A short story set in the world of my upcoming Science Fiction series, After the Fires Went Out.
Peshtigo (Short Story)
by Regan Wolfrom
I woke up this morning to a room bathed in a sickly gray light, the sun still choked by the smoke. The wildfire had moved further north, but that smoke and the floating ash still hung low over whatever trees and buildings remained along the shore of Catfish Lake. It felt weird having watched it all from this little island, the fire and the destruction, almost like sitting up in the bleachers while everything happened just out of reach.
But that’s life these days, everything’s getting crazier and the crazy’s moving closer to home. Mom tells me that there was a time before I was born when California was rich and Michigan was poor, when people believed our country was beyond things like martial law and insurgency.
But I never wanted to know about the news. I didn’t want to feel scared all the time.
Dustin was still sleeping when I got out of bed; I gave him a quick poke and he grunted a few curses at me. There’d been little seduction last night as he’d brought me to his bed, when both of us were well past tipsy and with the adrenaline making us crazy… whatever romance there’d been had long since drained away.
“Well I’m getting up,” I said, not that he was actually listening.
I pulled on the same clothes I’d worn last night, my school hoodie and matching sweatpants; I didn’t care how much they reeked of lime-flavored light beer and woodsmoke. The whole cabin smelled of that smoke, really, and I wondered if we were making ourselves sick by staying. Today was supposed to be the day we headed back home to Madison; I’m not so sure there’s a way to get there now. Last Friday I couldn’t wait to get away from my parents, and now I already miss them more than I ever thought I could.
And I can’t remember where I’ve left my phone.
I found Xander downstairs in the kitchen, deeply entwined with a couple of mixing bowls. His sloppy brown hair was a mess, more so than usual; I’m sure he was feeling a little hungover too.
“Don’t tell me you’re making breakfast,” I said with a smile.
“It’s man’s work,” he said. He didn’t smile back. “Good morning, Isabella. Did you… did you sleep okay?”
I felt awkward knowing that he knew. You don’t really expect your first time to be so… obvious.
“I’m still tired,” I said. I knew he wouldn’t ask for more, but part of me wanted to tell him everything.
He kept mixing. “I’m making the last of the eggs.”
“Did you lay them yourself?”
He gave me a little laugh, but I could tell he was just being nice. His mood seemed pretty sour.
I offered my help, but he waved me away with a politeness that didn’t seem that honest. I went out to the porch and found my magazine, and then I tried to find a bright enough place for reading. But the sunniest room in the cottage was dreary and cold, more than you’d ever expect in the middle of May. And I didn’t really feel like reading.
I just wanted to go home.
I went back into the kitchen where Xander was still working. I thought about just how much food might be left in the cupboards.
“Do you think the fire reached all the way to town?” I asked.
“I’m sure it did,” Xander said. “That’s where the wind seems to have taken it.”
It was weird knowing that people around here might have lost everything, maybe even their lives. I didn’t know any locals — I’d never been to Eagle River before — but I still felt closer to their grief than I would’ve expected.
“I’ve been listening to the radio,” Xander said.
But I noticed he didn’t have it on; I wondered why he’d turned it off.
“Did they talk about the fires?” I wasn’t sure if that was a stupid question.
“That’s all they’re talking about,” Xander said. “That and the comet.”
“I came here to stop hearing about that damned comet,” I said, a little too harshly. “I’m sorry… I guess it still scares me even though I know it shouldn’t.”
“There are fires all over the place.”
“From here to the East Coast, thousands of fires, most up near Canada. The comet came in as they predicted, exploding over the Atlantic, but a bunch of pieces still hit the Earth.”
I thought of Mom and Dad. “Have you called anyone back home?”
“The network’s down.”
I felt like crying.
I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, and for whatever reason I worried that it was Dustin. I turned around and saw that it wasn’t, but the alternative — my best friend with her arm wrapped around the biggest douche at La Follette High — wasn’t much better.
She and Trey had been dating for years, since middle school, even. I guess back when they’d started he hadn’t seemed so bad. But now…
It’s not like Dustin’s all that great, either.
“Smells like something’s burning,” Krista said.
“That’s not funny,” I replied.
“Wow, Miss Belly… you sure woke up on the wrong side of Dustin this morning.” She started to giggle and I wanted to pay her back with a slap across her grinning face.
“We need to come up with a plan,” Xander said. “It’s not like the five of us can stay on this little island forever.”
I heard the familiar sighing of Trey the douche. “Do you really think your car isn’t burnt to a crisp?” he asked.
