Scorch Earth

Long Short Story by Derek Fisher

Scorch Earth

An earwig slithers across the little black plastic air-conditioning vent. I examine this earwig with intention as Father drives. I at once want and want not to touch it.

I do not like how Father drives the van. I find he is too slow the majority of the time, and then in little unpredictable bursts, too fast. Father is not prone to rage, but behind the wheel he is a different version of himself. Docile, with a chance of acrimony. Not like Mother, who is never calm, even if she appears to be. I would like to examine the earwig closer, but I fear Father will react negatively if I touch it. I wonder if it will survive for long if I leave it to its own devices. Mother would most likely be able to answer that question. I consider whether I should ask her about earwigs when Father and I return home. Even though she is not an entomologist, I am confident that if she refuses an answer it won't be for lack of expertise but rather out of bewilderment about the question's cosmic relevance in the first place.

Father takes the turn off and smiles as he sees my expression change, because I now know we are close to our destination, our favorite Sunday destination. Only eight to ten more minutes, depending on the traffic. There is rarely any traffic here, this far outside Denver. But I have calculated that, because of the occasional tourist convoy, as people do sometimes venture here to get their precious views of the Rockies, there should be at least a one-minute-average differential, just in case. But this is early in the season, and so the likelihood is that we are eight minutes away.

He leans over and kisses my head and says, "Almost there, sweetheart," which he does at exactly this point every Sunday.

*

I am a god of war

*

My desk is four feet high with only one and a half feet of depth to the wall. It is completely white. If Yuliana comes over and attempts to sit at my desk, she inevitably launches the same complaint as always, that the desk is far too small to fit any kind of computer or homework or anything else of any significance, and that there is virtually no leg room available as the desk sits against the wall. I find my desk perfectly adequate for my needs. I am not large. My laptop screen is only thirteen inches.

At the moment I am listening to two separate podcasts. My English homework is open on my desk but I am procrastinating. Mother finds procrastination unacceptable. But she and Father are discussing something downstairs that I have ranked a seven out of ten on the animosity scale. It will be at least thirty minutes before there is silence from the kitchen. My door is closed. I cannot hear the details about that which they are arguing, but I can discern from the tone it’s a seven out of ten.

I am drinking water from my favorite porcelain tea mug. I drink tea out of it as well, but not after 5:00 P.M. Mother does not approve of caffeine so late. I prefer the cup to all other vessels because it is ornate and makes me feel as if I am a forgotten member of a royal family, not the princess or the heiress to a throne, nothing so solipsistic, but rather some kind of niece who lives in the palace and to whom no one speaks because all of the proper pretty girls are terrified of her, so they leave her to her own devices, whereby she spends her days reading works of ancient mysticism, books about anatomy, books about weaponry, and, most diligently, books about killing. The cup is white, as is the saucer, and both are adorned with a series of oceanic blue waves of such detail that they can easily induce a spell of hypnosis should they be gazed upon for too long. Of course, after a few cups of tea, one becomes used to the cup's artistry, but I still find myself mesmerized by it.

There is only one other object in the house that I cherish equally.

The two podcasts are on simultaneously, one headphone in each ear. One, about the current state of the climate on planet Earth, is playing from my computer. It is a conversation between two men and a woman. One man is the host, the other is someone who wrote a book. The woman is a professor. They seem to agree that the Earth is in peril, but there is a general tone of argumentativeness about them, possibly because the subject matter scares them and the prospect of annihilation reduces us all to angry, irrational animals. The other podcast, which is playing from my phone, is about living a purpose-driven life. There is a single woman speaking. I am paying more attention to her words than those of the speakers in the other podcast, but I am able to listen to both. Her words are mostly derived from a book that she didn’t write, and though I only found this podcast because she and I share the same first name, Lily, I am generally interested in the subject matter. A purpose-driven life. It is a topic of much discussion in this house. Perhaps Mother would even approve.

*

I am an angel of death

*

I am observing the earwig when Father makes the turn. The trees disappear and in front of us is a road, seemingly endless, flanked with flat fields. I love this part of the drive. Only, Father is driving oddly slow. I am observing the earwig when Father comes to a stop. I don't see another car anywhere. In front of us is a different sort of wreckage. The animal is ripped in half. The smear of blood and gore stretches across dozens of meters of road. I can see the animal's intestines and some other dark organ that looks like a sac of blood. Father gets out of the car without shutting off the engine. I exit as well and we are standing over this deer-like creature as if we are at its funeral. Some bones are exposed. A leg is three meters away. Its eyes are still open and it looks calm, like it took a tranquilizer or meditated deeply for an hour.

"Some kind of large deer. Not a whitetail. I don't think I've ever seen one like this before," Father says.

"There is no debris," I say.

"From a car? No. I think an animal did this. Or animals. Coyotes, maybe. I've heard of wolves nearby, but not quite this close to the city."

"A bear?" I say.

"No. There are no bears here. Not for miles."

"Something found its One," I say.

"Yes dear. Most certainly. Something found its One. May we honor them."

I bow my head. I'm never sure what exactly to do in these moments. Father looks solemn. Mother never seems to bat an eye. She is far less sentimental. I'm looking at my shoes and it has occurred to me that I am stepping in blood. No matter.

*

Yuliana is six feet two inches tall, a full foot taller than me. She went through a phase some way through elementary school, before I knew her, before I attended real school, when her mother enforced a hairstyle reminiscent of the starlets of 1980s music videos. The mother imposed this on Yuliana by waking her at 6:30 every morning and dragging her to the bathroom, bathing her in the bathtub, and applying a product so volumizing that her hair was carried an extra two inches above her scalp, and expanded downward. Conan the Barbarian with a pink and green fanny pack was the description she used. I had to look up who that was. Then I saw, and I was impressed by Yuliana's wit. That was one of the first days we spoke, in grade nine. I never met her mother. Her mother is dead. Her father is married to a new woman.

We sat together, that first day we met, in mostly silence, at the table where no one else sat. I remember feeling content. I had been worried about mistreatment; miraculously, they left us alone.

"Do you want to hear a song?" she asked me. I was eating a rib sandwich, which I only say with such certainty because I almost always ate the rib sandwich. I had been slowly taking quarters from Father's van over the years, saving them for some unknown emergency. Then I discovered my school's rib sandwich, and the emergency became this sandwich's absence in my life.

"Alright," I said.

She pulled from her bag the world's smallest guitar. It looked like a toy. Maybe a couple feet in length. She finger-picked it and produced the most somber tunes. The instrument was quiet but I could hear it perfectly. Sideward glances crept our way. People in the cafeteria slowly turned their glazed faces toward us. Faces unknowing of anything. They watched her fingers from many yards away.

