See how sweetly the girl sleeps. The wolf beside her is just as quiet, their limbs twined together. They are deaf to the world outside and heavy in their slumber. Far above them hangs the moon, returned to its usual ivory glow that brings to mind wedding lace dulled with dust and bones bared of their flesh. The very night feels crystallized, an ageless, motionless land of black and white.
And yet just beyond the ridge of pine that looks down on the girl in her little house, something stirs. Something that sets the animals running. Something whipped on by the mountain winds. Something that feeds on whatever it can catch.
Sparks appear in the darkness. The air breathes heat. A strange glow casts itself into the sky, devouring star after star. Smoke swells before this beast that frightens beasts, and an entire line of trees blackens as the first of the flames reveal themselves.
The forest is on fire.
Alice woke up choking on smoke, heat prickling at her skin like a sunburn as hands caught her up and pulled her out of bed.
“What…” she coughed out, the heaviness of sleep leaving her stupid and clumsy as she looked up into Colton’s furious face.
“Don’t talk. Just breathe.” Then he shoved fabric into her hands, and a familiar weight that she recognized—her purse.
As he hurried her over to the window, the crackling of wood filled her senses, cleared her head, and she looked at the strange orange glow seeping into the room with fresh horror.
The air had already thickened enough to stuff her mouth full, and she only panted quietly while Colton ripped off the screening, sweat prickling at her neck and knees from the growing heat. Then the ceiling sagged, showering sparks on them. She cringed, a strangled scream working in her throat, but Colton only shook himself as if he were in his fur and slammed the window open.
“It’s in the forest. We’re fucked if it reaches the road before us.” His voice seethed as he helped her climb over the sill. Survival instinct took over for her, then, driving her on even when her bare skin scraped against splintered wood. Gravel bit into her hands and knees, and her next gasp drew in fresh air.
Her wild glance around found smoke and flames everywhere. Sparks flew like fireflies. Tree branches popped and curled. The darkness of the night had transformed into a writhing hellscape.
Behind her, the house groaned and leaned. The telltale crackling of flames joined the creaking of strained wood. Alice gasped Colton’s name, realizing their home was about to collapse, but he was already at her side, desperation leaving him rough as he pulled her up and pushed her further from the waves of heat.
They ran for the truck together, two dark silhouettes against a wall of fire. Ash stung Alice’s skin as they slipped inside the cab, Colton silent behind the wheel. As the truck roared onto the road, embers flying all around, she came back into herself enough to pull on what he’d given her—one of his flannel shirts. She burrowed into the fabric, trying to take comfort in the softness and the familiar smell of fur and clean sweat, but couldn’t help looking out the window at the billowing smoke. Her panicked breathing was the only sound made between them.
When she glanced over at him, searching for any sign of reassurance, she found his mouth grim and his eyes utterly focused on the road ahead. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, he showed no signs of having been roused out of bed in a hurry, but she knew him well enough to understand the muscle jumping in his jaw. He was worried.
“Have you ever been in a fire before?” she asked, picking at the folds of flannel in her lap.
“Not one like this.” Colton gave the rearview mirror a sharp glance.
She nodded, looking back behind them again, and then started in surprise. Ghostly shapes jumped onto the road, graceful even in their panic.
“Deer,” she said, numbly. “The deer are using the road.”
“Everything’s surprised,” he muttered. “It grew fast for this time of the year.”
“Maybe a campfire got out of control.” Alice knew the words sounded too high with fear, knew that placing a reason for the raging danger did nothing to tame it. Knew that trying to attach a sense of normal to the flames licking at their heels was sheer human folly.
Colton only growled under his breath, the sound merging with the rumble of the engine as the truck tore down the road. Neither of them spoke the name that sat between them as heavy and baleful as a rock thrown through a window. Neither of them had to.
When they reached the first turn in the road, Colton took it. Alice understood the significance. “You’re crossing the bridge?”
“I’ll feel better when there’s a river between us.”
She nodded, staring once more at the unearthly glow behind them. The river would be low and sluggish this time of the year, the previous winter’s snow melt having come and gone and the true storms still weeks away. Still, water was water, and in the steep, jagged rises and drops of the mountains, a river between them and the gaping maw of the fire was the safest thing possible until they got out of the wilderness and back into civilization.
“She took our home,” she said, softly, feeling her shoulders slump.
Colton’s hand found hers, then. “We’ll find another one.”
The sureness of his voice steadied her, and she squeezed his fingers tightly even as the lights of the bridge winked at them in the distance. Safety.
