Red Flag Warning

Foreshadowing isn't obvious when it's happening

It’s almost 10:00 pm on a warm October night in Las Vegas. Sunday, October 1st, 2017 — to be exact. I’m relaxing in my brother, Owen’s backyard hot tub. We often do this when I come to visit. I stay with my parents and go to his place in the evening to hang with his family until the kids’ bedtime. Then he and I have a couple of hours to ourselves to catch up. I’m flying back home tomorrow morning, then driving straight to my office in Sausalito.

We both wish we lived closer to each other so this was a more regular occurrence. But a series of decisions on both our parts have led us to live a 608-mile drive or an hour-and-a-half flight away from each other. They didn’t seem like life-changing decisions at the time, but here we are.

Owen’s a flight paramedic and works out of Elko, Nevada. He works four days on, then has seven days off. To get there, he flies to Salt Lake City, rents a car, then drives three-and-a-half hours to Elko for his long shift. Before this gig, he worked on an AMR ambulance here in Vegas and has the insane stories to prove it. He still picks up a shift here and there with AMR to make some extra cash on his off days.

We’re talking about our Dad who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer back in the summer.

“I get that he’s worried,” I say. “I mean, I can’t imagine what it feels like to have this thing growing in you that’s basically killing you. And you know it’s killing you, but you can’t do anything about it because there’s no cure.”

“Yeah, it’s so brutal man,” Owen says.

“I just don’t get why he keeps asking the doctors about how long he has left. What is he going to start counting down the days on the calendar or something?”

“I know. But that’s how he is. He wants to know, but it’s hard because nobody knows. The doctors for sure don’t know. They would only be guessing if they told him a timeline. It’s like—”

Owen’s Apple Watch pings on his wrist. He glances at it and says, “Holy shit.”

“What’s up?” I ask.

“It’s from AMR asking for all available people to come in. Something big is happening. I’ve never seen this before.”

He grabs his phone and texts a few buddies of his that still work for AMR. Within a few minutes, he learns there’s an active shooter situation down on The Strip.

We hop out of the hot tub, dry off, and head back into his house to turn on the news. I grab my phone to check Twitter. There were hundreds of rounds fired into a crowded concert. It looks like the shooting might be over now, but the scene is chaotic. There are dozens of ambulances lined up on the street outside the venue. And the cops still haven’t apprehended whoever did it yet. The news is saying the shots came from across the street at the Mandalay Bay hotel from a single window. I can't believe this is happening so close. We can see The Strip from Owen’s backyard.

“Wow,” I say. “Are you going to head in?”

I can tell he’s debating it. It’s a tough decision since it means he’s in for a long night. He’s also supposed to leave for Elko tomorrow, but this could upend those plans.

“I don’t know. I think so, yeah.”

It makes sense. This is part of why he got into the field. To help people when they’re having their worst days. And right now, a whole lot of people are having their worst days all at once.

He went upstairs to tell his wife Ayeesha and get changed. I waited downstairs for him and kept watching the news and checking Twitter for updates. I’m nervous that he’s going down there. Who knows if this thing is over with. 

He’s back downstairs within a few minutes. “The nice thing is there won’t be any cops on the road,” he says. He’s sitting on the bottom of his staircase tying up his boots. ”So I can drive like 100 miles per hour to get to the station.”

I give him a nervous laugh and force a smile as we walk out to the garage. Great, the last thing we need is for him to get into an accident.

“Good luck out there and be safe,” I say as he’s getting into his car.

“I will. Talk to you soon,” he says.

It’s almost 11:00 pm when I pull into my parent’s garage. We hadn’t heard from them since the news broke, so I assumed they went to bed beforehand. I debate if I should wake them up and tell them, but I decide it’s best to let them rest. I’m sure they’ll hear all about it tomorrow morning.

I’m not tired. I almost always stay up until midnight. But I’m also worried about Owen. It’s eerie being this close to something so horrific. And even eerier considering my brother is going there. I open my laptop and immediately head back to Twitter to see the latest. This is going to be a late, late night.

