In the middle of the night he knocks on my open bedroom door, one thin rap followed by a pause. When I look up from my pillow his figure is framed against the doorway. “What’s wrong, Matty? Did you have a bad dream?” I ask. He doesn’t move, and so I throw back the sheets and get up.

       It’s hot in the house. The fires trap the July heat, the smoke insulating the city like a layer of quilt bunting. I’ve been afraid to open the windows with the poor air quality, afraid we’ll both die choking rather than burning. I pick the fabric of my nightgown from my chest where it clings to my skin and go to him. He’s warm too, his hair wet at his temples, pajamas wrinkled and damp. His sweat still smells like childhood—sweet instead of salty and dank, something like dough and wet grass, though I can’t quite name it. He holds his favorite blanket in his hand. Behind him, the hallway is oddly illuminated for this hour, the rectangles of sky visible through the skylights colored an unsettling sickly rose-brown—the halo of the fires. When my ex-husband was a graduate student we lived for a handful of years in Nebraska, and this light makes me think of the way the winter sky on the prairie always pinked before a heavy snow, the way the air could smell ominously of snow for hours before the first flake. Last night’s news report said there could be flurries of ash from the fires in the next twenty-four hours, and I imagine it will fall like that Midwestern snow—heavy and grayed, making a catastrophic mess of everybody’s car windshield and floating in wet clots on the surfaces of my neighbors’ backyard pools.

       I reach for Matty’s shoulder and he pulls away. His blue eyes are wide and he looks far younger than his five years. Far off, behind the closed windows, a siren flares and recedes, flares and recedes. A racket of wind shakes the glass of the French doors downstairs. Matty shivers.

       “Come on, sweetheart. You can sleep in here,” I say. I pull a pillow and blanket from the bed and settle them on the floor. He will not climb into the bed with me, I know this without asking. “Come on,” I say again. “Matty.” But he crosses the room to the window and slips behind the drapes, only his ankles and feet showing beneath the hem. “You want to see?” I ask him. Behind the curtain he rises onto his toes.

       For a moment I wait for him to wail, but when he doesn’t, I go to him and pull the cord so that the curtains part. Light spills into the room. Matty touches his fingertips to the glass. Below, the streetlamps are on but dulled, as they would be in daylight. The sky is the color of a muddy lake, and a helix of wind spirals the dry grass clippings that have settled in the gutter along the street so that they eddy up and around like a dust devil before dropping to stillness again.

       A day ago there was only smoke, but now the foothills are bright with visible fire. Flames in neon orange have swallowed the tops of the hills, and the charred tree line stands in spiked silhouette. A pelt of smoke rolls skyward from the blaze, thick and felted by the heat. It is impossible to tell cloud from smoke. The gray swath of it blankets the whole horizon, unfurls in woolly hanks, unravels upward and spools down the hillsides and out to the Pacific in brown flumes and rivulets. The world might be ending.

       “Moon,” Matty says. I take it as a question, though the inflection is wrong. If he speaks at all, he demands. He hasn’t picked up the cadences of English conversation yet, and I’m not sure I’m a good interpreter.

       “Moon?” I say, lifting my voice. He and I are locked in our own flawed way of communicating, or, more often than not, left to read each other’s silences.

       Speak to him in complete sentences, as if you understand him, even if you don’t, the therapist directed me at one of Matty’s early sessions. Eventually, the wires will connect.

       I point to the sky now and tap the glass. “The moon is there,” I say. “Somewhere. Behind the smoke, it’s there. You just can’t see it.”

       Matty slaps the glass with the flat of his hand, once, and then a second time, harder. The window shakes. I’m afraid he’ll put his fist through it.

       “No,” I say. “No, Matty. Come on. Back to bed. You’re so tired. Time for bed.”

       “Moon!” he yells and jerks away from me when I catch his wrist before he can hit again.

       I don’t want to argue. For just an instant I would like to be complicit instead of fighting him. But it’s nearly four a.m. and he’ll be wrecked with exhaustion in the morning. “Let’s come away now, Matty,” I say. I move to pull the curtains shut.

       “No!” he says.

       “Bed.” I touch his shoulder. He hisses. A wet splatter of saliva hits my cheek. “Matvei, now,” I say, a stone materializing in my throat. “I said bedtime.”

       He reaches forward for a handful of curtain and pulls until the rod comes loose from its fixture. It clatters to the floor and he screams—in fright or rage, it isn’t clear. I lift him and he kicks, fights to get free.

       “Matty, don’t be silly. You’ll hurt yourself,” I say as I set him down and drag him away from the dressing table and the bed. His face is red. He kicks my ankle hard enough that I actually stumble forward and crack my own shin against the bed frame.

       “Damn it, Matty,” I say.

       And suddenly my chest is nettling with anger.

       I step away—I have to—step over him raging still in the middle of the carpet. In the corner I turn to the radio on the dresser and fumble through the stations for something, anything—just another voice. I find the news. The reporter’s drone is a steady, low, monotone, and I sink to the floor and hug my knees.

       More than five thousand acres have burned, the radio reports. Residents of Goleta, Isla Vista, and Santa Barbara should prepare for power outages and possible evacuations if firefighters cannot contain the blaze.

       Matty is sobbing now, wearing down. This is his routine: rage, destruction, exhaustion. “It’s okay,” I say over the news.

       It’s nearly dawn. Behind the brown of the smoke, the sky is pearling with morning. The light comes in the bare window milky and pinked. Eventually Matty puts his cheek to the rug. Eventually he goes quiet, his eyes wide and alert, but his body still.