When they drew closer, though, Colton swore and slowed down. For all that it spanned thousands of feet to connect the two steep sides, the bridge had only two narrow lanes of traffic. A car sat sideways, blocking both. The doors were open and its headlights stared through the railing of the bridge and beyond. One of the tires looked flat. In the haze of glowing smoke, nothing was sure, but Alice didn’t see any sign of the driver.
“It looks abandoned,” she said, glancing behind her to check the closeness of the fire. Flames flickered like a great, glowing heart for the swelling smoke. Her mind reeled at the idea of losing precious time trying to find the driver.
Colton didn’t hesitate. “Fuck the truck. We’ll cross on foot. It won’t jump the river.”
A light tug on her arm was enough to break her spell of uncertainty, and she slid out of the truck, bare feet flinching at how the pavement of the road already felt hot from the approaching fire.
A new wave of smoke blew up from behind, rasping against her lungs and drawing tears from her eyes. Even as she coughed, hair whipping into her face, she turned toward Colton. He slipped around the front of the truck, already reaching for her. The thickening haze reduced him to a dim silhouette.
Just as their fingers brushed, a crack echoed through the air. Alice flinched, assuming a tree had split under the heat of the flames. Then Colton staggered, feet no longer carrying him forward. Red spread over his white shirt as he sagged against the truck’s grille.
Alice shrieked, mind whirling even as she lunged for him. Another crack—a gunshot—left glass chips pelting her shoulder. Smoke poured into the hole left in the truck’s passenger window.
“Get behind the fucking truck,” he snarled, making a final, desperate lunge toward her.
But she didn’t shy away, not until her hand caught his nearest one. They collapsed together against the bulk of the truck, glass glittering all around as three more shots sounded. When nothing else happened, Alice frantically pushed at his shirt, already intent on staunching the wounds.
He stopped her, sides heaving and teeth flashing as he rasped, “Someone’s shooting from across the bridge. A fucking trap.”
“We’ll get back in the truck,” she said, her own voice hoarse, almost inhuman. “I know how to drive it. I can ram through that car.”
“The last shots weren’t for me. Look at the tires.”
She did, choking back a howl of rage at finding two deflated. “Then we won’t use the bridge at all. There must be a way down to the river on foot. All we have to do is wait for the smoke to grow thick enough to hide us from view.”
In the brief silence that followed, her heart withered into something tight and shivering.
“The bullets did too much damage,” he said, finally. “I can feel it.” His gaze never left hers, even when blood began running from his mouth.
“No,” she said, clutching at his shirt, but her own mind betrayed her, pulling back all those memories from when they’d first met. Those memories of how weak he’d been when she’d discovered his slumped body in the mud. Pierced through with a bullet and too injured to do more than twitch in her presence.
“I’ll drag you,” she said, ignoring how sparks flew past them. “Drag you into the passenger’s side and then drive us over the bridge. And if anyone shoots at us again, I’ll run the fucker over with two bad wheels.”
Tears blurred her vision, but she thought she saw a ghost of a smile cross his face. The smell of blood hung heavy between them. “There’s your teeth. Now start using them for yourself.”
The crackle of burning bark fought with the panicked pulse in her ears. Her breath had already started hitching in her chest. “Stop talking like that. I’m getting you out of here.”
At her first tug, he caught her arms, his hands still strong despite being slicked in his own blood. “Alice, you can’t. The truck’s useless and you know it.”
Finally, the tears came, and she only shook her head while giving him a useless pull, willing his body to rise whole and strong. His grip against her tightened, and the first hint of desperation slid into his voice. “Out of time. The fire’s here.”
And it was, embers sizzling as the flames exhaled heat that sent waves of smoke washing over them. When Alice started to turn toward the direction of the fire, panic licking at her, his hand caught her chin, forcing her to look at him.
In the smothering smoke, even his eyes were nothing more than a glimmer. “There’s a deer trail on the right side of the bridge. Steep but not impossible to follow. The river’s thin right now. Just wade across it and then follow the current on the other side until you reach a trail that goes back up.”
“No. No! I’m not leaving you.”
“Alice.” A growl entered his voice even as wetness bubbled behind his words. “Witches burn to death.”
“And you won’t? It’s melting metal. You’ll be a pile of ash.” She gave his shirt a final tug, face crumpling at how his body remained limp beside the truck.
His hands found her frantic ones. Blood turned sticky between their fingers. Sparks fell around them like snowflakes. Despite the line of pain between his eyebrows, he never looked away from her. “I’ll find you again, understand? No matter what.”
“I love you.” Her mouth trembled with the words.
Something flickered in his eyes. “Alice.”
“I do.” Then she shook him once more, willing him to somehow get up. She couldn’t tell whether her eyes burned from tears or from smoke. “I can’t bury the words, anymore. Whatever you think about them, they’re true.”
