We woke under a fresh, gray blanket of ash, our two sleeping bags covered as if by a gently falling snow. It was summer in western Colorado, and a nearby wildfire had blown up during the night, burned through a few rural neighborhoods and then engulfed a big chunk of National Forest. We had camped near a stream in the bottom of a canyon, figuring the rim would make a good fire break if the wind turned on us, which had worked so far.
Most of last night my wife and I had been focused on the fire, me with a notebook, Regan with her camera and tripod. Until about two in the morning we had crept and run through a landscape weeping with conflagration, me writing about the intense heat and the animal-like movement of flames, her taking time exposures of trees torching into their crowns. This was our sixth big fire of the season. The first one had been a magazine assignment, but after that we wanted more, drawn to the incendiary atmosphere of incident command centers, helicopters landing in the field while soot-faced firefighters slept on the ground. We flashed press credentials to get through police barricades, picked up Nomex and survival gear at equipment tents, and raced around fires with crews wielding Pulaski's like medieval weapons. Bombers roared overhead. Houses whipped up into tornadoes of flame.
Regan and I are prone to this sort of fascination. We are wilderness junkies, she and I, drawn to landscapes beyond our control, places where elements rule and humans are fleeting. We would change our focus season by season; sand dunes, then volcanoes, then mountains. This season was fire. It was romantic, really. Last night crews had been evacuated due to unpredictable winds, while Regan and I remained in the violent, ethereal glow. When the wind died back the fire seemed gentle, as if the forest were lit by torches and candelabras. When it picked up again, we fled, sprinting through clearings, avoiding stands of oakbrush that ignited with meteoric speed, trees lighting up around us in a sucking rush of air.
In the first brassy light of morning, sun coming through smoke and slants of trees, we got out of our bags, dusted off our boots. Regan went over to our truck, pulled out a brown paper bag that she held in one hand.
She looked at me. "Should we do it?"
I looked at her, the bag, her again. I almost forgot that in the last town we had bought a pregnancy test. The fire had been so dazzling it was hard to think of anything else, and maybe I didn't want to be thinking. Regan's period was two weeks late. She already thought she was pregnant, saying she felt something different inside her body, a quiet, physical illumination, as if each of her cells suddenly sparked, as if she had split into another person. I wanted proof, though.
I was already out of my bag, grabbing up gear. On the ground we left a shadow where we had slept, the only place not covered in ash. Regan went behind the truck and squatted, pissed on the test strip. As she pulled up her pants I asked, "What does it say?"
She held the test carefully, placing it on a flat rock as if it held our own delicate future. "It takes a few minutes."
As sure as she was, she wanted proof, too. She looked up and smiled like we were both crazy. We had to be, a pair of adventurers married for three years and deciding two weeks ago we wanted to have a kid. I thought it would take longer than this, though, at least to the end of fire season. I swallowed and looked back at her.
We had made no plans, other than saying a spring baby would be handy. I was willing to wait a couple of years - hell, even five would have been fine - but Regan had come to me one day with a look of shocking serenity, whispering that this was the moment. With graceful allowance she told me I had 24 hours to decide. It was not a trap. Regan is not that kind of person. She simply said it like it was, her eyes wildly dilated, as if she were a gate swinging open, ready for me to enter one way, and for a child to leave the other. Busy place down there. What else could I say? We had sex right there on the floor of our small house in the mountains. I tend to be hasty in that way. Running reckless through wildfires, per chance.
Now I found myself busying my hands, packing up gear in the smoke while the pregnancy test steeped. We needed to get out of here soon. In a couple of hours the fire would plume, a superheated gray mushroom thundering 30,000 feet into the air, its underside enraged with coal-red flames. We wanted to be in a good position to see the spectacle.
Regan lifted the test, studied it. "Ha" she cried, walking it over to me.
I stared at the plastic window in which there were two blue lines crossing each other. Positive. I tried to remember the small print on the box, 99.99% accurate. Regan and I still had glitches in our relationship, and cash needed to be set aside. We did not even have indoor plumbing. Could I get another month or two, just one more week, maybe another hour?
"That means positive?" I asked.
"That's what it means," she said.
My mind flashed ahead. Screaming. Vomit. Diapers. Tiny shoes. Bibs with cats and frogs. A high chair with plastic legs.
"I knew it," she laughed.
I took in a breath, fumbled for words, stopped fumbling.
"All right then," I said, something I often say before diving into ridiculous or dangerous situations. We got in the truck, I started it up, and we drove back into the fire.