       “Everything is fine,” I say in a whisper. “Everything is fine now, Matty. You and I are fine.” He turns his eyes to me as I say it.

       Sometimes it seems he exists alone in the glass globe of his mind and only now and then looks out and sees me there on the other side.

       “It’s all fine, Matty,” I say to him. I say it again and again.

It was the fall of 2002 when I was first shown into the Los Angeles office of an international adoption agency. A young social worker with a thick eastern European accent I recognized from our several phone conversations sat across the desk, a stack of manila files in front of her, mine opened on the top. The walls in the narrow office were painted a cheerful yellow and tacked with photos of smiling children standing beside their adoptive parents, some taken on the front stoops of children’s homes in China and Russia and South Korea, and some taken later, in suburban backyards and living rooms. There were several Christmas photos: a mother, father, and three children all dressed in red sweaters and seated, arms around each other’s shoulders, on an overstuffed couch; a collage of photos of the same dark-haired child doing things like sitting on a plastic sled, cutting out cookies from dough, licking a candy cane. In another picture, a little girl grinned from her seat on the lap of an American shopping mall Santa. The children all looked well fed, happy, clean, adjusted. If I received one of these cards in the mail, I thought, I would never guess at an infancy spent in foster care or an orphanage across the world, and this recognition buoyed me.

       The social worker, Kat, a petite mousy-haired woman, recited my profile aloud, her English stiff and impeccable, stating each fact of my biography, asking me questions. “Yes,” I said again and again, confirming what I had typed into my computer at home in Santa Barbara: I was 42 and divorced; I had no living children; I was a grant writer for the University of California, though I would take a leave of absence when I brought my son or daughter home. I had planned for this, I said to her. I had waited and waited, and now I was ready. More than ready. It doesn’t get more ready than this, I said. And, yes, I knew I’d be a single mother—an “older” single mother, though it pained me a little to describe myself in that way, because I didn’t feel old and I wasn’t sure any more that single mattered. I was ready for this. Had I made that part clear enough? This was my third go at the adoption process. I was open to a child of any age, nationality, or race. A child with disabilities or special needs. Fine. I was ready. I am someone’s mother, I said.

       Kat’s face brightened. “You wrote that here, too, in your file: I am someone’s mother,” she said and looked up. “You wrote that, yes?”

       “I’ve been waiting a long time for a child.”

       Kat reached across her desk to squeeze my hand. “Your child has been waiting for you, too, Nina.” She patted my hand and I nodded. Kat whisked a tissue from the box on the desk to hand me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s an emotional time.” She turned back to the file and signed her name in tight, perfect cursive on the line at the bottom of the page, approving me for the next step in the process.

       I drove home to Santa Barbara to wait again.

       Then, in mid-winter, a phone call. “Thank you so, so much,” I heard myself say into the phone, too eager maybe, when the man on the other end gave me a date and a time for a home study. I bought a child’s bed and a set of twin sheets printed with red and yellow and blue stars, a red bureau and a nightlight. I made a trip to the bookstore and brought home enough children’s books to fill two emptied shelves. I fit child safety locks on the cabinets in the kitchen and stuck bright orange foam corners to the angles of the glass coffee table. Even with these changes, I couldn’t seem to evict the feeling of solitude in the house. The house was too quiet. Too still. For several days I lived around the solitude, trying to pay attention to it, as if it were a feral cat I’d only inadvertently let in and might still tame.

       Finally the social worker arrived—not Kat, but a young man with a slow, California drawl, and he was an hour late. I showed him the kitchen, the baby-proofed front room. “Given your file, your child will probably be older,” he said. “Not an infant.” He gave me a sympathetic look and nodded at the foam corners.

       I shrugged. “I might keep them anyway. The orange adds a decorative touch, don’t you think?” He smiled. Perhaps humor could make up for my other faults.

       I took him upstairs and he marveled at the view of the city and the foothills from my bedroom window—all of Santa Barbara spread out, the green florets of the treetops and the orange tiles of the roofs. Downstairs again, he told me he’d kill for a backyard with fruit trees and a patio like mine. He hugged me when he left, and I couldn’t help but feel that was a good sign, an A+ in the way of home inspection grades. “You seem really genuine,” he said at the door. “Really authentic. I’m putting that in my report.” He squeezed my forearm.

       In a week a letter arrived: the house was approved. I was approved. More waiting.

       It was March when the next letter arrived: they’d found a child. His name was Matvei—Matty—and he was four years old, though his exact birthday wasn’t known. He had blue eyes and blond hair, a speech delay and a possible attachment disorder, though these diagnoses were often incorrect, based on temporary behaviors that stemmed from the unsettled circumstances that had brought the child to the adoption process rather than from actual disabilities. The child’s personality and needs were always clearer after the first year in the new home, once routine had been established and life was secure.

       Fine, I thought and quickly revised my vision of my child—I would have a little boy. A little boy. A little boy.

       Matty was born in Podolsk, an industrial city not far from Moscow, and had been in the system for two years. There was no information on his life before the orphanage in the paperwork I’d received.

       “What happened to his mother?” I asked Kat over the phone one evening. I’d called several times already with questions—so many that she had given me her cell phone number. “Is she still living?” I asked. “Why couldn’t she keep him?”

       “I’m sorry,” Kat said, simply. “There’s nothing. He was left at a church. That’s all.”

       I crossed the globe on the fifteenth of March.

