THE HUBER-ROTHSCHILDS LIVED at 1206 Lupine Lane in Owl Creek, California. It was a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house with hardwood floors and a backyard shaded by trees. The house’s furnishings included a piano, a dark-wood bookcase filled with books, and framed photos of the children at different ages. Its dominant colors were rich: red, green and gold.
Though recently married, Jim Huber and Katie Rothschild had not hyphenated, nor in any way changed, their names. Between them they had three children, and the young Huber-Rothschilds had not wanted their noses rubbed in the fact that their divorced parents were marrying new people. So the Hubers (Jim, his ex-wife, and their daughter) remained the Hubers, and the Rothschilds (Katie, Wally, and their two kids) remained the Rothschilds. Katie was married to Jim Huber, but she was not Mrs. Huber. Well, whatever.
The children lived at 1206 Lupine Lane on a rotating basis. Tess Huber, age sixteen, had the front bedroom on a week-on, week-off schedule. Winston and Hannah Rothschild, eleven and nine, shared the middle bedroom except when they slept at Wally’s. It was a challenge to plan meals due to the household’s being in constant flux, but the Huber-Rothschilds tried to have dinner at the table, setting out placemats with a French design so as to inspire the family to better manners.
The Huber-Rothschilds were a bit of an odd family. Since their marriage, Katie and Jim had made the startling choice—out of left field, as it were—to become Roman Catholic. Catholicism was their way of coping with life in California: a way to be in California but not of it. It seemed to them a secret door, a wormhole, an escape hatch hiding in plain sight, though no one in their daily lives had any use for such a thing. Soon after their civil wedding, they had submitted paperwork to have their first, secular marriages annulled, and one year later—almost secretly, without fanfare—were married in a five-minute ceremony in the church, an event their former spouses regarded as harmless lunacy.
Other than that, the household functioned along the usual lines in Owl Creek: a hub of constant child-related activity. Though Jim and Katie spoke wistfully of, one day, having a household shrine, there was no time to make a shrine and no good place to stick a shrine, and all three kids would have protested a shrine and been embarrassed by it. So the shrine was off for now, replaced—both physically and metaphysically—with piles of coats and backpacks and animatronic Yodas and loose pages of homework. Katie commuted to her job, and Jim commuted in the opposite direction, and Wally Rothschild and Allison Huber also commuted to their jobs, so that the house on Lupine Lane sat at the center of a web: a web of busy parents trying to keep their kids in Owl Creek. It was all so much work, this life in California, that Katie often had the physical sensation of her vital time and energy being misspent, being sapped, just to keep the operation running.
In the summer of 2018, Katie was trying to detach from worldly things—specifically, from her house. They would live at 1206 Lupine Lane some more months, with assists from the credit card for holidays and vacations. And then they would pack up and leave.
Because the thing was, they were renters.
When Katie met Jim, he was holed up in a tiny apartment whose fridge contained one bottle of ketchup and a carefully-resealed package of sliced ham. Tess’s drawings covered the walls, and when she stayed with him, she got the bedroom, Jim the pull-out couch. On the weekends he folded Tess’s laundry, whistling, and rode his bike.
“He’s like Gandhi in there,” Katie told people, married people, who responded with thin smiles. The awful lives of single parents made them recoil.
Katie herself had spent five years in an 800-square foot apartment with her kids—an apartment, crucially, two blocks from Owl Creek Elementary, a top-rated public school.
When Jim and Katie got engaged, they surveyed their resources. Jim (a corporate middle manager) was doing fine on paper, and Katie (a legal editor) was no slouch herself, and they could almost, but not quite, purchase a modest home in Owl Creek. They rented a family-sized house and settled in to get used to being married. Two years later, they had sunk a small fortune into 1206 Lupine Lane with nothing to show for it. It was time to get serious and make a move.
Meanwhile, home prices in Owl Creek, as in the rest of California, had risen sharply. Local real estate value had climbed at 12 percent per year, putting the median sale price at $750,000. With the stunned resignation of a sailor whose ship has been torpedoed—knee-deep in water, watching the ocean pour through a ragged hole in the hull—Katie began reading the Owl Creek real estate listings.
