© 2019 by Keighley Bradford

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The Inferno
© 2015

They told me my affairs had started this mess—mine and others. It was clearly insinuated that the events from the previous evening were the cause for the sudden uproar echoing around us.

Once it began, it was practically impossible to stop. The plague spread contagiously, tearing each structure limb from limb until it had no choice but to surrender to the infectious disease. Any soul that dared to fight lost the battle before they even had a chance to stand up and slay the ferocious beast.

The air was thinned of oxygen as the varmint stole each particle from its prey. It overpowered the sun's bright rays with thick, venomous clouds of frothing grey fog known by the bitterest scent, entwining not only with the polluted air but the inhabitable land. Shadows danced throughout the forest as the flames leaped away from lifeless tress. The hills—usually cast in a blue glow of silence—crackled fiery red with anticipation, laughing at the invalids who attempted to stay behind. Nothing remained but the bare charcoal bones of its victims.

I recall running out of the house with the few belongings nearest to me as an avalanche of heat engulfed us, the sky swirling with fresh ambers like snowflakes on a winter's morning. The street was buzzing with panicking families, cars roaring to life as the boot reached maximum capacity. Citizens shouted directions to the local safe haven while authorities warned of the suffocating consequences to those who ventured out of town or chose to remain indoors.

My neighbours gambled little when it came to a decision—everybody had a plan. Stay and defend or run and drive. There was always an unpredictable component when it came to these situations which could change a plan as quick as lightening: through gut instinct. I, as I'm sure the town did too, relied upon it greatly in that moment.

I drove cautiously along the invisible road, eyes scanning for any signs of an approaching dead end. Thankfully the monstrous tyrant hadn't reached the town's square.

The evacuation centre was packed to the rafters of the lost and scared. Communication in and out were severed before night fall, leaving our imagination to conjure up our worst nightmares. Children shivered and screamed against parents as the robust sound of determination haunted them in their dreams.

It was then that a middle-aged man ran in screaming, "It's all gone...everything's gone..." Nobody dared to ask the question burning on their lips once they saw the grief riddling inside of him. He had the unfortunate pleasure of losing everything—his home and possession, his wife and kids... All the hope he held dear to his heart had been stolen by the un-virtuous demon.

The severity of the situation had caused a seething turmoil to erupt quietly amongst the population who weren't occupied consoling the man. The predator had seized the upper hand, tearing the strength of our outer defence into a trapped enclosure.The last road out had been by his house which now lay destroyed. We were cornered in a cage of suffocation and death.

I pursued a restless sleep as I fought to remain calm. The continued hushed whispers concluded I wasn't the only one having ghastly thoughts at this early hour. The sickening feeling curling in my stomach did nothing to lessen my nerves.

News broke out later that evening after a tortuous day of wondering if death awaited us, too. It was reported that hundreds of lives were taken, thousands of hectares of land burnt to crisp. According to meteorologists majority were started by the massive storm a week prior to the incident. That was the moment the police arrived to escort me out of the premises.

"What are you doing?" I shouted furiously. "I didn't do anything wrong!" Or so I thought.

I sat cuffed behind the desk as I was being interrogated, evidence of my guiltiness being thrown at me left and right. Mobile phone GPS, plant matter embedded in the tread of my wheels, satellite tracking... Everything pointed out my whereabouts two nights before, including an unexpected association.

"You were here?" asked Sergeant Mills, referring to a location on the map he had spread out before me.

Meeting his eyes heartlessly, I answered, "Yes."

"You admit to lighting a fire at the location?"

"Yes," I concurred emptily. "We were camping the night before the rain decided to intervene."

Flipping some papers he asked, "Did you see anybody put out the fire before you left?"

That night had been a blur as the rain sprang out of nowhere, pelting down and blinding us as we fought the energetic and vigorous wind to pack up our drenched gear. I had got in the ute after hearing Travis call to Ronnie.

She had driven the other vehicle while Travis caught a ride with me.

"You all right to finish up?" he called, concerned.

"Go on," she answered. "I won't be far behind."

"No, I was under the impression it was taken care of."

Travis died in his home, choosing to fight as I knew he would—he wasn't the kind of person to let a little fire get in his way. The man from the centre died a few days later from a heart attack unrelated to the devastating event. I was locked up for arson since both witnesses where deceased, leaving me without a solid alibi. Despite the contradicting evidence, the officer took me at my word. However, unable to justify the evidence alternatively, he released a news statement on my behalf naming the tragic evening's first victim after the raging fires: Veronica Black.