The phone alarm went off, startling James awake as if some natural disaster siren was going off, signaling the end of times. As he rubbed his heavy eyes, in his head, the moving pictures of people: men, women, and children; they all panicked as they fled in horror in every direction. Some, if not most, streaked through the streets in a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and oranges that burned brilliantly, even during the day.
James sighed as the vision had been burned into his retinas, forever imprinted as a reminder of that day. Slowly he got out of bed and went to the broken window. Peering out through the remnants of broken glass, he watched as the dark clouds danced off in the far distance with the wind. Below them, the inferno still raged. Still, it consumed.
He looked down at the small sleeping bag that cradled his daughter. James smiled to himself. Though he was miles apart from his wife, he knew that in the end, everything would be alright. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself. James crept slowly to his makeshift bed and sat down. Beside him, on the floor was a dusty and slightly singed diary. A gift that his wife had given him before she left overseas for work.
He opened it up to where she had written a note to him: I will always be with you. I love you, James. — Mary
Thumbing through the pages, he stopped on a specific journal entry. The day when he had said goodbye to her. He had just picked up his daughter from school when it became “Hell on Earth…” at least the West Coast did. It slowly spread to the east, and towards Mexico and Canada. Most of California was no more, just ashen ruins. Quick sketches and descriptions of how the fire spread, scorching LA, Silicon Valley, Wine Country, everything. There were reports that it was a series of napalm bombs set off during the worst drought the US had ever have. Others claimed that it was the result of a nuke going off. While others grasped at concepts of it being an act of God, aliens, or some other absurdities.
James sighed as he flipped through more pages. One where on another day he and his daughter went to a cemetery that overlooked the land below that blazed. Taking a break from their eastern trip, they sat and watched the plumes add their brushstrokes to the sky; dampening the azure to a dark gray in swift strokes. He had found some ceremonial wine in the abandoned church. Taking one of the paper cups he had saved, he sipped and watched on. His daughter ran and laughed; making sure to visit the graves and apologizing if she stepped on those that were hardly visible.
Part of him was glad it had all happened. Another part of him felt for the families that were displaced, and for the innocence that was snuffed out. He only knew, though that he need to be alive because they needed him.
A few streams of tears rolled down his cheeks. It had been a few days since he had last talked to his wife. Every time they would attempt to communicate, it’d be hard to understand one another. He looked through the last few messages his wife had sent him. Some were from Mary’s business trip in Tokyo when the cherry blossoms were blooming; another was from Paris at night. The most recent were about her coming back to the States and them being together again.
He stared at the contact photo. He ran his right index finger over the photo.
“I miss you…so much,” he whispered, struggling not to cry outright.
He sniffled and tried to maintain his composure. He had thoughts, thoughts that they would meet again, be a family once more, that they would be happy. That they would meet at the airport and see each other at the baggage claim and finally, hold one another. He silently laughed at the thought, believing it to be such a movie script ending.
A beep came over the phone, drawing his attention. I am leaving for Boston today. I’ll try to get a closer flight over from there. I love you and miss you.
He swiped on the screen, replying “I love you and miss you too.”
The phone then got tucked into his pants pocket. He stood up and wrangled on his fireman’s jacket, a relic he kept from “Old California.” He retrieved some canned food from a gym bag and prepared to heat it over a fire outside.
He knelt down and stirred his daughter from her sleep. She smiled at her father and said: “thank you.” He gave her a pat on the head. Together the pair ate in silence, except where in the distance aircraft could be heard flying. They still attempted to put it out. He believed it was a farce and that nature would win in the end. The inferno was something not natural, though, but not anything he had ever encountered. Water had little effect, the fire retardants had no effect, the dirt barriers were ineffective. Everything that they could use to hinder it, stop it, whatever, was useless.