“I’m hoping there’s something wrong with this house,” said Jim as they drove to a property in July. “In the photos, it looks really nice. But I hope there’s a major character defect.”
“Yeah,” said Katie.
“Like when you meet someone,” said Jim, a seasoned online dater before meeting Katie, “and physically, you’re like ‘Wow.’ But then you get to know them over a few months and discover there are certain problems—”
“Like they’re addicted to gambling,” Katie added fancifully.
“And then you realize it’s not going to work. So I’m hoping this house is like that.”
“Because we can’t afford it.”
Listed at $599,000, 403 Soleil Place was a peach-colored bungalow on a leafy cul-de-sac. At 1,280 square feet, it had a skylight, a galley kitchen with silver appliances, and three tiny bedrooms with podgy stone Buddhas here and there. Katie had studied the photos online, trying to imagine the Huber-Rothschilds crashing around this pristine, vaguely “spiritual” setting, and failing.
The listing agent had forgotten about the open house or ghosted. Eight or nine people milled around the driveway, waiting. After fifteen minutes, a young real estate agent showed up with her client and opened the door with a lockbox key. Katie and Jim and the whole crowd followed her in. Slouching through the small rooms in sunglasses, the client—a college-age girl with a long blonde ponytail—seemed unimpressed.
“We have fourteen listings today,” remarked the agent, whose eyes were, or had been made up to appear, unnaturally wide and alert. “She’s only in town for two days. We’re looking at condos, townhouses, everything from the four hundreds through the six hundreds. We’re just trying to get a feel for what she likes. Fourteen listings today!”
“That’s a long day,” said Katie sympathetically.
“Things are going so fast this summer, it’s unbelievable,” the agent said with some alarm. “Everything is literally flying off the shelf.” Her corneas were very white, and she seemed tense in her tall, precarious shoes. It was possible that, to get through the weekends, she relied heavily on Adderall or Red Bull.
“Good luck,” said Jim as they were leaving, squeezing through the bungalow’s narrow foyer past a mandala print.
Long ago, faced with the need to monetize a mind that enjoyed fine distinctions, Katie Rothschild had gone into law. After a brief stint at a firm, she’d gone to work for a legal publisher called CaliBar: a name suggestive of ‘high caliber’ but also (Katie felt) of ‘Caliban,’ the servile man-beast who, having been taught to speak, could only curse.
It was a pleasant place to work, located in downtown Sacramento and staffed with suburban parents. The managing editor, through some obscure sixth sense, had filled almost every position with firstborn children and, as a result, the office could be run with the lightest of hands. All of them had internalized authority and supervised themselves to an exacting degree. It was easy to make eldest children feel guilty: one disappointed look, and they would scramble to correct the error. They were used to doing things at levels of excellence could never be matched, only resented. This was the eldest child’s comfort zone, the equilibrium he worked hard to maintain. Only children were all right, in a pinch. Middle and youngest—especially youngest—children were risky, with no discernible standards.
Katie was comfortable at work, where she was viewed as a long-hauler and known quantity. She had everything well in hand—everything but her offstage life—and work was one place she was no worse off than anybody else.
She was an eldest child and unsinkable.
“Well, we could always move to Shackford,” Katie said one Sunday morning, as they drove to church.
Shackford was a small farming town just up the road from Owl Creek. It was originally named for the shacks thrown up for migrant field workers. Driving distance to Owl Creek High School (which offered classes in Japanese, Persian, Advanced Coding, and something simply called “Premed”) was 16.7 miles, and you could get a house in Shackford for around $400K. Nobody in Owl Creek wanted to move to Shackford, but they moved to Shackford anyway: It was simple math.
“Shackford?” yelped Hannah in the backseat. “Shackford sucks.”
“It doesn’t ‘suck,’ Hannah,” said Katie. “There are a lot of nice people there.”
“It’s ugly. Seriously, Mom, it’s horrible. I went there once with Dad.”
