“If I’d seen you first…” I tell Jesse and she gives me a little smile that could tear the heart out of you but Roy smirks.
“Got one on you there, Alvin old boy,” he said.
Roy’s kept score forever. Back in school I’m picked as lead goalie. Next season he’s named the Captain. Me — class president; Roy — valedictorian. Then him off to university. But for all that, he’s back to pull wrenches at the same garage where I’ve been since high school.
I gather dishes, and bring the chicken to the counter. Jesse puts it inside the fridge and together we load the dishwasher. Outside I notice the street light flicker on. Daylight ends over our trailer court in Forestview and on the town and the miles and miles of bush beyond.
Despite my joke, I did see Jesse first. I was still with Gwen at the time. Things between us were going down the tubes but a man has to ride things out and I did. So by the time it’s over and I get the sticky note kiss off from Gwen, Roy is with Jesse. And soon enough Blake is on the way and Jesse moves into Roy’s place next door.
I turn on the dishwasher. Jesse starts a bottle for the baby who is tucked into one of those baby carrier /car seat affairs. He has been crying for several minutes like a lamb caught in a fence line, but he really cranks it up. As if he’s been abandoned.Finally, I pick him up and hold his little warm body. His fists rub against his face, smearing snot onto his cheeks, but he slows down on the crying.
“There, there little man. Your dinner’s coming.” I joggle him up and down. Roy eases onto the couch and switches on the television. It’ll be the news and the fire report.
Jesse’s the one who includes me in her and Roy’s life; she’s even introduced me to her single girlfriends. Funny how some people know when you need a life line. At first I didn’t have the heart for dating, because Gwen’s leaving was tough,and then after a while… no one compares to Jesse.
If I’d been Roy, my chest would have expanded faster than Jesse’s belly. He hasn’t married her though. And really with Roy’s ambitions, you’d think he would. I know Jesse isn’t going to push it, she’s told me as much. Doesn’t want to trap him. So here we are, friends: Roy and me, me and Jesse, and that’s how it is. She listens to me talk about my break up with Gwen and life and how time is marching on. No matter how I figure it, there doesn’t seem to be a story with Jesse and me together.
Blake’s bottle is ready and Jesse takes him. I get a blanket for her and she thanks me. She looks wore right out. Sometimes, when I’m up during the night, I look across, see the light on and know she’s up again. I don’t think she’s had a full night’s sleep since Blake arrived. I sit down beside Roy as I watch Jesse swivel her armchair. She fingers open a book on the end table beside her and begins to read. I want to move a lamp for the sake of her eyes.
She pops a cheese doodle into her mouth. Blake sucks eagerly on his bottle. Roy asks ifI want a beer, and I go and get us two cans from the fridge. I ask Jesse if she wants anything but she shakes her head as she burps the baby.
Roy could turn down the volume since the baby is quiet, but he doesn’t. We watch the news without talking. Roy swings his feet up onto the coffee table and knocks a pile of diapers onto the floor. They sit there, for Jesse to pick up. Roy doesn’t know how.
I probably know more about Jesse than Roy does. I know, for example, that she’s deathly afraid of fires. If she were with me, I wouldn’t have volunteered with the fire department. But Roy did. And I certainly would shield her from the fire talk that goes with life in a bush town. Roy is a big one up on me with Jesse in his life. I’ll have this beer and head home; sometimes it’s more than I can stand to be here.
The fires are not on my mind when the sound of Roy’s van wakes me. Damn. The alarm isn’t set. But Roy is always early, so I know I still have time if I scramble. I pull on some clothes. I hop in my truck, wind on the ignition and pump the gas. Start. Damn it. Finally it catches; backfires and I ease it into gear. I see Jesse at her window, so I give her a wave.
I pull in beside Roy’s car outside the garage where we work and inside the radio is turned up loud. It mentions a new fire. That explains the heaviness of this morning’ssmoke haze. I take a minute to phone Jesse to find out if she got any sleep. No. I would mention the fire but I figure she is, like the rest of us , pretty much aware of nothing else.
By coffee break the news is worse. After hearing a couple of the mechanics phone home, Roy does the same. He says that Jesse should leave town this morning. No, we hear him say, he won’t be going with her, he’s a part of the fire department. The fire is close enough. To hell with the expense, get a motel room.
Even now, inside Roy’s second vehicle — the van — is a tub of picture albums and a suitcase Jesse put there for the fire season. It includes emergency money and a spare credit card. Just in case. Bug outs can be frantic.
