Stepping through the door, the first sense to activate is my nose.
I look around. I’m inside a home. Windows and doors and solid walls. So basically the home is doing its job of keeping all the outside stuff . . . Outside and ditto with the inside stuff in. We’re not talking hermetic, airtight seals here, but the only stuff that might’ve got in was when I opened the door and came through, so that would be stuff from my previous world.
So why does it smell like I’m standing insight a lit cigarette?
Okay, a little hyperbole there. But only in that it’s pretty much physically impossible to do what I just said. Nevertheless, the smell of smoke in this house is . . . Beyond pervasive. It’s in everything. The furniture. The fixtures. The walls. It’s just part of this house.
I look out the window and I can see why. It looks . . . Foggy out there. Kind of dark. Everything shrouded. Except I can tell by the distorted, filtered light that it’s not fog but smoke. A lot of smoke. Giving it that post-apocalyptic zombie-movie feel.
I know it’s smoke out there because I’ve seen conditions like this before. I’ve personally experienced them.
If you’re from California, as I’ve said before, you’re likely familiar with earthquakes. There’s another thing you’re probably familiar with on some level.
You might think that smoke is smoke, and comes in only one variety. You’d be wrong. Each type of smoke has its own makeup, its own melange . . . It’s own chemical cocktail if you will. They all smell different. You’ve got your distinctive barbecue flavor. The wood-burning fireplace scent. The campfire in the woods particular bouquet. They’re all specific smells. And for the most part, people enjoy some or all of them. You can’t beat the sharp woody scent of a wood-burning fire on a frosty morning, or an icy night. It unavoidably congers images of warm cozy homes with hot chocolate and smores.
Wildfires are a little different. They’re uncontrolled. They’re . . . Out of control. Sure, there are such things as controlled fires that the forestry service conducts to prevent future raging wildfires, but they’re usually on the small scale. The thing about a wildfire is that once it gets going – especially when it’s in the middle of nowhere – it gets going fast. Add a good strong wind and it becomes an uncontrollable beast, consuming acres and acres of forest in a short amount of time. And with that raging fire comes an immense amount of smoke. These types of wildfires definitely have an effect on people, and again for the most part, they’re in very rural or even undeveloped areas, so we’re not talking about a lot of people.
And sometimes these wildfires can be so wild that they race into a nearby town or urban area, and then you’ve got a big problem on your hands. I’ve personally seen the devastating effects from these fires. In October of 2017 the Tubbs fire ripped through Napa and Sonoma counties, in Northern California, burning 36,810 acres. 22 people were killed. 5,643 structures were destroyed, including 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa. The damage was estimated at $1.2 billion. It was the second most destructive fire in California’s history. Second, because the most destructive fire in California’s history happened the following year. In November of 2018, the Camp Fire ripped through Butte County, just a few hours further north, burning 153,336 acres. 86 people were killed. It destroyed 18,804 structures. The retirement town of Paradise no longer exists because of it. The damage was estimated at $7.5 – 10 billion.
So why am I giving you this brief history lesson and spouting all these facts at you? Well, I’m Jake Fisher, so you should be used to this sort of treatment by now.
Okay, only kidding. I know that’s no excuse.
It’s the smoke.
You know what barbecue smoke smells like. It’s pretty recognizable. Same thing with campfires. That particular woody burning smell. Can’t beat it.
But a wildfire . . . That’s just a recognizable, but instead of being familiar and comforting, it’s fucking terrifying. Especially when you’ve spent weeks going to work wearing a smoke mask as you leave your home, riding BART, and in the elevator up to your floor. Then you take it off; for a moment the suffocating smoke smell is even stronger, then it finally dissipates. The AC has done its job and you can work. Then, at the end of the day, you get back in the elevator and head to the ground floor and pretty soon you start noticing the smoke, breathing it in. You forgot about it. The mask is out and back on and then you’re out walking in the thick smoke fog again back to your home. And now you’re thinking what an insensitive asshole you are for bitching about having to deal with all the smoke, when there are literally thousands of people who no longer have a place to live, and ten of others who were burned to death, trapped in their very childhood homes.
The scent is a capsule of all these memories and thoughts and emotions. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge experienced when he returned via the ghost of Christmas past to his old boarding school, except these feelings and recollections are nothing but pain and badness. And now to be in a world where this is just everyday life . . . Possibly? I don’t know and maybe I don’t want to know.
[Door unlocking, opening and slamming closed]
JAKE [whispering]: Oh shit.
RHANA: Who the fuck are you?
JAKE: Ummm . . .
RHANA: Who the fuck are you? Answer me!
JAKE: I’m . . . My name is Jake Fisher.
RHANA: And what are you doing here?
JAKE: It’s . . . It’s kind of a long story.
RHANA: How did you get inside? It was locked. I unlocked it.
JAKE: That’s . . . Part of the long story.
