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“You know, I'm actually getting used to this.” Kathy leant back in the passenger seat, her bare feet resting on the dashboard.
“Those poor movie stars,” said Harvey, steering with his knees and rolling a joint in his free hands. “What if Mel Gibson's place burnt down?”
Kathy laughed. “With Mel Gibson in it.”
For two days they'd driven around the Hollywood hills and Malibu beach-homes, past the smouldering peaks and TV news crews. In downtown LA they watched clouds of smoke rear like doomsday thunder above the shiny towers.
“Every time we drive this highway,” said Kathy, hanging a freckly arm from the sedan window, “something's on fire.”
“Not this joint.” Harvey had the paper pinched between his lips, sticking out from his scruffy beard. Each time he got a spark from his Zippo the flame died in the draught. “We're driving through an inferno and I can't get a light.”
They'd been volunteering at various animal evacuation centres across the state. Rather than shedding tears for a dispossessed family, the sobbing witnesses to heirlooms burning on cable news, Kathy and Harvey had thought of the wildlife, the bobcats and coyotes, the rabbits and the foals, mule deer on the hoof from leaping flame. Even the rattlesnakes, left charred and coiled like smoking turds, engendered sympathy where the scattering townsfolk did not. A woman on the I-8 reported what looked to be a mountain lion padding down the freeway, a cub dangling in its mouth. But she might have been exaggerating, seeing things in the shadow of the pyrocumulus. It made a lot of people think, the fire, the green hills glowing and the mansions of ash.
“Today,” said Kathy abruptly.
“Today?” Harvey was leant forward over the wheel, squinting his way between the traffic. “Him?” he asked, hoping.
“We need to do it. Today.”
Harvey noted the smoking hills. “It is kind of fitting. Half the state in flames.”
A year ago, in a garage filled with placards and flour bombs, Harvey had told Kathy his life story, how he used to be a steak-eating farm boy who branded pigs with red-hot irons. Until the morning his father shot his horse. “Said it was no good unless it could work.” He told Kathy this as he stapled a photo of a scalped monkey to a piece of plywood. “I cried all night. From that moment I gave up meat for good.” His father had told him to leave home if he continued to refuse his mother’s cooking, so he did.
Kathy had introduced herself as Kathy, although that wasn't her given name. Before walking into that meeting and feeling a sisterly kinship with the other volunteers, the lost kids finding a common cause, she'd been on the run for two years evading the San Diego police, a nightclub manager, a girl she'd borrowed $500 from in Bakersfield and now the Head of Security at Bioventures in Pizmo, who had a CCTV capture of her but no name. Neither the one she had given herself, nor the one chosen by her father, a man she still wakes from dreams of with her fists clenched so tight she draws blood from her palms.
“And what are the cops gonna charge us with?” asked Kathy, stealing the last of the joint from Harvey.
“If they catch us.”
“We'll be killers.”
Kathy laughed and flicked the butt from the open window. Harvey shook the wheel, jolted the car left and right, and then spat against the side of a Walmart truck, whooping, “Murder one!”
He turned inland, away from the Pacific, past the million-dollar real estate toward the shopping malls with roofs like vaulted cathedrals.
“This is what it’s all about.” Harvey gestured at the marzipan stucco of an outlet village. “Buy a pair of sneakers and a mother in Manila can get some powdered milk for her kids.” He slowed for the backed-up traffic and eased into the lane for McDonalds. “How generous we are.”
Cars queued nose to bumper, waiting to order a burger or a nugget, drawn to eat by a red and white clown, the siren on the rocks.
“Big Mac and fries?” Kathy asked sarcastically.
“Thickshake with chicken fat.”
“Pink or brown?”
“Pink. And a GM salad in a polystyrene box that would survive a nuclear winter.”
Harvey slowed before the Drive-Thru entrance. He looked across at Kathy, chewing the end of her braided hair, nervy, knees pulled tight against her chest. Then he swung the car against the kerb and put a hand on her knee.
“Don't ask me about second thoughts,” she said, pushing him away. “We've talked about this for ever.”
Harvey watched her tie her hair back. Since that meeting in San Francisco they'd thrown blood-red paint over a rancher in Escondido, poured cow piss through the skylight of a Seattle Burger King, and vowed in various letters and emails to castrate meat processing plant owners from Wyoming to Arizona.
“I'm at your command.” He leant across and kissed her. “But let me go up to the window first.”
“Just take him out.”
“I want some fun with this.” Harvey pulled back into the order lane and drove up to the speaker-phone. A plastic Ronald stood fixed at the window, the perpetual wave and smile.
“Welcome to McDonalds. How may I help you?”
“How you doin’?” Harvey grinned. Kathy was slumped in the seat like a sour teenager.
“Fine, Sir. May I take your order?”
“Yeah, yeah. Sure. I couldn’t help hankering for burger coming by Ronald back there. I mean who doesn’t love beef and bread, the way the waxy cheese sticks to the roof of your mouth, the dash of relish, not too much to take away the taste of dead cow, though.”
“Sir, would you just place an order please? We are busy.”
“It’s just that I’m quite the romantic when it comes to The Great American Burger. I mean, we all need a death sandwich to get through the day, and no one does it better then Ronald. Angina, cancer, cholesterol, heart disease, mad cow, the works.”
“Either order or move along, sir.”
