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vol vi, issue 5 < ToC
Always a Fire Somewhere
Maureen O'Leary
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Do NotA Full
Always a Fire Somewhere
Maureen O'Leary

Do Not


A Full
Always a Fire Somewhere
Maureen O'Leary
Do Not

A Full
previous next

Do Not A Full
Flee Bowl

Do Not


A Full
Do Not

A Full
Always a Fire Somewhere
 by Maureen O'Leary
Always a Fire Somewhere
 by Maureen O'Leary
I got the idea for the tunnel from a movie about a zombie apocalypse where people wasted time sitting around the house talking about their feelings and crying when they should have been digging. In my house, everyone had to take a shift in the basement to dig, even my mother, and by August we almost broke though.

Before the fires, my mother was afraid of getting fat. Now her stomach was flat as the pancakes she wouldn’t eat on her diets. Maybe if I called our new reality the Post Apocalyptic Lifestyle my mother would have been in a better mood about it. She was the only one in the family who complained about the digging and the one in my private opinion the most likely to turn into a whiner. She was the most likely among us to be contaminated by the filthy air. This was the uncharitable thing I was thinking as I cleaned greens in a tub of rainwater in my kitchen.

Our new lifestyle began when the electric company would not fix faulty wires hanging over trees dried to kindling due to global warming. Sparks from those wires blazed into forest- and town-eating fires that made the air breathable as filthy wool. But people breathed anyway, because what other choice did they have? Doctors warned about lung cancer down the line, not knowing until too late that no one was going to have to wait that long for the ill effects.

But people accepted that the company’s right to make money trumped their right to not get burned to death in their cars as they fled fire tornadoes. Air Quality index up to six hundred.

The leafy greens made rain as I shook them over the sink. I thought of kale soup to stretch out the last of the garden because when my boyfriend Owen and my dad returned from the supply run, a hot meal would be good for the spirits.

The tick tick of shovel on dirt coming from the basement cut off. In the absence of that noise, wind rustled through the field and I froze and sniffed the air. Wind brought fires, which brought the toxic smoke.

My sister Grace emerged from the basement drying her sweaty face with her shirt. I caught a flash of her rib cage and the sight of my little sister’s bones pained me. Too skinny. “Do you smell smoke?” I asked.

“Nope.” She put on her trucker cap with the big bill that she called her watchtower hat, and took the binoculars off their hook to hang around her neck. “Any sign of whiners?”

“Nope.” I chopped a thin carrot into tiny coins that would not be enough but better than nothing. Grace went upstairs to climb onto the roof through a bedroom window and soon her boots clod hopped over my head. She’d grow out of those soon. I would have to get her new ones.

Mom passed through for her dig time. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to handle digging today,” she said. “The sciatica.”

“The clay is done. Just dirt now.”

“It’s really hurting, Margaret,” she said.

I breathed through my irritation, sniffing the air again. No smoke at all? I wasn’t so sure.

“Eye on the prize,” I said. I was down all morning digging. We could be through to the bus by tomorrow and what a relief that would be, to have a proper tunnel.

“A zing right up my hip.” She bore a fist into her upper thigh.

“Don’t forget to brace the walls as you go. And we should wear masks today, I think. I smell smoke.”

“There is no smoke,” Mom said.

“Mask up anyway.” I tossed her the N-95 labeled in Sharpie with her name.

She snapped the elastic around her wrist. “If we were going to get sick, we would have already,” she said, heading to the basement. “You worry too much.”

Yes, that was what my mother said to me in the middle of a pandemic. But I didn’t have time to argue because Grace whistled from the roof a three-parted mountain chickadee call. Cheese-burger. Owen knew about birds and taught us. The call was distinctive to the ear and easy to replicate but my sister and I chose the mountain chickadee’s as our family warning because we missed food.


I joined her on the asphalt roof tiles and traded her a mask for the binoculars. The whiners lay so low that their hair blended with the grass. I wouldn’t have spotted them, but Grace was a superior watcher.

“Great eye,” I said.

“I count seven.“

My former boss and three of Owen’s ex-girlfriends looked harmlessly dead facedown in the dirt. My theology professor was there as well, I was sorry to see. I blocked his number when he texted me a picture of himself without a shirt on. The other two I didn’t recognize so maybe were my parents’ acquaintances. Mom, Dad, and Grace lived fifty miles away before they moved in with Owen and me, but these things could travel when given time.

Grace and I went inside to strap on the leather boots I’d lifted from Nordstrom’s in the early days of the pandemic. My friend Lucy was taken down by an ankle-biter who used to be a woman we knew who was jealous of Lucy’s looks. Once Lucy was infected, she turned on me, but her gorgeous teeth couldn’t cut through the leather. Boots were important. Boots could save your life.

Grace’s boots covered her knees. She strode ahead of me out the front door like a young superhero with shovel in hand. Magnificent child.

The best technique: Point the shovel over the back of the neck and let gravity take over. We followed the loudest mewling and started there. Grace stood astride one of the men and drove in the tip.

“Good,” I said. “Clean.”

“That was my algebra teacher,” she said. “He only called on the boys.”


“I snitched to the principal, so he got sent to implicit bias training.” She pulled the shovel free. “I guess he’s still mad.”

The others made their baby kitten noises. They drooled and smacked their lips. My mother made the same noises when she didn’t like dinner or when she thought I was talking too much. Her grievances weren’t new since the fires and the pandemic, but I was keeping my eyes open.

I thunked my professor’s head off, lost my balance and fell. My chin hit a stone so hard I saw stars, but Grace’s shout brought me to myself. My left foot was caught in the jaws of one of Owen’s ex-girlfriends, her teeth around my instep like a vise made of bone. Grace raised her shovel high before dropping onto the ex-girlfriend’s C spine.

“You bit, queen?” she asked.

“Naw, queen.” The leather held. They were good boots.

We did the rest mindfully in case of another quick mover. That was the thing. The whiners played dead until they didn’t. Not much logic to count upon except that they were coming to eat us and it was personal.

“The grass,” Grace said.

The field of weeds rustled around us. Sawtooth, alfalfa, dragonweed, thistle. Tall and yellow in the late summer heat. The air was still as metal, but from the subtly moving grass rose a wave of sound. The mewling. The smacking. What I thought was a breeze was simply more of them coming, crawling arm over arm like army soldiers under barbed wire.

We retreated to the roof and I commandeered the binoculars. Emma was my biter’s name. I remembered her as the stench of rot rose in the heat. Owen broke a lot of hearts before he met me. The pressure of her teeth throbbed in my foot and the entire field shook as if riddled with hundreds of human-sized worms.

There in the grass was the girl from Sophomore year of high school whose boyfriend liked me. The AP English teacher who hated me for talking. Hard to believe his dead brain still remembered. Hard to believe he was still mad.

These grudge keepers were from my hometown, which meant they scented us out from fifty miles.

“They must have eaten everybody else,” Grace said.

So now we faced a swarm.

Panic flickered in my belly like a spark on dry embers. Only control over fear made me able to drive Owen’s truck the long distance to collect my parents and Grace from the emergency center in my hometown as the pandemic raged. Good thing I did too, because a horde of whiners infiltrated that crowded center the very next night and hundreds of people were infected.

My no-panic personality let me roll over the crawling whiners covering the highway on our way to my home. I was the one who made sure we all had leather boots, who planted the garden, who planned the tunnel and made sure everyone worked on it for at least two hours every day.

My failure was that deep down I didn’t really believe we would get a swarm. I thought we were too remote. I thought that between my parents, sister, and boyfriend, we were too few to attract enough whiners to do real damage. We were boring people with small lives. We didn’t hurt anybody enough for anyone’s dead brain to remember.

The tunnel began in the basement and crossed under the field to where we kept a converted short school bus hidden behind a stand of eucalyptus trees. Owen rigged the wheels with big tires. We built a trap door in the aisle that opened to a hole in the ground that was the end of the tunnel. We bolted armor to the bus’ sides and welded a cow-catcher to the front. I thought we thought of everything. We were safer worrying too much rather than not enough. That was my motto.

Owen and Dad went scavenging on the first Wednesday of every month, always returning the very next day. I had no plan for what to do if we got a swarm while they were gone because in the end I did not worry enough.