Until I had met Yuliana, I never considered another person's One. Another person other than Mother, Father, and me, that is. You must never talk about it with anyone but your father and me, Mother reminds me regularly.

She strummed those tiny strings with such clairvoyance that I assumed she'd already dispatched her One. It was a matter of confidence. A purpose-driven life. I haven't yet asked Mother or Father about what happens when one must discover a new purpose.

*

I'll scorch the earth to find you

*

Mother enters my room while I am supposed to be doing my homework, but I can see through the reflection of my computer screen that it is clear to her that I am not currently doing homework. One look at the screen wouldn’t necessarily confirm this, as the document I have opened is in fact the essay I am supposed to be writing about climate change and what we as young individuals can do to prevent the impending destruction it will wreak upon us. But I can see that Mother can see that my attention is fixed to the buds in my ear and the distractions to which I am listening, not the page in front of me.

"What are you listening to?"

"A podcast."

Mother approaches and lifts one of the earbuds out of my ear.

"I understand that. What podcast is it?"

"It's about the benefits of living a purpose driven-life."

She yanks the headphones out of the computer. She does not confiscate them like she did when I was little. She affords me a false sense of autonomy. She places the headphones on the desk.

"It makes me unhappy seeing you listening to that sort of thing."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. Just don't do it."

"I will focus, Mother."

I turn to my computer and pretend to focus. Mother stands over me; I can feel her watching the screen.

"Climate change," she says, "is overblown fearmongering. Don't get wrapped up in the things people say just because they are popular."

"I know," I say. I have an urge to ask her about why she, a biologist, could feel this way. I have been feeling like questioning her more and more lately. This is a new feeling. It is exhilarating, even if I know that I will never do it. There's a thrill just in the thought of it. I decide I do not want to attempt to do my homework with her standing over me, and I turn to her.

"Tell me about your One again," I say.

"Lily," Mother says, blushing. "Focus on your schoolwork."

"I need a break," I say.

"You know we shouldn't talk about these things," she says.

"I know. Just the abridged version," I say.

"There is only one version," she says. This means she's going to talk.

"I was twenty," she says. "He was a year or two older than me. This was before I knew your father. I thought we were close, this man and I. Then he tried something, something that was wrong. Very wrong. It became clear, almost right away. I knew within less than a day that he was my One. I knew within hours. Maybe minutes."

"How did you do it?" I say. Mother looks down at me. She strokes my hair. The only time she ever shows affection is when I ask her to speak about her One.

"I used a knife," she says.

"Where?"

"No. That's enough Lily. We don't speak about these things. You have homework to do."

"Don't I need to know about these things? For myself?"

"Do your homework," Mother says.

"Why hasn't Father found his yet? What if it’s too late?"

"Do your homework," Mother says, exiting the room. "And turn those podcasts off. Dinner will be ready in less than an hour. I want your homework done by then."

"It's going to take longer than an hour," I say.

Mother stares at me. I immediately regret talking back to her. Her eyes look a certain way. I turn to my computer and she leaves the room.

*

Father opens the trunk when we arrive at Ash's Mound. There is wind, minimal though it is, more than was predicted by my circling back to the weather app on Father’s phone every thirty minutes, one of my tasks on Father-Lily Sundays at Ash’s Mound. Father let's me unearth the cargo all on my own. I insert the key into the near-invisible slot in the righthand corner on the bed of the van's trunk. This loosens the mock carpet, which I lift on my own, despite its heft, and I fold it over completely so it rests like a rolled up Persian rug that could conceal a body. I insert the second key into the slot on the opposite side, and the spare tire and the black floor which surrounds it loosen, and I struggle this time but still manage to excavate the whole panel until it is halfway up, which is when Father's electronic rigging takes over automatically, and the floor rises robotically, but gracefully. Father asks me what I want to use today: AR-15 or the HK91 .308.

"What about the others?" I say. I had assumed we were working with shotguns today. We have worked assault rifles for weeks now. I have been craving the grip of Father’s Mossberg. It is so wonderfully accustomed to my awkward, little hands. I have finally learned its recoil well enough to shoot it confidently. But today is not the day, it would seem.

"We’re not there yet," he says.

I point at the HK, which is a much more sophisticated challenge than the toy that is the AR-15. The AR's reputation alone has made me disdain it. A child can use it. Many have. It’s a collective shame I want no part of. As I point, I think to myself, I am still a child.

"Shut up, Lily," I say out loud.

"Hey," Father says. "Be nice to my daughter." He touches the back of my head and kisses my forehead.

I look around. Horseshoe Mountain is perfectly clear in the distance. It is a lovely day. There are five new scarecrows set up in our field. Father must have come out here earlier in the week and set them up. Maybe we did them last time. I can't remember. I turn the keys and close the floor bed, and Father carries the HK. We walk to our spot in the breeze.

*

I am hellfire, raining down upon the impure

*

I do a solo run in the sewers in our neighborhood. Father spent years building tunnels that stretch from our basement into the tunnel system of the sewers on our street. He has never allowed me to do tunnel runs on my own. I’ve never thought about what the consequence might be if he caught me. I had been in the basement, looking for an old record in his collection, when the eerie, hollow wails unnerved me. It’s a sound difficult to get used to. I went to slam the camouflaged tunnel door shut. I slammed and slammed but it kept reopening. I let it open and stared. The blackness was inviting. I hadn’t expected the feeling. I put on my rubber boots. I didn’t bother with nose plugs. I have been used to the smells for years.

On my solo run I get lost twice and have to talk myself down from panicking. I have no map or navigation device. The flashlight strapped to my head is flickering. I want to make it back to the house. I picture myself starving to death and my body scavenged by rats. I think, if I walk in a straight line from where I am, I will come to the fake manhole cover in front of the Buffmeir’s house. One night, two years ago, Father replaced a manhole cover in our neighborhood with a fake. It’s much lighter than a real one, and any person could lift it easily. No one would know who put it there if city workers ever discovered it.

I sit in the dark, counting my breaths. I know where I am. I know where I am. I know. Where. I am. I say it slowly. If I came this far, somewhere in my mind I know the way back, even if it all works the same. I will not die in the dark.

*

Yuliana tells me she is playing a show at the Corrigan and Crow Bar and asks if I would like to come. I ask her why a concert would take place in a bar and she assures me that this is a perfectly normal venue for such a performance. I ask her how we will be allowed into a bar at our age and she says she lied about her age and is in the process of getting a fake ID. This may work reasonably well for her, as, at her height and her mature look, she may just be convincing enough as a twenty-one- year-old, but there isn't the slightest chance that I will pass. I still look like a baby. I tell her this, and Yuliana assures me that I will be allowed in.

