Part 19 - Ice Cube

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Byron walked until he was out of Ray's sight, then jogged through the woods until he reached a small creek. He followed the water, turned left at a boulder that had been marked with chalk, and counted twenty paces before he saw a pine tree that was older and taller than any of its neighbors. It had survived the blaze, though not unscathed. Byron knelt at the tree's base, brushing soot from the bark with an archaeologist's care, but could discern no markings underneath.

"Where are you?" Byron said. The scorched landscape looked unfamiliar, but he knew where the creek and the old pine tree were. Hoping for the best, he picked a direction at random. A minute later, he came upon a coil of barbed wire stretched between several trees. Byron knocked part of the wire down with a fallen branch.

Up ahead, the sight of swaying, green oak leaves and an assortment of wild flowers - pink, lavender, and golden yellow - emboldened Byron. His swings grew harder and faster. Whether he had providence to thank, or just Steve, the fire had been contained nearby. There was a chance. "Yah!" He smashed the remaining wire aside and broke into a run.

"Come on, babies," Byron said. The living forest filled his eyes with hope and color. He tripped over an exposed root, landing in a one-handed push-up. Before him lay a marijuana leaf, black as despair.

"No," Byron said, reaching for the burn victim's silhouette. "Please, God, no." The leaf dissolved into ashes and memory. As he wiped a ghoulish handprint on his shirt, hope gave way to comprehension. Hot tears fell like embers on his cheeks. He knew his place in the world, and that place was at the center of a vast crematorium. Not one marijuana plant had survived the inferno.

"Why?!" Byron screamed.

-

Ray stretched. The sun felt good on his skin, and the burning smell bothered him less than he'd expected.

T-t-t-t-t went a woodpecker looking for an afternoon snack. It extracted a beetle that had felt fortunate to survive the fire, then flew away. Ray followed the woodpecker with his eyes until it flew behind a tree trunk and did not reappear on the other side. At the base of the tree trunk, a large dog sniffed the ground.

"Rex?" Ray said.

Rex barked once, then ran behind the tree trunk. Ray followed. The scorched forest did not offer many hiding places, but he could see neither Rex nor the bird.

"Here, boy!" Ray said. "I'll give you a treat."

He searched his pockets. "I have a... colored pencil! Mmm, good."

Rex, if he heard, had no taste for colored pencils.

T-t-t-t-t went a woodpecker. It appeared to be the same one as before, but it was working on a different tree.

Ray walked beneath it. "Are you messing with me?"

The woodpecker flew off. Something sank its mandibles into Ray's ankle. He screamed. Ants swarmed all over his feet. It served him right; he was standing in an ant pile. Ray danced away from the pile and carefully brushed ants off his legs.

The ant pile had survived the fire, but many burned ants lay nearby. Ray's footprint had unearthed a piece of blackened plastic, part of a bottle. He could just barely make out the label. Lighter fluid.

Ray dug the bottle out with a stick. Thanks to the ants, the loop of plastic attaching the cap to the bottle had not been harmed by the fire. Ray inserted the stick through the loop and carried it like a hobo with a bindle.

In the distance, Ray heard Byron scream, "Why?!" He ran towards his anguished friend.

-

Byron lay in a fetal position among the ashes of his children.

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