by Molly Montgomery
They say the fires started because of the Firemonger. Depending on which Internet forum you look at, the Firemonger is either a) some sort of fire spirit who, like a fever, is trying to burn out the sources of the world's imbalance (aka humans) b) a chemical weapon dumped in the atmosphere that whips up thunderstorms or c) a cult setting dead trees on fire in various parts of the state to make a profit on disaster relief.
None of these explanations are remotely correct. It's just climate change, severe drought, and extremely bad luck that has caused the entirety of California to suffocate in smoke for the past year and a half. Still, that doesn't stop me from scrolling through people's posts at four in the morning, reading their crazy theories.
I'm in my office so I don't wake up my husband, Doug. Mei Li nestles against me, her lips still wet from breastmilk. Lucky her. I can never get back to sleep after giving her breakfast, though every cell in my body screams from fatigue. I can't remember the last time I slept for more than four hours. My eyes itch, my back aches, and if I'm not careful the twinges of pain from my C-section scars will overwhelm me. I have to focus on something else other than the pain, so I hunch over the dim computer screen, whose glow leaves a ghostly trail on my pale skin. If I stare at the screen for long enough, I feel translucent, like I'm not really there.
I click on the post entitled FOREMONGER SPOTTED? which leads me to my a grainy video of a stand of burning trees. The flames licking the branches curl into what looks like a devilish smile. I snort. What amateurs. My fourteen-year-old niece armed with nothing but a smartphone and a box of matches could create a more convincing video. Not that anyone would ever give matches to children these days. They're illegal, as are gas lighters. Even if you have lighter still, there's no way to buy fluid to refill it. Now you can only use lighters in ventilated phone booths installed next to convenience stores. If you want to smoke a cigarette, you have to stand in there while the smoke unfurls around you, fogging up the windows. Then when you leave it sucks all of the air out of the box, creating a vacuum, so not a single spark or conder can remain. Doug helped program those boxes. I feel proud every time we pass by one of them and see some poor nicotine addict wasting his lungs. My husband made it possible to prevent fires while not infringing on people's freedom to kill themselves slowly. For that, I am grateful. His invention has opened up a life for us that I never even dreamed of as a kid.
In another post, a meticulous conspiracy theorist has plotted the origin of all wildfires in the past month onto a map. This is quite a feat since there have been more than a thousand, though it is January. The rain should have come by now, but it’s no surprise anymore that it refuses to fall. The person speculates that the ignition points have some sort of pattern to them, that they are all synchronized. He’s written out a bunch of equations— but they are complete nonsense. His theory is absurd, but I can’t blame him. After all, my own research is focused on solving this very problem— modeling fire risk in different areas, so that neighborhoods could be more prepared. That is, if they have the money for it.
In my last year before I left on maternity leave, I was creating a computer model to try to predict where the next wildfires would strike. I even won an award for my research, but since then more fires broke out and my model was overturned. Someone else, a researcher at Stanford, came up with a better model. I haven’t had time to look at his paper, I’ve been too busy taking care of Mei Li.
I want to get back to work as soon as possible, and it’s frustrating to not have a set return date. I was planning on telecommuting as soon as I settled into more of a routine with the baby, but that was before the university where I worked and where I stored all my samples burned to a crisp. No one died, thank God, but it will be a while before anyone in my department will be able to get back to their research. Meanwhile, the wildfires keep raging, and research at other universities is surging ahead, while I’m stuck here with my daughter, changing her diapers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mei Li, but I want to solve the wildfire situation once and for all.
Mei Li stirs beneath me. She licks her lips and her little pink tongue flicks like a lizard’s. I try to remember why I looked up the Firemonger in the first place. It was a dream I had, from which MeiLi’s cries had woken me. In the dream, I was walking through the forest, holding a can of gasoline. The only light came from the moon. I dug a moat around the roots of a redwood tree and filled it with the viscous liquid. It shined under the moon, lapping against the tree like dark ocean waves. Only when I lit the match did I see the color of the liquid. It was blood.
