At midnight on August 2nd, the wind, which blew predominantly from the west, slackened then stirred. Gusts sent leaves scurrying. A tiny spark from a cigarette, casually tossed by eighteen-year-old Brad Herrill returning home from a party, flared to life among dry leaves, and snaked toward the woods, toward the mat of leaves deposited and rotting there since last fall. In the farmhouses fronting the woods on Cove Road, men, women, and children slept.
By two a.m., a necklace of gold edged the outer fringe of trees, and by three a.m. had crawled up into the woods. Heat from the fire sucked moisture from tree trunks. Bursts of wind stirred the flames, causing widening bands of to veer across pastures, toward barns and farmhouses. In their stalls, cows and horses snorted and pawed the earth, and still the occupants of the houses slept.
In the farmhouse, Amelia Declose awakened. Through her front window, George Maxwell’s Dairy Farm across the road, shimmered in an eerie, golden glow in a moonless night. When she raised her window, the caustic smell of smoke filled her nostrils. Smoke drifted into her room, and set the battery-powered alarm on her wall jangling. From Elk Road, the main road through the hamlet of Covington, fire trucks, their sirens wailing, rounded the corner and tore down Cove Road. Immobilized and with increasing panic, Amelia watched the line of trucks: four, five, six. Lights came on in Maxwell’s farmhouse.
Within seconds, her housemates, Grace Singleton and Hannah Parrish , were at her side.
"A fire, where?" Grace asked, suddenly wide awake.
Clutching her neck and shoulder as if feeling again the searing pain of burns inflicted by another fire on another night long ago, Amelia stared at them, wild-eyed and pointed toward the window.
"I’m going outside, see where it is," Hannah declared.
When Amelia screamed, Hannah had immediately pulled on slacks, shirt, and shoes. Moments later, from the middle of their front lawn, she could see one farmhouse ablaze and another spitting flames. Upstairs her housemates were huddled at Amelia’s window. "The Herrills’ place is on fire, and looks like the Craine’s is also," Hannah called.
"What should we do?" Grace’s voice blanched in the roar of a helicopter passing overhead.
"Get dressed," Laura said. Laura was Hannah’s forty-one-year-old daughter, who had been living with them this past year.
Hannah dashed back upstairs. "It’s a huge fire. More fire trucks down there than there are people on Cove Road."
Amelia’s voice rose shrilly. "Get the car, Grace. Get the car."
Grace put her arm about Amelia’s shoulder. Amelia’s body quivered like waves stirred by a rising wind. "It’s okay, Amelia. They’ll have the fire out in no time, I’m sure."
Pulling away from Grace, Amelia ran from the room, dashed down the steps and not until she stood outside did she realize that she wore only a satin nightgown. In the chaos and confusion of men shouting, engines revving and helicopters flying low, Amelia clapped her hands over her ears and stared about her. Then her legs buckled, and she lay for a time, until Hannah reached her, on the grass, made dry and brittle by the summer drought.
* * *
Down the road, the Craines’ and Herrills’ homes and barns were ablaze. Numb and bewildered, the families huddled outside of Cove Road Church with their neighbors across the road: the Lunds, Tates, and Pastor Johnson, Heat assailed their arms and faces. Acrid smoke stung their eyes as they watched firemen from Madison and Buncombe counties fight a desperate and losing battle to save their homes. On hills behind their houses helicopters dumped fire retardents.
* * *
At the ladies’ farmhouse, everyone was now dressed. Hannah had brought up black plastic trash bags and distributed them, one to a person.
"I expect they’ll have this fire under control long before it reaches our house, but we can’t stay here, the smell of smoke and charred wood will be suffocating. We’ll go to Loring Valley and use our childrens’ apartment. Put whatever you think you’ll need for a few days, maybe a week, into these bags."
Hiccuping and crying, frantic to flee yet terrified to be alone, Amelia attempted to follow instructions. But, when she entered her bedroom, her mind fogged. Everything in the room was the same, yet nothing seemed real. Frenetically, she dumped everything on top of her dressing table, brush, comb, cosmetics into the black plastic bag, and then every pair of shoes she owned.
Hannah and Grace tossed underwear, shirts, slacks, lingerie, and other clothing into their bags, and Hannah, ever practical, emptied the file cabinet: the deed to the property, their tax records, wills, birth certificates, and other documents, into her black bag. No one thought of Amelia’s photographs or her antique fan collection, or of Grace’s clowns or her treasured cookbooks, or of Hannah’s gardening tools and books. Finally, clutching their bags, they stood in the hall.
Laura pulled her mother aside. "Come, look out of my window," she whispered.
"Go on down, put your bags in my station wagon. We’ll be right down," Hannah said to Grace and Amelia. "Laura’s asked me to help her with something." Turning, she followed Laura down the hall.
Laura’s window offered a view of the woods and hillsides behind the blazing houses. Fire raged on the slope behind the Herrills’ and marched inexorably across the woods behind the Craines’, their closest neighbor. A helicopter released its load of fire retardant liquid.
"Still think they can put it out before it gets to us?" Laura asked.
