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Under a Blackened Sky LONGLIST copy.jpg

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Five kilometres.

Plumes of thick smoke rise from the earth like a mountain. The world is on fire, and we have descended into hell.

Fireys have come knocking with the dreaded warning that evacuation is non-negotiable. The wind has changed direction, the fire is five kilometres away, and we lie in its path.

I shake as I scramble to fill a suitcase with essentials; a change of clothes, passports, birth certificates, and our insurance details. My shorts are drenched from hosing down the house, and they are rubbing the inside of my thighs.

‘What else? What else do we need to take with us?’

Four Kilometres.

I find my daughter, Jess, in her room. ‘Ready?’

She’d chosen the pale green paint on the walls after explaining that now she was ten years old it was time for a more grown-up coloured bedroom.

Jess stuffs her backpack with teddies and squashes in the floppy-eared bunny she’s slept with ever since she was two years old. ‘Ready, Mom. Where’s Milo?’

‘Milo! Here boy, here. He must be in the yard. Let’s go!’

I take one last look around our house as we hurry out. The pencilled markings dated with Jess’s age and height, the Christmas tree loaded with hand-made decorations Jess made over the years, the beaten kitchen table my mom bought for me as a housewarming present.

‘Thank you, house. You were the best!’ I say.

Jess looks up at me, and her blue eyes lock on mine. She nods then shouts, ‘We love you, house!’

My throat aches, but there is no time for tears now. I lock the front door behind me and throw our few belongings in the car.

Three kilometres.

‘Milo! Milo!’ Jess shouts.

‘Where could he be?’ Our chocolate Labrador is fourteen years old and hard of hearing. It was serendipity that he came to live with us. A chance encounter at a checkout in Coles meant he became part of our family.

We run behind the house and my eyes sting. The sky is a blackened orange and the wind is hot. The taste of smoke is thick on my tongue. ‘Where is he?’

‘My secret hiding place!’

‘What secret hiding place?’

Jess grabs my hand and pulls me towards the shed by the back fence. ‘I’ll show you. Come on!’

Two kilometres.

On the back-seat, Milo pants heavily. In the rear-view mirror, a silhouette of trees set against a towering inferno shows me how small and powerless we are against the raging fires. I pull off the drive and place my clammy hand on Jess’s knee—I have everything I need.

One kilometre.

I focus on the road ahead and pray under my breath for safe refuge.

Fire trucks speed past us.

Not knowing what lies ahead of them, these heroes drive straight to the front line.

Jess closes her eyes and starts to pray. ‘Keep them safe,’ she whispers. ‘Keep them safe.’

The End

© Michelle Upton

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