That summer the forests surrounding our town were leveled by fires, and the air was so saturated with smoke and ash that your face got streaked with soot the moment you stepped outside. The soot smudged with sweat in the heat, even if you were only walking to the mailbox and back, and your mouth was full with a taste like muddy toast whether you left the house or not, no matter how many times you brushed your teeth and tongue.
Most of the neighbors went to stay with relatives in other towns and states; others checked into hotels and campgrounds far from the fires, but Mom and Dad refused to leave, because, they said, we had nowhere else to go.
Really, though, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Dad took up painting, muraled the walls of our finished basement with a tropical scene that betrayed his lack of formal training and the fact that he’d never been to the tropics. Beneath a dense canopy of palms and what looked like the birches burning just beyond our neighborhood, a monkey clutching a mango rode a crocodile bareback, while a vulture lunged from a thick branch, its beak eager for the rattlesnake slithering up the trunk.
Mom dragged the dog’s house from the backyard into ours, hung drywall inside of it to divide the space into a living room, a bedroom, a bath, furnished it with pieces from an old dollhouse I’d abandoned to my sister who’d abandoned it to a closet. When she was finished, the thing was wildly out of scale and not even the smallest dog would have fit inside, but it didn’t matter, because our dog, which had not been small at all, had died three summers earlier.
My sister and I enjoyed ourselves less. I would have imagined I’d be the one to take it harder. I was fifteen, had friends, a boyfriend. They’d all left, and I couldn’t help imagining them recreating my social life without me in a setting not unlike the one Dad’s mural depicted. My sister, on the other hand, was a homebody, her gangliness somehow ganglier than that of the average twelve year old. Her plans for the summer, if you could call them plans, consisted of reading several books a day, letting those teen romances about tragic first love, suicide, and hitchhiking prom queen ghosts, stand in for a life she was not yet ready, might never be ready, to live.
I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just keep her plans under the circumstances, couldn’t understand how the smell of the smoke changed her situation at all, but she seemed to grow skinnier, pale, more awkward each day. When the power finally went out and we realized the phone lines were down, she fainted like the heroine of an eighteenth century novel.
By the time we got her revived and lying on the couch with her feet up, my father seemed even happier than before.
“We can pretend like we’re completely cut off from the outside world,” he said. “Pioneer settlers on an undiscovered continent.”
“Atlantis,” said my mother.
“The American Family Robinson,” said my father. He told my sister: “You could be the one to tell our story.”
Nothing he might have said could have made me feel worse. Before the power had gone out, I’d felt like we were on another planet, but even interplanetary explorers needed electricity, air conditioning. We couldn’t open the windows because of the smoke, and the air inside the house was already hot and thick and stifling. It seemed to make my sister feel better. Once she was strong enough to get up from the couch, she went to her room and rearranged her desk, lined up paper, pencils, erasers, prepared to tell the story of the American Family Robinson.
Later that night I stood on the back deck and watched my parents swim naked in the pool by the light of the not-too-distant fires. Animals scurried from wood to wood across the lawn. Flames flickered between patches and masses of smoke. It looked like someone had uprooted the Garden of Eden and grafted it onto hell. My mother broke the surface of the water, arching her back, and tossing her head. A shower of sprinkles flew from her long, dark hair like sparks. My father swam over to embrace her, and I couldn’t take it any longer. I had never seen them so happy.
In her room, my sister sat facing the window, hunched over her desk, scribbling our story, or her version of it, I assumed, by candlelight. I stood in her doorway and tried to clear my throat to get her attention, but my throat was dry from the smoke and I ended up hacking until my eyes watered and my stomach muscles ached. When I looked up, I saw that she’d turned to face me.
“Are you okay?” she said.
“I’m okay,” I said.
I was as okay as I could be under the circumstances. But she seemed to be doing better than okay, better than I’d seen her in a long time, before the fires, even. There was some color in her face, and she’d already started to fill out a little.
“Okay,” she said.
She turned around, lifted a sheet of paper covered in her bubbly girl handwriting, and held the edge to the candle’s flame. Once the paper caught, she dropped it into the metal wastebasket beside her desk where it joined others like it to judge by the smoke and ashes that floated above the rim. She took a pencil from a jar and held it over a clean sheet.
I stepped into her room as she began to write again. I was curious what she was up to, and maybe jealous that she’d found a way to fill her time.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, pencil scratching slowly.
“The world’s ending,” I said, “and Mom and Dad have lost it.”
I watched the back of her head bob, nodding or just bouncing to the rhythm of her writing. I took a couple of steps toward her.
“If we make it through this it’ll be up to us to start over,” I said.
She stopped writing and turned around, but didn’t say anything. I took two more steps her way. I was close enough to reach out and put my fingertips on her shoulder, but I didn’t.
“We’ll have to repopulate the world,” I said. “I’m older,” I said, “so I’ll be the husband.”
As I said it, I watched her expression go from one of mild annoyance, like her silly sister was distracting her from her life’s work, to the kind of frightened anxiety I remembered seeing on her face when she was a toddler and realized she’d done something very wrong. She knew she’d done something wrong.
The pencil fell from her hand and hit the carpet with a small, sharp pop. I bent down to get it for her, but by the time I got back up she was standing, and then she was running past me. I heard her feet on the stairs and the front door slamming.
I stood there a minute looking at the pencil, and then I walked slowly to the window and watched her running, from what and toward what I didn’t know; the only thing for her to get away from was our house, us, me, and wherever you ran that summer, you were running toward the flames.
I started to look down at the paper on her desk. I wanted to know what she’d written, but for some reason I grabbed the sheet without looking down, held it to the flame, and dropped it into the basket.
We never found her, and for a long time we assumed she’d been lost in the fire that somehow spared our neighborhood. Eventually we accepted this, and things went back to something like a routine, if not normal. But then, years later, after I’d moved across the country and started my life anew, I received a postcard from somewhere in Oklahoma. It was written in a simple script I didn’t recognize, and there was no signature. It said: “I am no one’s wife.”
Even after all those years of forgetting I knew right away who’d sent it, as I later knew who sent the ones that came from New York, Tunisia, Algiers, and Tibet.
I am no one’s wife.
I am no one’s wife.
I am no one’s wife.
I am no one’s wife.
My only question was whether she was answering my final suggestion, or repeating what she’d written on that last piece of paper. Why she would have been writing that on that smoky summer evening, I can’t guess, but I can’t guess why she would have run, either. She had to have known I was joking, that no two girls could repopulate the world.
Now that I’m older and have a family of my own, a husband and two daughters, and a house with a yard and a pool, I often sit by the window on a hot summer night and imagine fire surrounding our neighborhood. But instead of inviting my husband out for a swim or checking in on the girls as they sleep, I picture myself walking down the stairs and out the front door. I see myself following the crackle and hiss into the forest until I find my sister towering above it all, clothed in a blaze, and she reaches down to lift the ring of fire from around my little world and slips it onto my tiny finger, igniting my gown in flames.