Holding tightly to her boyfriend's waist, the toy collector's daughter watched the sea speed by from the back of the motorbike.
Eyes on the horizon, colorful beach towels blurring into one, she rested her head against his back and took a deep breath. Sunscreen, sweat, sea, smoke, summer. The strange orange haze of distant fires. A world burning.
I'll be home soon, she thinks to herself. Alone in her room. She'll have a cool shower and lay on her bed in the soft towel, putting cream on her face and feet and shoulders, soothing.
The high pitch wail of the motorcycle engine brings her back to the back of the bike as he shifts gears and they start up the hill to her house. A sharp turn as the street switches back and further up brings the beach back into view down below. She loves the beach.
She loves her boyfriend, too, but not enough. He tries so hard to win her heart, but she just wants to have fun and sees his gloomy poems and terrible songs for the sad, insecure clichés they really are. It takes true feelings to make art. But at least he tries.
He wanted to come in, take off her swimming costume, and shower with her. He liked when she put her feet on top of his. But she said she was tired and a bit sunburned and needed to rest. He sighed. She could see a poem starting in his eyes. They kissed goodbye.
She lay on her bed in a soft towel and rubbed lotion over her long legs, feeling sand, still, scrape her skin. There is always sand, no matter how long you stay in the shower. She crossed the room to put the bottle on the tall bureau and take her bracelet out of the jewelry box her father had made. She let her hand pause and caress the butterflies carved into the lid.
She ran the bracelet through her fingers before clasping it around her wrist. She stepped to the bookshelf her father had made, the first one, as her love of books soon necessitated an entire wall, and later a whole room of shelves. She picked up the book of poems by Rupi Kaur that her boyfriend had given her, and lay back down on her bed. She wanted to think nice thoughts of him, but her thoughts kept drifting back to her father's workshop.
Red wagon wheels, wheelbarrows, building blocks with letters, numbers and names. Airplanes, tractors, trains and tracks that pass through whole villages and forests, over bridges, tunnels and two train stations. Funny cars whose drivers' heads move up and down when it rolls. Puzzles, puppets, marionettes, a dollhouse replica of her grandmother's home in the country. Chess, backgammon and cribbage sets. A game like bowling, but the ball is on a string connected to a pole and the player swings it around to hit the pins. A puppet theater where, one day, she spent three hours sitting behind it writing and rehearsing a play that took 15 minutes to present, but was the moment in her young mind that she realized that the best place in the world is in her imagination, and her father's toys brought her there. He made most of these toys. Most of the wooden ones. Others, like the mini merry-go-round, musical instruments and toy motorcycle, he bought from antique shops. She loved the smell of the workshop, cut wood, sawdust, glue, varnish, paint and oil. She loved watching his hands as he worked. Measure twice, cut once, he said everytime.
It wasn't the smoke that awoke her, it was the wind. But when the smoke hit her, she immediately jumped out of bed. Then she could hear the trees crackling and hissing and the leaves and branches rustling and falling. Burning. She quickly stepped out through the glass door of her room that led to the back yard. Smoke everywhere, she could see the fire coming up the hill. The heat seemed to melt the trees before they went up in flames.
Covering her mouth with the towel, she ran back into the house, through her bedroom and into the hallway. She understood that the house was catching fire, and froze, not knowing what to do. Wondering where her phone was. Then the television exploded and she screamed, running back through her bedroom and outside.
There was smoke everywhere, swirling in the strong, scorching wind, which pushed the fast moving flames through the forest. She could see the tall pines burning like candles, swaying in the wind. She knew those pines were a ten minute walk away. Behind her, there were flames coming through the roof at the front of the house, and a flaming branch came flying down onto the roof above her bedroom. The heat and smoke and shock was disorientating, but she knew what she was going to do. With a plan, she was less frightened.
She ran down the stairs of the garden to her father's workshop. They had always kept the key under the seashell on the windowsill, and she quickly opened the door and reached for the light switch, which didn't work. There was still a golden, gray glow outside, and she thought it must be around sunset. But in the workshop it was difficult to see, although she knew she could find her way around with her eyes closed. She turned to the shelves on her left and began filling her arms with her father's toys. She then ran back into the garden and up the wooden stairs to the patio behind the house and threw them in the swimming pool. She made seven trips before the smoke, fire and heat overwhelmed her. Then she jumped into the swimming pool with the toys.