       Children’s House Number 57 was a large, square, white building on the outskirts of Moscow. It was raining when I arrived, and I dashed up the concrete walk and stood on the stoop under an overhanging roof, rang the bell, and spoke into an intercom. There was some confusion at first, and I repeated Nривет! loudly into the receiver several times, as if volume were the issue, while from inside a woman’s voice answered me in incomprehensible but clearly frustrated Russian; in a moment a second voice beamed through the speaker, telling me in English to wait.

       I was shown in to playroom at the back of the house—a large, open room, stocked with a few child-sized tables and chairs. There were bins of toys on the floor. Some children sat cross-legged on a blue carpet in one corner playing board games, and another girl drew alone at a table. The walls were hung with the children’s finger paintings and schoolwork, but the room smelled of disinfectant and stale food, and I was reminded that this was an institution—that just upstairs there was a long corridor-like room lined with identical, white-sheeted beds and a lavatory with a trough-sink and a row of stalls. “Hello,” I tried with the little girl at the table. “Nривет.” She looked up from her paper, registered my smile, and turned away.

       A different woman—an attendant, it seemed, as she was dressed in cotton pants and a loose shirt with a swipe of what looked like finger paint across one shoulder—appeared at the doorway gripping the wrist of a small boy: Matty. I recognized him with a physical pang, a stinging charge in my chest that almost made me gasp, it was so unexpected. Joy, I thought, and, I admitted to myself, relief. He was really here. He was coming home with me. Finally.

       The attendant urged the boy forward, and he shuffled in my direction but did not meet my eyes.

       “Hello,” I said.

       He was smaller than I expected, both shorter and thinner, and he looked younger than my vision of a preschool-aged child. I tried not to jump to assumptions about his health. He’d been well fed and well looked after, had passed all of the routine physicals with a clean bill of health; I’d been assured of all of this a number of times. Still, I had a package of M&Ms in my purse that I’d offer him the moment we left the House.

       He was dressed in a blue sweatshirt with a picture of Donald Duck on the chest, a pair of canvas shorts, and brown oxford shoes, scuffed across the toes. His legs were skinny, his knees knobby. There was a bruise on his left shin and a Band-Aid on that knee; the woman in the t-shirt said he had slipped while playing. He looked at the social worker and touched the knee. He had sandy hair and large eyes, and his skin was so thin that the blue veins laced beneath it were visible on the surface of his forehead. “Isn’t it a little cold for shorts?” I asked. I had a pair of sweats for him in my luggage, in case of an accident on the plane, but nothing with me just then.

       “He insists. This is what he likes,” the woman said with a shrug.

       I wasn’t sure if I should shake his hand or hug him. I put out both arms, offering the hug. “I’m Nina,” I said. This was in line with Kat’s advice: Don’t expect him to call you mother right away. He may remember his birth mother. He may need time to warm to you.

       He stepped back. The woman tsked, leaning over and whispering to him, but he wouldn’t be moved.

       “He’ll warm up,” I said.

       “The children are often shy at first,” the social worker assured me.

       “It’s fine,” I said. “I know.”

       Matvei was holding a dust-colored shoebox, the lid taped down.

       “What’s in the box?” I asked.

       “He will leave that here,” the woman said.

       He looked at her and pulled the box closer, tucking it under one arm. At this, the social worker told him something, and he narrowed his eyes, said a single, hard word. “No. Not on the plane,” the social worker said in English, for my benefit.

       “He can keep what’s in it,” I said. “Tell him he can keep what’s in it.” I unzipped my purse. “Here, he can put it in here.” I stepped forward and got down on my knees. “Can I have this?” I asked him. He let me slide the box from his grasp and raise the lid. Inside: a pink-flecked rock, an empty film canister, a plastic spider ring. I dropped the rock and canister in my purse and slid the spider ring on his finger. “For safe keeping,” I said.

       Outside again, the mid-winter sky was the color of cooked oatmeal, the ground frozen, the lawn patchy and drained of color. The icy puddles beneath the swings in the play area reflected white flashes of sky between the mounds of stiff mud that rose from the water’s surface. I had paid my taxi driver to wait in the drive, and we got in, Matty and I, and he looked out the window, the expression on his face unchanged, as we drove away.

       We had time to kill in the airport. I scheduled an overnight flight thinking Matty would sleep, but it was all too much and he wouldn’t close his eyes. He ate the last of the bag of M&Ms and then his bag of airline pretzels and mine. He wolfed down the in-flight dinner. A flight attendant brought him a cup of ginger ale and he licked his lips after every sip. Finally full, he reclined his seat and occupied himself with pushing the radio buttons on the seat’s armrest.

       There was nothing but black on the other side of the window. Black, black sky. Black, black sea. Ocean indistinguishable from sky. Now and then the light at the tip of the plane’s wing caught a swift of cloud and illuminated it blue-green and ghostly, floating in the midst of the darkness below. “See the clouds?” I said to Matty. His eyes had begun to look glassy with fatigue. “They’re nothing but water, you know,” I said. “Well, ice, really, this high up. Billions of ice crystals and particulate matter. Dust and salt and things like that. Chemicals that have risen into the air.” As I spoke, he kept his eyes on the window, and I chose to see this as some level of interest in what I was telling him, or just an attention to the sound of my voice—a start, at least, to communicating. I had read that when a baby is born, he emerges recognizing his mother’s voice. The plane’s wing caught another fibrous thread of cloud. “Beautiful, right?” I said and smiled. He turned his face to mine and studied me, then let out the smallest of sighs, leaned his head against the tiny airplane pillow, and closed his eyes. In five minutes he was asleep. I requested a blanket and unfolded it over his legs—my first go at tucking him in for the night.

