Orange streaks the black sky, and the sun burns as red as Mrs Holt’s face when she shouts at the class. I stand beside my mother. Outside, Dad is wrapped head to toe in fabric, and buckets of water sit around the backyard. An ember falls towards the dry grass, its orange tail twirling behind it. He catches it and drops it in a bucket. I imagine the hiss.
“Is Mrs Holt back from her honeymoon?” Mum asks.
“Where’d she go?”
The kitchen tap trickles water wrenched from pipes cornered by the firefighters.
“Go check on your sister,” Mum says. Dad drops an ember from each hand in the nearest bucket, but there’s another, rimmed in golden flame, floating behind him. Mum bangs on the window and points.
My sister sits by the bathtub. The tap runs, barely.
“I’m doing it,” she says. “It’s just taking forever.” She scrolls on her phone. “Becky might need to evacuate.”
I imagine the charred flanks of Becky’s horses. Hooves rolling free from melted legs. What would my sister do on Saturdays if she couldn’t ride at Becky’s?
“Are the horses safe?” I ask.
“Maybe. Depends on the wind.”
I watch the water dribble.
“When’s Mrs Holt back from Fiji?” she asks.
“Are you allowed to swap classes before then?”
“No.” I turn the tap but it’s as high as it can go.
“Shame the relief teacher can’t stay until Christmas.”
“Yeah.” My hand has turned pink from squeezing the tap. Maybe Mrs Holt will have pink blisters from the Fijian sun. Maybe her new husband will have seen through her smiling act to her blistering meanness. Maybe the divorce will break her, and she’ll be sent away from school, away from me, before the summer holidays.
“Use the towels, girls,” Mum says from the doorway.
We submerge the oldest in the water. There’s the faint orange of lobsters prancing along the hems.
“At least you still have Monday,” my sister says. I squeeze a towel and it bubbles. “Careful!” she says, as it drips. I put it along the windowsill. Our old house has too many cracks.
In the kitchen, Mum has turned the tap off. Dad has started to trot, as he checks the sides of the house. He raises a hand to our neighbour, who is doing the same.
Mum puts her arm around my shoulders.
“We’ll do something nice on Tuesday afternoon.” She squeezes me. “Something to look forward to.”
“We could go to the new Summer Girl shop at the mall,” my sister says. She hates Summer Girl, but it’s my favourite. Mum reaches over and brushes a drop of water from her cheek.
Dad is at the back door.
“The wind’s changed,” he says. We look at my sister: Becky’s family will need to evacuate. It might be too late for the horses. “Do you want to take some things to the relief centre for them?”
“I’ll get the bags,” I say.
Three bags are ready to go: old clothes, shoes, phone chargers. It’s not just Becky’s family sheltering far from the flames. I should find comfort in the suburbs that lie between our house and the dry paddocks, even though embers are still carried to us on the wind. Dad is back outside already, catching embers, but I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.
I close the last bag, and see my Fiji Tourism t-shirt, a present from my uncle, on the top. I reclaim it and leave it on my bed. I’ll wear it on Tuesday. Maybe Mrs Holt will have a conversation with me about it. Maybe it will show her she’s not that special. Maybe she will think that I’m special too.
“Coming,” I say, when Mum calls. I hope the trapped horses find freedom. I hope they’re found grazing council-watered grass under blue skies in the city, their flaming pursuer left far behind.
Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Litro, Crack the Spine, Ellipsis Zine, and MIROnline, and she won the Furious Gazelle Spring Writing Contest in June 2019. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham while working at University College London.