I tried to push myself up, but the dogs were too strong, and too many. Jaws bit and teeth tore. Blood filled my eyes and mixed with the scorched orange sky.
Smoke rolled over us like a derelict wave. It slipped between the trees and hugged the ground. The hazy cloud burned my lungs and stung my eyes, but still the animals didn't relent.
Hunger drove them.
It drove them like it drove all things.
They thought life would end, but even the computers knew. Life's only goal is to keep living, in whatever way possible.
The shuddering sound of splitting pine brought me back and forced my arms into motion. The lab was there, as was the shepherd, but the beast caught up in my snare hadn't attacked.
I didn't have time to focus on that as the first fires sparked on the dry tinder of the forest floor. It had been so long since we'd seen rain, so long. The ground was parched and cracked like an old woman’s lips, and she caught fire without a moment's hesitation.
The dogs backed off, unsure what to do. The mental battle between food and fire played out on their canine faces.
My fingers found the stick, and I pulled myself up. The beasts circled, afraid of the coming fire, and of the stick, but hungry.
We were all hungry.
The lab jumped, and it took everything I had to knock it aside.
Another one would be too much. I didn't have the strength for it, but I had to get back to Mal.
She'd be okay.
I didn't know that. She was in the tree when I left her, and the forest was burning. The sky darkened as smoke smothered the ridge line.
"Come on!" I shouted, my voice raw and spent. "Who wants it? Who wants to eat?"
There was a hungry behind those eyes, but there was something else too, intelligence.
They'd run the fire's edge for a while, not unlike Mal and me. We were all being herded, like the last of the woodland creatures that raced out ahead of us, but to where?
An old and withered pine nearby split under the heat as fire raced up its paper-thin and sap-laden bark.
The forest was coming down, and all I could think about was Mal's tree, and the little girl clinging on for dear life in its branches.
I swung the stick again, doing what I could to keep the hesitant dogs away. The snared canine growled near me, but at what I couldn't be certain. I needed a break, an opening, a way to get back to Mal before the fires consumed her, and the forest.
Another pop and crackle, and the dogs dispersed, all except the one still caught up in old fishing line.
I had my opening.
I dropped the stick and ran, numb leg and all, into the flames.
Four or five feet was all the distance I made.
The old pine gave way, a product of the droughts and perfect fuel for the end of the world. It split apart and knocked me to the ground.
The thick trunk pinned me between thick roots, my already weak leg now a liability beneath the fiery and sap-covered wood.
She was still in the camp. The girl was smart, but she was also alone, and scared. Somewhere behind me, past the edge of the trunk I could see, the dog whimpered.
I wanted to whimper too. I wanted to cry out and rail against a world that decided it didn't like the life it had created, but nothing was more important than Mallory.
I pulled on the dense roots, while the tips of flame that spread across the top licked at my fingers.
The fire had finally caught up to us. Mal and I had run the edge so long I'd almost lost count.
I'd thought we could stay one step ahead of it, that we could outrun the inevitable, but that was the futile thinking of an old and broken man.
I screamed her name again in the smoke and embers, wondering if she would hear me, or if it would matter.
Would she run? Would she get away, or would the fire consume her like it was about to consume me.
I yanked at my leg again, but it refused to move. The burning trunk showed no interest in giving up its prize.
Somewhere behind me, the dog’s yelps and whimpers continued unabated.
They didn't sound like a dog anymore. They sounded like Mal, and like her mother. The only ladies that mattered to me, their cries tearing at my heart.
I'd failed them.
The world failed them.
Maybe she was better off this way.
"Am I better off?"
Elle's voice floated on the burning embers and echoed in the cracks between the falling timber.
"Am I better off?"
"Maybe you are," I cried, my burnt hands clawing at the thick roots. "Maybe you are better off. You don't get to watch it burn. You don't get to see the end reflected in your daughter's eyes. You don't get to be me. Why did you do it, Elle? Why?"
"So you could be strong."
I wasn't strong. I was the opposite of strong. I was a weak and broken father, laid low by burning brush and a handful of dogs. I had failed.
"You haven't failed. You’re still breathing."
The smoke burned my eyes and filled my lungs. I wasn't going to be breathing much longer.
"Why, Elle? Why did you leave us?"
"Because I loved you, just like she loves you. Now go."
My wife's whispering words died out on the sound of the dog's cries.
"Go, John, before it's too late."
I grabbed the roots and pulled. Something popped, but the pain that followed was lost to smoke and adrenaline. My leg slipped free, and I crawled to my knees.
I found the dog in the smoke. She'd been burned, and the trunk had caught my snare. The line held her tight.
Fire reflected in the dog's brown eyes. Brown eyes that reminded me of Mal, and of her mother.
I stumbled a few steps toward the inferno. Part of me knew my daughter was lost, a sacrifice to the fiery end of all things, but I couldn't give up on her, even if it meant the end for me as well.
The dog cried out again, its yelping bark a mixture of sounds that was life.
Even if we died, something would live.
I would see to that.
I turned back, tripping over roots and barely staying upright on a leg that no longer functioned the way it should.
The dog growled at my approach, but didn't snap.
I tried to speak, but the smoke blurred my words. They were just sounds now, quiet and assuring sounds, the meaning clear even if the rest wasn't.
“It'll be okay, Mal. I promise it'll be okay.”
The animal grew quiet and let me find the line caught around her neck. That fur was was soft, and for a moment I was back on the Andersons’ puppy farm, tickling goldens crawling over my chest like little licking machines.
“It'll all be okay, Mal.”
I got a hand under the line and pulled. The dog yelped again, but didn't pull back. It was like she knew, even when I didn't.
The beast’s head slipped free, and she didn't hesitate. She bolted in the direction the others had gone, away from me, and away from the fire.
I tried to turn back to Mal and to the camp, but my leg gave out.
The last thing I remembered was the Andersons’ puppy farm, those wet kisses, and how much Mallory would have loved them.
I woke what had to be hours later. The snared dog’s head on my chest. I didn't know how, but she'd dragged me out of the worst of it. The fire had passed us, leaving a scorched and ruined world in its wake.
It took a bit to convince the dog I was strong enough to stand, and even more to prove the stick was to help me walk and not beat on canines, but in the end she came around and followed me.
Together and crawled through the dead ridge, past the remains of melted snares and broken trees to the camp.
I'd come to bury my daughter.
I found the tree, scorched almost beyond recognition, but there was no Mallory. I searched the ground, tears stinging my eyes.
I had to know.
I had to say goodbye.
But there was no Mallory.
There was only ash, and soot, and footprints.
I froze, my head barely comprehending the details etched in the drying mud.
There were small ones, Mal's tiny feet, and others. Big boots that left deep impressions in the earth.
Boots that weren’t mine.
Mallory was alive.
The animal pawed at something in the char.
The edge was dulled and blackened, but still functional.
Just like me.
I patted the dog on the head, a move I was surprised she let me do.
I tucked the still warm metal in my pocket and leaned on the stick. Mallory was still alive, and I would find her.
The fires may have brought hell, but they were nothing compared to me.