Mount Inferno

-x-

Because of the victims of the Victorian Bushfires, 7/02/09 Some of whom were peers, colleagues, friends of friends.

All of whom did not deserve their fate.

-x-

Mum was going out.

She'd explained it all to me, of course. 'Tate, you can't honestly expect me to stay home for my fortieth,' she laughed when I told her I wasn't sure about this 'dating' business that she'd recently gotten into. 'Don't worry, love, Kev and Luanne are coming, too. They're going to like him as much as I do.'

I highly doubted this. Kev and Luanne Moeller were our neighbours – not in any traditional sense of the word, because when people think 'neighbours', they think, 'I'll-look-over-my-back-fence-and-have-a-chat-to-Barry'.

Our back fence was six hundred metres away.

It wasn't as if we had side-neighbours, either, because our house was situated right next to the Mount Calm National Park. Kev and Luanne's place did too, except they were about a twenty minute hike – if you were fit enough, which I definitely wasn't – down the mountain. And that was only if you were prepared to be stung all sorts of insects, ranging from wasps right through to the leeches that lurked alongside the creek.

But back to why Kev and Luanne wouldn't exactly be 'supportive' of Mum's new man. The problem was that he was the latest in a long line of 'new men'. Kev told me once that the next time he had to watch a greasy-haired pothead stare at Mum, he was going to either hurl or beat the man's face into a bloody pulp on the ground.

I'd met more than my share of Mum's 'the One', and as such I knew that Kev wasn't simply inferring that the men were slimy bastards, he was telling me that Mum had crap taste in men.

'He's got potential, Tate,' she'd promise, and then the next night she'd storm in, growling about men and their lack of propriety in a rural pub. The thing my mother struggled the most with was that where she lived was so remote – and she met so few people – that she had to settle for whatever man looked her way first.

She'd insist she wasn't degrading herself, but I caught the look that Luanne would throw her way whenever she thought that Mum or I weren't looking. It was a look of pity. Not because she thought it was sad that Mum had no one to spend the rest of her life with, like she had Kev, but because she thought Mum's way of going about it was pathetic. And, sometimes, a small part of me agreed with her.

Not that my mother was a slut or a floozy or anything of the kind. It wasn't as though she'd be out all hours of the night, every night. She was lucky if she got a date once a month, up on the mountain. But she was so desperate for love that, in a way, she'd become blinded by it. She wanted so badly to find 'the One' that it obscured her perception until she really couldn't pass judgement on any of the men she met objectively.

She'd see a drug-addled yobbo and exclaim, 'Oh, he's a bit cute, isn't he, Tate?' Or, 'What do you think of that man, over there?' and he'd be a bushy-bearded truckie with a fag in his mouth and scratching his crotch.

Sometimes, though, she'd laugh off Kev and Luanne's jests and say, 'Tate's the only one I really need.' Or she'd tell them that as long as she had me, she didn't need a man. But, as always, her resolve would wean until eventually, I'd arrive home and she'd plead with her eyes and say, 'I'm just going out for a bit, love.'

Whenever she did that, there would be a little part of me that would burn with hatred, knowing that I would never be enough for her. But I never said anything, just smiled and warned her 'not to do anything I wouldn't do', and told her to have fun.

It was the same thing I did this night. She was all dolled up in a black dress that I thought was a little too short for her forty years, with make-up and there were small gold earrings that glittered in her ears. She finished applying her lip-stick, pursed her lips and turned to me.

"How do I look?"

I sighed. "You look good, Mum." I wasn't lying – she did look good. She looked so good, a small part of me insisted, that she could have been mistaken for an aging hooker. "Who's your date?"

She shrugged, eyes still focused on the reflection in the mirror. The mirror reflected the overhead light, so that where I should have appeared, standing next to her, there was only a bright white circle. It was almost as if I'd been blurred out of the picture, so that the attention could be focused solely on her.

"I think his name was... Dave? Don?" she lifted a shoulder again, before smoothing a non-existent crease in her dress. "Are you going to be alright here?"

It was something she asked every time she went out, so it wasn't as though I could begrudge her for not caring about me. It was just that I doubted if I said, 'No, Mum, I'm not going to be okay,' that she would automatically drop everything and stay home to be with me.

So, although I wanted to tell – order – her to stay home, I nodded and pasted on a smile. "I'll be fine," I said, concernedly eyeing the wind outside as a tree branch slapped against the outside of the house. "Are you sure you're going to make it all the way down? It looks pretty rough out there."

Mum smiled beatifically. "I'll be fine," she echoed me, taking one last glance over her shoulder before squaring her shoulders determinedly and standing by the door.

"And the air-con in the car works?" I pressed, loitering by the front entrance. "I heard on the radio this morning that it's s'posed to be forty-seven degrees today. They're saying it's a new record..."

"Kev and Luanne are taking me," she replied nonchalantly, peering through the leadlight window of the door. "The restaurant is on the other side of the mountain, so we're just going to cut through by taking the four-wheel drive track along the top, by the tower."

She caught my worried look and smiled, reaching over to squeeze me tightly. "It'll be quicker than going all the way down and around, so I'll be home before you know it. It only takes an hour or two to get there... I'll be back at around midnight, okay?"

I nodded slowly. "I guess," I said, because there really wasn't anything else to say. She was set on going, and nothing I said would change her mind. My only hope was that Kev and Luanne had decided the conditions weren't too great for driving a car through thick forest, and stayed home.

My hopes were dashed, however, when I spotted a large white four-wheel drive pull up through the dense scrub, and Mum grinned excitedly. She snatched up her purse, sprayed a bit of deodorant and turned back to me. "Love you," she told me, as she always did before she left.

I looked away. "Love you too," I mumbled, but she didn't take any notice as she flung open the door and we were bombarded with searing heat that felt like it was burning every inch of skin it came into contact with.

I shifted uncomfortably as Mum's mouth gaped into a surprised 'O'. "Do you think—"

"Go," I said, rolling my eyes, and pushed her out through the door. That was evidently all she needed, because she hurried across the garden and down the driveway, until I could just barely make her out, getting into the car with Kev and Luanne. Kev honked the horn as he drove off, and Luanne waved, but all I was really focused on was getting back inside the house and out of the heat.

Before I shut the door, I checked the temperature gauge on the wall next to the window. 47.6 degrees. I exhaled, feeling as though even my own breath was too hot for my body, and walked back inside.

With every gust of wind, the house rattled as though it was about to blown into tiny pieces. It was an old fibro cottage, leftover from the logging and miller days, but Mum adored it because it gave her 'artistic inspiration'. All it had ever given me was a three hour, both-ways trip to high school and now, about to commence uni, it had made me homeless because there was no conceivable way I would ever be able to drive to and from home every single day.

Mum reckoned that my dad's grandfather had built it more than a hundred years ago. She was always saying things like that, as though everything was interrelated. There was no proof – it was just what she chose to believe. She also liked to believe that just because Dad's ashes had been spread over the property, that he was still here with us.

I never told her I believed otherwise. It might have been the one thing to finally bring her down; the straw that broke the camel's back. She always acted so tough about it, as though 'it was meant to be'. She'd told me that, once. 'It was meant to be.' I replied something like, 'Death is never meant to be,' but she'd just smiled serenely and gone back to her painting. It was of her and Dad, and although he'd died fifteen years before that day, the painting of him turned out to be exactly the same likeness as one of the photographs we had lying around the house. Every detail was still imprinted on her mind.

But that was her 'job'. She painted portraits; of people she knew, of people she'd known, and of people she could never hope to know. Then she took them down to the towns' markets, where she'd sell them to tourists for less than the materials that she used cost; and then she'd start all over again.

There were paintings, drawings and portraits all over the house – some hung on walls, others were used as cup placemats and still more lay forgotten on the floor. She had a small shed knocked up next to the house, where she housed all her supplies and sometimes she used it as a studio. But more often than not, I'd come home, fling my bag in the door and she'd be seated at the kitchen table, intently drawing an eye or a mouth or a nose.

Once I asked her why she chose to draw people, as opposed to something else. 'Because they're beautiful,' she'd replied, and left it at that.

Looking around now, I didn't see much beauty. The mirror showed a short, thick girl with a mass of dark hair piled on top of her head; beads of sweat on her face and under her armpits, in a dingy singlet top and faded, too-small shorts. The rest of the house looked exactly as I felt: dirty and lethargic. The kitchen was a mess of used cups, food scraps and paints, with a faint smell of turpentine.

The lounge was piled high with knitted cushions – gifts from Luanne – canvases, paper and photographs plastered along the walls. The tattered green wallpaper was peeling and the wooden floorboards beneath my feet creaked as though all it would take would be one more person before they finally gave out.

Another gust of wind thumped against the house and I started as a loud crash echoed outside. A cursory glance through the kitchen window revealed a massive branch, three metres long, had fallen right on top of the old dog kennel outside. I hesitated; wondered if I should set up a fortress underneath the kitchen table, 'just in case'.

I'd never really been taught bush safety rules. Mum had sent me to a school in the suburbs, on the very outskirts of the city, and as such not a whole lot of the student population had to deal with the forces of nature. Mum was more preoccupied with the 'beauty and wonder' of the bush, rather than those times when all it seemed to exude was a menacing desire to wreak destruction and havoc.

So I was left to wonder and guess. What room would be safest in the event of a tree crashing down on the house? Could the house even withstand wind of mini-cyclone proportions? Would I be considered paranoid – as Mum always told me I was – if I took the step of gathering photos and all our sentimental keepsakes, just so that if the house was swept away, they wouldn't be lost to the wind forever?

I checked my mobile. No reception, although that wasn't too unusual. Generally I had a couple of bars, but in the rare instances that something happened to the tower at the top of the mountain, all reception was cut off. I was telling myself not to panic, but even as I stumbled over to the home phone, I could already feel the pounding in my chest and the nausea building in my stomach. There was no dial tone, no nothing. I picked up the phone, and it was completely dead.

A drop of sweat slid down my face, slowly, pausing at the bridge of my nose. I crossed my eyes, reminding myself not to panic. The key, I remembered vaguely, distantly, was not to panic. As soon as the hysteria grabbed you, you were a goner.

To be rational, I thought, I didn't exactly need the phone. Who was I planning on calling, anyway? The State Emergency Service wouldn't get up here for hours, and that was only if they weren't busy taking care of people down in the city. What would I have said, 'Excuse me, but a tree branch fell down on my dead dog's kennel'?

I took a deep breath. Then another one. Hand pressed against my stomach, I was drawing in another one when something smashed against the front window and I shrieked. My pulse was beating furiously and morbidly, all I could think was that a bushwalker had been blown into my house. It didn't occur to me that it could have been another branch, or a bucket, or some other piece of garden paraphernalia.

I was convinced that the second I stepped out of that house, I would be confronted with death.

For a moment, all I could see was blackness. I panicked, about to cry out, until I realised that my eyes were shut and when I opened them, everything was blurry because there were tears in my eyes. My hand was pressed against the bench so firmly that it was completely devoid of colour, a pale – lifeless – white amidst the grey-blue of the slate, and all I could do was stare at numbly.

Then there was another bang, this one louder and more insistent, and I crept over to the leadlight window, tripping over a fair of shoes and clutching onto the door handle for life. The tinted red of what was supposed to be a rosella wing, I could make out a large lump in the middle of the lawn.

There were tears streaming down my face now, mixing with sweat and I could taste apprehension, and a little bit of fear on my tongue. The lump twitched, and then, as I watched, it slumped, prostrate, on the ground. I didn't – couldn't – think, just slammed open the door and blindly ran down the steps, falling to my knees in front of it.

It wasn't a person. It was a kangaroo, blackened, and I must have been approaching hysteria or its equivalent because insanely, the only thought my mind could process was that black kangaroos did not exist.

My nose was the first sense to catch on. The sickening stench of burnt hair and flesh wafted up to my nostrils and I couldn't do anything, but leant to the side and retched. The kangaroo wasn't black – it was burnt to within an inch of its life. It twitched and on reflex, I vomited again.

"Oh shit – shit – shit – shit—" I broke off, a sob building in my throat so large that for a moment, I couldn't even breathe. And then it stopped moving. I stared at it, still caught up with the sight of its mangled body. I'd never so much as eaten steak before, and the smell of flesh cooking was one that made me choke on my own bile.

My lungs were next, followed immediately by my eyes and that sixth sense that nobody has ever named – the one that knows when danger is imminent. Faster than I would have ever believed, had I not been there, my yard began to fill up with smoke. Perhaps it had already been there but, caught up in a ridiculous grief, I hadn't noticed.

I noticed now.

With every second that ticked by, it grew thicker, until just breathing hurt and I could feel it touching me, burning me. Another couple of minutes and I could barely see, my eyes stinging from the smoke's intensity and the wind which brought it towards me ferociously.

I was choking on nothing, on air, and all too late everything connected, as though it had been spelled out for me. I couldn't believe that I hadn't given it so much as a thought; couldn't believe that none of it had treated the idea as anything other than sceptical – a farfetched absurdity.

"Tate! What the fuck are you doing?" a voice screamed through my darkening world.

I looked around wildly, my eyes straining against the burning, my lungs attempting to defy the laws of nature as they sucked in smoke and debris.

"Tate!" they yelled again, and even in my hysterical state I caught the inflection of panic. "Fire! We're on fucking fire!"

-x-

A/N: As I have no doubt that I will be asked this question, yes, I was in the bushfires. While I survived, many people within my region did not. Friends' houses have been burnt to the ground; everything gone. Whole towns have been evacuated, leaving many with nowhere to go. People at my school have lost their lives.

And, contrary to reports (or rather, omissions), these fires are still burning. They are still endangering peoples' lives, and they are still engulfing towns. We can only hope that the natural contributors never again get to the way they were, and that the human catalysts (sick-minded arsonists) are brought to justice, facing murder en masse charges.

Other details so that others who were not in the situation can understand the intensity and devastation: 47.6 degrees is equivalent to 117.68 F. However, the hottest temperature was actually 48.2 (118.76 F). Having said that, these temperatures are without fire. The fire would push the temps to unimaginable levels; the explosion on 7/02 was also reported to have been so intense that the power it exerted would have been enough to power the whole of Victoria for two years.