Hot breath on Grace’s face. Claire is screaming, and Grace is on her feet. As she lifts her daughter, a wall of fire fills the window. Perhaps a quarter of a mile back, if even that. Where’s Gene? Didn’t he come home? She picks Tom up from his crib and feels a wet diaper. No time to change him.
She scurries down the stairs carrying both children. She deposits them in the carriage in the hallway and pushes it onto the screened porch. Claire begins to cough in the smoky air. “Sweetie,” Grace croons, “have you saved us all?”
She stuffs blankets, diapers, baby food, and water into the carriage behind the children. She loops the kids’ clothes around the upper bits of metal and ties them in knots. She’ll have to leave the mementos.
Because she can’t push the now too-heavy carriage over the lip of the porch, she reverses it in order to drag it down the step. Claire is crying, and so is Tom, but Grace has no time to soothe them.
As she maneuvers the vehicle to the edge of the grass, a bomb goes off, the explosion one Grace can feel right through her feet and legs. The children are silent, as if awed by the sound.
“A fuel tank in a house on Seventh Street,” she hears one man shout to another.
Sparks and embers swirl around Grace. There’s chaos in the streets. She hears cars moving, women screaming. Balls of flame seem to leap from treetop to treetop, giving the fire a frightening momentum. A tree catches fire at the top, and the fire races down the trunk and into a house below. Another bomb. The fire turns tree after tree into tall torches.
Fields resemble hot coals. For as far as she can see, there’s an unbroken line of fire. Cars are traveling, but where can they go?
An ember lands on the hood of the carriage. Grace swipes it off and begins to run. Heat and common sense push her to the seawall. A deer leaps across the street with her, chased by the freight train bearing down on all of them.
She takes the children from the carriage and sets them on a blanket on the sand. On another blanket, she lays out what few provisions she has brought. Abandoning the carriage, she begins to drag both blankets away from the fire and closer to the water. When the sand feels wet underfoot, she stops.
Smoke adds to the confusion. She spots, and then doesn’t, Rosie dragging a canoe.
“Rosie!” Grace calls.
“Grace, where are you?”
“Right at the water. There you are.”
Grace helps her friend drag the canoe beside the two blankets. “Where’s Gene and Tim?” Rosie wails.
“I have no idea,” Grace says, shaken.
“Where are all the people going?” Rosie asks.
“To the schoolhouse, I heard.”
“That’s crazy. The schoolhouse will burn, if it hasn’t already.”
Grace kneels on the blanket to change Tom’s diaper. His sleeper is dry enough to stay on. Grace can feel heat on her face.
“Oh, God,” Rosie cries.
“The Hinkel house just went. It’s only one street back from us.”
Grace has no words. When she glances up, the fire burning on the ground resembles hot jewels among the rocks and pebbles.
“Rosie, take what you can from the canoe and put it near the water’s edge. Then push the canoe out to sea.”
“But . . .”
“It’s wood. If an ember falls inside, it will bring the fire right to us. Wet your hair and the kids’ hair.”
Rosie follows Grace’s instructions. She’s glad that Rosie won’t see her own house go up. Already, roof shingles are burning.
“Do my kids, too,” Grace yells to buy more time.
The splendid maple next to Grace’s own house turns orange in an instant, as if someone had switched on a light. The tree collapses. Grace can’t see her screened porch, but she knows the fire will consume that next and lead straight into the house. She left the photographs, the papers, the layette, the antique tools.
Rosie’s house explodes, the fire having found the fuel tank in the basement. Rosie snaps her head up.
“Rosie, don’t,” Grace commands, and there must be something in her voice that makes her friend obey, because Rosie turns to the water and puts her face in her hands.
Grace imagines the fire eating its way through her own home. The kitchen with the wringer washer, the hallway where the carriage is kept, the living room in which Grace made the slipcovers and drapes (an image of the fire climbing the drapes like a squirrel momentarily freezes her), upstairs to the children’s beds, her own marriage bed. All their belongings, gone. Everything she and Gene have worked to have, gone.
“Rosie, listen. Go down to the water’s edge so that only your feet are in the water. Lay down facing the sand—make an air pocket—and I’ll bring you Ian and Eddie. Put a child under each arm and hold them close. Make air pockets for them, too. I’m going to soak your blanket and drape it over you. I’m going to cover your heads. Don’t look up and don’t reach out a hand or let your hair out from under the blanket.”
Rosie is silent.
“Okay?” Grace shouts.
“Okay,” Rosie says.
Grace races into the sea to wet the blanket. Men in jackets and caps carry children toward the water, as if in a great and horrible sacrificial act. The women, with provisions, follow. She lays the blanket over Rosie and her children just as she said she would. Then she sets her own children in the sand and wets another blanket. Tugging the dripping wool, she fetches Tom and lies down facing up, pulling the blanket to her face and anchoring it with her feet. She beckons for Claire to come to her. When she has the children securely beside her, she lets go for a second and flips onto her stomach, making three air pockets. She rolls the children over so that they are all facedown in the sand. Holding her hair back with one hand, she drapes the blanket up and over their heads. She checks around Claire and Tom to make sure nothing is sticking outside the covering.
She hears screams—not of pain, but of horror, and she guesses that the waterfront houses are about to go. People who have not managed to get out of town are trapped like rats running for the sea. She prays an animal will not step on her or, worse, try to burrow inside.
The heat on their heads and backs is just this side of bearable. The blanket won’t stay wet for long.
“Rosie!” Grace shouts.
Grace can hear nothing.
“Squiggle back into the water till it’s up to your thighs, just short of the kids’ feet.”
“Do it, please.”
Grace follows her own instructions and is in water nearly to her waist. She wishes she had thought to make a cave for her stomach. She creates new air pockets for herself and the children.
“Whatever you do, don’t look up. Rosie, did you hear me?”
“Did you look up?”
Grace takes shallow breaths, afraid she might inhale sand. She wonders if she and her children will die like this, the fire advancing to the dune grass at the seawall and then igniting Grace’s blanket. Would it be too late by the time she felt the pain, or would she have a few seconds to get Tom and Claire into the water up to their shoulders? She might have to dunk herself and the kids if the fire gets that close. Does sand burn?
She can do nothing but wait until the fire exhausts itself. The seawater must be in the mid-sixties, and she has begun to shiver under the blanket. She has on only her cotton nightgown. The children are hardly more dressed than she. She can’t tell if the shivering is simply because of the cold, or if it stems from fear. Heat leaves the body quickly when one is lying on the ground, though the top of her feels as if it might sear at any minute. She would rather suffer the cold until the fire is well and truly out. How long will that take?
Around her, she hears timbers crashing, grass crackling. How many people are on the beach now? She doesn’t dare look. She wishes she could calm herself, but it’s impossible with the shivering. She has only one task now, to save her children.
And then Rosie’s children and Rosie.
The shaking becomes so severe, the children seem to catch it. Nature’s way of keeping them warm inside.
When she can no longer resist peeking, the moon is red. Burned trees fall to the ground amid showers of sparks. The entire town, for as far as Grace can see, is ablaze. Nothing moves but the fire—hungry, angry, relentless.
This must be what hell is like, she thinks as she lowers the blanket.
Excerpted from THE STARS ARE FIRE by Anita Shreve. Copyright © 2017 by Anita Shreve, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.