Minutes before the black hole opens in her daughter’s bedroom, Lorna Pole stares out the kitchen window at the smoke blooming around the oaks and digger pines across the road, and wonders what her dead husband would tell her to do.
The fire started in the western foothills a week ago and followed the rising elevation east, and now Lorna wonders if she should call the dogs, put a wet quilt over Big John’s great-grandmother’s hundred-year-old hydrangea bush, run outside and pick the last of the season’s apples before everything—all of it—burns up.
Instead, she stares, frozen, feeling the counter vibrating against her hipbone with a distant rumbling—rocks sliding, gulches groaning—as she wonders when late becomes too late.
The animals have all fled, families of mule deer leaping around the manzanitas and disappearing in the brown haze; boiling masses of crows—thousands—soaring over the forest canopy, calling to each other in the gray as they pulse north as one body.
They must have known these woods would go up in flames sooner or later. The drought. Warm winters that aren’t killing off the bark beetles. Hillsides piebald with dead trees.
“Jeanie,” she calls up the stairs.
She waits, hears the creak of bedsprings.
She’s about to tell Jeanie to pack a bag but then remembers the 12-year-old’s double ear infection, the vertigo that made her fall down the stairs twice yesterday so that Lorna had to carry her to and from the bathroom.
She stares out the window at the orange woods and wonders if she should gather up her mother’s jewelry, her grandmother’s wedding dress, Jeanie’s birth certificate.
“Mom?” Jeanie calls. “Are we going?”
Outside, Ann King’s minivan drives past, and Lorna leans forward and squints to see through the dust. She can’t make out a person inside, as if the van is driving away from the imminent wreckage of its own accord.
The evacuation warning went out two days ago and most of their neighbors have left—all except Jim King and Walker Breem, whose properties border the Poles’. They’re going to wait her out, and she knows that if she leaves first, they’ll make sure there’s no house to come back to, just like she knows that they’re the reason Big John went out fishing one Saturday last year and didn’t come home, smashed ATV found belly-up at the bottom of the gorge under Rainbow Bridge, Sheriff Whitehead looking at her over his desk and twisting the ends of a pencil between his fingers, setting it down as he said: “Lorna, everyone knows Big John starts on a six-pack on his way to the river.”
The three families have been feuding for decades—generations—starting from the day Big John’s grandfather gated off the access road that cut through his property, which was the easiest route for carrying fishing tackle to the river. King retaliated by chopping down Pole’s favorite ponderosa pine, which Pole called the Lollipop Tree for its straight, bare trunk and perfectly rounded top. Thinking Breem the culprit, Pole set fire to his hillside of blueberry bushes, which spread to the goat pen and killed the whole herd.
Now the three men take one another to court every few years to get the fence-lines pushed 18 inches one way or the other. Or rather, they did, until Big John disappeared.
“Mom?” Jeanie calls.
Lorna watches the smoke curl through the arachnoid oak branches.
Big John had always been the decision-maker. Broad-backed, seven feet tall, a giant ducking through doorways, he was frightening when angry; his raised voice thundered in the beams. It was easy to defer to him, to be told where they were going and what they were doing.
If he were here now, he wouldn’t let them leave. Not until Breem and King left.
She hears the bedsprings creak upstairs, and, forgetting Jeanie’s vertigo again, calls up: “Has Jim King left yet?”
Her voice swings up, rising in pitch—hopeful, worried, uncertain—to the second-floor bedroom where Jeanie lies in bed with her one-eyed Russian tortoise, Francis, on her stomach. Above her, smoke crawls up the window, looking for a way inside. She hears tires crunching gravel on the mountain road as clouds of red dust float past the window. Soon they’ll be the last ones left.
She runs a finger over the vertebrae of Francis’s spine, which arches along the vertical axis of his shell. She found him two years ago on his back outside the public library—the size of an apricot, gray and listless and missing one eye while the other bulged twice the size of a normal eye—and she made an old man stumble in the parking lot when she yelled, “Oh no!” She took Francis home, along with three books on testudinology and tortoise care. She learned from the books that his slightly bowed plastron meant he was male, and the seven ridges in each scute of his carapace meant he was seven years old.
She used the previous month’s birthday money to buy a UVB light and a heat lamp that she fixed to the side of an old fish tank she found in the garage. She fed him lettuce and apple slices and dried shrimp. He cowered under his ceramic log for sixteen months until one Tuesday afternoon, while reading a book out loud to him, she looked up to see his one enormous eye trained on her from beneath the log, bright and glossy and full of wonder. She started reading to him every day: books, magazines—Tiger Beat, Ranger Rick, Popular Science—and he lumbered clumsily around his log to see her.
She read articles about particle physics and quarks to him while he crawled up the side of his tank, legs bicycling uselessly at the glass until she took him out, settled him in her lap, and read that if an atom were blown up to the size of the Mall of America, its nucleus would be a corndog crumb in the food court while its electrons would be beach balls coasting along the outer ranges of the parking lot—that an atom was 99.99% empty space, and if that empty space was vacuumed out, all the condensed matter on earth could be contained within a shoebox. She stroked his ridged carapace and he turned his huge, bulging eye up to her, the aperture of his pupil dilating so that Jeanie could stare into the starry black infinitude and see what he longed for most: the two of them together, tucked around one another in his shell forever.
