I stood in the middle of the brick terrace at the rear of the house and scanned the horizon. The reports of doom, whether Tweeted, Skyped, or discussed anxiously in grocery store checkout lines, were hard to credit. Nothing threatening loomed--no tongues of flame split the azure bowl of sky suspended above the parched, golden landscape; no smoky pall tainted the still, hot air. By all accounts the world was on fire, but the holocaust had yet to reach this eerily quiet suburban enclave. And yet, while the nested wrens warbled softly in the oleanders, another conflagration--one whose heat had already singed me--lurked in the wings, licked its chops and threatened to consume me utterly. I looked at the geraniums clustered at the edge of the pool, watched their scarlet petals fall and float on the water like confetti. The sun gilded the surface, obscuring the depths with an undulating silver shroud. I squinted, dazzled. It was a frighteningly apt metaphor for my life.
"I need you. Now." I turned and stepped back inside, obedient to the summons.
On my way out of the city earlier in the day, I had seen a hazy veil of smoke in the far distance. It was August, the season of wildfire, and the tinder-dry grass ached to burn. As the traffic crept along I quickly discovered that every available radio station had abandoned music and commerce to broadcast nonstop bulletins warning of the approaching Armageddon. I tired of the babble, crammed a disc into the player and cranked up the volume, preferring to meet the end of the world with Ella and Count Basie.
When I turned off the highway and drove along the eucalyptus shaded streets of Silverwood Estates, it was immediately obvious that the demon Chaos had been loosed on our bland little suburban world. The front doors of houses had been thrown open to expose the interiors, while the occupants filled all available vehicles with consumer goods of every description. Children ran back and forth across manicured lawns like miniature Noahs, frantically herding frazzled family pets toward the ark of the family car. By the time I pulled into the quiet cul-de-sac where I lived, I had been forced up onto sidewalks twice to avoid head-on collisions with drivers maddened by fear of some yet-invisible threat.
"Jonas!" Beth, my wife of almost ten years, stood in the middle of a bed of petunias. The suitcases she carried trailed the legs and arms of assorted garments through the dirt. Her blond hair, usually immaculately coifed, hung in lank strings around her face. Sweat glistened on her forehead. "Where the hell have you been? It's after seven o'clock."
"I was at the gym. I always go to the gym on Friday. Remember?"
"Oh. The gym. Of course. Mustn't neglect your perfect pectoral muscles. Or was it your deltoids today?" Her voice was pitched too high and she was talking too fast. She was tightly wound.
"I didn't realize you expected me to be home early, Beth. You know I go to the gym because Doctor Lazarus told me I could either start to exercise or have a heart attack by the time I turned forty."
"I don't think he expected you to turn it into a lifestyle." I shrugged. We'd had this discussion cum argument a hundred times before. I had gone to the fitness center reluctantly at first, but had quickly discovered that it offered all of the therapeutic benefits that my aptly named doctor had described. I found comfort from the dual stress of work and domesticity in the Zen-like repetitiveness of my routines. My blood pressure dropped, my heart muscles grew strong, and my body became a pleasure rather than a burden--to me, at least. For her part, Beth seemed to resent the fact that I'd found something wherein I was complete, in and of myself.
"I didn't realize we were leaving town this weekend." Beth flashed me a baleful glance and lugged the suitcases to the back of her station wagon.
"It's the fire, Jonas. The goddamned fire." She turned to me, her arms rigid at her sides. "It's been on the news all day. Over a hundred homes were destroyed yesterday in Perrysville. There are three out of control brushfires in the county and they're all headed this way."
"I didn't see signs of any trouble on my commute out from the city." I shook my head doubtfully. I had long ago stopped believing everything I heard on the news.
"I'm not going to take any chances with my life or Debbie's," Beth snapped, waving her hand at me dismissively. "If you're not too tired from your gym experience, I'd appreciate some help."
"Daddeeee!!!" Debbie, my six-year-old daughter, came barreling out the front door, a copy of her mother in body and spirit. "Mr. Doodle won't come out from under the bed. He'll burn to death if you don't come get him!" Mr. Doodle was a Persian cat that had belonged to Beth before we married. Beth and Debbie loved him dearly. In my opinion, his only use was to provide a market for the producers of cat food and litter. Mr. Doodle returned my feelings of disdain and rarely acknowledged my existence except to sneer at me. "Daddy, don't let him die!"
"No one's going to die, honey."
"But Mommy said..."
"I'm sure Mommy didn't mean whatever she may have said. Did you, Mommy?" Beth curled her lip and stalked back into the house.