the house and us and back at the street and up to the house next door where 90-year old Phil lives wondering if he should go wake him up. We are on the same adrenaline bandwidth wondering about the fire jumping roofs and maybe he needs to get his wife and kids up and out and also Phil next door in his walker or his wheelchair, maybe he should be doing that right now, but I trust his assessment that the trucks are seconds away and anyway the fire is devouring the house in a direction away from Phil and the houses downhill and along the block and so we talk, or I talk to him to tell him about where it started and how fast it spread and we watch sparks from the living room side of the house and the smoke rising and the three tall pine trees we always worry about and think oh shit those are for sure going up.
Fire truck lights and Mike is heading out to meet them. Mom looks at me like she’s trying to remember something and says How did you know? How did you know? and I say How did I know what? and she says How did you know there was a fire and I say I heard the smoke alarm didn’t you hear the smoke alarm? and she says Ohmygod no I didn’t hear it I slept right through it and I squeeze her hand. She might have been there alone and I think of the lunch meeting I missed in Redwood City because of my cold, which was probably the Coronavirus we figure out later, and therefore my cancelled visit with my friend in Sonoma.
Mom takes her phone back and calls her sister in Virginia who hesitates a second before responding in exaggerated articulation, This is in no way a very bad joke you are telling me Cynthie, right? and mom says No Ginny no this is in no way a joke, I am actually now sitting in the minivan in my bathrobe with Carla and Tucker watching the house burn and Carlyle is in Dallas.
Mike walks back to us from the first truck that arrives with a firefighter who asks me and I am saying it again and mom is saying it again that Nobody’s in the house. It’s surreal staring at this real live firefighter doing his real live scary job in a real live fire in his big black coat with the yellow strips of reflective tape and the big red helmet hat with its visor and his number and his square-jawed firefighter face with his wide firefighter eyes looking into mine and asking again and I realize I don’t sound definitive enough so I say in the most definite tone I can It is just me and mom and the dog and my dad’s in Dallas but thank you for rechecking so many times.
More trucks come and more firefighters in big black coats with yellow reflective tape and red hats wrestling hoses and the ambulance is here and they tell me to get in and mom will go in the second ambulance. That doesn’t seem right and I keep thinking they can take both of us, isn’t there enough room for both of us? and they say No it’s you who has to go first.
It’s bright in the ambulance and quiet and amazingly, stunningly clean and white and the paramedic is chill which reassures me and when he looks down I keep staring at his safety glasses, or maybe because I’m staring at him so intently he looks down. They are very hip glasses with frames in neon yellow along the top ridge that glows in the light. He’s quiet thankfully not filling up all the space with meaningless chatter which means I can think about the sequence of events and after he puts me on oxygen he busies himself further making notes on a pad. The bright lights going by on the street hurt my eyes. Where are we? It seems like it’s taking a long time. I must have asked out loud because he tells me back roads because the fire trucks and the other ambulance are stopping traffic on the main road which makes sense and then I notice there’s no siren on the ambulance so I must be okay.
Jeff tells me later that he arrived with clothes and food as per my request, though I have no memory of asking. He and his wife Kathy and their teenage daughters Maddie and Jackie wiped out the pantry and Jackie’s closet and threw everything in the car. He passed my ambulance on the way in and spent time with mom until her ambulance came and then stayed to watch as more and more fire trucks arrived because Jeremy was headed to the hospital to meet us once mom was loaded up. There were ten trucks in total, he said, some from Morgan Hill, others from San Jose and Gilroy because everybody knows that if the trees and the grass catches these dry hills will go up they can swallow whole neighborhoods and the orchards and vineyards and maybe even all the way to town. He said that at sunrise a volunteer crew of people arrived with coffee and juice and pastries and everybody was saying thank god it’s only February and not the end of summer.
The ambulance ride takes too long and parts of my body start to tell me about their troubles. Besides my lungs already stressed from my cold the bottom of my feet hurt and I wonder why then remember sprinting back and forth on the gravel driveway barefoot. My face and shoulder and hip hurt on the right side and I wonder why and will have no memory of hitting the side of the kitchen island and my bumps by the staircase and the hallway for over 24 hours. My right pinky toe is black and swollen and very sore and I still have no idea what happened to it. I am coughing from deep in my lungs not only because I caught a cold not the Coronavirus from one of the hundreds of people at the writers conference in San Francisco but also the smoke has seared my throat and coated my lungs so that when I cough and blow my nose I leave black marks on the tissues.
