The Leaving Playlist

James Costigan

© Copyright 2018 by James Costigan

Photo of California wild fire.

This piece is about my experience evacuating during this past year's historic fires in Southern California. During one of the most memorable weeks of my life, I learned about how lucky I am to be alive and surrounded by loved ones.

Led Zeppelin fills the air like smoke. Heads bob, and boys form a pack on the back stair of the dormitory, an ebb and flow of bodies like an ever-changing herd of wildebeest. Study hall is over—this Monday it has lasted all of a few minutes.

Do they know?” someone asks. “Should we tell them?”

They sent an email,” another boy interjects. “They said keep studying and go back to your rooms.”

Heads nod. I turn up the volume on the music. Later we’ll know whether or not school will be cancelled tomorrow. Either we’ll have to evacuate, or we’ll have to do our homework. No matter what it’s going to be a late night.

A group of about six boys, phones in hand, cackling, suddenly run outside and begin to shake their bodies in some strange dance. They form a circle and bark things like “The end-times have arrived” and “All we can do now is devote ourselves to the Dark One!” I laugh, and someone elbows me in the ribs. I turn around, recognizing Charlie’s blond hair and toothy grin, and the many-times-broken nose.

You seen Frankie’s post?” he says.

I haven’t been on my phone—” giggling, Charlie holds up his Android for me.

The screen displays a brightly-colored photograph of the same night sky we’ve been watching for ourselves. The hills are a mound of glowing ember, the clouds composed entirely of smoke. The caption reads: “When Frankie’s mixtape drops.”


Scottish funeral bagpipes have done little to allay the over-boiling panic. Screens are ablaze with notifications and news updates. Before they made us turn it off, heavy metal was a good outlet for the group’s simmering, but the teachers wouldn’t have it—“How could you possibly think that would be acceptable?”—so we switched it off and, when they’d left, switched on the bagpipes. No one knows exactly what else to do.

Where the fire is creeping over the watershed, we can account for at least one person we know well whose house is at risk of being reduced to dust. Already, news reports are pouring in of people refusing to leave their homes behind, defending everything they own with nothing but garden hoses and buckets of sand. Some of those at-risk students are here on campus with us and can only watch the chaos unfold from a distance. Someone tells us tears are flowing in the girls’ dorm.

Charlie packs what he calls a “bug-out-bag.” This is beginning to look like a good idea. Still, we hear reports from the teachers that the likelihood of evacuation is slim. We’re told more forcefully to remain in our rooms, and the prefects summoned curtly to a meeting in the common room. The bagpipes have begun to sound sweet, almost like violins, and I can’t help but think of that persistent string quartet on the deck of the Titanic.

We shut off the futile music and sneak along the hallways to the corner beside the common room. Voices echo off the cold tile floor. They are discussing evacuation procedure.


Spanish guitar in the dark. This is the sound of seventeen boys in their teacher’s house at midnight on a Monday. The light in the room is wavering and dim—no, this is not the faulty power, but rather a small cluster of candles we’ve set out on the floor beside a bowl of chips and candy. An email has been circulated reprimanding the student body for “insensitive and offensive” jokes about the fire, a message which has sparked some murmurs of regret; I think of Frankie’s post. Red Vines and Coca Cola are passed around the room as the boy guitarist plays his songs beside our makeshift campfire, its presence both a cruel joke and a comfort.

The power is malfunctioning, but not kaput. It seems to be cycling on and off at random intervals, and I don’t have time to set all the switches in our dorm to the “off” position, so indoor lightning ensues as I finally decide it’s time for me to pack up. They always say it’s funny the things you grab, but I don’t surprise myself. I go to boarding school, so I’m used to leaving. I grab a bag of Grandma’s home-baked cookies off a shelf and two of the stuffed animals from among my sheets. I hope the others will forgive me for leaving them behind. Every T-shirt has a memory attached, and how could I leave that old sweatshirt I love? I grab my violin and ukulele, thinking what a shame it is I have to leave all my record albums, gifts from older friends and family who’ve passed me some of their favorite past-made-present souvenirs in the form of scratched-up audio waves. They have a resigned, jaded way of shrivelling up when they burn.


Billy Joel’s voice fills what air there is left in the space between the crammed bodies on the bus, the sound of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on someone’s bluetooth speaker joining the din of voices. I shout at Eli, who sits next to me, that we had better open a window if we don’t want to suffocate. The familiar smell of barbecue pours in. It’s past my bedtime by now, and all I want is a place to sleep.

Check it out,” says someone to my right.

I look out the window, and another voice joins in. “It’s like in the movies, when they, like, raid a town and burn it down. You know, raped and pillaged.”

The bus has surmounted a ridge. Behind us, fire-truck lights are still visible along the hilltops, as teams of firemen attempt in vain to prevent flames from spilling down the hillside. Down to our left lie more lowlands, and I see what the boys beside me mean. There’s a town below us that is burning. I can see different city-blocks afire, structures whose roofs are beginning to cave in, the same way Tolkien describes the dragon-raid on the town of Dale. I half-listen for the panicked ringing of church bells to mark the disaster.

Yeah,” the first voice agrees. “Raped and goddamn pillaged.” Indelicate, but apt.

