The tops of the pine trees in my backyard are on fire. They’re glowing orange and red and smoke is lifting up into the normal clouds, stirring with them and turning the sky into a sickeningly bland gray. I rush to my brother’s bedroom and pound on the door, hastening my words to tell him to pack a bag and get out.
My daughter is already prepared and lugging her kid-sized suitcase around with merriment, knowing we’re going somewhere and it’s an adventure because Mommy is really freaking the hell out. I stare at her for just a few seconds but long enough for her to get it. This is no joke. Pack some art supplies, I tell her. We’re going to be gone a very long time.
I charge into my bedroom and begin throwing books into a duffel bag. Don’t forget your phone, I tell myself. My laptop gets left behind but I remember to bring my running shoes. Time is not on our side. I might need those shoes.
My brother is ready to leave, a backpack squared on his back and shoulders like he’s done this before on a trek through Europe on foot or something. I remember Polly the cat is an outdoor cat. Get the dogs! Get the dogs! Elle has her oil crayons and drawing paper, a smart idea to take them out of the house because they’re so flammable. She’s even found time to pull her hair out of her face into a tight ponytail. Elle looks very put-together.
The flames are moving down the trunks of the trees, toward the ground and onto a more direct path to my house. There is smoke everywhere and I think about how I should turn off the television. It is useless to us anyway since we were never given notice of this disaster. There was no warning. No news alert, no alarm, no signal, no siren.
We are all safely in my father’s CRV and driving to St. Augustine to meet my mother. Standing by the Castillo de san Marcos, Mom is looking worried. Where are the cats? She looks at me and she is crying. Where are the cats? Polly is outside, I tell her. Then I remembered Bonnie, my mother’s cat. Bonnie is afraid of the outside world.
I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t think to leave a door open or to smash a window. But Bonnie is a smart cat. She’ll get out of there alive.
And she cries harder.
This is what I woke up to at 3am. This urgency to save my mother’s cat! And I thought about writing it down in the moment but I was exhausted, more so emotionally than physically. I lived through a forest fire in 1988. The ominous smoke cloud that hovered over the woods on three sides of the base, the pine trees the crackled while I rode my bicycle home from school in gusty winds, the fear of evacuating my home and my anger at the authorities for making us leave our dog there because pets are not welcome.
I made sure I stayed awake for a few minutes because the thought of falling asleep and being taken back to the Fort in St. Augustine and my crying mother was not something I was eager to relive. When I finally did close my eyes and drift off, I was at the tail end of the fire and handing out bottles of water to survivors of this massive fire. They were burned, some had lost their faces. But I was so relieved to not be in the presence of my mother and having to face the guilt of being responsible for her dead cat.
I don’t even know if her cat died. And why am I so concerned about it? It was just a dream!