In “Smoke and Consequences” by C.W. Blackwell, when a wildfire approaches and an evacuation order is given, a low-life drifter stays behind to see what he can take for himself.
A knock-off Rolex in unit fourteen.
A bottle of generic muscle relaxers in unit eleven.
Cody Spans ransacked four double-wide trailers before he realized the old folks at Los Altos Mobile Home Park didn’t have nice things. It seemed the poor bastards had taken so many wrong turns in life, they’d either hocked or bartered every valuable belonging they’d ever encountered.
Even the lawns were fake.
Most of the residents had left in a panic ahead of the wildfire, bringing whatever they could carry on the evacuation bus. Photo albums. Heart medications. Pomeranians with cute names like Peanut or Mr. Pickles. Cody watched them from the dark windows of the recreation hall as they tripped and shouted through the smoke, armfuls of useless items tumbling into the street. When the bus finally trundled down the mountain, he slipped the N95 respirator mask over his head and kicked in a few back doors to see what he could find.
Turned out, not a lot.
Most of the residents had left in a panic ahead of the wildfire, bringing whatever they could carry on the evacuation bus.
“Sonofabitch,” Cody muttered into his mask. He stood in the road, ash building in his shaggy hair. Against the brown sky, he looked like a sepia portrait of an old-timey plague survivor.
The front door of space fifteen banged open and shut in the wind.
A newer model Honda in the carport.
He went up the AstroTurf steps and looked inside. Doilied furniture. Crocheted wall ornaments. On the counter he found a newly-minted roll of quarters and slipped it into his pocket. A calendar pinned to the wall said it was laundry day.
Then, a long moan from the hallway.
An old woman lay on her side, straddling the bathroom doorway. Eyes like glass marbles, looking up at him. She must have fallen.
“You a fireman?” she croaked.
Cody didn’t reply. He threw open the kitchen drawers, tossed the contents into the sink. Nothing there. He went to the bedroom and rifled through the nightstand. He found a pearl brooch and a pair of jade earrings and he stuffed them into his pocket.
“Where’s the car keys?” he barked.
The old woman quietly pawed at a streak of blood on her forehead.
He stomped into the front room and found the keys in a rose-patterned dish on the coffee table, spun them once on his finger. Beads of sweat rolled down his cheek, but it wasn’t from the heat. He hadn’t scored in two days and it was catching up to him.
Stomach churning now.
“It’s not too late for you, son,” said the old woman. She sat still and watchful. Crazy white hair like an apple doll. “You can still get straight.”
He turned and vomited into the kitchen sink and then he was gone.
He sold the Honda to an Eastside gangbanger named Sick Boy for five hundred bucks and two grams of black tar heroin. The smoke had thinned on the coast. Flurries of ash sifting over car windows and bus stop shelters. Fire trucks howling in every direction.
“Boosting cars from an evac zone is some twisted shit, man,” said Sick Boy.
Cory ignored the comment. “You got any rigs?” he said.
“I ain’t a needle-exchange program.”
“Fine, I’ll make do,” said Cody. He unpocketed the stolen brooch and earrings. “What’ll you give for these?”
“An old lady’s costume jewelry?” said Sick Boy, waving him off with a laugh. “Goddamn, you’re sicker than me.”
He put the jewelry back in his pocket. “I could still get straight.”
“You could get straight the fuck on your way, son.”
Cody wandered behind a shuttered Indian food restaurant where a trash can and a graffitied payphone stood in the shadows. He found a square of tin foil and a ballpoint pen in the trash and he sat beneath the payphone and cooked the junk on the foil and smoked it with the pen tube. The sky looked heavy and rust-colored. A smoldering sun like a red-hot bearing.
He smoked and slept.
He woke in near-darkness. Streetlights blurred in the night haze. When he stood, the stolen roll of quarters fell from his pocket and clattered over the blacktop, coins zagging in all directions. He leaned against the payphone and uncradled the handset, rolled two of the quarters into the slot. He dialed. After five rings, his sister’s voicemail message played. She hadn’t picked up in three years. Her voicemail promised that she’d call back, but she never did. He thumbed the hookswitch and killed the call. He stood for a moment with his forehead pressed to the payphone, handset to his ear. Just listening to the dial tone.
He punched three digits into the keypad.
It rang once, then a female voice: “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“I’m hoping you can check on an address,” said Cody.
“You want us to dispatch a welfare check?”
“To what address?”
“Los Altos Mobile Home Park. Unit fourteen. No, fifteen.”
A long silence.
Then: “Is this a relative you’re checking on?”
“No, not a relative. An old woman lives there.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. The fire overran the entire neighborhood this afternoon. There’s nothing left. We won’t be able to send anyone for a few days.”
He said nothing.
“Sir, would you like to report a missing person?”
“Sir, I’m very sorry.”
He hung up and sank to the ground, back pressed to the trash can. Little winks of light where the quarters lay scattered around his feet. Little winks of light like eyes watching. He found the pearl brooch and the jade earrings and he held them in the well of his palm.
He could get ten bucks for it all.
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