A longer installment this time, but there was only one place to break this chapter. We are rapidly, rapidly approaching the end of this thing. Next week's installment will probably be it. Then it's ,e asking you to buy a copy of the story if it's something you enjoyed. And I hope you have, and I hope you will.
I am plotting the second story in this series now. It's a departure, some. Feels a little smaller, but it's good. I like it a lot, but things always change some in the actual writing. Plots rarely stay exactly the same. They don't change drastically, not always. But they do.
OK. Moving on to this installment.
Welcome to the End//Part 32--Burn it All
We each spend the next hour sorting our stuff into the things we’ll keep and the things we’ll burn. Some of the decisions are tough. There is stuff that’s going into the burn pile that I’ve had for years. It’s stuff that I always thought of as essential. That’s why it made it here. I didn’t see a way to leave it back at my apartment. But this new situation, this very long walk that I’m facing, is forcing some very tough decisions. I’m having to have some tough mental conversations.
But after the mental back and forth, I’ve got everything down to a few changes of clothes and must-have gear for eating, sleeping and survival. Plus my mask. It’s all in my pack, along with a bit of extra space so I’ll have a place to put up anything I pick up on the way.
It’s beginning to get dark and Caroline comes over. “When are we going to light this candle?”
I stand. “We should probably get started.”
I take my stack of burnable items over near the barrels in a pair of shifts.
“One or two?” I ask.
“One or two what?”
“We want to do one or two fires? One would be more spectacular but two gets us done quicker.”
“Two,” Caroline says. “I want to get this over with.” She grabs an armful of items from her stack of burnable things and carries them to the second barrel that’s about 20 feet away. She starts cramming things inside of the barrel.
“Not too tight,” I warn her. “You want some air to be able to get in there.”
She crams with less enthusiasm then comes to me when she’s finished. I’ve just poured some of the gas on the items in my barrel and hand her the bucket.
“Don’t use it all, but get your stuff good and wet.”
She does then brings the bucket back to me. I take it from her and move it around so the gas inside can slosh. “Just in case,” I say. “We may have to start these again if we’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s fire resistant.”
She nods. I pull my waterproof container of matches from my pocket. I take on out and go to light it.
“Wait,” she says and takes the container from me. “Same time.”
She runs over to the other bucket and puts the match on the rough underside of the container. I bend down to scratch mine on the ground, and she starts to count. She gets to three and we both light our matches and toss them onto our barrels.
Flames erupt, and we can feel the air rushing in to feed them. Camp is suddenly hot and bright. I take quick steps back until I get to a point where the intensity of the flames is tolerable.
Caroline joins me.
“Happy now, Mr. Fireman?”
Yes. Yes, I am.
The fires have burned for hours. Caroline fed her barrel the last of her items a while ago, but there’s still a pile in front of mine. Walter had a lot of stuff.
The flames aren’t punching up a dozen feet like they were earlier, but they are still impressive. Caroline is sitting in my chair. I was going to burn it, but I can’t bring myself to tear it down into parts that will fit in the barrel, so I’ll leave it. Plus, there’s no reason that two of us should have to sit on a plastic milk crates tonight.
We haven’t said much, just watched the fires burn.
“I love this.”
“What?” she asks.
I point at the flames jumping from the barrels.
“The fires. I love watching them.”
“No,” I say. “Not in some weird way. Just watching the flames dance, play in and out of each other. It’s mesmerizing.”
“I guess.” She shifts onto her side, nearly laying in the seat.
“I used to do this for hours when I was traveling and writing. You’re in the back part of some mountain town and can’t speak the language so you wind up around a fire with someone who’s befriended you. And since you can’t really say anything to each other you just watch the flames.”
We sit in silence again for a moment.
“Tell me more about Europe,” Caroline says. “Since I’ll probably never get to go.”
I tell her how everything is old in all the best ways. Not old like things get old in the United States. Not old and degraded, but old and elegant. And how it’s just normal for everyone there. We go and we marvel at how everything looks so classic, so storybook. But for them, that’s life. It’s just how the world is. Not true of all of Europe of course. I tell her about the glassy and shiny parts of places like London and how when in the right space and with the right people you can feel like you’re living in tomorrow.
Then I tell her about New York City and the crackle of life that seems to exist there all the time. It can be the middle of the night, and there’s an energy to the city that keeps you awake and spurs you on.
“You’ll see,” I tell her as I finish. “You’ll go to all those places and experience them for yourself.”
“No, Mac. I won’t. Those places don’t exist anymore.”
“They’re still there. You can still go.”
“A place is its people as much as its locations. Even if every building were still standing, the people are different now. We all are.”
“Maybe. For now. But we’ll come back.”
I have to believe that. Otherwise, what’s the point of going to Oklahoma? If I’ve given up and can’t find the hope then I might as well stay here and wait for the wailers to overwhelm me.
“Plus,” I say. “I don’t think you believe that.”
“What? That we’re all irreparably broken? I absolutely do.”
“No, you don’t. You’re hurting, and it’s fine. Take as much time as you need to recover. No one can rush that. But when you do recover, you’re coming back to the girl I first met who was all smiles and rainbows.”
She shakes her head. “Gag.”
I smile because she doesn’t even realize that she’s already started her journey back.