Fire Escape

Fiction, Prose

Somewhere in the middle of my tasks I heard the bell above the door ding. Before I saw who it was I dashed back behind the counter, where I felt a rush of air and heard a buzzing noise, almost as loud as a lawnmower. A fly about the size of a large cat landed on counter near the register. “Hi,” it said. “My name is Mary.”

Fiction by Eric Rasmussen


The animals all came down the mountain to escape the fires on the other side, and I sat with my dad on his deck to watch. “Coming out of the woods now, I think that’s a bighorn sheep.” He passed me his binoculars and pointed at where I should look, then gestured for them back to locate the next unbelievable discovery. “I want to see a mountain lion. How fucking cool would that be?”

Mold speckled the canvas webbing on Dad’s only chairs, but I pretended not to notice. He leaned over and refilled my plastic cup with beer from his can. “That’s not too much for a fourteen-year-old, right?”

“I’m seventeen.”

Most dads would have been embarrassed, but mine didn’t even pause. “Then you can handle it for sure.” He picked up the binoculars again. “This is just like that scene in Bambi.”

“I never saw it.”

He stared at me, his expression too dumbfounded, like he was acting for a little kid. “No daughter of mine is going to get away with missing Bambi. We have to fix that.”

With the binoculars he scanned the tree line at the bottom of the mountain, a half-mile away from us across a stubbly field. “Holy shit, that’s a wolf. I’ve never seen one in the wild.” I squinted but I couldn’t pick it out. We sat there under the gray sky surrounded by the smell of smoke and a forest full of animals with nowhere to go, their homes burning behind them and the relentless ocean waiting a couple miles ahead, and the whole scene was one that would normally feel really sad. But not this time. I was having a nice evening. It was no Lifetime movie with violins swelling in the background or anything, but this was about the most my dad had spoken to me since I moved in with him a year earlier, after Mom left.

*          *          *

We hadn’t seen anything for twenty minutes when I grabbed the binoculars out of Dad’s hands and pressed them to my face.

“You got something?” he asked. “What is it?”

I didn’t respond because I couldn’t figure out how to describe what I saw. It was a deer, I’d seen those before, but it was carrying something on its back. It looked like a boy, except without any arms, and he was made of glass. With the binoculars I could see the trees refracted through him, and maybe it was some trick of the light with a plastic bag or whatever, except his mouth moved when he talked and he gestured with his head wherever he wanted the deer to go.

“Tell me,” dad insisted.

I didn’t know what to say, so I handed him the binoculars instead. He stared at the creature, then nodded. “Yep. Everyone’s coming, I suppose.”

“Who?” I asked.

“You’ll see. Lots of different folks live out in the woods, and they need new homes too. All of them.”

*          *          *

For a couple weeks everyone who seemed to know about those sorts of things—weathermen, news reporters, my dad—insisted that we had nothing to worry about. The fires would burn out in the inland valleys and anyway, the wind would protect us, as if Jesus was up there huffing and puffing to keep us safe. And no one was more convinced than Carol, my manager at the sandwich shop.

“You don’t have a single thing to worry about,” she would say to customers whose fire conversations she overheard.

“Hopefully,” they would respond without looking up from the spread of ingredients behind the glass.

“Hopefully nothing.” Carol pulled on her clear plastic gloves before loading up their ham or tuna footlongs. “There’s not even a possibility, with the way the wind works around here. Save yourself the stress and think about something else.”

Even though she was a know-it-all, I liked Carol, especially after she found out how my mom left. She only had step-kids, and they were almost graduated by the time she hooked up with their dad, so I think she had a bunch of leftover motherly instinct. During our shifts together she would ask if I ate breakfast and tell me if my clothes weren’t clean enough or didn’t match. It was annoying, but a little cute too, which was the same way everyone felt about her fire comments. Some of the customers rolled their eyes when she wasn’t looking, but deep down they were comforted. Fires are scary. Who wouldn’t want to hear that they didn’t have to worry?

