Eila Chin

When the Pink Suns Fade

Looking back, the signs were all there. They’d been there for years, weaseling their way into everyday life. Living on the outskirts of a small town in northern California, they were both more radical and easier to ignore. Maybe that was why I thought I knew what to do. 

There were the pink suns. I was eight when they started coming, and they are the first signs I remember. We had goats and my older sister and I would spend some evenings outside playing with them. The fires then were far away, off in the mountains where no one really lived, and the smoke was just a haze on the distant horizon. That evening, as the sun dropped towards the mountains, it became a brilliant red that faded into a hot pink. I remember offering the goats salt licks and thinking that the pink orb in the sky looked so pretty.  

There were the soccer practices my mom wouldn’t let me go to. She’ll get heatstroke if she goes. It’s going to be 115. She’d be out in the heat of the day, Mom told Dad. I resented her for not letting me go. I was eleven, and soccer was my favorite part of the week. Plus, all my other teammates were going. Michelle lived close by and she was going to practice, so I dialed her house to see if I could sneak away and get a ride with her. It didn’t work out. 

Then there were the nights at the Huschers’ house. At first, evacuating to their house gave me a little thrill, a jolt from homework and plateauing middle-school friendships. I would walk circles in my bedroom, carefully packing the things I couldn’t live without: my soccer jersey, because otherwise, they wouldn’t let me play; my diary, because I wanted to remember my life when I was old and forgetful; a stuffed otter my middle school crush bought me because it was nice to feel wanted. 

Then there were smoke days. I was fifteen and driving to school when I crested a hill overlooking the town and couldn’t see the hospital building that should’ve been two blocks down. Instead, the road faded into a dusty, pale haze. We made it to third period before the school sent us home, saying it wasn’t safe to breathe in this air. What, like the air in our houses was any less smoky? I spent the day at Nolan’s house baking apple muffins. Nolan was the old man who lived next to us, and he always used to let my siblings and me swim in his pool when we were little. His kids had all moved out years ago, and he liked having us around. I still liked keeping him company. Usually, we’d bake or he’d teach me a new card game.

The next year, the smoke didn’t go away for weeks, and the schools stopped closing for it. The pink suns were gone too—replaced by a mass of ochre smoke that stole all the shadows. I didn’t go outside for weeks at a time. During class, I would look out the window and daydream. Sometimes, when I forgot to keep my guard up, I would see the overcast skies and for a foolish, fleeting moment think the darkness was rain clouds. Disappointment and some vague thought that this wasn’t how the world should be always seeped in before I remembered that things got too painful if I thought too much about what should be. This is how things simply were. This was life. 

Evacuating to the Huschers’ house became less of a thrill and more of a dull dread. I stopped packing a getaway bag every time we evacuated and just kept the same one packed all fire season. Instead of including things I couldn’t live without, I included things I could live without: some hand-me-down clothes; the old diary; contact solution, and an old pair of eyeglasses.
You never think it’s going to happen to you, but then it happens to you or someone you care about. Michelle’s house burned the summer before our junior year of high school. It felt like it was alive when it came. Like it was coming for us, she told me. She and her family moved to another state soon after. It just doesn’t make sense to stay, she said as I hugged her goodbye. We don’t have anything here anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever see her again. 

When the fire did come for us, I wasn’t ready. I thought I would know what to expect. All the signs—the pink suns, the smoke, the droughts, the evacuations—fooled me into thinking that I was prepared. I had my getaway bag. I’d learned how to stay inside for weeks at a time without going crazy. I’d lived without the sun. I’d let go of the house and my things that would be left in it. 

I was not prepared. 

The fire squashed us with a beating heart and a taste for vengeance. I believed then what Michelle said, about the fire being alive. Dad, Mom, and I were eating dinner when the neighbor called us. Her son was a firefighter and he had just told her to get out. Greg called from Quartz Hill. The fire’s jumped the river. We need to go. 

I knew the drill: pack the getaway bags into the car, stuff the cat in his cat carrier, don’t forget the Christmas stockings and one of the old photo albums. Spice yowled and scratched me as I shoved his head into the crate and zipped it up before he could escape. And then we were in the car, inching towards town, towards the concrete parking lots and wide highways that would protect us. 10 mph, 15 mph. But the fire had already crossed the fire break—the Sacramento River—that had protected us these past years. Now all that separated us was one valley. 20 mph. In front of us, someone’s red Chevy had run out of gas and they were frantically packing their things into a stranger’s car: a duffel stuffed with clothes…. Family heirlooms? A pink child’s backpack with rainbows on it. A small-looking child with one shoe on. I hoped they wouldn’t block traffic. 

The fire spilled over the hill and the heat came all at once like someone had peeled back a curtain and all of a sudden we were a tin can in an oven. Spice started yowling and thrashing about on Mom’s lap and I watched the telephone pole burn. It didn’t go all at once. No, the fire was lazy in its inevitability. A spark caught the telephone pole close to the ground and the flames pulled themselves up, reaching for the sky, for everything. And then it was a stump hanging between two wire threads. 20 mph still. It smelled like burnt rubber. The tires were melting on the car next to us. I hoped ours weren’t like that. Then I began choking on the air. There was no air. There was no air. Spice stopped yowling. 30 mph. 

I learned that fires do not spread like liquid, consuming everything in their path. No. They are patchy and scattered. Random. 

Our house survived, the others on our street did not. I don’t know why. We all cleaned our gutters and cleared out the underbrush. We all did the right things, and I don’t understand why theirs burned and ours didn’t.

I survived, Nolan did not. He had taken sleeping pills that night and the phone calls and the sirens had not stirred him. When Nolan did wake up, the fire had already arrived. He died in his pool, trying to escape the heat. I don’t know if it was drowning or burning, in the end. I don’t know which would have been worse.  

The high school burned, the middle school across the street did not. Maybe she could go to Chico, my mother told my father. Chico was an hour and a half away. I didn’t want to start over at a new high school, not my senior year. 

The soccer field survived, my soccer team did not. We lost too many girls. Michelle had already left. Sara’s parents lost their business and they moved to Red Bluff. When the fire had come for Hana, it seared her lungs and she coughed up blood now.  

The earth survived, the sky did not. Nor did the air. The ashes stuck to my lungs now, pulling out my breath. And then the next summer smoke from another fire stole the sun for two whole months.

My body survived, my brain did not. The fire burned the water treatment plant in our water district, and it was too late by the time we found out. Toxic chemicals, lead, mercury. I don’t remember exactly what it was. Brain cancer, the doctor told my parents two years later when the headaches wouldn’t go away.

I don’t know what I could have done differently. I packed the getaway bag. I evacuated before it was too late. There was no way for me to know that Nolan was asleep on the couch. There was no way to know about the water. Nobody knew about it—not until months later. I do not know what I could have done differently, other than not lived. 

Eila Chin is a senior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, studying environmental studies and biology. Much of her writing is inspired by the peace and groundedness she gets from spending time in nature and from being outside. She is passionate about making the environmental movement a more inclusive and accessible community. In her free time, Eila enjoys hiking, baking, and reading.

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