“I’m not an idiot. Even if the car’s still intact, there’s probably no way we’d be able to use what’s left of the access road.”
“I doubt we want to hike out,” I said. “Maybe we can take the boat along the shore until we find help.”
“I’m not sure you’ll find anyone out there,” Xander said. “I’ll bet everyone’s cleared out for miles around.”
“So we wait here?” I asked, though I didn’t really expect anyone to have an answer. I wanted to go home more than anything, but I remembered the flames from last night, rising to the sky like mountains of red and yellow. The idea of those fires being everywhere…
“Screw that,” I heard Dustin say. He was coming down the stairs with an angry look on his face. “I’m not going to sit around in this rat hole. I’m going to take the boat into town, see what’s going on.” He glanced around at each of us, and it felt like he could barely stomach what he was seeing. “Are you guys coming with me or what?” He walked over to the porch and peered out at the lake.
“Can you even get over to the town by using the boat?” Krista asked.
“You can take that boat all the way down to Lake Wisconsin if you don’t mind a few portages,” Xander said.
“You mean we could take it almost all the way back home?”
“Sure,” Dustin said, “if you have two weeks and ten tanks of gas.”
“It’s not that far,” Xander said. “Not that it would make any sense to do that.”
“We shouldn’t go anywhere,” I said, “My parents know I’m here, so here is where I’m going to be.”
Xander shook his head at me. “You’re not really staying, are you?”
“Yeah, I’m staying. I don’t think it’s safe out there.”
“Then I think I’ll stay, too,” Xander said. I hadn’t expected him to agree so easily.
Well, I guess part of me knew he would.
“Thanks,” I said. “We’ll wait for things to calm down… hopefully our parents will find a way to get in touch with us.”
“Of course he would stay with you,” Dustin said to me with a smirk. “Keep trying to get in her pants, Xander. Maybe one day you’ll get her so drunk she’ll open her legs for you.” He began to laugh. “Worked for me last night.”
That made me lose it. “What the hell?” I screamed. I shoved him hard on the chest. “Why would you say something like that about me? I mean…”
But I didn’t know what else to say; I thought he’d be different now. God, I’m an idiot.
I saw Xander rushing towards the porch, his gaze fixed on Dustin.
“Please don’t,” I said.
Xander reached Dustin and shoved his finger right in front of the guy’s face; it was strange to see how much taller Xander is, even if he is skinnier than anyone else I know. “You’re a piece of garbage,” he said. “I don’t even know why anyone invited you along.”
“Whatever, man,” Dustin said. “I’m taking the boat.”
“That’s my uncle’s boat. He lent it to me.”
“Just give him the boat,” Trey said.
“I’m not giving him the boat.”
Things were getting heated, Dustin and Xander glaring at the other and neither looking close to backing down. Dustin was being Dustin, no different than usual, but Xander… there was an anger and intensity in him that I’d never seen before.
I didn’t know how far he’d go. I needed to calm things down.
“There are two canoes,” I said.
“I don’t want a canoe,” Dustin said. “It would take hours to get to town.”
I shook my head. “We can use the canoe. You guys would take the boat. It’s not that big of a deal, is it, Xander?”
“That boat needs to stay here with me,” Xander said.
“Listen, asshole,” Dustin said, “I am not going to stay here and wait for the food to run out and the generator to shut off. I’m taking that boat whether you want me to or not.”
“Just give him the boat,” Trey said again. It sounded menacing.
“You guys aren’t going to get that boat without a fight,” Xander said. “I’m not kidding, I’m senior ranked in Taekwondo… I know how to fight.”
They were starting to scare me, not just Dustin and Trey, but Xander, too. They’d all tolerated each other as much as they needed too, for as long as there was fishing and beer and two girls who’d drank too much. But it looked like that was over now.
It was like last night had driven each of them a little crazy.
“You guys all need to take a breath,” I said. “This isn’t a life or death situation here. We just need to take a vote.”
“A vote?” Xander said. “Come on.”
“Yeah, a vote,” Trey said. “That sounds good.”
“Okay,” Dustin said.
“Good,” I said. “So let’s raise hands or whatever… who thinks we should take the boat and head to town?”
Dustin and Trey stuck their hands in the air. They were both looking over at Krista.
She looked at me and I could see that she was unsure.
She threw up her hand. “Sorry, Miss Belly,” she said. “I don’t think it makes any sense to stay here.”
Dustin grinned. “I guess that’s decided,” he said. “Since we took two loads over, I don’t know if we have enough room for all of our stuff.”