The door swings open, and I jerk up in my seat. I had almost fallen asleep. Mei Li starts to wail. Doug peeks in through the doorway.
“There are you are,” he says, flipping on the light switch. Mei Li continues to bawl, so he picks her up from my lap and bounces her. She settles down. It shouldn’t irk me so much that he can have that effect on her. But it does.
“The Firemonger?” he asks when he sees my screen. “Really Fei? You don’t really
believe in those conspiracy theories, do you?”
“They’re entertaining, that’s all.”
“Right,” he said, and now that Mei Li is calm, he hands her back to me. “Well, I’m off to work. I took a look at the forecast, and the air looks clearer today than it has been in weeks. You and Mei Li should get outside,catch a little sun.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Even if the air is better, is it really safe for her lungs?”
“Her lungs will get stronger from fighting the pollutants,” he said, winking at me.
I roll my eyes and give him a kiss on the cheek. I lean in and squeeze his hand. Doug doesn’t think about these things, but I do. Inside the fireproof walls of our gated community, we’re safe. But Doug has to travel to the city every day. I wish he could work from home, but he says it wouldn’t look right, since he’s vying for a promotion.
“I’ll see if I can get this afternoon off,” he says. “We could go to the beach.”
“It’s January,” I say.
“Yeah? So?” he says as he grabs his briefcase. “January’s the new July.”
The sky outside is almost blue, just a hint of gray tinges its hue, like we’re looking at the world through the finest wire mesh. The sea breeze has swept through, giving us a respite from the hot, dry heat. Dust swirls in the air, kicked up from the garbage trucks. It’s almost chilly outside, so I bundle up Mei Li in a blanket before placing her in the stroller. As I push Mei Li’s stroller out of the garage, I see the gardener tending to our front lawn. He hooks upour hose to the fifty gallon tank on his truck filled with fresh water. We pay extra for that, but it makes a difference. The plants stay perky and mostly green. Some people think it’s not worth the cost to water the plants, but I disagree. We need the plants to keep us cool, and to keep us cool, they have to be alive.
I wave at the gardener. Then I realize it’s not the man who usually comes. This man is much older. His scruffy gray beard grows in patches and his dark skin is mottled and sickly looking. As he heaves the hose, he grimaces under its weight.
“Hello,” I say. “Where’s Rubin?”
He puts the hose down and sighs. “My son,” he says. “Hospital. Third-degree burns.
Whole family, children, grandchildren. All burned.”
I should be shocked to hear these words, but I’m not. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of this happening, nor will it be the last. I don’t watch the news anymore because I’d rather not know just how bad it is out there. It makes me worry too much about Doug and the rest of my family, my five brothers and two sisters and their children, who are out there with no protection. With a pang, I think of how I haven’t called any of my siblings in a while, not even my older sister Ni Ling who I used to talk to every day. It’s hard because they don’t want to talk to someone who lives inside fireproof gates.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say. “Are they going to be all right?”
“Only the newborn didn’t make it.”
I clutch the handles of Mei Li’s stroller tighter. “I’m so sorry,” I say again.
I push the stroller down the street, trying to calm my unbidden thoughts. I hum a little ditty to Mei Li, who is half asleep, blinking silently at me from her cocoon of blankets. I suspect she’s developing slower than normal. She’s a quiet baby. Almost too quiet. The doctor told us not to worry, that some babies are more observers than reactors, and that Mei Li is busy absorbing the world. She might stay like this for a while and then leapfrog ahead, skipping over crawling and going straight to running, speaking full sentences instead of babble. Doug is laid back about parenting. He tells me not to worry, that he was a shy kid and look he’d turned out fine. But things are so much different now. Who knows what the world will look like when Mei Li is an adult? She will need to learn all the skills she can. I can protect her here, but she can’t live her whole life behind a wall.