Around 12:30 am, I text Owen to see how it’s going. He takes a while to respond. He eventually tells me he took the last ambulance from their station and then it broke down on the way to the scene. He had to get a tow truck to take him back to the station and then he drove home to sleep.

Whew, that works. What a relief.

It’s early Monday morning. 4:17 am on Monday, October 9th, 2017 — to be exact. Allison’s phone buzzes and startles her awake, which means I’m startled awake now too. She answers it, doesn’t say a word, and hangs up. 

“Who was that?” I ask.

“It was Sara’s school saying class is canceled today due to fires in the area,” she says.

“Fires? What fires?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t say. Do you smell smoke?”

I’m not sure if I do. I’m still half asleep. “I guess it does smell a little smoky,” I say.

I grab my phone to check the news and Twitter for something about fires in the area. I find out there are several fires around Sonoma County. They have been moving fast throughout the night due to high winds and dry conditions. The same high winds that were battering our house last night. They knocked down our patio umbrella and snapped the pole on it in half too.

“Are they close?” Allison asks.

“It looks like the closest one is near Glen Ellen,” I say. Glen Ellen is about a 10-minute drive north of our house. We live in the Boyes Hot Springs area on the north end of the City of Sonoma.

“Wow, that’s pretty close.”

I realize now our room smells smokier than I first thought. We left our bedroom and master bathroom window cracked open to cool the house overnight. We decide it’s best to close the door to our room and put a towel on the floor to cover the opening at the bottom of the door.

Allison wakes up Sara, my eight-year-old stepdaughter in case we need to evacuate. We all go into our extra bedroom. The room that’s going to be our makeshift kitchen for a few months while we do a big kitchen remodeling project. The contractor is supposed to start on it in a few days when Allison and I travel to Australia for a work trip of hers.

I guess if our house burns down we’ll be doing a much, much larger project.

We put some pads and blankets on the ground. They're mostly for Sara. I don’t even bother trying to close my eyes since I know I won’t be able to sleep. Instead, my eyes are glued to my phone—to Twitter, specifically.

My mind flashes back to a conversation I had last Monday night. The night after the shooting in Vegas. I drove from work directly to The Lodge in Sonoma. Allison’s company was having a small event with drinks and hors d'oeuvres for the team and their spouses. I was talking to another husband who tagged along. He works for Cal Fire. He travels around the state working with the strategy teams on forest fires as they breakout. He was telling me how the fires spread so fast and why this time of year is especially tough. Everything is so dry since it hasn’t rained in months. We also had record rains at the end of last year and going into the beginning of this year. The grasses all grew much more lush than usual and now they’re bone dry due to the lack of rain since February. So the fuel, as he called it, is especially worrisome this fire season.

I remember something else from later that same night. Allison surprised me with a positive pregnancy test. I broke down crying. I was so happy. The tears were a release of stress and exhaustion from the previous 24+ hours, for one — the shooting in Vegas, the flight back, the workday, the commute home, and the evening social event. But they were also a release from the months and months of thinking we weren’t going to be able to have a child.

We had been trying to get pregnant for well over a year. I even did one of those sperm count tests. The one where they give you a specimen cup. Then they put you in a room filled with adult magazines and videos. And everyone that works there knows exactly what you’re about to do. So awkward.

When the results came in, the doctor said my count was “a bit low.” So Allison and I went to see a fertility specialist. She was an intense, boisterous woman and she jumped to in vitro insemination way too fast. It was like she was pitching us a timeshare and was trying to close us as fast as possible. Complete with the glossy brochures about financing and everything. 

I need to find a mask for Allison. She can’t be breathing in this smoky air while she's carrying our baby.

It’s been over 24 hours since we left Sonoma. We landed a few minutes ago in Brisbane, Australia after a layover in Sydney. It’s 7:30 pm on October 16, 2017, in California, which means it’s 12:30 pm on October 17, 2017, here — to be exact.