Once they had finished eating, the father and daughter set off to continue their journey. As they walked, he listened to the hand crank radio. There was still no exact cause of the fire, and it was not suspected to be terrorism; though many voiced otherwise. They had no exact method to combat the fire, the death toll was in the millions, and the West Coast was an inhabitable zone and now known as Hades.
Some people voiced concern that this was a stunt for the newly elected president, but things had gotten out of control, and now they had no hopes of containing their mess. Conspiracies from the left and right flew across the airwaves, while cries for help and emergency broadcasts would crackle in and out.
Night had come, drowning out the sun. The father and daughter made a small fire near the Oaktree that sheltered them. As he made dinner for the pair, he looked off into the distance at the moon that peered through some of the trees. It nearly resembled a man with crooked teeth smiling back. He chuckled to himself silently.
James dialed his wife’s phone number and talked with her briefly, giving her an update on the day’s travels. He looked to his daughter.
“Heather, do you want to talk to your mom?” James asked, moving the phone away from his ear.
His daughter gave a big nod and set off to taking the phone and talking to Mary, who tried not to cry on the other line. All flights were grounded for now, as the inferno had helped produce some wicked weather that now spread to other parts of the world. It was foretold that we would become trapped on earth, with the sun blocked out by the haze. Fiery Tornadoes were made and observed. There was even a typhoon that carried the part of the inferno across the Pacific. The ocean was soon becoming a sea of fire. All hope that anyone had was now diminishing, fast.
He turned the radio off, and took the phone from his daughter, having said goodnight to her mother.
“I am sorry I’m not there,” Mary said.
“It’s OK. It’s not your fault,” James said.
“I know, but I just really want to be home with you two,” Mary choked out. “I don’t even know if they’re going to let flights even take off anymore with all the stuff they’re saying in the news.”
“Don’t listen to them. We’ll find a way. If anything, you could try to take a boat,” James said calmly.
“Yeah, yeah I guess,” Mary said, trying not to cry.
“We’ll be alright. Everything will be alright.” He said, hoping his words would encourage her, though he contemplated them otherwise.
“I hope so,” she said exhaling. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Get some sleep. I’ll call tomorrow,” Mary said.
They both stayed on the line. James held the phone close to his chest, knowing that Mary couldn’t sleep. He stayed awake for a while before hanging up, figuring she had fallen asleep.
He whispered, “I love you,” before disconnecting the call.
James took the hand crank charger and plugged it in the phone. He cranked until his arms tired and he slowly fell asleep. The last sight was the man with the crooked teeth waving him goodnight with the gentle breeze.
When morning came, there was the sound of crackling and the familiar smell of wood burning. James scrambled to his feet and searched for Heather. The flames were abnormally close. He looked to the sky that was dark gray, a storm had come and had helped fan the flames eastward, hot on their heels. He dashed over and woke his daughter and together, they gathered their things and set off in a rush.
As they wandered eastbound, James noticed there was a message from Mary. I found a charter that will take me across the Atlantic. I’ll see you soon. Stay safe. I love you.
The message was from several hours ago. James smiled to himself. Even amidst the chaos, he still clung to some hope. He, like many others, had prayed for rain, but it didn’t matter. The fire kept going strong, and by the news reports on the radio, there were very few places that were untouched. The supposed safe zones were around the various mountain ranges. Still, James kept this hope; not only for himself and his family but for others…for humanity.
They came across a road that was quiet. It probably hadn’t been traveled on for a while now. Few vehicles littered the sides. He was more familiar with the highway being lit up, with the passing cars mimicking beacons. James wagered he could perhaps get one of them to work, and they could drive the rest of the way versus walking.
One by one, he tried the automobiles and trucks. None of them had life remaining, and he was ill-equipped even to service any of them. At the very least, they could offer shelter from the fast approaching storm.