For the next four hours she watched her world burn. The wicked wind spread the fire so quickly, but it still takes time for a lifetime to burn down. Just the other day she had walked around the house taking pictures of the trees and bushes and flowers to send to her sister. The tall pines, of course, but the dear cork oak, majestic ficus, cypress and the beloved lemon trees. The olea and germander bushes along the sides of the house. Huge chrysanthemum bushes at the corners. The hibiscus and jasmine along the wall. Flower beds full of orchids, hyacinth, lavendar, rosemary, the vibrant colors bringing the butterflies she loves so much.
She suddenly remembered her jewelry box, and turned towards the house, engulfed in fire and smoke. At that very moment, the workshop behind her down in the garden exploded into flames. She had to put her head underwater to avoid the unbearable heat as everything around burned. The water was hot and black with ash and burnt twigs and branches blown by the wind. A huge frond of palm tree, still on fire, came crashing into the pool just meters away. During the worst moments, she could only pop her head out of the water to catch a breath of smokey, hot, burning air and then would go under again. The water was black, now, and getting hotter and hotter.
With the wind pushing the fire so quickly, though, the worst of it, as it roared up the hill, over and around her in the pool and through her heart and home, was over soon enough. After, she could only stand there and watch as it all burned down. The flames slowly turning everything into charred ruins. She thought of the jewelry box, the shelves, her books, pictures, papers, clothes, her phone. So many things. Everything.
But she had lost everything before. She knows loss. Trying to fill the holes. Trying to keep memories alive. Trying to escape into her imagination through books and games and toys. She knows this all too well. She started moving around the pool, collecting the toys she had saved from the workshop and putting them on the side of the pool. Cars, planes, trains, blocks, a closet for doll's clothes, a set of dominoes in a box with cover that slides open, a recreation of the giant "Sultan's Elephant" marionette they had seen in the village festival, which was one of the last and most beautiful pieces of art her father had made, and, finally, her favorite, the wooden butterfly puzzle with 42 pieces, that had been a birthday gift, so carefully crafted and colorfully painted. She found all the pieces, one by one, floating around in the dark dirty pool, and when at last the puzzle was finished, she started to cry and couldn't stop for a long time.
She sat on the steps of the pool as the fires burned on through the night, feeling lucky to be alive, and wondering what that meant. A new home, obviously. Maybe a new start. A new life. Baptized by water and fire this time. She was staring at the reflection of the last of the fire and her home's glowing embers in the dark glass surface of the water when she heard her name. She tried to shout back but couldn't. She had been breathing so much burning smoke, her mouth, throat and lungs just couldn't. She heard them calling her again, and she managed to stand on the top step of the pool and shout as loud as she could, which was loud enough, "I'm in the pool! I'm still alive! Everything is o.k."
She quickly got back into the water as the three men came through what used to be her kitchen into the backyard because she was naked, of course. In her "birthday suit" as her father used to say. One of the men was her boyfriend. He came running, saying ten things at once about the wind, the road, helicopters, help, are you o.k.? He jumped into the water and said, "I'm coming to kiss you now," and then he did. The End
Many years later, when she would tell this story to her children and grandchildren, usually while playing with her father's toys, she would leave out the next part. "You are hot as fuck," he said next. And she replied, through tears, "I've been doing some thinking, and that's it. We tried. It didn't work."
He didn't understand. He said she was crazy from the shock, that he had gone through hell to find her, so scared she was dead, that they belonged together, he had written poems and songs for her. He loved her.
She put her arms around him and said she was sorry, but all that was just in his imagination. A fantasy game, a puppet show, a fairy tale, charades and stolen stories. And it was time for her to be real and find her own truth, and live her own story. The End
Three years after the fire, in her new city and new life, the toy collector's daughter was driving her electric bicycle from the beach to her monthly book club meeting when, stopped at a red light, she saw her ex-boyfriend pass by in the crosswalk. It must be her imagination, she thought, as he came closer and then caught her eye. The shocking coincidence, she let herself believe, had to be some kind of a sign. We collect toys for a reason. Poems mean something. Fairy tales can happen. Why talk about a book when you can live one? Everything you imagine need not be stuck in your mind. She called out to him. Without a word, he climbed onto the back of the bike, put his arms around her waist, and off they went, happily ever after. The End