It’s funny how the news has a way of skewing information, how words trigger people, so we find new ones to compensate for our lack of humanity. Global warming becomes climate change and deforestation is coined “development.” I wonder what they will call the California wildfires, which are no longer a season, but twelve raging months long. Weather events, I chuckle to myself though it isn’t funny. That’s what they will call these.
I’m biking home from school, but really my bike is a purebred horse, all noble and charisma. Her strong muscles tighten as we gallop through the streets, towards home. I see the sweat glistening off her thick midnight skin, shining in the tempestuous sunlight. My chest expands in freedom, my lungs fill with potential. I am alive.
I question what it means to be alive. Is it this never-ending journey to achieve one’s goals? What happens when you do achieve them, what comes after? Does being alive take into account the laughter that fills the in-between spaces of your day? If that’s the case, then being alive must also count the tears you use to cry yourself to sleep. Is being alive the same feeling as my chest expanding with a happiness so profound it feels like pain? It doesn’t matter, I think to myself, because I am alive today.
Once I am home, reality returns with the smell of shakshuka, wafting through the air, that my Ima cooks every Wednesday. My stomach grumbles in hunger, eager to feast on the juicy tomatoes and rich eggplant we grow in our garden. I run up the cobblestone steps, discarding my bike on the front lawn, and burst through our eggshell blue door.
“Ima, I’m home!”
I can hear the smile in her voice as she welcomes me back. I drop my bag by the door, and kick off my shoes, racing to the kitchen to find her grinning ear to ear. She gives me a warm hug, the kind that tells you, you will be loved forever, and asks me to set the table. I pull out drinks, Sprite for Ima, Snapple for Donda and Papa, a variety of pop for the siblings, and water for me and my Aba. We live in a four-generation household, all love and chaos. I snatch bits of food before we eat and feed our dogs. They leap into the air, snagging the morsels of food with such accuracy, that it feels like there are denying the laws of gravity. Their tongues tickle my fingers as they lick them clean. Home, I smile. I may not understand what the word alive entails, but at least I know the definition of home.
Slowly the entire family gathers around our dinner table, too small, but just the right fit. We pray and then dive in. Dinner is delicious and loud as always, each dog finding a new victim to sneak them food. My four-year-old niece sings Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, a song she just learned in Spanish. We applaud, not knowing how this little one speaks Spanish, when all of us just speak English or Hebrew. Still, her voice squeaks at just the perfect moments, making it that much sweeter. Papa drones on about the news, claiming how the government is doing nothing to stop the wildfires that ravage our state, or the hurricanes that plummet the south, or the heat waves that are killing our crops.
“Stop it will you! It’s dinnertime,” Donda replies, and I’m grateful for the reprieve. The news cycle is relentless and terrifying. I study my parents and grandparents, wondering what their mental headspaces were like at my age, when the world didn’t seem as doomed.
This chaos haunts my sleep. I am bombarded with images of our dying planet and fear my nieces won’t get to live the life I have enjoyed, that perhaps my children will never get a chance to exist at all. These nightmares race through my mind, dragging me into sleep when my head hits the pillow. The last image, I note, are the colors of my room. If you walked into my room, it would be like stepping into my soul. Books and papers cover every available surface. Pictures and artwork hang from all over the world, scattered across my walls. Orange, yellow, and blue burst over the bed and carpet. Home, my mind whispers. I sleep in the basement because there is nowhere else. One of my brothers sleeps on the couch just outside. He’s the one who shakes me awake, screaming.
I instantly fling myself from bed, stumbling over my feet. I hear shouts and the dogs barking. Breathing in the air I smell it, smoke, ash, fire.
My brother and I take the stairs three at a time. I throw myself into my father’s arms, his words barreling into my ears.