“There is good Shackford,” Jim opined judiciously, “and not-so-good Shackford. If we moved there, we’d live in good Shackford. Don’t worry.”
“But I like Owl Creek!”
“We all like Owl Creek,” said Katie. “But have you heard the saying, ‘Cut your coat according to your cloth’? That means you can’t just cut out any coat you want—”
“But I love everything about this town!” wailed Hannah. “Shackford is gross, and I won’t move there.”
Katie began to think of Shackford in terms of Hannah’s spiritual growth. What kind of child was she raising here in Owl Creek?
“You have to trust us,” she said crisply. “If we decide to go that route, it will be fine.”
Tess pulled a hot pink earbud out of one ear and said: “Wait, what?”
“We’re thinking of moving to Shackford!” Jim said brightly.
“Uh . . . okay. Like, when?”
“Maybe next year.”
“Seriously, Dad? Can’t you just wait two more years till I graduate?”
“Ideally, yes,” said Jim. “But we need to keep all our options open.”
“How would I even get to school on your weeks?”
“Maybe Katie could drive you with the kids.” Katie tried to look neat and pleasant, the sort of person one would want to share a car with instead of riding one’s own bike.
“I guess,” said Tess glumly. And then, ominously: “I’ll discuss it with Mom.”
They drove past flat, sun-washed fields: almonds, tomatoes, rice. Botanically, California was one of the best places on earth. A bountiful Eden split by a catastrophic fault line, most grievous fault. When had California last been innocent? Katie wondered. Before the dot-commers, before the yuppies, before the hippies, before the forty-niners, before the Spanish missionaries, before the Russian explorers, before the Miwok, the Chumash, the Kumeyaay. A very long time ago.
“What about you?” she now said, craning around to peer at Winston. “How would you feel if we moved to Shackford?”
“That would be fine,” he mumbled, earning a withering look from Hannah.
“If we can’t get a house in Owl Creek,” reasoned Winston, one finger holding his place in The Ruins of Gorlan as he looked up, “and we can get one in Shackford? Sure.”
“It’ll mean more driving,” warned Katie.
“That’s okay. I’ll just read,” said Winston.
With his sliding-down glasses and faint milk mustache, he suddenly struck Katie as virtuous and wise. Winston didn’t care what kind of house they had, or where they lived, or anything but the Jedi code of honor and fantasy novels. Why couldn’t they all be more like Winston?
The Catholic church in Owl Creek was a boxy structure with a 1970s vibe Katie found irritating. Late to the party, she did not have time to waste in a Catholic church that did not look and feel like a Catholic church.
So they attended church in Filmore, California: a little nothing town off the freeway.
The Filmore church was stereotypically Catholic. Its statues and candlesticks seemed summoned forth out of some Catholic supply catalogue, some papist mega-warehouse deep in the Midwest. Behind the altar, the chancel was painted sky-blue with white clouds. On the right, a statue of Mary crushing a snake with her bare foot. On the left, a statue of Joseph with the baby, holding her purse as it were. The Stations of the Cross—scourging, three falls, and crucifixion—were depicted in bas-relief between the windows, which were filled with stained-glass images of doves and hearts.
In the center of it all, Christ patiently hung on his cross. Like a Vegas lounge singer, he’d be here all week. And all the next week. Christ would hang out here—literally—for the next fifty or hundred years. His gaze was down and to the side: not at the laity, not at the priest. In some vestigial shred of privacy, the naked Christ seemed to be thinking his own thoughts.
Katie sank into this scenery as in a soothing bath. The imperfections of the Catholic world were there for all to see. It was all ersatz, second-rate, gestures toward an inexpressible and distant beauty. Most people in the pews were wrinkled, out of shape, and badly dressed, stirring strange feelings in Katie of hope and joy. It was all right here to go gray; it was all right here to be overweight. It was all right to be non-white, uneducated, lower middle class. It was all right to drive a truck, it was all right not to have one’s papers in order. Christ didn’t judge you for these traits; he didn’t care, frankly. Nobody cared. It was a different system, a different machine. No one was talking about restaurants or their amazing two weeks in Spain. No one’s kid was going to Stanford on a swimming scholarship. No one was posting the Eiffel Tower on Facebook. It was church, and everyone was vaguely sorry for all the lousy stuff they’d done that week. They were a sorry lot, trying half-heartedly to be just slightly better.
