We ran. We ran as fast as we could, but our legs never seemed to carry us fast enough. By now everything we had was gone, consumed by the rage with only dusty remains left to mark what had been left there before it all started. It was completely unexpected. There were warnings, from our loved ones and friends back at the dorms, but we didn’t listen. We didn’t think it would happen at all, but more specifically, to us. If only we had listened to them.
I was on the track team back in high school, but I didn’t continue when I graduated and moved to college. I never had the time to think about doing anything else besides school work, but now I regretted it. I was out of shape and my body was paying the price. My lungs stung with every breath I took, and my legs were beginning to shake. A little whisper in the back of my head said to stop, give up, and accept my fate, but I ignored it. My focus was on his back, covered by the sage green military parka. It was clear for the most part, just a few hours prior. Now it was covered in a light layer of ash, just like his chocolate brown hair, but it didn’t show as much as it did in my darker hair. It was only another sign of the inevitable.
“Phoebe,” His voice pulled me away from the trance I had fallen into and I stumbled forward as I skidded to a stop next to him. “Stop for a moment.”
I gladly followed his direction and stopped and tried to take in as much air as I could, but it never felt like enough and what I could get burned my lungs. It was still better than what was to come. I briefly looked up towards him and waited for him to say something, to lead us both out of this, but he was silent.
“Wyatt?” I asked, but it was still hard to take with the lack of air. “How much…further?”
He looked over towards my sympathetically, and although he was putting on a confident appearance, I could see right through him. I wouldn’t be able to call myself his best friend unless I could really know what he’s thinking.
“I don’t know…” he breathed, “Do you still have…your phone? Maybe there’s service by now.”
I reached into the pocket of my toffee colored rain jacket and pulled out my phone. “We should have charged these in the lodge before coming out here.” I said, “It’s only at eight percent.”
“We’ll just have to make due. Is there any service?”
“No, nothing still.” I looked back up towards him and saw him dragging a hand down his face. “Wyatt?” Again, he looked towards me, but his expression didn’t change. “Is there anywhere else we can go? Maybe the highway-”
“No, we wouldn’t have a clear path.” He explained. His gaze traveled up towards the dark sky, which had been filled with stars just a few hours ago, but now it was covered in thick streaks of smoke. “See that trail? That’s coming from the south, where the highway is.”
While he was still focused on the sky, I held my phone up in the air while watching the screen intently. I began to walk around in the area we had stopped in, praying to whatever gods there may be that we would get just one bar. It was all we needed, but there was nothing.
“I can’t get a signal or the map to pull up.” I announced, “What about going east? Back up towards the entrance?”
“That’s in the same direction as our camp, where we just came from. The fire’s claimed it by now.”
“We should try going north then, back towards the waterfalls. If anything, we can hide out near the water until this all passes over.”
“Phoebe,” Wyatt said with a small sigh, “This isn’t just going to pass over. It’s not like the winter when these fires would disappear in a few days. It’s been dry for weeks! We’d trap ourselves there and before anyone could even know where we are, we’d suffocate from all the ash.”
“Then we’ll keep going west.” I declared, but Wyatt was hesitant. He gave me a pointed look, but I only scowled. “What do you want to do?! If anything, you should be the one coming up with a plan here! You’re the one studying aviation after all! You should know this-”
“I do know this Phoebe!” He shot back, “You’re right, I’ve been studying this for years already which means I do know what I’m talking about! I know how these fires will play out which is why you shouldn’t argue with me!”
“Well I’m sorry, but I want to get through this alive! I don’t want to wait around here and figure out just how much ash I can breathe in before suffocating!”
“We’re not going to die!” His sudden confidence took me back a bit. He had led us both in the beginning, but as we were getting further and further away from our campsite, I had to step in. I was just grateful he was back. “We could keep going west, but chances are that a fire has already started on that side. The wind’s been blowing west for the past few hours after all, and we both know how easily embers travel. East is the direction of the origin, so we can’t consider going there. South’s already been taken, no doubt so-”
“It leaves us with the north side,” I deducted. I wasn’t in the mood to make this a formal conversation. I just wanted to go home. “Like I suggested.”