When the fires proved her wrong and started coming up the other side of the mountain, Carol stopped talking about them. We only discussed sandwiches and sandwich ingredients, and that lasted a couple days until the folks from the woods started showing up at the shop. Then Carol got to be an expert again.

It was after the lunch rush on a Tuesday when the first fire refugee—that was Carol’s term for them—came in. I was slicing onions in the back when she said, “Regina, could you come up here please?”

The guy standing in the middle of the shop was tall with an insanely long beard and bright neon-green eyes. He didn’t blink the entire time he stood there. His face was the color of an old softball glove, and he had long, deep cracks running up and down his cheeks. What shocked me, though, were his arms. He let them hang at his sides, and they were so long they reached below his knees. He gestured at the menu board, then crossed his freaky arms, then gestured again, his mouth moving behind his beard like he was working himself up to say something. Finally he did.

“What’s cheapest?”

“Ham, turkey, or veggie,” said Carol. “They’re all the same price. $3.75.”

“I don’t got that.” His voice boomed loud and low, like he didn’t know how to talk inside. “I got maybe half that.”

“Then we can’t help you. I’m very sorry.” Carol rested her hands on the cutting board that ran the length of the ingredient spread and stared until the guy turned and left. When he opened the door we could smell the smoke. It reminded me of making s’mores with my mom when I was a kid.

Carol looked at me, not sad herself, but with her brow scrunched and a frown like she expected me to be sad. “I wanted to help him out, truly. But if I did he’d tell all his friends that we’re giving away food, and they would absolutely mob us.”

“I didn’t see any friends.”

“You’ve never been to the woods, have you?” Carol picked out a piece of browning lettuce, then jiggled the pickle container so they’d flatten out. “I have, and you wouldn’t believe the freaks who live out there. Some have never left the forest their entire lives, but they’re coming our way now. Just you wait. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

*          *          *

The sandwich shop had a strict corporate policy: old food had to be thrown away. We tried not to waste much, but what didn’t get eaten was disposed of in a padlocked dumpster out back. When Carol and I worked together, that was my job. At the end of the shift that Tuesday I grabbed the garbage bag of stale bread and expired ham and the keyring that hung next to the mop bucket station, then headed to the alley out back. Even though I’m not someone who ever breaks rules, this time I had to. It was for Dad. Once I chucked the bag in, I didn’t relock the padlock, positioning it instead so it only looked closed. Then, after we cleaned up and secured the front doors and Carol drove away in her minivan, I headed to the dumpster, grabbed the garbage bag, and threw it in the back of my old green station wagon.

That car was the last thing my mom gave me before she left. We rode together in it to the DMV for my driver’s test, she walked home after we got there to “take care of a few things,” and by the time I got back she was gone. (What if I hadn’t passed? Scary thought.) She left a note explaining that since I now had everything I needed to survive on my own, she was moving to Reno or maybe Los Angeles. And she wrote her phone number on the bottom like I hadn’t memorized it as a kid, like it wasn’t already in my phone.

I had a lot of decisions to make that afternoon. I couldn’t afford the rent for mom’s apartment on my part-time sandwich shop wages, and none of my friends’ parents would be open to letting me stay with them. School had a shelter program for homeless kids, but I didn’t want to take one of those spots from someone who really needed it. So that’s how I came to live with my dad, even though it’s kind of a strange situation. We only met a handful of times when I was kid, so I never got the chance to figure him out, but after staying with him for almost a year I was able to develop some theories. Lots of drugs, some mental problems perhaps. I don’t know. Maybe he used to live in the woods on the other side of the mountain too. He had big eyes and tight skin and shaky hands, and I’ve never met anyone who was more comfortable with silence. Hours, days, months of silence.

Dad worked nights as a security guard, so he was always gone by the time I got home. I took the garbage bag of food into the big field of crackly dry grass behind his rundown bungalow. No animals had come much past the tree line, but maybe I could attract some. I tore the bread into pieces, ripped the lunch meat into strips, and scattered it all in a wide arc around the house. Maybe it would help him see something really cool. And the more animals that came close, the more we’d have to talk about.