Now, she cups Francis and sits up to look out the window, but the movement makes the room swoop sideways and she lies back down, stomach lurching. She tastes acid and turns her face away from Francis to burp. “Sorry,” she says.
She doesn’t want to look anyway. She’s been afraid of Jim King since the day he caught her scrabbling over the fence with a refrigerator magnet to examine a rock she spotted from her bedroom window that looked like a meteorite. If the magnet stuck, it might be an asteroidal rock—an intergalactic projectile!—a clue from the universe that was so big, so expansive, it made her feel seasick to lay flat on her back on the deck with Francis on her belly and gaze up at the cloudy spill of the Milky Way galaxy, knowing that they were moving 1.3 million miles per hour. Staring at the stars, it didn’t take her long to lose all frame of reference, come unmoored from any sense of up and down, left or right, until the feeling of cartwheeling through space eventually made her roll over and vomit off the side of the deck.
She never got close enough to the rock to check its magnetism because almost as soon as she dropped to the ground, Jim King had crossed the yard in five long strides with his hand cocked in a finger-gun at her face.
“You stay off my property. You hear me?” he said in a voice so dark and low that it startled her because it was a voice meant for adults—movie villains, thieves and murderers—not little girls, not a child the same age as his own daughter, Ruth, with whom Jeanie ate lunch at school.
For weeks afterward, she ducked out of her window any time he was outside and begged her mother to drive her to school so she wouldn’t have to wait for the bus in front of Jim King’s house. Lorna didn’t ask why, only squeezed Jeanie’s shoulder and whispered, “Don’t tell your father.”
Big John never did ask why Jeanie stopped taking the bus—but then, he never asked many questions about Jeanie in the first place. He walked through rooms without seeing her, didn’t look up from his plate when she asked a question at the dinner table. They could go whole weeks—months—without speaking, but she liked it that way. There was something in him that scared her, a simmering blue pilot light that threatened to flame out and explode, annihilating everything in its path.
She hears her mother at night, floating through the house and whispering into empty corners, “John? Is that you?”
Jeanie picks up Francis in both hands and raises him to the window as a deep, tectonic shudder makes the windowpane quiver.
“Is he still there?” she asks.
She turns Francis’s one protruding eye to the window and Jim King’s empty kitchen below, where four minutes ago Ann King gave Jim an ultimatum: her or the house. He couldn’t have both. He scratched the patch of psoriasis behind his ear and said, “Go on and take the kids to your sister’s house and I’ll catch up later.” And she narrowed her eyes at him and sucked her teeth before walking out of the kitchen to get the kids. As she passed the window, Jim saw a figure silhouetted in the pines. A man watching the house, hulking, bull-shouldered—the enormous outline of Big John.
The dust cleared and the silhouette was gone.
Jim King threw open the door and ran out into the smoke and dust.
“God damn it, Big John, you stay off my property!” he shouted at the trees.
Big John had appeared to Jim King once since he and Walker Breem ran his ATV off the road at Rainbow Bridge and watched him disappear soundlessly over the ledge. King had been waiting in line at the post office on the south side of town and he’d glanced out the front windows to see the outline of Big John watching him from the woods, bigger than Jim King remembered—eight feet, maybe nine feet tall.
Nothing moved except for the snuffling of a fat, gray-faced black lab that belonged to someone on the other side of town—a lab the five King children called Willy for Willy Wonka, because he loved the candy they fed him. The lab didn’t have a collar and seemed unconcerned with the thick brown smoke as he nosed through a patch of mugwort across the road. Jim King considered calling the lab, but then he saw the branches of an oak swing forward and then back, someone pushing through the brush, and he saw the shadowy head and shoulders of Big John—10 feet tall—duck into the trees.
By the time Ann King returned to the kitchen with their five backpacked children lined up behind her, Jim and his ATV were gone.
She snapped her fingers. “Let’s go,” she said.
The children marched out the front door and piled into the van. She drove past the Poles’ property and thought she saw Lorna Pole squinting at her through her kitchen window.
Jim King’s shout drew Walker Breem to his back door in his boxers, threadbare robe, and the Ugg knockoffs his sister bought for him from Costco. Outside, the pale cottonwoods and twisted oaks at the southern edge of his field looked like ghosts in the haze. He didn’t trust the trees. They’d been glowering at him from the property line ever since he cleared a number of them from the land to make a grazing field for goats that he never bought.
Something was solidifying in the smoke. A huge man—at least 12 feet tall, towering over the sinewy, red-limbed manzanitas. Walker Breem clutched his heart.
He’d seen Big John once before at the church pancake breakfast three months ago. Breem had been walking into the recreation hall with his sister and her husband when he saw the shadowy outline of Big John watching him, fists clenched, from behind a massive blue oak. Breem blinked and the figure was gone, but he knew Big John would follow him until he’d had his revenge.
Breem grabbed the shotgun off the wall and ran out the back door as a flock of mourning doves spun away from the field where Big John had been standing.
“Come out, Big John!” Breem shouted.
Nothing, except for the flappy flopping of an injured dove in the dry grass, the dusty little thing trying to take off only to flutter back to Earth. Broken wing. His ex-wife Millie used to bring home injured birds and bats and cats—once a snake, to which he said, “nope,” pointing right back out the door she’d come through. He’d tolerated most of it, but he didn’t see the point. “Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten,” he told her. Even he wasn’t surprised when she left.
He remembered the stories his grandfather told him about the burning hillside and the screaming goats. He knew better than to love something out here in these woods.
He spotted movement through the smoke at the southern edge of the field—something huge disappearing into the gloomy oaks.
“Like hell,” Breem said as he jumped on his ATV and sped off after the figure with his shotgun tucked into his armpit and his robe ballooning out behind him.
Big John had it coming. There wasn’t a person alive on this mountain that didn’t want to kill him after he started selling his spring water—50,000 gallons an hour—to the bottling company last summer, even though the spring fed the creek that every property used for its reservoir. Water was precious in a drought and bottling companies were paying top dollar. Breem and King had both taken Big John to court, arguing that he only had riparian rights—the right to use the water, but not to sell it. The judge ruled in Big John’s favor, which would now force Breem and King and everyone else on the mountain to spend thousands drilling new wells on their properties.
Now, Breem steers the ATV onto the fire road that skirts the hillside and sees a valley full of smoke below, moving and muscular, swallowing up the trees so that only the tufty tips of the digger pines are visible. He’s heading right toward the black heart of the smoke, where he can hear Big John’s powerful thumping feet and feel the concussive shudders in the mountainside that shake the oaks and pines. He can see Big John flashing through the smoke, now as tall as the trees as he bounds off the sides of red-clay cliffs.
The pounding footsteps rumble across the woods and shake the house where Jeanie lies in her room, watching the walls turn with the restless fluid of her inner ear as she holds her one-eyed tortoise up to the window. She closes her eyes and sees what he sees: smoke, dust, gasping trees, fleeing animals. And far, far on the western horizon—too far for Jeanie’s human eyes to see but not for Francis’s one bulging reptile eye: a lip of red; a pulsing, snapping, horizontal line of light that moves like a snake, that climbs a dead pine, which soon becomes a hot red torch in the gloom.
And Jeanie can feel what Francis feels: calm. Love. Resolve. He will get them out of here.
The juddering of the beams makes her drop Francis, who thumps to the floor and sucks his head inside his shell with a pop—and then a pull: a vacuum. A small puncture. A popped thread. A thumb pressing through the thin membrane of the spacetime continuum, and, as if holding back the pressure of a galactic river on the other side, the puncture opens, dilates at the mouth of Francis’s shell where his head should be until the hole is the size of a grapefruit, the size of a cantaloupe. It expands into a swirling starry dark on Jeanie’s bedroom floor, with a gravitational pull that she feels in her gut like a rollercoaster free-fall. The small black hole twists, distorting gravity and scattering the light spectrum, sparking and shimmering with all of the colors of the universe. And as it grows wider—now the size of a bathtub—it starts sucking in pencils and issues of Tiger Beat and Francis’s favorite jar of dried shrimp. Jeanie rolls and reaches for him. The room swings upside-down, and she’s falling into space.
Downstairs, Lorna Pole, no longer uncertain, is throwing open the back door and yelling for the dogs as a wall of black smoke rolls out of the western woods. Big John isn’t coming back—he’s not going to guide them through the flames. She runs upstairs to carry Jeanie out to the car, unaware of the black hole that is curving spacetime in Jeanie’s bedroom. Lorna opens the door and feels the pull of the point of infinite density, and she’s gone before Walker Breem makes it past her eastern fence on his ATV, gaining on Big John—now the size of a small building—as he rams through ponderosas like they’re shower curtains and stomps coyote willows flat.
“Come back and face me, Big John!” Breem yells.
Big John doesn’t slow, and Walker Breem speeds up until he bursts onto the paved road beside Jim King on his own ATV at the mouth of Rainbow Bridge. It’s only then that both Breem and King understand it’s a trap.
Later, no one will remember seeing Walker Breem or Jim King at Rainbow Bridge, but once the fire has digested the mountain and left behind a smoking boneyard, their scorched ATVs will be discovered at the bottom of the gorge.
The people of the town will come back to rebuild their homes—all except Lorna and Jeanie Pole, their empty car still sitting in front of the blackened ribs of their house. Their bodies won’t be found inside, and no one will remember seeing them leave.
Some, however, will remember seeing a small, one-eyed tortoise crawling slowly along the side of the road, heading north toward clear skies.
Photo by the USDA, used and adapted under public domain.