The Forest Fire
by Kristy Gherlone
Frankie was seven years old the time her mother pulled up in front of her aunt’s house in a borrowed convertible and hollered for her to come outside.
“I have an arrangement at the lake. Get in,” Frankie’smom said as she opened the passenger door. “We can stay up there for the rest of the summer, but I’ll have to clean cabins.”
Frankie was delighted. She had been missing her mother so fiercely, she’d started wearing one of her shirts to bed, just so she’d feel near. Her mother was wild that year, sneaking in sometimes in the middle of the night to whisk Frankie away for a few days; other times, not showing up for weeks. Frankie was used to spending a few nights a week with her aunt, but as the summer wore on, her mother began to leave her more frequently and for longer stretches of time. This time, her mother had been gone so long, Frankie worried she’d never come back.
Frankie leapt into her arms and covered her with kisses. Then she sensed her mother’s mood. It was something she’d been able to do for a long time. She was glad, because it told her how she should feel and how to behave. Today, her mother was needles and sparkler spray. Sometimes she was birthday parties and balloons, but at others she was bees and burdocks. Frankie stiffened and slid down. It was becoming harder to tell. She’d have to be careful.
“Where’d you get the car?” Frankie asked. The last time her mother had been by, she didn’t have a car. Frankie inspected it and tried to remain calm.
Her mother’s eyes roamed constantly, as if she was trying to see everything at once. She flinched when a crow flew overhead.
“I got it in case I need to escape in a hurry,” she said.
Frankie wanted to ask if she would come to get her if that time came. “It’s dirty,” she remarked instead. A thick layer of grime covered the exterior. She ran a finger up the side, revealing the red paint underneath.
“Well, we haven’t had rain in months! Everything’s dirty. Hurry up! We’ve got to go!” Frankie’s mother stomped her foot and rattled the door.
“How long this time, Nancy?” Frankie’s aunt asked. She was standing at the doorway with Frankie’s suitcase.
Her mother glared. “You just never mind how long,” she snapped. “It will be what it will be.”
Frankie grimaced. Her mother and aunt didn’t get along. When the two of them were together it was like getting called to the principal’s office. She loved her aunt because she was always pancakes and coloring books, but she loved her mother more.
“It’ll be okay,” her aunt said with a wink. “Don’t run off without your stuff, now.” She handed Frankie the bag and kissed her forehead. “I’ll see you soon.” She glanced at the car. “Does that thing have a top, Nancy? Supposed to storm later.”
“Nope. It’s busted,” Frankie’s mother said as she scanned the sky. “I guess I can throw a tarp over it if I have to.” Then without warning she screamed, “Tornado!”
Frankie knew there wasn’t a tornado, but she dropped into a crouch right there on the steps and covered her head.
“Good,” her mother said. “Now what?”
“Find a basement to hide in,” Frankie said.
“You need to stop doing those ridiculous drills, Nancy!” her aunt cut in. “You’re going to scare that child to death!”
“A lot of bad things can happen. I’m trying to prepare her!”
Frankie felt her mother’s mood shift again. It was skating on a pond and hearing the ice crack. She grew still and quiet.
“Prepare her for what, for heaven sakes?”
“Well, a tornado in Maine would certainly be unexpected.” Her aunt shook her head.
“Let’s go!” Frankie’s mother boomed. Frankie jumped. She threw her stuff into the back, kicking up a whirlwind of filth, and hopped in the car.
Her mother’s hair, cut too short, fluttered around her face as they drove up the twisting road towards the mountain. Her hands shook as she fished a pack of cigarettes out of the console.
“You smoke?” Frankie croaked. Her mother said people only smoked when they wanted to kill themselves. Frankie wanted to rip them out of her hand and chuck them out of the car.
She struck a match and lit one. “Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t,’ she said, flicking the match and letting the wind carry it away.
The car swerved. “Accident!” she hollered. “Brace!”
Frankie tucked her head in between her knees.
“You’ll need to be faster than that, Frankie. Accidents can happen at any time. And don’t forget to cover your head.”
Before Frankie could sit back up all the way, her mother was at it again. “Crash!” she shrieked, only this time it was for real. Frankie squeaked as her mother slammed on the brakes. A cow moose bounded on gangly legs across the road and missed the car by inches.
“See?” her mother said, clutching her chest. “You weren’t expecting that, were you?”
“No,” Frankie admitted, trying to catch her breath.
“From now on, you’ll have to be the lookout. Don’t take your eyes off the side of the road for even a second. Tell me immediately if you see anything.”
Frankie stayed alert. She scanned back and forth, looking for animals on the sides of the road while her mother stared straight ahead. She gripped the steering wheel so tightly, Frankie was sure it would disintegrate in her fingers.
“We’re here,” her mother finally announced, letting out a sigh of relief. She pulled up in front of a tiny, brown cabin. “You stay here while I go square things with the owner.”
Frankie nodded. Her mother was clean sheets and Saturday morning donuts. Her stomach relaxed. She got out of the car. The air was a mix of boggy freshness from the lake and tangy pine dander. Somewhere, way off, a loon called.
“We’re all set,” her mother said. She dangled a set of keys in her hand. “I’m afraid I won’t have much time to spend with you, so after you put your stuff away you can just go play. But don’t go too far,” she added.
