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A Sinister Brilliance
At first I resented the alarm in my husband’s voice.
“Whoa! It’s time to get out of here.”
I was so asleep. Why was he waking me? What could possibly be soimportant? I opened my eyes to a strange yellow light that cast his nakedfigure into relief against our broad bedroom windows. What was goingon? In another instant I understood. The canyon was on fire. Perfectly framed by our open draperies, a huge swath of flames stretched across the mountain opposite us.
At its edges, fountains of fire shot high above the ground, surging and swaying in a ragged dance, vivid orange against surrounding darkness.“Oh my God!” I reached for a pair of jeans thrown across the foot ofthe bed and pulled them on.
“What do we do?”
“Don’t panic,” Bob said, but his voice sounded thin and forced. “We do what we need to do. First get some clothes. We don’t know when we’ll be able to come back.” He turned on the lights and disappeared into the bathroom. I openeda dresser drawer, grabbed some underwear, put on a pair of socks, andthen dashed into the closet and stood for a moment looking at the lineof hanging clothes. What should I take? My mind couldn’t focus. Fire.
There was fire outside the windows. I ran back and looked out again, as ifto make sure. This time I noticed an orange glow deep below us, near theentrance to our neighborhood road. A spike of electricity surged throughme as I pieced it all together. The flames on the mountain across from us must be only part of a bigger fire, a massive beast closing in.
“Bob, it’s on our side!” I said, my throat closing around the words.He was standing by the bed over an open suitcase, but rushed tojoin me.“It’s on our side,” he repeated, almost in a whisper. At that moment, something shifted inside me. A distinct sensation. Bob felt it, too. We talked about it later, how thinking and doing slammed together in an instant, in a rush of adrenaline. From then on we were caught up in a current of pure instinct, obeying without question some kind of primitive knowing that moved us step by step toward safety, kept us from lingering too long on any one task. Above all, we knew we had toleave. We should have left already.
We’d both managed to throw on jeans and T-shirts. Next I neededsome usable shoes—sneakers or boots—but all I could see in my closetwere heels. And on the top shelf, beyond my reach, an almost empty plasticlaundry basket.“Give me that,” I said to Bob.
“What?” I couldn’t think of the word. “That!” I pointed toward the closet shelf. Bob understood then and tossed me the basket, and I started filling it with framed photographs snatched off the walls and dresser. My grandfather in his Sunday best, a favorite dog at the beach, and our two daughters—in ruffled pink baby dresses, blonde pigtails and giant hair bows,tasseled caps and graduation gowns.
At the same time, my mind jumped ahead, trying to visualize our escape. Judging from the glow below us, the fire had reached the intersection between our private neighborhood drive and Wildcat Canyon Road, the only way out. For all we knew, we were trapped.
“What if we can’t get to Wildcat Canyon Road?”
“We’ll get to Wildcat Canyon Road,” Bob said. His voice suddenly sounded so normal, so reassuring, that I simply believed him and turned my full attention to the task of filling the laundry basket. I noticed my favorite silver bracelet lying on the dresser, but decided not to take it, thinking I didn’t have time, and that it would still be there when we returned. Yet I squandered precious seconds running downstairs to look for shoes.
Opening the closet by the garage door, hoping to find my hiking boots, I looked right at them, saw them as Bob’s instead, and then ran back upstairs to check the bedroom closet one more time.In a way it all seemed so normal, the house as quiet and secure as anyother night, my rushing about no more significant than if I were leavingfor work or some routine appointment. It didn’t seem possible that outsidethe world could be ending. Finally, I gave up on finding shoes, picked up the laundry basket, and headed downstairs again, shod only in white gym socks.
“I’ll take care of the dogs,” I told Bob. “You get your negatives.”
He’d had a Nikon slung around his neck thirty years before when I met him—a chiseled college sophomore with mahogany eyes and dark hair cropped military short. His body had thickened since then, his hair had silvered, while his passion for photography had deepened. I looked over at our two big black Newfoundlands, snoozing on the floor by the bed like a pair of shaggy hibernating bears, oblivious to our chaos. Perhaps if it hadn’t been so hot outside—so hot that even in late October we’d closed the windows and resorted to air conditioning—they (or we) might have smelled smoke, might have heard the wind—hot,wild, and shrieking—and sensed danger.
As it was, I had to wake them.“Terra! Charter!” I tried to sound normal, even cheerful. “Let’s go!”Both dogs hopped up right away, all bright eyes and waving tails,excited by the prospect of a middle-of-the-night adventure. We rusheddown the stairs together, the Newfs jostling me at every step. To them it was always a race. At the bottom, I stopped to pull one last family portraitoff the wall. Only a few steps more, into the next room, and I could havecollected my laptop, my mother’s wedding portrait, family photo albumsand videos, little gifts the girls had made for us in school. But none ofthat entered my mind. I had time only to grab what lay directly in mypath—my purse hanging on the coat rack in the living room, dog collarsand leashes dangling from hooks beside the door to the garage.Bob was still upstairs. I could hear him now, yelling something, his voice charged with urgency.
