by Jennifer Fliss
(content warning: contains strong language)
The charred remains told Sarah it might be too late. The campfire smell should evoke memories of sweet burnt marshmallows and ghost stories and Sarah thought that yes, what she was seeing were definitely ghost stories.
Her nostrils flared. There were no bird calls, just the distant thwomp of helicopters. Down the block, the sign for The Stonefruit Diner was lit, its neon a beacon beyond the tract of burned houses.
The fire was five percent contained. Flames licked the hillside. It was noon but looked like evening. The texts came and the warnings pinged. Sarah shut off the volume. The helicopters flew off and now there was just a thick pillowy silence. The hulking remains of five-year-old McMansions smoldered on either side of her. One mailbox was completely untouched. It was in the style of a tiny red barn and she wondered if the HOA had approved of it. She assumed no and applauded this small token of protest.
A terrier crossed the street ahead of her.
“Hey, hey, come here,” she said and bent as she trotted toward it. It stopped and stared at her, cocked its head. Sarah reached her arm toward the small dog. She was close enough that she could read her name: Cookie. She tried to loop a finger around her collar, but she yelped, jumped back, and ran off behind the remains of a home.
“Fuck,” Sarah swore. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” She contemplated following the dog, but after she took a few steps onto the lawn toward the house, a shutter fell off the second story window with a clatter and Sarah rushed back to the street. She continued toward the diner, clenching her jaw, keeping her ear out for the jangle of dog tags.
Her own house was in the neighboring and much older subdivision — mid-century flat houses with many bedrooms meant for big families. Her neighborhood still stood, but they expected this new flare to reach there by evening. This subdivision, named Plantation Lakes, had burned down the previous week. Evacuate, said the city. Evacuate, said the firefighters. Evacuate, said her neighbors. And they did.
After Sarah’s father died, Sarah’s mother started working at the diner. It was the neighborhood hangout but Sarah refused to go when her mom was on. Dinner at home usually consisted of diner leftovers her mother had pilfered: dried-out turkey meat, limp pickles, over-steamed vegetables, and plastic packaged crackers. She never brought home strawberry milkshakes despite Sarah asking. The diner had jukeboxes on each table. Served Cokes with vanilla syrup. In high school, after softball games and on nights her mom stayed home, Sarah joined her team as they crowded into booths and drank milkshakes and ate French fries until midnight. It was that kind of town. Racial covenants and casseroles. Neighborhood watch and block parties.
A spacemoonwalker who was actually a firefighter appeared from out of the gloam. “M’am, you shouldn’t be here.” A radio chirped at his hip and brought to her mind a russet-backed thrush. She told him so. He stared at her through smoke-ringed eyes. He brought his walkie to his mouth but didn’t say anything.
“Go,” he said.
She coughed. Once, twice.
“I’m just,” she faltered. “The diner, y’know?”
“I can treat you for a milkshake,” she said. “You look like you could use a milkshake.” She so wanted to bring someone to the diner with her.
His radio crackled. “M’am, the thing is,” he took a deep sigh. “No one will save you.” A breeze caught Sarah’s cheek. It was hot.
“Ok. I’m headed home,” Sarah said.
“This fire eats people,” he said and walked away, said something indecipherable into his walkie-talkie. Despite the warning, she kept walking toward the diner. On the current of air came a deeper odor like day-old fry oil: burned plastics, bodies, lives.
Sarah married her high school boyfriend after graduating. He threw parties and coffee mugs. She just sat in one chair all night during the parties. Then he said he shouldn’t have married a Jew and so he moved into a house with the same floorplan in the same subdivision with the softball team’s shortstop. She’d found Jesus and Mark, the shortstop had joked. The message had been relayed back to Sarah by a mutual friend.
Now Sarah took evening walks listening and watching for birds and her ex waved in an over-friendly manner when she walked by his living room window. There was no other route to the nature preserve so she waved back at him every time and hated herself a little more for it. She knew he still was abusive — she recognized the way the shortstop’s shoulders and eyelids hung lower ever since. Sarah thought the bruises of loneliness might stick around longer, but they weren’t as tender.
The light of the diner encouraged Sarah — fluorescent and nostalgic. The sun disintegrated. The smoke billowed. The glowing sign beckoned. She could go for a strawberry milkshake, a soothing trail down her parched throat.
Looking back, she couldn’t see the house anymore but her car sat in the driveway facing out, filled with the items that she’d decided made her life. Her passport; her mother’s wedding ring; her father’s vinyl; her and Mark’s ketubah in a fractured frame — something her mother had insisted on, though Mark had scoffed at the tradition; and a first edition framed Audubon Society print of a bird pecking at a deer that read “Black Vulture or Carrion Crow” in elegant cursive.
Sarah tripped. Smoldering and somewhat spongey beneath her knees was a charcoal log. No, a cat. She quickly scrambled up, wiping char onto her shirt. No, it wasn’t a cat. It had been something. And now it was not.
The deep trilling call of a western screech owl called out. That wasn’t right, it was the middle of the day. Were the trees the owls perched in gone? Sarah should go. She would go. A yank. She turned and ran toward her house. Her throat burned, her eyes abrasive against their lids. The ghosts along the side of the road nodded to her as scorched pieces of houses fell. This could be you, the ghosts said. Don’t let this be you.
Sarah felt contained, about five percent, but it was a start. The diner, back there, all that, could — should, stay.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.
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