Thursday, August 11, 2005

Into the Fire

The haze from the forest fires burning in the mountains burned in Jerrica’s nose as she walked out the door. She wanted to pull a neck scarf to filter it from the bulging knapsack on her back, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk having everything she’d brought for the weekend, including a little teddy bear and some slinky lingerie, fall out in front of the neighbors. Not that getting on the back of his motorcycle on a Friday at five o’clock didn’t tell the whole story anyway. Duncan hit the electric horn again, as he saw Jerrica pause on the front step half looking over her shoulder for no apparent reason. Great, now anyone who hadn’t been looking knew what she was up to. They would gossip.

Her sister had told her a hundred times how stupid she was to ride on it with Duncan without a helmet. If Eunice called her an organ donor one more time, she’d send her to the hospital. But, Duncan had a point. There was nothing else that made you feel so alive, so close to nature. Duncan’s green machine was nothing like the “Hog” her father had ridden when he was her age. You couldn’t hear the electric motor over the wind. The fuel cell that powered it left no smoke belching in its wake (not that anyone would notice today). Once the magnetic levitation suspension kicked in on the road, the seat actually hovered over the frame and wheels, so it was a smooth ride.

Jerrica hurried across the dirt patch that was generously called her lawn and got on. She wrapped her arms around Duncan and leaned forward. He took off without a word. The green machine raced out of her cul de sac and down the twisting suburban lanes of Highlands Ranch towards highway C-470. Jerrica’s dyed black, shoulder blade length hair flew out behind her. She could smell the cigarette smoke and oil on Duncan’s jacket from the repair shop.

Dried up swimming pools, abandoned play houses, wide streets, and brick subdivision fences attested to the middle class residents Jerrica’s neighborhood had once held. Now, Highlands Ranch was a ghetto. There wasn’t a block without at least one boarded up house. Every subdivision had houses converted into bars, peep shows, pawn shops, and improvised African restaurants. Half the houses that were left were jammed with three, four or five African families. In her neighborhood they were mostly Nigerian Yorubas renting from Mexican-American slumlords. The other half of the people left were there because they were too old and too poor to move. They owned their homes free and clear, but their pensions had dried in up in market crash that hit ten years ago when the baby boomers retired. Everyone’s grass had died when drought restrictions became permanent when she was a little kid. Duncan, who was eight years her senior and now had moved in with his grandmother in Denver, told her he could remember when the last green lawns, which had been the only redeeming feature of the neighborhood, had died.

Jerrica’s family was an exception. Her family had moved her five years ago and had an entire house to themselves. They didn’t own it, but it came with her father’s job as property manager for about eighty houses in the neighborhood. She sometimes accompanied him as he went out to fix a broken toilet, replace a melamine closet door, or collect rent from some of the 342 families that lived in those eighty houses. This summer, she was on the payroll answering phones in their home office with calls from tenants, contractors, and the landlord. It wasn’t a great job, but it put a roof over their heads, and combined with mom’s job as a CNA at a nursing home, it paid the bills.

Duncan weaved through the rush hour traffic on C-470. Once they cleared Highlands Ranch and started passing the towering condominiums of the foothills, she relaxed at little. She was free for the weekend.

Their progress didn’t last long. Duncan stopped the motorcycle with the rest of the frozen traffic and hit a couple of buttons. A green image hovering in the air above the handle bars showed why traffic was stopped. Three miles ahead, security had closed the road for the latest trainload of radioactive waste bound for Yucca Mountain to pass. It would be blocked for at least an hour.

“Do you mind if we take the scenic route?“, Duncan asked, as he pointed at the next exit on the projection map hanging in the air.

“O.K.”, Jerrica said, having no options of her own to offer.

Duncan put on his sunglasses and started weaving again. In five minutes, they were off C-470 and on a back road to the mountains. A few cars followed, but now there was no real traffic. Duncan flipped on the headlights so they could see through the forest fire haze that still hung in the air, even though the late summer evening had an hour or two before night fell. An orange moon already hung in the air above the receding sun.

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