Chapter One: Winds of Change
At midnight on August 2, the wind slackened, then stirred. Gusts sent leaves scurrying. A tiny spark from a cigarette, casually tossed by eighteen-year-old Brad Herrill returning home from a party, flared to life among dry leaves and snaked toward the woods. In the farmhouses fronting the woods on Cove Road, men, women, and children slept.
By two A.M., a necklace of gold edged the outer fringe of trees, and by three A.M. it had crawled into the woods. Heat from the fire sucked moisture from tree trunks. Bursts of wind stirred the flames, causing widening bands of them to veer across pastures, toward barns and farmhouses. In their stalls, cows and horses snorted and pawed the earth, and still the occupants of the houses slept.
In the farmhouse, Amelia Declose awakened. Through her front window George Maxwell's dairy farm across the road shimmered in an eerie, golden glow in a moonless night. When she raised her window, the caustic smell of smoke filled her nostrils. Smoke drifted into her room and set the battery-powered alarm on her wall jangling. From Elk Road, the main road through the hamlet of Covington, fire trucks rounded the corner and tore down Cove Road, their sirens wailing. With increasing panic, Amelia watched the line of trucks: four, five, six. Lights came on in Maxwell's farmhouse.
Within seconds her housemates, Grace Singleton and Hannah Parrish, were at her side.
"A fire, where?" Grace asked, suddenly fully awake.
Clutching her neck and shoulder as if feeling the searing pain of burns inflicted by another fire on another night long ago, Amelia stared wild-eyed and pointed toward the window.
"I'm going outside, see where it is," Hannah declared. When Amelia screamed, Hannah had immediately pulled on slacks, shirt, and shoes. Moments later, from the middle of their front lawn, she saw that one of the other farmhouses was ablaze and another spitting flames. Upstairs her housemates were huddled at Amelia's window. "The Herrills' place is on fire, and looks like the Craines' is also," Hannah called.
"What should we do?" Grace shouted to Hannah, though her voice blanched in the roar of a helicopter passing overhead.
"Get dressed," Laura said. Hannah's forty-one-year-old daughter Laura, who had been living with them for a year, stood in the doorway. Her eyes were absent of emotion. Last July, a year ago, she had survived a hurricane in the Caribbean that had destroyed her home, a charter boat, and everything she owned, and killed Marvin, the man she loved. It was déjà vu.
Hannah dashed back upstairs. "Huge blaze. More fire trucks down there than there are people on Cove Road."
"Let's go." Amelia's voice rose shrilly. "Get the car, Grace. Get the car."
Grace put her arm about Amelia's shoulder. Amelia's body quivered like waves stirred by a rising wind. "It's okay, Amelia. They'll have the fire out in no time, I'm sure."
Pulling away from Grace, Amelia fled the house. Halfway down the porch steps, it struck her that she wore only a satin nightgown. The night was delirious with the sounds of shouted orders, revving engines, and low-flying helicopters. A brisk wind wrapped the ends of Amelia's nightgown about her legs, nearly tripping her. Yanking open the door of her car, she stared inside. She had no keys, and Hannah's station wagon blocked her Taurus. Slamming the door, she began to weep. Fifteen feet from the porch, Amelia's legs buckled, and she lay for a time on the grass, grass that was dry and brittle from the summer's drought. Here I am, she thought, barefoot, and barely dressed, sixty-nine years old, and behaving like a hysterical five-year-old.
• • •
The Craines' and Herrills' homes and barns were ablaze. Numb and bewildered, the families huddled outside of Cove Road Church with their neighbors the Lunds, the Tates, and Pastor Johnson on the other side of the road. Heat assailed their arms and faces. Acrid smoke stung their eyes as they watched firemen from Madison and Buncombe counties fight a desperate and losing battle to save their homes. On the hills behind the houses arrowheads of flame marked the tree line where helicopters had dumped their vital cargo of fire retardants.