“Parts of the Midwest are now gone. With firefighters trying different strategies to keep the fire from spreading past the Rockies. The western coast of Canada has been scorched and is now part of Hades. The cold temperatures seem to have some effect on the fire, leading some scientists to propose using liquid nitrogen to help combat the fire. The first field test will take place tomorrow morning as the coming severe storm system is giving the fire great strength in spreading.” The man reported over the radio broadcast.
The voice changed to a more determined tone, “For those still trying to escape eastward, there is still hope. We are still fighting. Don’t give up.”
James turned the radio off and looked in the rearview mirror to his now sleeping daughter. He glanced out the driver side window, noting the streaks of gray, black, and intermingling white. Off in the distance, he could see the orange glow of the pursuing inferno.
James awoke some time later to the light of a passing car. He attempted to get their attention by flashing the high beams on the car. The car slowed down and reversed in his direction. He conversed with the driver who was taking his family of four. There was little room, but they could spare a little room and take him and his daughter to the nearest refuge center.
He picked up his sleeping daughter and sat in the back cargo area with her. He reached for the phone in his pocket to send his wife a text message. We got a ride from a family to the evacuation camp in Colorado. Denver is still taking flights. I’m going to sleep for a little while. I love you.
James tucked the phone back in his coat and closed his eyes. Thankful for the chance of being able to ride instead of walking. His chest swelled with hope. Maybe…
The van arrived at the evacuation center. Guards asked for IDs from the man driving and from anyone else that was present in the vehicle. Once cleared, they were instructed to park at a designated mass pool, where it resembled a junkyard almost more than anything.
There were crowds of people. Some worked at the medicinal tent, while others worked at the food center, and others worked at servicing vehicles. People were helping people; this is what he was used to. It was something he was familiar with, being part of a unit.
A military personnel approached him. “Excuse me, sir, but are you a firefighter?”
“Yes, sir, I am, LAFD,” James replied.
“Great. We need more volunteers, and especially those with firefighting experience. Can you come with me, please?” asked the militant.
“Sure, but what about my daughter?” James asked.
“She will be watched by one of our matrons. Don’t worry; you’re not being deployed…yet.”
James nodded and gave a look over his shoulder, Heather still slept.
The center’s firefighting unit was massive, some thousands of people all lined up in rows. All poised and ready to take back from nature.
A well-dressed and medal heavy colonel stood and addressed the masses. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are going to be taking part of the field test of Defense of the Rockies tomorrow morning.”
A lot of chatter erupted, with some saying they didn’t sign up to be shipped out so soon, while others cheered. The man raised his hands, “I thank you for your service, as does your country…as does the world. We are hoping that the liquid nitrogen bombs, coupled by your fire suppressants, will be enough to weaken or extinguish the flames.”
The colonel stepped down from the podium and continued his address. “We are the last line of defense for the East. Other countries are taking extreme countermeasures; some even going as bold as nuking affected areas. While those are effective, to a degree, we are not going to throw away lives callously.”
He paused as he looked at the crowd. “I believe we will win the war against this…Inferno, that we are the snowball chance in Hell. It is in these dark times, where we are our strongest, putting aside all differences and striving for the greater good.”
Some members of the crowd chanted back, “the greater good.”
“Tomorrow, we will stand victorious. I wish you all well. Dismissed!” the colonel said, following up with a salute.
Back at his assigned tent, James spoke to Heather. “I am going to go tomorrow, to fight the Inferno, to help beat it.”
“Are you going to kill it finally?” she asked cuddling with her stuffed teddy bear.
“I hope so,” he said with a smile.
“When will you be back?” she asked.
“Hopefully tomorrow, unless the test fails,” he replied.
“What about Mama?”
“I will talk to her and find out,” he said patting her on the head. “For now, get some sleep. I need you to be strong, alright, sweetie?”
“I will,” she said.
He gave a kiss on her forehead, and tucked her in, “I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you too, daddy.”
James walked outside the tent and searched for his phone buried in his coat pocket. He took it out and dialed his wife’s number, with it going to voicemail.