Maybe the pollution in the air is affecting her, though we keep her inside most of the time. Just being outside will give her asthma, most likely. But could the smoke from all of these fires burning plastic and industrial building materials cause something worse? Autism? Early diabetes? Brain cancer? I’m not usually one to resort to hysteria. I believe in what the cold, hard data says about risk. But there are too many unknowns these days.
“Your Daddy is coming home from work early today, so we can all go to the beach together,” I tell her, remembering that the doctor said it helps if I talk her. “That sounds fun doesn’t it? Let’s just hope the water is safe. I checked the forecast this morning and they said the waves are clean enough today for swimming.”
Mei Li yawns, her little mouth stretching like rubber band.
“Swimming is just like going in the bath,” I tell her. “Well it’s much, much bigger than a bath. You go out into this place that has water as far as the eye can see. You get to wear your little swimsuit. The one that has monkeys on it? You’ll love it.”
As I push her down the smooth sidewalk, the sun warms both of us and I start to feel happy. Happier than I’ve felt in a long time. We’ll go to the beach this afternoon, and Mei Li will play in the sand. I’ll be able to lie down on the sand and take a good nap. This thought cheers me up the most.
Then I start to think of all the chores piling up for me to do when I get home. 1. Pump 2. Give Mei Li her daily dose of vitamins 3. Change her diaper 4. Pack the items for the beach 5. Pay the gardener with our bank app and give him a nice tip. Maybe add a little personalized condolence note at the end. The list never ends and I keep losing track of the items. I’m always forgetting something. Then I start to wonder if I turned off the burner after I made eggs this morning. This is a ridiculous fear. I’m pretty sure the burners turn off by themselves. Still I can’t stop picturing the burners’ flames leaping to the cookbooks on the counter, the fire spreading to the wooden cabinets. Should I turn back, to check if my house is in flames? My breath comes in wheezes. I can’t tell if it’s the air
or if it’s just me.
“Mommy needs to calm down,” I say to Mei Li, in between coughs. As I clutch my side, my scar starts to twinge again. “Our house is not going to burn down. Mommy is just being silly.”
I see a vision of the house burning in my mind’s eye. I imagine smoke pouring into the nursery, the smoke alarm ringing. It’s just in my head, but this vision makes me feel more alert than I’ve felt all day long. I think back to the gardener and his family. I wonder if he felt this way when his house went up in flames. Not excited exactly, not thrilled, but wired. Then I remember his newborn grandson died. I look down at Mei Li and feel guilty.
I hear a car puttering up the street. It’s a strange sound, since the neighborhood usually doesn’t allow cars that aren’t electric. Only visitors drive gas cars. I turn the stroller around and I see a beaten-up blue Volkswagen pulling up at the curb. I recognize it immediately, it’s my sister’s car. She rolls down the window.
“Fei!” she says. “We were just driving up to your place.”
My sister is three years older than me, but she had a daughter when she was in her early 20s, who is now in high school. Ni Ling has an exuberant personality that matches her large presence in a room. She was always one of the popular girls, despite being fat. I don’t mean that as an insult. Ni Ling embraces her size. In her youth, she was a plus-size model. Her daughter, Elsie, is built more like me. Skinny and flat-chested, with much paler skin than hermom. She slouches in the passenger seat, her eyes on her phone.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to visit?” I ask.
Then I noticed that the backseat of their car is piled high with duffel bags. They must have evacuated.
“We didn’t have any service on the drive,” Ni Ling said. I don’t believe that for a second. I think she was worried that if she had called, I would have turned her away.
“Please,” Ni Ling said, “It’s only for just a few days. Our house is away from the epicenter of the fire. It probably won’t burn this time. But we have nowhere else to go.”
“Of course,” I say. At that moment, Mei Li perks up a little bit and raises her finger at the car. I gasp. She’s pointing to it!
“Is that little Mei Li?” Ni Ling exclaims.