Fear wedged its claws under my skull and tried to pry back the cap. The fact that the whiners traveled so far on their forearms just to eat was a sign that they would keep coming. They would fling themselves on the house until their weight crushed the walls. I’d been that morning rinsing greens when I should have been under the house readying for the worst, digging the last few feet to reach the hole under the bus.

“The tunnel situation?” Grace chewed on her bottom lip.

“We should almost be broken through.” If the ground held. We were running out of wood to brace the dirt. Two by fours were on the list for Owen and Dad to find.

“Time to go.” Grace’s voice was as quiet as the rustle of the grasses.

A hand flopped onto the lowest porch step.

Along the roads through town there were houses that were nothing but heaps of wood and bricks under hills of writhing dead bodies. Everybody pissed off somebody at some point, and over time those grievance holders piled up. Now literally.

During that worst fire season in history, thousands of people had burned to death in the blazes. By the time the CDC discovered that the wildfire smoke containing particulates of human beings had turned deadly, most people had been breathing the contaminated air for days. They’d already inhaled the ash from bodies incinerated in cars as they tried to flee and in beds caught unaware. They were burned in firefighter gear and mylar tents. Burned on convict lines. Burned in trenches. Burned in trailers.

The skies turned red in cities hundreds of miles away from the wildfires. Even the balmy coastal fog turned bad and everybody breathed in that collective pain, for fire hurts. Burning is a bad death. Those bad deaths were breathed by millions of other hurt and sad people and suddenly people all over the western United States were falling to the ground with voices reduced to small cries. Sufferers smacked their lips, their eyes glazed, their hearts no longer beating. They crawled like babies with paralyzed legs searching for the people who wronged them. People who disappointed them. They were driven, scientists said, to keep chewing until there was nothing left to burn.

“Time to go. We’ll join Mom in the digging and break through,” Grace said.

“We’ll have to,” I said. Getting caught by one wasn’t the worst danger. We could handle one or even a few at once. Their accumulated numbers were the problem. The whiners were like slugs on a vine, breaking the tendrils with their collective weight. They covered the walkway now. They were edging toward the steps.

I scanned the road for Owen and my dad but they were nowhere. Panic flared again in the sudden racing of my heartbeat. Grace was right. We needed to go.

Downstairs she tossed me a backpack already stocked with trail mix from Costco from back when there was a Costco. She swept carrots in. Kale. Food was always the stickler, as well she knew. Our medicine bag was also woefully understocked. But there was water in the bus and weapons underground because Grace noted that we couldn’t keep guns in the bus where somebody upright could find them and help himself.

A voice murmured through the open window. Plaintive and small.

In the basement, the wood braces sagged in places in the tunnel entrance where the dirt was loamy. Deeper within, the clay was hell to dig through. Over the weeks building the tunnel, we shaved away layers of clay for hours, shoulders aching, only to go forward a couple of feet at a time.

The entrance looked like a prison break because we had to knock out the concrete to get started. The plan was a child’s plan. Build a tunnel! I wasn’t an engineer. When the pandemic hit, I was a biologist with a year of virology grad school living with my engineer boyfriend in a small house in a field in Healdsburg. In case of emergency I thought this tunnel was what would save us. This almost tunnel.

Grace’s flashlight beam bobbed in the darkness underground, and the path seemed to go on forever. We heard Mom before seeing her. Her tongue against her teeth. A moaning exhalation of someone about to cry. I grabbed my sister by the shirt.

“Yeah no,” she said. She didn’t like to be grabbed. She didn’t like to be pushed, either, but I pushed her behind me. There was Mom on her butt, picking at the dirt with one finger. Picking. Crumbs of soil falling on her lap. Her mask on the ground. Her voice an unintelligible whine.

We backed up. “Mom?” Grace’s voice was flat in the close space. And in answer, only scratching. Only a low moan.

The flashlight beam caught nothing but silty air and then her face near the ground. Another scrape.

“Run,” said Grace and we did. Back down the chute. My neck hairs tingled where I thought the wood braces might fall on our heads. The tunnel was meant to be an insurance policy against the inevitable worst, not a place to die. Not a grave.

The basement’s dank air was sweet after the long tunnel. I followed my sister up to the roof to survey. There were more of them now, their whining cries like feral kittens dying of starvation. I could keep my shit together better if they would just be quiet.

Grace was gasping for breath. “Go back. Take off her head. Dig,” she said.

