My mother recounted a story once, about the first time that Dad got sick. She told me that one day she'd arrived home to find that he had completely, utterly given up – that even when she'd called an ambulance he hadn't so much as flinched.
He was in a coma for six weeks straight and didn't get out of hospital for another two months after that – but despite the worry and stress and absolute emotional agony that he'd caused her, she stayed by his side the entire time. She told me that she'd refused to move, insisting on holding his hand because she knew that with a physical, tangible assurance of her presence, he would wake up.
She knew that he would feel her immense love, and from that, would draw his own strength. She remained rooted to his beside for the forty-three days it took him to wake up, and when I once asked her why she put her entire life on hold, just to be there for something that most probably wasn't going to happen – she said, 'Because that's what love is.'
I'd muttered something sullenly, about the unfairness of the situation, but she'd merely smiled knowingly at me, gaze looking past me to something that once was but existed no longer. 'Someday,' she'd said, with that dreamy, out-of-this-world smile on her face, 'someday, you'll understand.'
When I woke up, my head ached as though it was being repeatedly smashed against a brick wall; over and over and over again. My arms felt like they were on fire, and vaguely I realised that they had been. Every single inch of my body felt as though it was being torn into tiny, irreparable pieces, and the pain that followed this sudden consciousness was a tidal wave, nearly suffocating me with its ferocity.
"Tate?" a voice asked weakly beside me.
I gradually became aware of a weight on my hand, and when I opened my eyes, there was no bright light like I half-expected there would be. There was only a cool dimness, and while I waited for my sight to adjust I turned my neck towards the sound. Piece by piece, Zane appeared until I could recognise both him and his apprehensive expression fully.
He was laying flat on what looked like a spinal board, but had still managed to tilt his head towards me. His fair hair was spattered with a mixture of dirt and blood, so that his natural tawny colour had evolved into a brown-black. And as I glanced down towards my hand, I realised it was he who was gripping it so furiously, as though if I didn't have some sort of human contact I wouldn't have woken up at all.
"I thought... you'd given up," he wheezed, his voice sounding a hundred times worse than the last time I'd heard it. The pain it took him to so much as speak flittered across his face, before he swallowed and forced his expression back to neutral.
I pretended that I hadn't seen it. "W-where are we?"
Likewise, he ignored the stutter. "Back of some van," he said after a pause. "'Bout five minutes after you... after you went down," he broke off, coughing so loudly that for a moment I feared he would very nearly start spitting blood. "They were out warning people to get out... they weren't planning on going up the mountain."
He meant that if we hadn't done what we did, we'd be dead. Zane had been right – nobody had been planning on saving us; they'd believed there was no way we could possibly have made it out alive. But we had, and I squeezed his hand as tightly as I could to show that we were both here, in 'some van', and that no matter what the authorities had believed, we had made it out alive.
"They were going to go straight past. I had to... wave them down," he managed, breathing hard. "God, Tate... I thought you were dead."
Already, I could feel a tear sliding down my nose; my eyes were welling up. How close we'd come... it was unfathomable, really – that we had survived. And I knew that whatever I had felt when I thought Zane was gone – dead – he'd felt, worse, when I'd passed out.
"...Stopped," he continued, "and felt for a pulse..." His brown eyes met my own blue ones and he paused for what felt like an eternity. "I've never been so – so fucking scared. And then they... started running 'round, yelling... Didn't even notice me until they'd worked on you for ten minutes. By that time... the fire... it was so bloody close... They barely had time to put us both in the back before they drove off."
"Said it's not broken," he grunted, closing his eyes. "That if it was I'd have been dead an hour ago."
I couldn't say anything, and so for a while, we both just lay there in silence, with our intertwined hands the only communication between us.
Then something jolted out us out of our reverie in the form of bumps so severe that they bounced us up, causing Zane's back to smash back down against the board he was lying on and he almost screamed in pain, pressing his lips together so tightly that they were completely devoid of colour.
Someone swore, and after a moment I realised it wasn't just us, but a voice further away. There were raised voices and yelling amidst Zane's repressed groans of agony, and I gripped his hand tighter. My own skin came into contact with the blanket that had been placed on me, rubbing the burns and the fibres together mercilessly. The pain was excruciating, but I knew that it was nothing in comparison to what Zane was feeling at that moment.