“Park my car in front of the garage and I’ll let you in.”
This is a good sign, I tell myself. Mei Li pointed to the car. Maybe it will be good to have Ni Ling around for a few days. God knows, I could use a break from being the only one taking care of the baby.
I turn the stroller around and almost run back home, fleeting energy in my heels.
“Did you see that car, Mei Li?” I ask. “That was your auntie and your cousin in the car. They’re going to stay with us for a few days. Let’s beat them back to the house.”
I take a shortcut down a walkway between cul de sacs. It’s a good thing we’re going back inside anyway because the wind has changed direction, and ash is drifting down from the sky.
“No beach today after all,” I tell Mei Li. “But it isn’t so bad because your auntie will play with you.”
When I get inside, I punch a key to open the air lock on the garage and then I carry Mei Li in my arms and go to greet my sister and niece.
“My goodness, she is getting so big,” Ni Ling says. My sister has never seen my daughter before in person, so she really has no memory to compare to her current size, but I don’t point that out.
“I could say the same thing about this one,” I say, patting Elsie lightly on the shoulder. I can practically feel the adolescent angst roiling through her body as she shakes off
“Now Elsie, don’t be rude,” says Ni Ling. “Can I hold her?” I hand Mei Li over to
In her arms, she gurgles. Gurgles! I can’t believe it. “Wow,” my sister says, “She’s
talkative today.” “She doesn’t do that for me,” I say.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ni Ling says. “She probably just likes seeing new people.”
I give my sister and niece a tour of the house and then I show them to the guest rooms. I know what Ni Ling must be thinking, though she doesn’t say it out loud. Isn’t this fancy? Who needs these hypoallergenic carpets and filtering systems? She is probably comparing it in her head to the cramped apartment where we grew up, above our parents’ Chinese restaurant, which always smelled like grease. That apartment must be long gone by now, either demolished or burned to the ground. Or maybe she’s thinking of her own house, a quaint, ranch style home out in the countryside with its outdated appliances and no AC. She’s probably wondering if the flames have reached it yet.
If Ni Ling is worried, she doesn’t mention it. She keeps herself occupied helping me check every single item off my to-do list for the first time since Mei Li was born. She puts Mei Li down for a nap, and then she insists that I rest on the couch while she does
the dishes and makes lunch. Elsie sets up laptop on the kitchen table so she can do
“It’s such a relief to have you here,” I say. “You should have visited sooner.” “
I would have, if you had invited me,” she says.
When Doug gets home, I stop him in the driveway before he wonders why there is a
strange, gas-powered car sitting in the usually empty space in our 2-car garage.
I hurriedly explain to him the situation.
“They have no where else to go,” I say.
Doug doesn’t like having guests, especially not my family. He finds my sister overbearing because she’s always giving him advice on ways to be thriftier. Ni Ling doesn’t realize Doug likes to spend the money he has since he can afford to do so. Doug thinks Ni Ling is a cheapskate. He didn’t grow up poor like we did. Sometimes it does feel like a waste to buy such extravagant things, especially when I know people are homeless just outside our neighborhood’s gates. But Doug always says he does enough for “those people” at his work, he doesn’t need to sacrifice for them at home too.
“It’s only for a short while,” I reassure him, though I can’t be sure that’s true.
For the first week after Ni Ling arrives, I sleep soundly, no longer plagued by strange dreams. My sister has taken it upon herself to be our live-in help, so I now wake to the smell of sizzling bacon and eggs. It’s like when Ni Ling and I were in high school, and she would take care of me and our younger brothers because our parents had to stay at work late. Elsie is as reticent as ever, though I tried to get her to talk about what she likes to do for fun. She just shrugs and says, “stuff you wouldn’t understand.”
The only time I’ve seen her interested in something other than her phone was when I let her hold Mei Li for a moment while I was folding clothes. Elsie stared right into my daughter’s eyes, like she was searching for some sign of intelligence. I think she was expecting Mei Li to do something, like cry or burp, or flail her arms, but she just sat there, still as a painting, gazing up at her cousin.