At the ladies' farmhouse everyone was now dressed. Hannah had brought black plastic trash bags upstairs. These she now distributed, one to each of them. "I expect they'll have this fire under control long before it reaches our house, but we can't stay here -- the smell of smoke and charred wood will be suffocating. We'll go to Loring Valley and use our children's apartment. Put whatever you think you'll need for a few days, maybe a week, into these bags."
Hiccuping and crying, frantic to flee yet terrified to be alone, Amelia attempted to follow instructions. But when she entered her bedroom, her mind fogged. Everything in the room was the same, yet nothing seemed real. Frenetically she dumped everything on top of her dressing table -- brush, comb, cosmetics -- into the black plastic bag, and then every pair of shoes she owned.
Hannah and Grace tossed shirts, and slacks, and lingerie, and other bits and pieces of clothing into their bags, and Hannah, ever practical, emptied the file under her desk of papers: the deed to the property, their tax records, wills, birth certificates, and other documents. No one thought of taking Amelia's photographs or antique fan collection, or Grace's treasured clowns or collection of treasured cookbooks, or Hannah's gardening tools and books. Finally, clutching their bags, they stood in the hall. Laura pulled her mother aside.
"Come, look out my window," she whispered.
"Go on down, put your bags in my station wagon -- it's last in line. We'll be right down," Hannah said to Grace and Amelia. "Laura's asked me to help her with something." Turning, she followed Laura down the hall.
Laura's window offered a view of the woods and hillsides. Fire raged on the slope behind the Herrills' and marched inexorably across the woods behind the Craines', their closest neighbor. Above the hills a helicopter released its load of fire-retardant liquid.
"Still think they can put it out before it gets to us?" Laura asked.
"With the helicopters helping, yes, certainly. They'll have it under control in no time," Hannah said, feigning optimism while her heart plummeted. Thank God she'd packed their papers, but what else should she, should they, have taken?
Horses neighed fear and protest as men led them across the road, away from their barns. Flames crackled and roared. Roof beams thundered as they toppled. Hoses stretched across Cove Road in order to drench the roofs and walls of the Lunds' and Tates' homes and barns. Standing on a fire truck, the chief yelled orders and demanded that residents evacuate the area. As firefighters turned their hoses on the church, families clambered into vehicles lined up along the road.
The rear of Ted Lund's pickup brimmed with sacks of clothing. A rocking chair leaned against a grandfather clock, and Pastor Johnson, clutching a suitcase, sat on a sack next to the Lund boys, Rick and Alex. Molly, Ted's wife, and her mother, Brenda Tate, squeezed into the front seat. Behind them, water cascaded from the roof of the church.
Suffering from a hangover, and unaware of his role in the destruction, Brad Herrill groaned and held his head as he hunched in the back of his father's big truck. They pulled away and headed for Elk Road. Piled with furniture and clothing, the Craines' two vehicles followed. As the small caravan started up, the chief waved them on. "Get a move on!" he yelled.
In the cul-de-sac, the office and newly constructed living museum sites at the Bella Maxwell Park and Preserve had been thoroughly drenched, although the chief believed that the winds would hold steady, and the park was not in danger. Still, one never knew.
Across from the ladies, at George (Max) Maxwell's dairy farm, a congregation of cows, darkly etched against the orange glare, were being herded high onto the hills behind the barns. Men with hoses pelted Maxwell's lawn, windmill, house, and barns with torrents of water. As the vehicles passed his property, Max broke from among the firefighters and ran across the road to the ladies, who stood as if frozen on their porch.
"God, Hannah." He grasped her. "They're evacuating everyone. Damn. I thought they'd have it under control by now. Are you all right?"
Terror reigned in Amelia's eyes, numb bewilderment in Grace's. Unwittingly, Hannah slumped against Max for a moment. The relief in her eyes was transitory, and turned to despair. After tossing their bags into Hannah's wagon, Max shepherded them across the road to his lawn, then raced back to move the station wagon from their driveway. And just in time, for shortly after he rejoined them, they stared in disbelief as fire trucks trammeled Hannah's rosebushes, as more lengths of hose were unfurled, as great bursts of water struck their home and showered down windowpanes.
