The fires began the day of the appointment, and the repercussions of both events are making it difficult for Kate to breathe. To find some peace, she busies herself by preparing for her guests who are scheduled to arrive shortly.She washes the wineglasses and empties the ashtrays. She runs the vacuum and puts clean sheets on the guest bed. She pours a cup of coffee and walks to the front porch, where she can see the mountains burning north of the city, mushroom clouds of smoke that press against the atmosphere and cement into giant hanging anvils. To Kate the anvils represent a kind of punishment for her recent mistakes, and she would very much like to speak with whomever is controlling the system of ropes and pulleys. She would like to get this over with.
Phil is lost. Kate’s directions make no sense, and the afternoon sun burns pink through the smear of the bug-splattered windshield. They left Tulsa yesterday morning, doing eighty across the flats of North Texas and through the scorched canyons of Arizona, finally arriving amid the filthy, breathing traffic of Los Angeles sometime around rush hour. It’s spring break for the kids, and Phil promised them a week in Southern California. He promised them Hollywood and the beach and Universal Studios, but money is tight and a curtain of fire is closing in on their destination, so he’s a little unsure how this will all play out. “These street names aren’t even in English,” he says, straining to read the little blue signs.
“What are we looking for?” Abby asks. Abby is sixteen and, according to what she told her friends back home, about one month away from celebrity. She said she was coming to LA to get headshots and a nice tan and maybe talk with some agents her cousin Kate knows, Kate being a pretty good actress herself.
“San something,” Phil says.
“San Rafael?” Abby asks.
“Because I just saw San Rafael.”
“It’s not San Rafael.”
“It could be. You said it was San something.”
“Cut it, Abby,” Phil says, riffling through the mess of papers on the dashboard. “Where are those directions, Claire?”
Claire grabs Phil’s hand and redirects it back to the steering wheel. “Honey, keep your eyes on the road.”
“My eyes are on the road. But it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t know where the hell I’m going.”
Phil is an impatient man with the temperament of an ostrich, and in their twenty years of marriage Claire has learned to negotiate his fits with the caution of a zookeeper. She hands him the Subway napkin he scribbled directions on during lunch in Barstow.
Phil glances down at the napkin, then back at the road. “San Fernando,” he says, suddenly pleased, as if remembering a song title that had temporarily escaped him. “We’re looking for San Fernando.”
They pull into a gas station. Claire and Abby run to the restroom while Phil gasses up. Miles, the youngest, climbs a small hill to get a better look at the fires. Miles is eleven and large, not fat really, just overinflated. Prior to arriving, he had no interest in this vacation; Los Angeles was not his first choice. His first choice was Alaska, where he knew a kid from his online geology club, a junior volcanologist who invited Miles on a three-day trip to the Chigmit Mountains, home of Mount Redoubt, the most active cone on the North American plate.
Aside from the slight chance of being thrown from bed by an eightplus magnitude earthquake, Miles expected very little from this trip, geologically speaking. But now, with this new, unexpected display of nature, everything has changed and suddenly LA isn’t so boring.
“Dad!” he yells, pointing to the sky. “Look. Pyrocumulus.”
“Pretty neat,” Phil says, capping the tank. He pulls his phone from his pocket and dials Kate. He says they’re a little lost. He doesn’t see San Fernando but he sees a cement river, a truck selling tacos, and a billboard for a movie about robots. He asks if she has any idea where they might be, and, to his surprise, she does. She gives him turn-byturn directions and says to park on the street.
Abby returns from the mini-mart, Diet Coke in one hand, a magazine in the other. “Was that her?” “Sure was,” Phil says.
“Who?” Miles asks, crawling back into the van.
“Your cousin Kate,” Phil says.
“Do I know her?”
“She was around when you were little. You may not remember her.”
“I don’t remember her.”
Phil closes the door and keys the ignition. “You’ll like her. She’s a real California chick.” He says this as if she were a type of exotic fruit.
When her uncle Phil called two weeks ago to ask if he and the family could shack up with her for a few nights while they were in LA, Kate scrambled for a reason that wouldn’t work. She had a mental file of excuses for whenever she was asked to take part in something she found unsavory. It was stunning how quickly she remembered the dinner plans with an old co-worker who was leaving town, or the college friend she was planning to visit down in Huntington. But at seven a.M. on a Sunday, hung over and half asleep, she had nothing. So instead she said, yes, of course, she’d love to have them, and ended up committing herself to a weekend of entertaining family she barely knew.