“She’s very young,” I said, almost apologetically. “It’s perfectly normal for her age.”
“Do you think anyone her age will grow up normal?” Elsie said. “I mean, with everything going on. The ashes give babies brain damage, I heard.”
“That isn’t true,” I said. “And even if it is, we keep Mei Li safe from the toxins. We only go outside when the air quality is green.”
Their one-week visit stretches to two, then three. Ni Ling’s house survives, but officials in her area advise people not to come back because it is almost inevitable there will be another flare up there in the next few weeks, unless the rain arrives.
“We’ll just be here until the rain comes," Ni Ling tells me. “It’ll be any day now.”
Ni Ling’s presence is starting to needle Doug.
“I don’t know how many more nights I can eat Chinese food,” he says to me one night, after we had sex. I want to point out that we had only started having sex again once Ni Ling was around to help me care for Mei Li, but it seems crude to mention it.
“I’ll ask her to make pasta tomorrow,” I say, as if that solves the problem. The thing is, Ni Ling is starting to get on my nerves too. She is constantly crooning over Mei Li,
petting her and singing to her, never letting me alone with my own daughter. Mei Li loves it, though. Around my sister, she giggles and moves her arms and her legs. Ni Ling even pulled me into the nursery the other day, excited because Mei Li started doing this half-crawl on the floor using one of her elbows to pull herself along. I was so furious in that moment that I wanted to snatch up my baby from the floor and storm outside. But we were in the orange zone that day, and I couldn’t risk it.
At least I’ve been able to think about work for the first time in months. I have to admit, I like being able to sit alone in my office and not worry about whether Mei Li needs to have her diaper changed.
I’ve noticed Elsie has started disappearing at night. I saw her leaving one day when I got up to go get a glass of water in the middle of the night. She was strapping on a mask and slipping out the door, sealing the air lock behind her. I didn’t stop her. She’s a teenager after all. You can’t expect a girl her age to stay cooped up in a house with her family forever. I just wish I knew where she was going, who she was meeting up with. Ni Ling doesn’t seem to notice, or care.
One afternoon, I decide to talk to Ni Ling about her daughter. She has just put down Mei Li for a nap, and gone outside “to get some fresh air.” I wanted to roll my eyes when she said this and point out that the air inside our house was significantly fresher than the air out there ( it was a yellow day— but still! ). After checking that Elsie is deep into her studies— or whatever she does on her computer during the day— I put on a mask and follow my sister outside.
“Ni Ling—” I start to say, and then I see she is leaning over our empty swimming pool, a match in hand, lighting a cigarette!
“Don’t start,” she says, when she sees me staring at her, mouth hanging open. “I just have one a day. One. That’s all. And don’t worry, I rinse out my mouth before I go inside. You don’t have to worry about getting any toxins inside your house.”
“What the hell are you doing?” I hiss. “Do you know how dangerous that is? And illegal! If someone sees you—”
“Fei, look around you,” Ni Ling says. “The backyard, the walls of your own house, the roof, it’s all perfectly safe. In fact, there’s probably nowhere safer in this entire country to light a match. And it’s just one cigarette.”
She’s right, and I feel embarrassed by my own panic. My voice catches in my throat, and my body deflates. I slump down onto the edge of the pool, so my feet are dangling. Ni Ling sits next to me. She offers me the cigarette.
“I really shouldn’t,” I say. “I’m breastfeeding.” My hand absentmindedly rubs my scar.
“Suit yourself,” Ni Ling says.
“OK,” I say, changing my mind. “Just one puff.”
After I take a drag, and let out a contented sigh, I say, “You really shouldn’t have those matches. The outside of the houses are safe here, but not the inside.”
“And if a fire starts on the inside of a house, even in one of these fancy houses, and it gets big enough, it will spread, just like it would anywhere,” she says, finishing my thought.