*          *          *

Carol paused before unlocking the door to open the shop on Wednesday morning, staring at me as I transferred a tray of bread out of the oven.

“What?” I asked.

“I can’t believe summer’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with you during the day.”

She meant it, as far as I could tell. But it still felt weird. Did she think I needed to hear stuff like that?

“Thanks Carol. I’ll miss you too. But I’ll be here pretty much every day after school.”

“I know. Still, it won’t be the same.” She turned the key and used the towel draped over her shoulder to wipe at a smudge on the glass. “And let me know if you want a few days off each week so you can join an activity or something. You should take advantage of your time in school.”

“Maybe.” The bins of toppings looked so fresh and colorful, even more than normal since outside the smoke settled all over town and coated everything in a gray layer of soot. “Probably not. I need the money.”

The first few customers were the regulars: people picking up sandwiches before work, the old guy who starts every morning off with a turkey sub, no cheese, heavy oil. Then the fire refugees started coming in. A woman with dreadlocks that dragged on the floor. A couple teenage boys who I swear to god had horns, and not those weird little ones that the body-mod kids implant in their foreheads. They were real devil-looking horns growing just beyond their hairlines. Carol kept sneaking looks my way, using her eyebrows to say, “Check this one out,” or, “Here we go again.”

Right before the lunch rush this guy came in wearing an old army jacket and dusty jeans. His face was shiny like he was wearing some sort of mask. Darth Vader maybe? At first he didn’t register as all that weird compared to the people who had stopped in so far that morning, but then he got closer and I could see that his head, as far as I could tell, was actually a bowling ball. I think the two finger holes on top were his eyes. The thumb hole was for sure his mouth, though, because it moved when he talked. He had an accent like the tourists we sometimes get from the Midwest. Minnesota, Iowa, places like that. My heart rate raced a little, but I tried not to stare or act shocked. I didn’t want to be rude.

“Where’s your bathroom?” asked the guy.

Carol looked him right in the eyes. Or, finger holes. “I apologize, but our bathroom is out of order.”

“No way.”

He was right. The bathroom was fine, but Carol shook her head. “Maybe you can try the Walgreens down the street.”

“If I buy something, can I use the bathroom?”

Carol had to think fast so he didn’t catch her in a lie. “With a purchase we can let you use the women’s room.”

“Do you have any day-old bread?”

“No.”

“How much is coffee?”

“$1.99.”

“For coffee? That’s insane.” If the guy’s bowling ball head was a mask, I didn’t understand how it worked. The thumb hole moved just like you would expect in order to make all the words he was saying. When he looked around the store his head moved like a normal head, and his finger hole eyes closed every once in a while, like he was blinking. “It’s not like I want to be here, you know. My home just burned up. I’ve got nowhere else go.”

Carol nodded. “We all have a lot to deal with because of those fires. It is a tough, tough time, for sure.” She looked up at the menu then back at me. “But the bathroom is on the fritz, I’m not making that up. I can get you a small soda for $1.29.”

“Wow,” said the guy before he pushed out the door.

Carol waited until he was gone. “My heavens, what kind of weird-o was he?” Then she launched into an explanation about corporate policy and cleaning up after someone like that, but I didn’t pay attention. She was normally pretty nice. Why couldn’t the guy just use the bathroom?

I didn’t feel like talking the rest of the shift, but we were busy all afternoon so Carol didn’t notice that I was snubbing her. For every five regular customers another person from the woods came in. Most of them bought sandwiches—the guy with scales all over his face, the woman who gave off so much heat the glass rippled when she touched it. At 3:30 Carol took her break with a meatball sub (like she did everyday), which meant I was on my own when the craziest customer of the afternoon stopped in.

The restaurant was as dead as normal in right before dinner, so I did what I was supposed to do when no one’s around: sweep under the tables, cover all the ingredient bins, rotate the bottles of milk in the cooler. Somewhere in the middle of my tasks I heard the bell above the door ding. Before I saw who it was I dashed back behind the counter, where I felt a rush of air and heard a buzzing noise, almost as loud as a lawnmower. A fly about the size of a large cat landed on counter near the register. “Hi,” it said. “My name is Mary.”