“Guess so. The northern lodges may not have been deserted yet.” He paused and looked towards me before gesturing towards my phone. “You have a compass on there?”
I flipped my screen to the compass and moved around until the digital magnetic arrow found north. “There,” I pointed out, past Wyatt. “That way.”
He only nodded towards me before taking off in a light jog in the direction I pointed him in. I quickly stuffed my phone back into my pocket and hurried after him. We both picked up our pace gradually, until we were practically sprinting. I let him lead the way between large tree trunks and beautiful greenery all around us. We hadn’t explored this part of the park very much since we arrived, but I remembered this area being one of the most peaceful. Everything was so full of life and the beams of sunlight that broke through the canopy created an almost dreamlike setting. I only got more depressed thinking about what would happen to this gorgeous forest if the fire couldn’t be stopped in time.
We ran for another fifteen minutes straight. The ash that had been falling from the sky dwindled, but the smoke still remained. It wasn’t as hard to breathe, but I knew it would change at some point soon. It was just nature after all.
Again, Wyatt was the one to stop us, but it wasn’t because he was tired. He parted off to the right and began to push his way through some of the bushes. I followed him and as I began to push through as well, I could hear the incredibly faint sound of water running. A stream, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. I need a drink more than I cared to admit.
We broke through the shrubs and began to slide down the steep river bank. Wyatt immediately fell to his knees near the edge of the water and cupped his hands in it, but before he could bring the water towards his lips, he stopped, and looked down. His face began to wrinkle, and he let the water drip out from his palms gradually.
“Ash….” I barely heard him mumble. “No…”
Even from over his shoulder, I could barely make out what he saw in the darkness. “Wyatt?” I asked, “What’s going on?”
He didn’t even turn back to me. His gaze was lost in the gentle stream. “There’s ash in the water…”
“I don’t understand…”
“This stream, it’s running from the north so it’s source would be the waterfalls.” He turned back towards me and motioned with his head for me to kneel down next to him. I did, and I felt the moist dirt stain the knees of my jeans. He cupped his hands back in the water and pulled them up, so I could see. “All that gray and black shit, it’s ash, and look how thick it is.”
I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to tell him that he was wrong, and that we should keep going, but I knew that he was right. The ash was incredibly heavy and that meant only one thing; our sanctuary in the north had already been taken. We were nothing more than sitting ducks in the middle of a ring slowly closing in on us.
“Wyatt…” I muttered. I felt my hands trembling at my sides and I stuffed them in my pockets to try and hide them, but I got the feeling he already saw them. “What do we do?”
“I-I….I don’t know….”
“Can’t we just try to head west? There’s got to be a way out of this!”
“It’s not a good idea Phoebe. It could-”
“It could save us. There could be a way to get out of here. All we have to do is keep going! We’ll die if we stay here!”
“There’s help on the way. There has to be. No one could miss this!”
“I don’t want to stay here….” I say, “But I don’t want to leave you either…”
“If you want to stay here and pray that someone finds us, then fine. I’ll stay too, but what if there is something just further away? We just have to keep going! Our refuge could be just around the corner for all we know!”
“We could die if we try to go places we don’t know are safe.”
I paused. At first I didn’t know how to respond, but it didn’t last for long. “I don’t know about you,” I begin, “But I have a family I want to get back. My parents and my sisters are all back home, waiting for me to graduate and make them proud. I know you have a family too. I’ve met them. Your brother, Jason, he’d want you to come home. He’s having a baby soon with his wife, right? Wouldn’t you want to be there when your brother becomes a father? When you become an uncle? Don’t you want to have the chance to finally fly like you’ve wanted to since middle school? You can’t tell me now that you’re willing to give up on everything you’ve ever hoped to achieve and everything that’s waiting just around the corner, like our freedom may be right now.”
I swore I saw it, a tear he was fighting back. He simply nodded towards me and began to march up the river bank before turning back towards me. “Well?” He asked, “Shall we go find refuge?”
A smile broke across my face as I hurried up the bank and up to his side. He smiled back at me, the way he had back at our freshman homecoming dance back in high school, the way he had when I told him of my ridiculous childhood dream of being the first woman on Mars, and the way he had when I told him that I liked him more than just friends do. That smile was all I needed to see to know that everything was going to be alright.