Kate’s father was the eldest of four boys. Phil, the youngest, worked for a senator in DC and was rarely around, appearing only very briefly with his family on Christmas Eve or Easter morning. One of Kate’s few memories of Phil is from the Christmas before she moved to LA, when she saw him slap a five-year-old Miles after the boy flicked a spoonful of mashed potatoes on their grandmother’s Nativity set. Kate recognized that her cousin was being a little shithead, but the fury it unleashed in her uncle was something she hadn’t seen before. She watched Miles fall into a heap of wailing fat on the kitchen floor as Phil stood over him, threatening to knock his head clean off if he didn’t quit his goddamn whining and clean up the mess. An hour later the boy and his father were curled up on the couch in a postdinner defeat, and Kate remembers the entire day as one big complexity of feeling.
Kate sees them approaching from the street, a cloud of ash swirling like fine snow around their heads. “We got dinner,” Phil says, holding bags from In-N-Out Burger in each hand, displaying them high and proud, like a savage returning with the severed heads of rival tribesmen. He hands the bags to Miles and throws his arms around
Kate. “So good to see you, kiddo.” “You too,” she says.
“You look wonderful, honey,” Claire says. “I just love your little house. It’s so cute. Abby guessed which one it was when we drove by.”
Abby gives Kate a bashful wave. “Hi, I’m Abby. Not sure if you remember me.”
Kate wraps her arms around her younger cousin. “Of course I remember you.”
“Sooo . . . ” Claire says through an eager smile. “Give us the grand tour.”
Inside, Phil and Miles tear through their burgers, while Kate walks Claire and Abby through the house. When they return to the kitchen, Phil tells Kate about the drive: the lightning storm outside Phoenix and how the Grand Canyon was closed because some animals accidentally fell in. “Can you believe that?” he asks.
“No,” Kate says.
“Good. Because I was making that part up.” He lets out a thick belly laugh that leaves Abby shaking her head in a kind of routine mortification.
“Always the comedian,” Claire says, smiling at her husband.
Phil has close-cropped hair and some farm in the face. He reminds Kate of someone, someone on television, but it isn’t until they’ve started in on cocktails that she realizes that person is Glenn Beck.
After dinner Miles retires to the living room and flips through the TV channels, finally settling on local news coverage of the fires. A man with a field of white hair stands in front of a satellite map. He explains that the fire’s erratic behavior is due to something called coupled fire atmosphere dynamics, the result of the fire and the atmosphere interacting with each other and creating its own microclimate. “You guys,” Miles yells. “Come check this out.”
Kate, Phil, and Claire walk to the living room. “This is crazy,” Miles says. “Basically what’s happening is that the fire is creating its own weather patterns. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Kate has never heard of anything like this either, but it makes perfect sense to her now.
Abby enters the living room holding a doll that emits a piercing wail from a tiny speaker in its back. “Mom,” she says. “Will you hold this thing a sec?”
“Shut it up!” Miles says. “I can’t hear the TV.”
“You shut up, you fat turd!” Abby yells back. She hands the doll to her mother, then fishes through her backpack for a bottle.
Kate looks the doll over. “What is that?”
“This is Baby Think It Over,” Claire says, rocking the plastic child. “They give these to the kids at school. It makes them think twice when they’re necking at some party.”
Abby finds the bottle and takes the doll back from her mother. She inserts the nipple into the baby’s mouth and the crying subsides. “It’s the dumbest thing in the world,” she says. “They act like it’s the same as a real baby, but it’s not. I keep the stupid thing in a backpack.”
“I think it’s great,” Claire says. “It cries every so often and if you don’t feed it or change the diaper, it sends a message that says you’re neglecting the child. I think it really works.”
Baby Think It Over. Kate likes that. That’s clever. And such good advice, too—applicable to so many things. Like how about Drunk Driving Think It Over, or Cocaine Think It Over, or Getting-
Impregnated-By-Some-Guy-You-Met-At-A-Bar-And-Then-AbortingThe-Baby Think It Over. Do they make a doll for those things? She guesses they do not. She’d had to think that last one over for a long time. She stayed in bed for forty-eight straight hours thinking it over. She drove to Bakersfield and back thinking it over. She thought it over in the shower, beads of water racing down her belly and the sum of her mistakes brewing inside. She was raised Catholic and knew that, of all the unkind things she’d done in her life, this was the only one that might not be forgivable. She worried that, when she finally did meet someone she loved and wanted to have children with, she wouldn’t be able to, that the judgment might come cold and swift, something like: I’m very sorry, Kathryn, but you had your chance and you blew it.
“Wanna see it?” Abby asks, extending the doll. “No thanks,” Kate says.