"What the fuck are you doing?" one of the voices demanded.
"It's getting closer," the other one responded, whom I could only assume was the driver. "If we don't start going faster, we're going to end up like them too."
"Are you blind? Those kids look like they've come out of the fucking Bali Bombings. Keep this up and they're not going to be able to last until we get them to Hayfield."
"The Hayfield hospital's already full, Mark. So is the Alfred's Burns Unit – these kids haven't got anywhere to go, anyway."
"So we get them flown out—"
"They're not even that bad. We'll get the nurse at the Relief Centre to check them out, but chances are, all they need are a few stitches and a shower."
"They've been arguing the entire time," Zane mumbled, opening his eyes again. He glanced across at me. "One thinks... that we're dying, the other thinks we're fine."
I looked at him, trying to ignore the burning pain that was stretching itself across my torso. "And what do you think?"
He didn't answer, but when I stared at him he didn't have to. It was written plainly across his face. He thought we were in trouble, and although he was being stoic about his injuries – it was obvious that they were worse than what he was allowing me to see.
"Where are we going?" I asked him after a moment.
"They've set up a Relief Centre in Hayfield." He tried to smirk, but it looked like more of a pained grimace than anything. "It's like a refugee camp for fire victims, apparently."
Immediately, images flashed across my mind like a montage of horror scenes – a sea of tents and people screaming, yelling and crying. It was a place where people confronted their losses, injuries were inspected and people mourned. It was a place that I didn't want to go to.
"Holy fucking shit," the one with the deep voice swore, sounding half petrified, half in awe. "Look at it go!"
There were no windows in the back of the van where we were laying down, so all we had to go by was their haunting commentary. If anything, it was more terrifying than being faced with the harsh reality of what was happening and having to see it for ourselves – all we could do was pray that that they had somehow got it dreadfully, awfully, wrong.
"Step on it!" The guy called Mark yelled, fear inflected throughout his speech. "I'll radio in for help... They've gotta get the chopper out here; now!"
The van we were in jolted forward, adding another burst of speed that saw Zane wince and me just barely able to prevent myself from screaming. I didn't even need the windows to be able to tell what was happening. Every jerk, bump and rattle of the car meant that the driver couldn't avoid all those potholes on the way in to town, and that all those branches obstructing the road hadn't been cleared away.
"Should we take cover?" the driver demanded, a second after the van swerved to what felt like the other side of the road.
"God, no," Mark responded, now having to raise his voice over the sound of the approaching fire. "We've got so much flammable shit in here it'd be like signing our death warrants."
The driver swore, and what followed was what felt like an eternity of silence. Suddenly, the inside of the van brightened to an orange-yellow that reflected off the walls. Both men in the front seat yelped, shocked, and in the half-second it took me for me to fully comprehend what was happening, Zane's hand had grasped mine and was clenching it so tightly that it felt as though he'd never let go.
The flames had leapt past us, so that we were surrounded by a literal ring of fire. My ears straining, I could just determine the sounds that had plagued us for the last few hours. The hiss and crackle of the flames as they ate up everything in their path – and for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, we found ourselves in its way, yet again. I glanced over at Zane and wondered if he felt like I did. The exhaustion that was beginning to combine with a creeping sensation of resignation.
It wanted us, and it wasn't going to let us go without a fight.
"Maybe..." I whispered, eyes closed against the onslaught of colour that reflected off the inside of the vehicle, "maybe it's our time. Maybe it's meant—"
"Nothing is meant to happen, Tate," Zane said furiously across from me. His voice sounded so strained that I thought it would break, but he swallowed hard and continued. "It just does. Shit happens, but that doesn't..." he trailed off, coughing so deeply that I ached listening to it; a deep, reverberating hack that sounded as if it were being drawn from his very soul. "It just happens."
His fingers flexed over mine again, almost imperceptibly, and this time it was me who squeezed as though he was my lifeline and I was sinking, deeper that I thought it was possible to go. I was drowning, but when I glanced over at him, his eyes so red that I couldn't be sure whether it was from smoke or tears, I knew that he was drowning, too.