Convincing Mother and Father that I should go to a concert is a tricky affair, to say the least. Surely I do not tell them it's being hosted in a bar. I wait. I wait and wait and wait. I do my homework with extreme diligence, so much so that I could even say that I’ve applied myself more than usual as far as Mother and Father are concerned. No easy feat. Ever since they stopped homeschooling me, it has been very difficult to assure them of my hard work, even if my grades are perfect. I did my usual chores, but I also vacuumed and cleaned all three bathrooms in the house over the course of two days. I did so conspicuously enough that they would surely notice I did these chores but wouldn't feel that I was rubbing the deeds in their faces. Mother says nothing, which is exactly what I want.

On Friday, with Yuliana here for a scheduled get-together, we play cards in the living room while Mother and Father prepare dinner together. They are making enchiladas, which they still believe are my favorite food, but truth be told I have no favorite food. I find all food relatively enjoyable on an equal plane, with many, many exceptions. But Yuliana loves enchiladas, at least she claimed as such the first time she had them, which was here.

My plan is to ask about the concert at the dinner table. It is one thing to raise such an issue just the three of us, two on one. But, with Yuliana here, more than capable of arguing her points cleanly, not only are we two on two, but, more importantly, Mother and Father will see the source itself. The talent. It will be her concert. Even Mother will be at a loss for how to deny someone of something so close to their heart, that their best friend would be disallowed from attending her performance. It is as perfect a plan as we could hatch.

Mother and Father appear to be arguing about something. They are doing so at speaking volume, but I can interpret it well enough to be a disagreement. I cannot hear the words.

"Go fish," Yuliana says. "Can we play chess? This game is boring."

"Okay," I say.

I investigate the large cabinet in the den, which is where I believe the chessboard to be. I look slowly, and listen. Yuliana sings softly. Mother says She's losing focus every day. Father says You never say a word about focus to me. Mother says you're forty-six years old, you've been training for decades, I'm not worried about you. You'll find yours when it happens. That's not what I'm talking about. Father says She trains just fine. If you came with us, even just on our runs, just once, you'd see that. She outpaces me. Mother says Don't be cute with me about this training business. You know damn well I don't need to train like you or her. Frankly, I think it's ridiculous and unfair that you bring that up. Father says Don't start with the hip again. Mother says Hip? Are you joking? You're being completely unfair. For three weeks I was in a hospital bed. I struggle to remember what you did when he ran that red… what was it? Oh that's right! You ran out of the way. You ran away from me. Father says We're here again? Really? Yuliana keeps singing. Mother says You ran. So don't tell me anything about why I don't come running with you. She needs focus. Father says She is focused. There's a pause and Father says Just admit to me, for once, that you disdain me because I haven't found mine yet. Well it’s mine. My One. My choice. My life. It’s my One. Yuliana stops singing. Mother says That is completely ridiculous and I'll never admit that because it is one hundred percent not true.

I return to the coffee table with the chessboard and we set up. Yuliana is white and I am black. She makes her move and we get going. She is very good, which I attribute to her half-Russian heritage, and though I know that to reduce things to nationality is simplistic and often flawed, about fifteen moves into our game I remember when she first mentioned that her extremely Russian father taught her how to play, so I feel validated to be thinking in stereotypes, but annoyed that I didn't initially remember it. Ten minutes in and I have her mostly crippled; queenless, one rook, one bishop, one knight. I have all my pieces minus a rook and two pawns. But she is still dangerous. She's only ever mated me three times, but one of those wins she managed without a queen. It's her move when she looks at me and leans in close. She whispers, "What's a One?"

"A what?" I pretend not to have heard.

"A One? My One, he said? What does that mean?" she whispers.

I make my move and then just stare at the board. I look up and she is looking right at me.

"I have no idea," I say.

*

Father and I set up fifty meters away from the centre scarecrow. He has the backpack; he hands me the rifle and I deal with it. He takes off the bag and takes out the blanket. He doesn't roll it out yet, just leaves it in a heap. He takes out a tripod but I don't think we'll use it. He hands me the magazine and I load it. He reaches in and a bunch of money falls out of the bag. It must be a thousand dollars, maybe more.

"What's that for?" I say.

"This is savings. When I bought the crossbow last week, he gave me a huge discount. I guess I forgot to put the money away. Never you mind about that. Focus!"

"Auto or semi?" I say. He just scoffs and does a very fake dad-laugh. I flip it to semi-automatic.

"Did you bring a scope?" I ask.

"Hey, sweetheart, if you keep talking like that your mother and I are going to make you eat nothing but boiled celery for a week," he says.

I point the rifle and he says, "Hawk."

I squeeze a single round and the center scarecrow's pumpkin-head explodes.

He says "Vulture," and I pivot, squeeze one round, miss, squeeze another and the head of the farthest left scarecrow explodes.

He says "Eagle," and I pivot, and squeeze one round and the head of the second from the right explodes.

He says “Hummingbird,” and I pivot, squeeze one round, miss, squeeze another round, and miss. I must get visibly exasperated because Father almost right away says, "Hey, hey. Just breathe. Don't worry about it. Breathe." I lift the gun. I squeeze. Head explodes.

He says "Albatross," I pivot, squeeze one round, and hit the last remaining scarecrow in the sternum. I lower the gun. Father is looking at me. I turn to face him.

"Waiting for something?" he says. I just stare at Father. I smirk, I think. I probably look very dorky when I try to smirk. I never smirk. There's a slight snapping sound in the distance, the sound of wood breaking, and the scarecrow topples over, breaking in two.

"Not anymore," I say.

"Oooh look at Wild Bill Cool Girl, with the one-liners," he says. "He was still standing and you let him stay standing. That's a miss. But since he's ruined now, you won't be able to score that one. Four out of five."

"Come on," I say.

"That's not very impressive, sweetheart."

"I was accurate."

"Four out of five," he says.

"I made it completely snap in half! How is that not accurate?"

"It’s not just about accuracy. Four out of five."

He jogs toward the scarecrows to replace exploded pumpkin heads. I suppose things will be scored out of four from now on. Father is crafty, maybe he'll build a new one. I put the rifle on the ground and take Father’s knife out of his bag. I can see Father assessing the damage on the fallen scarecrow.

“I’m so sure you were aiming for that,” I hear him say.

*

I am a collector of severed heads

*

Yuliana's concert is immensely fun. It is the most fun I can remember having in three years. Every band is unique from the next. Yuliana performs second out of five bands. The first band is some kind of hardcore punk group and people are moving into each other violently for the duration of the set. Then Yuliana takes to the stage by herself, and the looks around the audience are mostly looks of confusion. People must have been expecting more of the same. Yuliana plays her little guitar and sings in her somber voice for twenty-two minutes. Maybe for the first two minutes there were snickers, yawns, wandering eyes. But everyone is paying attention within three. People are mesmerized. A boy buys me a beer. I hate it. I take one sip and spit it out. He tells me not to be a baby and I stare at him until he walks away.

