We had been watching the distant hills for three days.
The first day, the smoke started as a thin plume, a persistent pale trickle slipping up into the sky.
“They better get that under control.” On the porch, Dad squinted at the vista below. “Conditions like this. This is no good time for a fire.”
I was suddenly acutely aware of my surroundings: the blonde grasses, blanched and crisp underfoot, the prickle of sweat salting the nape of my neck. The sun baking the earth, parching the pine boughs. The breeze had been nothing but billows of heat, even in the night, when the air up in Gold Creek usually cooled to a chill. It hadn’t rained in weeks.
“Should we call 911?”
“Nah.” Dad sat back and tucked a slug of chaw into his cheek. “I’m sure someone’s already doing something about it. We’re not the only ones who see it.”
I watched the curl of smoke with a morbid curiosity, the way you might gape at an accident—tragic that it was happening to someone else, but close enough to the danger for a little thrill.
“Don’t worry about it, wild man,” Dad said. “It’s a ways off.” He called me that, wild man, even though I was twelve years old and perpetually timid, at least compared to him. Dad was the one who had to charge out into the night to scare the scavenging black bears away from the truck when I forgot a granola bar in the passenger seat. This was a brave skin I could not imagine myself wearing, the adult who stomped out into the darkness, swinging the shotgun around like a baseball bat, shouting at the bears to go on, git. There hadn’t always been so many bears in our little town, I learned. In recent years, they were intruding into the populated areas more often because food in the woods was scarce, while human snacks—I had looked at the ground guiltily—were in ample supply.
While the sun baked the ruddy backs of our necks, Dad went about his business and seemed to forget about the smoke in the distance. He unloaded boxes of motor oil from the back of the truck into the shed, pausing to unzip and piss against the papery trunk of an aspen that grew along the side of our mile-long driveway. I kept shooting nervous glances through the tops of the ponderosas. I had never been close enough to a real fire to see smoke snaking up into the skies, but Dad’s movements were bored, methodical. Maybe it was immature of me to worry. Later that afternoon, as the day slipped into evening, the plume of smoke was bigger, fat and puffy as a cloud. When I brought it to his attention, he paused and looked westward again.
“Hmm,” was all he said. The creases between his brows deepened.
That night, the heat was unbearable. I yanked the windows of our cabin open, but there was no breeze, just a heavy dead swelter that sank to the bottom of the room. I tossed and turned, my lanky legs tangled in fabric, until finally I kicked the quilt and the sheets off into a heap on the floor. The moon was a luminous spotlight. The pine branches cast feathery shadows on the window glass. Everything outside was still, too still, uncomfortably still, the entire night world crouched and breathing like an animal ready to pounce. Sometime after midnight, I tugged the windows closed again. It might have actually been cooler inside, where the hot breath of the world wasn’t panting down my neck. I barely slept.
When yellow sunrise spilled through the windows and I woke, the air smelled smoky, a nostalgic smell that brought me back to campfires, cozy winter mornings. Dad’s face was somber. He refilled the coffeemaker and stared out the window, not speaking, only the sputter and crackle of the hot pad as the coffee trickled into the pot. When he stepped onto the porch with his mug, I followed, too close on his heels. I had the childish instinct to slip my hand into his paw, but I didn’t. Instead, I stood up straighter. I caught myself mirroring him: both of our thumbs thrust through our frayed belt loops. The worn planks were smooth and dusty under my bare feet. Pine needles collected in the gaps.
Dad surveyed the thick column of smoke as he sipped his coffee, sucking leftover droplets from his mustache.
“It’s still there,” I said helpfully.
“Yep. I see that.”
“Looks like it’s getting bigger.”
He said nothing, his eyes fixed on the hills below us. Finally, he sighed, tapped something into his phone, and frowned at the screen. When he pressed play on a news clip, a woman’s voice spoke.
“—on scene, just west of Gold Creek, Colorado, where crews are struggling to contain a growing blaze of almost nine hundred acres.” Nine hundred acres! My heart jumped up into my throat. I had a hard time picturing that much land, but nine hundred of anything was a massive amount.
“Dad!” The smell of the smoke was thicker now. My mouth tasted of campfire.
“It’ll be fine, wild man. They’re on it. News says it’s twelve miles off.”
“Are you sure?”
He put a meaty hand on my shoulder. “Think of the Dickinson’s ranch, you know, with the horses? All the way out there? They’re four miles past the edge of town. So the fire’s eight miles further still. That’s a lot of distance, far as a fire’s concerned. Fire doesn’t move that fast, okay?”