“Run, just go!” My siblings grab their children and the door flies open, drowning our house in smoke, the blue blackened with soot. The dogs are the first to run, howling at the moon we can no longer see. Blackness everywhere, which way is the right way? I’m standing on the front stoop, but my mind isn’t working. I am drowning in ice even though the air burns. Confusion and screams muddle my thoughts and my body becomes sluggish. My siblings and nieces are next. They run for the cars, but the tires have melted. I take one more step. My ears buzz with explosions. It’s so hot that cars down the street explode, sparks fly and lite their own mini fires, which will soon turn into rampant infernos raging, no mercy. My bike has melted into the grass. Tears stream down my face as I lose my siblings in the smoke.
Run, save the little ones!
I turn back to find my grandparents standing still, their faces frozen in horror. My Ima is sobbing in her Ima’s arms. They are eighty, what will they do? They can’t run, the cars are useless, and the air is too thick for their tired lungs. I distantly hear my father tell them to hide in our pool. They can’t overtake this beast. My parents quickly usher them into the water. We give our last kisses. I turn away from my Donda and Papa. Smoke doesn’t only haze my vision. The tears won’t stop.
My parents and I begin to run. Faster and faster my feet rush me, but I don’t know if I am running towards or away from danger. My lungs are clotted with ash. I lost my parents in the screams of terror. The rubber on the souls of my shoes have melted into the pavement, but I don’t dare take them off my feet. Where am I?
I don’t stop. If I do, the fire won’t catch me, fear will. I am half paralyzed by the world around me. My family is gone. My grandparents good as dead. People running, screaming. The heat engulfs me, melting my skin, my veins burst, my hair sizzles.
And all the birds in the sky died.
At last, I find reprieve. I run into a barricade of first responders. They tell me the direction to go and so I do, hoping to find my family waiting for me. I don’t sleep until the sun is awake. Only then do my eyes drift close. Later, I am again woken up by the same brother. His tears tell me I am the only family he has found. We walk to where the news is playing, in a sterile room, filled with people who can’t see. Or choose not to see because reality burns. Our clothes are charred, skin blackened, and hair gone. None of that matters. Where is my family? Surely being alive means having them with me to enjoy this life!
Hollywood Sign Saved from Catching Fire
Did they forget about us? I scream and throw my cup of water at the TV monitor, hate filling my lungs like the smoke did mere hours before. My brother wraps his bandaged arms around me and cries, but I don’t. I have no tears to cry, only rage emanating in my bones. Why wasn’t the State prepared for this? Where were the rescue teams? Where were the firefighters before the inferno came into our neighborhoods and stole our homes? Where was my family?
I relive these moments. They crash through my mind at their funeral.
Couple Dies from California Wildfires Trying to Stay Safe in Family Pool
My niece wheezes and I pull her closer to my chest. Her left lung permanently burnt, irreversible damage.
I feel the heat from her body, so unlike the fire that took our home, because this heat fills me with strength, a new resolve. We are killing our planet, and in turn She’s taking us with her. But if my niece has a chance at a worthwhile life, no matter how the odds are slimming, I am determined to give it to her.
Her hand covers the scar on my right forearm, as her light fingers trace over the pattern burned into my skin. “Beautiful,” she whispers. I think, yes! Beautiful, not because the scar came from a horrific moment, but because I proved to be stronger than what tried to destroy me. I lean my head against hers, offering my strength and whispering a secret promise.
I won’t give up, for you, for our planet, for our home.
I look around at the rest of my family, eyes as red as that night, except this time from tears, not fire.
We were the lucky ones.
Morgan Michelson-Kelly supports the Network Partnerships and Outreach program as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She recently graduated from the University of East Anglia with an MSc in Climate Change and International Development. In the past, Morgan has combined extensive global travel with sustainable development research and policy experience in areas such as Tanzania, Australia, and Bangladesh. She began working within the Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Documentation, Research, and Information at the United Nation’s annual conference, following this, within the Australian Parliament. Before accepting her position with HGG, she was finishing up work at the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD).