IN THE EMBERS • by Ben Werdmuller

I see her in the twisted remains of the dermatologist’s office, surrounded by ash and steel. Smoke still hangs low in the air. The fire marshal gave the all-clear to return early in the morning, and now, as the sun rises over what used to be my hometown, the only place I’ve ever lived, I find myself searching for something to ground myself with.

It’s all gone; the buildings, the people, our lives.

Somehow, she’s here. It’s been years since I last saw her, and at first I think I’ve imagined her. But there she is.

She gives me a tentative wave. I wave back and attempt a smile as I walk over to her.

We were friends, once. Jennifer and I used to spend every day together: two latchkey kids running through the neighborhood. Other kids wanted to play baseball or go fishing out on the lake over the hill. We didn’t need any of that. We imagined we were exploring new worlds and evading terrifying alien monsters. The two of us were allies against the world.

Then she seemed to grow up overnight. Suddenly, she wanted something different out of life, while I stayed in place. Her life became an adventure; I was the weird kid who spent his time imagining he was somewhere else. She eventually moved away, went to college, turned into something new. My entire life has been spent amidst these blackened redwood trees, living in a house that no longer exists.

For the longest time, neither of us speaks.

“Hi,” she says, finally.

“My house is gone,” I say. I wish I had better words for what’s happened.

“Dad’s office, too,” she says, gesturing around her. Her Dad was the dermatologist. We’re standing in what used to be his practice. He was the only dermatologist for hundreds of miles around; this community needed him, and he worked until his last day. “As soon as I heard about the fire I came back to see what I could salvage,” she adds, “but there’s nothing.”

She lowers herself to sit cross-legged in the middle of the ruin and pulls her flannel shirt around her. It seems impossible that this town that’s been so ravaged by fire, whose remains are now lit with golden morning light, should be so cold.

Jennifer’s breath rises from her as vapor. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.

Without asking, I sit down next to her and hand her a fortune cookie from my coat pocket.

When we were all evacuated — a phone call, then a text message, then a high-pitched alert — I drove to a 24-hour all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant over in the next town. For nine hours, I watched truckers and night owls eating plates of greasy noodles while I waited for news and watched the orange glow on the horizon. I left with a handful of fortune cookies: I figured I could use all the luck I could get.

She could use some, too.

Jennifer smiles when I hand it to her. “You need to open one too,” she says, looking at me, tucking her hair behind her ear. She unwraps the cellophane, and I search my pocket for another cookie for myself.

Her eyes are the same as always. My butterflies are new.

“Where are you living now?” I ask her. “There’s no sense staying here.”

“I think I’ll stick around for a little bit,” she says, sidestepping my question. “See if I can help. So many people have lost their homes.” She pauses. “I don’t have anywhere else to be.”

The last time I was in this spot with Jennifer, we were waiting for her Dad to finish work and drive us home. His office smelled antiseptic, like a hospital. Magazines sat on pine coffee tables next to wipe-clean chairs. We were already growing apart, finding fewer and fewer words to say to each other. Or at least, we were finding it harder to say them.

I turn to look at her and find that her eyes are already on me. I expect to find sadness in them, but I see something else instead. There’s something hopeful in the way she’s looking at me.

“What?” Despite everything, there’s a smile on my face.

“You need to stop being maudlin and open your fortune cookie,” she says, matter-of-factly. She’s broken hers open and eaten half of it.

I unwrap mine and break it into two. The thin tickertape message falls into my hand. “A fresh start will put you on your way,” I read out loud. “What does yours say?”

“You will die badly dressed and alone,” Jennifer says, laughing. “I like yours a lot better than mine.”

She rests her head on my shoulder, and I’m surprised by the intimacy. For a moment I worry that she can hear my heart pounding, but after a while, I put my arm around her. She leans against me, and suddenly I can’t smell the smoke anymore. “Thank you for being here,” I say.

“I’m glad you weren’t hurt,” she says, quietly.

We stay like this for an age, leaning against each other, watching the inhabitants of our tiny hometown stumble through the rubble to try and find something worth saving. The sun must have risen higher, because the cold is fading quickly.

“I think I need to sleep,” I say, finally.

“Me too,” Jennifer says. She hugs me tight.

We stand up and walk out of the rectangular outline that marks where the dermatology office once stood, out of the remnants of the streets where we had run as children, out of the aftermath of the fire, towards the lot where our cars are safely parked. We hold our arms around each other as we move, two old allies supporting each other in the aftermath of another monster, just like we always did. Behind us is ash; ahead of us, the future.

Ben Werdmuller is a writer and software developer. He lives in California.

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