Frankie dumped her stuff into the cabin and started towards the water.
“Wait!” her mother bellowed. Frankie skidded to a stop. “Don’t talk to strangers, especially men. Don’t go into the water past your knees, and for God sakes, get back to the cabin if you see any lightning.”
“Okay,” Frankie said. She took a couple of steps and waited.
“Don’t touch any wild animals and look out for ticks. Put on some bug spray.”
Frankie went back in, grabbed a can of Ben’s, and went back outside.
“You know what?” her mother said, surveying the grounds, “I think you better stay right here. There’s too much that could go wrong.”
“I’ll just feel better,” her mother said. “And don’t give me that look. I’ll be back later and then we can roast some hot dogs.”
That night, Frankie put her sleeping bag onto a platform bed and wiggled inside. The frogs were croaking, ga-gunk, back and forth down by the lake, competing with the sound of distant thunder that had begun. It was warm and cozy in there, and she was almost lulled to sleep when her mother came in to kiss her goodnight. She was the first day at a new school. Frankie’s stomach tightened. “Is everything okay? Is there anything I need to worry about?”
“I’m not sure just yet. I’ll be outside, watching this storm. It might turn out to be a bad one.”
“Okay,” Frankie said. She was too tired to worry.
A few hours later, she awoke with a start. The cabin was pitch black. Her mother’s face was a mask of terror as it came into view, suddenly illuminated by flash of white light.
“There’s a fire,” she said, her voice high and tight. She was the day her father hadn’t come home. “We need to leave.”
Frankie sucked in her breath, startled, and got a lungful of smoke. It made her teeth chatter. She jumped up, still in her sleeping bag. “Where? What happened? What should we do?”
“I don’t know! It was a lightning strike up in the mountains. All I know is that we need to get out of here before it spreads.”
Frankie wrestled out of the bag and stumbled around in the dark trying to collect her clothes and toys.
“Leave it all here! We have to go!” her mother said. She pulled Frankie towards the door. They got into the car and started down the road, but the only way out was blocked by fire trucks and rescue vehicles. Frankie glanced behind them. The side of the mountain danced with orange flames.
“What’s the drill?” Frankie cried. “How do we prepare?”
Her mother’s eyes darted wildly. “I … I don’t know,” she stammered. “I didn’t expect this.”
A fireman approached the vehicle. “You’re gonna have to turn around. The whole road is blocked all the way to town with people coming to help.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Frankie’s mother howled.
“Hunker down the best you can. Cover yourselves with wet blankets or get into the lake if you have to,” he suggested before racing off again.
Frankie’s mother whipped the car around and drove back to the campground. People were pointing and crying. “It’s coming this way!” someone screamed.
Frankie’s mother shouted, “Everyone grab a blanket and head to the lake!”
A panicked woman stood in the middle of the chaos. She seemed to be having a hard time breathing. Her eyes were wide with fear. Frankie’s mother took her hand and tried to pull her towards the shore, but the woman wouldn’t budge. “I can’t swim!” she bawled.
“You’re going to be okay!” Frankie’s mother told her. “It’s going to be okay. Everyone stick together. Follow me!” she ordered over the noise. The woman began to move along with the rest of the others. Everyone followed Frankie’s mother down to the lake. Frankie stopped for just a second to check her mood, so she would know how to feel. For the first time in a long time, her mother’s eyes were still. She was learning to ride a bike or climbing to the top of the monkey bars. She was strong.
They all splashed into the lake as hot embers rained down around them. “Wet your blankets and put them over your head,” Frankie’s mother advised.
The water was heated by the sun of a hundred days of summer drought. They were safe under their blankets, but Frankie’s mother announced that she needed to go back to the cabin. Frankie panicked. She grabbed her mother’s legs and tried to stop her. “Don’t go! Please, don’t leave me! Stay here with me!” she begged, sure something awful was about to happen or that her mother would use the car to somehow escape.
Frankie’s mother kissed her nose, “It’ll be okay,” she whispered. Her voice sounded like warm milk and caramels. “I promise. I’ll be right back.” She darted out from under the blanket. Frankie sobbed as she watched her mother dodge falling branches. Just when Frankie thought she’d left for good, she returned and passed around water and food to those in need. Frankie nearly collapsed with relief.
They spent the rest of the night there in the lake, whispering words of comfort to one another and swapping stories. When the sun came up, they were tired, but unscathed. The fire had been contained, but it had cut out a large swath of the trees to the west of them. Frankie saw black scars marring the landscape and steamy whiffs of smoldering ash rising from the ground. The people emerged from the water tired but spared.
The crowd began to dwindle as the roads cleared. They uttered words of thanks to Frankie’s mom as they drove away. She packed up the car and they, too, drove towards town. She didn’t call out any drills on the return, and her eyes stayed quiet. She was the first day of feeling good after a long sickness.
She pulled up in front of a house that Frankie didn’t recognize.
“What are we doing here?” Frankie asked.
“Returning this car,” Frankie’s mother said.
“Don’t you need it? What about your escape? What if something bad happens?” Frankie asked, holding her breath.
“If it does,” her mother said, “I hope we’ll be able to work it out together. I’d like to try.”
For once, Frankie knew how to feel all on her own. It was happy.
*This story was originally published by Edify Fiction on January 1, 2018
**No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without consent from the author