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On Fire

by Kara Oakleaf

     We gather in the park for fireworks, my wife and daughter on a fleece blanket I’ve spread across the grass. It’s nearly dark, but miles north, the sky is orange above a ground crackling with flames. We’re far into the safe zone, but sometimes, I smell the tinge of smoke.

           While we wait, my daughter, who believes in aliens, scans the skies for lights. She used to be afraid, but lately, she searches for them with a kind of a wish in her voice. She wants something to be out there. Something intelligent enough to span the miles, something that might drop to Earth and whisk us away before our planet burns. She scans the NASA children’s website for articles about Goldilocks planets, worlds nestled in those magic corners of a solar system that offer the possibility of life. There may be millions of Earths out there, ones that are not on fire.

           There’s a faint whistle as the first fireworks ascend and explode into color, long strands of gold and purple threaded against the darkness. Each boom sounds like the smashing of some enormous, precious thing we can’t repair.

           “They look like signal flares, don’t they?” my daughter asks, her wide eyes reflecting the lit-up sky. “We’re here. Come get us,” she whispers into the dark. Above us, a dozen small bursts of color flicker and hiss like radio static. At night, while our daughter waits for rescue, my wife and I count the shifting miles of the safe zone.

           Another flare, and another and another. The sparks trace their paths toward the ground. I stare down the stubborn ones, glimmers of flame that threaten to touch the trees on the horizon before they blink out.

Author's Note

Before I knew anything else about this story, I had piece of a sentence in my head: something about fireworks and distress signals. The one thing that image told me is there must have been someone in danger. Someone hoping to be saved.

Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Pithead Chapel, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, as a finalist for Best Small Fictions, and appears in the Bloomsbury anthology Short-Form Creative Writing. Kara received her M.F.A. at George Mason University, where she now teaches writing and literature, and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival. Find more of her work at

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