"What if..." I didn't want to say it, didn't want to emulate all those soap operas that my mother scorned but somehow it needed to be said. The words tumbled from my lips before I could stop them, before I could reel them back in and turn away. "What if we don't make it?"
Zane didn't say anything for a long time. His grip on my hand slackened, his eyes shut as though to defend himself from the possibility and his face moved away from towards the wall of the van. Finally he breathed; a deep, laborious inhalation of oxygen that very nearly rattled his insides, and opened his brown eyes to look at me.
Our gazes met and held, a plethora of emotions passing over them that I barely had time to comprehend them – anxiety, desperation, disbelief and finally, utter hopelessness. I opened my mouth to say something – anything – when the voices at the front of the van interrupted us, and Zane once again shut his eyes against the onslaught of pain as the vehicle sped straight across all manners of debris.
"Fuck, mate, what the hell are we going to do?" the driver cried, just as the van served severely from one side of the road to the other. "If we keep going we'll just be driving right into it!"
"And if we stop then we're already dead," Mark responded, his tone a terrible mix of resignation and horror that sent chills down to the very bottom of my heart. I cracked open one eye only to see Zane wince as though he'd never felt such horrendous pain in his life, and the sight of it hurt so much that I had to turn away.
"Take – take the back road," Zane wheezed, struggling to raise his voice to a level where the two men in the front would be able to hear him.
Mark turned around and leant precariously into the back, so that I managed to catch a glimpse of shockingly red hair before he pulled back slightly. "You alright back there?"
I glanced at Zane, his eyes squeezed shut so tightly that I could see a vein throbbing just above his eyebrows and something in my stomach dropped, with a voice whispering inside my head that even if we did make it, what would be the point? We'd never be the same again, not after this.
"There's another way," I said instead, pausing when the driver flew over what felt to my ribs like a log that had once been the world's thickest tree. "There's a track through the bush."
Luanne had taken it sometimes, on the occasions when the government had seen fit to close down the single road leading into town because of public belief that it was a 'death trap' for hikers and bushwalkers that wanted to attempt climbing the mountain. They never bothered conferring with the residents, but Mum and the Moellers were never particularly bothered by it.
I was now.
"What?" the driver yelled, pausing his ongoing commentary of the conditions outside the van. I knew without having to look that he was attempting to glance back at us, wondering just whether smoke inhalation can make a person devoid of all sanity. "No there's not!"
"It's a four wheel drive track," I pressed, even as another strong jolt caused a searing pain to snake up from my wrist all the way to the centre of my shoulder blades. "Only the locals know about it, and it goes right through to the back of the town."
The reason that only the locals knew about it was because it cut straight through protected forest, and whomever had originally carved it had committed a felony by doing so – anyone else who used it was also not only technically trespassing on government property, but also damaging it. Nobody wanted the local council getting wind of it and fencing it off, so they didn't bother advertising the alternate route.
"Well, where the—"
"Don't," Mark interrupted, leaning over again so that I could see his face, sweaty and streaked with so much soil that I could only wonder if I looked five or ten times as bad. "We get stuck in there and we haven't got a hope in hell of getting back out."
"What, and we do here?" the driver scoffed, voice rising with another ounce of anxiety with every passing second. "We've got—"
A deafening bang sounded, so bright that for one brief moment, it lit up the cab of the van to the point that I thought I was going blind, and my ears roared so loudly that for one horrible second I thought my eardrums had exploded, until I realised that the roaring I was hearing was not in fact in my ears, but was the noise of the fire that had resulted from the most recent explosion.
"Holy shit," the driver breathed, in a tone of mixed awe and perverse fascination. "Twenty years and I've never seen anything like this before—"
"Drive," Mark cried, as a loud thud pounded down against the roof, the motion causing Zane to stifle a moan of agony. I could tell that the fire had now reached the point where embers and burnt branches were about to come raining down on us, and we had milliseconds, if not seconds, to try and outrun what was essentially a cruelly violent, unforgiving Mother Nature.
"Do you think it's penitence?" I whispered across what felt like a never-ending chasm to Zane, as the driver slammed his foot against the accelerator and we sped down the road.
