Leaving Lily at home was not an option. Lily had gotten out of bed with a feverish forehead and a high, nervous energy, and Sean was out of town for the week, so Diana took Lily with her on the walk to drop Jake off at Miwok Elementary. Diana knew she was tempting fate.
Lily began flagging as she and Diana made their way back to the house. She dragged her sneakers across the asphalt and stopped to squat and examine something small on the ground. Diana resisted the urge to hurry her along. This was the beauty and agony of children: the intense importance of inconsequential things. Diana hummed a few bars of a song as she waited for Lily.
“Who sings that?” Lily asked.
“Did he die?”
“Why did he die?”
“He was very old.” Diana didn’t know if this was true. The dog of one of Lily’s preschool friends had died, and now most conversations found their way back to death.
“You forgot Jake’s lunch.”
“Shit!” Diana clapped a hand to her mouth. Lily watched her with interest.
“And his jacket,” Lily said. “Shit.”
Diana fixed her face into neutrality. She didn’t want to add interest to the word with a reaction. The morning fog was lifting. She found Lily’s hand, and they practiced looking both ways before crossing Miller Street.
Diana bent down to tie Lily’s shoelace. When she straightened, she saw a woman in the same crosswalk they had just used. The woman was immense, a cylindrical form in shapeless clothing. She stood in the center of the street, unmoving, a waterfall of hair obstructing her face.
It was difficult in this neighborhood to distinguish the occasional homeless person from someone rich enough to dress like one, Diana thought. She had to temper her visceral reaction to people like this, to not be unnecessarily alarmed. It was just that the woman had appeared so suddenly. Diana felt a prickling heat. She tugged on Lily’s hand, and Lily, still considering the vastness of something that could claim the lives of both dogs and singers, was led away without protest.
Diana and Lily passed a crop of worn mid-century homes. The ornamental plum trees lining the sidewalk were in bloom, their clusters of pale flowers as expansive as fireworks. Diana waited until they were closer to their own house to look backward, but the woman was no longer in the crosswalk. Lily’s face had gained a waxy sheen, and Diana stooped down to give her a piggyback.
“Are you going to die?” Lily asked, resting her cheek on Diana’s shoulder.
“No,” Diana said.
“Don’t step on the cracks. You’ll turn into a monster.”
“I already am a monster.”
Lily’s small body was hot and ponderous on Diana’s back. There would be no preschool, playdates, or trips to the children’s museum today.
“I saw a bear.”
“A bear lady. You saw her, too.” Diana was going to correct this—she wanted her children to be better than her—but Lily launched into one of her stories. “Once upon a time there was a bear. No, two bears. A mommy bear and a baby bear—”
That hot feeling she had when she saw the woman, that was just her. She probably already caught Lily’s illness. There was nothing else to it. There was only the empty day, lying before them like a chasm.
The next morning was garbage day, and Diana pointed out the trail of raccoon paw prints on the front deck to the children.
“Why did the raccoons come?” Lily asked. She was recovered enough to have become opportunistic, and a popsicle dripped from her hand.
“They were hoping to get leftovers from our garbage, but Daddy got the locking trash can.”
“Raccoons are naughty, but I still like them,” said Jake.
“Look,” Lily said. “Daddy’s footprints are next to the raccoon’s.” Diana looked to where her daughter pointed. Large prints covered the damp wooden deck. They trailed through the front gate and down the entry steps, circled on the landing, and returned to the street.
“Dad is on a trip for work,” Jake said. “They’re Mom’s footprints. Right, Mama?” Diana nodded, crouching to examine the prints. The pad of the print was larger than her slipper, the center toe jutting out so far that all the other toes radiated downward. There were noticeable scratches on the wood, even on the metal railing posts. Tufts of hair, wiry and brown, stuck to the damp deck in thick clumps.
Nature was unavoidable in Miwok Valley. Their neighborhood perched at the edge of an open space where labyrinthine trails cut through dense redwoods. The week before, Diana and the children found a tiny spotted fawn curled next to the planter that flanked their front door. The fawn was motionless as they crouched a few feet away, its small ribcage rising and falling in shallow breaths. Jake and Lily wanted to know where its mother was, and Diana told them it was common for does to leave their fawns in hidden places while they grazed. This struck the children as correct: there was a burrow-like safety to their house, nestled as it was below street level, accessible only by a single set of steps.
The humans must have been too close, because the fawn stood and charged on wobbly legs up the stairs toward the street, slipping a little as the children cried out in commiseration. They felt guilty for the rest of that day, thinking of the doe returning for her fawn and finding nothing.
The smell of smoke, choking and urgent, woke Diana. She swept through the sleeping house, checking the children’s bedrooms and the kitchen before stepping outside and walking up to the street. Ash floated down daintily and settled on her bathrobe and outstretched hands, the orange haloes of the streetlights bleary in the night sky. There were no visible flames—the fire was not close—but Diana felt adjacent to danger. Through the haze, she saw another person on the far end of the street, large and hunched. They took a step toward her. She pulled her robe tighter across her body and returned inside.
The source of the smoke was a wildfire two counties over, consuming thousands of dry acres with ravenous abandon. The coastal air stream brought ash and acrid air from the conflagration to Miwok Valley. School was canceled for the week. Sean, still in Minneapolis for a series of sales meetings, called to sympathize, but in the background Diana could hear glasses clinking, colleagues laughing.
The children kicked around the house, their energy soon brimming over into irritability. When Sean was gone, the days could drag, but this week was interminable. The air was a little clearer when they woke, so Diana walked the children to the park down the street. That way they could run out their energy on the playground while she ran some laps on the track. Soon enough, the children were in the throes of another unwinnable conflict, bickering and talking over one another.
“Stop,” Diana hissed at them. “Stop or there’ll be no cartoons today.” This was as much a threat for her as it was for the children. She jogged away from them, and Jake trotted next to her, still trying to tell her his version of the argument, while Lily struggled behind them. Diana stopped and grabbed Jake by the shoulders.
“You are killing me,” she said to him. “You are wearing me down to a nub. Take your sister to the playground and let me be. Just let me be for five minutes.” He made big eyes at her, and Diana was both chastened and annoyed. She put in her earphones and began running again. She could see the children from every point of the track, but she would not risk looking directly at them and exciting their attention.
As Diana rounded on her second lap, an elderly man waved theatrically at her, and she pulled out her headphones. His mouth was puckered into a prune of disapproval. Diana felt her own face pulling into a defensive mirror of his expression.
“Is that your little girl over there?” he asked, gesturing toward the playground. Lily was a furious, screaming heap, lying on the ground with legs flailing above her torso. Jake stood a suspicious distance away.
“Yes,” Diana said. “I’ll go check on her.”
“She fell over while you weren’t looking. She’s crying.”
“Thanks,” said Diana, and turned away from him.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to have children out now,” he called after her. “Too smoky.”
They watched cartoons all afternoon, and then Diana took them out for an early dinner at the Italian restaurant with the chicken fingers they liked. There was a group of women at the neighboring table, drinking cocktails and sharing appetizers. As they got up to leave, one of them stumbled and said “fuck” loudly, right next to the kids. The others laugh-shushed her. Maybe they were also moms, just moms at happy hour, but Diana felt like an animal at the zoo, watching a group of visiting seagulls depart into the open sky.
• • •
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TANYA ŽILINSKAS lives in Northern California. Her work has appeared in the Florida Review, Meetinghouse, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of San Francisco and the editor-in-chief of Invisible City. Find her at tanyazilinskas.com and on Twitter @TanyaZilinskas.