Then the phone rings and we know it’s about the fire. Roy hangs up the phone and without a word he’s leaving. He’s supposed to be in charge, the boss is away, so just as he’s going out the door, I ask, what should we do? Thinking that he should tell us to close up or something.
“Hold their hands, Alvin. You’re good at that. Why the fuck is it up to me what you should do?” He leaves so the men turn to me.
“I think we better scram. Bring down those hoists, turn everything off.” I tell my co-workers. Myself, I look around but the only thing I take is a thank you card off mypeg board. It won’t matter how untidy things are. If it burns.
Without hesitation everyone makes decisions about what they should do and we move out the door. In the parking lot we shake hands.
“Good Luck.” I said. It’s a little formal but each one of us understands this could be bad.
My truck starts and I check the gas gauge, which says I’ve got ¾ of a tank but somehow that reminds me that I forgot my wallet this morning. I’ll swing by the trailer court and see if I can root it out. Would it be under the laundry? On the counter hidden by the dishes?
The streets are filled with people like me with last minute missions. The sky is this dull yellow colour that makes me shudder plus the wind is up and there is debris in the air, chunks of the charred forest. I step on the gas, to urge my old pick-up down the lanes. I hear the siren wail, as it does every noon, but this time it doesn’t stop. We’re going to be buggered. Simply buggered.
I pull up but I forget about my wallet when I see Roy’s van. Jesse’s inside, her hands on the steering wheel, her forehead bowed to the horn. I run over and open the door. Jesse doesn’t look up. Her breathing sounds like Velcro being ripped apart. She’s having a panic attack, is my first thought. It’s a split second before I realize something else.
“Where’s the baby?” I ask but I don’t wait. Jesse must have started to load up and then lost her battle with terror. Blake must be still in the trailer. In no time I am at the door. I find it locked but I know the hidden key location.
I hear Blake. I scoop him up along with a diaper bag. As I jog down the hallway, I nab bottles and formula and we’re back outside. I get Blake into the car seat. He stops crying and I’m glad but he looks scared shitless. Even a baby can freak. Jesse seems to be better; she’s raised her head.
“I’ll drive. Let’s get you settled.” I get her into back seat beside Blake. “We’ll be all right.” I tell her in the calmest voice I have. This is her worst nightmare.
We’re bugging out. All the times we’ve thought about what we might do and now, it’s do it or die. I’m on automatic pilot. I drive when I can see through the smoke, stop when I can’t. At times fire trucks and emergency vehicles emerge from the haze like monsters from a dream. It is hard to see the edges of the road and it seems that we are travelling the same smoke-filled miles over and over. Jesse weeps. I try to fill the van with reassuring words and a confidence that I do not feel.
I am surprised when we arrive at Regency. Signs point to the evacuation center set up in the arena and the Red Cross is already there. The trip has taken two hours and 35 minutes, and it’s only 50 miles.
The motion of the van has lulled Blake to sleep and while Jesse has stopped weeping, she isn’t talking yet. I find her paleness unnerving, and I’m grateful for voices I can hear as I park the van.
The Red Cross workers take one look at us and tell me to take my wife immediately to the first bed. She’s going into shock. They wrap her in a heated blanket and tell me to hold her hand and talk to her. Someone takes the baby. Jesse’s eyes roll back into her head and her eyelids flutter. A doctor appears. He calls Jesse my wife and for the second time, in just a few minutes, I don’t correct that. In my defence, it’s not like Roy is here to help her. He’s busy being a hero back in Forestview, too important to look after his family. Am I glad to pretend that Jesse and I are together? I don’t think about that.
I hear Blake start to cry and sense that he is going to wind up and when he does, it can be awfully hard for him to settle down. I tell Jesse that I’ll bring him to her and she accepts that and I see her coming back to herself. The doctor seems satisfied too, but he gives me instructions about what to watch for and to not hesitate to get help. Then he goes to someone else.
Jesse’s bed gets moved to one side and we settle in as much as anyone can in this sea of evacuees. I change Blake’s diaper, prepare his formula, and ask someone to warm his bottle in the kitchen. Jesse is in no condition to care for the baby.
It hasn’t registered with Roy that babies are work. He thinks his son is a play toy for Jesse and since she has something, he should too. I guess he could have took up bar hopping instead of board meetings but the end result is the same: Jesse on her own. Jesse exhausted with baby care. Jesse calling on me when the drain gets plugged or the mouse trap needs emptying and Roy is gone for the evening.
