The last Sunday in October, we awoke to the smell of smoke and an ochre sky. Jack dozed. I followed Johnny and Ben downstairs. “Can I play Bionicle website?” Johnny asked. His thick chestnut hair stood straight up like a weather front. His eyes were still puffy with sleep.
“Not before Mass,” I answered.
“N-N-N-N-N-O-O-O-O- O-O-O,” Johnny moaned. “When are we going to Mass?”
“In a couple hours.”
“I can’t wait that long.”
I left Johnny to his moaning on the living room floor and stepped out the front door into the cool morning air. The acrid aroma of brush-fire smoke burned my nose. Tiny ash flakes fluttered from the sky. I knew a fire had been burning inside Camp Pendleton for a good part of the week. This seemed closer. I picked up the Sunday paper and headed back inside. Johnny and Ben had disappeared upstairs to play school with Angela and Lucy, who were now awake. I flicked on the TV.
When Jack came downstairs 20 minutes later, I told him, “There are two new fires. One in Ramona and one in Valley Center. The Ramona fire has already burned about 10,000 acres. The Valley Center one is about 1000.”
Jack sat down beside me, and we watched walls of flame lick up chaparral-covered hillsides. “I don’t suppose Rebecca will have her game today,” Jack said. Rebecca’s softball team had been planning to play a double-header in Valley Center Sunday afternoon.
The phone rang. Some dear friends who live in Valley Center were on the line. “Don’t bother coming up here,” Monica said. “The fire’s burning pretty close to the softball field. And they’ve got Valley Center Road and Cole Grade Road shut down. Even if you could get up here, you wouldn’t want to. The air is so thick with smoke.”
“Are you guys okay?”
“I think so. We can see the fire from our front window. I just watched a house go up like a torch. But they haven’t evacuated us yet.”
We talked a while longer. “Be careful,” I told Monica before we hung up. “We’ll sure pray for you guys to be safe.”
We went to Mass. I worried about the fires. I prayed for all our friends who live in Valley Center. By the time we got home around 10:30, the Valley Center fire had grown to 2000 acres. The Ramona fire had burned nearly to Scripps Ranch. “Jack,” I called from the family room into the garage, where Jack was unbuckling Ben from his seat belt. “The Ramona fire is moving into Poway.”
“You’re kidding,” Jack said. We watched the helicopter shots of the fire line cresting the 67.
“Is the fire close to us?” Rebecca asked.
“No,” I said.
“Are the V’s all right?” Angela asked.
“They were when I talked to them on the phone before church.”
“What are we going to do that’s fun today?” Lucy chimed in.
Stay close to home,” I said.
“That’s no fun,” Lucy complained.
“I have some work to do,” Jack told the kids. “Later this afternoon, we’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese.”
Jack left the house and ran some errands in Escondido. I watched TV. The girls went upstairs and played beauty parlor. Johnny and Ben dumped their Rescue Heroes out of the crate and zoomed them around the family room. “This is Billy Blazes,” Ben said in the deep, important voice he uses for make-believe games. “Let’s get the fire.”
“Okay, Billy,” Johnny answered. He put Rocky Canyon into the Rescue Heroes airplane. “Let’s move out.”
Johnny flew the plane in front of the TV.
“Johnny,” I fussed. “Could you please get out of the way. I’m trying to see this.”
“I’m Billy Blazes,” Ben shouted into my ear.
“That’s great, Ben,” I answered.
“NO. I’m Billy Blazes,” Ben corrected me.
“Okay, Billy,” I corrected myself. “Good work.”
“What can we have for lunch?” Angela hollered from upstairs.
I ignored her.
“WHAT CAN WE HAVE FOR LUNCH?” she hollered again.
I got up off the couch and stomped into the living room. I called up the stairs, “If you have something to ask me, come to where I am. Don’t you dare holler through the house at me.”
Angela rolled her eyes and shuffled down the stairs. “What can we have for lunch?” she asked. “I’ll make some sandwiches in a little bit,” I told her.
“But I’m hungry now.”
“Too bad. I’m trying to watch the news coverage about the fire. It’s really close to Hope’s house.”
“Really?” Angela’s eyes got big. She ran back upstairs. “The fire’s really close to Hope’s house,” she told Rebecca and Lucy. Hope is the daughter of some friends who live in Scripps Ranch. I had watched the TV reporters stand in front of homes burning a block from Hope’s house.
When Jack got home, he came into the family room. “As soon as you get into Escondido and look south, it looks like Armageddon,” he said. “And there are flames coming down from Valley Center toward Escondido.”
I made lunch. Jack finished his work. The kids played. I watched TV. When Jack announced, “Time to go to Chuck E. Cheese,” the kids all cheered.
“I’m going to stay home,” I told him. Jack and the kids drove away. The evening darkened. I sat in the quiet house and watched the world burn.