Paul and I burst through the front door of our house, gasping for breath. Everyone’s heads turn in alarm as we rush in. My mother and Kimberly crane their necks from the kitchen, and the group playing cards in the living room pause their game. All eyes are on us.
“There’s a huge group of soldiers about two blocks west,” Paul says, panting.
My father jumps up. “You know what to do.”
And we do. I go out to the back deck and bring in everything we keep out there – the drying laundry, the comb, the soap, the buckets. Inside the house, others are busy putting boards back up over the windows. The blankets and mattresses get hauled into a side room. All food goes in the cupboards, as do the cooking supplies. If they were to come in and inspect the house, they cannot find any clues that we are here. We hide upstairs. If an escape is required, we have a rope ladder to sneak out from here.
Everything is quiet.
I am near a window that is not entirely boarded up, and I venture a peek between the slats haphazardly nailed over the window – the soldiers are coming up the street. I have a better vantage point now than I did from the first floor of Paul’s house. I can see how many there are. I can see that the streets are riddled with them and their cars. I can see the trail of burning houses they are leaving. It looks like houses on several blocks are burning – the sky is quickly darkening with smoke.
“We need to leave.” I turn back to our group, panicked. “We need to get out of here, now.”
“What are you talking about, Anna?” JJ says from across the room. “We can’t risk leaving while they’re in the streets. They’ll pass us by and be on their way and we’ll be fine.”
“No.” I beckon for him and he comes over to the window. “Look.”
“What is it?” Dylan starts toward us, and the rest follow.
Everyone crowds around the windows, gasping at the sight of our neighborhood in flames.
“We need to go,” I say, more urgently. “They’re heading this way.”
Kara wrings her hands. “They’ll see us!”
“We’ll go through backyards, I don’t know. But if we stay in here, we’ll burn,” I say, already heading down the stairs. We can risk a few minutes to pack some things, but only if we start now.
The others follow behind me. Luckily we have a head start, as a few bags are packed already – the ones we never unpacked after the group got back from investigating the group that tried to radio us.
I open the kitchen cupboards and empty the shelves into two bags. June throws any clothes she can find into another sack. She throws in other odds and ends, too, indiscriminately picking them up and tossing them in as she passes. Dylan and my father put the few weapons we have that weren’t already packed into the backpacks. They each place a gun into their waistbands.
Paul looks out the window. “We don’t have time for more, we need to go.”
I dart to my room and look at my books. They’ll all burn. Amid the chaos of the house I become unstuck in time as I, frozen, stare at them from my doorway.
The words of Fahrenheit 451 come to me. There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing. I cannot leave them. You don’t stay for nothing, no, but there’s a great deal to leave for, isn’t there?
I must go, we’ve lost too much time already. I have to leave them.
Then another line comes: A book is a loaded gun. And I could use a weapon or two. So I pick up a pile and throw them into a pillowcase, and then another pile. I know somewhere along the road I’ll have to drop it, we can’t carry everything. Ah, now I am tempted to quote O’Brien, but I won’t indulge myself. I remind myself that the only thing left to determine whether we live or die is how fast we can get out of this house.
I knot the opening shut and throw the sack over my shoulder.
We are already starting to file out the back doors as quietly as we can. I get into the backyard and turn to see houses – neighbors’ houses – burning. It is so close I can feel the heat on my face, and the acrid smoke is so thick my lungs constrict as soon as I take my first breath.
They are here.
Paul appears by my side, wearing an enormously heavy camping backpack. He has gotten so strong you wouldn’t think it weighed more than a feather, the way he carries it. But it must weigh as much as I do. Even still he helps hoist me up over the fence into the next yard.
It is the yard we grow – grew – a garden in. Almost without thinking I bend down to pick several tomatoes, to pull up some carrots. Whatever I manage to take with me could be the last fresh food we have for a while.
“Anna come on,” my mother says, removing the dishtowel from over her mouth just long enough to speak. “We have to leave them!” She tries to pull me up and urge me forward, and I, reluctantly, comply.
JJ appears with an open bag and gestures for me to place the vegetables I am awkwardly holding in it. “Hurry.” He glances over his shoulder.
Over the next fence and into the next garden. And then the next. We pass a pool so overgrown with moss and algae and plants it has become its own ecosystem. It is thick with slime and squirming, crawling bugs.
The soldiers are relatively slow moving, and we put some distance between us. When we have gone several blocks we come to a main street, and we cautiously look to see if it is empty. Thankfully, it is.
“Should we walk the street?” Dylan asks, his question directed to my father.
He nods. “Stay close though.”
We walk in grave silence, and I can feel everyone’s minds racing and hearts pounding. Every so often someone coughs from the smoke.
“Carrots, really?” my mother hisses at me. She is still holding the cloth over her mouth, and her eyes are red and watery. I realize that mine must be too, and for the first time I am aware of how much they are stinging.
“Guess you won’t be asking me to share them with you,” I mumble, looking away from her.
She sighs. “I just don’t understand why you’re so reckless. Always – you have no sense of urgency, no sense of self-preservation.”
I decide to ignore her. She is stressed and afraid and tired, and she is taking it out on me because I refuse to submit to the emotions that she allows to dictate her life. That’s all there is to it. She isn’t upset that I tried to salvage some carrots, she’s upset because of a near-death experience. I am willing to let her pin some problem on me if it will make her feel better, but I will not engage it.
I keep walking, and my mother doesn’t say anything else. We do our best to run for a block or so, but the smoke and our heavy bags defeat us. Paul remains by my side, though I’m sure he could be moving faster – even carrying more than I am – if he tried.
“Where’s JJ?” I stop abruptly.
One by one the rest of the group stops, pausing to look for him. I cannot find him among us. I turn around and see a car approaching, and my heart nearly stops. Surely we are all dead.
The car, a red pick-up truck, pulls up beside us, and the window rolls down. JJ smiles down. “Well don’t just stand there, sugar, hop in!”
I laugh in disbelief but throw my bags into the bed and hop in. I help put other packs into the bed as people hand them up to me. My dad climbs in next to JJ, and Ken gets in next to him. The rest of us sit in the back. Dottie is on one side of me, and Paul is on the other. His mother has Melissa in her lap. I take roll of everyone as we start driving off. My mother, Laura, Dylan and Kara, Sophia, June. We made it.
We made it! A smile breaks out across my face, and soon we are all smiling and chuckling, the adrenaline still in our systems.
“How in the hell did you manage this?” Kara calls up to JJ.
“Lucky guess, I suppose.” I can hear his pleased smile even though I can’t see him. “Figured it was worth a shot. Took a couple tries to get it going. It’s low on gas though, we won’t get far before we need to fill it, but it’s better than trying to walk outta here.”
He’s right, it is way better. We will save our energy this way, and move faster, though perhaps more conspicuously. I’m not sure where we’re going to find gas when the tank runs out, but at least it will have eased our travel for a little while. I sit with my back against the cab of the truck and watch my burning neighborhood disappear into the distance. I force myself to remain composed, and I tell myself I feel nothing. I tell myself I am not scared, or sad, or angry. And after a few minutes I find I am almost persuaded.
It’ll be easier to travel, yes, but where to?