Outside a group of us sit on the curb while people complement and fawn over Yuliana. They smoke cigarettes. I try one of those and also hate it, but I don’t cough. One of the men from the second last band seems quite taken with Yuliana. She takes sips from his flask. He seems nearly twice her age. He has long hair and a beard. But I can't tell if she likes him back. She may only be entertaining him for the use of his flask.

Yuliana pulls me into her and holds me close to her in a way that she has never done before. It feels motherly. I find it very strange. It makes the bearded man back off.

While we are all outside, breaking noise laws and drinking while underage and doing things that Mother and Father would lock me in cellar for, Yuliana asks if I want to come to her family's cabin in a few weeks.

"It's in California," she says, "Far north. Really bare bones. There's basically nothing there but evergreen trees and mountains and bears and mountain lions. It's the most perfect place on earth."

I tell her I'll ask, but I know without a doubt that Mother and Father would never say yes. It would be impossible.

"I didn't know Russians had cottages in California," a boy says. I had thought the same thing but didn't say it.

"It's my grandfather's. On my mom's side," she says. "You fly to Reno. Then you drive two and a half, three hours west, through the desert, into the mountains."

"Can I come?" the boy says.

"No. Piss off." She speaks into my ear. "You need to get away from your parents for a change." No one has ever said that to me.

"I don't think they would approve," I say.

Yuliana shrugs her shoulders and says, "We'll tell them it's a field trip."

"I really don't know if that's going to work," I say.

"You managed to get yourself here, didn't you?" she says.

*

This is my world. I will set it on fire and find you in the ashes

*

On the drive home, I turn to Father and say, "You're not going to tell Mother, are you?"

"About what?" he says.

"The four out of five."

Father keeps driving without talking for a full thirty seconds before he says, "What are you worried about that for? She's not taking you out here. I am."

"I know you keep her informed of my progress."

"Well, she is your mother after all."

"She's going to be mad."

Father looks at me. "What am I? Chopped liver?"

"It's not that," I tell him. "It's just… she's mean about it. You're always nice. Calm. I don't want to deal with her sometimes."

Father pulls the van over, nearly running over a skunk in the process.

"Listen to me," he says. "Everything your mother and I do for you, we do together. We are a team, the three of us. How many families are there like us, that are this close?"

"I don't know," I say.

"None, that's how many. We lead a purpose-driven life."

"She's done hers."

"Look at me. Look at me, Lily. We are all in this together. If your mother is hard on you, it's the same thing as me being hard on you. We want you to succeed, to be ready. That's what it's all about. Understand?"

"Yes." I do not, in fact, understand. I'm sick of talking about it.

We drive for some time. Mountains pass by like background ornaments. It occurs to me that Father and I haven’t done a mountain run in a few months. We have been more focused on strength lately, which I quite enjoy.

"I have a question," I say.

"Yes, dear?"

"If a person commits suicide, does that mean that they decided that they are their own One?"

Father doesn't answer right away, and I'm not sure if it's because he's avoiding the question or because he's thinking.

"No," he eventually says.

"How come?"

"I… I don't really know. It just isn't," he says.

"But why?" I say.

"Because a person can't be their own One. They just… they just can't. The One must, uh, be external."

"But… why?"

"I don't make the rules, sweetheart."

"But – "

"No," he says.

When we get home, Father jogs upstairs to put his backpack away. I follow him up there quietly and watch him. He unloads his backpack on the bed. He removes the knife and puts it in a drawer in his desk. He removes the first-aid kit and sticks it in the closet. He removes the bundle of cash from the side pocket of the bag and puts it in his little shoebox in the closet. He doesn't know that I'm watching him. He sees me watching him and smiles.

"What are you looking at?" he says. He pushes the shoebox into the shadows of the closet and closes the door.

"I have a question to ask you," I say.

"Ask away," he says.

"I think you might say yes. But I'm worried Mother will say no. It's for a school field trip," I say.

*

I am the end of all things

*

The plane lands in San Francisco and Yuliana and I have to run as fast as we can to the next gate to catch our next flight, which leaves in twenty minutes. We get stuck in a line for a security checkpoint. I compulsively check my watch every fifteen seconds while Yuliana whistles to herself. They open a new line, and we manage to squeeze through with four or five minutes left. We run with our bags, clunkily and slow, like salmons trying to flap out of water toward a grizzly's mouth.

Mother insisted I would be reachable the entire time, so she purchased a cellular phone for me. She also insisted on speaking with the teacher that would be chaperoning us before we left. I told her Mrs. Mukherjee would be happy to speak to her on the phone, hoping Mother wouldn't insist on a meeting. I asked why Yuliana chose the name Mrs. Mukherjee, and she said it was because we have a civics teacher with that actual name, which I didn't know, and because her friend Tatiana can do an immaculate adult Bengali accent.

The flight to Reno is so bumpy that the man behind us throws up. We hear it happening. The child beside him would have been my choice for the likelier victim of turbulence. This was only my second flight ever. When the man throws up, I feel a little tiny splash on the exposed part of my heel.

The plane lands in Reno and we wait a half hour for Yuliana's aunt's boyfriend to arrive. In the meantime I call Mother to preemptively assuage her anxieties. There is no answer so I leave a message. I do not like having a portable phone with me. I feel handcuffed by it.

Our chauffeur arrives. He drives a red, rusting two-door hatchback, the back floor of which is riddled with empty beer cans. He has long, curly black hair and I can't understand what he says when he speaks. His name is Bob Nelson, and he insists that we use both names. Yuliana sits in the back with me while Bob Nelson drives 100 miles per hour through the desert while drinking beer as he drives. He chain-smokes cigarettes and I become covered in ash after only a short time. The ride is bumpy, like the flight. He offers us beers for the drive. Yuliana drinks one. She hands it to me but I wave it away.

The drive would be lovely if I didn't spend it in fear for my life. I know that life is both fleeting and meaningless without the meaning I assign it through the pursuit of my One, but in the moment where death looms close, it becomes difficult to imagine anything to do with purpose and all I feel is the impulse to live.

We arrive at the cabin three hours after we left the airport, and Yuliana's Aunt Maggie runs out of the cabin like a dog and practically tackles her much taller niece with a hug. Maggie has some kind of open bottle of alcohol in her hand but manages to not spill a drop in her tackling of Yuliana. We are surrounded by pine trees and sunshine and buzzing wasps and an ambient smell of wood smoke. Maggie then hugs me with almost as much enthusiasm as she had hugged Yuliana.

