The fires lasted for fourteen months. For fourteen months, we watched flames engulf and devour the houses while their owners looked on, screaming.
It seemed as though we were always running.
We started, each of us, with our most favored possessions: Carrie, the child from next door, lugged a gigantic teddy bear. Had it had a skeleton, solid bones to support the weight of stuffing and fake fur and a flopping head and those plastic staring eyes, it would’ve easily stood five feet tall.
My father carried his box of tools—screwdrivers and a measuring tape; awls and hammers and the chalk line which he used to mark a neat border along the flowerbeds every spring, my brother holding one end, my father the other, arranging it just so before snapping it against the ground to leave a purple guide. I carried the stacks of scrapbooks my mother’d pressed into my hands. She carried my sister—too young to walk far on her own.
One day bled into the next; the red and black obliterated the blue and white of the sky.
Our possessions become less important. Three weeks in, my father opened his toolbox and withdrew an awl and two screwdrivers. He hid the toolbox behind some rocks and told my brother not to worry, they’d be back for them. A man is defined by the tools of his profession as easily as a woman is defined by her children.
One evening, after we’d scrounged for food in the dumpsters and alleyways, my mother took a scrapbook into her lap. She turned pages slowly, narrating the pages aloud. “Never forget the stories,” she told us. “Your stories are your greatest possession.” And then, she removed one picture before throwing the scrapbook upon the fire.
“Stop that,” my father shouted. “You’re feeding the enemy; providing more fuel to further their cause.”
My mother shook her head. “Perhaps happy memories can destroy the evil,” she said. Then she tossed the remaining scrapbooks into the fire as tears streamed down her cheeks.
The fire raged on.
As children sickened and weakened, mothers left them behind, tucked, like my father’s toolbox, behind various rocks. Unlike my father, they didn’t make any promises to return.
Carrie’s parents succumbed to the heat and exhaustion. We buried them quickly before moving on. Carrie’s bear grew soiled. There were holes along the bottom of its feet where it had been dragged across pavement and through the forest. One ear was perpetually damp from tears. “Get rid of that thing, child,” my father said.
And then one day, Carrie disappeared.
My father’s eyes were hooded; he refused to speak of it.
But he didn’t need to: We all knew the truth.
You may judge us. Mock us if you will: In the time of the fire, there were no guidelines of chalk telling us what to do; where to go. We were confused.
We were frightened.
We each believed it would be over soon.
We each were wrong.
Two years after the fires ended, I decided to return. My father forbade it, no, not because he loved me. Love had drifted away to become an abstract thing then. As clan leader, my father needed me. He needed me to gather roots and berries. He needed me to help tend the elderly. And he needed me to find a mate because our clan was diminishing quickly. He thought we should stay—live as best we could where we were now. I thought we should return to the place where memories began.
I sneaked away in the dead of night and walked for days. Nights, I hid among rocks or in the few structures that had made it through the fire unscathed—a house here, a barn there.
For months I didn’t meet a soul. Then, suddenly, there was a man upon the eastern horizon. He shouted. He hailed me. He urged me to stop.
I’d learned not to trust. I quickened my pace.
A noise split the air. I recognized the sound as gunshot. I broke into a sprint and ran for hours.
Ahead there was a house. It was missing its roof. The front door hung open crookedly. The windows were tired eyes, weary of watching the emptiness unfold before them. I ran inside, down the hall. It felt strange, after living outdoors, to be confined by two walls; outdated rules and expectations of human construct. There was a room to the right. I ran inside and held my breath. Surely the man hadn’t seen me. He was too far away. And I’d run far. He wouldn’t catch up. I waited, hoping…praying…wondering.
After two hours, judging by the changing position of the sun through the windows, I felt the danger had passed. I stood and prepared to leave. Then I saw it: There was a dark shadow crouched in the corner of the room. It looked human, but how could I be sure? I approached it slowly. Prodded it with my foot.
It did not move.
I knelt before it.
I recognized it.
It was Carrie’s bear, dirty and black, head lolling.
Grasping it from behind was Carrie’s skeleton.
I screamed and gave myself away.
And I heard the man enter the house; heard his footsteps in the hall.
And I knew not whether this man was friend or foe.
I know not still.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Cheney challenged me with “There was a dark shadow crouched in the corner of the room. It looked human, but how could I be sure?” and I challenged The Lime with “Today only: twenty percent discount.”