He looked over at me, evidently surprised and I realised that it was the first time we'd spoken about something other than dying or our imminent deaths, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He didn't look bemused, or have to ask me what I was talking about, because he was already looking into my eyes and he just knew.
"No," he uttered finally, not once breaking eye contact, "sometimes things happen. Things that you can't control, no matter how much you might want to."
I choked back a sob, and nodded awkwardly against the board I was lying on. There was so much that I had to say, that needed to be said, but in the wake of the blurring red and yellow reflecting against the white panels of the van's interior, and the men's gasps of horror, I couldn't think of a single word that that fit the situation.
"Fuck!" the driver swore, jarring the van as Mark turned around to peer back at us. "Where the hell am I going?"
"There should be a sign," Zane said, when I didn't – couldn't give a response. "For the Mount Calm National Park. There's a track about two hundred metres down from it."
The crackling of the fire grew louder, and it was so hot inside the van that I could feel the drops of sweat sliding down my nose, past my face and pooling on my collarbone. My hair was burnt and matted with ash, and I was wearing nothing but Zane's tattered shirt and a dilapidated pair of shorts, but all I could think about was whether or not we were sending these men to their doom. The sick feeling lurking somewhere at the bottom of my stomach told me that we were.
The pain assaulting us as we bounced down the rutted track elicited a moan from Zane and my hand found his once again. Immediately his grip tightened, to the point that I had to squeeze back, and we were reminding ourselves that we were here and we were feeling, breathing and alive. His nails scraped against my knuckles but the pain was welcome because it let me know that we hadn't given up; that it hadn't gotten us, not yet. And for the moment, that was enough.
"Just follow it all the way down," I said, "and it'll come out near the showgrounds."
That journey down one of the most dangerous tracks in the region, in what I later found out what an unregistered, un-roadworthy van was one of the most harrowing of my life. Whenever the fire raced past it, enclosing us in the middle of an isolated, drought-ridden forest, we had no other option but to drive towards it. There were no second chances, no more alternatives. It was like driving into death itself and the smoke was so black and so choking that sometimes, I thought maybe we were.
But then I felt Zane's warm skin against my own, his breath in my face and knew that I was alive – that we were alive – and the relief was indescribable. How to you recount the pure, unadulterated hope that results from knowing that your heart is still beating?
My burns stung against the wiry blanket, my wrist throbbed and in the recesses of my mind I assessed the sheer number of cuts and gouges in my skin, all the while the two men up the front argued about whether or not we could outwit something that was bigger than human life itself.
"Holy shit," one of them exclaimed, but this time I was too busy trying to figure out a way to focus on both my and Zane's rising chests – to ensure that no matter what, we kept breathing – to bother trying to distinguish who it was or what they sounded like. I could only brace myself for another explosion, and more mind-consuming torture.
Zane's hand griped mine tighter, and when I glanced across at him his eyes were on mine, full of trepidation and something else that in my panic I couldn't quite identify. I tensed, waiting for something – anything – to happen.
Only it didn't.
The driver let out a stunned laugh of disbelief, sounding completely and utterly shocked. "Welcome," he said ironically, as I felt the van putter, jerkily slowing down to a stop, "to the new Haywood Camp for Refugees."
A/N: Before I say anything else, I understand that maybe some of you are like, 'What the hell is this, I don't remember putting this on alert?' Fair enough, because I can't believe it's been about nine months since I last updated this story. I am so sorry to all my readers, but once I got stuck on it and then realised that I really should have been focusing on my last year of school... well, it sort of got away from me. Now that I've finished, however, I want to take a real stab at finally completing the story, because I feel that Tate and Zane at least deserve that.
I'm not entirely happy with this chapter, because I'd already done a little bit before the story went on an unofficial hiatus, but at least now I've got more of an idea of the direction that Mount Inferno's going to go. As always, any questions and comments are welcome, and once again I'm incredibly sorry for the massive amount of time between updates!
...On a side note, I'm not too sure about how well FictionPress has audited its spell-check. According to it, the words 'alive' and 'drive' don't even exist... maybe they don't want us to discuss the finer points of existentialism on the site? :P