She brings us inside, carrying most of our bags herself, despite the bottle in her hand. She pours a glass of tequila for Yuliana. The cabin is small. There is a funny smell, something musky, that is almost unpleasant but it is just barely acceptable. The wooden walls in the little great room look like they would fall apart if a strong enough wind blew across the mountains. The fridge is upside down.

"Why is the fridge upside down?" is the first thing I say since I've been here.

"She needs time to recharge, hun. Flip her over and she finds her way. Takes a good day. You're dry!" Maggie hands me a plastic cup filled with tequila. I didn't seem to have a choice in the matter. I take a miniscule sip. There is an elderly man outside, looking out over the valley behind the house. We all go outside.

"Grandpa!" Yuliana says. The old man waves with the back of his hand but says nothing. He is looking at something through binoculars. The back of the cabin overlooks an immense valley, and far in the distance are mountains. They look different from the Rockies I'm used to. Less tall, but more alive. More proximate. Grandpa is looking down into the valley with his binoculars.

"He might be a while. Became obsessed with the new lion cubs," Maggie says. I seem to have left my tequila inside.

"Did you say lion?" Yuliana says.

"Mountain lions!" Maggie says. "Mama had two cubs! They live down there. All he does is look at them"

"Where is the father?" I ask.

"They never stick around too long," Maggie says.

There's an array of red, cheap-looking chairs made of a kind of loose fabric. They seem like the type of things people might associate with camping. Father and I have never sat in such chairs during any of our excursions. I sit in one and am immediately overcome with a feeling of comfort I've never felt before.

Yuliana runs up to her grandfather and puts her arm around him. For a moment it seems he has no ability to perceive that another human is touching him. He eventually acknowledges Yuliana by handing her the binoculars. She looks and then exclaims as if she sees the lions.

"Wanna beer?" Bob Nelson says to me, sitting on the ground next to my chair.

"No, thank you," I say.

"Okay. Wanna smoke a joint?" he says.

"No thank you."

"Well Christ! What do you want then?" he says.

"May I have a glass of water?" I say. Bob Nelson gets up without speaking. He emerges from the cabin three minutes later with a plastic cup filled with a translucent liquid that I hope is not water. I will spend the next few days dehydrated. Neither Mother nor Father would approve.

Yuliana's grandfather eventually removes himself from his vantage point and joins us. He says very little, and when he does speak his voice is quiet and he speaks slowly, like a film at half speed. I can't hear him very well so I pretend and nod at whatever he says. Bob Nelson hands him a beer, which he proceeds to drink almost entirely in one gulp.

"He wants wine!" Maggie says.

"But he drank the beer," Bob Nelson says.

"But he wants wine! He told me earlier he wanted wine!" Maggie says.

"But he drank the beer," Bob Nelson says.

"That. Lion. Really. Loves. Her. Cubs," Grandpa says.

"How can you tell?" Yuliana says.

"Ohhhhhhh. It's quite clear," Grandpa says. He gets up and slowly walks around the cabin, out of sight.

"Can you believe he's eighty-seven? He's still publishing!" Maggie says.

"Publishing?" I say.

"He's a world-famous linguistics professor!" Maggie says.

"World famous," Bob Nelson says mockingly. Maggie looks at him like she will end his life before the morning comes. My heart skips a beat for reasons I can't quite identify. I look at Bob Nelson sharply. He doesn't look back at me, but I can feel that he feels my look.

Grandpa returns with a pile of wood in his arms that looks far too heavy for a man his size and age.

"Look at that ox!" Maggie says. Grandpa dumps the wood in the firepit, and then begins assembling it into a castle of logs.

"There's no ban?" Yuliana says.

"Of course there is. He doesn't care," Maggie says. Grandpa waves his hand.

"There's been a ban all season. Fires up by Crestville are real bad. Evacuations. Highway 3's been shut for weeks. It's bad," Bob Nelson says.

"It's bad," Maggie mimics him. "It's bad. It's bad."

"Why do you keep saying that?" he says.

"Because it's obviously bad! It's fucked! If there's evacuations, it's not just bad, it's fucked! It's redundant! Redundant! Stupid!" Maggie says. She storms off. Bob Nelson watches her go back into the cabin.

After the fire is built, Bob Nelson and Grandpa cook steaks on a small charcoal grill, while Maggie, Yuliana, and I make a salad and prepare mashed potatoes. I am bored, so after ten minutes of peeling potatoes I go outside and join the men by the grill. There are dozens of wasps buzzing around. Neither Bob Nelson nor Grandpa seem to care. One lands on Bob Nelson's shoulder and I think it stings him. He barely reacts. The smell of smoke, between the grill and the ambient smoke in the air from the nearby fires, is overwhelming. My eyes are watering and I think I am lightheaded, but everyone here is weathered by this environment and I don't want to be thought of as a baby, so I ignore it as best I can. I check my phone, surprised that Mother has not called back, and I see that I have no bars of reception. I go into the cabin.

"How do I get reception for my phone here?" I ask Yuliana.

"Oh, honey, there's no reception up here. Not for like thirty miles," Maggie says. Yuliana does not look at me and continues to wash Romaine lettuce. I feel a sense of discomfort in my chest I have never felt before. My face becomes flush. I go back outside and a wasp nearly flies into my mouth. I go right back inside and say, "How do I get reception? I need to have reception. My mother insisted on being able to reach me and we told her she could."

"I mean, we can go into town tomorrow. Although I think we were going to hike tomorrow. Maybe Sunday? We'll be on the mountains all day," Maggie says. Yuliana continues to assemble the salad. She looks at the spinning lettuce with ridiculous, unnecessary focus.

Dinner is delicious, but I don't enjoy it because I am very nervous and my throat feels like it’s closing up. My heart is racing. It will be four days until I speak to Mother. I drink a glass of wine. Bob Nelson and Maggie argue about which is the tallest mountain in the national park we will be visiting tomorrow. Grandpa lets the argument continue, and then when there is finally quiet he confirms which mountain is highest. Yuliana talks about her music. Maggie insists that she sing something and Yuliana promises she will later. Maggie refills my wine glass even though it is not empty. I notice a rifle hanging on the wall. I am shocked I hadn't noticed it earlier. I stare at it while the conversation happens around me. Someone asks me what my hobbies are. I say firearms without thinking. Bob Nelson perks up and attempts to talk to me about guns. Grandpa joins the conversation. I can't really hear what they are saying or can't focus because now I've had more wine and I feel blurry but things feel more nice and laughy and my heart isn't racing as much.

We sit by a fire, with sounds of crickets, and no wasps, and Bob Nelson plays a little guitar while Yuliana sings. Yuliana sits beside me and hugs me as she sings. I feel uncomfortable in her arms.