“I know. I read the FPS propaganda too.”
FPS, Fire Protection Services, is the company Doug works for. They are the ones
who retrofitted our neighborhood to be fireproof.
“It’s not propaganda,” I say.
“Listen to yourself,” says Ni Ling. “You’re living in a bubble. You know this can’t last, right? The fires are going to reach you too, someday.”
After dinner, while Ni Ling is putting Mei Li to sleep, and Doug is watching TV in the bedroom, Elsie appears out of nowhere in the doorway of my office. When I look up and see her, I realize I forgot to talk to Ni Ling about her, I was so distracted. It seems silly now to mention it. I doubt Ni Ling would even care she’s sneaking out.
“Are you really a famous wildfire scientist?” Elsie asks me.
I look up from my computer, feeling a little guilty. I haven’t been looking
at my data at all. Instead, I’ve beenmindlessly reading up on conspiracy theories again.
“I don’t know if I’m famous,” I say. “But my model was one of the most accurate.
That is, until my lab burned down last December.”
“Do you think the FPS torched it?”
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“Well isn’t it obvious?” Elsie said. “Everyone knows FPS is behind most of the fires. That’s how they’re able to raise their stock prices.”
I had heard this rumor before, but I always dismissed it. There were enough fires from climate change for FPSto profit from without needing to risk starting their own fires and getting sued for it. And why shouldn’t they make a profit on fire safety? There’s a need, and FPS is filling it.
“And here I thought it was the Firemonger starting the fires,” I said dryly.
“No, that’s not what the Firemonger stands for at all,” Elsie said. “He doesn’t start fires. He just predicts them.”
“Oh really?” I ask, my curiosity piqued.
“If I tell you, you have to keep it a secret,” she says.
I nod, struck by the serious expression on her little face. She closes the door and sits down at the chair next to my desk.
“I know the Firemonger.” she says, “He’s real. But he’s not actually setting the fires. He’s more like a prophet. He predicts every fire in advance. He knows where it will start, how long it will burn, everything. That’s why people think he’s an arsonist. But he’s actually just telling the future.”
“How is that possible? Wouldn’t people use that information to stop the fires?”
“No,” she says. “Because he only tells people a few hours in advance. It’s not enough time to do anything about it. Plus, his followers don’t care about stopping the fires. They worship fire. They seek it out.”
“It’s not possible to create a model that accurate,” I say. “Only a network
of supercomputers would be able to handle all those variables.”
“Maybe he’s just psychic,” she says.
Part of me wants to laugh out loud, but I hold back. The idea that a person
with supernatural abilities could accomplish with no effort what had been my life’s work makes me feel a bit hysterical. But what if it was a computer model? One more complex and accurate than anything I had ever been able to dream of? I feel a thirst building in my throat.
“How do you know so much?” I ask. “You’re not going to get into trouble. I promise.
“I'm just curious. You know that predicting wildfires was— is— my job.”
“You can’t tell anyone,” she says. “Not my mom. Not even Uncle Doug. Or FPS. Especially not FPS.”
“I won’t, I promise,” I say. I mean it, too. If I can figure out this Firemonger’s secret,
and replicate it, I would get the credit for his predictions.
“I joined his followers last month,” she says. “At my initiation, they put this in my
She pulls back her sleeve to reveal a metallic tattoo. It’s a microchip.
“It allows me to receive his messages on my phone,” she says. “They’re encrypted,
so you can’t read them unless you have the chip. I’ve been going to meet up with other Mongers at night.”
I am surprised she would confess all of this to me.
“How have you been gettingout of the neighborhood?”
“There are others,” she says, shrugging. “I hitch a ride. But there’s a lighting tonight, and no one is around to pick me up.”
She stares me right in the eye.
“Will you take me?”
I feel like a teenager myself sneaking out past midnight. Before I meet up with Elsie in the garage as planned, I peek into Mei Li’s room. I’m tempted to stay, to watch her sleep. She looks so peaceful now. But I know she will punctuate the night with her loud crying.