I was ten years old when my sister was born and my arms felt like sticks when I first held her little body close to mine. “No, baby,” I said. “Neither one of us survive that in the end.”

She squinted. Deep quiet. “I wish I never said take off her head.”

“We’ll pretend you never did.” I patted the top of her trucker hat.

The porch steps were loaded. The whiners stacked to the railings. One scratched at the door.

Owen and Dad would come back, if they came back, and find the house flat and us nothing more than skin and hair and teeth somewhere underneath. I should have been able to save my sister. I should have been able to avoid killing my mother. I wanted everyone to live. It was not too much to ask for.

I trained the binoculars on the distance and more were coming. Ones I never suspected. There was the girl whose boyfriend I stole in high school and there was the guy from college who made lewd comments to me by the salad bar until I told him to fuck off in front of everyone in the cafeteria.

The lady I babysat for in high school was making her way, perhaps still annoyed that I smoked a cigarette in her backyard when I was Grace’s age. I wasn’t even a smoker. I was just curious and wanted to try it. I wished I could explain, but she couldn’t hear or understand. Her tinted blonde hair was the same color as the grass. Her rings clinked against the porch floorboards.

“Huh,” Grace said. Her eyebrows meeting in the middle. Thinking face. Hope was dumb, but I hoped just then. My sister was the smartest person I knew.

“Thing is,” she said, raising her left hand as if feeling the air, her thumb and forefinger rubbing together. “There is always a fire somewhere.”

The bus peeked out from the copse of eucalyptus past the field, windshield winking in the hazy sun. The house shook under our feet. A customer I refused to serve after he touched my butt threw his carcass against one of the porch posts. He lay on top of the lady I used to babysit for. He draped over her shoulders like the coat of the Nimean Lion.

“Follow me,” Grace said. We shimmied through the window and went back to the basement, where there was a scratching from deep inside the tunnel. A low moan. Our mother’s voice. Not angry. Just disappointed.

On a shelf of found things there were Mylar tents firefighters left behind in the hills. Grace pulled them down along with two cans of gasoline and a box of long stem matches. Back in the kitchen we shouldered our packs.

“Here’s the plan,” Grace said. “Make a path with fire and run through.”

I tied her tent around her neck, puffing the mylar over her head and shoulders into a fireproof silver cape. From outside the mewling was louder than before. A pack of thousands of sightless floppies with a taste for human flesh bore down upon our house while my mother was infected underneath.

I looked around my kitchen. Lavender and rosemary hung from the ceiling. Owen built the table out of pine. I painted the indigo walls. I would miss my house, and despite the darkening of the windows, covered now in a snowdrift of bodies piled against the creaking glass, I did not want to leave.

“Wait.” Grace dropped her pack and disappeared into the basement. I stayed mesmerized by the window where a co-worker I had not invited to my birthday party smashed her face against the glass. She said “whatnot” too much and told me she didn’t know why people liked me. Now her teeth clicked on the windowpane, and on top of her lay an old friend of my mother’s, and on top of her the neighbor my dad played golf with.

So many people harbored secret complaints inside themselves like latent cancer cells waiting for a trigger to explode and take over their brains. We thought we didn’t get the fever because Owen and I had stayed inside during that fire season. We lived on our canned stores, made love during the day for exercise, and slept at night under fans circulating the inside air. My parents worked remotely from home. Schools closed and my sister didn’t leave her room, while outside other people marveled at the red skies and went steadfastly for their regular jogs. Many refused to listen to the CDC. They insisted on their freedom and breathed deep the smoky air and so the burned blood and bone of the suffering was a Eucharist for the damned.

My sister screamed. I ran into the basement to find her high on a ladder, holding two orange and purple plastic super soakers from the top of the shelf of miscellaneous found things. A rat ran down her shoulder before leaping to the floor.

“Goddammit,” she said. She handed me the bazooka water guns we picked up on a looted drugstore run and kept for no reason.

From the tunnel entrance there was nothing. No sound. The rat scurried into the darkness and I thought, wait, poor rat, wait.

At the sink I funneled the gas into the water guns, realizing we’d have to refill along the way. Tricky.

The front of the house was impossible, so we tried the door into the side yard and just in time, too. There were a few coming around already.

