The Burning Question by Carrie Hewlett

Answering the door to urgent knocking, having been roused from her slumber, Sophie stared into the grim face of a forest ranger. 

“We need you to grab any personal belongings and head out. The bush fire is headed this way, I’m afraid. You’ve got about 30 minutes. Do you need a lift?” 

“I have a car….” Sophie said, shock and horror shooting across her face at his words. Anxiously she tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. 

“Good. Just follow the dirt track, take care and drive safely. I’ve got to keep moving, to alert everyone else but I strongly suggest you don’t take too long.” 

Transfixed momentarily, Sophie saw the smoke spiralling above the tree line, watching its plumes jettisoning its foulness into the atmosphere. Giving herself a mental shake, she looked at the clock on the wall, before springing into action. 

Rushing into her daughter’s room she gently shook her. “Mollie. Wake up, Sweetie. I need you to get dressed. We have to leave.” Quickly she collected a few of Mollie’s things to thrust into a holdall. 

“Why? What’s happening?” Mollie sleepily asked, rubbing her eyes. 

Not wanting to scare her, Sophie kept her tone light. “Because a nice ranger has asked us if we could. We have to obey the rangers, don't we.” 

“I guess…” Mollie yawned, before doing as her mum bid. 

Sophie whipped into her own room, and threw some clothes on. Adding her own few personal possessions into the holdall, she anxiously glanced at her watch, checking the time since the ranger had left. 

Grabbing the car keys, she ushered Mollie out of the house, popping the holdall with their few personal belongings into the boot, all the while nervously eying the curling fume. She could smell the acrid smoke in the air and practically hear the crackle of flames devouring the dry timber as it greedily sped in their direction. Turning the key, she tried starting the car, but the engine spluttered, then died. Trying again all she got was the whine of a motor refusing to catch. “Nooooo…” She moaned. “Not now.” She’d been meaning to sort out the starter but had never got around to it. Banging the steering wheel in frustration she tried one more time, but it was futile. The car was as dead as a dodo. 

“Why won’t the car start, Mum?” 

Eyeing her daughter in the rear-view mirror, Sophie was about to utter some platitude, when she suddenly heard a squeal of brakes behind them as a car screeched to a halt. “Looks like you need a lift, hop in,” the man shouted. 

“Thank you,” Sophie replied gratefully. “My car won’t start.” 

Sending up a silent prayer of gratitude, she rescued their holdall, and hustled Mollie into the back seat of the man’s car, before slipping into the front beside him. 

Normally she wouldn’t have even considered getting into a stranger’s car, but this was life or death. The man stepped down hard on the accelerator, and Sophie heard the slight squeal of brakes and the roar of the powerful engine as they sped off. Glancing in the wing mirror, fear 

and overwhelming sadness washed over her as she and Mollie abandoned their bolt hole. Six weeks prior she’d been grateful for their isolated shack, set into a quiet forest glade setting. She’d desperately needed solitude, to feel safe and secure having recently been divorced from her abusive husband. The place had felt like a protective haven. Somewhere to gather her strength and make a plan of action for a better future for herself and Mollie. There were about eight or nine other dwellings dotted around the woodland, but they were set far apart from each other, affording privacy and quietude for the inhabitants. She had no choice now but to face whatever challenges lay ahead. The plaster of seclusion had been torn off to reveal the gaping wound of reality. 

“Are you ok?” The man asked, giving her a concerned look. 

Sophie nodded bleakly. “Fine.” Then gave a hollow laugh. “Well as fine as one can be having been told by a forest ranger to get the hell out of your house at five in the morning or you could get burned to a crisp!” 

The man gave a sardonic grin. “Never heard them use those words before!” Sophie rubbed her tense neck. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound weird. It’s just been a rather intense time of late, and I thought we’d be safe there.” She looked at the man properly. He didn’t look that much older than her. A strong physique, with dark hair, and soft brown eyes, wearing jeans and a denim jacket over a checked shirt. Her gaze caught the glint of his wedding ring. “Seriously, thank you so much for turning up when you did. I dread to think what would have happened if you hadn’t. Is your family safe nearby?” 

“No worries. I’m Phil, by the way. And to answer your question, yes, my family is safe, thanks.” “Sophie. And this is my daughter, Mollie. Do you live locally? Do you have children?’ She was aware she was bombarding him with questions, but couldn’t seem to stop herself having a habit of talking a lot when she was nervous. 

The man glanced into the rear-view mirror. “Hi, Mollie. I’m going to get you both out of here, ok.” Mollie nodded nervously, Sophie guessing that she’d picked up on the tense atmosphere from the adults. 

Phil turned his head briefly in Sophie’s direction, concentrating his gaze on the bumpy track, “I have a daughter Mollie’s age.” 

Sophie nodded, glancing over her shoulder to give Mollie a reassuring smile. “All be ok, darling.” The main thing was to ensure her daughter’s safety. There was something comforting about Phil’s manner and calm demeanour. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she just knew that they would be ok, even though they weren’t out of the woods yet. He said he’d get them out, and she trusted him. He hadn’t elaborated on whether he was local, but his driving skills as they sped along were confident and assured and he gave the appearance of a man who was used to rescuing people, and knew the pitfalls and area well. 

“Looks like you’ve done this sort of thing before.” 

“Once or twice,” Phil said, non committedly, adding nothing further. 

Bouncing along the dirt track they spoke intermittently thereafter. Phil expertly manoeuvring his 4 x 4, avoiding fallen branches or debris. Sophie, feeling less nervous, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought too much. 

“We’re nearly at the main road now,” Phil said. “There’s a service station up ahead, so I need to stop and fill her up.” He glanced at Sophie. “You might want to grab something from the store inside. It’s not a large selection, but I’m sure Mollie could do with something to drink.” “Are we safe?” Sophie asked, casting a gaze round. 

“Yes.” 

Sophie breathed a sigh of relief. Glancing back, she saw that Mollie had seemed to have nodded off which was good. She’d do as Phil suggested and get something for when her daughter woke. 

Pulling into the gas station, Phil looked at her. “You’ll be ok now,” he said quietly with a gentle smile. 

Sophie reached for her bag before climbing out. “Thank you. I’ll go and get some drinks and snacks like you suggested.” 

Walking into the small area housing a meagre selection of refreshments, she glanced round for some energy bars too, not knowing how long it would be until they might reach another suitable stopping point. Idly, her gaze flicked across various photos stuck on the wall above who were all local heroes that had died in the bushfires saving others. 

Giving thanks that Phil, their own personal hero, had turned up at just the right moment, she gasped as her gaze was drawn to one particular picture on the wall. It was Phil. She was sure of it. Swallowing hard, she read the wording underneath. 

Local hero, Phil Jonas (aged 34) tragically killed 5th March 2014 whilst saving his wife, Sasha (29) and young daughter, Linda, aged seven. 

Her face blanched as Sophie did the math. Seven years ago. The exact age Mollie was now. 

Racing back outside, Sophie looked round for Phil. Perhaps this Phil was a relation or twin brother? The blurb hadn’t given any more details. But the place was deserted. Checking the car, she saw Mollie still asleep in the back seat. There was a note, however, left on the driver’s seat. It simply said you’re welcome


Published in Issue #18


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