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THE PINE trees were white with fog. It was India hot, sweet and humid. Jen had a love relationship with nature — life uncomplicated. The mist spread to the deck. Tonight something didn’t seem right in the air. It was quiet. There were no twittering bluebirds. David was in the basement doing yoga. Their relationship was better when they were in different places. Moving here was meant to be the cure for their relationship. It was Jen’s idea.
It definitely smelled unusual, campfire smoky, but in the lungs. Misty patches blocked the sunset. The darkness was abrupt, it wasn’t normal. In a confused moment of disbelief, she knew it was a fire. Behind the tree line a nuclear cloud of smoke shot up into the sky. Black flecks fell on her head. Panic rose into Jen’s throat.
“Stay calm, Jennifer, get the kids.”
Even the door handle was warm.
“Fire!” No response.
There was more air in the house than outside. Jen breathed deep and screeched down to the basement. “Fire!”
The children came running from the TV room. They knew the serious tone. She was a sergeant general.
“Get in the van and close the doors and windows.” The children ran while Jen grabbed the photo box, the concertina file, and the contents of the safe, the will.
David came up the stairs at a snail’s pace. She was sweaty, wheezing. There had been a disturbance to his bio rhythm. Without a word, his body said it — Jen had interfered, ruining his meditation.
“Jennifer, please use your indoor voice.”
She was crazy angry, “There’s a fire.”
“Where Jen? I don’t see any fire, just mist.” David opened the door to the deck and saw the black flecks. “The Vandermanns are burning again.” They were always burning brush.
Their eyes met.
“It’s a fire David.”
“It’s fog, Jen.”
There were sirens and they could hear voices shouting from the other side of the tree line. “Get the yellow hose.”
The side of the house was in flames. Jen ran to the van. They sat in silence, waiting. Jordan held the photos. Jacob held the concertina file tight against his chest, Jen shoved the will deep into her pocket before flying up the long, stone driveway. Jacob screamed for his daddy. His voice echoed in Jen’s head.
David had gone to check on the chickens.
Half the surrounding woodland was in flames before the Vendermann’s phoned the fire department. They wouldn’t call immediately because they didn’t get a fire permit. It was going to be a whopping fine.
The police and fireman said they were sure glad the family was safe, wrapping them in grey blankets. Jacob was sobbing. “Daddy was checking on the chickens.” The chickens had been Jen’s idea. Ever since she was a child, she dreamed of living a simple country life. “I had to get the kids out; I thought we were all going to die.” Jen had streaks of tears making lines through black smears from the ash.
The truth is a couple of years earlier she would have waited for him instead of heading for the car. They had gone on a vacation to India two years before where David had a spiritual experience. The arguments started when they returned. The vacation faded, but had lasting effects on David. He talked endlessly about “universal truth.” He said he had found meaning. He believed it all, had a mantra to live by. Jen was having difficulty sleeping most nights and ended up on the couch. He never asked her why. In the same way, she didn’t ask him why he’d stopped laughing, had become quiet. He was spiritual, not earthly good.
There was mountainous debt. Jen had decided to have the children first and then finish medical school. After India, they decided to move to the country. The practice took time. David was an engineer and couldn’t find a local job, had to commute, they saw less and less of each other.
Jacob was crying. “Is daddy going to be okay?” He was nine, Jordan had fallen asleep; he was four.
“Yes. Daddy will be okay and so will the chickens.”
The pen had gone up in flames before David got there. He could hear them die; the noise was loud and high pitched. David wept for the birds. He could see her face, his bride. Her blonde hair not pulled up, but moving freely over her bare shoulders. How did he ever win her affection? He knew how inadequate he was. He tried desperately to please her. The trip to India was a surprise for the 10 years they’d been together. Jen was interested in spirituality, talked of natural therapies. However, he was the one most affected.
A sharp pain shot up his leg. The fire covered the ground where he stood. Jen said they couldn’t afford the $500 for the will, but he had insisted. She’d never worry about money again. He was in a decent place to die, enchanted, he hadn’t been grateful enough, not been a good man.
He rolled on the grass, trying to put the fire out. It was difficult to stay focused, awake. Keep breathing, Dave. There was no air to pull in. Resignation; they’d be better off without him.
His eyes burned, he sealed them shut. There was brilliant white, the first snow of winter, he could taste it. Candy-cane sweet flavour cooled the tip of his tongue. He swallowed, slurping it down. He was in a white field. Joy rose from his toes, up his spine, until his mind had a surge of electricity. He thought: if this is death than it’s alright. The pain was gone. The boys were not going to have a dad.
“I don’t think so yet, God.”
He rolled toward the beaver stream. The beavers had made a path way from the top of the hill to the pond. They were industrious, making channels of water. There was moisture on his lips, tasted mucky. He’d have to pull himself down the created slide, the flame on his shirt died in the water. A surge of survival energy pushed him forward. Each painful movement tore at his charred legs. One final thrust forward, his body splashed into deeper oily water. It was a beautiful moment. He never had been baptized. The fire crackled around him, trees were conquered in a flash of heat.
He might live. He was going to tell Jen she was right about the fire — that she was right about a lot of things.