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In Flame



The New Year begins in flame. It is cold in New England, wind bitter with crystals of ice, frigidity leaching into bone until folks become brittle. Eve shifts to day, the dark replaced with weak winter light struggling to find its way through the fog. The world is quiet, coast to coast, sleeping away merriment or misery from the previous night, the previous year. We sleep late because we want to wake to hope instead of the same arduous winter and world.


At dawn, a woman, seventy-two, enters her car with her seventy-five-year- old friend. They bundle against the cold together, turn up the heat, hoping the vehicle and their bodies will warm quickly. She turns the key; the car lurches.


In the first hours of 2019, the car drives over an embankment, through the side of an apartment building, and into the basement laundry where it severs the gas lines, flames sparking in the dark.


The room goes quickly, and the bodies, black and smoking, but the flames hunger further, slurping into the hallway, scorching the walls, licking up the ceiling. Fire drips like rain. The building is old, so the alarms delay before crying out danger to residents, many of whom have just poured themselves into bed, unwilling to accept this cruel luck, believing it instead a fire drill or a mishap like burned eggs.


Flame claims the first floor, the second. It spreads, greedy and indifferent.


When I arrive to pick up the friends I toasted with just hours before—each of us hopeful that what was ahead would be better than what we wanted to leave behind—the air is thick and noxious. I struggle to breathe and see them blinking bleary-eyed through the smoke in their pajamas, clutching their cats. They climb in the back of my car, and we drive silently through what looks like apocalypse, waiting to see what of our lives will be spared by the New Year. We count down again.


In the rearview mirror, the sky is on fire.


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Lately I search for flame. When I moved to Massachusetts in 2018, I was unused to a sun that abandoned us each winter. That first season, the loss made me ache with regret, made rising from bed to make my way in the world a burden. Without the sun my new home felt friendless, and my mind began to skid and dart, so desperate it was for spark. Month after month, my mind tried to create its own heat, but the only thing that burned was me, compulsion and fear swelling in the dark. Silly girl, I did not realize the companionship I had in the sunshine of my California childhood.


When the sun returned at last in May, I was a fearful wreck, so convinced I was that the dark meant I was dying, was dead inside already. When the world began to bloom, slowly, slowly, the thaw eased from my bones, and I could breathe again.


Against advice, I looked up, straight into the heart of the sun, and tried to hold my gaze. I nearly cried, not from the hurt, but from the sure ache that it would leave again, my new home a constant cycle of retreat and decay.


Now, I encircle myself in fire. I build a shrine. Each afternoon, as the faint light fades too soon, I ignite a dozen candles, the hearth. There is never enough fire.


The flame does not keep me warm, but it does surprise me. No matter how many candles I light I cannot say which way each will go. I know that today it is dark, and tomorrow it will be dark, and that darkness is the only constant ahead. But, the flames resist prediction.


Night after night, I find fire. Inside my skull, my brain sparks.


§


Home is on fire, but when California blackens, I feel nothing. I do not know if this is because home is dead or because I am.


The news shows images of towns gone to rubble, eaten up by fire and spit back out. The forest is gone; smoke rises from the soil. The President says the flame came because we were careless. Fire shows no kindness. Either fear it or become it.


From across the country, friends send me photos of inferno—sky ablaze, ravaged hillsides, ash raining down. They can’t breathe, they say, are quarantined inside because the air is thick with smoke, confettied with ash like a New Year’s celebration. It is not even the end of 2018, but already we are counting down.


A friend’s grandmother—from the town Paradise—is lost. She lives alone at ninety, and no one can get to her home because the road is on fire, the hill is on fire, the town, the state is on fire. Flames jump highways, bleed to the ocean. Firefighters fly in from around the country to try to combat a world on fire. In photos, they are tiny as ants.


The family posts a photo of the frail woman on social media. “Contact if seen,” they plea to everyone, to no one. In the photo, the woman stares straight into the camera. She looks as though she is hollow. Perhaps she is peering into her future.


My friend rests her hand on her stomach, her first child inside. She pulses red. Each day she waits for her son, for news that her grandmother has been found. Each day the news reports the latest political apocalypse, reports the California fire death toll rising. The air in Paradise smells of burning foliage and flesh.


After a week, then two, Thanksgiving draws near, and my friend admits that she is just waiting for the body. She wants the closure of bone.


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