We sleep in the bed in the little attic alcove of the cabin. It is late and I hear Bob Nelson and Maggie arguing for a long time. Bob Nelson was prohibited from driving home to his cabin because he drank too much. Yuliana is snoring. I check my phone to see if magically the reception has come back. I nudge Yuliana. She shifts and continues to snore. Maggie accuses Bob Nelson of being a drunk. Bob Nelson looks for a word that I believe is hypocrite, can't find it, and then tells Maggie that she drinks more than him. I shove Yuliana and she snorts and wakes up violently.

"What happened?" she says.

"You knew I wouldn't have reception up here," I say.

"What? What time is it?" she says.

"You knew, before we came. You didn't tell me, on purpose. You didn't want my parents to reach me."

"What? Do you really think it would be more fun here with them breathing down your neck every hour?" she says. I say nothing.

"Come on," she says. She moves as if she's going to do something and I await to feel her putting an arm around me but she doesn't do it. "Trust me. They won't kill you. So you'll be grounded for like a month. You'll tell them the phone didn't work. She bought it for you after all. It can be her fault. I promise, this won't be a big deal."

I don't sleep. The sun rises before seven and I get out of bed shortly after dawn and go outside to breathe the air. It is still smoky, but less so. I can hear Bob Nelson snoring from another room. Grandpa is already outside, standing in his spot, watching the lions. I approach him, and before being able to say anything he waves with the back of his hand. He holds out the binoculars, and I take them and look. He helps me aim them and I see the lion licking one of her cubs. There looks to be a small pile of bones and maybe a skull of some kind beside the lions.

"I. Think. That. Was. A. Young. Deer," Grandpa says.

I stand watching with him for over an hour.

We eat eggs and bacon for breakfast. Bob Nelson is not at the table, but I no longer hear snoring. His car is gone. I stare at the rifle on the wall as we eat. I was expecting to be more nervous this morning about the lack of phone reception, but I care less than I assumed I would.

We hike up a mountain, Yuliana, Grandpa, Maggie, and myself. Apparently it is over 12,000 feet in elevation. The hike is easy for me. I keep well ahead of the others. Then we hike another mountain that is nearly 15,000 feet in elevation. Yuliana moves very slowly. She says, during a rest, that she's done it before, but had forgotten how hard the elevation hits her. She and Maggie end up falling well behind. Grandpa keeps pace with me, but I pull ahead. He stops me and hands me a huge, sheathed bowie knife. The sheath is black leather. I pull the knife out and look at the gleam in the blade. He says that I should have it just in case. I ask just in case of what? He says Lions. I say Don't you need it? He rolls up his sleeve and flexes his nonexistent bicep. I get to the top of the mountain a full half hour before Grandpa, and a full hour before Maggie and Yuliana. They are wheezing and pouring sweat by the time they reach the top. While I waited for them, I sat under a boulder and looked at the knife. The eight-inch blade is thick and razor sharp. I contemplated the idea that her elderly grandfather carries this thing in case he runs into a mountain lion. It seems like a forgone conclusion what would happen in that instance. I check my phone, because perhaps up here I have reception. It's not in my pocket. I left it beside the bed.

*

I'll scorch the earth to find you

*

We arrive at the Denver airport Tuesday afternoon. I check my phone and there is no indication that anyone has called. On the drive back to the Reno airport I had reception but there were no phone calls. I was too scared to call. Yuliana slept with her head on my shoulder during that drive just as she slept with her head on my shoulder during the flight. Her head was heavy and dug in like a drill, but I didn’t move it. I didn’t sleep a wink. Bob Nelson had driven us to the Reno airport. He smoked and drank beers the whole way. The dust of the desert stung my face and dried my eyes and throat. It didn’t bother me. If he crashed or we died in a sandstorm, I wouldn’t have to face Mother. Silver linings.

A strange thing happens at the Denver airport, once we have landed and deplaned. We are supposed to be picked up by Yuliana's parents. But when neither of them is there, Yuliana calls. She has a quick conversation, during which she says very little even though she’s on the line for about four minutes, and at the end of which she looks like she has seen a ghost. After she hangs up the phone she says, "They're coming. Just a little delayed."

“Tell it to me straight,” I say. “How dead am I?”

“My stepmom said something happened. She said it in this kinda way… I don’t know. I think something’s wrong,” she says.

I look into her eyes. I know she’s lying to me. The trap has been set. Yuliana is now complicit in my ultimate grounding. She is the gravedigger.

“Why aren’t they here yet?” I say.

“My dad’s on the way. He got delayed. I don’t know,” she says. She’s nervous and sweating.

“Do you have any money left on you?” I say.

“Why?”

“I’m hungry and my blood sugar is very low. I don’t want to faint. I should get a sandwich.”

Yuliana reaches into her bag and pulls out a twenty.

“Do you want anything?” I say. She shakes her head and then decides better of it. She hands me two fives and says, “That should be enough. Get me whatever. No pork,” she says.

I take the cash and my knapsack and shuffle through the crowded terminal. I find an exit on the other side, and find the taxi sign.

*

The cab rolls through my neighborhood, and still, no one has called my cellphone phone. We are at the end of my street, about four hundred feet away from the house, when I notice police tape. I tell the driver to stop. Neither Mother nor Father’s cars are in the driveway. I notice the police car, just the one. It is parked, and an officer is sitting in the driver’s seat, looking bored. The tape surrounds the house.

“Miss?” the driver says.

I give him the thirty dollars, ten more than the meter says.

“Oh thank you very much! Thank you!” he says as I leave. I close the door very quietly.

I stand in the middle of the road. He drives away. I look at the police car, the tape, the bored officer.

I am fifty feet from the Buffmeirs’ house.

I walk over to the manhole cover. It is light as a feather. A red car drives by, a woman in the driver’s seat. I close the manhole back over my head just to catch her expression as she sees me, her little neighbor, dumping myself into a sewer.

I use the dim light of the cellphone to light my way. I can’t see much in front of me. Even though it is a straight line to my house, the tunnels don’t work that way. I have to turn right farther down the street, then left, well past my house, then left again, and then again. 500 paces, 200, 300, 200. I figure it out myself, when I was down here by myself, weeks ago. I still must have reception down here because Yuliana calls. I do not answer.

I realize now, my feet and lower legs soaking in sewage water, that this decision might be idiotic. I considered the options quickly. If police are waiting for me because I ran away from the airport, then likely there isn’t more than the one. The house must be empty. I will be quick. I will be silent. I will pack a bag and then leave. It occurs to me that it is not very likely that running away from Yuliana at the airport would yield such a response, but if it’s something worse, I don’t want to know. I will pack a bag, and I will leave. Just leave. Somewhere.