I could picture the ranch and the rutted dirt road to the Dickinson’s. A trickle of a creek glittered in the sun. With manes aflutter, horses romped in a celery-green meadow, the only clearing for miles. I had seen an aerial photograph in school once: we lived in a vast, dark river of trees, the granite foothills furred over and swallowed up by pines. From the sky, Gold Creek was barely visible. Four hundred citizens was all, an old mining-era town in Colorado’s high country, every last thing constructed of weathered gray wood, splintered planks, faded hope, rusted tin. Sometimes tourists pulled through in their shiny vehicles and snapped photos of the general store or the cafe or my schoolhouse, once even of the Russell’s weatherbeaten cabin while Mr. Russell stood right there in the yard hosing down the pansies. I had overheard tourists calling us a ghost town, but that wasn’t true: four hundred of us lived here. Four hundred souls, not ghosts, not yet.
The strange, cloying heat unnerved me. It was hard to think of anything else when the air smelled like danger: acrid, almost sweet. The ponderosas’ butterscotch-scented bark, roasting. The smell drifted to the top of my consciousness, choking out any other thought. Nervously, I did my chores: I split some wood and left the ax plunged into the chopping block in the driveway, even though Dad griped at me to move it aside. I heaved the compost bucket out to the pile. Finally, heat-dizzy and drenched in sweat, I slouched in front of the TV, where I was able to forget for a bit. I don’t know how much time passed. Hours, likely, while Dad tinkered in the shed. Eventually, I got hungry and made my way, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen.
The first thing I noticed was the uncanny light. Too murky for the middle of the afternoon, an uncomfortable yellowish hue like the air was steeped in tea. My vision was still scaling down from the TV’s brightness, and I rubbed my eyes and stepped out onto the porch to be sure. My stomach plummeted. It was wrong, the whole world tense. The sky was a bitter sulfur-yellow. Flakes drifted down, dusting the driveway’s gravel, landing in my hair, mottling the bushes. Snow? I thought stupidly, although of course it wasn’t, not in this heat. I ran a fingertip across the truck’s windshield. Ash.
In the shed, Dad was flat on his back, his head and shoulders buried under the chassis of his vintage MG—his project car. A wrench tick-tick-ticked a bolt into place. Jimmy Buffet crooned from a battered radio on the tool bench.
“I think it’s getting closer.” I thumped on the MG’s metal skeleton.
Dad slid out from under the chassis. “What’s that, wild man?” He wiped his greasy, blackened palms on a rag.
“I said the fire’s getting close. There’s ash everywhere. The sky is all yellow. What do we do?”
He stuffed the grease rag into his back pocket and leaned his head through the door, then frowned at the sky and took a few more steps out into the driveway, squinting, craning his neck. Inside the shed, it smelled like fresh sawdust and motor oil, but my T-shirt reeked of smoke, a crackling and sharp scent. My nostalgia for that smell was displaced by a clench of urgency. I twisted the radio dial until I found the news channel.
“—Explosive growth of what’s being called the High Lonesome Fire, which has rapidly blown up to over eight thousand acres in just a short time. The cause of the blaze is reported to be an unattended campfire, despite county-wide fire restrictions. Immediate evacuations are in place for the following areas: High Ridge, Walkerson Pass, Gold Creek, West Park—”
I dashed out into the driveway, breathless. “I just heard on the radio! They told us to evacuate!”
Dad was peering up at the strange sky. “No need to panic.”
“I heard them say it!” I insisted. “They said evacuate! They said Gold Creek!”
“There’ve been fires up here before. Fire’s natural, alright?”
“But it’s not natural! It was a campfire. They already know.”
“Campfire? It’s ninety-four goddamn degrees out. In the shade.” Dad shook his head, stuffing a nugget of chaw into his lower lip. He pinched the tips off a nearby pine branch, which should have bent and flexed, but instead just snapped clean off, a brittle break. “Who needs a campfire now, of all times? Christ.”
“I know! It’s nuts! It’s way too hot for a campfire!” Finally, he agreed with me on something. My voice sounded manic in my own ears. “They said it’s eight thousand acres already.”
“Eight thousand? That can’t be right. Fires don’t grow that fast. That’s almost, what—ten times larger, in less than a day. You must have heard wrong.”
“They said explosive growth. They said it blew up.” It was true—I was quoting the radio verbatim—but I was beginning to feel silly for my repetition. If there was any time to panic, surely it was now. A gust of wind pushed through the pines, a hot smoky breath, and the neighbor’s wind chimes plinged. Flakes of ash caught in my eyelashes. My cheeks were probably scarlet with heat—I could feel them flushed—and I plucked at my sweaty T-shirt. My throat burned as I swallowed. My mouth tasted urgently of smoke.
“This is our home,” Dad said firmly. “We stay put.” When he looked out at the forest, I knew what he saw: the little twig cross I had tied together for our arthritic pit bull, Mick, when I was five. The rose bushes along the driveway that Mom planted before she decided she had enough of this life. Behind us, the cabin that my dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, built with his own two hands, during an era that glittered with promise, when men flooded the high country to sift flashes of hope from the gold-heavy creek. It was the only home I had ever known. And all of it—the forest, the cabin, even the crackled creek bed—was dry as kindling.
Ahead of us now, the heavens were darkening. I could see the unholy shape of the sun, a red hazy blot. I knew I shouldn’t stare directly at it, but I did anyway, and my eyes didn’t burn right out of my skull, like I had been cautioned. The sun’s light was too feeble through the smoke. Above us was an apocalyptic sky from a movie, not a sky I recognized. It was no longer a forest I recognized, either. This menacing new forest crackled with its own hot breath.
Some of the ash flaking down had letters printed on it. Roasted pages of a book, I realized, when I pinched a scrap between my fingers. That meant someone’s house was burning, this very instant. I was coughing now, tears welling in my smoke-burned eyes. I left Dad out there, staring up at the sky in silence, ash collecting in his arm hair as he did nothing, nothing. I grabbed the radio from the shed, ran back out, cranked the volume up.
“Did you hear that?” My voice cracked. “They said there are flames south of County Road 42! That means the Dickinson’s ranch is gone already! We have to do something!”
“Good God,” Dad muttered. “It’s not supposed to happen that fast.” He was frozen in place, gaping at the sky. In the driveway, I left the radio blaring on the hood of the Chevy. I ran inside the cabin and grabbed what I could: our photo albums from the bookshelf. The file folder Dad tucked important papers into, even though I wasn’t sure what exactly it contained. An armload of food swiped from a shelf into a canvas bag. The dented coffee can on top of the fridge where he stashed crumpled wads of cash and spare change. Scanning my bedroom, gulping: my pocket knife, the photo of Mom with the bent edge. It was very dim now, a surreal timeless dark. My throat burned. On my way out, I flicked the porch lights on, but the weak light did little to cut through the haze. Wind whipped through the trees. The forest was full of shooting stars: the ash had turned to embers streaming through the sky.
I tossed our things into the back of the Chevy. Had the sense to yank a tarp over the bed to protect our stuff from embers.
“Dad!” I shouted, even though he was only a few paces away. “I packed up. We have to leave!”
Now I could make out an amber glow through the pines that twisted my gut with an animal panic. I knew, without a doubt, that this was the end of something. The end of everything.
“Come on! Please! We have to go!” My eyes were streaming: smoke, fear. Grit and ash stuck to the wet tracks on my cheeks. I started towards him to grab his hand, but just then, an ember lanced through the air like a comet and seared into his shirt. On his shoulder, a hot firefly glow, a sizzle, a blooming ring of charred black fabric. Finally, he startled to life. He yelped and swatted the cinders from his skin. He looked at me with a terror-stricken face I will never forget.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” he roared. I was flooded with relief, but only for a moment. In his panic, he dashed towards me. But I’d left the chopping block in the way, with the ax sunk deep in the stump. It happened in slow-motion: Dad catching the ax handle with his shin, tumbling over himself, crumpling to the dirt.
I ran to his side. He grimaced, clutching his leg.
“Dad! Are you okay?”
“My leg’s hurt. I think it’s bad. I don’t know if I can—” He tried to stand and collapsed. “It might be broken. Goddammit!”
I tried not to look at the ominous glow pulsing through the trees. The heat rose around us in waves. “We have to go.” I pulled him up. “Now!”
“I know, dammit! Just help me get into the truck!” When he leaned on me, he was heavier than I was prepared for, but we managed to shuffle over to the Chevy. He hoisted himself up into the passenger seat, wincing.
“You’re going to have to get us outta here, wild man. You get to learn how to drive, right now.” He flashed a grin at me, an attempt at playfulness, but his eyes were gleaming, saucer-wide. That split second, when we stared at each other across the bench seat, I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore. I clutched the steering wheel like I was holding Dad’s very life in my grip. I didn’t want that responsibility, but there it was. Dad had left some old sweatshirts on the floor behind the passenger seat, and now I stuffed them under my butt so I could see over the steering wheel.
The salmon glow through the trees had begun to flicker and throb. We were out of time. Still, I was determined to pilot us as far as I could. When I yanked the shifter into reverse, the radio toppled from the Chevy’s hood. I backed right into the chopping stump, and I felt the bumper crumple.
“Forget it,” Dad said. “Keep going. Just go.” He leaned over and flicked on the windshield wipers to clear the scrim of ash. The sky ahead of us was sinister. We tore down the driveway, the shape of the familiar ruts cupping the tires. The truck bucked and swayed in my unskilled hands. Scraggly juniper arms clawed the side of the truck, squealing down our metal flank. I turned the headlights on to pierce the smoke.
“Go faster. You need to go faster.”