Perhaps it was the proximity, perhaps the sheer irrationality of the moment, but Grace broke from them and dashed back to their farmhouse. "I'm going after our things!"
Amelia cringed. Her pupils dilated with fear. "No!" she screamed. "Grace. No. No."
Before Max could stop her, Hannah raced after Grace.
Max said, "I'll get them. Stay with Amelia, Laura."
Laura drew closer to the older woman, who slumped against her. The world glowed red.
Dashing past firefighters, Max snatched the women about their waists and struggled to pull them back. With amazing strength, Grace broke loose. Max raced after her, Hannah following across the lawn, up the slippery steps, and into the farmhouse. The wood floors inside were slick. The rug in the foyer and the carpeted stairs oozed water. A caustic layer of smoke hunkered about them.
Grace was already upstairs, coughing. They followed. In the hallway, smoke darkened the space.
Max hastened to wet towels. "Cover your mouths and noses. Let's get out of here."
By then, Grace had disappeared into Amelia's room, where the battery-powered fire alarm sounded a faint, intermittent beep. Tearing a pillow from its case, she headed for the dresser, pulled the collection of antique fans from the wall above it, and stuffed them into the pillowcase along with silk and cashmere scarves from a drawer. She couldn't reach the top shelf of the closet, couldn't save Amelia's straw hat, a treasured gift from her husband, Thomas.
Steps thudded on the stairs. A fireman yelled, "You people crazy? Out of here. Out. Now!"
Max yanked Grace's arm. "You heard him. Let's go."
Hannah called to Grace. "Come on. Hurry."
"I want my clown that Bob gave me," Grace called back
"No time." Max held the towel to his mouth and coughed.
They pulled Grace toward the steps.
"My diabetes medication." Possessed by a rush of strength, Grace tore free of Max and Hannah, brushed away the young fireman, and darted into the smoky, water-drenched kitchen. Looking wildly about, she felt her way, grabbed the bottle of pills from a straw basket on the counter and a cookbook -- not a particular cookbook, but the first to touch her fingers. She lurched forward, held her chest, and gasped for air.
Wayne Reynolds, a close friend and volunteer fireman, was beside her. "Outta here, Miss Grace. Back of your house is burning." His strong arms wrested her out onto the lawn and thrust her, stumbling and coughing, toward Hannah, who shuddered when she saw the greenhouse she had sold to Wayne already consumed by flames.
Grace heard a man say, "This house is gone, too." Exhausted, and bent nearly double from choking and coughing, Grace managed to glance at his face. Under the yellow parka, his eyes were red and his tired face damp. A long dark smudge ran down his cheek. He pointed to the ladies' farmhouse just as a paramedic ran up to Grace with an oxygen mask and tank. She held the mask tight and breathed, short gasping breaths and then more deeply.
"Let's get them outta here!" the paramedic shouted to Max above the din as he pressed them away from the house.
Moments later they stood alongside Hannah's station wagon on the road in front of Max's house and watched with horror as flames danced triumphantly on the roof of the farmhouse they had so lovingly renovated and moved into three years ago. Thick gray smoke billowed from its windows and poured from every nook and cranny of the old homestead. Firefighters staggered back.
"Damned fool people running into that house. Risk their lives and ours. Place is dry as tinder," Grace heard someone say. But she'd had to go, didn't they understand? For Amelia, she'd had to go.
A young fireman from Mars Hill, ten miles away, dashed up and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that they leave Cove Road.
"Go to Bob's place!" Maxwell yelled above the din.
Hannah nodded. Four dispirited women, one nearly hysterical, climbed into Hannah's old station wagon and drove, ever so cautiously, toward Elk Road.
Copyright © 2003 by Joan Medlicott