       It could have been a dream, the plane ride. Time was as hard to measure from my seat beside him as it is when one drifts in and out of sleep, though I didn’t doze; I was wide awake, more awake than I’d ever been, I thought. I had the sensation of time stilled and polished, the minutes like beads of air suspended in glass, lovely and impossible accidents. The only sound was the low humming of the plane’s engine and the quiet rushing of air from the circular vent above my head. Silvered droplets of condensation formed between the panels of window glass and vibrated, and for a moment it was as if the whole plane had gone underwater and we were submerged far below the surface of the ocean, the darkness outside pressing at the sides of the plane with the full weight of seawater, and not the airless compression of high altitude atmosphere. I am happy, I told myself. We two are going to be fine.

       Beside me, Matvei slept with his mouth open, his breath stale when I put my face close to his. He had tiny freckles on his cheeks. His eyelashes were red-brown. I watched him for what must have been an hour, two, and when he seemed well into a deep sleep, I put my hand on his knee, just gently. He jerked awake, his eyes wide and immediately on mine, his stare terrified. It was the look he’d give a stranger. He curled away from me. “I’m sorry,” I said. In a moment he was asleep again, his breath steady once more.

       Near dawn the sky went lavender and then blue, and then, like a basin draining, empty white. I craned over Matvei to see outside. The flight attendant brought me a cup of coffee. Just as the light outside yellowed with sunrise, the brown rim of the continent I was bringing him home to appeared, far away and small below us.

Once Matty falls asleep I shut off the radio and climb onto a chair to replace the curtain rod in its fixture. The room is quiet. This, again, reminds me of snow, of waking too early to an unnatural silence. The smell of smoke, like burned newspapers, is fingering in below the crack between the window and the sash, and there is a white film of fire dust, too fine to call ash, along the ledge outside. There’s nothing to be done, though, so I settle the rod in the brace and let the curtains fall before tottering off the chair and scooping Matty from the floor into my arms. This is the only time he’ll allow himself to be held, when he is sleeping. I carry him down the hall to his bedroom and sit on the edge of his bed, rocking him, smelling his good sleepy smell. I put my nose to his hair, which smells like the tear-free baby soap I still use in his baths, and then ease him onto his pillow and pull the quilt up over his knees.

       It is too late to go back to sleep myself, so I shower and make coffee and sit in front of the TV. The news is fixed on the fire. The governor has declared a state of emergency. Nearly six thousand acres of the National Forest just north of the city have burned now, the winds speeding the fire’s growth. A still “before” image flashes onto the screen: a pristine hillside, green with sugar pines and bay laurel and chaparral. Now, the reporter says, his voice stiffly sober as he meets the camera’s eye, all that’s gone. The grand houses that once graced the ridges of these foothills are all just foundations in the wake of this devastating blaze. I put the TV on mute. Video shot yesterday runs, and the reporter’s dialogue appears in white lettering at the bottom of my screen. People lug suitcases and duffel bags to their cars, strap boxes of hastily packed photo albums and treasured family keepsakes onto the roofs of their SUVs. Now the Santa Anas have picked up, and there is concern about keeping the fire from spreading deeper into the hills and canyons. Volunteers have dug a ten-foot wide trench around the perimeter of the old mission. A video feed shows a crew of uniformed men using garden hoses to wet the landscaping on the UC campus. I recognize the entrance of the library, a corner of the grounds where, when I'm working, I often take my lunch.

       I must doze off, because it is nearly nine when I look up again. A ticker is scrolling across the bottom of the screen: extremely dangerous air quality, evacuations mandatory for the neighborhoods east of the city center now. I consider leaving. Not evacuating with Matty might elicit another home visit, might jeopardize things. He’s not officially a citizen yet, and this first year is a sort of probation. I imagine Kat calling, apology in her voice. But this is irrational, I know, and, beyond that, it seems impossible that the fire will cross the city. Impossible. How long has the mission stood? And if I left, where would I go? I have no retired parents in Tahoe or San Diego, ready to welcome me and my son and his “possible attachment disorder” into their home for who knows how long; no best friend just down the highway. No, we’ll stay. The disruption of leaving would unsettle Matty anyhow.

       I shut off the TV and listen for him upstairs. Some days he wakes happy, pleasant, trudges down the stairs carrying his blanket, his hair still mussed from his sleep and his eyes somehow even wider than usual as he rubs them awake. But other mornings are a fight from the start, and today he will be tired and prone to a poor temper. Upstairs a bedroom door closes. The toilet in the bathroom flushes. I wait, wondering what in the world he could be doing, but then, just as I’m about to head up to find him, he is at the foot of the stairs.

       “Breakfast?” I ask. I try to hold a bright and cheerful note in my voice, smile at him, and motion toward the kitchen. “Let’s see,” I say. The therapist has also recommended speaking my thoughts aloud. Not all of them, of course. Certainly not all of them. I’m to narrate, rather. Here I go, making the toast. Isn’t toast lovely? Doesn’t everyone feel better with a piece of toast for breakfast? Yum! Toast!—that sort of thing. It’s a way to surround Matty with language, the hope being that he will absorb words the way a sponge absorbs water. As I pour cereal and talk about pouring cereal, I try to imagine a lake swelling somewhere in him, the sound of my voice burbling up from its depths and sending rings out across the surface of Matty’s consciousness. “Today is Tuesday,” I say. “What do we do on Tuesdays?” I think. I hand him his bowl and spoon. “Swimming, yes? Today is swimming day, Matty. Did you remember that?”