She didn’t have a human voice, but it wasn’t a fly voice either. If it was a cartoon I would have expected a buzzing formed into human syllables, but she spoke in a thin, high tone, but garbled like she had terrible laryngitis.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I need help. I’m starving.”

“I’m sorry, but…”

She kept talking like she had this speech planned and if anyone interrupted her, she’d forget. “I don’t have any money but I’d be happy to work. I can clean. I’m good at cleaning.”

I had no idea what part of her huge fly eyes to look at. “I feel really bad, but I can’t do anything for you. I want to, but I just can’t.”

“Are you sure?” She hopped back a little towards the edge of counter and shook her clear paper wings. “Please?”

“I’m so sorry. But I don’t want to lose my job.”

I felt awful. But later that evening when I took the garbage out, I didn’t close the lock all the way, just like the night before. Maybe Mary would smell it. Flies have great senses of smell, right? And they don’t care if their food is old or spoiled? I had no idea if Mary was more like a fly or a person, but if she didn’t discover the leftovers, someone or something else would. Carol would have gotten really mad if she had found out, but I wanted to help, and I didn’t know what else to do.

*          *          *

Dad left a piece of paper on the table for me when I got home. After the way Mom took off, my heart started to race and my stomach clenched as soon as I saw it. But the note just listed the animals he had seen while I was at work. Dad kept a pretty messy house, and from somewhere in the piles of crap scattered everywhere he had produced a book, Birds of the American West, which meant now he was identifying individual species, even genders. Yellow-rumped Warbler (male), Red-tailed Hawk (male), White-breasted Nuthatch (female). At the bottom he left a note for me. “If you see anything new, add it here.”

From the fridge I grabbed one of his beers, then the binoculars, the note, and a pencil, and sat in one of Dad’s chairs on the deck. A little light remained in the sky behind me, and as it faded the glow of the fires better outlined the mountain. The smoke billowed upward in big gritty roils, but it was far enough away that I couldn’t see the columns move. Through the binoculars I noticed the upward motion, but with my own eyes they looked frozen, and for some reason this seemed stranger than all the weird people I’d met over the last couple days. I wanted someone to explain to me how something could behave so different up close versus far away.

A little later, I finally saw some animals of my own. The little red dot on the tree across the field turned out to be a woodpecker, and after that a whole family of raccoons wandered along the tree line. I wrote them down on Dad’s list, just in case I wouldn’t be able to tell him in person.

*          *          *

For the next few days the fire containment percentage became how we all greeted each other. “Good morning. Did you hear we’re up to 45%?” “They just said on the radio that we passed 60%” The numbers became a reverse countdown to when life would go back to normal, except how could that be possible after everything that happened? The fire refugees camping out on the sidewalks and in the alleys had nowhere to go. The animals hiding in the parks and wandering through people’s yards couldn’t return home. It would take forever to get the smoke smell out of everything.

By Saturday the parade of needy out-of-towners had ground Carol’s nerves down to nothing. I did my best to sneak them all the help I could by loading them up with extra ingredients or “forgetting” to ring up extra bags of chips and cookies. Carol, on the other hand, reacted to every request to use the bathroom or attempt to game the system by ordering something cheap and piling on toppings like it was a personal insult.

The worst one happened with a couple who came in Saturday after lunch. The girl looked like she hadn’t showered or washed her hemp skirt and over-worn halter top in weeks. I thought I recognized her. She might have graduated from my school when I was a freshman. The guy, on the other hand, didn’t make any sense. He looked like he had been loosely knitted out of some thick black vines or cable. I could see right through him. He didn’t really walk; he flopped himself forward like he couldn’t support his own weight. They stood in front of the register and he draped himself over his girlfriend’s shoulder. Or, I’m assuming he was a guy and they were a couple. Carol did too. But we actually had no idea.

“Two footlong BLT’s, please,” said the girl. “Do you charge for extra bacon?”

