They live on streets where houses have vanished, children no longer play and a walk down the block is a heartbreaking journey.
In the four months since a capricious firestorm spared their homes while annihilating their neighborhoods, these surviving families have been trapped in a nightmare world with a warped and eerie landscape.
They feel sad, lonely and guilty.
And they apologize for complaining.
After all, they are the lucky ones, a cold truth that slices through them when they see an old neighbor.
"It's hard to look into their eyes and talk about their loss and what they're going through, especially when you know some of them are not coming back," said Danae Dybas, whose Mystic Hills home stands on a devastated street. "Knowing we made it through this, there's an almost overwhelming sense of guilt."
As former neighbors immerse themselves in rebuilding plans, residents who remained in areas ruined in the Oct. 27 wildfire that claimed 366 homes--the worst disaster in Orange County since the flood of 1938--are trying to shake the despair that followed initial relief that their homes were left standing.
Some feel their lives will never be the same, even when their neighbors physically recover.
"The worst part is, it's over for all of us," said Linda Altdorffer, whose Mystic Hills home suffered relatively minor damage. "Somehow it's just torn everybody's lives apart."
Mike Heintz, a survivor from the heavily burned Canyon Acres community, put it another way.
"It's like your whole family got wiped out in some strange accident and you're still left," he said.
The house that most exemplifies the pick-and-choose monster blaze is the stucco edifice built by To Cong Bui. Immediately after the fire, photographs of the lone tile-capped structure amid rows of utter devastation were played across the front pages of newspapers and on television.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Bui and his wife, Doris Bui-Bender, sat on their concrete deck overlooking the baked hillside and talked with friends about the invisible scars that the blaze left behind.
"Everybody assumes you're happy because you still have your house, but it's not that way," said Bui-Bender, adding that some people now treat her as if she has "a different God."
"To live here in this neighborhood . . ." she started, her voice trailing off to a heavy sigh and a shrug of the shoulders.
"I can still feel the pain here," added Danae Dybas, who had stopped to visit while she and her husband Jeff were walking their dogs. The Dybases say they mostly miss the delights of nature that once brightened their days--the lush natural landscape, the deer on the hillside.
One deer perished in the fire, apparently trying to escape, they said, leaving a splash of blood on their driveway, a grim reminder of a horror-packed day.
"We tried to scrub it off and it won't come off," Dybas said. "I still look at those drops in the driveway."
The Dybases say their home suffered $125,000 damage in the fire, a reality that barely elicits sympathy when others lost all but a slab of concrete.
"They have proof of their loss," Dybas said. "I feel we have to prove ourselves all the time."
If the days are dreary for these survivors, the nights are no picnic either.
With the street lights gone, chimneys rise like tombstones in the dark, and the Dybases tote a flashlight when they venture onto the funereal landscape.
"There's an eerie stillness, especially at night," Dybas said. "There's nobody to run to if you have a problem."
Linda Altdorffer, who used to stride daily down Skyline Drive and up Park Avenue, has halted that exercise altogether.
"The walks are over," Altdorffer said. "I tried walking once and I can't do it. It's just too sad. You don't go outside anymore. You can't go outside and feel good about it when you see this devastation . . . and you've got to live in it."
Speaking from the fortress that is her comfortable living room, Altdorffer recalled how her garden, deck and roof were burned in the blaze. "Minor," she said.
But the fire had "a devastating effect" on her youngsters, especially a daughter who Altdorffer said has slept fitfully and had "panic attacks" since the fire. The playmates who once zipped merrily along Tahiti Avenue on bicycles have disappeared.
"The (main) drawback was losing the friends, all the people who used to be here," Altdorffer said, adding that she now has fewer visitors. "People just don't come up the way they used to, just don't want to see it."
Then Altdorffer walks out onto her deck, which overlooks the gray hillside. She apologizes for not being "more positive."
In a valley below Mystic Hills, in the heavily burned Canyon Acres community, Mike Heintz sits in the wood and shingle home he has leased for seven years and speaks with a similar sadness.
With his ravaged neighborhood peering in from almost every window, Heintz balances a coffee cup on his knee and tries to explain how he feels.
"Just about everything has changed now," he said, the sounds of a wind chime and a rooster filtering into the cozy living room. "It's such a tremendous heartbreak every time I look out the window or stop to think about it. I had a couple days last week that I felt almost happy, almost up to par."
Like the others whose homes endured, the 51-year-old jeweler is deeply sympathetic toward his burned-out neighbors, and said he understands why some of them felt "almost bitter" toward him after the fire.
"That's something you really have to work your way through," he said.
Heintz agrees it has been tough to get friends to venture into his less-than-inviting community.
Instead, he said, Canyon Acres Drive draws a stream of "looky-loos," sightseers who roll steadily through the stricken communities, sometimes with a video recorder pressed to the vehicle window.
"They look at you like you're in a zoo," Heintz said. "The weekends, you almost feel like it's a little cruel."
Soon, however, the curious are expected to give way to work crews as a torrent of construction gets underway.
This, too, will test the nerves of the frazzled group who survived round one of this disaster. With sound buffers burned to the ground, a lone hammer can sound like a gunshot, Heintz said. And then there's the traffic.
"It's going to be real difficult just to get through the tangle of vehicles," he said.
Mystic Hills resident Lou Shannon, 75, said the construction phase will be like "living in a tract house while it's being built."
"Our existence will be more messed up than it is now, that's for sure," he said.
Mystic Hills Homeowners Assn. President David Horne said his group is aware of the problems facing these families and has created an "existing homes committee" to help them.
"We didn't realize anywhere near the trouble they were having until they began telling us," he said. "It made us suddenly go, 'Holy Cow. We were thinking they were lucky.'
"In a sense they were, they didn't lose their things," he added. "But they have an additional burden to bear now. They're going to have to deal with construction traffic for the next year and a half."
Still, it is the rebuilding that signals promise for these neighborhoods. Some people are looking forward to it.
On a recent afternoon, Martin Pestana busied himself trimming a healthy hedge at his Coral Drive home. Across the street, the foliage is still black.
"I'll be glad to see them back and rebuilding," he said.