I rammed the gas pedal down. Thankfully the truck was an automatic. Just before I reached the mouth of the driveway, I was met with flame. Fire leapt through the scrub oak to my right, scrabbled up the tree trunks. Embers and ash flew towards us like charred butterflies.
“Keep going. Keep going!”
“I know! I am!” I stomped the gas pedal down with the tip of my toe, jarring us over the spot fires blazing in the road. Sparks streamed down upon us. Now the woods on all sides of us were ablaze. The forest floor was singed black, glittering with terrible cinders. Flames lapped greedily through the canopy above. I saw the trunk of a pine tree that crackled and glowed like hell.
At the main gravel road I turned left, instead of right toward Gold Creek. The fire had come from that direction. If it was already here at the mouth of our driveway, then nobody needed to tell me our town was gone. The sky was darker now. Flames raced through the undergrowth. I managed to keep the truck on the road, but I jostled us around wildly. Dad grimaced and clutched his leg with every jolt.
Then finally, ahead of us, the thing I feared most: a wall of leaping flame, two stories tall. The road consumed. The smoke billowing and churning. Tongues of flame that writhed and whipped and spun.
“What do I do?”
“We’re all out of options.” Dad’s voice was desperate. “Just keep going. It’s up to you.”
I swallowed hard. I stomped the gas pedal down. I tried not to squeeze my eyes closed as the Chevy leapt through a tunnel of flame. I wanted to shut it all out—the heat welling up inside the truck, the smell of burning rubber that choked my throat, the terrifying whoosh and crackle outside—but I knew I had to keep my eyes on the road. So as I drove us into the heart of the inferno, I saw it all: the searing flames, the cavern of heat. In the passenger seat, Dad’s eyes were tightly closed. His mouth moved as he mumbled, or prayed. It was unfair, I thought, in a flash of anger. He should have to face this, too.
And then we punched through. On the other side, spot fires crackled in the underbrush, but we were finally ahead of the wall of flame. Veils of smoke drifted apart and dissolved into haze. Ahead, the sky darkened to indigo, the color itself a visceral relief, like deep water. The temperature inside the cab cooled in moments, but I could still only smell smoke. I tried to swallow, but my throat was baked dry. My mouth bloomed with iron, where I had bit my lip.
“Sweet Jesus Christ.” Dad cracked his eyes open. Past the fiery underworld, it was dusk, the final remnants of day sinking into darkness, the moon’s beacon rising. We said nothing. We just sat there as I drove on, trembling, shell-shocked, nerves flayed and buzzing but numb with relief, everything marinated in the stench of smoke and burnt rubber. I would smell it on my hair for days, no matter how much cheap shampoo I scrubbed with at the evacuation center. The phantom smell of smoke would wake me every night for weeks.
Even once we were well past the fire, I kept driving, resolute. I did not look back over my shoulder, but every so often a flash of terrible saffron gleamed at me from the rearview mirror. I tried not to think about the quilt Mom had made me, still crumpled on the floor near my unmade bed. The silky manes of the Dickinson’s horses tossing in the sunlight, when I had still been a child. The forest where I had run barefoot and wild, learned to shoot arrows, carved my initials into an aspen near the driveway with the tip of my pocket knife.
We rumbled through the forest, down the granite cliffs of Deer Canyon, up and over the next hill where the road curved again through a clearing. When I had put some distance between us and the fire front, Dad thumped the dash with his palm. “Pull over for a second. Tarp’s loose in the back.” Sure enough, in my side mirror, the soft flapping of a nylon wing.
I steered the Chevy to a halt.
“Put it in park,” Dad reminded me, although I had already clunked the shifter into P. He kneaded his leg as I hopped down from the driver’s seat. The cool night air hit me in a rush, fresh as running water. I breathed deeply.
I had a view of the foothills behind us. The sky was a deep cobalt, darkening, the mountains a black silhouette. Stars glimmered above like shattered glass. Peach smoke churned above the ridge. The fire had consumed my childhood, just like it had consumed the Douglas firs and the squirrels, the speckled fawns and the bluebells, every other gentle thing I couldn’t let myself dwell on. I could still see throbbing flames, which from a distance, looked like a handful of strewn embers on the hills. The coal-dark heavens glittered above, the scorched earth glittered below.
I re-tied the tarp, this time with a proper bowline instead of a hasty square knot. Back in the truck, Dad looked drowsy enough to fall asleep, and when he leaned his head against the window and fluttered his eyelids shut, I let him. It was miles of dirt road, still, winding and rugged terrain, until we would reach the city. But I could get us there. I knew the way.
Molly Seeling is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in rural Colorado. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Landing Zone Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Unfortunately, Literary Magazine.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson
One thought on “Wild Man”
What a gripping story, and so richly told. I could feel the heat. I was reminded that kids think they know everything, and in some ways they actually do. We should listen to them.