RHANA [getting angry]: Well, you better start telling me that story, or I’m gunna start wailing on your ass.
JAKE [trying to calm Rhana down]: Okay, okay. Take it easy. I don’t mean any harm. I’m . . . [whisper] God, I’m so sick of saying this. [end whisper] I’m from another world. I . . .
RHANA [furious]: Bullshit!
JAKE: [Sigh] It’s true.
RHANA: Fucking bullshit.
JAKE: Smell me.
RHANA [shocked]: What? What the hell did you just say?
JAKE: Smell me.
RHANA: Now why would I do that?
JAKE: Because I don’t smell like you . . . No, it’s not what you think. I don’t smell like I from here. From this world. I don’t smell of smoke.
RHANA [disbelief]: Really? But . . . How I can trust you? How do I know you won’t just smack me upside the head the second I get close to you?
JAKE: Because I won’t, but I know that’s not good enough. Here. I’ll sit on the couch. Put my hands under my legs. That way if I try anything you’ve got time to jump out of the way.
RHANA: Or punch you in the face.
JAKE [amused]: Yeah, I guess. Or that.
RHANA: Okay. Do that.
JAKE: What’s your name? As I said, I’m Jake.
JAKE: That’s a really pretty name.
RHANA: Thank you. Now stay the fuck still.
JAKE: Yes ma’am.
RHANA: Don’t fucking call me that.
JAKE: No m—, sorry Rhana. I won’t.
RHANA: [emphatic sniffing sound] [disbelief:] Holy shit. [another sniffing sound] Holy fucking shit. You’re right! I don’t smell smoke!
JAKE: Told ya.
RHANA: I smell . . . Other things. Food. And oil. And sweat.
JAKE: Er, yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been . . . Traveling for a long while. Haven’t really had the chance to shower.
RHANA: Huh, no shit. I’d offer you one, but water is kind of a precious resource here.
JAKE: So there’s really smoke all the time?
RHANA: Yes! Where the fuck have you . . . Oh right. It started out like all fires do, except they didn’t get stopped and kept getting bigger. Whole towns went up. Then cities. A lot of people died. Burned to a crisp. You can’t go outside now without a mask. Unless you’ve given up and want to go the hard way.
JAKE: Fuck that’s brutal. I can’t . . . I can’t imagine a world like that.
RHANA: Your world isn’t like that?
JAKE: No. None of the worlds I’ve visited have ever been like this one.
RHANA: Starless. It’s what I call this world now. Because I don’t see the stars anymore.
JAKE: Jesus. I’m so sorry.
RHANA: How do you do it? Get from world to world?
JAKE: It’s . . . It’s nothing to do with me. At leased I don’t think it is. There’s this place called Ostium where it all started. And these doors lead to different places in time, different worlds. And now I’m trying to find my way back to Ostium. Trying to find that right door.
RHANA: So it could be this one?
JAKE: Yes, it could be. I never know until I go through.
RHANA: Well we better get you out of this world and into the next one. How much time do you have?
JAKE: A little.
RHANA: How do you know?
JAKE: It’s a sense I have. I am sort of connected with this whole Ostium thing, though I don’t really know how.
RHANA: Damn that’s messed up. Okay. You need to get on your way.
JAKE: Thank you, Rhana. For . . . For believing me. For helping me.
RHANA: You’re welcome.
JAKE: This all could’ve gone a very different way. Why do you trust me?
RHANA: [breath] Because . . . Because I have to. I have to believe . . . I have to believe there are better worlds than this one. And you are my hope. My belief.
JAKE: That’s beautiful.
RHANA: Aw, shucks. Now, get a move on.
JAKE: Actually, there’s a little favor I need. I’ve been bringing back little trinkets from each of the worlds I visit. Something that has meaning to this place. To . . . Starless.
RHANA [serious]: That helps . . . A little. Here, I’ve got this. [Taking something from a box]
JAKE: What is it? A charred piece of wood?
RHANA: It’s . . . A memento. From the house I grew up in. Burned to the ground like everything fucking else in this world. But I wanted to keep a piece. Thought it would be sentimental, but honestly, I haven’t thought about it or looked at it in ages.
JAKE: Thank you again, Rhana. That’s perfect. And for what it’s worth: don’t give up. You’re alive. There might be somewhere out there that’s still standing. Where there’s no smoke.
RHANA: You read my mind, man. I think about that every time I go to bed at night. And every morning I’m thankful I’ve got another day to try and find it.
JAKE: I’d offer to take you with me, but I don’t think the laws of the universe would allow it. Plus, you probably wouldn’t come.
RHANA: Damn right I wouldn’t. I belong here. In Starless.
JAKE: Well, see you in another life, maybe. Rhana: it was a pleasure meeting you.
RHANA: You too Jake.
[Door opening, door closing].
RHANA [quietly]: There’s gotta be a better world than this one.