Homeland Security

The children hung back; no one wanted to climb into the cab or heft an axe. When one of the firefighters put on his gas mask—suddenly he was a goggle-eyed alien being, a menacing insect—there was a kind of collective frightened intake of breath, but nobody cried. He pulled it off, smiled, and that was that.

There was just one slightly awkward moment, when Captain Crowe instructed the children to leave their pets behind when vacating their houses. “Don’t go back for them,” he told them. “Whatever you do.” One of the other room parents made a face and said something under her breath. Then it was time then to get back to school. With a little coaching, the children expressed their collective appreciation—“Thank you Captain Crowe”—and left with suckers and stickers and coloring books. 

Homework tonight is to make a family fire escape plan. Draw or write about it. “Okay,” I say. “Let’s do it.” I’ve got a sharpened pencil and a shoe box full of crayons.

“Everyone go down the stairs and out the front door and meet at the big tree in front of our house.”

He watches as I print the words, and then below, draw a floor plan, which I label: Wilson’s room, Mom and Dad’s room, stairway. I add the main floor below, an identical rectangle, and put in a big arrow marking our path—down the stairs, out the front door. I put in a tree, a final flourish, a solid trunk, a few sturdy, leafy branches. It’s a 70-year old silver maple, home to a family of squirrels and a woodpecker and, I happen to know, scheduled to be cut down next summer when our sewer lines get replaced.

Wilson studies my tree. He’s looking glassy-eyed, tired, about to hit the wall. I should have started this earlier—it’s almost bedtime now. “What about Sparky?” he asks.

I add an oval on the main floor and label it, Sparky’s basket. “He follows us out the front door,” I say, “and he meets us at the tree.” I don’t say anything about the leave-your-pet-behind policy and hope he doesn’t mention it.

“What about the tree’s on fire?” he asks.

“Then we’ll meet somewhere else.” I see our tree aflame, the bark crackling, red embers flying. “We’ll meet in the driveway.

“The main thing,” I say, “is that we go out the door and then meet somewhere safe, some place that’s not on fire.”

I smile what I wish to be a patient, reassuring smile but I know it’s false, a liar’s grin.

“What about the door’s on fire?”

I smile what I wish to be a patient, reassuring smile but I know it’s false, a liar’s grin. “Well, then we go out a window.” I add a couple of windows to my house plan. “We just crawl right out. No problem.”

“What about the windows are on fire?”

I’ve seen the footage. Broken glass, billowing black smoke. “Well, then,” I say. “The firemen will come get us. We’ll tell them on the phone where to find us.”

He’s crying now, tears flying off his cheeks.

“What about the phone’s on fire? What about that?”

“I don’t know,” I say, and pull him onto my lap. What about that? I don’t know. I wrap my arms around him. I can feel him shaking. I can smell the smoke. I hold on for dear life.