With her guests down for the night, Kate pours a glass of wine and sneaks out to the patio for a cigarette. After a moment, the sliding glass door opens and Abby appears with the crying doll, holding a bottle in its mouth. Kate hides the cigarette.
“You don’t have to hide that from me,” Abby says. “I have lots of friends who smoke.”
Kate takes a drag and points to the crying doll. “What’s wrong with your baby?”
“It’s hungry again,” Abby says. “Stupid thing eats like a horse. I swear I’m never having kids.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. Or at least not until I’m old like you.” Abby pulls out a chair and sits. After a moment the doll stops crying, letting her know that it’s full. She sets it on the table and looks to Kate. “So you’re an actress?”
“I’m a bartender. Sometimes I’m an actress, but usually I’m a bartender.”
“Do you go on lots of auditions?”
“Have you done any big movies?”
“I’ve done some small movies. I’ve done lots of commercials.” “For what?”
“Pizza Hut. Office Depot.”
“Oh,” Abby says, disappointed. “How was that?”
“Take a guess.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Abby tells Kate about a guy she had been dating, a senior with an El Camino and a wild streak. Not surprisingly, her father wasn’t fond of the kid and went so far as to slash his tires when he found the car parked on the street and the boy hiding under his daughter’s bed. At school the next day, Abby discovered a note from the boy taped to her locker. He wrote that her father was crazy and a little scary and that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he’d ever be welcome in their home, so it was probably best if they end the relationship before someone got hurt. He wished her a lifetime of happiness and said she owed him eighty bucks for the tires. “That’s about the extent of my dating,” she says. “Pretty pathetic.”
“Your dad’s tough, huh?”
“He makes my life hell.”
“I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“That doesn’t make it okay.”
Kate wants to tell her that it could be worse, that it will get worse (oh, you sweet thing, so much worse), but then it will get better too, and back and forth like this it will go forever, sometimes in exaggerated leaps and falls, but more often in very subtle ways she won’t always notice. She wants to tell her all of these things, and she wants to tell her none of them, because she herself remembers what it’s like to be sixteen and certain.
“What do you think will happen if the fire makes it to the city?” Abby asks, staring at the distant flames.
“I don’t know,” Kate says. “Burn it down?”
It’s one hundred degrees by noon the next day, so they decide to head to Venice Beach in search of cooler temperatures and cleaner air. Overnight, a layer of ash has collected on the van, and as they pile in Miles scoops up a handful and throws it in his sister’s hair.
“Prick,” Abby says, kicking him in the shin.
“Abby!” Phil yells.
“He just dumped ash in my hair!” Abby says.
“Be nice, Miles,” Claire says.
“Yeah, Miles,” Kate says, grabbing him hard by the neck when no one is looking. “Be nice.”
When they arrive at the beach, parking is nonexistent and Kate can sense her uncle losing patience. He inches the car forward at a crawl, as if expecting one of the parked cars to suddenly disappear. Kate suggests they visit the pay lot but Phil refuses. According to him, only assholes pay for asphalt.
The car behind them, a white truck, lays on the horn. It’s not a polite reminder, not a simple excuse me, sir, but rather a sustained bellow, the kind of honk that conveys a message of deep hate.
“Fuck you, pal,” Phil yells out the window, flipping the driver the bird.
“Phil!” Claire says.
“Jerk’s more than welcome to just go around me.”
The truck darts in front of them and stops. The driver, a tattooed surfer, gets out and walks to the van.
“Dammit, Phil,” Claire says. “He’s probably got a gun.” “Just go, Dad,” Abby says.
Phil rolls down his window. “What?” he says in his toughest voice.
“No, no, no,” the surfer says, shoving his middle finger in Phil’s face and smiling. “Fuck you!”
The surfer walks back to his car and Phil rolls up the window. Miles stares at the floor mats, and Claire shakes her head because her husband has done it again. There is a silence in the car, the kind found in long hallways, and it stays like this until Abby spots an androgynous figure crossing the street with a bulk-size package of toilet paper. “Dude or chick?” she says to Miles, breaking the silence.
“I don’t know,” Miles says. “But whatever it is, it’s got a butt hole.”
Claire picks a spot near a lifeguard tower and spreads a bedsheet on the sand. With the tide heading out, Miles takes to beachcombing while Abby flips through a magazine. Phil, still seething, attempts to sleep it off with a nap. Baby Think It Over lies facedown in the sand.