The bus finally stops an hour later. We get off, and head into a brightly-lit school gymnasium. People scoff at me as I lumber inside carrying my two instruments and heavy backpack. Some have come with little more than the clothes on their backs.

I am glad when the girls arrive. We will take refuge for the night on the hard gymnasium floor, and all around the room we gather like so many fortunate refugees to make camp. Friends form blocks together, and we laugh, and greet each other and summon the newcomers as more bus-fulls flood inside.


In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet…” Around the dinner table, we laugh and mouth along with the words of our favorite musical. This morning we were told to find a friend who lives nearby—“anyplace you can stay”—and go there. I was lucky enough to be approached and have found a new spot to sleep along with seven others.

The place we’re staying has a railing-lined pergola, styled like an Italian villa and complete with a pool and spa, from which we can watch the smoke roll in over the valley, a foggy harbinger of destruction. Of course, it is nighttime now, so all we can do is close the windows and wait for morning. Here, we are in hiatus, a collective holding of the breath before we learn where we’ll be headed next.

In the meantime, we’re well taken care of. Dinner is prepared at our convenience, and songs we request are pumped through the house’s speakers. Later, we chat in the living room, play Monopoly, and watch Dave Chappelle’s stand-up comedy for hours on end. We take turns laughing and cringing while he talks about Bill Cosby, and for a little while, we forget that we’re only here in passing.


Sweet Home Alabama” fills one of my ears, and the girl sitting beside me snuggles into my torso, hogging the other earbud. The word is finally in—we’re headed up North, where I live. Some people aren’t lucky enough to be able to make it home using the school’s shuttle busses alone, so I’m letting a few of them crash at my house until they can book a plane flight home out of SFO. I lightly jostle the girl in the uncomfortable seat next to mine, who is nearly sleeping, and point out the window. There is a building I recognize, a giant warehouse with a neon sign for a “Buy, Buy Baby” outlet. Every year, they deck the place out with a million winking holiday lights, with elves and presents and Stars of David and Santa Clauses abounding. We are close to my house now: I remember driving by here when I was barely tall enough to peer out the window, I remember that stomach-drop Christmas feeling, I can’t help but smile. I’d almost forgotten about this place. My companion smiles at the building’s diorama frame. I glimpse a snowflake of ash on her sleeve, and brush it away.

When finally my dad pulls into our driveway with a carful of wayfaring bus-stop children, my mother rushes out of the house. She pulls at my door handle before my dad puts us in park, let alone unlocks the door. She isn’t crying, just smiling from ear to ear. I think she’s excited to start mothering, and she helps with our luggage and says how excited she is to get to know my friends. She helps us all the way to the warm embrace of the hot tub in the backyard, which I’ve dreamed of on our long greasy bus-rides.

A girl named Daisy from the grade below me, who I don’t know so well, doesn’t join us. She must be dreading the state of her home-away-from-home. Even among the rest of us, her melancholy is omnipresent.


I really can’t go…”

Over the outdoor speakers, a voice chimes the lyrics to a Christmas classic: “Baby it’s cold outside…” As the tenor’s voice hangs on the brisk, still air, my bus-companion now completes a wonderful twirl, and novice skaters catch themselves on the railing as they look on. She has put off her plane flight for a day.

I can’t believe this,” she exclaims. “I didn’t even know they had these!”

I am amazed at what someone who is so knowledgeable about the sport could not have experienced a place like this before. Of course, I think to myself, she’s never seen a skate rink with palm trees sticking out of it before.

I challenge her to a game of tag, and suddenly she’s off into the crowd, ducking elbows left and right. Just to add to my being a novice, one of my skates is overlarge, and when I press on it it flops over like a rag doll; I wobble after her, careful not to take down any strangers.

When I find her, she is waiting for me along the wall where we began. I grab hold of her—not to win, but to steady myself.

This would be a lot cuter if you were better than me,” she says.

Hey, I’m allowed to be bad at things. I feel roasted.”

Too soon, man,” she jokes. “Too soon.” I’m standing to my full height now; my skates must be higher than hers because I’m taller. Steadier now, I’m still holding onto her.

All of a sudden, I feel lucky as hell. I think about how insurance-company-chartered fireteams saved the campus and my music with it—the records, while faraway, are safe—and let everything around the place burn. I wonder and about the Moores’ spot in the hills, about the homes of the many migrant farm laborers, and Judy Munzig’s ranch, which was already operating at a loss before the fire came.

I’m glad I packed what I packed—I’m glad I brought what I brought: Grandmother’s cooking, Grandfather’s jacket, my stuffed companions. But I don’t think it will ever feel easy, stuffing them all into a bag. The rink is closing now. I stumble outside and dig for my shoes while the girl waits. When I catch up to her, I point to the ferris wheel: “Wanna ride that?”

I’m scared of ferris wheels,” she giggles nervously as the wind picks up, and I take her hand.

I am a senior at The Thacher School in Ojai, California. I have studied at programs such as the Kenyon Young Writers’ Workshop and continually published work in my school’s literary journal. I have also completed a full-length screenplay with the help professional screenwriter J.B. White. I live in Los Gatos, California with my family.

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