       I let him have a cartoon and eat at the coffee table. He still holds his spoon with an ape-like grip. He eats in fits and starts, shoveling it in during commercials, then sitting completely still, his mouth ajar, when Curious George reappears on the screen. I am relieved when he gets up after the show ends and follows me upstairs without hesitating, when he lets me help him into his swim trunks and t-shirt without trying to wrest away from me. Outside a few minutes later, he gets into the car without fussing as well, and as a reward I play a CD of nursery rhymes as we drive, though I’m not entirely sure he understands reward, nor that he cares for the CD; he’s never exactly shown pleasure when listening to it, but neither has he complained. I glance at him every few seconds in the rearview mirror. “Should we sing along?” I ask—the song is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—but he is straight-faced, his eyes on the window, his hands in fists on his lap.

       The sky is the color of creamed coffee, a dirty, orange aura over the downtown buildings in the direction of the fires, and the wind is hot and fiercer than usual and smells not like seawater, but crisp and violent, like burned fur, perhaps, or hair.

       At the YMCA the lot is empty, and for the first time it occurs to me that I should have called about lessons. But we’re here now, so I get Matty out of his seat. My hair whips about my face and lashes me in the eyes. “Hold your breath,” I say to Matty, putting my own hand over my mouth and nose to show him. Matty grins, finally, and I laugh. “Do I look funny?” I puff out my cheeks with a held breath, shake my head in the wind. “Does my hair look crazy now?” He reaches up as if he could grab a leash of wind like the string on a kite and quick-steps toward the door. A gush of reassuring calm wells up in my center at this show of emotion from him. It’s the fire, the strangeness of the day, cracking everything open. Overhead, the fringed tops of the palm trees that line the Y’s lot toss and rustle, and the flag on the pole near the gym’s entrance snaps and billows, snaps and billows.

       When we reach the glass front door, though, it is locked. I shake the handle. The lights are on inside, a woman in a red polo shirt sitting at the reception desk. The woman looks up, shakes her head and wags a pen in our direction.

       “No,” I say. “Oh no. We came all the way down here.” I rattle the handle again and the woman gets up, a look of clear irritation on her face, and comes to the door.

       “Ma’am, we’re closed today,” she says when she unlocks and opens the door. “No lessons, due to the evacuation.”

       Matty tugs my hand, flails around, impatient. “Stop, please, Matt,” I say to him. “We’re near the parking lot. Be still, please.” I hold his hand firm. He’s ready to slip away, dart into the lot and then the street.

       “Sorry,” the woman says. But just then, behind her, Matty’s swim teacher walks into the lobby.

       “But he’s here,” I say, pointing to the teacher.

       The man, a boy himself, really—Ben—looks up. He’s lanky, baby-faced. He has an irksome habit of showing up ten or fifteen minutes late for class, and then letting the kids spend more time blowing bubbles than actually learning to dog paddle, but here he is, and he waves at Matty. “Hey, little guy,” he says.

       “There are no lessons today?” I ask him over the woman’s head. “Please,” I say. “You’re here already, Ben. Can’t he just go in for ten minutes?”

       The woman at the door rolls her eyes, looks back to Ben. They seem to be negotiating something, but Ben shrugs. “Sure,” he says. “There’s no lifeguard on duty today though.”

       “I can lifeguard,” I say as I release Matty, who slips beneath the woman’s arm and gallops into the lobby. “Thank you, thank you,” I say. “I promise I’ll jump in if I have to, clothes and all.”

       The woman steps aside. “Ten minutes,” she says, giving me a look, and she locks the door again at our backs.

       Inside, the natatorium is calm without the other children, the water lapping rhythmically at the tile walls of the pool and the light coming in warm through the frosted glass ceiling, the air soft with it and with the mist of chlorine fizzing off the water’s aqua surface. I keep Matty on the bleachers while we wait for Ben to emerge from the locker room. Usually the children all sit lined up along the lip of the pool, but I know better than to trust Matty there. Three weeks ago he suddenly swung out an arm and hit the boy next to him, then dove forward into the pool so unexpectedly that the lifeguard actually did jump into the water. He had Matty in his arms within seconds, no catastrophe, but it was awful all the same. “I’m so sorry,” I said afterward, when he handed Matty out to me sputtering. “I’m so sorry.” I was apologizing for Matty—and for myself. I had done nothing; I had not jumped in after my son. I had merely stood from my seat on the third bleacher and watched the whole spectacle unfold. “He knows better,” I said to the lifeguard, to the others at the pool. I heard the blame in my voice. I could feel the other mothers’ stares on my back. In the pool, their children had all stopped swimming and looked on, suspended in the water, clutching their foam boards. “He’s still adjusting to everything. Sometimes it’s a little difficult.” I wrapped Matty in a towel and carried him out. He was screaming then, wanting to get back into the water, not sure why he couldn’t swim as usual. I put him into the car seat wet, wanting only to get out of the lot as quickly as possible. Later, I contemplated forgetting about swimming lessons altogether, never mind the tuition I’d already paid. I imagined the other parents’ relief if we dropped out. But Matty needed the lessons. That was the bottom line. Matty needed to be around their children, if only for half an hour once a week.

       “Hey, guy!” Ben hollers now from the center of the pool as I find a foam buoy belt from a pile on the floor, knot the belt’s narrow rope around Matty’s middle, and lead him to the water’s edge. “Come on in!” Ben has tossed out a bucketful of plastic bath toys—rubber duckies in green and yellow, a blue boat and a green octopus—for Matty to paddle toward, but Matty sits on the tiled lip of the pool.

