Wildfire ash coated the cars, the sidewalks, the tricycles lying upside down in the yard. Jonah wouldn't let the kids outside. He cursed himself for not buying that air filter last year. It was Day 6. There were fires to the north and the east. One was contained, another flared up. End times, his sister texted. Maybe, but you couldn't just pour some bourbon, sit back and let it roll over you. Not when there were kids. There were kids — two. He was a single dad, a widower. All his choices were gone for the time being. He was not normally an optimist, not even close. But you had to be with kids, didn't you? You had to fake it.
He spent a crazy amount of time checking the A.Q.I. He'd done the furnace filter on the box fan, the pot of boiling herbs. It's just smoke, his oldest said, like a campfire. What's the big deal?
No, he said patiently, it's not. It's hazardous — dangerous. The scientists say so and we're listening to them. Pete wrinkled his mouth and walked away. Milkshakes later, Jonah called. No reply. Let them watch Netflix, play video games, whatever. Ordinary rules did not apply.
Outside the sun glared, a fierce red ball in an orange sky. It never felt fully daytime. He'd already packed bags, in case of evacuation orders. Say the word and they'd be gone, maybe even before they said the word. He was tracking everything. Thank god the internet still worked. Crisis mode was not his strength — it had been Christine's. She'd have had them at her parents by now. But her dad had Alzheimer's and her mother was hanging by a thread. He couldn't consider them a destination.
How far would they have to go? Would the fire keep chasing them? How many other families were on the run? Someplace with a pool would keep the kids happy. It was all he could come up with.
When there was a knock at the door, Jonah jumped. He couldn't imagine who it might be unless a neighbor needed help. He opened the door and stared. Frank, he said after several seconds. What the....
I know. Weird timing, right? Can I come in? You don't want the smoke getting in.
Come in, yeah. Jonah stepped to the side. How did you find me?
Aw, man, the internet. Everything's there.
I don't have any money if that's what you want....the kids —
Nothing like that, Frank said. I just need a place for a couple of days. I can stay in the basement or whatever, out of your hair.
I have kids, Frank. I can't have them mixed up in some criminal scheme or hideout or whatever this is.
You kinda owe me, Jonah, remember?
Jonah sighed. Sure but...we might all have to leave anyway if they give evacuation orders.
Cross that bridge, Frank said. Winds are shifting, so maybe not. How about a sandwich?
Jonah told the kids Frank was an old friend who'd been traveling and got caught in the wildfires. Both boys shrugged. After they went to bed, Jonah drank a couple of beers with Frank in front of the TV and felt a sliver more relaxed.
There's a cot in the basement, next to the furnace. I'll give you some sheets and a blanket.
Sure, that's great. I sleep like the dead anyway, won't matter where I am.
When you say couple of days, you mean, two, three?
I have to hear from someone and then I'll know for sure. Is there an outlet down there, so I can, you know, charge my phone?
Over the washing machine. So, you don't have a car?
Not at this precise moment, no. Hitching was easy though — with the fires, people feel sorry.
So, Jonah thought to himself, if we have to evacuate, we have to take you with us.
By 3 a.m., Jonah had gone over everything he knew about Frank and none of it was good. He'd made a stupid mistake on a deal gone sour and Frank had stepped in. He might "owe" him but this could turn ugly fast. He got up and locked the basement door. Sleep like the dead, he thought. As quietly as he could, he loaded their bags into the car. He woke the boys gently, shushing them into the backseat with their sleeping bags. Go back to sleep, he said.
Frank just needed a place to stay and he had one. He couldn't fault them for leaving. He'd have done the same. He could easily break through the door, Jonah told himself, or crawl out a basement window. There was beer in the refrigerator, the cable still worked. And if whoever was after him tracked him down to the house, well, whatever happened, happened. One way or another, they'd be square.
Mercedes Lawry has published short fiction in several journals including Gravel, Cleaver, Garbanzo and Blotterature, and was a semi-finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. She's published poetry in journals such as Poetry, Nimrod and Prairie Schooner and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize six times. She's published three poetry chapbooks as well as stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.