“Yes,” Carol snapped back.

“That sucks,” the girl said. “Fine. Whatever.”

Carol sighed. “What’s his story?” She gestured at the knitted person with her elbow since her hands were busy cutting bread.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. Where’s he from? What’s he made out of?”

I’m guessing the guy couldn’t talk because he turned his head and quivered a few times, and the girl shrugged and whispered, “I know. I’m sorry.” Then she glared at Carol. “You can’t just ask what people are made of.”

Carol slammed her handful of bacon on the counter. “This is getting so goddamned ridiculous I can’t handle it anymore. I just want to do my job. Is that so hard? Is that such a hard thing to ask?” She peeled off her plastic gloves and waddled around me into the back room.

The girl held up her hands and we made eye contact. I think she might have even recognized me. “What’s her problem?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can we still get the sandwiches?”

“Yeah, for sure.”

“Good,” said the girl, and the guy nodded along too. Then he nuzzled her cheek like he was giving her a kiss. I mean, he probably was giving her a kiss. That’s how he’d have to do it, without any lips.

When I finished I held out the sandwiches in a bag while she pulled out some money, but I stopped her. “These are on us, okay?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve been through a lot, and maybe this will help.” I don’t think they liked the idea of a handout, but after a moment she nodded and took the sack. They left, and I felt better. About the fires, at least.

Carol stayed in back for the rest of the shift and finally came out ten minutes before we closed. “I have to tell you something,” she said.

“What?”

“I’m leaving.”

The way she said it sounded really dramatic. She let it sink in for a moment before she explained what she meant. “I have about three weeks of vacation saved, and I’m taking it all. I’ve had enough of this fire business. I’ll go to San Bernardino maybe, or Vegas. It doesn’t even matter.”

She went on to explain that she arranged for an assistant manager from the franchise in the mall to help fill in, but I stopped listening. The way she delivered her plan made it feel like she wanted me to get upset that she was leaving, and all I could think was, Jesus, how pathetic does she think I am? Out of this whole insane situation, why would that be the thing I couldn’t handle?

*          *          *

When I got home I found Dad sitting on the deck.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“They switched my night off.” He took a sip of beer, then handed me his animal inventory sheet. “I got some new ones on there.”

“Yeah,” I said as I examined the piece of paper. “Looks good.”

I sat next to him and it was just like all of my infrequent childhood visits. He didn’t say anything for the longest time, instead just sipping his beer and looking through the binoculars. The fires had been going on long enough that the smoky haze and the backlit mountains seemed normal. The last customer of the day had been a cop who delivered the most recent update. “75% percent contained,” he said. “Shouldn’t be long now.” I didn’t know what that meant. Would the red glow on the horizon slowly fade away, or in a moment would the fires suddenly go out?

A little later Dad shifted in his chair. “What’s been your favorite?”

“What do you mean?”

He picked up his bird book and flipped a few pages. “Of the animals so far.”

“I liked the raccoons.”

“Yeah. I did too.”

Over the next hour we picked out three more deer and another four kinds of birds before it got too dark to see anything. But that didn’t stop us. We kept handing the binoculars back and forth until, finally, I spoke.

“Have you ever spent any time in the forest?”

Dad held his beer can in one hand and his list in the other and paused like he was planning what to say. Then he cleared his throat. “Sure. Lots, when I was kid. My grandparents had a place northeast of here.”

“Some people don’t like the folks from the woods. Like my manager at work. She acts like they’re all out to get her.”

“Everyone I ever met out there was always real nice.” Dad’s shoulders relaxed and he leaned back in his chair. “Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say when you meet someone new. But you figure it out, most of the time.”

We talked on the deck for another hour. I had a nice time. I think Dad did too.


Eric Rasmussen serves as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand. He has placed short fiction in FugueGulf StreamPithead Chapel, and South Carolina Review, among others. He earned his MFA at Augsburg University in Minneapolis and currently resides in Eau Claire, WI. Find him online at theotherericrasmussen.com and on Twitter @mreras.


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