Congratulations to Lauranne Wolfe for writing “Silent Fire,” winner of this summer’s teen short story contest. Special thanks to all of our teen writers who entered, and very special thanks to Sharon Linnea, our judge. Read “Silent Fire” below!
The air conditioner is at full blast, shades on every window pulled down. I count my blessings that I’m sitting in this cool house instead of my own steamy home. My house doesn’t have air conditioning, but Mrs. Wright’s does. I’m very happy to be watching her daughter on this sweltering Saturday in July in Southern California, where the thermometer reads ninety-eight degrees. Since it is set in the shade, it’s probably even more unbearable out than I think it is.
A small hand taps my shoulder. I crane my neck to see Ally Wright leaning over me. I spin around to see her better, at level with her since I’m sitting on the floor. She just went to get a board game she wanted to play with me. I see that the petite seven year-old is holding a box with colorful drawings on it. It’s Clue Jr, her favorite game. Ally loves mystery. Her favorite books are The Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew. She also likes to swim and run around in dress-up with a plastic sword and wooden shield. It’s impossible to keep her away from her cuddly pet kitten, which she named Tiger because of his orange striped fur. I love watching Ally. She’s this really cute, energetic, and spunky little girl.
Now she’s sitting, pulling off the top of the box and setting the game up. She smiles at me when I look up, and her little hands flutter, signing Let’s play!
Ally is deaf. I’ve known her since she was a toddler, and I know American Sign Language, which is why I watch her when her mom has to go somewhere.
I sign back to her, asking what piece she wants. She picks out a piece, then I do, and we start the game. Ally wins easily.
What do you want to do now? I sign.
Can we go outside? She asks.
It’s too hot! I answer. Ally, I think, is used to the weather. But I moved from Alaska five years ago, and still haven’t gotten used to the heat. My parents are scientists, and they had to come here to start a new research project. I still think we should have stayed in a climate zone that didn’t involve us frying in the summer. Here, I wear sleeveless shirts with shorts from May to October, and I still feel too hot sometimes.
Ally is frowning, so I suggest that she get her kitten.
She brightens immediately, running into the next room to come back with Tiger nestled comfortably in her arms. We pet the tiny cat a while, laughing as he tries to pounce on my fingers and licks Ally’s hand with his tiny sandpaper tongue.
The kitten falls asleep on Ally’s lap as she strokes him. Tiger must be the world’s most petted kitten, I think with a smile. Not wanting to disturb him, she decides to read some of a Boxcar Children book I brought with me to give her. I stand up and look at family pictures. Ally as a happy smiling baby, family photos of Mr. and Mrs. Wright with their daughter, and my favorite picture: Ally in my lap, giving me a hug.
I smile at it. It reminds me of all I have to thank the Wrights for. When I moved here, a timid eleven year-old, I had a lot of trouble making friends. I preferred reading to sports, quiet to chatter, and I missed my best friend, Katy. The daughter of another researcher, we’d been together longer than either of us remembered. She was the reason I could sign, because she too, like Ally, was deaf. I’d never thought anything of it. Here at school, during lunch, I’d hide behind a book, avoiding everyone.
I was doing this one day in study hall when a voice came from behind me.
“I didn’t know you knew ASL, Julie,” I jumped, and then saw it was my English teacher, Mrs. Wright. I’d been signing the book as I read without really noticing what I was doing, because I’d always done it with Katy. I was feeling particularly lonely that day.
I nodded at her and gave a tentative smile, because she was my favorite teacher.
“Where did you learn?” she asked.
I hesitated, but found myself telling her all about Katy. She listened intently, and said, “I’m working on my sign language. My daughter, Alicia, is deaf, and I’m trying to teach her to sign, except that I’m just learning myself. If you’d like to sign with me once in a while, it would be a big help.
Throughout middle school, I would slip into Mrs. Wright’s class during study hall to sign with her. We’d also stop a few minutes to talk in the halls. She was determined and was soon able to sign rapidly. In turn, she helped me to open up a little, suggesting a book club I would enjoy and pairing me with other students with similar tastes. I slowly began to have a couple of good friends. When I entered eighth grade, she asked me to watch Ally for the first time, and I was immediately captivated by the joyous little girl. Now, about to start my junior year in high school, I was always the first person she asked to baby-sit.
So, really, Mrs. Wright was the reason I had slowly begun to like living here. Without her, I wouldn’t have any friends, and I certainly would not have met a little girl as wonderful as Ally.
After another minute or two of looking at the pictures on the wall, I flipped on the TV to news, something that Ally found boring, as she did most TV programs. Therefore, I only turned it on if she was reading. The news was talking about some sort of bombing, so I hurriedly flipped to a local news channel. It seemed nothing had changed. The drought was still gripping the state, and if anything, the forest fires were getting worse. Luckily, although there was one not far from where we were, it didn’t seem as if the fire was expected to spread all the way to this area.
I turned the TV off, hearing the door open and close at the front of the house.
“I’m back, Julie!” called Mrs. Wright breathlessly. I stepped into the entryway to find her hauling grocery bags, several of them digging into her wrists.
I rushed to help her carry them into the kitchen, and she said, “Oh, thank you. Sorry I’m a bit late. I had to pull over to let some fire trucks through. I hope the fires stop soon.”
