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©2019 by Zenia Platten.

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  • Zenia Platten

Priorities

Her hand was bleeding again. This time it was the skin on the inside edge of her thumb, right where her mother used to put electrical tape to stop her from biting. It didn’t work.


Maggie swore it was getting hotter in her little silver Buick, but the thermostat assured her that it was still forty-seven Celsius. She eased off the brake to slide forward another ten feet before reluctantly grinding to another halt. The smoke outside was too thick to open the window or the vents, so instead she just sat in the heat. Her thighs stuck to the leather seat as she fanned herself with a dog-eared edition of Vanity Fair.


The alert of the wildfire had come while she was in the office. Everyone had gone quiet as the tinny radio voice warned that the evacuation of Fort McMurray was only the beginning, that Anzac should be ready too. She shrugged it off at the time. Fort Mac was ages away.


She’d declined the company’s offer to leave that evening with the others. Piling into a rented school bus just to be stuck in a traffic jam for umpteen hours hadn’t appealed at the time. Maggie glanced out of the window to the stalled Ford truck in front of her. You sure dodged that bullet Maggie, she thought, letting her view slip sideways to her passenger seat, piled high with house plants. At least there would have been company.


Sirens wailed as an R.C.M.P SUV screamed up the North-bound lane of the highway, empty except for the occasional emergency vehicle. Maggie wondered if they were going to evacuate more people. She pictured a family doing what she had done. Eating their dinner in front of the news, anxious but not overly concerned. ‘The fire is still far away’ they’d think, like she had. Then they’d turn off the light and go to bed.


Maggie had been woken by banging on her door. A quick clock check confirmed that it was too early for visitors and the hair on her neck stood up. She threw on her bathrobe before heading for the door. She was shaking. An R.C.M.P officer was waiting for her, fully uniformed and sweating.


“Ma’am, an evacuation has been called. You need to get out. Understand?” The officer asked without preamble. She was not unkind, but her words had a repetitious quality. Maggie’s was not the first house she had visited.


Maggie could hear her neighbours loading up their cars, lit by the motion detecting lights attached to their garage. Their children were asking why they had to leave, loudly enough to be heard clearly over the long lawn. The car door closed on their complaints and Maggie realized she could smell smoke.


“Ma’am?” The officer asked, and Maggie nodded, shaking herself.


“I understand, thank you.” She answered in her best ‘under control’ voice. The officer gave her a last searching look before crossing her lawn towards the next house in line.


Maggie adjusted her rear-view mirror to stare at the hastily gathered remnants of her life. Everything she owned piled into the back of a car. She knew that her coworkers, who had left from work, had even less, but the thought didn’t comfort her. The Ford in front moved again, almost twenty feet this time, and Maggie followed without looking, staring at all her worldly goods instead. The pile made her angry. In the few minutes she had taken to pull herself together, she had chosen these things to represent her life. A few potted plants, her father’s prized ski-dance trophy from the seventies, a full drawer yanked at random from her dresser, and five boxes of Kraft dinner. No insurance documents, passports, or SIN numbers. No family photos or paintings. No anything. The summation of her life was a worthless pile of junk.


She gripped the wheel, white-knuckled, and followed the Ford again as it crept forward. The wind changed as they inched past an empty accounting office and finally the smoke cleared. Without hesitation Maggie opened her window. The breeze was impeccable.


For the first time Maggie could see the cars around her clearly. One car had tied a decorative bear head to their roof, through the window of a second car Maggie could see a microwave, and a chocolate bar was melting to the dash of a third.


“Well,” Maggie muttered under her breath, “at least I’m not the only one.”


This is an older story from 2016 - when the Fort Mac fires were still raging.