We’re greeted by our escort, I'll call him Steve. He’s right outside our gate. We’re taken aback since you can’t do that in U.S. airports anymore. He’s an older man, nearing eighty-years-old. He’s dressed impeccably in a suit and tie with smart-looking glasses, the fingers in his hands locked together behind his back with a newspaper tucked under his arm — he’s an old-fashioned type. Meanwhile, the rest of us feel grubby and in desperate need of a shower.

Allison and her boss will be meeting with him and his business partners in the coming days. I can work from anywhere with a WiFi connection, so I decided to tag along since I’ve never been to Australia before.

This trip almost didn’t happen. Last week, the fires came within a couple of miles of our house, as the crow flies. We were under an evacuation warning, rather than a mandatory evacuation. In fact, there’s still an evacuation warning at our house now, but it’s looking like it will be lifted soon. We stayed at Allison’s Mom’s house for two nights, mostly so we could all be together in case we had to evacuate. But also because their kitchen wasn’t empty like ours was because of the remodeling project. The now delayed project due to the fires.

I did find masks for us. But the smoke was so terrible every day, we decided to get out of town. We went over to Petaluma in the family motorhome and parked it at Allison’s Grandma’s house. We were there for another three nights. Allison, Sara, Allison’s younger brother Casey, our dog Ella, our cat Mocha, and me.

We were supposed to leave for this trip three days ago. It felt wrong to leave earlier when we had family members in the area who could’ve had to evacuate at a moment’s notice. It still feels strange being away. The fires are more contained, but they haven’t stopped burning. If there’s a big wind event, they could spread again. Now we’re on a different continent, a full day’s travel away, in a time zone seventeen hours ahead of our loved ones in California.

We follow Steve to his black Mercedes Benz. He opens the front-right door and climbs in the car. What the hell is he do—? Oh, that’s right. They drive on the opposite side of the road here. This should be interesting.

As we drive, he's holding court. Man, this guy enjoys the sound of his own voice. He’s telling us all about the different landmarks we’re passing. He knows a lot about Brisbane and has lived here for a long time. You can tell he cares a lot about it. And he cares a lot about his country. He’s also not shy about sharing how he feels about our president. I think he’s said the word idiot at least five times when talking about Trump.

As we arrive downtown, I can tell Allison isn’t feeling well. Steve isn’t exactly the smoothest driver. It doesn’t help that we’re driving on the opposite side of the road than she’s used to. I ask him if he could drive a bit slower. It doesn’t seem to do much. He’s too busy talking and he knows the roads well.

“Can you please pull over somewhere?” Allison asks. She’s looking pale. She gets motion sick easily. But she and I both know this is something else. It's morning sickness.

He pulls over and she gets out to walk around and get some air. She rounds a corner and comes back within a couple of minutes. I don’t know if she got sick and I don’t ask her. The color starts returning to her face and I tell her, “We’ll be at the hotel soon.”

We arrive at our room and I stop the timer on my iPhone. I started it when we left our house to see how long the trip would take. It’s been exactly 25:24:09:16—twenty-five hours, twenty-four minutes, nine seconds, and sixteen-hundredths of a second. Time for a shower and a nap before dinner.

Round-numbered birthdays are always a mixed bag. It’s Monday, October 30, 2017, and I turn forty-years-old today — to be exact.

If I’m being honest, I don’t get all that excited for my birthday, in general. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being able to spend it with my family. And it’s nice to get cards and presents from them. The reality is, my birthday serves as an annual reminder that I’m not getting any younger. And the three turning to a four at the beginning of my age this year isn’t helping matters. 

Hang on though. We have a baby on the way. Only Allison, her OBGYN, her chiropractor, Sara, and I know at this point. In fact, after me, her chiropractor was the first person she told. Before Sara even. She wanted to make sure the chiropractor didn’t do any adjustments that might harm the baby.

This baby signals a new chapter in my life. Maybe it’s fitting I’m also entering the next decade of my life at the same time. The future is looking bright. It can’t get any crazier than this month was. Right?

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash