It is the calm in the aftermath of chaos that brings the tears. That and a child’s toy car, a Hot Wheels car. It’s color completely gone. It could have been red or blue, maybe even purple with orange fire trails along its sides, but now it is charred and blackened like everything else in the neighborhood. The smell of smoke lingers in the air. Perhaps, even more so, the smell is still thick in her nostrils. Three days have passed since the flames were snuffed from the mountainside, smothered by the pink, fire-retardant chemicals that firefighters dumped from above in their helicopters. Sky Jell-O is what they called the special chemical. She calls it a miracle.
She drives through the desolate neighborhood in her mail truck. The same mail truck she’s driven on this same street for the past five years. Most days nothing changes. Today nothing is the same. It seems pointless to return to the normal routine. There are no structures on Redondo Drive anymore. Everything is gone. Scorched to the foundations. Only remnants of things left behind in the rush to get to safety. Oh, and there’s the mailboxes, of course. The reason she’s here today.
Lucky. That’s what she’s been told she and her husband and two teenage children are. Very, very lucky. A week ago, in a neighborhood just a mile away, she fell asleep early in the evening. Her children, who usually would have been out with friends, decided to stay home. Her husband, came home early from a poker night with work buddies because he’d lost the first two hands and ran out of playing money. At eleven o’clock that night her little family had been asleep and tucked in their beds when the yelling and knocking startled her awake.
“Get out!” The voices were muffled, but sounded like her neighbors to the left. “Are you home?”
She jumped out of bed and ran to the window. In the distance, she saw the night sky on fire. By this time Jack, her husband of twenty years who slept through anything and everything, was on his feet. The neighbors at the door were louder now. They made their way into her home. “The fire crossed over the hillside,” they said. “The winds changed direction.”
She grew up in Southern California and was used to the threat of wildfires. When the Santa Ana winds would kick up and flow through the mountain passes gaining speed, the dry conditions fueled fires from lightning strikes and careless campers trying to stay warm in higher elevations when the temperatures dipped at night. Those winds were merciless and it didn’t take any effort for a small fire to turn into a raging inferno. It had been eight years since she and her family moved to Northern California where the wine country was in their backyard and the congestion of Southern California was five hundred miles away. Although the Santa Ana winds were a long way from her home, the threat of fire was not.
That night, she and Jack woke the kids, instructing them to take only what they needed. Everything else had to be left behind. Time was against them. They divided up – her and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Cara, in the Toyota Camry. Jack and seventeen-year-old, Spencer, in the Dodge Ram. Leroy, the 10-year-old Shih Tzu, rode in the backseat of the Camry, shaking and whining. They drove down the hillside and left their home in the distance, unsure of what they’d find when they returned.
Now, as she drives through this scorched neighborhood, she feels their luckiness weigh heavy on her shoulders. The winds changed direction at the last minute and the fire turned again before dawn, sparing their home. Instead, the flames traveled in this direction to the neighborhood where her lone mail truck slowly makes its way down the street.
There’s nothing left except the mailboxes.
She stops her truck in front of a mailbox that is turned over on its side. Everything else around it is coated in ash, but the metal box is still intact. She reaches in and pulls out the mail that was delivered before everything changed.
Today, this is her job. She’s collecting what’s left behind.
Over the years, she’s seen a steady decline in mail delivery. People don’t use the mail service as much anymore. Heck, she works for the postal service and can’t remember the last time she mailed a bill or even a birthday card. Most of the mail she gets and delivers is circulars, advertisements for mattress stores and Realtors.
This neighborhood is different though. On Redondo Drive, the average age of its residents is seventy-five. Inside these mailboxes, there are more than circulars. There are birthday cards to grandchildren, notes to family, doctor’s bills, and social security checks. Her job, today, is to keep these items safe.
She puts the mail in the sack she carries on her back, wipes the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, and walks back to the mail truck. As she begins to get in, she hears a vehicle approaching from the up the street. She squints in the sunlight and waits for it to pass. Instead, it comes to a stop. She recognizes the vehicle. It belongs to the home that use to stand at 650 Redondo Drive.
Mae Lynwood, a woman who celebrated her eightieth birthday last month, gets out of the driver’s side. She’s a petite woman who spent a lot of time tending to her landscaping, always piddling in the yard. What will she do now with that time?
She meets Mae halfway between her mailbox and her stopped vehicle. When the women meet in the middle, they embrace. The old woman smells like face powder and Gain detergent, although still a hint of smoke lingers on her skin. She’s happy that Mae got out, but she easily feels the pain of losing everything. It wraps itself around the old woman’s shoulder like a heavy wool blanket that’s cumbersome and itchy.
“How are you?” she asks.
Mae shrugs. “As best as I can be. It’s just things. Can I give you something?” The old woman reaches out her hand. In it is a pink card addressed to Matthew and Carrie Lynwood, 915 Stock Lane, Secaucus, New Jersey.
“My grandson first baby was born last week – my first great-grandchild. It’s not much that I can send, but I want them to know I’m thinking of them.” She looks around at the rubble. “It will be okay,” she says softly, trying to remind herself that it’s just things that are gone. What’s important still breathes and moves.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Lynwood, I’ll get this letter where it needs to be.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you were here today.” The old woman smiles. She starts to turn away, but instead says, “I feel like I should write more on this card. Like I should tell them how lucky they are. How lucky we all are. It doesn’t feel like enough.”
“Sometimes words aren’t enough.” She pauses for a second. Then she asks. “Ms. Lynwood, do you have a cell phone?”
The old woman laughs. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Would you like me to send your grandson a picture of you. So he knows you’re okay?”
Mae hesitates then smiles wide. Her front teeth are coffee-stained and slightly crooked. “Yes! Goodness, I never thought of that. I’d like that a lot. Will you be in the picture with me?”
It’s an unusual request. Then again, nothing is usual about this day. She decides not to over think the moment and to just go with it. “Sure. If you want.”
The two women stand in front of the mail truck, blocking out the rubble behind them. In this picture, they could be anywhere on a sunny day. She hands Mae her phone and shows her how to attach the picture after the women writes a short message.
“Thank you again,” May says.
“It’s no problem. I’m glad I was here today.”
“Me too, hon. It’s good to know that things will get back to normal. Some things will just take a little longer to rebuild.”
She watches the old woman get back into her car, bringing her hand up to wave as the car passes. She waits for the car to drive out of sight, puts the pink card in her bag, and continues collecting what is left behind one mailbox at a time.
If you liked this short story, check out others like it in my SHE Series here.
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Piper Punches is an author of fiction and truth, tackling topics on social justice, mindful living, creativity, and the writing life. She is the Amazon bestselling author of The Waiting Room, and the short story, Missing Girl. Her newest book, 60 Days (Missing Girl Series — Book 1) is currently available on Amazon. For a limited time, readers can sign up to get a free copy of Missing Girl here.