Katie had learned three words in church which she wished she’d known all her life. All Katie had seen in four decades could be addressed by these three words, which she now said every Sunday at her top level of sincerity and with deep feeling: Lord have mercy.
The Huber-Rothschilds had never set foot in Fresno, California. But their dog had been born in Fresno, neglected in Fresno, and rescued from Fresno, so that had seemed like a good name for him. An oatmeal-colored terrier mix of uncertain age, Fresno was amusing and undemanding. Fresno was a good boy. Hannah, especially, loved Fresno, whom she somberly referred to as her ‘son.’ Occasionally it came to light, through some offhand remark of Hannah’s, that she preferred Fresno to everyone in the entire family.
One summer afternoon, walking Fresno around the neighborhood surrounding Lupine Lane, Katie sensed a presence behind them. It was a young, shorts-wearing mailman with olive skin, blue eyes, and curly brown hair. He was an objectively adorable person of blurred ethnic features, like someone dreamed up in Pixar’s studio, an hour’s drive to the south.
The mailman was smiling at Fresno.
“She’s such a cute little dog,” he said, as they advanced in the same direction.
“Thanks,” said Katie. “He’s happy to be on a walk.”
“Is that her real color? On her ears?”
“Those light brown patches?” asked Katie, puzzled. “Yes, he came like that.”
“Because I just saw on YouTube where they took a dog like that and dyed her ears pink! But those are her real ears, huh?”
Katie wasn’t sure if the mailman was making a point about the arbitrariness of gender pronouns, hadn’t been listening, was stoned, or all three.
“Those are his real ears,” she confirmed, feeling old all of a sudden.
You can’t always get what you want.
Katie was humming along to the Rolling Stones as played in the next room by Hannah, who at Wally’s house had developed a taste for classic rock.
But if you try sometimes . . .
Katie was not willing to concede the point, not yet. Katie could very well get what she wanted, most of the time. And what she wanted was a 3BR, 2BA house with hardwood floors, a fenced backyard, and proximity to schools, work, and shopping. Katie belonged in Owl Creek in such a house, which did not seem too much to ask. Almost every couple she knew had bought their house a decade ago—roughly the same time she and Wally, owning nothing, got divorced. Now she was remarried but years behind in property acquisition, only a loser-ish blue hatchback to her name.
The previous day, she’d moodily disparaged Shackford—a dusty town whose most prominent feature was a tomato processing plant—in a private marital chat in the backyard.
“Moving to Shackford would be a concession of sorts,” Jim had agreed, puttering around with the hose.
“Defeat,” Katie had supplied, lounging on a bench the landlord had provided. “A concession of defeat.” She pressed her lips together as if swallowing a bitter pill. She did not care to forfeit her kids’ hometown to all these nuclear families, smugly intact, spinning the high-priced hamster wheels of their lives.
Did she have any marketable skills, she wondered? Besides the legal ones? Surely she did. Could they perhaps invent a . . . sort of . . . ?
“Is there such a thing as a portable chair with a built-in heater?”
“You know, like for football games on cold nights? With a cup holder, and a—“
“No reason. . . . Do we have any cake left?”
“I think so.”
Katie had sighed, stood up, and gone back inside, back to square one.
Now Hannah turned up the volume on “Sympathy for the Devil,” trying to get a rise out of her, but Katie only said, blandly and truthfully, “That’s a good song.”
She finished wiping down the counter and squeezed out the sponge, glancing half-ruefully at the red geraniums out the kitchen window. Her feelings about this house were complex, as she liked it very much but could not afford— literally not afford—to care about it. They were currently in the house, but it was going, going, gone.
Katie threw her mind forward into the future like a ball. What did she see? The future’s shape was maddeningly indistinct.
You can’t always . . .
There must be a way for her to get what she wanted.
IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 2018, California burned. Sparked by a blown-out tire that ignited the dry grass along the highway on July 23, the Carr Fire jumped the Sacramento River three days later. Spread by high winds, in the next weeks it spread to 229,000 acres, prompting 40,000 evacuations before the last flames were extinguished August 30. The Mendocino Complex Fire, a conflagration of smaller fires, also started in July. It burned 459,000 acres before being fully contained on September 18.
During these weeks, the skies above Sacramento were a weird orange above a smoky haze enveloping the city. The air quality in Owl Creek turned foul. All over town, children were yanked from swimming pools and summer camps as a film of ash dusted the town’s windows and cars. The evening smelled like twice-burned garbage.
“God, the air’s terrible,” Katie told Jim over the phone, home after a surreal commute through the parched hellscape surrounding the freeway.
By early August, summer was over: packed up and departed without a word. Summer was gone, and they were now in an unnamed new season with its own weather, its distinct and somehow familiar sense of dread. Ash rained down on them from the sky, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Every Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. And every Thursday was Ash Thursday, and so on.
“The rent’s gone up again,” Jim said. It was the first week of September. He stood in the bedroom doorway, critically eyeing his phone.
“Oh?” Katie was still in bed, looking at her phone. She felt a mild tug of regret: having to pull away from it and face reality.
“Twenty-nine seventy-five,” said Jim. “It’s gone up another one-fifty.”
“Oh right,” said Katie. “The new lease.” They’d signed a lease renewal back in February, a month when everyone was clinically depressed and could not tolerate the idea of moving. September, when the new lease kicked in, had seemed a long way off.
“Plus . . .” Jim went on, throwing out numbers for water, sewer, and garbage. Katie longed miserably to get back to her phone but had to listen. “For a grand total,” said Jim, “of three thousand, three hundred dollars a month.”
These words landed with a nauseating thud.
“Wow,” Katie said after a moment. “That’s a lot to pay in rent.”
“We can’t renew the lease next year. They’re nickel and diming us to death.”
“We have to stay firm.”
“Yes. I know.”
“We’ll find something.”
“I know we will,” said Katie bravely.
What could she do? California was a like a third person in the marriage. Katie had moved out here for law school, Jim and his ex-wife for a job, but in 2018 it required too much work, cost too much, made it too difficult to get from A to B. Its presence lived inside the house on Lupine Lane: in Jim’s weary appearance at the door after a long, snarled commute; in Katie’s slamming around the house after her Sacramento workday, griping about messes and homework. But Katie and Jim were stuck here, where their children’s other parents lived, and couldn’t leave the state anytime soon.
Making the best of it post-divorce, Katie had raised the kids in a pleasant Nor-Cal town, a Mayberry at Bay Area prices. Winston and Hannah had never known any environment but Owl Creek, where children were lavished with violin lessons, soccer leagues, and STEM camps. They likely expected Owl Creek college years, Owl Creek jobs, Owl Creek friends, hobbies, and travels, and Owl Creek deaths—perhaps setting aside their fro-yo spoons with a bird singing, somewhere.
But Katie knew the wider world would be a different kind of creek; much of it, in fact, would be shit creek. By 2018, she was keenly aware of raising her children in a place that pretended—that seemed —to like them. But it would not always like them. When they grew up, Katie well knew, only money would talk in Owl Creek.
In October, Katie bought Jim a framed print—a vintage religious allegory—for his birthday, but he did not seem all that taken with it.
“Where should we hang it?” she asked eagerly.
“Anywhere but the bedroom,” Jim said. “No death in the bedroom.” His piety apparently had limits.
It had never occurred to Katie that one could look forward to dying—not in a way that would require lashings of Lexapro, Abilify or whatever else—but in a clear-eyed way that made daily life better.
Now, walking down the hall, Katie was cheered by a vision of death: the soul, released at last, slipping upward with a faint smile on its lips. Up, up, and away, through the clouds and into the warm embrace of God, Mary, Jesus, and the saints. The Holy Spirit took the form of a white bird, equal to God and Jesus but also a kind of family pet, rounding out the tableau. At the moment of the soul’s ascension, two red-faced demons crouched in defeat under the bed like cartoon villains.
