SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Teresa Burns Gunther
Prayers for those who have lost loved ones and homes to wildfires in Maui, Canada, California, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
A fire engine speeds up the county road, its siren’s wail warped on the devil wind: wah-waaaaaah-wah. Los Diablos’ howl is dark, gritty with acrid smoke. Corina peers out the window—curtainless: #5 on the prepare to evacuate list. Desiccated pines that circle the wood-framed house sway and bump, drunken dancers in a swirl of forest duff. The fire lurks just over the ridge now.
Rick, his large, muscled arms shiny with sweat, dashes to the open trailer he attached to his pickup last night. This morning, fearing the worst, he turned it nose out the driveway. She’s never seen her husband move so fast as he has this day, a frantic back and forth from house to car, from shed to truck and trailer.
Crooked black letters spell XMAS on the side of the box he lugs. It’s October and 101°. A faded red paperchain spills out, dancing behind him like a tail. She wants to shout: Leave it! Who wants old cards from people they’ve let go? A tree stump from their first ever Christmas? Handmade decorations no one puts up anymore?
Rick is sentimental with an abundance of dreams that float on an ocean of inertia. He should have married another dreamer, not a schoolteacher who loves order and spends her days leading 5th grade minds to pen clear and decisive conclusions.
Corina lifts her hands from the sill, swipes the black soot off her fingers on her shorts. Skirting boxes, she hurries to the darkening kitchen, flicks the light switch, then remembers: no power. The cat’s bowl sits untouched. Corina has looked for her everywhere, another of Rick’s rescues.
Branches knock at the roof. She grabs an empty box from the table. Its edge opens the cut on her hand. She sucks the blood and stands before the cupboards whose doors have languished in Rick’s workshop for three years. A scream scratches at her throat. She wants none of these old dishes, mismatched cups, canned tomatoes. All she hungers for is emptiness, to purge this house, its weight and possession.
She grabs the three-legged molcajete that her abuela used for grinding spices while she’d explained in her remembering voice that in ancient times the basalt mortars served as burial bowls for the high and mighty. Corina wraps it in the tablecloth her mother embroidered, sets her Best Mom mug beside it in the box, adds the heirloom silver sippy cup from Rick’s family, and her father’s carving set, the pieces of her history she’ll keep.
She empties the fridge into an ice chest, takes a Coke, still cold, and presses it to her hot cheeks like quick kisses. Opens it and chugs. It cools her burning throat but tastes wrong, tastes of a world on fire. She stacks the box on the ice chest, lifts it all in her skinny arms and staggers under its weight to the door, drops it with a grunt, and pulls her phone from her pocket.
Rick jogs past the window, his arms filled with more junk. Tools, then the chicken coop he never finished. He stacks it all in the bed of his supersized truck.
As if he feels her watching, he turns, scans the house, his face half-hidden behind an orange bandana. A helicopter whoop-whoop-whoops overhead. He runs to the house and ducks his large frame through the door. Once, she loved this shaggy giant beyond reason, full of dreams he’d made her believe in. His tool belt, loaded with possibility, hangs low on the hips her legs have encircled countless times.
“Close the door!” she cries. It’s hot inside but the smoke outside is suffocating. His steel-toed boot kicks the door shut with a bang. He tugs the bandana below his square chin, his chest heaves, he clenches and unclenches his hands.
“I still can’t find Spot.” His voice is hoarse. “Did you look for her?”
“Yeah. But she never comes when I call. She’ll be fine.” Unlike Corina, that cat knew when to leave.
When Corina heard the warning: Be prepared to evacuate, it felt like a gift.
“Why aren’t you packing?” His brows merge into one fierce line.
“I am.” She follows his gaze to her phone flashing a warning to recharge. “Checking CalFire’s website.” He reaches for his cell. She shakes her head. “No service. The kids will be worried.”
His eyes dart wildly around the living room, the jumbled furnishings. She wants none of it. His gaze lingers on the dining table—a find!—in need of refinishing.
“We can’t take everything.”
“Try,” he pleads, like he might cry. “And hurry.”
She runs to the bedroom, pulls her blue Samsonite from her closet shelf. When she hears Rick bang out the door she plops down on the bed, rubs her hand over the suitcase’s bumpy surface. A high school graduation gift she’d once dreamed she’d travel the world with. She releases the clasp. The suitcase yawns open releasing a pale scent of lavender from an ancient sachet. Her passport, long expired, lingers in the satin pocket, its pages pristine, unmarked. She feels caught between the past and what’s become of her. In the distance, another siren shrieks as she eyes her bedroom, a museum of disappointments.
It took a dozen years to get rid of the flower-power wallpaper. When she’d tried to strip it, he complained she was doing it wrong. Finally, last April, when he left on a fishing trip, she hired a contractor out of her small inheritance from her mother. When Rick returned, hurt by her betrayal, he hunted out mistakes, vindicated by two paint drips on the baseboard. He’s a perfectionist, particularly about work done by others.
The last time they were equal partners in the construction of dreams she was a sophomore in college: finish school, fill a house with laughter, children, and friends. His hope was revolutionary after the humorless home she grew up in, the place excitement went to die. “We’ll have five,” he’d pronounced and she’d laughed. Until she got pregnant her junior year.
“Dreams do come true,” he’d told their wedding guests. “Watch and learn.” With his deep, rumpled laugh, so handsome in his tux, he’d raised a champagne flute and scooped her tiny dancer’s body with its tiny baby bump into the sweep of his big, strong arm. Her friends swooned while her parents watched with grim disapproval; she’d felt the luckiest woman on earth. Rick got a job as a mechanic. She waited tables and they ground out their degrees in night school. Crazy in love and swept up in his fantasy, they bought this house on ten acres in the forest. They had one boy, then a girl, but Corina refused to bring more children into a construction zone, so their family stopped there.
A hard gust rattles the windows, pulling Corina from her reverie. She jumps off the bed. Her “antique” dresser, still awaiting Rick’s promise of restoration, demands a wrestling match before releasing her clothes. Lately, she’s been dreaming of an uncluttered life. An empty sunlit house with four corners and solid floors. She packs from the list that lives in her head: underwear with reliable elastic, her softest nightie, and the yellow top that makes her skin look golden. She chooses her favorite jewelry. Leaves the solo earrings and tangled chains. Grabs her cowboy boots from the large walk-in closet she’d once envisioned as a nursery. Too late. Her nest was emptied three weeks ago when her baby left for college while the closet remains filled with the detritus of Rick’s half-baked plans.
Her sister says, “It’s sexy. My Gerry couldn’t screw in a lightbulb to save his life.” But her Gerry calls in experts and she lives in a beautiful home. Finished. Everything in its place. Her brother doesn’t see the glamour. Hasn’t visited since he fell through a broken floorboard in the living room two years ago and broke his ankle. That’s when she began dreaming her exit plans.
In the bathroom, she packs her toiletries. Imagines the colorful melting kaleidoscope the fire will make of what she’ll leave behind: the brunette hair tint, old makeup, spent lipsticks.
A neighbor pulls his car down their drive, shouts to Rick: The fire’s reached the ridge! A thrill tingles her arms, different from the anxiety that’s simmered in her for years, that lately has pulled her craning for the door. But she stayed.
Rick’s her children’s father. A sweet man. With big dreams he drives to the hardware store, returns, dons his toolbelt, and sashays around their property with a mountain of intent. She once thought he could change but she finally understands—change is the thing he likes least. She feels submerged in the stream of junk that keeps spilling into the house, the yard. It’s gotten worse these last five years. Some emptiness he tries to fill. New projects started before old ones completed.
Like last weekend. He finally worked on the “new” hardwood floor in the living room, a minefield with gaps he covers with furniture. The kids once teased him about the “new floor” but she saw in the nervous glances they shared that they found it embarrassing and stopped bringing friends over. Did he notice? When she came home Saturday from the market at three o’clock, he stopped to smoke a joint and talk the job to completion with words and dancing hands. As she unpacked groceries he was inspired to create a marinade for the ribs she’d bought. She urged him to finish the floor but he shooed her away. “You deserve a night off!” After a very late and elaborate dinner, the kitchen a disaster, he opened a beer, rocked back in his ladderback chair, eyed the small door to the patio and said, “You know what this house needs?” In earlier years she might have snapped: A working bathtub? A floor that won’t swallow us whole? Instead, she surveyed their home, refining her packing list—to take, to leave—while he bit his lower lip and drew plans on the back of his hardware receipt for new sliding doors to a larger patio.
Sirens and horns merge. The claustrophobic house presses in. She’d loved it, at first. The large rooms and high ceilings but it’s shrunken over the years. Furniture jammed against furniture, blocking windows and light. Closets filled to bursting; his papers and junk multiplying while they sleep. All their money funneled into the maw of the house’s never-ending evolution. She stopped inviting people over, tired of the pitying looks: How can you stand it?
She packs the photos of the kids, their lumpy clay sculptures, the picture books she read so many times. After the last big fire, she’d stood in a checkout line at Kmart behind a woman who emptied Xmas onto the belt—ornaments, stockings, lights. “We lost everything,” she said. Corina took her hand, shared her sorrow but for months was gripped with jealousy at the woman’s liberation.
Rick tromps in with more boxes. “Propane’s off.” His dark curls cling to his forehead. He lifts the coffee table and rushes out. She slides a box over the gap, ties a scarf to her nose, and follows with her suitcase, shoves it into the trunk of her car beside her children’s things. She’d packed both kids’ rooms the day her daughter left for college three weeks ago. Premonition? Or preparation?
“Everyone’s leaving,” he says, pointing to cars and trucks streaming past on the road, one way out, through the haze. She thinks of lifeboats. The Titanic. Tries not to worry about where they’ll make land.
Wind tosses her hair. Smoke burns her lungs.
It’s not fear thrumming in her limbs but what she imagines a woman waiting to board a plane to Europe or Africa must feel. Expectant. Excited to meet her new self in a foreign land.
Now she’s rooting for ¡Los Diablos! Bring it on! ¡Hale!
She turns back to the house as something drifts down, out of the dark sky. A feather? A bird? She runs, palm outstretched, reaching. It floats and settles like a singed leaf, crisp in her hand. A page from a book … a dictionary. F, p347. Fruition/full. Her eyes sweep the words … frying pan … fuel … fugitive…. She turns it over … fumigate … funeral. She flicks it away with a shudder, brushes ash from her hands as the black sky rains fragments of furniture, fences, forests.
A sheriff’s car blares a staticky: All non-emergency persons must leave the area immediately. The words ricochet through the forest as the car drives on, red lights flashing.
She runs back for her purse, grabs her phone charger.
“Let’s go!” she yells and leaps to help him battle the wind to secure a tarp over his trailer of treasures. Too large. Too high to make it out?
She climbs into her car. Starts her engine. Adjusts her review mirror with a shaking hand.
Rick’s not in his truck! She scrambles out, scarf clutched over her nose. She finds him, legs planted, eyes sorrowful as a basset hound’s, gripping a hose, spraying water on the shingled roof. As if it’s worth dying for.
“Rick!” she screams, as a hot fear engulfs her. “We have to leave!” She grips his arm, points to the ridge where red tongues of fire lick the smoke. She runs to her car, relieved when he finally steps up into his truck. For once, forsaking his dreams, he follows her.
She always thought she’d be lost without his rapture about what was possible, but she understands now she simply forgot to dream for herself.
His engine roars. She puts her car in gear, follows the white cones of her headlights through the murky air, glancing off fenceposts, trees, the Jameson’s old shed, otherworldly sacrifices to the firestorm. She feels a sharp pang of grief knowing she’ll never see the world this way again.
She can’t see Rick in her rearview mirror. Hits the brakes. Twists to find him.
The smoke makes the world a bad dream.
A loud rap on her window makes her gasp. A firefighter orders her on with quick jerks of a metal flashlight. She rolls down her window, tries to speak but only coughs.
“Keep moving,” he orders.
She closes her window, eyes streaming, drives on. Alone.
Pale taillights wink in and out of the gloom ahead of her. She doesn’t know where she’s going. She only knows where she’s been. She searches her rearview for Rick. Slows. Horns blare. A megaphoned voice barks: No stopping! Her heart bangs. She tries to call Rick, make sure he’s following. Her phone’s dead.
Emergency lights swirl, stain the air red.
She plugs her phone into the charger. Trembling, she drops it, swerves, nearly hits a wraith—no, just a mailbox—at the roadside.
She plows on, praying for a signal.
Teresa is an award-winning author whose fiction and nonfiction are published widely in US and international literary journals and anthologies. Her story collection Hold Off The Night, a Finalist for the Orison and Hudson Book Prizes, was published in June 2023. Her stories have been recognized in numerous contests; most recently, her story “War Paint” was awarded the 52nd New Millennium Award for Fiction, 2022. She is the founder of Lakeshore Writers Workshop where she leads workshops and classes and offers developmental editing services. Learn more at www.teresaburnsgunther.com.
Top photo: Kyle Grillot/EPA