“Call Sean,” he said. “Call Sean.” Sean? To this point, I’d thought only about us. I hadn’t remembered that our neighbors Sue and Randy Fritz were out of town, that they’d left their twenty-three-year-old son behind to house-sit.
“I don’t have the number,” I shouted back.We had it somewhere, of course. But I had no idea where, and I didn’thave time to look it up. Without my reading glasses, I couldn’t have decipheredit anyway. In a sobering flash, I realized I couldn’t call Sean. I justhad to keep moving. At the door to the garage, I slammed slip collars over Newfy heads, not noticing I’d put both collars on the same dog.
“Get your negatives!” I screamed over my shoulder at Bob. “Get your negatives!”I opened the door to the garage, flicked on the lights, and both Newfsburst through ahead of me. Just then Bob arrived carrying an armload ofboxes filled with transparencies, the best of his life’s work.I held out the laundry basket.
At that moment, all the lights in the house sputtered and died, throwing us into darkness. Somewhere outsideI heard a loud crack, like a lightning strike in a rainstorm. I imagined power poles falling into flames, and a single thought thundered through me: We have to get out. We have to get out now.
“How are we going to open the garage door without electricity?” My voice sounded shrill.“I can open it,” Bob said. “That part is easy.” He dumped the transparencies into the basket and disappeared again into the light less house. Some of the smaller boxes missed the mark andfell to the floor. I dropped to my knees and felt around until I found them.Then Bob’s voice, tight with anxiety, came from the kitchen.
“I can’t find my glasses!”
The basket felt heavy as I pushed into the garage. Despite the blackoutI had no trouble seeing. A flood of sulfurous light poured through awindow on the east wall, as if a downtown streetlight had switched onoutside. It felt warmer here than in the house. And it smelled of smoke. I heard Bob shout again.
“I can’t find my car keys!”
“We’ll take my car!”
He drove a Chevy Suburban, an enormous sport utility vehicle. Idrove a white Acura sports coupe.When I opened my trunk to set the basket inside, I discovered a pairof old black flats, my rain shoes. I snatched them up, dropped them to the concrete, and slipped them on before closing the trunk again.
As awful as they looked over white sweat socks, I felt intensely grateful to have them.My thoughts next turned to Chelsea, our cockatiel. We kept a small travelingcage in the garage. I scanned my surroundings until I spied it on a high shelf, fished it down with a piece of PVC pipe, and spun around to find Bob behind me.
“Get Chelsea,” I said, thrusting the cage toward him.He disappeared again into the house, while I opened the driver’s doorof the Acura and flipped the seatback forward. Terra, small for a Newfoundlandat ninety pounds and pathologically eager to please, jumped inright away. But Charter, all 140 pounds of him, balked at the idea.
“Charter, go,” I said, pushing against his rump.Over the top of the car, I could see the light from the east windowgrowing brighter and changing colors, from orange to yellow. Oh God, Ithought, this fire must be getting closer. Still Charter stood resolute, refusing to move.
“Go, Charter,” I kept urging. “Go, go.”
Finally he lifted one enormous paw and stepped slowly into the foot well of the backseat. The other front foot followed at glacial speed, and then Ishoved the rest of him in. When Bob returned with Chelsea, I expected him to leap into the passenger seat, birdcage and all. Instead he shouted at me to pop the trunk. As I watched in the rear view mirror, he reached up and pulled the dangling red emergency handle that released the garage door, and then raised it easily.
Red and orange embers gusted past through a smoky haze behind him as he worked to fit the cage in alongside the laundry basket. Heseemed to be taking forever. Meanwhile, the light through the window had gone white. We were out of time. I started the car.
“Bob!” I don’t remember hearing the bellow of approaching flames chewing through shrubs and trees, but I had to scream to be heard.“We have to go. We have to go now!”
He gave the birdcage a last hard push before slamming the trunk lid and leaping into the front seat beside me, and I started backing the car into the eerie light and blowing embers.
“Wait!” Bob shouted. We were only halfway out of the garage, but I hit the brakes, and he cracked his door just enough to reach out and retrieve a big Nikon he’d picked up on his last pass through the house, and then set on the hood against the windshield. The moment he pulled the car door shut, I punched the gas, and the Acura shot up the long, steep driveway in reverse as if by reflex.
I never thought about stopping again, even for the few seconds it would have taken one of us to get out of the car and close the garage door. Perhaps I should have. Such a quick, simple thingmight have saved our home. Or proved a fatal error on a night when every moment mattered. I will always wonder.
At the top of the driveway, amid a meteor shower of embers, I paused just long enough to shift gears and turn the car’s wheels toward the road. In that instant it seemed the whole world had split in two—undisturbed night on one side, brightest day on the other.
We had lived in Wildcat Canyon only seven months, seven months of idyllic, post suburban life in a wild land nirvana shewn from mountain and sky. Nowfire loomed over this new land of ours, leaping toward us in a toweringarc of yellow-white light, spitting red, swirling foam into a poisoned sky.In the midst of it, our darkened house cut a defiant silhouette against a surging, sinister brilliance.
“Where is the fire department?” The agony in Bob’s voice spoke for both of us, and for nearly everyone caught in the fire, those who lived and those who died.
Yet in that briefest of moments, before we drove away into the night, it was clear no help was coming.