This was the charming deathbed scene Katie hoped to arrange for herself one day. It would require a priest on call, mourners kneeling at her feet, and a four-poster bed with white linens, all of which struck Katie as doable. The gnawing status anxiety of life in California was soothed by this new paradigm, this wholly different set of standards she’d discovered: being Catholic. Perhaps death would be her trump card, and she would go out like the winner in the picture, in a blaze of glory.
Jim, meanwhile, was having his own problems, at work. As played out in an office park an hour’s drive from Owl Creek, the multinational corporation for which Jim worked took an increasingly dim view of California. Why, again, did they have offices there? It was a proven fact that the same work got done, easier and cheaper, by for instance the Utah team: Utah was Mexico compared to California. South Carolina was also excellent. Other states’ teams were kicking butt at half the cost. More and more, the California team was seen as a money-suck, a bramble of potential liability, and more trouble than it was worth. Main corporate functions were being moved out of California, such that every time Jim lost a member of the fifteen-person team he managed (due to chronic absenteeism, say, or an unkickable addiction to street drugs), the higher-ups did not even bother to backfill the position.
He was always trying to make the case to keep more jobs in California—these were good people!—while at the same time coping with endless problems with the team itself, which had to meet excruciatingly precise goals on a quarterly basis. Jim was the point person, the fall guy, the whatever-you-called-it in corporate America: Team Leader.
Since returning to the Catholic faith in which he’d been baptized as an infant, Jim had sought refuge from the stress of his job in prayer. Walking a deserted floor of the building one day on his mandatory one-hour lunch break, he’d found a secret door and pressed it open like Alice in Wonderland. It led to an abandoned suite of showers bathed in the dusty white sunlight of a high window. Sensing an opportunity, he pulled his rosary beads out of his pocket, and that was how it all began.
Kneeling on the cold tile, Jim asked forgiveness for himself, a sinner.
“Cease your foul ways, Mom,” said Win, who was always reading about dragons and wizards.
“You cease your foul ways,” Katie replied pertly, folding a rag.
That evening, Jim had a voicemail from an unknown number. They were lying in bed, Katie leaning on his shoulder, and after a moment’s hesitation he put the phone on speaker and pushed play.
A robotic male voice said forcefully: “Attention. If you are receiving this call, our records show a serious problem with your account. You are required to call the following number and submit the last four digits of your Social Security number.”
In a low monotone full of barely-concealed menace, it rapped out a ten-digit number.
“It is extremely urgent that you call this number right away. Failure to do so will result in your immediate arrest.”
The voice rung off. Jim blandly pressed delete.
“That was the most terrifying voicemail I’ve ever heard,” said Katie.
“It’s a scam,” Jim said nonchalantly.
“You seem so calm! Do you get messages like that all the time? Are you in some kind of database?”
“No. That’s the first time it’s ever happened.”
“If I got a voicemail like that, I’d have a panic attack,” said Katie.
“It’s just a scam,” Jim repeated, like someone who was used to scams.
ONE NIGHT IN EARLY November, a fire started in the small town of Paradise in the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento. Three days later, the fire had spread to 125,000 acres, the deadliest fire in state history. For weeks the Camp Fire was national news, along with a couple other big fires. Malibu, for example, was on fire, a monstrous thundercloud of smoke rising over the freeway as people fled in their cars along Highway 1.
Above the ash-gray haze of Lupine Lane, the sun was a red ball in the sky. It was not poetically or metaphorically red, nor a rose-tinted sunset. It was a cartoon red, a color the sun was not supposed to be. The sky over Owl Creek resembled the flag of Japan.
Outside the eighth-floor windows of Katie’s office building, some ghost or memory of Sacramento was visible through a low-hanging fug of smoke. The capital of California had gone all Hollywood sci-fi and transformed into an urban dystopia, a Blade Runner. This was the future they’d been warned about, and it had come on fast. Suddenly respirator masks were out in force, people wrapped scarves around their mouths to walk a block. Officials cancelled college classes and kept the elementary kids indoors. Walking to the bank or the library now sounded like a bad idea, not “worth it.” There were particles of burnt scrub brush in the air, but also burnt buildings, burnt cars, burnt things you didn’t want to think about. The new coffee shop across from the downtown cathedral was called Oblivion, and that was what the city looked like now: not Sacramento, but Oblivio.
On his custodial weekend, Wally outfitted the kids with respirator masks. Dropping off lunch boxes at school as part of a complicated arrangement, Katie spied Winston hanging his backpack on a hook and said: “Nice mask.”
It grieved her to see that he was not wearing his new coat, or any coat, but an old gray fleece whose sleeves barely reached his wrists. Over the past weeks, her anxieties had crystallized around Winston’s cavalier attitude about his coat. He was an 11-year-old boy and didn’t want to wear a coat, he wasn’t cold. Well, he should wear it anyway! Some principle was at stake, Katie felt, or maybe just her own need to see him protected.
It pierced her heart to see her child in a white mask in his own schoolyard, acting if nothing was wrong.
Over the next days, the news took several turns for the surreal: California now had the worst air quality in the world; stepping outside was like smoking eleven cigarettes. Each morning, Katie read the news and had a little cry. She cried over the bus driver who rescued twenty-two children stranded at school in Paradise, ripping his own shirt into rags and making them breathe through the wet scraps as he drove them through the fire, to safety. She cried about the badly-burned dog found guarding the charred remains of the family home. Stonily, she scrolled through aerial views of burned acreage, all cried out, and with a single deep sniff noted the day’s air quality rating.
Feeling helpless and stunned, like all Californians, Katie and Jim donated to the fire’s survivors with one click. Jim took out his phone, and together they surfed to a drop-down menu and clicked on a number with resolve and fellow feeling. Jim’s thumb hovered over the screen for a long moment, and then it was done, and they put the phone away. Lord have mercy.
Meanwhile, nature—the local suburban version—carried on. On Lupine Lane, under a smoke-filled sky, a bee explored the center of a blowsy yellow autumn rose. Cats dozed on windowsills, opening their sleepy eyes to observe Fresno—plodding along, lifting a furry leg—taking his measure, and closing them again. The natural world, whose thoughts were not their thoughts, whose ways were not their ways.
In downtown Owl Creek, a brass band played outside a cannabis store, celebrating its grand opening. Katie, maskless and running errands—still flying the flag of the ordinary world—passed groups of people lining the path to the door. It was mostly young people in masks and a few old people in masks. One group had three grubby young children in a shopping cart; a fair-haired toddler with a smudged face gaped at Katie as she passed. A rangy man with a snow-white beard looked distinguished, Gandalfian, and also like he had been waiting for this day for a long time. He rose with dignity from a low bench and mingled with the college students in their puffy coats and masks.
Katie was of a different set: neither old nor young. She had a big holiday dinner to prepare and was in need of a second rimmed baking sheet. She didn’t need THC to slow her down or make her feel better; she was in midlife and felt as good as she was going to feel, as she deserved to feel. Nobody in a mask looked well. In fact, they looked feeble and dazed: frightened young people lining up for something to take the edge off.
Meanwhile, there were brussel sprouts to roast and potatoes to mash . . .
Occasionally, in the evenings, Katie prayed the rosary with Jim, a circuit-breaker for the dark moods—and ensuing foul ways—of perimenopause. The rosary was like two glasses of red wine; it turned her thoughts off, calmed her down. More often than not, after the final Hail Mary, she tucked the kids in as serenely as Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan.
The day before Thanksgiving, a miracle occurred: It started raining. For long, dry weeks, the Paradise Fire had blazed on, appalling everyone. Exhausted firefighters could not subdue it in this weather. Like primitives, Californians looked searchingly upward every day, gazing with hope and dread into the featureless gray sky.
Katie was whisking thick brown gravy on the stove when the rain started. She turned down the heat, opened the back door, and took a deep, exhilarating breath: a heavenly reprieve. Water was literally falling from the clouds!
