Mary clung to him with all the strength her sweet little arms could manage. She used to be so light, he thought, as he scanned the wall of flame and smoke bearing down on them from the south. “How heavy can a five-year old be?” And the answer came back, “How long have you been running with her?” Good question. But there was no time to answer because a doe, followed by a spotted fawn and nearly crushed by a large buck at the end of an otherwise impressive leap, changed course in front of them, and immediately narrowed their already minimal options. The buck bounded onward to the north, the fawn found his legs, and the doe danced wildly after the buck, stopping now and again for the fawn to catch up. And Mary continued to cry as Ian wondered, “Where to? Where to now?” But mostly he thought, “Don’t let my baby die; please don’t let my baby die!”
Why was he here, he thought? Of all days to hike in the woods, he had to choose this one. (Damn, the deer are coming back from the north. Why can’t we go that way?) He had come from the east, where he had left the truck, and was headed back there when the fire cut them off. He had tried to get around it to the south when the wind changed and forced them north. And now the animals were returning to his burning ark in the middle of the inferno and they all said, “Go west, young man.”
“How are you doing, Mary? You still Daddy’s sweet little girl?”
“That’s my baby. Hey, look there. That possum’s carrying her babies too. Everybody’s getting a free ride today.”
“Daddy, when are we going to be back at the truck? I’m scared.”
“I know, honey. Just as soon as we can. Okay? Hang in there, sweetie. We’re getting there.”
There. “There” was not someplace he wanted to be today. The smell returned even stronger than before as he thought of “there”. “There” was to the west about a half a mile through the thickest part of the woods; where all the animals, large and small, would end up just before stopping to peer over the edge and count the rocks a hundred feet below. He had climbed it as a kid just for the thrill of feeling control over his own life, but now he was 39 and carrying the most precious 46 pounds he could think of. Would he end up as just another panicky animal desperately deciding between the flames or the fall, or could he call up whatever it was he needed to save their lives?
“I love you Daddy.”
He could do it.
* * * ( Earlier That Day) * * *
“Hi, poopsie. How’s my girl today?”
“Fine. Is it time?”
“Yep. Where’s my hug and kiss?”
She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed, and with her eyes still closed planted a sleepy kiss on his lips, then fell back into the bed.
“Uh-uh-uh, none of that. We are going to the woods today to look for rabbits.” No response. “Come on, I’m tired too. Up, up, up!”
“All right. I’m up!” And she was. Not awake, but up. She staggered to the bathroom and started on her morning routine while Ian poured the milk and cereal, then fumbled through the refrigerator for the orange juice.
“Brush your hair?”
She was his pride and joy and as such was entitled to anything she wanted within the realm of possibility, but the wonderful thing about her was that she seemed to know the limits.
She never seemed to want any thing she really couldn’t have. She was a great kid, big for her age but not awkward about it. Well, no more awkward than any five-year old would be.
And she still looked like her mom. Carol had always complained that she wanted the baby to look like Ian, but he was glad that she didn’t. In the two years since Carol’s death, Mary grew to favor her more and more and Ian was glad to have Carol’s face on such a deserving person.
“What color rabbits are we going to see today, Dad?” She slowly padded down the stairs, grabbed a spoon from the drawer and headed for the table.
“Andy, get down from there!” as a black shadow nimbly followed the instructions of The Voice and flew from the kitchen counter to the dining room floor, pursued by a hand vainly trying to connect the intentions of The Voice with the long completed actions of the cat. “Did you feed him last night, honey?”
“Yeah, but I think he ate Benjy’s food, too.”
“That figures,” he said. “You hear that you pig? We have your number now. You’re a pig.”
And the inevitable choral response was, “Yeah, Andy. We have your number now. So what color are the rabbits we’re going to see?”
She never forgets anything, he thought. Why can’t she just once forget something? Like now. “Well, I’ll bet we see a lot of gray ones and …”
“Gray’s so yuck. Can’t we find any white ones with pink noses?”
Right. A wild white rabbit with a pink nose just waiting for us to come along and take its picture. What’s wrong with gray? “I don’t know honey; I think white ones only live in zoos or cages, things like that.”
She looked bored already. Ian started to wonder if maybe they wouldn’t have more fun washing the truck or pulling weeds or eating worms. “Do you think maybe Jenny would want to come?”
She jumped. “Yeah, do you think she can!?”
“Call her up. Do you know the number?”
She already had the phone and had started to push the buttons when she realized she didn’t know the whole thing. She hung up and looked at him and he picked up the lead. “5-6-3-…”
“Wait a minute. You never told me this one. 5-6-3 … ?”
“2-6-4-1. Thanks Dad.”
Ian watched and thought how one of the nice things about being five and a half must be that you can do such little things and everybody thinks it’s great. Who’d have thought that dialing a phone could make a Dad so proud?
“Okay,” the voice of gloom was saying, “see you later.”
“No good, huh? Oh well.”
“That’s okay; I’m going to play with her after lunch anyhow. Besides, she likes gray.”
“Yuck. I’m glad she’s not coming then.”
“Da-a-ad,” she said, the mock anger rising in her voice. She knew he liked Jenny and was only teasing. He loved to tease and she loved to get angry at him for it.
“Ready?” he said.
“Weady, wabbit.” she replied.
“Then wet’s go Fweddy,” he said as he opened the back door and she pranced through. “Dammit, Andy get back in there!”
Too late — again.
* * * (To Be Continued) * * *