“You should have enough room,” I said. “I’m going to stay here.”
“That’s not at all fair,” Krista said. “That isn’t how it’s supposed to work.”
“Don’t bother with her,” Dustin said. “We could use the extra space.”
“Come on, Dustin,” I said. “Can’t you pretend for just a minute that I actually mean something to you?”
He gave me another one of his smirks. “You did mean something to me, Isabella… and then I nailed you… that’s how it works.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Don’t be bitter,” Dustin said. “It’s not attractive.”
I felt angry, but I felt embarrassed more than anything else. No one really expects the first guy they’re with to be more than just a short-term boyfriend, but you don’t really think that you’ll just be another one-off, some stupid girl that doesn’t know how the game is played.
I waited for just a second, expecting Xander to say… something. But he just shook his head in disgust, and I’m not sure he meant it for Dustin.
I needed to disappear. I turned and ran up the stairs, hoping that no one would follow me.
Krista waited for over twenty minutes before she came to see me. We cried and we hugged, and she tried one more time to get me to come along.
She was acting like we’d never see each other again. She’s always been a little over-dramatic.
I watched from a small upstairs window as the three of them got into the boat and headed out onto the lake. I couldn’t see Xander; he must have been too mad at Dustin to see them off.
Once their little boat were almost too far to make out against the waves, I went back downstairs.
I found Xander sitting out on the porch with a beer in his hand.
“My father grew up in Peshtigo,” he said as I joined him. “Do you know the story of the Great Peshtigo Fire?”
“I know the Great Chicago Fire,” I said. “That’s about it.”
“They happened on the same night, actually. Some people say it was a comet, just like this one… well, I guess it was quite a bit smaller. There were fires all over Wisconsin, Michigan, and who knows where else. They used to say it was a crazy fringe theory, that comets couldn’t start fires. Now it looks like it was true after all.”
“So what does that mean? Are my parents okay?”
“Did you see what just happened, Isabella? If I hadn’t given up the boat those guys would have beaten the crap out of me. Or worse. It’s not safe out there.”
I didn’t believe him. It’s not like the world had come apart just because of a comet and some wildfires. Or no more apart than it already is.
“I guess you didn’t tell Dustin about the fires,” I said.
“He has eyes, doesn’t he?”
“I mean that the fires are all over. He thinks it’s just the one.”
“I’m just glad he’s gone,” Xander said.
“But if it’s not safe…”
“And what about Krista?”
“She chose those guys over us. And I’m glad she did.”
He stood up and starting walking down towards the water. “I’d better get fishing,” he said.
“For dinner, silly. We’re going to need to eat.”
“They didn’t leave us any of the fish we caught?”
“That’s our food store. We should have a couple weeks of propane for the geni, but I can dry the extra fish after that. We don’t want to dig into our supplies more than we have to.”
He walked down to the boathouse and grabbed a rod that was leaning against the wall.
“How long do you think we’ll be staying?” I asked.
“For a while.”
“And how long is that?”
He smiled at me, but there was something in it that I didn’t like.
“How long?” I asked again.
“It’s not safe out there.”
“But what if our parents never come? What if no one comes?”
He reached out and put his arm around me. His grip was tight, as though he wanted to smoosh us together into one big lump.
I pulled away.
“Maybe we should take a canoe and head downriver,” I said. “There must be somebody out there who can help us.”
“You and I need to help each other,” Xander said. He turned and stared out over the lake and let out another big smile. “We were made for this time, Isabella. We’ll keep each other safe.”
I didn’t know what to do. I stared at him a moment, trying to understand just what was happening, and what had changed in him.
“You’re making me uncomfortable,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think I’ve changed my mind, Xander. I think we should go for help.”
He sighed. “Don’t be stupid, Isabella. You’re safe with me.”
I took a deep breath, surprised at how anxious I was. “No,” I said. “I don’t want to stay here with you. We need to find help.”
He came at me. It happened so quickly.
I didn’t realize what Xander was doing until he had me pinned against the boathouse wall. His hands were clasping my neck like I was a dog he was trying to train.
“Enough, Isabella,” he said. “I’m not messing around anymore.”
“I don’t understand.”
His grip tightened around my neck. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said, almost growling at me.
He let go of my neck and then he leaned in to kiss me.
I didn’t turn away.
I was too scared. I didn’t want him to hurt me.
And I knew deep down that I didn’t want him to send me away.
I don’t think it’s safe out there.