Harvey turned to Kathy. “He’s still calling me sir, that’s the saddest thing I ever heard.” Harvey leant to the order stand again. “Sure, I’ll make an order. If you personally raise the calf from birth, poke it into a box and force-feed it the liquidised remains of its mother before firing a bolt into its brain, twice, maybe three times, because you’re on minimum wage and not trained or give a fuck, and then slice it up and toss it into the fryer, I’ll have a Big Mac.”
A security guard and one of the larger servers emerged from the Fire Exit of the kitchen. They strode towards the car, people on a mission. Maybe the thought of another gold star on a name badge.
“Shit, Harvey. Do it.”
Harvey wrenched the wheel and span from the order bay. He locked out the turn and tattooed burnt rubber onto the tarmac, swinging the station wagon past moms, pops and kids, all appalled with gaping burger mouths, watching a man aim then accelerate at the order stand, the helpless Ronald.
Kathy laughed and screamed, gripping the seat like an astronaut on lift-off as the security guard and server scattered. But Ronald McDonald stood his ground, a brave clown. The engine roared, and his red and white stocking legs didn't tremble until scythed at the knees.
Bits of plastic erupted above the car. Ronald bounced onto the hood, his red and white face against the windshield, no fear in his smile.
“Get the fuck off my car!” yelled Harvey, driving blind, pedal floored and pointing the car at the entrance ramp.
“The highway!” screamed Kathy.
Harvey jammed on the brakes. Ronald slid across the hood, his hand still waving, the grin fixed.
And he actually seemed to look back at the two of them in the car, a skydiver just left the plane, already accepting the parachute would fail.
Then Ronald exploded. A million shooting shards of moulded plastic, a whole universe beginning under the wheels of a screeching juggernaut. The air brakes screamed. Kids in the restaurant screamed, witnessing the obliteration of a clown, a face more familiar than the President or Jesus ground into the highway.
Harvey whooped and cheered, laughed till tears ran down his cheeks. He'd have paid his disrespects to the roadside grave a while longer had the security guard not hit the windshield so hard it cracked.
“Shit.” Harvey screeched across the meridian, the overweight guard giving up the chase after two steps. “And stay off the ice cream.”
Harvey weaved traffic. He could hardly drive for laughing. “Oh my God.”
“How messed up was that?”
“We killed him.”
“We killed Ronald.”
They had. The homicide of a plastic clown. They made their getaway toward the burning hills, turning from the highway in fear of State Troopers. “You know how cops love their junk food,” said Harvey, checking the mirrors. “They might take it seriously, 'officer down' kind of attitude.”
“The way he flew off the hood,” said Kathy, staring and pointing as though he was still there. “That stupid face looking back.”
“We might get on TV.”
“A police chase.”
“With a news chopper filming it all.”
It had felt good, to see him end like that. But as if resurrected from the grave, Ronald McDonald had stood tall at four more restaurants they drove past before hitting the back country, and once they were above the coastal plains, winding roads through ravaged brush and blackened hillsides, their mood dipped with the setting sun. Perhaps it was the polluted air. Something. Because there was a definite clown-busting comedown. By the time Harvey pulled into a rest area a pall of smoke was draped across half of California.
Watching the distant, flaring peaks, Kathy said, “You think it's safe to stay here?”
Harvey was trying to fold down the back-seat and roll out their futon. “If it gets a little toasty we can just drive.”
She watched him set out their bed and wrestle with the broken headrest. Her arms were cold, and she was thirsty and had a sore throat. There were nights on the Colorado River they had watched deer drink in the moonlight.
This would not be one of those nights. Harvey was wedged against the door trying to kick loose the jammed catch.
“We got no beer in the trunk?”
She walked over to the picnic area and sat on a table, watching the hills burn, the winking lights of the thudding helicopters dipping buckets into lakes. When she finally went back to the car and slept she dreamed of a clear blue sky where flakes of ash fell like black snow. Until Harvey woke her.
He was sat bolt upright, staring at a line of flames coursing down the hillside and licking at one of the toilet blocks. All Kathy could see was his profile against the orange window.
“Where the hell are the keys?”
“In the ignition.”
Harvey leapt over the seat-back and started the engine, swinging the station wagon from the car park with Kathy rolling around on the futon.
Pine trees exploded like fireworks. A crackling glow, like a sear in the actual mountain, had revealed its molten core, rippled its way down to the edge of the road.
“What if you hadn't woke?” asked Kathy.
Harvey wound down the window and looked at the inferno, the snap and fall of burning branches.
“You know what actually roused me?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Ronald fucking McDonald.”
“I'm not kidding. He was a giant, striding across the hills like Godzilla. Torching cars with his eyes. We were trying to hide, then he saw us and I jumped up.”
“To this,” said Kathy, watching the embers flurry and dance across the windshield, the leaping flames that jumped through the trees like a troupe of maniac clowns.
California Burning by Nicholas Hogg was read by Katy Darby at the Liars' League Nature & Nurture event on Tuesday June 14th, 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Nicholas Hogg's second novel The Hummingbird and the Bear was published in May. Winner of the New Writing Ventures award for fiction, and prizes in the Bridport and Raymond Carver short story contests, his work has also been broadcast by the BBC. His flash fiction, Father and Gun, appears in the Saatchi & Saatchi 'Photo Stories' exhibition he collaborated on with Notes from the Underground. www.nicholashogg.com