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Today's Story by James Warner

Helicopters circled overhead announcing, “The fire is too close. Evacuate this party immediately.”

Brush Fire

The day of the party, a wildfire was burning, and by the time I drove over to Sawyer’s place,  the Santa Ana winds were spreading flames through the brush down the canyon.

Sawyer lived in a mansion in one of those LA neighborhoods so rich they tell the police to leave them alone and hire their own private militia for protection. A girl at our high school had recently been raped by one of the militia guards, who accordingly were now keeping a low profile. Which meant there was less risk than usual of them busting up a noisy private party, like the one Sawyer had planned to have while his parents were in Japan.

I parked my Corvette outside the mansion, and listened to the sound of crickets. I’d lived on West German military bases for most of my life, and California was still alien to me.

A Porsche drew up next to me, just as the sprinkers were coming on, and Kelly and Lauren got out, wearing their killer Ray-Bans. Kelly was a Goth girl who my Iranian friend Atash was going out with, and  Lauren was her friend who I had a crush on.

Atash was driving the Porsche. He’d hacked the phone system of a local punk radio station so he could be the hundredth caller and win the Porsche getaway. Why a punk radio station was giving away Porsches, don’t ask.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I greeted Lauren.

“Rilly?” she said, throwing back her hair. Nothing’s sexier than an unreconstructed Californian accent. She didn’t seem impressed by me, but then seeming impressed wasn’t in her repertoire. Her dad was a slum landlord who owned large swathes of east LA. He’d given her a curfew, so I had to work fast.

The air was a little smoky already. Something yowled on the other side of the ravine. Atash and I high-fived each other, and we let ourselves inside the house.

Sawyer had given me spare keys so I could drop by and feed the Rottweiler and water the plants for him. I’d copied down his credit card information and given it to Atash.

Atash was working part-time in accounts for a friend of his father’s who’d just started a firm called Guaranteed Rehab. They transported wealthy out-of-control teenagers to Mexican detention facilities to get them straightened out. Normally  an interview with Sawyer’s father would have been necessary, but Atash had been able to finesse the relevant paperwork as well as forging parental signatures, punching in credit card information, and so on. So once inside the house, we were able to play back security camera footage of Sawyer being dragged off by bored-looking men in Guaranteed Rehab uniforms.

We watched the footage several times. Sure, we suspected there’d be consequences, but Sawyer was an asshole. We were glad to have him out of the way.

I noted where all the fire extinguishers were, although if the fire hit us they’d be about as useful as diplomas in comparative religion. I also removed all the smoke detectors, because what was the point in having people freak out on us? On the answer phone, Sawyer’s mother was leaving him a detailed message.

Lauren told me she’d decided to drop out of the extension course in critical thinking she was taking, “because I’m not, you know, sure if I want to be more critical.”


“I’m taking Oh Gee classes instead. Oh Gee is cool. It helps you be more in the now. Every day you have to, like, drop some litter, or take a disabled parking place, I dunno.”

O.G. stood for Overcoming Guilt. “What do you have to feel guilty about?” I asked.

“Nothing. Exactly,” Lauren said. “My instructor says that’s the whole point. Step One is to visualize yourself just doing whatever you want.”

“So this is some sort of twelve-step program?” I asked. “To get over your guilt?

“How did you know there were twelve steps? Maybe you’re psychic?”

Atash had taken Kelly off on a tour of the master bedroom. After Lauren changed into her swimsuit, she climbed into the jacuzzi, and showed me the scar where she’d had the tattoo of her ex-boyfriend’s name removed. An encouraging sign — the position was vacant.

More and more guests arrived. The people in the hot tub were having the pointless sort of conversation that happens between people who’ve all taken different drugs.

A kind of robot moved around the pool, filtering the water. Lauren and I talked about the latest movies until we ran out of up-to-date observations to make. The plume from the fire was now visible. Ash fell like snow onto the bubbling jacuzzi.

“Awesome,” Lauren said. “Let’s go inside.”

In the living room, some dorks were trying to train the Rottweiler to snort cocaine. There was a signed photograph of Ronald Reagan, looking as if he was trying hard to remember something important. I kept getting distracted by the fire warnings on the two wall-size TVs.

“It’s a pity Sawyer’s parents aren’t here,” Lauren said, “because they’re so funny and so, I dunno.”

“So what?”

Lauren opened and closed her palms, straining for the right word. The mansion was inexplicably full of Mylar balloons, promoting different franchises. Jocks, nerds, and junkies mingled as if they were great friends. I became hypnotized by an image that kicked in on both TVs, a scene straight out of J.G. Ballard, a sort of stationary car chase. A perp pursued by a cop car had braked suddenly, and was waiting inside his turbocharged Buick, not moving. The cops didn’t approach any closer, in case the guy had a weapon. Standard LAPD procedure. They had to wait till the man got out of his car, however long that took.

Something was disturbing me.

I went over to the phone and replayed the message from Sawyer’s mother.

“We’ll be back around eight, honey.” Sawyer’s parents were returning. They’d seen the news about the fire in their hotel room in Japan and panicked and come back ahead of time.

It was already nine. On TV the man was still waiting in his Buick, surrounded by cop cars, his only escape route to run for it into the brush. When the camera panned across the crowd who’d gathered outside the police barricade to watch, I noticed that people had brought their kids along. I was starting to feel claustrophobic, and made the decision to split.

But darting out the front door, I met someone who could only be Sawyer’s mother. She had freckles and big, highlighted hair, and was trying to say something. To hear her, I had to turn down the volume on the PA system. “You all shouldn’t be here,” she told me distractedly, over the mournful beeping of a smoke alarm Atash and I had missed.

Sawyer’s mother’s name was Mrs. Rodwell. She offered me some Japanese cookies. Her husband was down at the fire station, trying to persuade them to send a truck up here.

“They’ve decided to just let this sector burn, if you can believe it. They just want to stop the fire reaching the big gas station. Where’s Sawyer?” Mrs. Rodwell asked.

“Uh, like, he’s kinda occupied right now.”

“Sawyer’s so sensitive,” his mother said. “Has he been taking his asthma medication?”

That made me uneasy. We hadn’t mentioned any medication to Guaranteed Rehab. In an adjoining room, I noticed people laughing at the security camera video of Sawyer being dragged away, and shut the door on them.

“When you had a deprived childhood like mine,” Mrs. Rodwell was saying, “you really want to spare your kids having to go through the same thing.” Amid the chaos, she’d settled on me as a reassuring figure, a friend of Sawyer’s she recognized. “Then you look at how opulence makes them turn out, and you think, maybe adversity would have benefited them after all.”

I said I was glad she felt that way.

While I helped Mrs. Rodwell carry her most prized possessions out to the station wagon, helicopters circled overhead announcing, “The fire is too close. Evacuate this party immediately.”

“We had some fun times here,” Mrs. Rodwell told me.

By the time we were done loading, the saner guests had driven away. Atash and Kelly were the last to emerge from the house. I was carrying a cardboard box full of baby pictures out to the station wagon when Mr. Rodwell drove up. He didn’t seem happy to see us at first, but Atash played it perfectly, fabricating a story about Sawyer going down to Mexico to find himself. The Rodwells lapped this up. “And some kind of business deal came along,” Atash said. “Sawyer wouldn’t say what.”

This would have been freaked my parents out, but the Rodwells just kept nodding. Everyone’s parents always loved Atash. “At least the boy had the sense to split,” Mr. Rodwell said, “unlike you people.”

A voice from the helicopter yelled, “Break up this party right now.”

“Are you Eye-ranian?” Mrs. Rodwell asked Atash. “Like the Ayatollah Hominy?” Atash smiled and nodded. “We were stationed there in 1979,” Mrs. Rodwell said. “Don was a military attaché.”

Some of the tract homes further down the canyon were already burning.

“I told you this was a stupid place to buy a house,” Mrs. Rodwell said, filling the trunk of the station wagon with towels.

“The hell you say? That’s just fine, honey, but you know what? Hindsight’s 20/20.”

“We had too much stuff anyway,” Mrs. Rodwell said. “Come on, boy.” She was coaxing the wired Rottweiler into the back seat.

Kelly had to go see a ska band play somewhere. I said she could take my Corvette.

Atash and Lauren and I stayed behind to help the Rodwells move their last few boxes. At one point I tripped, and a necklace fell from the box I was carrying. Pearls scattered on the driveway. Mr. Rodwell, trudging past with golf clubs slung over his shoulder, said to forget them. “Such sweet boys,” Mrs. Rodwell said. “Sawyer needs friends like you to keep him steady.”