Ni Ling has the baby monitor in her room now. She’ll take good care of her. I stride away before the gravitational pull of motherhood can pull me back in.
Is this really a good idea? asks the rational, adult part of my brain. Isn’t it dangerous
to drive straight into a potential fire zone? I have been mulling over Elsie’s theory about the Firemonger for the past few hours, and I can’t help but poke holes in it. If this person is claiming to predict where the next wildfire will strike, couldn’t it just lead to someone setting the fire where it was predicted? That would be the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I asked Elsie about this, she told me I was mistaken.
“That’s the thing about the Firemonger,” she says. “He makes his followers swear an oath to never start a fire. That’s why we have the microchips too, so he can make sure
we keep our oath. He doesn’t predict arsons. Only accidental fires.”
“But how would he know if you started a fire or if it was an accident?” I pressed her.
“You have to see if for yourself to understand,” she said.
We climb into her mother’s car together. There’s no smoke in the air, and the stars
are crisp and bright. On clear nights, you can see more of them now that most of the city has burned down and the electric grid outside our area has become so unreliable.
It’s been so long since I left my neighborhood. I have not seen the city in many months. The freeway is still intact— it’s practically indestructible. But you can see the patches of twisted buildings here and there, scattered throughout downtown. We keep driving until we reach the hills. There are bald patches where the vegetation has been wiped clean, like a blank slate. In other areas, the trees and the forest are slowly growing back. Then we head into denser growth, one of the areas that is still untouched.
I follow the car’s directions as it takes us up steeper, and steeper hills, until finally
we reach an unmarked driveway.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I ask, for probably the hundredth time that night.
“The Firemonger won’t direct us to a place in the path of the flames,” she says.
“It would be nice to know where the fire will go after it starts,” I say.
“He doesn’t tell us that in advance,” she says. “Because someone might profit
from it. He hates FPS— no offense— and he thinks that fire should belong to everyone.
He believes in sharing the information, not to change what will happen, but so we can appreciate what is happening as it unfolds.”
She sounds like she was quoting some sort of cult text. I wonder how deep this girl
was into this whole thing. I certainly hope Mei Li would never get involved in something like this.
I follow the winding driveway up to an unmarked house. There are already several people milling in the front yard. We park next to a line of cars, and Elsie gestures for me
to put on my mask.
“No one is allowed to reveal their identity,” she says. “Just in case.”
We wait outside with the others in hushed silence. No one says anything at all. As the clock strikes one, the door of the house opens, and we are ushered inside and through a hallway to a living room with a balcony. This one of those old houses in the hills that has been abandoned because of the fire danger. It has a fantastic view though that overlooks the city below. The city is lit up in a strange mosaic, in islands of bright light of neighborhoods like the one where I live next to dark spaces in unprotected areas
where there is still a patchy network of electricity.
“That direction,” Elsie whispers to me, and she pulls my arm so I face north in unison with the others. She might get in trouble for letting me come with her, she has told me, because I do not have a microchip. If anyone finds out, they’ll kick us out, so I have
to pretend like I am responding to the exact same instructions as they are.
We are handed binoculars, but when I squint to examine mine, I realize these are no ordinary binoculars. They not only have precise night vision, but they are also linked to a drone that one of the hosts fires up from the balcony railing. It soars off in the direction we are facing, and we all look through the binoculars, a sense of anticipation building.
I watch, and at first, I don’t see much, just hills. Then I noticed the fast-moving clouds visible on the horizon that seem to have gathered out of nothing. I hold my breath,
and then it hits, the arc of lightning. A limb flashes across the sky, another arcing below. Within a few seconds, a clap of thunder follows, shocking my eardrums.
“Here we go,” Elsie whispers to me breathlessly, and I barely register the words because my ears are ringing. I’ve seen these dry thunderstorms before. They are one
of the main mechanisms for wildfires starting during the winter. Once they would have carried moisture that would have drenched the fires they started, but now they bring nothing but fury and destruction in their wake.
Another arc of lightning from the same cloud jolts the sky, but there is no fire visible below. The storm seems to just be warming up. Each strike is more violent than the one before, each thunderclap louder. Then a whooping sound rises from around me, like
a feral war cry. The Mongers are cheering. I see why a second later, when I spot a plume
of dark smoke rising from the hills below.
What I had found awe-inspiring, even beautiful just seconds before now sent a thrill
of horror rushing down my spine. The hill we are watching, I realize, is just above the free-
way exit we took, only about five miles from my house. I spin my binoculars away from
the smoke, looking to the west, desperately searching for the cluster of light that is my home, my safe neighborhood. I think of Mei Li, sleeping in her bed, and the fire rushing down the hill, enveloping her and my house whole. In that moment, I am terrified, gripped with the vision of the flames spreading down the hill, toppling our fireproof wall
in a tornado, tearing down everything in its path. Doug. Ni Ling. Mei Li. I feel sick
at this thought because by imagining it, a part of me wonders if I am willing it to life.
“What are you doing?” hisses Elsie in my ear. She grips my arm tightly.
I hurriedly point my binoculars back towards the smokey hillside, but it doesn’t matter. The clouds have reached us now, and I feel a foreign sensation on my arms. The soft, wet plops of rain battering my skin, first slowly, then harder. Elsie groans, and the others around us sigh, an almost wistful sound. I think I understand now, why they watch
the fires. They feel the same combination of terror and delight. It’s addicting.
Elsie hands back our binoculars to the host, while I run back to the car to get it started as the rain starts pouring harder. I’m worried that if we don’t get out of there soon,
the streets in these winding hills will wash away, or we’ll be carried away by a mudslide. The first rain of the season is a strong one, a healthy, torrential pour, but it has the potential to turn dangerous since this land is so parched that it has become brittle.
It’s only when we start driving down the hill, and I’m having trouble seeing out of my windshield despite my wipers that I realize that tears are blurring my vision. I try to hold them back, but they slip down my face anyway. Elsie is slumped in her seat.
She’s too preoccupied in her ownthoughts to notice that I’m crying.
“Mom and I are going to have to leave now, won’t we?” she asked. “Now that
the rain’s come?”
“Oh,” I say. After the night’s excitements, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
“I guess so.”
I think of Mei Li in her bed at home, wailing as Ni Ling gets up to comfort her. With a pang, I realize that I wasn’t there to hear her react to the first sounds of rain pattering
on our roof. The first rain of Mei Li’s life. I let myself dream for a moment of taking her
out into the rain, and letting her play in the puddles, like my brothers and sisters and I once did walking to school on rainy mornings. But then I remember the rain will be acidic, that it won’t be safe for her to play in it. The thought of being left alone with Mei Li in
the house again, after Ni Ling and Elsie leave, feels like drowning.
I didn’t tell Elsie that before we left the house, when I was getting into the car,
I opened up Ni Ling’s glove box to see what she kept in there. As I fumbled around
in the dark, I found just what I had suspected: a matchbox. I had not used one of those
in years, not since I had to light candles when the power went out in my childhood apartment. Ever since Ni Ling had bought her first car, she always hid her cigarettes
and lighters in it so our parents wouldn’t find them. Now I imagine she puts these matches there to keep them safe from Elsie. She might know better than I do what
her daughter is capable of. Now, as I speed down the highway through the lashing rain,
I reach into my pocket with my free hand and feel for the matches. There’s a dozen in there and though I can’t see them, I can picture their bright round heads, little suns waiting to burn. Better for me to keep them, just in case.
Molly Montgomery is a mixed race Chinese American writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches high school English. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has been featured in several literary magazines, including Entropy, X-R-A-Y, Lucent Dreaming, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.