"With the helicopters helping, yes, certainly. They’ll have it under control in no time," Hannah said, feigning optimism, but her heart plummeted. Thank God she’d packed all their papers, but what else should she, should they, have taken?
* * *
Horses neighed their fear and protest as men led them to safety across the road from their barns. Flames crackled and roared. Roof beams thundered as they toppled. Hoses stretched across Cove Road drenched roofs and walls of the unaffected homes and the church. Standing on a fire truck with a bullhorn, the chief yelled orders. "Damn it people, Get the hell out of here."
Like automatons, families clambered into their vehicles. The rear of Ted Lund’s pickup brimmed with sacks of clothing. A rocking chair leaned against a grandfather clock, and Pastor Johnson, clutching a suitcase, sat on a sack next to the Lund boys, Rick and Alex. Molly, Ted’s wife, and her mother, Brenda Tate, squeezed into the front seat. Behind them, water sheered off of the roof of the church.
Suffering from a hangover, and unaware of his role in the destruction, Brad Herrill groaned and held his head as he hunched in the back of his father’s big truck. They pulled away and headed for Elk Road. Piled with furniture and clothing, the Craines’ two vehicles followed.
"Get a move on," the chief yelled.
* * *
Across from the ladies, at George (Max) Maxwell’s Dairy Farm, a congregation of cows, darkly etched against the orange glare, were being herded high onto the hills behind the barns. Men with hoses pelted Maxwell’s lawn, windmill, house, and barns with torrents of water. When the vehicles passed his property, Max broke from among the firefighters and ran across the road to the ladies who stood as if frozen on the grass in front of their porch.
"God, Hannah." He grasped her arm. "They’re evacuating everyone, Damn. I thought they’d have it under control by now. Are you all right?"
Hannah slumped against Max. The relief in her eyes was transitory and turned to despair. Tossing their bags into Hannah’s wagon, Max shepherded them across the road to his lawn, then raced back to move Hannah’s piled high station wagon from their driveway.
By now fire trucks had trammeled Hannah’s rose bushes, Additional lengths of hose had been unfurled, and great bursts of water pummeled the house.
Suddenly, Grace broke from them and dashed back to the farmhouse. "I’m going after more of our things," she yelled.
Amelia’s pupils dilated with fear. "No." she screamed, clutching for Grace’s arm. "Grace. No. No."
Hannah broke from the small group and raced after Grace.
"I’ll get them," Max yelled. "Stay with Amelia, Laura."
Dashing past firemen, Max reached the women and struggled to pull them back. With amazing strength, Grace broke lose and in an instant was up the front steps. Max raced after her with Hannah following, up the slippery steps, and into the farmhouse. Inside, the wood floors were slick. The rug in the foyer and the carpeted stairs oozed water. A caustic layer of smoke hovered over and around them.
Grace was nowhere to be seen. Then they heard her coughing upstairs.
In the hallway outside the bedrooms, smoke darkened everything.
Max ran to the bathroom, wet towels, and handed one to Hannah, then drew wide the door to Amelia’s room and draped another about Grace’s neck. "Cover your mouths and noses," he yelled. "Let’s get out of here."
In the room, Grace tore a pillow from its case, then headed for Amelia’s dresser, pulled the collection of antique fans, one by one, from the wall above it, and stuffed them into the pillowcase along with silk and cashmere scarves from a drawer.
Steps thudded on the stairs. A fireman yelled, "You people crazy? Out of here. Out. Now!"
Max tugged at Grace’s arm. "You heard him. Let’s go."
"Come on. Hurry," Hannah’s words were muffled by the wet towel covering her mouth. Together, they dragged Grace toward the steps.
In the foyer, Grace said, "My diabetes medication." Tearing free, she brushed away a young fireman and darted into the smoky, water-drenched kitchen. She felt her way along the counters to the place she kept the pills. Then, clutching her chest, Grace lurched forward.
"Outta here, Miss Grace. Back of your house is burning." The voice was familiar. Wayne. She went limp as his strong arms wrested her out onto the lawn and thrust her stumbling and coughing toward Hannah.
Grace heard a man say, "This house is gone, too."
Bent nearly double from choking and coughing, Grace managed to glance at his face. Under the yellow parka, his eyes were red, water trickled down his tired face. A long dark smudge darkened his cheek.
A paramedic adjusted an oxygen mask over Grace’s mouth. Gratefully, she held the mask and breathed, short gasping breaths, and then more deeply.
"Let’s get them outta here," the paramedic shouted to Max as he pressed them further toward the road, away from the house.
Moments later, they stood in front of Max’s house and watched with horror as flames consumed the farmhouse they had so lovingly renovated three years ago. Amelia covered her face. Then a crash. Sparks flying. Firemen staggering back.
"Place was dry as tinder," Grace heard someone say.
Wayne dashed up and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that they leave Cove Road.
"Go to Bob’s place," Maxwell yelled above the racket.
four dispirited women, one of them nearly hysterical, climbed into
Hannah’s old station wagon and drove, ever so cautiously, away from
bedlam and towards Elk Road.