       “You only have ten minutes, Matty,” I say, though even as I say it I know ten minutes might just as well be an hour or a year to Matty, the concept of time, like so much else, still too slippery and vague for him to grasp.

       “Come get this duck, Matty,” Ben calls, squeaking the duck in Matty’s direction. Eventually Matty lowers himself into the pool, but instead of swimming to Ben, he turns his back and motors himself around in small circles, singing something under his breath.

       “What’s he saying?” Ben asks.

       “A song,” I say. “In Russian. I don’t know it.”

       Across the water, Ben starts singing the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Matty stops his own song and watches him.

       “Go on, Matty,” I say again.

       “It’s okay. He’ll come.”

       I throw Ben a grateful look. He continues squeaking the toys and tut-tuttering the plastic boat back and forth with emphatic motoring, clowning and splashing to get Matty’s attention. Still Matty putters in the shallow end, looking at his fingers below the water’s surface, tilting forward and backward to wet his face and then his hair. I strain to register the expression on his face. Is it curiosity or timidity or ambivalence? I ought to be able to read him by now.

       After twenty minutes, I stand. “Thank you,” I say to Ben. “I guess he isn’t going to really swim today.”

       “Hey. No big deal. I was here anyway.” Ben dips beneath the water and swims in a fast crawl toward the wall, where he hoists himself out.

       “Really, I’m sorry,” I say as he shakes his head. “You went to extra trouble for him. I appreciate that.”

       “It’s fine.” Ben ruffles the water from his hair. There’s a tattoo of a red cross and the word Lifeguard in script across his bicep that somehow makes him seem even more adolescent than his young face. At the start of the swim class he reported that he had just graduated from the university in December. In another world, he could be my son. I’m old enough.

       “I should get changed,” Ben says. “They’re closing shop for real here by noon.” He holds the locker room door for us and I coax Matty from the pool, then unlace the knots binding his buoy to his waist. He fidgets and fusses as I work, and quiets only at the promise of a soda from the hallway vending machine.

       “See ya, Matt,” Ben says as we leave, and Matty doesn’t even raise his head.

       In the lobby, I stuff change into the vending machine and hand Matty a can of grape soda. “Wait,” I say, and holding his wrist. “Don’t shake it.” He is still wet, shuffling in a pair of flip-flop sandals and leaving puddles behind on the tile floor. The woman at the counter chuffs her irritation as I tug Matty past the reception desk and push open the front door again.

       “Have a lovely day!” I say to her as we go and the door slams shut behind me.

       When I get in the car I let the engine idle, the inane song about a yodeling ostrich running loudly on the CD player and Matty sucking at the mouth of the soda can in the backseat. I hear again my own voice telling the therapist that I’m a bundle of nerves these days. But it is less nervousness than uncertainty, I think now, or maybe anger. Yes, I wanted to say to the woman at the reception desk as we passed her, this is actually the best I can do.

       I turn around to look at Matty. “Did you have fun?” His mouth is stained purple from the soda and his eyes meet mine briefly before he looks away.

At home, we eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches at the coffee table together, both of us on our knees, Matty hunched forward over his glass of milk, blowing a foam of white bubbles into his cup. The TV is on again, and there are more images of the fires, the field-reporter’s voice backed by the cellophane static of the burning. The city is evacuating the hospital, the university, a number of residential districts, all of them downtown now. Several familiar neighborhood names scroll along the bottom of the screen in a red box. I stand and clear the plates and shut off the TV.

        “You need a bath,” I say to Matty. “That pool is full of chlorine; your skin will itch.”

       Upstairs, I wait outside the bathroom door while he uses the toilet—a privacy he insists on and I respect, though he seems too young to be left alone in the bathroom. I picture him eating the toothpaste, climbing onto the counter and pulling from the medicine chest the Bic razor I use on my legs, clogging the toilet with an entire unspooled roll of toilet paper. None of these things has actually happened, but I find it easier and easier to envision disaster. “Are you okay?” I ask, my hand on the doorknob, my ear close to the door. The toilet flushes; water runs in the sink. When I open the door he is drying his hands and everything is in order; he scowls up at me.

       I pull back the shower curtain, start the water, and am bent over the tub testing the temperature when the phone rings. “Come on,” I say to Matty, as I turn off the water, then shepherd him down the hallway to the bedroom. I catch it on the last ring; it’s my office secretary calling from campus.

       “I’m not interrupting you, am I? How’s that baby of yours?”

       “Hello, Martha,” I say. “Was there a reason you called?”

       “They’re evacuating campus, you know, but I’m still here for a little while if you want to come by for your things. Whatever you want to be sure is spared, that is.”

       I picture first my own office—a blank square of a space with a standard issue desk and a potted cactus probably long since browned on the window sill—and then Martha, the stout, bob-headed office secretary, a woman in her late sixties, whose own desk is a clutter of paperwork and trinkets and framed 5 x 7 photographs that must be decades old.

       “You heard they’re evacuating us, didn’t you?” Martha says.

       “I saw that. It’s too bad.” At my side, Matty has flung off the towel and is spinning circles, his arms wide and his head tipped up toward the ceiling. He laughs as he spins.

       “I just wanted you to hear, in case you missed it. I know you’re supposed to be on leave this term, but you might have things in the office you’d want to come get, in case—you know.”

       “I’m right in the middle of something here. I don’t think I’ll make it in, but I’m sure nothing will happen.”

       “You’re sure? I think you ought to come.”

       Matty stops mid-spin and stumbles forward, falls. He sprawls on the floor, his body a star, his eyes closed and the Russian words of another song familiar only to him playing on his lips. “Martha, it’s thoughtful of you to call, but it’s Matty’s naptime, and I try to adhere to that.”

       “Oh, yes. How important that nap is!” she laughs. “You know, though, I could stop by later. If you tell me what you want, I could bring it to you so you don’t have to interrupt his schedule.” She pauses.

       “Fine,” I say. “I’ll try to get there.”

       “Super. I’ll wait then. And I have something for your little one.”

       “Shit,” I say as I hang up, and then: “You didn’t hear that, Matty.” I get him dressed again. “We’ll do the bath later,” I tell him when he begins to fight. I raise my voice a cheerful octave and grin widely to stir him toward cooperation. “It’s backwards day! How fun is that?” I load him into the car with a juice box and his blanket, and he goes silent as the car begins to move, his eyes on the window as he takes greedy gulps of the apple juice.

       We drive the side streets, meandering. I will him to drift off, figuring it will mean he’ll be drowsy when I stop at the office, and so less likely to run wild. Downtown, the shops and restaurants have closed and the sidewalks are bare. The reflection in the black glass of the bank building’s mirrored windows is oddly still, and the grocery store parking lot all but empty.

       “Isn’t this strange?” I say to Matty. His eyes haven’t drifted from the window and he seems to be listening.

       On the next block, in front of a row of white stucco apartment buildings, a little girl not much older than Matty stands on her front stoop watching the spray of an opened fire hydrant across the street, the water frothing white from the spigot and flooding an oily pool across the pavement. “Look, Matty,” I say, and he shifts his gaze. The girl watches us pass, raising her hand in a slow wave, as I drive away.

       Above, the sky is low and mottled with the smoke and soot. A few flakes of white ash as fine as snow flutter against the windshield. I turn one corner and the next, and then am as far west as I can go: the beach. I move the car down the wide avenue along the waterfront and find the flat span of the Pacific gray-blue as always, but the high-tide waves rolling up to a weirdly deserted stretch of sand. “Matty,” I say, and arch to look at him over my shoulder, to point out the white lifeguard towers he likes, but he has fallen asleep, his head lolling against one shoulder, his mouth open and his cheeks flushed with the heat of the car, the juice box tipped in his lap and spilling a dark stain on the leg of his shorts.

       I pull over and park facing the water, pick up the juice, and turn on the air conditioner. He can sleep. We won’t make it to school and it doesn’t matter.

       Ahead, the waves of the tide roll in even intervals. When we first moved to California, my ex-husband and I used to like to drive down and sit looking out at the water here when a storm was coming in from the Pacific, the storm visible from miles off, a dark gray swath of sky moving steadily toward the coast, a veil that was really rain hanging between the crest of the sky and the lip of the horizon. Now and then, there might be a flash of lightning, a bright ribbon reaching from cloud to sea, but at such a distance even that was drained of any threat and seemed merely beautiful.

       Today, though, I can see nothing but smoke for miles out over the water, as if a ceiling has folded over the sea.

       Ash collects on the windshield as I sit, the flakes papery and lacking the fine detail of snowflakes. Eventually I turn on the wipers and they whisk across the glass in sweeps, scattering the ash a little out of view.

There’s a car in the drive when I pull back up to the house, and it isn’t until I’m parked and opening the door that I recognize Martha sitting on the front step.

       She stands as I unbuckle Matty. He is sweaty with sleeping, his shorts wet with the juice mess, and he fusses when I lift him from his seat, then blinks and wipes his eyes and fights to be released as I carry him to the step.

       “This must be your boy,” Martha says. She reaches out as if to hug him and I stop her.

       “He’s just been sleeping,” I say. “He doesn’t wake up in a good mood.”

       “Who does, right, honey?” She bends, crouching forward to meet him at eye-level. “I have a present for you.” She reaches into her purse and holds out a lollipop. “Can he have it, Mom? I had knitted you a baby cap when I thought you would come to us a tiny thing, but that wouldn’t do for a big boy like you, would it? A sucker is a better treat.”

       I take the candy and unwrap it, give it to him. “Say thank you, Matt,” I say, but the lollipop is already in his mouth, and he says nothing. “His English,” I apologize.

       Martha nods. She seems oblivious to my embarrassment, to Matty’s whining, and she clucks at him just as she would an infant, telling me that he has beautiful eyes, telling him that he’s lucky to have freckles. “They mean good luck, you know,” she says. She turns to me. “I was just sitting here in your driveway thinking, ‘How long should I wait for her?’ And then here you were. I’m so glad I caught you.”

       At the end of my arm, Matty pulls to be let free of her. His mouth and chin are shiny with the green sheen of the lollipop’s sugar.

       Martha nudges a white box at her feet. “I brought what I thought you’d want, if you were me.”

       I unlock the front door and Matty wrenches himself free of my grip and slips into the house. “Shoes, Matty!” I call, but he’s gone. I drop my purse just inside the door.

       The breeze has picked up and my eyes burn with the smoke it carries. The sound of it rustling the blanched tufts of ornamental grass in the garden is like an insect chatter, and from above there is the dry, sifting sound of the flat coins of the eucalyptus leaves shifting against one another and against the texture of the breeze—because there is a texture to the air now, sooty as it is and clouded with the particulate dust of the fires. Looking through it is not unlike opening one’s eyes underwater and trying to see clearly through the water’s diaphanous haze.

       “It was unnecessary of you to go out of your way like this,” I say.

