"Trees! Go for the trees!"
I could only hope she heard me before the jaws closed in. These weren't the Andersons’ puppies. These dogs were desperate.
The closest animal bit down hard, the mangy creature getting its jaws around my arm and digging in.
The pain was a jolt to the system, and it put my other arm in motion. I swung wildly, hoping for an impact, for something that would force him to let go, but my captor had no interest in releasing his grip.
He was hungry.
We were all hungry.
The lab pressed his face into mine. Black-brown teeth and foul breath gave way to the smoky haze. I swung my hand around and got a grip on his throat, but it didn't last. The dog was faster and far more cunning. Animals like these had survived the end. They proved they were supposed to be here.
My daughter's voice provided all to motivation I needed to keep swinging. The lab pulled back, and the mangy shepherd that had tackled me lost his grip.
I had my break and rolled over to my knees, only to have the heavy beast crash down on an unprotected back.
Paws with nails long overdue for a trim cut through the frayed fabric and left nasty scrapes on my back, but I didn't care.
All I cared about in the world was half-way up the tree and struggling.
She looked so small, her arms wrapped around the dying pine. The tree was barely big enough to support her weight, let alone the smaller mutt clinging to her leg.
"Let her go!"
I lunged forward and pulled the beast off with one hand, then used the other to push Mal higher. "Climb!"
My daughter was tired, hungry, and barely awake, but she could climb.
She'd always been able to climb, even when she was little.
"She's going to fall out of that tree, John?"
Elle's voice came back to me as my only daughter used her legs to push into the lower branches.
"Stay up there. Don't come down unless I say to."
The shepherd was back, along with his partner in crime. The two of them were not satisfied with my current position, standing and moving, and not incapacitated.
There was blood in the water and these furry sharks were ready for the kill.
The lab lunged and caught my sleeve, the flannel hanging up on his teeth.
I shucked the shirt and made a play for the stick.
It wasn't the knife, but it would have to do.
I got my hands on burned wood and turned around just in time to use it to beat back one of the smaller dogs.
There were too many, and they knew. I was surrounded, and they'd had a taste of fresh meat.
"Mallory. Stay in that tree. You hear me?"
My daughter's tiny, tear-streaked face stared down at me. Her fingers clutched the bent sapling's trunk. "Dad---"
"Do you hear me? You stay in that damn tree."
The shepherd lunged and took the end of my stick across his face for his trouble. He landed hard, his squeal getting the other pack members' attention.
I needed to get them away from the camp, away from Mal.
"Stay in the tree. No matter what happens, stay in the damn tree. Do you hear me?"
The lab went for my foot but got a stick to the skull. Still, they were moving faster now, and more coordinated. They may have been hungry, but soon they'd figure out how to stop this man and his stick.
What would happen then?
Don't think about it. Think about something else.
I'd set them up down the ridge line. The ground was rough and uneven, with slick ash and dense roots. It was hard going for me. It would be hard for them.
She'll stay in the tree. She has to stay in the tree.
Please stay in the tree.
"I'm going down the ridge. I'll lead them away."
"Don't leave me!"
For a moment it wasn't Mal screaming for me not to leave her, it was Elle. I was back at the start all over again, back when it all began.
I hadn't meant to leave her. She had to know that. She had to understand.
I found Mal's face through the haze and drifting smoke, her teary eyes pinning my feet to the ground better than any snare.
If you leave her, then what happens?
What happened to Elle?
My wife was dead, and I would be too if I stayed here. This was a killing field, and the pack knew it.
"Do not come down from that tree until you hear my voice. Do you understand? Tell me you understand."
I swung the stick and pushed back an encroaching mutt. The shepherd and lab appeared to be working out a plan and hung back from their pack mates. I turned around briefly to confirm my exit path was clear, and it almost ended me. I barely got the stick back around fast enough to avoid being knocked to the ground again. The mutt backed off, but not far enough.
They were cooking up something, and I didn't like it.
"Tell me you understand, Mallory. Tell me!"
Two words, that's all it took, and all I'd ever wanted to hear from Elle.
I swung the stick one last time, then ran for the ridge and its snares. My numb leg waddled over the broken and jagged ground, but the pack wasn't moving much faster. I cleared the fishing line and had made it a few feet when one of them snarled, no doubt caught up in that invisible wire.
The bear's bell jingled and drove me further down the ridge.
Panting and the sound of their paws drove me like a wild horse down the steep incline. I used the stick for balance where I could, and to keep from slipping entirely.
To fall now would be the end. They'd close what little distance I'd put between us, and I didn't know if I'd have it in me to stop them.
And maybe that had been the plan all along.
I hadn't considered it at the time, but maybe leading them away gave Mallory a chance.
"A chance at what?"
That was Elle's voice, sharp and indignant, just like it had been when this all started. She'd always been the positive one in our relationship, the one that believed in the best, in life, and in people.
She died because of that belief.
I harbored no such illusions, but deep down wished I did.
Life would be better if there were hope.
But hope burned.
I scrambled past another snare, pausing only briefly to catch the near-invisible cord with my stick. I'd hoped to nab breakfast in it, now was using it to try to slow down the inevitable.
The lead mutt narrowly avoided losing a foot to the loop, but plowed past fast enough to pull the entire line out of the ground.
Was I far enough now? Would this be where I made my final stand?
I wrapped an arm around the closest trunk and used it to slingshot around a jagged turn. The dogs followed, hot on my heels and navigating the broken earth with more skill than I expected.
Trees rolled past, along with knotted earth. The incline picked up, and it took all I had to keep myself up right. The last snare was right around the corner, and it wasn't until I cleared that turn that I remembered the dog.
She hadn't forgotten about me.
Her bark caught me off-guard, and I missed my footing. The ground came up fast, and I tumbled the last few feet, coming to a stop beneath the matted fur of her neck.
The other dogs closed it, hungry, angry, and keen to collect their prize.
Furry faces brought back memories of the Anderson's puppy farm. Back then, life had been worth living.
Maybe Mal's life would be worth living. Maybe she would find a way out of this nightmare, something beyond the burning edge of the book of life.
I wondered all of that as the teeth and jaws closed in, and as the first embers caught the breeze.
The fire was coming.