The baby gulps his way through the bottle and I think that’s a good thing but suddenly Jesse tells me that I have to slow him down. How? I ask and she sits up and motions for the baby. She burps him and puts him in a more upright position for his next chance at the bottle. He doesn’t waste any time. Jesse looks at him then suddenly she is in tears.
“What’s wrong?” I sit down and put my arm around her. “Jesse. Talk to me. I’m your friend.”
“I’m a terrible person, a terrible mother..” I don’t understand.
“Alvin, you just don’t know.” Her words are gulped between sobs.
“I know that you’re exhausted. I know that you’re afraid of fire.” It doesn’t seem my words are getting through to her. I try again. “I do know how strong you are. Do you know that you are a hero to me?”
Her head falls and I draw closer to hear her whisper. “I was going to leave him. Alvin. I was going to drive off and leave Blake to…. Perish.” The last word jumps out. To burn. To suffocate.
My words rush in to erase the horror. “But you didn’t.” She needs reassurance. If I know Jesse, she won’t forgive herself, but she has my support and I’ll make sure she knows it.
“You didn’t leave.” I look her straight in the eye. “ Jesse you didn’t and you weren’t going to either or you would have been on the road already!” I hold her closer. She takes in a shaky breath. She’s listening.
“I know you. You might have had a moment, but Christ we all do. But you did not leave. You are not a terrible person.” She grows quieter and seems to digest my words. But she has something else.
“I can’t tell Roy. He won’t understand. Or forgive.”
I can’t argue. It’s probably true, and I’ll be goddamned if I’ll defend him. Blake choses this moment to fuss and she gives him her attention. Mine is for her.“What are you doing Alvin?” Roy’s voice breaks in. I jerk away startled.
“I’m comforting Jesse. This isn’t some Jesus picnic. And you weren’t here.”
I want in the worst way to punch him in the face. This is his fault, all of it. The sight of him fills me with loathing. He is still in his firefighter uniform. He smells like smoke. “I’m here now.” Roy said, then he continues with an indignant tone. “A bunch of fire fighters came in and we were told to go. Especially us with families bugged out.”
“So you’re here because you were told to be. God damn it, Roy. You could have lost your family.” Jesse touches my arm. I glance in her direction and read her eyes. Please. Don’t say anything more. I stop talking.
“Yeah. They told me you went into shock.” Roy mumbles. He’s missed the point and maybe more. Roy reaches for his son, and then sits down beside Jesse. She leans into his shoulder and he tells her to shush. He’s here now: the picture of concern. Then I see what Roy must have. Behind me is the television news crew, ready to film and interview and as they spot Roy they are on it. This reunion of fire fighter and family is made for media consumption.
I walk away, disgusted. In the bathroom I splash water on my face. What I am to do? I look myself in the eye. This could be my day to win, I tell myself. Roy’s no hero. More likely he got told to leave because he was no help. Or he chickened out. Jesse is braver then he’ll ever be.
I go back out. Roy, Jesse and Blake are in the spotlight still. I hear Roy, with pretend authority, talk about the fire. It was a flashover. Those winds, he says, dried everything out then carried the fire into town on its back like a devil. You can see the camera’s red light blinking. Then he claims he wanted to stay and help but he had to be with his family. He takes the bottle from Jesse to feed the baby. I see him smile at her. I see her lap it up, Roy’s whole scripted show.
I want to shake her. I want to yell no. She is too good a person or she would see what Roy is. He’s not a friend, by her own admission, or she could tell him how close she came to the unthinkable. There’s nothing I can do. He’s won without deserving it. Jesse believes in him.
I don’t think. I can’t stand to be here. I still have the keys to Roy’s van. I just pull them from my pocket and I’m out the door. It’ll be a while before they know I’m gone. It’s theft. Me with the van, the emergency money, the credit card. I hope I change my mind and go back, a decent person would. I think of how I should turn around, all the way to the highway. At the sight of the pavement ahead a feeling catches inside of me, bigger than the flashover that engulfed our town. I know I can’t turn back. I’m buggered. I hope that Jesse’s made the right choice. I give her my forgiveness, without question. As I signal my turn, my arm brushes the card in my pocket. I don’t have to read it. It says. Thank you. You’re the best. Jesse.