Mr. Rodwell was bringing out a cardboard box full of receipts he needed for his tax returns. The brush stopped a hundred yards from the house. There was plenty of grass between us and the fire, but there was snapping and hissing in the air. Kangaroo rats bolted past us across the lawn. The helicopter had gone now, and Atash was now giving Mr. Rodwell some hard-to-follow investment advice.

“You’re a cute boy,” Mrs. Rodwell told me, and ran her fingers through my hair. She was much drunker than I’d realized. She’d been drunk when she arrived.

“What are you doing here?” Mr. Rodwell shouted, as if he’d only just noticed us. “Help yourself to anything you want from the house. Here.”

He gave Atash a samurai sword he’d brought back with him from Kyoto.

Terrifyingly close by, luminescent trees were exploding. By now the station wagon was packed so full no-one could get into it, so we started pulling stuff out and throwing it on the ground. “What are these?” Mr. Rodwell shouted, dragging toy animals from the driving seat, and starting to hurl them in the direction of the brush.

“Stop that,” his wife yelled, seizing a golf club and thrusting it like a javelin after the toys. She really seemed to be enjoying herself. The Rottweiler was loose again.

Standing beside the Porsche in the flickering light, Lauren’s face was almost unrecognizable. We were both perspiring heavily. Behind Lauren, the Rodwells began hurling each other’s possessions at the fire, as if trying to frighten away a bear.

“How many times have I told you to get rid of this clutter?” Mrs. Rodwell yelled. “We’ve been living in a dumpster.”

“You wouldn’t have been happy anywhere,” was the last thing I remember hearing Mr. Rodwell say, before Lauren and I began to kiss each other.

It seemed to last a long time.

I have no idea what else was happening.

When belated instinct told us we really had to get going, Lauren and I got into the Porsche with Atash, who wanted me to drive, because he was drunk. Otherwise I could have made out with Lauren in the backseat.

“The wind just changed,” Atash said.

“Let’s stop here and watch for a while,” Lauren said. “I want to see the propane tank catch fire.”

I ignored her, and we made our getaway. I could feel the attraction of that blaze though. Going back really seemed a possibility, like when you hear a tidal wave warning on the radio, and all you want is to head for the beach to video it or whatever.

The nearest stretch of freeway had been shut down, but we found another on-ramp further west. Lauren tried to convince us she’d started the fire herself, but we didn’t believe her. “Why don’t you believe me?” she kept asking.

Finally Atash said, “Because I started it.” Atash was good at getting people to shut up.

He began telling me about a party he’d been to in a northern suburb of Tehran, back in the day. Nowadays parties in Iran got busted by morals police bearing whips.

Maybe the guy in the Buick started the fire, I thought.

Atash and I got Lauren back home in time for her curfew. While we chatted with her father, Lauren shut herself in her room,

Later, Atash and I drove to the Omar Khayyam winebar, a place one of Atash’s cousins had set up, where we never got carded, and spent the rest of the night making passes at women who told us we were too young to be there. Atash taught me some expressions from his own language. Not until years later did I learn that “coonchiezang” is not really the Farsi for “booty call.”

It never worked out with Lauren and me, I don’t know why. She never answered any of my calls. I hear she wound up becoming a Buddhist, or maybe a Scientologist, it depends who you ask.

The Rodwells’ mansion survived the fire, but disappeared down the ravine in a landslide a few months later. Sawyer’s working for the LAPD now. I stay out of his way.

What’s really weird is, Sawyer’s time with Guaranteed Rehab cured his asthma. Something to do with the Mexican climate.

Atash quit working for Rehab Inc, sold the Porsche, and used the proceeds to buy junk bonds. He does something in financial services now and lives in Switzerland. I think he still has the sword Mr. Rodwell gave him.

Every year, the wildfires rage harder and longer.

And the guy in the Buick — there was nothing about him on TV the next day, but I like to imagine he eventually ran for it. In my mind’s eye, I still see him running.


James Warner is the author of the novel All Her Father’s Guns, the story of a Libertarian venture capitalist attempting to sabotage his Republican ex-wife’s Congressional campaign. His stories have appeared in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online, and elsewhere. This piece first appeared in SoMa Literary Review.


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