Zoe heaved one suitcase into the backseat of her car, then ran back through the open door of her motel room to fetch the other. As she came back out, Gary Rowling appeared from around the corner of the building. His deputy’s uniform was rumpled and dirty, and he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. With the fires so close to town, she guessed he hadn’t.
“Let me help you.” He took the suitcase and lifted it into the car.
He followed her back into the room, and between the two of them, they grabbed the rest of Zoe’s things. She slammed the car door on the last load. When it didn’t catch, she clicked her tongue and lifted and closed the door. Gary looked at the car dubiously.
“Are you sure that junker’s going to get you to the emergency center?”
“She’ll get me there.”
“I could give you a ride.” His sheriff’s department cruiser stood askew in the middle of the motel parking lot.
“You’re too busy.” He’d be knocking on doors, making sure everyone was at least on their way out of the motel before the fire engulfed it. “Want me to stick around in case anyone needs a ride with me?”
“No. I’ll deal with anyone who needs a ride. You get going now, Zoe.”
“Aye, sir,” she said with a salute and a grin. But his face was serious. “Good luck,” she said more quietly and ran to the driver’s side. “I’ll text you when I get there.” With a last wave, she jumped inside and started the car. It sputtered to life with the usual reluctance. It was no better at getting up in the morning than its owner, but like its owner, it got its act together eventually, and she drove out of the motel’s lot. The road north was blocked off with police barriers. You couldn’t see the fires from here yet, only a glow on the horizon and a sky full of smoke. But they were moving fast, consuming tinder-dry underbrush and trees left parched by a long summer. A helicopter flew over, dripping water from a massive bag ready to loose into the fires.
Zoe turned south, toward town. The motel she lived in, paying weekly and always on the verge of moving out—for six months—was on the outskirts of the north end of town. The forest came right up against the borders of the property, and if the fire did come this way, Zoe doubted the firefighters could save the place. They expected to stop it between there and the town. They’d already done some controlled burns to clear the brush and create firebreaks.
She passed Billy’s, the roadhouse where she worked as a bartender, closed up and dark with not a car or truck in the lot. She drove on and in a few miles was in town. Big temporary signs with the words EMERGENCY CENTER pointed her on south.
The whole town was on the move. Some maybe only as far as the emergency center, others with loaded vehicles who looked as if they were taking no chances and getting the hell out for good. How many times did your town have to nearly burn to the ground before you decided the tinderbox of Northern California was not for you? Maybe she’d do the same. If the fire took the motel and the roadhouse, then she had no job and no place to live. So what then? She could always go home to her folks, but she didn’t know if this was how she wanted to go back there.
The gas station was still open, with a long line of vehicles waiting. She checked her dash. Nearly dry. If she decided to leave right now, she’d have to sit in that long line first. Maybe she’d spend the night in the emergency center and then decide what to do in the morning. She drove on and shortly turned up the road to the emergency center, housed in the local elementary school.
She parked in the still almost empty lot, stuffed a change of clothes and a few essentials in a backpack, then got out of the car. The air was less smoky here at least, the sky visible and blue. She locked everything worth stealing in the trunk and headed inside.
The school’s gym had been set up as a dormitory, rows of cots against the wall and a double row down the middle. Zoe was directed to go claim one—there were plenty to choose from, but that would change soon enough. She took one beside a retired couple she knew.
“Hey, Mrs. Ruiz, Mr. Ruiz,” she said. They lived at the north end of town, in the same house since they were married over forty years ago. Zoe hoped they’d get to go back to it.
“Hello, Zoe,” Mrs. Ruiz said. “Good to see you safe and well.”
“You too. You okay here? Got everything you need?”
“We’re fine. Everyone’s very kind.”
“Great. Hey, I’m gonna leave my stuff here. If you’re going to be here for a while, can you watch it for me?”
“Sure,” Mr. Ruiz said.
Zoe took her phone from her pocket as she walked away from the cot and tapped in a text to Gary.
At center ok. Be safe.
She didn’t expect an instant reply, because he’d be a busy man. She slipped the phone away in the pocket of her hoodie and walked up to one of the women organizing several people distributing blankets and moving boxes of food around.
“Hi, I’m Zoe Bradshaw. What can I do to help out?”
* * * *
Jeff unlocked the door and let Lorna into the house before him. She walked in already feeling like a visitor in her own home. It had become strange. Yet she’d left it only a few hours ago when they took Dominic to the airport.
Jeff checked his watch. “I’ve got time to get a round in.”
She’d suspected he’d do that. Had even hoped for it, so she could avoid a confrontation. But the golf course was only ten minutes from their home, and he wasn’t in a hurry. He first went into the kitchen and took a cold soda from the fridge. It had been a hot drive there and back to LAX. She supposed she could wait until he left to put her plan into effect, but she’d lose too much time. Anyway, avoiding the confrontation was cowardly, and she was done with sneaking around.
She went upstairs. In the bedroom she closed the door and took out her phone, found the name of the cab firm. Thirty minutes, they said. She hung up.
She didn’t pack much. Mostly clothes and shoes and some pieces of jewelry that Jeff hadn’t given her. Some things had already gone on ahead—Jeff hadn’t even noticed the books missing from the shelves. She’d only taken the ones she couldn’t be without. And there were her books, waiting in a plastic crate in her car in the garage. The car Jeff had bought for her, so she had to leave that behind too. She changed quickly into jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and flat shoes, which was much more casual than her usual look, but she had a long trip ahead. She took a dark blue corduroy jacket from the wardrobe and tossed it on the bed beside the case.
The most important thing of all waited on the desk in what she called her study and Jeff called her hobbies room. She packed her laptop into its case. Technically she supposed Jeff had bought this for her too, but she could afford to pay him back for it, if he wanted.
Laptop bag. Purse. Suitcase. It seemed so little to be walking away with after eighteen years of marriage.
She took an envelope from her purse. It simply had “Jeff” handwritten on the front and a long letter inside, but it was unsealed. She took off her wedding ring, put it inside the envelope, and sealed the flap.
After leaving that on Jeff’s dresser, she carried everything downstairs and set it all by the front door. She slipped the keys for her car in her jeans pocket. She had to retrieve the box of books.
Five minutes until the cab would arrive. She was about to go to the garage for the box, when Jeff came out of the den—or his “hobbies room”—and frowned at the sight of the suitcase.
“Is that one of Dom’s cases?” he asked, perhaps wondering if they’d managed to leave it behind when they took their son to the airport. Lorna held on to the laptop case with a firm grip. She was prepared to walk out of here without the suitcase of clothes and even without the box of books in the car. But she wouldn’t leave without the laptop.
“No,” she said. “It’s mine. I’m leaving.”
Jeff stared at her for several seconds, with a face like a buffering video, before he finally spoke. “What?”
“I’m leaving you.” She kept her voice calm and level, though her palms sweated. “Our marriage has been dead for years, Jeff. You know that as well as me. I stayed for Dominic’s sake. Now he’s grown and gone to college, it’s time we ended this…show.”
“But…you can’t. I mean, are you talking about divorce?”
“Yes. We both need to be free again.”
His face darkened into a scowl. “Who is he? The guy you’re going off to be free with?”
“There’s nobody else. It’s not like that.”
“But…divorce—we can’t. The families—”
“They’ll have to get used to it.” Her phone beeped in her hand. A text to say her cab was outside. She dropped the phone into her purse. “There’s a letter upstairs explaining everything. And one in Dominic’s case that he’ll find when he unpacks.” She moved to the door. He didn’t try to stop her. “Jeff, you’ve been a good father and a good provider. You deserve to be happy. I hope you’ll understand in the end that’s what I’m giving you the chance to be.”
“So you’re doing me a goddamn favor by walking out on me?”
“I think I am.” She opened the door. He stepped forward, reached for her arm. She raised a hand and spoke quietly. “Don’t. You can’t make me stay.”
He backed off, staring, and made no other move to stop her, his look turning incredulous again as she picked up the suitcase and stepped outside. She felt instantly as if she’d crossed the first hurdle. Jeff would not follow her out and cause a scene in the front yard for all the neighbors to see. That wasn’t the kind of man he was, not even at this extreme.
The cab stood at the curb, and the driver got out when he saw her emerge. She spoke to Jeff one last time.
She went down the steps from the porch with the suitcase in one hand, her jacket lying across it, the laptop bag in the other hand, and her purse over her shoulder. The driver came to meet her.
“Mrs. Friern?” he said.
“Yes.” She let him take the case and her jacket, hung on to the laptop bag, and pulled its strap over her head. “I’ve got one more thing to get from the garage.” While he loaded the suitcase, she hurried to the garage. As she opened it and unlocked her trunk, she kept an eye on the yard and the cab. Jeff didn’t come outside to stop her. She heaved a red plastic crate out of the trunk of her sedan, closed the trunk, closed the garage, and carried the crate to the cab. Damn thing was nearly pulling her arms out of her sockets, and the heavy laptop bag was bouncing on her hip. The driver took the crate from her, and she relinquished it gratefully. He loaded it into the trunk.
Jeff was standing at the door, staring at her like she was a stranger. Perhaps she was a stranger. She gave him a sad smile, raised her hand in good-bye, then got into the cab.
“Where to, ma’am?” The cabbie probably expected an airport run with that luggage, but he’d be wrong.
“Do you know the used-car dealership on Prospect Avenue?”
“Take me there, please.”
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