My sister texts and I want to reply with a status selfie in the ambulance. When I turn the phone to selfie mode I jump. My face is smeared with soot and my hair is not blonde any more and my eyes are so weird that I barely recognize myself. I am clearly on drugs and they are called adrenaline and shock, no wonder I am first and now I know why the firefighter was staring at me so intently.
We stop finally and the doors open abruptly and I am spit out of the ambulance on the gurney which for a moment hovers in mid-air like a roller coaster ride at the edge when you’re about to fall fast and my stomach drops in anticipation. Then after some clicking we are on solid ground and rolling and there is a big white sign by the door that asks, “Have you been out of the country in the last 30 days?” The paramedic with the cool neon yellow safety glasses says, Uh, I forgot to ask have you been out of the country in the last 30 days, and I say No, yes, wait, and try to calculate out loud the number of days. I flew back from Thailand on November 29th. That was more than 30 days ago, right? and he says November, yes, more than 30 days and I think hard to remember what month it is now and cannot say for sure though finally the memory of Christmas in Portland assures me that it is more than 30 days. I said I got out before December right when it was happening and he looks at me hard for a minute as if he could tell if I had the Coronavirus.
Somebody counts one two three and I’m heaved onto a bed in a white room where they give me more oxygen and take a vial of my blood to separate it centrifugally to look for cyanide and other poisons which are in furniture and other synthetics they say when I ask. I think of the old carpet that caught so fast and then I think maybe they’re also testing for the Coronavirus because of November which is okay despite being more than 30 days, because I am where I need to be if I have it and there are cases cropping up here and there.
The doctor comes. She explains things I can’t remember now and I tell her my toe is broken, it is black and swollen. Yep, nothing can be done she says all casual through her mask and I say Okay, no biggie, it’s been broken before along with others and half-severed jumping down from the camper bed onto a toolbox at Myrtle Beach when I was a kid and another time in a dirt bike accident in Colorado where my foot got squished between the engine and a rock and she disappears as I am thinking of other times my toes have been injured but the doctor is backing out of the room and I realize I’m babbling but it does seem like I injure them a lot more than other places on my body for some reason perhaps because I like to go barefoot but that wouldn’t explain the motorcycle boots.
I can see all the way down to the emergency room doors and sometimes curious people look in my room and then look away very quickly but finally I can see mom arrive in the gurney and she is talking and joking and then Jeremy comes in behind her.
Jeremy sped in his Tesla all the way from San Francisco and says Jeff is still at the house. A nurse comes in and calls me Missus King which makes me groan and say I’m not a missus and he says oh I’m sorry and he gives me a container of warm water and a bunch of towels in case I feel like washing up. It seems important to him for me to wash up but to me it seems like too much trouble but I would like to pee so somebody walks me to the bathroom and I look in the mirror at my black face and hair, green eyes and dilated pupils in the bright white light. Someone knocks on the door and I open it and then say I forgot to pee yet and close it again and wash my hands. I towel my face but the soot is sticky and I just end up having to rub pieces of towel off my skin and they walk me back to my bed.
Then I am in my room alone and coming down from the adrenaline rush. My head hurts and I want to talk to somebody and I call my sister. It is exactly 6:00 am but it is two hours later in Dallas where she and dad are visiting her son Andrew who just moved there to work at the zoo. And after that I lie there listening to the sound of Jeremy and mom talking. I can’t hear their words but they sound perky.
I have much too much time to think, to relive the nightmare of the bright dancing flames, the sudden smoke, and the metal door and the locks that turn but don’t release and the view to safety but no way to get out. Every night now for three nights I wake shaking from nightmares about the fire pressing me against that door as I twist the locks that make their friendly clicks to assure me that they’re working but they really don’t and it is so hot and I wake up before I start burning.
Here in the room alone there is too much time to think about all the causes and effects. The cause of the fire itself, maybe an electrical fire? Was it already raging under the living room floor before it sneaked up through a crack? Was that the whoosh or was it when mom opened the door to the porch that made the house fill the house up with smoke.
And there are all the what ifs, would haves and should haves.
Such as, it was a good thing my dad installed redundant smoke alarms in the living room and hall, because it might have been too late for us by the time the smoke reached the dining room alarm.
Such as, if that damn metal door only had one lock instead of two.
Such as, if there was linoleum flooring or tile and not carpet in the living room.
Such as, if I had taken the alarm seriously instead of thinking it was a malfunction I would have run not walked.
Such as, if I hadn’t spent some of the months or years of my life in an unhappy job or relationship or location because life is precious and should be lived every single second as if it is your last.
I know I will cataloguing the such as’es for some time to come.
My blood has no cyanide in it so I am discharged and there is a shift change and mom is stuck in the shift change but Jeremy and I sneak her out anyway walking her to the car and head to his house where his kids are both off to college and there is a guest room and Mason’s room and Zoe’s room and two bathrooms which we immediately occupy and my sister-in-law Lisa is making breakfast and coffee.
Such as, what an incredibly fabulously lucky thing that I was born into this family.
The hospital calls mom to belatedly discharge her and I take a long shower with lots of soap and look in the mirror. There is still soot on my neck and on my back. Jeremy rubs it with a soapy washcloth but it’s not working so we fill a bath and he brings me salt scrubs and bubble bath from Lisa’s closet. I soak until I see a black ring around the tub and run the shower again while it drains, using my yoga practice to reach every inch of my back.
“Oh my god I thought you had dyed your hair black” Jeremy says when I finally emerge from the bathroom.
Dad arrives in early afternoon from Dallas and now Mom and Dad and I are occupying Jeremy’s and Lisa’s and Mason’s and Zoe’s house entirely. Their old dog Vegas and my parents’ old dog Tucker wander aimlessly in the chaos, their nails clickity clacking across the wooden floors and their chins heavy on our knees when they want reassurance.
We have visited this house a lot and I have spent the night and weekends but not all of us at once and with celebrations and not trauma. Lisa is patient and shows us where the coffee is and how the dishwasher works and asks us to keep the dogs out of the kitchen and finds Acetaminophen for my mom and helps look for rental houses that the insurance company will pay for and so much more.
Such as, who your siblings marry is really important.
Such as, spending money on really good insurance is important.
We returned to the rubble to stare at the bricks and ashes, at the fallen metal support beam that dad added to straighten and stabilize the roof, at the three scorched fir trees the firefighters sprayed first so the hill wouldn’t catch fire, at the gaping black maw of the basement, at the heavy wood-burning stove tipped over and pushed by high-pressure fire-hoses to the far side of the living room, at the SUV with its hood and left-front corner panel melted like ice cream. At the garden which flourishes and the side yard with the squirrels and birds gorging themselves on the bushels of scorched corn and sunflower seeds spilled from the screened-in porch, and at the fish in the ponds still eagerly nipping at bugs on the surface.
We wonder what caused it. There is no wall plug and there are no extension cords on the side of dad’s chair where I first saw the fire dancing so it may have started under the house. It may remain a mystery or an investigation may solve it.
This house which to my parents was their only home. This house which to my brothers was their childhood home. This house which to me was a place I felt at home.
My dad and I planted California poppies on the hill only a week ago. He ordered a gallon of seeds from a catalog and I walked the steep grassy hillside tucking them into crevices next to rotting oak branches and clumps of grass and roots hoping they’d germinate and turn the hill orange come summer. We watered copiously and now we wonder if watering the poppies helped prevent a spark from catching and spreading to the next hill and the next all the way down to the next street with only two houses just one hill away and then the meadow and vineyards and a goat ranch across the pasture and orchard and then not much until the main road and the dense housing development across it.
And we wonder, come summer, will the poppies bloom bright yellow and orange, the color of fire? From now to forever poppies will remind me of fire, this fire, and the resilience of nature and the fragility of the human abode.
My dad and my brothers return after a trip to the hardware store and Best Buy to lock up the garage and secure the property with deadbolts and motion-detection cameras and alarms that notify you on your smartphone. The technology is easy now but the neighbors on this private road are just as good a deterrent as everybody knows each other and the names of the UPS and FedEx and Amazon drivers and especially now everyone will be on the alert for strangers. The ambulance-chaser construction companies and lawyers have strolled up the drive and been accosted by one neighbor in particular who hates traffic on the lane and we’ve said just please go away because… well, just because… ambulance chasers.
One of my brothers sources industrial masks from a friend with a house-painting company and they and my dad don heavy boots and disposable work clothes to pick through the toxic rubble. They don’t find my mom’s rings, her purse, or her wallet because that side of the house burned completely and poof, there goes the money and plastic and anything paper or cloth. All of its walls and floors and furniture is now just ashes and whatever had been there was scattered by high-pressure fire hoses. The other side of the house with the guest room and dad’s room didn’t burn but the damage from a caved-in roof and smoke and water from the fire hoses created their own havoc.
They spend half a day shoveling ash and picking through the rubble and find my purse which had melted around the interior where my wallet is intact though with a wet and smokey passport and bank cards and a few hundred dollars in American cash and Mexican pesos. And they find my laptop with a piece of broken glass melted to the cover. The hard drive powers up, but the screen doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, because all my files are in the cloud. It wouldn’t matter, anyway.
My they even rescue my journal and for a moment I experience great joy thinking all my entries from my November trip to Thailand through to the writers conference last weekend are intact but the water damage to the ink has made my writing nearly indecipherable.
It doesn’t matter. None of these things matter. The rings and the wallets, the clothes and the furniture, the antiques and the heirlooms, sentimental as they are, mean nothing to the dead. And we are not that.
Please subscribe to be notified when I add a post. Just sign up below or upper right of page. Here’s Part 2 of the fire story: After the Fire: A Week Later.
An amazing mini-memoir, Carla.
I had just finished your valentine tragi-comedy and was about to write a note congratulating you for using such an engrossing, personal story to warm up the audience for your pitch to buy a writing tool. Masterfully done!
Then comes Round Two, a beautifully understated account of your near-death experience, including saving your mother’s life as well as your own. A really moving documentary, combining as it does an appeal (as prologue to the story) for readers to follow their reading with an immediate smoke alarm check.
(Also nice extended family photo)
Carla I am so sorry. Prayers for you and your family. My husband used to be a fire fighter. I have heard so many stories. You and your mom are so lucky to be alive.
Thank you for this write up. So sorry that this happened but grateful everyone is ok.
God is so great! Many prayers for you and your mom as you try to overcome this loss of property but not of the love of your family.
Hi Carla, wow, what an account and experience!!! So glad you were there! Know how much you are all loved and appreciated , not only as family, but PEOPLE. You’re right – an experience like this crystalizes (sp?_) how much difference having a family like yours makes in life! Please pat Tucker for me and give Cynthie and Caryle big hugs from me, and pass them around liberally to all the family and people who helped you all. xo Cuz Gail
I was just getting over reading about your San Francisco seminar and hoping to be able to attend next time when this popped on to my email. I am as shocked as if I was at your house. I am so glad that you, your mom, and Tucker are ok. How horrifying it must have been. I know that I’m repeating myself but I’m so glad you all are ok. Thanks for sharing this terrifying incident so that we all can be more aware of alarm batteries, strange locks, and even stranger passageways.
If you guys need anything please let me know. I’m not too far from there. Take care.
Stuff is unimportant. Take the memories and insert here…or into its equivalent. Rebuild anew, free of all that burdened you. The things you need will float back to you.
What a night! So glad you were there with your mom and that you both got out of the house safe with your pooch. I remember your parents house, so sad! I hope to see them rebuild a new home. You are all such a loving family, give them my love please!
Tami Greer Woodbury
So sorry for your family’s loss of home, but thankful you are all safe! (We have common family members in NC :))
Carla, I am so happy you and your family are safe. This is an amazing story and a lesson for the rest of us to always be prepared. You are right about checking those smoke detectors. The wired system that is in my townhouse, I’ve been told, will only last about 7 years. In addition to checking the batteries, each month I vacuum the dust from around the edges.
Wow! Just Wow! Unfathomable horribleness. Sooooo happy you three got out! I am teary-eyed and shaken just reading about it.
“Happiness is getting a hug from your daughter for no reason.”
Boy. Did you have a reason!!
Hugs and Kudos to you Carla.
Of course you’re a skilled and interesting writer, but this writing is over-the-top! I was right there with you, crawling under the smoke, desperately struggling with the security door, knowing every second counts, trying to remain rational and calm, with disoriented and whirling mind. Feeling the cool floor, and the details – tile or fake wood. The sweatpants, off and then on. Struggling over the phone in the shelter of the car. Mike the neighbor finding you. Riding in the ambulance. That picture of you in the ambulance, barely recognizable, witness to all you’ve just been through physically. Shocking photos, witness… The aftermath –nightmares of soaking sweats, the what ifs, the gratitude of family. Gratitude of life!
This horrendous experience has turned you into a suspense/action writer beyond all your often hairy and dramatic adventures. The way you have written, switching from past to present gives that feeling of watching your life pass by…
Thankful beyond words you were there, you and Cynthia and Tucker got out, your family is circling around. Life goes on…
Glad you survived Carla. Life is a bubble. What was the ignition source?
Dear Carla and Family, My heart is still pounding from the recounting of your harrowing ordeal! You brought us crawling right there beside you as you narrowly escaped this nightmare. If you don’t have PTSD from this, I may! All of your family here in Wallburg, NC sure are happy to hear your Mom, You and your Tucker made it out alive. We are very sad your parent’s lost everything they had collected through the years whether in travels, yard sales, flea market finds, barters, auctions, employers and/or any other unsaid or forgotten procurement. Each one was a sentimental memory to them and just seeing it could bring on a Carlyle tale! We love Carlyle stories here. He is a hero bigger than life and so these tales are treasured and still retold to younger generations of our children to keep them going forever. Not even a fire change that!
Gosh, darn—I was just with you in San Fran planning our future. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about this tragedy for your family that could have turned out so much worse if not for your quick-thinking and real heroism. What an amazing story and I thank you for not just sharing it but doing it with such truly brilliant writing. We definitely need to turn this into a book.
Let me know if there’s anything you need. You have a room waiting for you in New Mexico whenever you need it.
I’ll call you!
Hi Carla, my dear old friend…on my goodness – what a story. I am so sorry about the fire and so grateful you all made it out alive. I have thought of you often over the years and you are one of the most capable women I have ever known.
I would love to see you soon, and please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.
Marian, I’ll be knocking at your door 🙂 Love you!
A horrible, terrifying event so well captured. I forwarded this to many others because people too often disregard safety measures (functioning smoke alarms, exit strategies, fire drills). So very relieved that no one was seriously injured. I hope your lungs and throat recover as well as possible and don’t trouble you further down the road. Yoga, yes, good practice to keep the mind clear. The what if’s are going off in my mind now. Thanks for sharing your story. Looking forward to a happy story next time.
Thanks Louie, and thanks for spreading the word. It’s easy to ignore things like that for sure, just yanking that irritating smoke alarm battery. Whew! Happy story = we’re alive and surrounded by loving family and friends. Lucky us.
I am so sorry to hear this, but more importantly relieved that you are all safe. If I can do anything please contact me. Carla you are a rock and tell your mother I am so glad she and all are safe.
.. glad all survive and yes it was just things, still sad tho… Best to your family and the rebuild process… I’m sure your dad will keep me informed… You do know a lot of folks would have burned up trying to get out that door, eh??? Glad you turned around. Onward….. Cranky
Thanks so much Bill. Yay for those sane moments in the whirlwind of panic, huh? I’m so glad you’re friends with my dad. I hope to see you sometime soon.
Carla, I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing this. Take care of yourself.
Amazing share. I hung on your every word and was right there with you Carla, along with your Mom and Tucker. Glad everyone survived. I’m absorbing all the lessons you learned and hope to apply a few in my own wood and stone craftsman home, at the end of a long dirt road, surrounded by Mother Nature’s best.
Thank you so much Alexia. I’m glad you are taking steps to making your haven a safe one. PS I love your writing and what you do for the world. 🙂
Your story had me catching my breath and almost in tears worrying about how you were going to get through this experience. Over the years I have told my friends about my brave cousin from California and her adventures. I’ve always been amazed at your courage to go for the unknown. I guess you were just practicing up for this amazing challenge and I’m so proud of you for your brave and amazing rescue and so glad you are all safe and well!
Thank you, I know! People are saying “well you made it across China on a motorcycle but now this, at home.” I just glad I was there to be my mom’s early warning system. Lesson here: Louder smoke alarms! Love you!
Carla a wake up call for many, thank you for sharing!
Glad to hear no lives were lost!
Your experience will no doubt be imbedded and with you forever.
So glad you and your mom made it out safely. Hopefully you will turn this eye-watering account into a great non-fiction best seller.
It seems to have struck a nerve. I may just do that, Dwayne. Thank you!