By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.
The air was thick with smoke and clumps of ash seemed to be falling from the sky. Not that the sky could be seen. It looked like it was midnight. The sun had been blocked by the smoke, great swirls of grey and black and the eerie glow of red as the fire came closer.
“Come on Abby, don’t just stand there!”, my dad cried as he ran past, the garden hose clutched in his hands.
A trickle of water squirted out of the end as he aimed it at the leaves.
The water supply was out.
Swearing in frustration, he whirled around to see me still standing in the same place, my teddy held tight in my arms.
I was really too old for him but when dad had told me to grab what was most precious, I hadn’t thought about it. Teddy with his ears tattered and one eye missing was coming with me.
Coughing, my dad pulled the top of his shirt up to cover his mouth. Sweat was pouring off of his face which was now blackened.
“Abby", he croaked," get in the car”.
My feet didn’t want to move, they seemed to have planted themselves on the wooden decking.
I could smell the trees as they started to burn, a strange mix of eucalyptus and gum. The summer had been too long and too dry. There was no moisture left in the ground and all the plants had died and were still lying around, waiting for when it was cooler in the autumn weather, and we’d be able to pull them out.
My dad, still coughing, scooped me up and threw me over one of his shoulders.
Our car, its black surfaces covered in ash and dust, stood waiting. Our worldly goods, or those that we could get to, were crammed in, the photos mingled with the souvenir fridge magnets, scattered cushions and dad’s fishing rods.
Grunting, my dad dropped me onto the dirt. I was heavier than when he’d last picked me up.
Fumbling in his shirt pocket, the material sticking to his skin, he found his inhaler and desperately took two puffs.
“I’ll be okay”, he said, with a small grin as he noticed me stare at him.
The fire was moving fast, I could hear it crackling as it burnt through everything in its path. The heat was indescribable. It felt as if some one had left the oven door open after cooking a roast.
The car’s engine was making a strange noise. Even though I knew nothing about cars, I knew this.
“Dad, what’s wrong?”, I asked.
He shook his head as multiple flies buzzed around his head, "Nothing, sweetheart. It’ll be okay”.
Without looking, he pulled onto the dirt road. All our neighbours had left hours ago when first told.
“Leave now’, they’d said, as they’d knocked on our door, ’ or stay and fight”.
“We’ll be okay”, my dad had said, indicating his garden hose.
The volunteer firefighters, exhausted and filthy, didn’t argue. They had others to warn.
I glanced back at the house.
The fire was now surrounding it, the leaves had turned to ash and the tree leaning against the house was now covered in flames.
As I watched, I saw the gutters, full of dry leaves, catch fire.
Feeling the blood drain from my face, I looked away. I didn’t need to see to know what was about to happen.
Teddy was still clutched in my arms. I was holding onto him so tightly that it was a good thing he only had one eye otherwise they would have both popped out of his head.
Dad’s eyes were squinting. The smoke was making them water and he’d left his glasses behind.
The car’s headlights were on but we couldn’t see through the smoke and the ash. It was only that dad knew the road so well, every dip and pothole, that we could still crawl along.
A large fire truck, its lights flashing red and blue, shot past us.
Dad swerved as far over as he could.
One of the volunteers looked back at us; his tired face looked surprised that there were still people here. I recognized his face. He’d been the one who had told us to leave in the first place.
The car spluttered and groaned. It seemed to shake and then, it stopped, we were just coasting along.
Dad swore loudly and hit the steering wheel with his hands. Dripping with sweat, his face streaked with ash, he tried to restart the engine.
It was dead, maybe the smoke had got to it.
Dad looked around.
The smoke was becoming thicker and the red glow was burning brighter. The fire was coming closer.
A kangaroo bounced past. I’d never seen one move so fast. It was lucky. The other animals wouldn’t be able to escape.
“Dad, what are we going to do?”, I asked, a tremble in my voice.
He didn’t answer. Instead he was staring at his phone, its screen cracked from where he’d dropped it.
“Damn", he said," no signal”.
He looked down at me.
“Should we try and run for it?”, I asked, feeling tears run down my cheeks.
Shaking his head, he reached out for me, the palms of his hands rough against my skin, ” No. If we leave the car, they’ll never find us. At least this way… we have a chance”.
Sobbing, I pulled at the seatbelt holding me back and scrambled over to him, squashing myself on his lap, teddy still clutched in my hands. The steering wheel made it a tight squeeze.
He wrapped his arms around me and buried his face in my hair, his tears wetting the back of my neck.
“I’m so sorry sweetheart”, he sobbed, his fingers digging into me.
“We’ll be okay dad", I mumbled," they’ll find us”.
He didn’t bother answering, I could feel his body shaking as he cried.
The smoke was getting thicker.
My throat felt dry and scratchy and my eyes were tired.
Maybe if I went to sleep, I’d wake and it would all be over. Maybe this wasn’t really happening?
Hugging each other, our eyes shut tight, we didn’t notice as the fire truck that had passed us returned.