Ash- Eden Shulman
I have known Eden Shulman for some time. I've had the pleasure of seeing him develop as a writer, even growing to surpass me in many ways. The imagery he uses in his prose reveals his poetic roots, what I consider to be his biggest strength. He wrote a short story called Ash for our reading pleasure.
It is August. We are a spectacular future. This whole town creaks when we run, thunderous feet over slat wooden porches and cracking sidewalks. I am twelve, and Joel is eighteen, and we ache with progression. We wrench ourselves through time. We scream as lightning bolts and crash like muscle cars.
This is the last summer before Joel leaves for college. He’s going to University of Colorado Boulder – an hour’s drive away, south along the edge of the foothills, highway winding through Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, and the outskirts of Boulder. Most mornings, I watch him drive into town. He leaves right after breakfast and returns far later than dinner, or not at all.
I spend my forested time in solitary confinement. August is my favorite month, when the dry heat smothers and the grass is yellowed from drought, when all the trees seem to crumble and the wind feels like hot breath. Waves of dried grass sway by our old wooden house. I take the dogs and tramp through the woods. Tie a rag to a stick and pretend I’m a hobo, just a tramp making his way through the lonely world. Untie the rag, the stick is now a machine gun, bang bang bang, bang bang bang. No, it’s a karate sword, and I’m fighting waves of ninjas. I spar with branches, box with bark, battle roots and duel needles. This forest is full of monsters, and I’m riding out, alone, with only my trusty steed and this spear to my name.
Joel brings around a girl to the house. Her name is Emma. Joel brings around a boy to the house. His name is Jesse. He takes them to his room, upstairs. The house is silent for a while, and then we hear waves of laughter. I am watching T.V. with my parents, eating ice cream before bed. Dad is tired, and goes upstairs to kick Joel’s friends out. They fight briefly, and then Emma and Jesse leave. Dad comes back downstairs and whispers with Mom in the kitchen for a bit. I hear the words “smoke” and “never” and “love”.
Dad drives me to Fort Collins to see my friend Georgia. She has a beagle puppy and we play with it in the backyard for a while. Dad stays inside and talks to Georgia’s mom. Eventually, her mom comes outside and tells us to take the dog for a walk. So we do, around the block, once, twice, and then down into the park. By the time we get back, the sky turning orange, so Dad comes outside and drives me back home.
At night, I like to keep my window open. When I was real little, the sounds of the woods used to scare me. I imagined there was a mountain lion, waiting to pounce, waiting for me to peek my eyes over the edge of the covers. Every snap or creak would send quakes down my spine. But I’m older now, nearly a teenager, and I know that the nighttime outside is the same as the daytime outside. The rustles are the woods breathing. I can fall asleep now to every crack and crunch as if they were the loveliest melodies.
On Saturday, Joel takes me on a hike, off trail, up the edge of a neighboring mountain. He helped me pack my backpack and make my lunch. I have an apple, a slice of cheesecake, and a ham sandwich. Joel has a coke and a PB&J. He showed me how to tighten the backpack straps around my waist and how to tie my hiking boots so I won’t roll my ankle. We stomp up bushy slopes. The pine trees shift by us and we feel they are watching us, guarding something unimaginable from our gaze. Joel lifts me up a particularly steep section and I hold branches out of the way so he won’t cut his shins.
Joel has a new tattoo, a snake winding his way around his upper arm. He wears longer shirts around our parents, and tells me to not tell them or he’ll punch me. He stripped to a tank top and I watch the snake. It writhes and slithers across his bicep with his arm movement as if it were actually alive. I make faces at it, behind his back. Bare my teeth, silently snarl, stick out my tongue, wiggle my ears. He can’t see me, so I flip him off, with both hands.
The top of the mountain. The city spreads before us like a doll’s model. It ends at the reservoir, which is bowled at the base of the slopes. We can see the red and green of traffic lights, the white Budweiser tower, the sound of distant sirens. A helicopter flies over the surface of the water far below, kicking up spray. I grab Joel’s sleeve and point at it.
“Why’s it flying so low?” I say.
Joel squints. “I dunno. Probably for the fire out there.”
A plume of smoke rises behind us. I worry for the house. It’s been a dry year. Joel tells me not to worry, it’s all the way out in the national park, way too far off to threaten us. We eat our sandwiches and watch the helicopters buzz by. They look like little flies, tasting the water with their feet.
Mom is worried. The smoke is getting bigger. “Just an hour ago it was nothing,” she’s saying, over and over. She’s overwatering the garden, and Dad takes the hose away and tells her to relax.
I sleep with the window closed that night. The smoke from the fire is so thick that it’s hard to breathe in my room. It gives everything a faint greyish-sepia tinge, as if we were living in an old movie. Joel bitches about his car. “It’s gonna get ash all over it. It’ll get in the engine.”
Dad says it’ll be fine. He’s our massage, our chamomile tea, our midnight snack.
I am woken by the kitchen light. My clock says 4:30 in the morning. I walk out of the bedroom. “What are you doing up?”
Dad is shirtless, wild. His pants are rolled up and he’s shoveling books into a travel bag.“Sammy,” he says. “Listen to me. We’re being evacuated. Get all of your things together that you want to bring, and put them out next to the van.”
“Can I take Davy Crockett?”
“Yes. Take him and his cage and his snacks. We can get more feed at Vern’s.”
I take Davy Crockett and rub his fur for a while. He wriggles in my hands, and his nose is twitching. He sniffs my fingers for treats. I put him back in his cage and he begins to run in his wheel. I take the cage last, pack everything else first.
Posters rolled up from my wall. My grandfather’s violin. School backpack. Collection of young adult mystery books.
Mom comes in my room and begins to go through my packing. She has a halo of hair. “Do you have a coat?”
“Yeah. Right here.”
“Wind coat? Boots?”
“Here and here.”
She repacks my clothing for maximum efficiency and then goes to check on Joel. I move all of my bags out next to the car and then go back for Davy Crockett. Dad starts to toss the bags in the car, haphazardly, shouting that we’re supposed to be out in an hour. The smoke is so thick that I can’t see the front of the house from the driveway. The dogs jump about in circles, excited to be going on a trip. The cats can’t be found, and it’s a crisis until Joel snags one from under the couch and the other from behind the baseboard of the bed.
Davy Crockett freaks out a little when I lift his cage and put it into the car. He doesn’t like to be so close to the dogs. He squeaks and hides in the corner away from them. I open the top of the cage and rub his head to calm him down, but Mom tells me to close it so the dogs aren’t tempted to stick their snouts in.
I sit in Joel’s car, in the front seat. Mom is driving the van and Dad is driving the truck. We’ll have to leave the other truck; no way can we bring it now. The sun is just rising over the edge of plains, and we can barely see it through the smoke. It looks like an orange circle of construction paper. The house quickly fades away when Joel starts to drive. We’re driving through soupy ash. Joel leans forward, straining to see the road. The whole world has disappeared away from us. We hurtle, alone, through space.
Brake lights. A line of cars snaking past the cops. They wave us past, and as we drive down into the valley, we leave the tomb. There are faint wisps floating on the wind, but behind us the smoke walls up like a kingdom.
Joel drives to elementary school, where the policeman said the homeowner’s conference was being held. As Dad and Mom listen to the fire chief give his speech, I walk the dogs down by the creek. Santa is shivering, scared of the mysterious circumstance. Glenn is bouncing. He’s a puppy and everything new that happens to him is exciting.
I put the dogs back into the car and feed Davy Crockett little treats. He’s exploring out of his corner now, getting more used to this new environment. My parents come out of the school’s gym with Joel trailing behind them. Joel is texting and walking. Usually Dad yells at him for doing that, but today he doesn’t notice.
“How was it?” I ask when they get back in the car.
Mom turns to Dad. “Let’s call the Shapiro’s. They have an extra room for the kids and a foldout couch. They might let us stay over.”
“Hey, how was it?” I say.
Dad starts the car and begins to pull out of the parking lot. “I think what we should do next is go to Vern’s and get some coffee. I need something to eat, and so do the kids.”
I tap the back of Dad’s head. “What happened in there? What’d they say?”
“Sammy,” he says. “It’s not looking good. It’s zero percent contained and the line keeps moving towards us. I just want you to be ready for that, okay?”
Vern’s is an old gas station slapped on to the outskirts of a diner. The kind of place with electronic fish heads and rake displays and signed photos of local celebrities tacked to the wall. They have a soda bar and a section where you can buy winter coats. I used to love to hide among the racks out of sight of the rest of the store and pretend I was living in a house of coats, clothed walls nobody could penetrate.
We sit in a booth near a window and I order some fried eggs and toast. Joel orders a double side of hash browns. Mom and Dad talk about where we’re going to go for a while. The McKendrick’s are out; they have real little kids and no extra space. Dad can’t stay at the office cause it’s being remodeled, and we can’t afford a hotel. “We could be out of the house for weeks,” Mom says.
“How about the Underwood’s?” Dad says.
I swallow my bite of toast real fast so I can spit out these words: “Oh, yeah! I wanna stay with Georgia!”
Mom tries to veto, but Dad puts up his hand. “They have two couches and a spare room, they like us a lot, and it’s close to Sammy’s school.”
“Won’t we be back in the house by then?” Joel says.
“Not necessarily. The fire guy said it could be a few weeks. They gotta establish a perimeter and make sure all of the hot spots are put out.”
