by Michael Kozart
On Monday afternoon, Henry braked hard. Ordinarily, there was no traffic on the remote road, far from Santa Rosa where he worked. He rolled down the window, smelling smoke from distant wildfires and exhaust from a long line of cars. Clumps of trash hung like old fruit from willow trees beside the road, evidence of the height of last winter’s flood, which was hard to imagine now, everything so dry and dusty, midsummer.
His cell phone vibrated. He figured Reba was calling, wondering when he’d arrive home. Instead, he retrieved a message from his secretary, Gabrielle: Thanks for lunch, she wrote, followed by a red-heart emoji.
Henry’s chest fluttered. Have a great weekend.
At lunch, they’d touched thighs, sitting in a booth, facing salads and jars of iced tea. He usually skipped lunch—a dromedary, Reba always said. Never ate, except on special occasions.
Gabrielle messaged a purple she-devil.
There was a stiffening between Henry’s legs and his mouth caked up as he inched forward.
Entering an intersection, he spied the source of the traffic—a cluster of chrome birthday balloons, hovering just beyond arm’s reach, over the road. Drivers were taking pictures, honking horns.
Henry put the car in park and sprang out. One foot on the front bumper, the other on the hood, he leapt and snagged the tail of ribbons. A slew of honks and cheers ensued. Henry, who usually shirked the limelight, retreated to his car.
He shoved the balloons in the hatchback. He’d tell their story at work, tomorrow. Maybe Gabrielle would have a story of her own, her sources predicting that he’d soon be Director of Quality Improvement—a promotion. Gabrielle had said, “No one’s more deserving.”
Henry drove off. The balloons appeared flabby.
When he arrived home, Reba’s car was missing. A last-minute errand, Henry thought. He left the balloons behind.
Inside, he switched on the TV. The news was all about a windstorm with planned power outages. At higher elevations, utility poles could topple, sparking additional wildfires. “No mandatory evacuation yet,” said the county sheriff, “but if you’re in a high-risk zone, best make plans.” They lived in the rugged hills above Santa Rosa.
The front door opened. Reba entered, carrying groceries. She’d been stocking up on candles, drinking water, canned food. “Heard the news?”
“We should find a hotel.” said Henry. “We’re not firefighters.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself.”
Together, they cleared the table, unloaded groceries. “You got marshmallows?” Henry asked.
“Thought we could toast them with candle flame, like on a camping trip.”
Henry raised an eyebrow.
They cooked dinner. Soon after sitting down, the power cut off. Outside, the wind rose, roaring like an engine. They lit candles.
“We might have to evacuate,” Henry said.
“Or, we might not.”
They’d purchased the home five years ago. The rural location with deer, hawks, foxes, and apple trees was Reba’s dream come true. She grew up in a public housing project.
Following the meal, they took a walk to scope out the fire risk. Neighboring houses were quiet, no visible lights from candles or lanterns. Cars were gone. There was an orange glow on a ridgetop some ten miles away.
“We’re the only ones who haven’t evacuated,” Henry said.
“If it makes you feel better, we could pack.”
“Deal,” said Henry.
They returned home and packed. Placing the luggage in his car, Henry discovered the balloons were now deflated. He crumpled up the plastic, shoving the compact ball in a pocket.
That night, Henry hardly slept, alert for any evacuation siren.
“Reba, you awake?” he asked at three a.m.
“We’ll be safe?”
The wind raged. Leaves and branches fell. But there were no sirens.
Henry fell into fitful sleep. By morning, the air had calmed. White ash dusted the ground, and the sky was orange from high-altitude smoke, but the wind had abated. He pulled on yesterday’s pants and went outside, checking the news on his cell phone. Santa Rosa still had electricity. Presumably, so did the office.
Reba was already on the front porch, making coffee on a camping stove. “Take the week off,” she said. “Who knows when the power’s returning. You don’t want to work all grimy, unless you plan on a cold shower.”
Henry pondered deadlines, projects, audits. He pictured another lunch with Gabrielle. The announcement about his promotion was imminent.
“Think how nice it could be. Nature hikes by day. Toasted marshmallows by night. I always wanted to go to summer camp.” She pressed close to Henry, nibbling his ear.
“And if the power returns?” Henry asked.
“Then we take nice, long, hot showers—together.”
“Last night, I thought we’d lose the place.”
She sipped her coffee.
Henry remembered the joy on her face when they first toured the property with a realtor. She’d filled a satchel of apples from old trees out back. “Our first house together,” she’d said as they mulled over a thirty-year mortgage.
They now held hands, sitting quietly by the camp stove. “Maybe I could take off the week,” Henry said. The office was a distant siren, work demands were receding. “Sorry I was late coming home. Work’s been,” he paused, “stressful.”
“I thought things were going well.”
“Not so sure now,” he said.
“And the promotion?”
Henry looked into the hazy sky. “Who wants to be everyone’s hero?”
She poured him a cup of coffee.
He reached into his pocket for his phone, brushing against the ball of crumpled balloons. “Give me a moment,” he said, walking away. He texted Gabrielle that he planned to take the week off—maybe longer. He returned and hugged Reba. “It’s done.”
“What’s that bulge in your pocket?” she asked.
He pulled out the ball of shiny plastic. “Trash. Balloons fell from the sky. Imagine that.” He had no interest recounting his exploits on the road home from work. He held her tighter, ignoring the vibration on his phone.
They kissed and then, together, they took flight.
* * *
Michael Kozart hails from Northern California where he works in a non-profit community health center. His short stories can be found in Flash Fiction Magazine, Into the Void, Every Day Fiction, MoonPark Review, and Brilliant Flash Fiction (forthcoming).