* * *
Kate stands and looks at the ocean, studying it like a map, then starts sprinting toward it, high-stepping through the retreating tidewater and throwing her shoulder into the breaking waves. She dives below the surface and swims away from shore. Her stroke is ungainly but effective, and before long she’s a hundred yards into the sea. The water is now too deep to stand, so she dog-paddles for a moment, looking back at Abby waving from the beach. She swims on, farther yet, until the shore is a distant thing, a foreign country and a language she doesn’t speak. She remembers a newspaper article she recently read about a man who fell from the balcony of a cruise ship late at night. She remembered the wife saying that although she knew her husband was likely dead, what upset her most was the fear he surely felt, the fear every person must feel if alone in a black sea, all life moving slowly away. With this in mind, Kate swims farther still, until the tanker ships that once seemed so distant now appear within reach. She continues on, pushing and pulling through the heavy water. Her arms tire and her breathing quickens. There’s a place in the ocean, a sort of fence or line, and she knows that if she goes past this point she won’t return. She swims until she reaches that line, then touches it with her foot and heads back to shore.
“How was it?” Claire asks.
“Nice,” Kate says, the ocean dripping from her.
“You were way out there. We couldn’t see you after a while.”
Kate falls onto her stomach and presses her face into the towel. “I couldn’t see you guys either.”
Miles returns with a handful of shells and stands next to his sister, casting a shadow on her face. Unable to get her attention, he leans over and lets his wet hair drip onto her back.
“What are you doing?” Abby says, annoyed.
“Look,” he says, displaying his treasures.
“Wow, you found shells at a beach. Congratulations.”
Miles sits in the sand and begins categorizing his loot, separating the univalves from the bivalves, the keepers from the dreck.
“Kate,” Abby says, slapping her magazine shut. “Let’s go to the boardwalk.”
“What’s a boardwalk?” Miles asks.
“Don’t worry, you wouldn’t like it.” Abby stands and slides into her flip-flops. “We’ll be back in a bit,” she says to her parents. “Be careful,” Phil yells as they walk away. “Don’t talk to weirdos.” “That might be tough,” Kate says under her breath.
The boardwalk is a salt-stained strip mall, kiosks and small tables situated along the sand. There are women applying henna tattoos and men selling paintings of sunsets and a girl dancing to the beat of tribal drumming. Abby spots a cute boy painting portraits outside a Winnebago decorated with driftwood and Jamaican flags. She grabs Kate by the shirt and tells her to follow.
Abby approaches, smiles at the boy. “What do you do?” she asks.
“I paint,” the boy says. “Want me to paint your picture?”
“I don’t charge the cute ones. Sit down.” Abby looks to Kate for permission.
“Go ahead,” Kate says. “I’ll go get something to drink and meet you back here in a bit.”
Abby sits on a pair of stacked crates, brushes her hair from her eyes, and feigns elegance.
The boy pulls a clean sheet of paper from his bag of art supplies and fastens it to the easel. “I’m Zylan,” he says. “Like Bob Zylan.”
“You from around here?” he asks, beginning to sketch the outline of her face.
“No, but I’m moving here soon.”
“Yeah, I’m an actress. I just got cast in a new TV show.”
“Cool, what show?”
“It’s on the CW. It hasn’t aired yet.”
“Isn’t that channel all cartoons?” Zylan asks, coloring her eyes with all kinds of blue.
“You’re thinking of the Cartoon Network,” she says, staying very still. “The CW is really great. The executives are all super nice. They let you be as creative as you want. It’s like a big family over there.” “Wow, so you’re about to be famous?” “We’ll see,” Abby says, giggling.
“Shhh . . . ”
“Don’t say anything for a minute. I’m doing your mouth.”
Kate buys a frozen lemonade and wanders the boardwalk. The fires aren’t as pronounced this close to the ocean, and for the first time in a week she is able to take a deep, satisfying breath. She notices an elderly man with a sign that reads: Saul the Spiritual Healer (As Seen on YouTube). She approaches and asks what he does.
“I heal people,” he says. “Spiritually.”
“Yeah, but what does that mean?”
“I work on the inside. I clean the soul—fix karma problems. Stuff like that.”
“Are you feeling spiritually drained?”
“I just feel drained.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“I doubt it,” Kate says, “but thanks.”
As much as she’d like to believe in Saul’s healing power, she’s pretty sure he doesn’t have the necessary tools, almost certain those instruments don’t exist. It’s worse at night, this malaise, when she lies awake in bed with the sheets weighing on her like lead aprons. The thing with the baby was a big part of it, but there’s also the singledom and the forward march of time and the realization that maybe she isn’t very good at the thing she always thought she was really good at. Whatever it is has been festering for weeks, like a squatter siphoning her resources, leaving her unhinged and rotten, wanting for something she cannot put her finger on. She has little faith the hippie can help.
* * *
Zylan finishes the portrait and presents it to Abby. Though lovely, it looks nothing like her, and she wonders if he’d even been paying attention, or just painting the only girl he knows how. “It’s really good,” she lies. “Are you sure you don’t want some money for it?” “Nope,” he says, handing it to her. “This one’s on the house.”
Abby grabs a pen from his easel and signs her name in the bottom right corner. “You keep it,” she says, handing it back. “It might be worth something someday.”
Zylan takes the portrait, then looks to the ocean, as if fielding ideas. “Come with me,” he says. “I want to show you something.”
“What the fuck?” Kate says when she returns to find her cousin and the artist gone. She walks the boardwalk a hundred yards in both directions and then, not finding them, goes to deliver the news.
“What do you mean she’s gone?” Phil says.
“She’s not gone,” Kate says. “They probably just wandered off somewhere.”
“She made a friend.”
“Dammit, Kate,” Phil says. He pulls on his shirt, slides into his sandals, and grabs his cell phone. “Call me if she turns up,” he says, walking away.
This is the kind of shit that drives Phil nuts, this testing of boundaries. He believes in the sanctity of order and the importance of consequences, which is why he will search every square foot of this goddamn beach until he finds his daughter, and when he does he will have some choice words for the little shit, words that he’s currently arranging in his head as he weaves through the archipelago of beachgoers.
The area under the pier smells of dead fish and urine. Deflated balloons and punctured soccer balls collect in the shallow water sliding along the sand. If this is some kind of club, it’s one Abby has no interest in joining. It’s grossly unromantic and she wonders why Zylan brought her here. “What do you think?” he asks.
“It’s nice,” she lies. “Do you come here a lot?”
“Kind of. It’s like my tree house without trees. I come here to think,” he says, pulling a pipe from his pocket. “And to get stoned.” Abby has never seen a pipe like this before, all glass and swirling colors. The only one she’d ever known was the smooth wood piece her grandfather used to pull out after hearty meals. Zylan twists off a small bud and presses it into the bowl. “Do you get high?” he asks.
Abby says yes, though the truth is she does not. The only people she knows who get high are the stoners at school, brooding kids with dirty hair and poor attendance. She remembers a story a teacher once told her about a girl who smoked pot and jumped in front of a train. She was terrified by the idea of smoking anything that might make her want to jump in front of a train, and so when the joint was passed her way at parties or after football games she always politely declined, claiming an impending drug test or some lingering virus. But looking square in front of Zylan is not an option, so she puts the lighter to the bowl and feels the burn crawl down her throat. She coughs and hands the pipe back to him.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Fine,” she says, letting out a few more hacks. “Just went down the wrong tube.”
Zylan steps closer and puts his hand on the small of her back. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Fine,” she says, smiling, eyes watering. “Totally fine.”
“Are you sure sure?” he says again, this time wrapping his arms around her waist and pressing his lips to hers. His mouth goes to work, wide and ravenous, devouring the bottom half of her face, like a boy eating a large sandwich. Abby has never been kissed like this before and prays he isn’t leaving marks her father will notice. After a moment, Zylan pulls away and smiles.
“Wow,” she says. “You’re a passionate kisser.”
“Duh,” he says. “I’m an artist.”
Zylan has her in the sand now, one hand through her hair, the other searching her pants. This is the furthest she’s ever gone with a boy, and she recognizes the moment as something important, a milestone, a memory she will carry with her for some time. Zylan kisses a line down her stomach, then looks across the beach. “Uh-oh,” he whispers into her belly button. “We’ve been spotted.”
Standing fifty yards away, Phil has now seen everything he needs to see and starts jogging toward the young couple. Abby, spotting her father’s large frame charging toward them, pulls her shirt down and says, “Oh, shit,” because she knows whatever is about to happen will not be good. Zylan, a little confused, stays real still and watches as Phil grabs him by the shirt and throws him in the sand. He drags the boy into the shallow water and puts a knee to his back, pinning him with the weight of his body. Abby screams, “Stop it, Dad! Stop!” but her dad doesn’t stop, instead taking it further, now holding the boy’s head under water and rubbing it back and forth in the sand, like a man scrubbing a dirty dish, all the while screaming, “That’s my daughter, you little shit!” as if his words might reach the boy with his head under water.
Kate arrives in time to see Zylan wrest himself from Phil’s control and sprint away. She watches her uncle standing in the shallow water, his hands trembling, while Abby sobs dramatically in the sand. Kate looks to the north, where the fire has quieted significantly, now just a smoldering mass of embers, then begins walking away, not feeling sympathy or pity so much as relief that a little order has been restored and the fire on the mountain has finally run out of things to burn.
by Brady Hammes