Joel rummages around inside of his backpack. “Where’s my watch? Sammy, do you got my watch?”
“No, it’s in your room.”
He’s unzipping every pocket, pouring out pens onto the floor. “Shit. Shit. Oh, I can’t believe this.”
Mom tries to put her hand on top of Joel’s but he brushes her away and stands up out of the booth. “I’m gonna go check the car. This is the worst.”
I follow him outside to help him look. “Did you check the cupholders?”
“Sam,” he says. “Go back inside. It’s okay.”
“No, I wanna—“
But Joel’s kicking the grass on the edge of the curb, over and over, so hard that clods of earth are flying upwards and into the road. He isn’t saying anything but his mouth is a thin white line and his face is growing redder. He’s flailing; his arms are windmilling. He looks like he’s fighting a swarm of invisible wasps. “Shit!” he finally screams. He waves me away, locks himself inside the car, and starts his iPod.
“Joel’s having a fit,” I tell Mom, but she says to leave him alone. The Underwood’s are close to Vern’s, just a ten minute drive down College Ave, and I ride in the back with Mom this time, and leave Joel to drive himself. He doesn’t come back for a few hours.
Georgia and I go outside to the dead pine tree that stands like a skeleton in her back yard, and we search for slugs among the roots. I find a branch and we use it to poke underneath the tree, where the dirt is colder. We flip over stones and pull grass out from around the base.
“Can Davy Crockett stay in your room?” I say.
“I need to ask Mom,” Georgia says. “I got Fisher in the tank and there’s stuff on my desk.”
Georgia’s mom is talking to my mom in the kitchen. She stands with her hips leaning against the silver sink and the phone tucked underneath her arm. Mom has her head in the laptop.
She’s looking up the local news reports.
“Can Sammy put his hamster in my room?” Georgia says.
Her mom nods, so we take Davy Crockett upstairs and find a place for him among Georgia’s colored paper and drawing pens. She likes to draw; scribblings are scattered around the room, taped to walls and stacked on her shelves.
I hear the front door open, and Joel’s voice announcing that he’s arrived. “Hello, Mrs. Boyd,” Emma says.
“Joel’s friend,” my mom says to Georgia’s mom, once Emma and Joel have left for somewhere.
We eat dinner at a cheap burrito place down in Old Town. That night, I sleep on the foldout and Joel sleeps on the opposite couch. The loud hum and buzz of the refrigerator and the glow from Joel’s phone keep me up. Mom and Dad take the guest room, and when I go to the bathroom, I can hear them talking in hushed voices.
Dad takes me to a large open air auditorium the next day, where all of the evacuated families were gathered to hear the news of their neighborhoods. Thirty five thousand of us were evacuated in total, though only seven thousand or so were in the crowd. The police chief explains the path of the fire; how it was started by a lightning strike in the High Park area, and has moved east towards the reservoir and the houses back there. About a hundred houses lost already, it seems, and it’s only twenty percent contained.
A woman in front of us is wearing a straw cowboy hat, and keeps taking it off to fan her head. When she does, I see that she has a large bald spot in the middle of her skull, like a middle aged man.
We eat pasta that night, silently, around the large circular table in Georgia’s dining room. Afterward, we walk the puppy down the street, and I turn towards the hills edging the horizon, and try to guess where our house might be. The mountains have always loomed over Fort Collins as watchful sentinels. We’re far enough away that the details blend into each other in a blue haze, so all we can see are the silhouettes of the peaks, like a row of jagged teeth.
There’s an old Colorado joke that Dad likes to tell to his family when they visit. “In Colorado, we only have two directions: towards the mountains and away from the mountains”.
It’s a kind of regional token, something to show we are unique from the other Southwestern states. Something to give us a sort of shared history; a bonding with the other families and folks whose history spans from Europe to New England to a second generation move out west; a folksy history of Dad jokes from ancient times.
But now, the mountains which shadow our city have been shadowed by a bigger darkness. The smoke cloud looms like an avenging angel, with wings outspread. Ash has been raining down on the town for a couple of days, and we can see some floating now, like toxic snowflakes. I wonder if any of the bits we see are burned remnants of our home. Whether the dusty coatings on cars used to be the photos that lined our upstairs hall. Whether our feet are crunching through the carbonized atoms of the porch, of Mom’s wicker rocking chair, of my teddy bears, of the painted masks from Guatemala that watched over all our dinners.
I’m awoken in the middle of the night by raised voices from up the stairs. Joel’s not here, either. The couch is empty and the blanket is tossed off to the side. Maybe they’re all upstairs.The guest bedroom door is slightly ajar, and through the crack I can see the back of my parent’s heads as they watch TV.
Dad is holding Mom, and but with his other hand he’s rubbing the top of his head, over and over. Mom is curled in a puddle of darkness. She shakes. Through the gap in between them I can see the TV: fire, helicopters, splashing water. I stand for so long my thighs start to ache, and I nearly doze off standing, like a horse.
My parent’s haven’t moved in ages. Dad is still rubbing his head, back and forth.
“Oh,” Mom says, startling me out of my reverie. “That’s the McKendrick’s house. Oh my god, it’s right on the side of their house. Robert, that’s right down the street. Oh, no.”
“Oh my god,” Dad says, quietly.
I don’t want to watch this anymore, so I walk back downstairs. A tinkle from outside, like the splintering of glass. I look out the front door. Joel is standing out there, in his jeans and an undershirt, about halfway across the street, chucking bottles off into the darkness. He has a good pile next to him, about ten or twelve. The light from the streetlamp refracts into the bottles and casts points of green all down the block.
I open the door and walk out next to him. “What are you doing?”
He doesn’t turn around, and throws another bottle off in between the houses across the street. “You couldn’t sleep either?”
“Mom and Dad woke me up. They’re watching the fire on TV. It’s right by the McKendrick’s house.”
Joel doesn’t say anything to this, and hands me a bottle. “You wanna toss one?”
“Where?” I say.
“Right down there, in between the houses. See that white bit? That’s a half wall of cement. I’ve been trying to hit the center over there.”
I hold the bottle by its head and throw it overhand. It spins a bunch of times and flies too low, shattering over the edge of the curb and spraying shards onto the sidewalk.
“It’s better if you throw it sidehand, like this. That way you can kind of Frisbee it and it’ll go father,” Joel says, and shows me.
I try this and the bottle flies too high, over the edge of the half wall, and breaks off in the darkness behind the houses. Joel throws again, and gets a direct center hit. The glass pieces spray outwards in a nearly perfect circle. I throw again, and miss. We keep tossing bottles till a porch light flips on from down the street.
We are all in one car together, two days later. We’ve gotten a call from the sheriff saying we’re free to return to our property, and so we’re driving through the blackened, twisted skeletons of trees and the craters of former houses towards ours.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Dad says. He’s been saying it a lot the past day or so.
On our mile long driveway, what had once been rows of forested soldiers now seemed like skinny screaming ghosts. The blackness spread in waves across the ground, layers emanating outwards from the mountains. Before, the trees that had been so thick you’d get scratches trying to walk between them were now an open pass between burned husks. There is a terrible silence; no bird calls, no secret scritch-scratching in the bushes, no loud cracks out breaking tree branches. From far off, I could hear the chop of helicopter blades.
Our house had been nestled above the driveway, so as you drove up the mountain you could see it rising out like an ancient totem. But now, there was nothing to rise, and only the empty air could be seen. We park at the top of the driveway. The old truck that we left is also burned, and black, and empty.
The house is now a pile of grey and black and twisted dark metal. Three burned supports poke up from various spots in the wreckage, and the brick chimney stands like a final warrior. The firefighters told us that it’d be too dangerous to walk on, so we skirt the perimeter of the house and look down on our former home, skittish and wary to touch. Mom starts to cry and gets back in the car, shuts the door and puts her head between her knees.
Joel crouches down on the far side of the rectangled hole and pokes his hand into the area that had been his bedroom before and begins to sift through the ash and embers. Dad shouts at him from across the wreckage to stop, that he might cut his hand, but Joel continues anyway. He stops, and pulls out a little blackened object, a twisted, incomprehensibly shaped little nub. As he spins it in the light, I see the brown face and cracked glass of Joel’s watch. Joel looks at it for a moment, then stands up from his crouch and tucks it into his sweatshirt pocket.
He shuffles to the edge of the driveway where the edge drops off, palms the watch back into his hand, and hurls it deep into the forest. I hear it clack off of a tree trunk and drop down into blackness.
“I’m gonna go,” he says, walking past the three of us. We watch him as he hikes down the driveway, through the silent screams of the dead trees, rounds a curve, and disappears.
I keep what I found that day for years; after college, a career, one failed marriage and one good marriage, after my kids have left and countless lines of dogs and cats have left as well, I still keep the husk of that watch, which I found sleeping amid some burned logs near a trickle of water. The High Park fire was a long time ago now, and the house has been rebuilt, and a new family lives in it now (or maybe they moved, and there’s a new family now, who tell their kids about the fire years and years ago). Joel lives three states away among the ashes of his own family, and, over the phone, without Mom and Dad to talk to, his nights bleed into mine.
These days come shorter and shorter in retirement, but the hours are longer. I still live near Fort Collins, in this old cabin out in the mountains, among the peaks, between the teeth. I like to spend them out in the forest, among my friends, trying to listen to the sounds of the pine trees crackling and the squirrels fighting over nuts, holding the watch up to my ear to see if maybe, just maybe, it’ll give one final tick.