I agreed, putting things into the fridge. Despite her protests, I insisted on helping bring in the rest of the groceries. In turn, she insisted I stay for lunch. The three of us had just sat down when there was a knock on the door.
Mrs. Wright hurried to the door. I peered into the foyer to see a fireman talking to her. “…wind is blowing this way. We’re worried the fire might spread down here. This is just to say that you might want to pack your most important belongings…in case you do need to evacuate. We don’t know for sure at this point.”
Mrs. Wright was agreeing, sounding worried, and then the man was gone.
“Maybe you ought to go home, Julie,’ she said.
“Don’t worry,” I answered. “You might not have to leave at all, and I’ll help you pack, just in case.”
Luckily, she seemed to decide it wasn’t time to argue, sending me to help Ally get together her favorite items as well as some clothes. I then proceeded to load the car, while Ally and Mrs. Wright packed some more. I looked toward the dried forest, feeling the wind blow into my face. I saw a plume of acrid smoke rising from the trees. It was still distant, but not nearly as far away as I would have liked. I swallowed hard and continued setting bags in the trunk. I remembered hearing that this fire had started as a campfire that had not been set up properly and had then escalated out of control. How silly this was: a drought, a forest, and a small campfire. One spark caught, and the flames were now tearing through forests and houses, even threatening my former teacher’s home.
This one little spark should have just been insignificant if the vegetation wasn’t so dry.
I hurried back in and put the last bags in the cars, having in fact loaded my mom’s up as well, glad that I had gotten my driver’s license the week before. Only a minute had passed after I had returned into the kitchen when I heard another knock on the door. I knew who it was even before I saw the firefighter telling Mrs. Wright that they were evacuating the neighborhood immediately.
Ally ran down from her bedroom just as Mrs. Wright turned to go find her. We both saw the panicked look on her face.
She signed Where’s Tiger?
Mrs. Wright glanced at me, “Wasn’t he asleep on the couch?”
“He woke up,” I said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Mrs. Wright looked troubled, “If we can’t find him, we’ll have to go anyway.”
I looked at Ally’s stubborn face and calculated the chance of her leaving her beloved Tiger behind. Zero.
“Give me five minutes,” I told Mrs. Wright. “I don’t think she’ll come without her cat.
No. signed Ally, and I silently cursed. I’d forgotten that she’d recently begun to read lips.
I hurried out of the foyer, leaving Mrs. Wright to plead with Ally, as the little girl shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Tiger!” I called. “Tiger!”
I ran through each room, peering under and behind furniture for a telltale puff of orange fur. Nothing.
Painfully aware that time was passing, I was becoming frantic. Tiger wasn’t curled on Ally’s bed. He wasn’t stretched in the sun on the hallway’s window seat, from which I could see the fire, burning ever closer. He hadn’t leapt into the hamper and gotten tangled in a shirt, something the silly kitten had done before.
I couldn’t find him.
“Julie! We need to leave!”
I knew we did. I still took a little more time on the way down, glancing around and calling Tiger.
I passed the basement door, which was slightly ajar. Wait a minute. I called down the stairs, “Tiger!” A faint mew replied. Relief coursed through me.
“I hear him! He’s in the basement!” I hurried down the steps two at a time and saw quickly what the problem was. The silly creature had managed to scale a pile of crates, to climb into one through a gap between two boards, but couldn’t find his way out. I pried the crate open to rescue him, plucking him out of it as he squirmed. I held him to my chest, and his tiny claws dug through my shirt. Wincing, I dashed upstairs. Ally stopped crying as soon as she saw me holding her pet.
Thank you. She signed.
We have to go, I signed back. I’ll give you Tiger once you’re in the car.
She nodded, and the three of us sped outside. I peeled Tiger’s claws off my shirt and dropped him into Ally’s lap as soon as she was securely seated in her mom’s car, then I ran to my own car. The smoke was being carried by the wind, making my eyes water as I jumped in and started the engine. I drove behind Mrs. Wright out of the valley that her little village was nestled in. When we were safe from the fire, she parked her car on a rise, where many of her neighbors already stood. I stopped too and got out of my car. Ally stayed in her seat, petting Tiger contentedly.
“She knows we might lose our house,” Mrs. Wright said without preamble. “But she’s happy as long as she has that cat and her family, including you.” She was standing in the grass, staring down at the canvas of forest that stretched beneath us, burning.
There was not a sound, and we watched the flames flicker below us, feeling the wind blow.
“I guess it shows that she’s got her priorities straight. Or that she’s just braver than we are,” I said.
“Or both,” said Mrs. Wright.
“Or both,’ I agreed. We both turned to look at the car. Ally’s face was pressed to the window. She smiled at us, pointing to herself, crossing her arms over her chest, and pointing to us.
It was her favorite sign. One I’d always signed to Katy every time we saw each other. The first sign Mrs. Wright had learned when she found out that Ally would never hear her say those words.
I love you.
We both signed it back.
“The funny thing is, even though we might…might lose our house,” stumbled Mrs. Wright ruefully, “one look at Ally makes me feel better. We have our family and friends, after all, no matter what. That’s really all that matters.”
“Definitely,” I said, swallowing hard. “I think everyone knows it. But it takes a bit of a spark to make people really see it.”
That got a shaky laugh from Mrs. Wright as, side by side, with Ally snug in the car with Tiger, we continued to watch the silent flames consume the woods, smoke climbing, then slowly dwindling in the wind.