       “I know,” Martha says. She has soft eyes and graying hair. She smiles. “You never brought the little boy by to see us, you know. We were all so hoping you would.”

       I apologize. “I will,” I say.

       “You’re both doing well, though?”

       “To be honest, I really can’t— I just haven’t been able to do anything extra.” My face warms.

       “Oh, honey,” Martha says. “I do remember how that feels. I had three children, all of them little at once, barely a year between each of them. Like stair steps, I had them. Two boys and a girl. And they’ve given me six grandchildren. My daughter’s working in Texas now. They lived with me for a few months last year, she and her three girls—maybe you remember. I brought the girls by a few times.” She waits for a sign of my recognition and I nod, though I don’t remember any children coming by. “But my daughter found a job.”

       “Good for her,” I say. “I’m sure you’re enjoying a quiet house again.” I pick up the box and balance it against my hip.

       “I never minded the children’s noise,” she says. “I was happy for having them around. To tell you the truth, I think they’d have been better off staying with me.”

       I shift the box. “I’m sure your daughter appreciated having someone to help her out.”

       “Yes, well.” She shakes her head. “It never is easy, is it?”

       A gust chatters against the door and the wind chimes clang on the back porch.

        “I’ve taken enough of your time,” Martha says. “You have packing to do, I’m sure.”

       “We’re staying, actually. It’d be too much to try to evacuate now, with Matty. And, really, where would I go? Who would want us?” I laugh as if this is a joke. “We’ll wait it out. We’ll be fine.” I open the door again, hold the knob in my hand.

       “Well, consider it,” Martha says. She leans forward and kisses my cheek. “It’s important to think of someplace you can take that sweet boy for safe keeping if things get worse.”

       She hugs me and I watch through the window as she leaves.

       The sky has turned a burnished copper and the clouds of smoke over the hills roil, veined now in the near-dusk with bright threads—streams of dust still burning as they rise. There is the distant ticking of helicopters, and now and then one appears through the smoke, a tiny red and black spot in the sky, trailing a red plume of fire retardant. The words of the childhood nursery rhyme from Matty’s CD play in my head: Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children will burn.

       I set down the box and lock the front door. “Matty?” I call. It is strangely quiet. “Matty? I’m sorry that took so long. Where are you?”

       I climb the stairs and move through the upstairs of the house, calling his name. “Come on now, Matt. Come out.” In his room, I lift the bedspread and crouch down to look in the space below the bed. I open the closet doors, lift the lid on the laundry hamper. “Peek-a-boo,” I say. “Matty?” No answer. “This isn’t funny anymore, Matt. Come out now.”

       Remembering suddenly the full bathtub, I rush down the hallway. But behind the bathroom door the tub is undisturbed, the water silvered and still.

       I take the stairs two at a time now. He is not in the kitchen. Not behind the couch in the living room. Not beneath the table. “Matt!” I call. Not tucked into the coat closet or curled behind a cupboard door. “Matty!” I scream his name. He turned the TV on before disappearing, apparently, and the calliope music of a cartoon tinkles quietly from the set.

       This is it, I say to myself. My disaster, the loose end I’ve been waiting for. This is what I knew would happen. He’s done something impetuous and I’ve lost him. I imagine him down the street or over the fence and already submerged beneath the surface of the neighbors’ pool. My heart bangs against my ribs.

       But in that second I spot him: a flash of movement beyond the back window. He is there—impossibly—past the child-lock and out the bolted French doors, standing precariously on top of the patio table, his face turned skyward.

       I rush to him. “You scared me!” I say as I grab him and pull him toward me. I can feel the rise and fall of his chest against mine, my own panicked heartbeat tripping wildly and his, startled, doing the same. We are full of the adrenaline of crisis. But this is not a crisis—not even nearly an accident. Nothing has gone wrong. The patio is enclosed and completely safe. There is just the wind and the smoke, the motes of ash floating around us and the quiet gulp-and-swallow of water against the mouth of the pool filter next door. “You scared me,” I say again. “I love you and I’m so angry with you right now, Matt. Can you understand that? Can you understand me, Matty?”

       He says nothing. I pull him in again, hug him, and perhaps because I have frightened him he doesn’t push me away.

       “Moon?” he asks when I let go, his inflection perfect this time, a clear question. He points at the sky—not an apology for slipping out of the house, but maybe an explanation. The layer of cloud is as opaque and monochrome as the ocean during a storm, and there, in a break between rafts, is the sun, a clot of thick yellow color just above the ridgeline of the mountains, bright and perfectly round—a yolk with a fuzzy aureole of paler, pinkened light circling it.

       Looking so directly at the sun, I have the disorienting feeling of waking up after a long nap and finding the day gone and evening already advancing across the sky, like time has collapsed on itself or moved too quickly and then stopped. I think again of those Nebraska winters, the unsettled, lonely light coming through the folds of the roman blinds in the bedroom windows, so that it might have been either dawn or dusk—too hard to tell—and then getting up and going to the window, raising the shade, and finding the yard and the neighborhood blanketed, changed. Both familiar and not.

       “No,” I say to Matty. “Not the moon.” I look up, raising my hand unnecessarily to my forehead so that a triangle of darkness shades my vision. In this instant I make a decision: we will leave. We have to. Even if I can’t think now where to go, I need to protect him.

       I touch his hair. “Not the moon,” I say again, “the sun.”

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of two collections of short fiction, This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming With Strangers. She has been the recipient of a PEN/O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers Conference and the MacDowell Colony. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and is online at

Back to Freight Stories No. 8


Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum