I tighten my grip on Harley as we ride in the ambulance, afraid if I let go I’ll lose him among the flames that still burned in my mind. His white and copper fur was covered in soot and he was trembling uncontrollably, no doubt as terrified as I was from our close encounter with death. A paramedic hands me an oxygen mask to cleanse my lungs with fresh air. After a deep inhale, I put the mask on Harley, who was still panting rapidly.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” the friendly EMT asks as she shines a light in my eyes. I squint and fight the urge to turn away from the glare.
“Catalina De la Rosa. But everyone calls me Cat.” My voice is hoarse from the smoke.
“Well, Cat, it doesn’t look like you have any major injuries, but we’re going to take you to Central Hospital to be safe,” she says.
When we get to the emergency room, the medics have to tear Harley from my grasp so they could treat him at the veterinary clinic next door. Despite my protests, they assured me they would take care of him while I received medical treatment. They were kind and comforting, but their words of encouragement didn’t prevent the anxiety that consumed me by letting Harley out of my sight.
I am led to an examination room where my blood pressure, heart rate and breathing are checked. Other than the small, second degree burn on my palm, I made out fairly well. Of course, I couldn’t say the same for the man who saved me. His wails still haunted me as I sat alone in the small space, waiting for the doctor to sign off on my release.
After a clean bill of health and some burn cream, I am finally allowed to leave the hospital. Just as I am exiting the emergency wing, the doors fly open and a horde of medical professionals rush inside.
“Out of the way!” someone calls as a gurney rushes past.
It all happened in a blur, but I would know the face of the patient anywhere; it was the man who had saved my life. He was almost unrecognizable without his suit, dressed in black pants and a soft white t-shirt that was spotted with soot. The shirt had been ripped down the center to expose his bare torso, his bronzed and toned abs shining under a layer of perspiration.
The man was unconscious but, to my relief, he looked fairly unscathed. Or so it seemed, until I glanced down at his forearm. The skin from his elbow to his wrist was deep scarlet and was shining with angry red blisters. The middle of the wound was more of a cream color, and was emanating some sort of pus. It takes me only a moment to realize that this was the underlying tissue of the man’s arm, now exposed after the top layers had been seared away by the scorching flames. It was already festering, a repugnant odor of burnt skin emanating so strong that I could smell it from several feet away. I was no medical professional, but this looked to be a severe injury, a life-threatening injury.
I take a step forward and eavesdrop on the nurses who were bustling about, trying to administer medicines and apply antiseptics. Words like “respiratory failure”, “nerve damage” and “indefinite coma” stand out in my mind. No, the fireman wasn’t dead…yet. But it was apparent that the doctors weren’t optimistic.
Like the coward that I was, I tuck tail and leave the building, the site of his injury more than I can handle. Between the smoke inhalation and the overwhelming reminder of what it cost to save my life, I find myself vomiting on the curb outside, retching repeatedly until my eyes water, my nose burns, and I am left dry heaving.
I suppose I should be relieved that the man had made it through the flames, but that didn’t change the fact that he was still fighting for his life. How long could he endure the aftermath of an injury that detrimental? Were the doctor’s just prolonging the inevitable by pumping his unconscious body full of antibiotics? The notion of the man lying lifeless on some cold coroner table causes another bout of vomiting to ensue.
When I expel as much of the bile as I can from my body, I stumble across the street to pick up Harley, eager for a distraction from my guilty conscious. Harley greets me at the door with a wagging tail and several aggressive licks on my cheek, and I soon find myself smiling. The technician explains that they had given him oxygen and a bath, but he was otherwise healthy. I thank them profusely, grateful to them for taking care of my best friend.
I sniff Harley’s fur appreciatively, glad that the smell of smoke had been scrubbed away. Icouldn’t say the same for myself. I was covered in ash and my long dark hair had been singed off in a few places. I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and change clothes. My house, or what remained of it, was only a few blocks away from the hospital, so I decide I should go see if there was anything I could salvage.
A few minutes later, I turn the corner and gasp as I take in my neighborhood. Ninety percent of the homes were completely gone, others were left charred and damaged, blackened skeletons of the buildings that they once were. Though the fire department had done their job well by taming the vast inferno, some of the foundations were still smoldering, their wooden embers glowing brightly.
In that moment, as I stared at the ruins before me, I truly appreciated the frailty of human life. Dream homes that had taken years of planning and months of strenuous labor to construct fell victim to nature’s cruel bemusement, desecrated in the blink of an eye. Within a matter of minutes, people’s entire lives had been reduced to little more than a pile of rubble.
Many of my neighbors were crying and holding one another as they inspected the remains of the place they once called home, a place of love and security, of memories and warmth. Family heirlooms, photographs, and personal possessions were all lying in piles of ash now.
Some families grieved the loss of their homes, others mourned for those lost among the flames. I feel gut-wrenching guilt as I watched their sorrow unfold. Parents had lost children, babies were now orphans, several were the sole survivors of their families. Those who died were people who were loved, who loved others. They perished and left their families to grieve their loss whereas I was still alive with no one to mourn me. How did that seem fair?
I avoid their tearful eyes as I step into the foyer of what used to be my house. The entry way table remained partially intact, and I whisper a silent “thank you” when I find my car keys inside the charred drawer. I had a tendency to leave my wallet in the car, a bad habit that was to my benefit this time, as the fire had been snuffed out before it reached my driveway.
The rest of my house, however, had not been so fortunate. A few scorched beams remained upright, but the majority of the walls were reduced to dust. I bite back the tears that threatened to escape as I look to where my bedroom once stood. The walls were burnt black, the ash glistening in the early morning sun. A few minutes longer and I would have been among the dead.
I sift through the residue and try to find anything else that remained of my possessions, but there was nothing. I watch Harley as he sniffs at the ruins, his tail tucked as he takes in the new state of our home. He whines beside my leg, and I give him an appreciate rub. If he hadn’t woken me up when he did, I could very well be part of this wreckage.
When I moved to California a decade ago, I quickly learned that wildfires were common in the area. Each summer when the leaves began to dry and the grass becomes brittle, most of the state would be put on alert. In the beginning I would lie awake at night, terrified that the sparks would make their way to my home, but they never did. As the years passed, I began to take these warnings with a grain of salt for fires had rarely came close to the town of Chico.
Though the flames were nowhere near my home when I went to bed, these fires are called “wild” for a reason. They are erratic, unpredictable, and can devastate an entire city within minutes. There had been warnings that the wind might shift, but they were just that- warnings. There was no way to know what would actually happen. Of course, last night proved how wrong I was to take my safety for granted.
I was lucky that it was only me and Harley in the house, no husband or children to try to safeguard. The heaviness of this statement weighed on me. Other than Harley, I was completely alone. No significant other, no parents, not even friends who I could turn to in a time of need.
I had never minded the solitude before. I spent a lot of that time locked in my home office, pouring my heart and soul into my job. I was determined to succeed, even if it meant sacrificing having a personal life, and this was the end result.
My mother had always told me that being a woman, I had to work twice as hard to keep up with the men. And being a Latina woman? Well, that would be even more of a challenge.
“You will have to work hard, mija, but you can do it if you have the will to,” I could still hear her say. God I missed her.
I took my mother’s words to heart, busting my ass to get into Stanford. My perseverance and dedication finally paid off when I was unanimously chosen as the lead designer with a prestigious architectural company based in Los Angeles, my dream job. I always convinced myself that I didn’t need a man to make me happy. I mean, my mother was the happiest woman I had ever known, and my father left her when I was three.
So I remained detached, making my career my main priority. My work was fulfilling and had always been enough for me, so why mess with a good thing? But my near death experience made me realize just how isolated I really was. I had closed myself off from friends and family so I could focus on succeeding in a male dominated field. Now here I was, thirty and alone. Had I perished in the fires last night, there wasn’t a soul alive who would know or care.
A tear slips down my cheek as I filter through the broken fragments of my home. No, not my home. A home is somewhere where you feel loved, somewhere were you build a life for yourself and make memories. I had no attachment to this particular building. I didn’t care that my possessions were burnt to a crisp, their remnants blowing in the warm September breeze. A life had been lived here, yes, but it was a life that I no longer recognized.
Perhaps it was symbolic, in a way, that everything I owned had been destroyed. This was my chance to change my priorities, to make a fresh start. Losing everything that I had, everything that I was, it was freeing in a devastating, life-shattering way. The fire gave me a sense of clarity, a need in me to learn just who Catalina really was and to discover what she wanted from her life. With a gratifying sense of resolution, I walk away from the rubble that was once my everything, ready to face whatever this new world had to offer me.