“That’s Fiona from school.” Grace paused at the glittered manicured hand of a young one by the garbage cans. “I thought she liked me.”

“Never can tell,” I said.

There was a straight shot to the bus. Covered in bodies, but straight.

Grace looked back. “Mom,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“It’s just weird.”

“I know.”

“Why her?” she asked. “Why now?”

“I thought I smelled smoke,” I said.

Her eyes crumpled over her mask as she stood in the dry grass in her boots and backpack and mylar cape. She held the super soaker full of gasoline and looked everything like a tragic video game soldier girl.

Not fair to my little sister, any of this. Not fair at all.

“Poor Mom,” she said and sprayed a stream of gasoline into the grass. Lit a match. Dropped a match. Woosh.

The seventh grade frenemy burned and it wasn’t great. But we advanced. We stepped on fingers and ears. The dry field took the flames as if it had been waiting its whole life for just this fire. The heat lifted our hair from our foreheads. We kicked away faces. Our hard toes crunched into open mouths.

Squirt. Light. Woosh.

My eyebrows crackled, my eyelashes curled. The bus was just ahead. I wanted to drop the supersoakers and run, but crossing all those whiners would have been like climbing over a pile of tires with teeth. There was the kid I snitched on in fourth grade for hitting me at recess, now grown and crawling towards me. There was the guy from Organic Chem who tried to cheat off my final. Dead cells had long memories.

“Keep going,” Grace said. We set the Organic Chem guy on fire and we never looked back.

The flames rushed through the field ahead of us and licked up the eucalyptus trees shielding the bus. A flaming branch slammed on the bus as we scrambled in.

“Not yet,” Grace said when I readied to drive. She opened the trap door and scrambled down the hole. I called after her, but my sister was gone. My throat tightened, and I heard myself issue a sound like a whine and a smack, the sound of weakness and disappointment and wanting things to be one way when in fact they were another. I clapped my hand over my mouth.

A shotgun poked through the hole.

“Take it,” Grace said. She handed me first one gun and then the other guns. I should have been the one down there calmly hefting supplies but my sister took over, climbing the ladder with an armful of spears we made just for this occasion.

The tree nearest us lost another flaming branch. Whomp, right in front of the bus.

“Now,” I said. She slid the last box of ammo across the floor and slammed in the lock of the trapdoor. The metal and wood of the weaponry rattled around as I started the engine. The tires would melt if we didn’t hurry.

“Wait,” she said.

Owen’s truck barreled down the road through the oily flames. Owen was behind the wheel with Dad beside him, waving. I pulled into reverse, choking on heat and sadness when Grace grabbed my wrist.

“Wait,” she said again.

She had an iron grip. The crackling tree flamed like a candle. The heat blasted through the windows, and before long our big brand new tires would be nothing more than rubber soup. We had spares in the back but no time between the whiners and the fire. And even if we did, then we’d have no spares.

Grace’s eyes were wide and filled with tears. My baby sister didn’t cry much. Not even when a rat crawled down her arm in the basement on a really bad day, but here she was. She yanked the emergency brake and put her finger to her lips as if to call for silence amid the whining and the crackling flames and the engine of Owen’s truck pulling over though not too close because we were in the middle of a growing ball of fire.

She pointed to the trap door and sure enough under the floor of the bus there was a tiny scratching. Scratch. Scratch. Like from one human fingernail.

Grace was faster than me. She threw herself on the latch and pulled with all her might. I cried no, sister. It won’t be her. It will be one of the others crawled under the bus, here to eat us. Or if it is Mom, she will eat us too. Infect us. We will die, little queen. No.

But she flung open the trap door and at the top of the wooden ladder were our mother’s hands grasping the splintered rung. Fingernails caked with dirt. Peering up from the darkness, her sweat-streaked face covered in filth, her eyes bright and her teeth flecked with clay and loam.

“Let me in,” she said.

Each of us took an arm and hoisted. Grace shoved her over to slam the cover down. Me, to the driving. Reverse. Go. Owen and Dad were ahead on the road. Gravel spitting, dust flying, the tires a bit soft but holding, my mother chugging from a water bottle and we on the road to find somewhere safe and I guess it was a lot to ask for but guess what?

Everyone lived.

Do Not
A Full