The speaker made us choose:
“Your house is on fire. Family and pets are safe. What one thing would you take with you?” He hunted us with his eyes. Shoes squeaked over the gym floor, echoing in the frost of our hypnotic teenage lethargy, “…just one thing…”
The bell rang, and we exploded like buckshot.
That summer, wildfires funneled through the canyons toward our little five-acre plot of fenceposts and sagebrush. The bald ridge flaunted sparse pine. If the fire hit all this scrub, there’d be no stopping it.
What would I take?
Dad built the house for my mother before I was born. Last year she took her own life in the gully where, in autumn, elk descend by the hundreds. We’d constructed a memorial with a cedar bench, iron cross, and a ring of standing stones.
Everything I valued now was part of the earth. Flames might blacken the stones, singe the cross, ash the bench. Scorch the ground where she offered parting words to a starlit sky. Sometimes I’d go down and listen for their echo.
“We’ll have to move,” Dad said.
“They’ll put it out. They always do.”
The evacuation order gave us 48-hours.
Sunset brought traces of smoke over the hills. We spent the day hauling boxes to our new apartment. I grabbed two beers for one last walk down to the cross and stones. I sat on the bench, watching silver sage turn purple. I imagined the ridge going up like a phoenix glaze of cloud-feathers molding renegade light into evening clay.
Most of my anger had fizzled out. Only cold heat remained, trapped in brittle stone. I’d stopped asking why she didn’t stick around to see me graduate, write a book, start a family… Now I ask why our world still can’t soothe agony raw enough to blot out such dreams.
What would she have taken with her, given the chance, in flight from the burning house of her mind? Leaving me crippled, a coal in the grass, desperate for an evening gust. My whole life ahead of me, which really isn’t any time at all.
Only sparks now. I had to choose.
I emptied her beer at the base of the cross. A fresh glow licked the horizon.
If you could take just one thing…
Then I heard her voice. Like an echo under all that ash.
Take the fire.
Josh Wagner is a novelist and playwright from Missoula, Montana, with a Creative Writing MSc from the University of Edinburgh. His work has been described as lyric, whimsical, and incisive. He is the author of four novels and three graphic novels, and has won awards for his work in comics and theatre. His short stories and poetry have been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us (Clarity), Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Cleaver Magazine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics. He enjoys rhizomes, paradoxes, and things left unsaid.
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