EVAN'S feet drug along the dusty road. The sole of one boot had come unfixed and flapped dust up between his toes. He shook his left leg every dozen steps or so to try and combat the earthy invasion.
Willy, his rottweiler, wove back and forth across the road a few metres behind him following scent trails unnoticed by his human companion. The lad's shirt was dirt-stiff and missing one sleeve, the other was tucked into itself around his elbow. The hair on his forearms was wheat-coloured; his skin looked ready for harvest.
Beyond the fields to his left and dead ahead were low lying mountains. Spot fires flared around their crowns, lines of destruction leading to the woody peaks. An hour more walking and he would reach his father's house. If he could catch a ride he might even make it before they left. The morning light had been dull, seeping through the gauze curtains. Wood smoke smell had marred the sticky scent of eucalypt and lantana he was used to.
He'd headed out quickly, pausing only to shovel some crusty day-old bread into his mouth. Amber Lee hadn't said anything to him. Just waved little Mattie's arm at him in a goodbye gesture.
The sun was climbing to its peak. It beat upon him, cooking him to beet-coloured and tender. A ute approached from behind and slowed to a crawl beside him.
"Need a lift, mate? It's too hot to be walkin' without even a hat." A man, much older than the lad, breathed noisily through his reduced complement of teeth. "You can put your dog in the back there."
"Just headed to Maud's Creek if you're going that way." Evan wiped the sweat from his brow as he squinted at his saviour.
"Hell, it's the only place this road goes isn't it? Git in." He jerked his salt and peppered head towards the passenger door.
The old man's stench filled the cab and when Evan got in, the odour of his unwashed body mingled with the sour funk. The space where a tape deck would go was empty of electronics and stuffed with plastic bags.
The outside air had become heavy with smoke. Evan watched the fields fly by as they approached the only bridge over the water that gave the town its name. He heard whoops and laughter as the ute crossed the bridge. Two young girls on horseback were racing alongside what was arguably a river, hollering excitedly despite the destruction in the distance.
"Why're yer headed into town, er, I didn't catch your name?"
"Evan," he responded. "I'm tryin to catch my dad before he's left town for the fire front." Both men raised their eyes to the orange peaks, now only a few kilometres off.
"Do you think he'll still be home? I can drop you at the fire station."
"Well, no. But I'd hoped. OK, thanks."
Evan arrived at the volunteer fire station to find only Gary, who was about to head out, and his wife Cheryl. Cheryl found them protective gear in the right size and radioed the team telling them they were coming. She handed Gary an esky.
"Here's some dinner to go around. Youse won't be comin' home tonight."
Evan pulled his thick protective suit on over his grimed shorts. He waited in Gary's truck for him to do the same. There was a window in the back wall of the cab that Willy stuck his head through, drooling on Evan's shoulder.
"Git ya bastard." Willy retreated and lay down in the tray as Gary revved the engine.
The track they drove was parallel hard dirt tyre-wide tracks with a grassy strip tall from infrequent use. As they approached the fire front the bush changed mood. The bird calls ceased and the trees looked defeated by the high summer. Their leaves hung limp, resigned to their fate in the heat.
The air started to talk to them - to twist, whirr, and whistle with energy. It was empty of moisture and sucked water from their pores. The undergrowth was choked with lantana and the canopy was dense although wilting from the heat. Where the sky poked through was no longer clear blue but muted with smoke. The sun behind it created a beige haze making the day seem overcast.
Ahead, the silhouette of the fire truck appeared with small figures around it. Gary parked the ute in a clearing alongside some other vehicles. The men walked towards the others. The district fire chopper's buzz faded in and out and there was a rare whoosh as it returned with a load of water to drop on to the fire.
Evan spotted his father beating at a small spot fire and made towards him, calling out a greeting. Willy stuck to Evan's heel as if tied by a short leash. He whimpered quietly and rubbed his head on Evan's thigh repeatedly. He shook it from side to side as if in disbelief about what they were facing.
The fire front loomed and the men were soot-blackened and tired. They worked on keeping the spot fires contained and monitored the fire as it climbed the mountain. The theory was that when it reached the peak it would burn itself out.
An ember steadily floated to the ground next to him and sparked some dry brush. Willy snuck over to see what it was and recoiled in pain as it burnt his snout. He fled in the direction of the parked cars and Evan called after him. Willy kept running.
"What are ya doin' bringin' yer mutt, kid?," his father called out as he began to beat at the new fire with a thick mat.
Evan ran after Willy.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in t he Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.