“Hey, honey. I wanted to call you and let you know that I am going to the field test to help fight the fire. The military said they’ll watch over Heather via matron and other volunteers. I’ll let you know when I get back. I love you and hope you got over safely.” He ended the phone call and sighed.
James put on his earbuds and listened to the news. He stopped on the headline where a ship had sunk in the Atlantic recently, due to a crack in the hull. James’ heart immediately sank to his stomach. He frantically called his wife’s phone, only to hear it go to voicemail. There was nothing he could do. He had already felt far away from her as it were, with these last few months being in chaos. Thousands of miles in between them, events kept them separated. It seemed to be the will of someone or something wanting to drive the wedge in deeper and deeper. He could handle walking, hell, even crawling to her, but the distance now…it was so much farther than ever before. The only thought he could muster was that he needed her close, and now. But, it was all for naught.
James went to sleep that night crying silently. With the images, he had of their trips, family photos, voice recordings to help keep his sanity. He still had a job to do, and a life to live. Not for him, but for her.
Men and women of various ages stood shoulder to shoulder with James. They all were equipped with oxygen tanks, masks, hoses, shovels, and so on. They dug a trench that was miles long and cleared brush and materials that would help fuel the blaze. Overhead, planes flew, circling, ready to release the payload on the ordered mark.
One by one, the firefighters retreated to the alleged safe distance and watched as the bombs fell from the sky. It sounded like glass shattering and soda pop fizzle. Ash and dirt were kicked up and mixed with the dust. They peered through their masks, all that hope that swelled. The fire was no more. Cheers erupted from the crowds. The word was out; victory was at hand.
Hours passed, and the news around the globe was that the fire was being combated, pushed back to extinction. It would take a few days, but the job would be done, and humanity would stand as the victor. James felt happy that he had been part of the solution and in combating the inferno. Also, though, he was sad because of the gnawing loss that still ate at him. He couldn’t bear to bring the news to his daughter and constantly deflected the notion. He would have to come to terms…
Back in his tent, Heather asked the question he had wanted to avoid so much. “Daddy, when is mommy coming home?”
“Honey, mommy…mommy isn’t coming home,” he said with tears falling.
“What do you mean?” Where’s mommy? What happened to mommy?” she asked, the millions of questions he knew she would be asking.
He hugged his daughter tight, “I’m so sorry, sweetie.” He struggled to keep composure as he told her the story of the ship going down in the ocean.
The pair cried together, while the crowd cheered and congratulated one another on the job well done.
A day had passed, and there was not much left of the Inferno. Efforts were tripled, and soon, the West Coast had been reclaimed, and countries around the world began rebuilding. Plans for memorials and finding out the exact composition of the Inferno, and how it came to be were put in motion.
James and Heather remained at the evacuation center for a short time. There was a rumor he heard from some military personnel that there were some survivors of the sunken vessel. One, in particular, happened to be making their way to the Denver airport.
After some hours of conversing and negotiating, James was able to arrange transportation to the airport. Together the father and daughter ventured, clinging to hope. Once arriving at the airport, they thanked the soldiers for the ride and set off for the perhaps finding the alleged survivor.
Hours passed, the day turned to night. His daughter fell asleep, with her head in his lap. James’ eyes were heavy, but the thought of seeing his wife fueled him to stay awake. A woman’s voice came over the intercom, declaring the flight from Boston had arrived. He continued to sit and wait, hoping.
All the passengers had departed, but none of them looked like her. Hope seemed to leave him. Reality slowly began to set in. She was gone.
As James slowly reached his feet, cradling Heather, and began to walk away, one more person got off the plane.
That voice, he knew it belonged to only one person. He turned around and saw Mary. They ran to each other and embraced; a family reunited at last. They hugged one another tightly and cried. Some people in the airport clapped and cheered. They were whole again, and everything was going to be alright.
*Inspired by the music of Death Cab for Cutie