[Contemporary short story, ~1400 words. -ARG]
Fire don’t care that it’s winter.
The air gets hazier as we rocket through the Smokies, Mom and me, taking mountain curves like she doesn’t remember she’s a cop five days a week. We’re already later than we would be, with traffic from the rain that ain’t where it needs to be, and we’ve been in the car six hours and I’m on no sleep.
Wildfire ain’t supposed to be out east. East we worry about storms, like Katrina or Fran, way back when. But turns out droughts can happen anywhere, and fire don’t give a damn that we ain’t prepared for it.
“If we have to evacuate, the dogs go in my car. Papaw can’t go with them, because they tear his skin.” Mom tells me. She’s right. I’ll drive Papaw and Nana back, in their impala. Only if Papaw gets discharged. I don’t know what we’ll do if the fire gets to the hospital.
“If we gotta.” I agree. “They’ll stay with you? What about the cousins?”
“It’ll be tight.” Her knuckles are white on the wheel. “But we’ll manage.”
We been looking for a way to get them moved outta the mountains for a while now. With Papaw’s heart, and Nana’s memory going, it’d be easier to have them closer. But they won’t do anything they don’t wanna.
Hospital’s a big, pretty place, and we gotta confirm where Papaw is. The news is on in his room– a cycle of reporters talking about the fire, people that lost their homes, videos of smoke covered mountains and hills of flame and one pair of guys driving down with fire on both sides. We’re all waiting to hear if they’ll call an evacuation for the trailer we ain’t at. Papaw and Nana fall asleep to the noise, the little green lines on the EKG, the hum of the heparin IV, Gatlinburg mayor giving a speech on TV. The governor talks about how special this place is, but it’s hard to care about the outside world.
A lab tech comes in to take blood, but her pulling tape rips Papaw’s skin. Paper thin, fragile. I guess she didn’t know because she felt bad, but ‘feeling bad’ don’t stop the bleeding. We call a nurse and she wraps up his arm. We won’t let that happen again, but that doesn’t undo the damage.
We feed Nana from the cafeteria. She hasn’t been eating, but she will if we watch. Time passes like molasses, and we wait. The chairs are hard, and there’s only two, so I walk around, or I sit on the floor. The nurse doesn’t like that. Doesn’t stop me.
Mom points to the TV, the one I’m trying my damnedest to ignore.
“That motel ain’t two miles from you.”
That perks me up. I hope the dogs aren’t in danger. When men face danger, people like to say they have a fight or flight response. Ain’t right. Men also freeze like deer do. I freeze, I know I do.
“I don’t think it was wildfire.” Papaw says. He sat up for dinner, needs help to do it. He’s hurting. He’s been going all his life and he don’t stop unless he’s hurting.
“Arson?” Mom asks.
The TV drowns out the rest. I don’t doubt it, but I don’t want it to be arson, and I don’t wanna listen to the damned TV. I don’t wanna listen to anything else either. I get glued to my phone instead.
Embers can float a mile, it says.
Papaw needs help getting to the bathroom. Mom helps.
“This little gown they give you don’t cover your backside anyhow.” Papaw says. Temp’s set to eighty and he’s still shaking cold. I talk to Mom. Nana ain’t been home in some days, and Doctor ain’t coming today, most like, so I gotta drive Nana back. Back, toward the fire, where their dogs are. I keep saying we’ll run if they say, but they don’t say yet.
Fight, flight, freeze.
I drive back toward the fire, Nana my passenger. I make a turn too quick and loll her neck- I forgot how gentle I gotta be. She sleeps some after that. The fire glow doesn’t overrun the city glow, the Winterfest lights, the advertisements. I can’t see stars. Maybe smoke. Maybe light pollution. Maybe I just ain’t looking hard enough. Wind’s rough on the highway.
Embers can float a mile.
I sleep for ten hours, fitful, with a tornado warning blaring around 2am. I ignore it, pass back out, and hope I’ll even wake up for an evacuation. Morning comes like it always does, and Mom wants us back at the hospital, but I make sure Nana eats first. I drive back with blinking eyes, oil and tire lights on in Nana’s car. She reaches over to switch off the warnings, and I wonder how long she’s been doing that.
“What did it say?” I hadn’t caught the warning that time.
“Oh, I don’t know. It wasn’t what I wanted to see.”
Nothing to say to that.
We get there, parking in the pouring rain since Nana won’t let me drop her off. She walks slow, and I hold the umbrella. Mom texted asking for prayers since Papaw already got wheeled into the procedure.
My nails got picked apart from chewing, which I shouldn’t do around so many sick, but I’ve got an itch in my gut. Papaw wakes up, and we wait more, and sometime Mom and I go get oil to put in Nana’s car. There’s gotta be a bubble in the line somewhere, but it doesn’t get too hot on the road, so we’ll look later. The air is wet, and cold. Fire must be contained, right? We’re safe now, right?
The nurse comes in for midday pills, and we help Papaw sit up.
“You sound alright. How’re ya feeling?” The nurses treat Papaw kindly, and he teases them and jokes on, amiable as ever.
“I may sound alright, but I ain’t chasing no twenty year olds.” Papaw chuckles. I can tell he’s cold though. His hands shake, legs are mottled, and his arms got a dozen thick red bruises. My hands shake too, but I can hide that. Ain’t nobody looking at me anyway.
I leave for walks every so often. When the rain lightens up, I even go outside. People light up on the sidewalk, even though there are signs all over about how the hospital grounds are smoke free. Wonder if the wildfire can read.
That ain’t funny. People are dead. Count keeps going up each day, from finding the bodies. Tornado fatalities not included. I think they ought to be.
Cold bites. I should’ve brought a thicker coat.
It’s past midnight, and we wait for the cardiologist again, but he’s not coming. I need to take Nana home while I can still drive. I can’t stand the TV anymore, taking any excuse to be out of the room. Everything’s still closed, still cold, still dangerous. My hands shake, like I know I’m on the cusp of disaster. If I leave tonight, will it be the end? I just want the cardiologist to come by like the nurses said he would, to tell us how much danger Papaw’s in, whether he’d get to go home soon.
I’m irritable on the way back, driving gentle but following my GPS to the letter. Nana’s lived here her whole life, but sometimes she gets lost or her directions get flipped, and I’m still worried I’ll blow a tire and have to change it in the dead of night.
We get back and I pass out, and it’s near noon before I wake up to a call from mom. I mutter that we’ll leave soon, and try to blink the tired out of my eyes.
The car starts outside. I bolt up to look out the blinds.
Nana shouldn’t be driving, but she don’t care. I pull on my jacket and step outside to watch her car whizz down the gravel.
I wrestle the emergency Marlboro out of my wallet. My shakes calm long enough to let me text mom. I let the cold bite, filling my lungs with that sweet, deadly relief. Fire, Tornado, danger, nothing. This ain’t the end. It’s the goddamned middle.
I stamp the butt out, because embers can float a mile.
And fire don’t care.