I come in through the tunnels, through the basement. I come up to the kitchen and stand. All the windows are closed. The curtains drawn. I've never heard the house this quiet. I creep through the kitchen and the living room. Empty.

I go upstairs and put my bag on my bed. I unpack it and throw everything in my laundry hamper. Some of my clothes are covered in twigs and sand and I make a small mess on my carpet. I sit on the bed, thinking about how much trouble I'm in. Mother will pull me out of school. I nearly laughed when Yuliana suggested I'd be grounded. I don't quite understand how I could let her put me in this position. I feel betrayed. I cry for a few seconds before breathing deeply and forcing myself to stop. My nose leaks mucus and I'm sure I look ridiculous. I look out the window. The one police car sits there. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it if it weren’t for the police tape. My phone rings. Yuliana again. I don’t answer it. I sit there for some time. Then I hear sirens. I look outside, and the police car has left. I hope I did not benefit from someone else’s tragedy.

I go downstairs. The house is somewhat of a mess. The dinner table has plates and glasses on it. In the kitchen, the mess is worse. There are dirty dishes all over; evidence of a meal that was cooked but not cleaned up. I've never seen this kind of mess in my house. I know I am supposed to be hungry, but my stomach is in knots. I open the fridge and there isn’t much there. I pour myself a glass of chocolate milk. I drink it in three gulps and my stomach feels worse.

I turn on the TV. The couch feels uncomfortable. I scroll through channels, not really paying attention. I don’t want to leave. Where would I go? I desperately want to leave. I can go anywhere. I sit with my indecision.

I don't want to watch anything. It's the middle of the afternoon, so nothing much is on. I leave the TV on a fishing show for three minutes and then I keep flipping. I return to the kitchen and look through the fridge again. I don't see anything I want. I stand there, staring at the mess. On one of the plates beside the sink is an earwig. I stare at it, as the pincers on its backside lurk like devil horns. The earwig crawls off the plate and into the sink.

I sit back down on the couch and resume flipping channels. In a flash I see my father's face. I backtrack three channels to CNN and there he is, Father. His face, in the top right corner. I try to listen to what's being said but I can't hear anything. My ears seem as if they are packed with gauze. The man reading the news has no voice. The picture of my father looks a few years old and must be the most unflattering, most serious looking photo of him that exists. A photo I’ve never seen. The news anchor says that since the shooting yesterday, investigators have been baffled, that he was, as far as everyone who knew him is concerned, a normal family man. He says something about my mother. Something about questions.

I use the house phone and call my mother's work number. There is no answer. The news anchor says that they have yet to establish a motive as to why my father shot the woman. I sit on the floor. I very much want to turn off the TV but I can't. They show a picture of the woman. She has blonde hair. She is maybe ten years younger than Mother and in the picture is wearing a university graduation robe. Then the news anchor says something about the five officers that were shot. I call my mother again.

There are interviews. Witnesses. After Father shot the woman he waited in the back of the van for the police to arrive. A witness on the TV, who is crying, and for some reason I am convinced is fake-crying, says all she can recall is how much blood there was on the street. The news anchor confirms that the fifth officer that was shot died in the hospital. A witness says something about seeing a piece of brain on the ground. I can’t believe that was actually said. Did I imagine it? I pictured it. I think I imagined it. My father's picture is back on the TV.

I call Father's work phone. There is no answer. Then I hear the part on the TV I was waiting for. That after Father shot the fifth officer, he was shot. That he is now dead. A witness says thank god no one else was hurt. Thank god they managed to take him down. A witness says bless those officers who gave their lives. They died brave, defending our country from another deranged psychopath.

I watch until it gets dark. I look outside for more police cars but none come. I stop calling Mother. I don't think she is at work. The president speaks about the incident in a press conference. People speak about gun violence. About gun control. About something called homegrown terrorism. I worry that they will show an image of father's body. I dread seeing that. But I can’t turn it off. It occurs to me that this is irrational. Would they show that? They might. I don't know.

I call Yuliana's house. She answers. I say nothing but she knows it's me. She starts crying.

"You should come here," she says. "Stay here with us. I'll get my stepmom to come get – ," she doesn't finish her sentence as there is yelling in the background, her father I think. “My dad is mad you didn’t wait. He’s gonna come pick you up. Are you at home?” I hang up.

It's dark. Late. 10 P.M. I'm alone. The phone rings. I answer it and it is Mother.

"Lily. Thank god you're home. How did you get in the house? Are you with the police?”

“No,” I say. “They’re gone.”

“I want you to listen to me very carefully. Are you listening?" she says.

"Yes."

"I want you to pack a bag, right now. I will be home in half an hour. You and I are going somewhere. We will be gone from home for some time," she says.

"Where are we going?" I say.

"I want you to pack a bag with clothes and be ready for me. Do you understand?" she says.

"Yes."

"I will be home in half an hour."

"Where are we going?"

"Away."

"What about the police?" I say.

She hangs up. I sit, listening to a police chief talk about fallen officers in the line of duty. There's a long segment about the lives of one of the officers who my father killed yesterday. He was a veteran and an occasional volunteer at an animal shelter in Fort Collins.

I go upstairs and pack a bag, the same bag I brought to the cabin. I don't think much about the items I select. I stuff them in, letting them come unfolded. I run into my parents' room and go into the walk-in closet. I find the white shoebox where Father keeps his extra money. I take a large handful of hundred dollar bills and stuff it into my pocket. There is a piece of crumpled paper in the shoebox that catches my eye, because it is the only item that is not money. I uncrumple it and read what looks like some sort of poem.

I am a god of war

I am an angel of death

I'll scorch the earth to find you

I am hellfire, raining down on the impure

I am a collector of severed heads

This is my world. I will set it on fire and find you in the ashes

I am the end of all things

I'll scorch the earth to find you

 

It's written in Father’s handwriting. I put it in my pocket. I start crying very heavily. I cannot stop.

"Stop," I say to myself. I must focus. I rock back and forth.

"Stop. Stop," I say. I regain some composure and then I quickly remove the poem from my pocket. It feels extremely icky to touch the paper, like something horrible, like earwigs all over my skin, and I throw it on the floor. I kick it into the shadows of the closet.

I call a taxi; I remember that the taxi that we took back from the airport had the number on the door, an easy number, one to remember; 222-3422. I ask for a taxi to take me to the airport. I tell them it's urgent.

*

Mother has been calling my cellphone all day. I ask the taxi driver, about a half an hour outside of Reno, if he can lower the window, as he has the child locks on and I can't do it myself. He says it will be very dusty and windy. I say it is just for a second. He lowers it and I throw the cellphone out the window.

"Did you just litter?" he says.

"No."