By the next afternoon, the fire was ninety percent contained.
A motley potluck crew converged around two tables Jim had shoved together and Katie had prettified with an ivory cloth: Tess’s mother Allison (who had never remarried), Wally (between girlfriends), Tess’s friend Becca (whose parents were going through a nasty divorce), and Mr. Ridley, an elderly widower on Lupine Lane.
Katie was glad to host Wally for Thanksgiving, his rumpled old face like a stuffed animal from the distant past. Even divorced, she and Wally could show the kids that they were still yoked in alliance, even friendship, for their sake: Their parents were screwups who had not known what marriage was and could not stay married, but they were still their parents.
For similar reasons, she was fine inviting Allison as well. Katie felt sorry for barging into Tess’s post-divorce family, forever disbanding the Huber Christmas, the Huber Thanksgiving. She now attended Tess’s school events with Jim, while Allison sat alone, legs crossed, jiggling a spiky shoe. Allison had done well by Tess, sixteen, an Owl Creeker through and through. Whatever the task—French II, AP Chemistry, competitive tennis, or coping with her dad’s new wife and two new boisterous stepchildren—Tess quickly resigned herself to it and got the job done, no complaining.
Plates full, they haltingly attempted to converse over the meal.
“Donald Trump—” one of the children yapped.
“Nope! No politics,” said Katie.
“The migrant caravan—” Mr. Ripley said in a wobbly voice.
“Please. No politics,” said Jim, raising a palm.
“Well, but if you look at climate change—” Wally began, waving his fork.
“No politics, Dad!”
“My Sexuality and Capitalism teacher says—”
“That’s a high school class?”
“It’s an elective. Anyway, he says—”
“No politics at dinner. Any other time, I’d love to discuss it, sweetie.”
“Let’s not go there.”
“I heard some nincompoop on the news—”
“No politics, remember?”
“The Supreme Court—”
“Oh, no. A thousand times no.”
“Becca, it’s great that you could join us. But no politics.”
“Mom, did you know my friend is vegan? She doesn’t eat turkey because she says—”
“No politics, Hannah!” shrieked Katie.
There followed a long careful silence. Finally, Katie cleared her throat. “Jim and I have been watching a lot of period dramas,” she said in a tentative voice. This trial balloon floated down the length of the table.
Wally, making a snap decision to play along out of some atavistic loyalty, said: “Oh?”
“Yes,” said Katie bravely. “We just binge-watch one after the other.” She hurried ahead, pushing aside the thought that she’d revealed too much. “Death Comes to Pemberly. The Woman in White. Poldark.” She looked around. Anyone? Poldark?
“I hear they’re making a movie of Downton Abbey,” Wally chipped in gamely.
“We loved Downton Abbey,” said Jim with real feeling.
“We watched Big Little Lies,” said Tess. “Me and Mom.” Big Little Lies—a miniseries about rich, gossipy moms in California—was not a period drama, but that was fine, Katie decided. This was no time to nitpick genres.
“It was so good, wasn’t it, Tess?” Allison brightened at the memory.
“Wait, is that the one with Shailene Woodley?” Becca was catching up.
“Yes!” Tess exclaimed.
“I love her,” Becca said.
“So do I,” Allison said.
“This gravy is wonderful,” emoted Mr. Ripley.
Two hours later, everyone packed off with leftovers, Katie counted the dinner a success. She stood at the sink, rinsing dishes in an elegiac mood. It was the last Thanksgiving on their street, which wasn’t really their street. But after three years, it felt like home.
Two days ago, as Katie unloaded the groceries from the car (celery, onions, white rolls, chicken stock), their neighbor Mr. Tanaka—a slender, youthful figure in his forties—rode by on his bicycle. In his white mask, he waved at her, and Katie waved back.
She would miss him.
Read Part 2 here.
An earlier version of this work was published in the online journal Sostenuto.
Thanks for reading Creative License ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I enjoyed this, Maya, life with fires that go on for weeks all under gaze of a deity that was "here all week" like a neverending Vegas act, filled with great lines including, "When had California last been innocent".