“I know.” Then he stilled her, again. “I tell you the same thing every day. Just not with words.”
For one gut-wrenching moment, she felt the heat of his face pressing against hers, felt his mouth against her temple. Then he gave her enough of a push to coax her upright, separating them. “Smoke’s thick enough. Remember what I said. I’ll find you, Alice.”
She shook her head, unable to reply, but the push of his hand sent her stumbling up, anyway, and the look in his eyes kept her going. The threat of bullets was only a dim pulse in her mind as she walked backwards, not wanting to look away even once the truck hid him from view. Just beyond, flames crackled greedily.
In a few breaths, she bumped against the railing that marked the edge of the steep drop to the river. Her chest felt brittle, ready to crack like an egg and bleed out until there was nothing left. Then a great wave of smoke reached her, swallowing the truck completely.
Even as her mind went blank, her body kept moving, climbing over the steel railing with shaking limbs. Smoke had reduced the bridge to hardly more than a shadow, but a flicker of movement at the other end warned her to throw herself down. A gunshot cracked through the air and then she was on the ground, breathless as rock and root dug into her stomach.
Her fingers curled into the earth, and she began shaking for a different reason. Even in such a brief moment, she had seen who it was. She had seen who waited behind the scope of a sniper rifle, face screwed in concentration.
Despite the danger, she scrabbled upright, tears streaming down her face. Her voice shrieked out across the bridge, echoing even in the thick air. “Darby! Darby, I saw you! You—”
Then the ground gave out from underneath her, and her words were lost with everything else as she slid down the steep side, hands desperate to grab onto anything. By the time she lurched to a stop against a scrubby bush, embers hissed into the water below and the smoke had swallowed everything above.
In another state of mind, Alice would have wondered at not falling and breaking her neck. Instead, she only continued the descent, wild-eyed and heedless like an animal, hanging onto scrubby branch or jutting rock long enough to slow gravity’s pull. Two more gunshots rang out, but she ignored them each time, something frantic and clawing driving her forward.
The river was a muddy, sluggish thing, faintly picking up the unearthly glow of the fire above. The water went up to her calves as she waded across, arms limp at her sides and gaze still mindless. Colton was still up there. Colton was…
Sparks flew here and there as she numbly followed a strip of sandy ground that rose from the water’s edge, waiting until the deer trail appeared to start the climb up. Everything felt as hazy as a nightmare as she clawed through wild grass and prickly branches. When a branch slapped her cheek, she let it. When thorns snarled her shirt, she ripped it free. Something drove her on, tireless even when the sky seemed to stretch forever out of reach. Perhaps it was distant rumble of helicopters, a concrete sign that there was something beyond this hellscape. Perhaps it was the awareness that she’d break down and never stop crying once she slumped to rest. Perhaps it was only sheer numbness.
Flames jeered at her from the other side when she finally pulled herself up to level ground, hands shaking against the metal railing that warned cars of the steep drop should they veer from the road. But there wasn’t any traffic at all, and in the eerie stillness, she began walking. The entire world had turned into something ghostly, the night now a rippling mass of smoke that glowed sullenly and promised the endless hunger of flames.
Then new light streamed past her, casting her shadow ahead. Alice flinched on instinct, expecting the screech of brakes, the sickening crunch of her bones shattered by speeding metal. Instead came the rumble of an engine slowing down.
A woman’s voice called out to her. “Hey. Hey!”
Alice turned, still dazed, and watched the driver open her door to get out and wave. The woman looked about ten years older than Alice, with short blonde hair and a nose ring that glinted as she walked in front of her headlights. “Get in! The fire’s about to jump the river. The winds are blowing embers right across. Come on, hurry up!”
The front passenger’s seat was filled with bags and suitcases. As the woman pointed Alice to the back seats, she said, “Rufus won’t mind sitting with you. He’s a certified therapy dog and is very gentle.”
Before she could add anything else, Alice got inside and found herself sitting next to a black Labrador Retriever. He sniffed at Alice, ears relaxed, and panted easily as his owner started up the car and sped off.
“It caught you asleep, didn’t it?” said the woman, voice falling soft. “All you’ve got is your purse.”
“It’s all I have left.” Alice couldn’t help looking at the dog, again. His brown eyes were gentle and calm, entirely unlike the piercing yellow that would forever be burned into her heart, and yet she still found her breaths swelling into sobs.
“Go on, give him a hug. Rufus likes comforting people, and sometimes crying against a dog helps more than whatever anyone else can say.”
And so as fire licked the very sky, Alice cried into black fur and tried not to think of the smell of burned hair.