"I ain't getting no ticket for littering on account of you. This is already an out-of-ordinary length drive. I stay in the city. I'm doing a big favor here. Don't be littering when you're in my car, understand?"

I nod yes. I don't know if he sees me. After an hour of driving, he asks me about my red eyes. I say I'm fine. He hands me a tissue.

He drops me off somewhere near the cabin. It's a heavily wooded road and I can't remember the address. I walk for two hours, in the heat and dense smoke, until I find the road that is very familiar to me. The smoke is much thicker than it was just two days before.

I find the dirt road to the cabin. I walk down the long driveway. The front door is unlocked, but I knock. Yuliana's grandpa comes to the door.

"Oh. Hello."

"Hi," I say.

"What. Are. You. Doing. Here?"

"I… my flight was cancelled. And I really like it here. Can I stay here for a few days?" Grandpa looks around, as if someone could be watching. He looks at his watch. He seems confused.

"Do. Your. Parents. Know. You're. Here?"

"Yes. They understand. Yuliana got on a different flight."

He looks uncertain of what to do, but he lets me in. I sit on the couch. I see his binoculars on the table. I am very thirsty, but I don't want to ask for anything. Grandpa is standing not far from me, contemplating things. He says we should go into town soon and make the appropriate phone calls. I ask if it's alright if I just stay here. He doesn't respond. He walks away, into his bedroom. I think back to my cab ride here and wonder, did I really throw my cellphone out the window? I reach into my pocket and it's still there.

I am in Mother's car, in the passenger seat. We drive in silence. I feel my cellphone in my pocket. We have been driving for nearly two hours. I have asked twice where we are going, but Mother remains silent. The route is unfamiliar to me. I thought I knew virtually every road in and out of Denver for dozens of miles, given all the climbs and excursions Father and I do together. Father.

My bag is in the trunk. I can hear it sliding around. The thought that hurts my head is whether Mother has guns in the car like Father. I don't believe she does, but of course it is possible. Perhaps if she did she would have gotten rid of them.

"What about school?" I say.

"We'll find you a new one," she says.

"Why are we leaving?" I say. "This is because of Father? What he did? Are we in trouble?"

"No," Mother says.

"He never found his One," I say.

Mother looks at me. She looks furious. "What are you talking about?" she says.

"Only One. You said it can only be One. You both said it. He did six."

Mother drives with her face forward, but I can feel she's searching for the right thing to say.

"He had his reasons," is all she can muster.

"No! You said it can only be One! He's a fake! Liar! You're both liars!"

Mother raises her hand and I shield myself. No hands come down on me. We continue to drive and Mother wipes small tears away, even though she is trying to hide it.

We pull into a gas station. Mother fills up the car while I sit in silence. There's a pickup truck beside us with a California license plate. There are four of them, three boys and one girl, all a few years older than me. They seem carefree. One has dreadlocks. There is a surfboard in the bed of the trunk. One of them sees me staring at them and waves at me. I don’t wave back but I want to.

Mother tells me she is going in to pay, to get us sandwiches, and to use the washroom. I stare at the surfers. Everything about them is light, free. They probably live precariously, maybe like nomads, but they appear to be in very high spirits. They are a different kind of human than I am. I lower the window. I believe that if I ask them to take me with them, wherever it is they are going, there is a chance they will say yes. I look towards the front door of the gas station and still see no sign of Mother. I look back to the truck. The surfers are all looking at me now. They can feel me watching them.

"Hey," the girl says. I stick my head out the window.

"Hi," I say.

Grandpa says that we must evacuate the cabin. There is now an emergency fire advisory for the area, and the forest fires may strike as soon as five or six hours from now. He says we can try to drive into town, but the roads will close soon, so we must hurry. They may already be closed. I sit at the table, eating the turkey sandwich that he has prepared for me. I stare at the rifle on the wall. Grandpa says that he's going to use the washroom, and then we must leave. I nod.

If he takes me into town, he will surely call home. All this will be over. I'll be forced to go back.

Once we're driving again, Mother asks me who those young people were. I say I don't know. She says that I spoke to them so I must know who they were. I'm not hungry, but I bite into my turkey sandwich so she won't bother me about it.

"They were surfers," I say.

"Do they know who you are? Did you tell them anything about yourself? About us?" Mother says.

I just shake my head. I can see in the side-view mirror that the truck is behind us. Perhaps they'll follow us and stop at the next place where we stop. There's still time. There's still time to ask for them to take me with them. It's still possible. In front of us are fields. Endless fields. Rockies pockmark the horizon. I could climb a mountain. Even if they don't stop where we stop, when we stop next, I could run. Into the fields. Up a mountain. I could run. Mother is not fit. She would never catch me. I could run into a field and never come back.

Grandpa goes to use the washroom, and immediately I get up and approach the rifle on the wall. It is too high for me to reach so I push a chair up to the wall and stand on the chair. I try to take it down, but the rifle is locked in place and I don't have a key. I descend. I pace around the cabin. I notice, resting on the table near the front door, is Grandpa's sheathed bowie knife. I pick it up. I clip the sheath onto my shorts. I exit the cabin out the back door. The smoke is thick and my eyes burn. I stand on the spot where Grandpa normally stands. I look down, but it's too difficult to tell if they are there from this distance. I make my descent. Down into the valley. It is rocky and steep, so I must be careful, but Father and I have done worse descents than this. I slip and scrape my knee. It stops me for a few minutes, as the initial scrape is quite painful. Then I continue. Down, down into that huge valley, into the river. I'm up to my thighs in water now. The water is freezing and very refreshing. The smoke is slightly better down here. I creep, very slowly, and then step inadvertently into a deep spot. My head is submerged underwater. I emerge, as slowly as possible, just so my head peaks above the water. I see them. They are there, in their spot. The mother is resting while the cubs wrestle. I watch them, mostly submerged. The mother smells the air. Why haven't they left? The fires will devour them. I hold the grip of the knife under the water. Slowly, as slowly as I can, I surface. First just my shoulders. Father taught me how to move like water in water, how not to make a sound. I emerge, and the mother sees me. I emerge, knife in hand. The mother is standing, but the cubs are oblivious. The mother growls at me. I stare at her. She approaches, one step, another step, wound tight as death , her teeth bared. Her fangs are dripping. I take a step toward her. I feel the knife in my hand. It is an extension of me. The mother growls, and arches her back. I hold the knife firmly in my hand. Smoke fills my eyes.

About the Author

Derek Fisher

Website

Derek Fisher is a Phd Candidate in English Literature at Texas A&M University, though Canadian, and based in Toronto. He teaches English at Seneca College and bartends part-time. He's written fiction his whole life, including two quirky, dystopian novels, both of which are resting cosily on his computer.