Chapter 2: Smoke and Ash

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As Roberto drove past the restaurant mansion toward the source of the billowing black smoke, Tara saw a form kneeling in the dust beside the winery, its back to them.

"It's not the winery, it's the garage," Roberto said. One wall blazed and the roof was gone. Black clouds rose to join the smoke the wind pushed into the valley.

Roberto stopped the truck with a lurch and threw the door open. "That's Nicole!" He jumped out and ran toward the kneeling woman.

The smoke assaulted Tara as soon as she opened her door. Tears blurred her vision but she could see Nicole's shoulders shaking. Ash flakes turned her dark brown hair grey and covered her shoulders and back. Beside her was a blurred shape that could only be Charlie, his nose to the ground.

There was something in front of the dog, something long and dark and covered in grey ash. No, no, don't let it be ...

Roberto bent beside Nicole, his hand going to her shoulder for a moment. Then he turned and stepped away, doubled over, and vomited onto the dust and ash.

Tara fell to her knees beside Nicole. Oh, my god, it is, it is, I can see his ring.

It's Alan. Alan's dead. He's burned. I can't even recognize him.

Charlie whined, licking Alan's burned face, pawing his shoulder. Tara felt her stomach heave as black flakes came off on the dog's tongue.

His clothes are burned, they've—don't let yourself think it, Tara. Help Nicole.

Nicole sobbed silently, her body shaking, her mouth wide open. Fresh ash stained her cheeks where tears had temporarily cleaned them. She took a shuddering breath, then choked on the smoke and ash she inhaled.

Somewhere, Tara found strength to stand. She pulled Nicole to her feet. "Come on, we have to get out of here." Nicole shook her head. A thin whine came from her and she pulled her arm from Tara's grip to reach for her husband's body. When her hand touched him, though, it made a crispy, cracking sound. The black outer layer, whether cloth or skin, crinkled and broke. Blood stained Nicole hand, bright red as a traffic light. She recoiled, coughing and crying.

Gagging on the smoke, Roberto lifted Nicole from under her arms, practically dragging her to the truck. Tara followed, pushing on the woman who would have been shrieking if she could have stopped coughing. "There's nothing you can do for him now, Nicole," he said, pushing her into the back seat and buckling the seat belt around her.

Nicole's face was streaked black, grey and red. She shook her head, her mouth a wide, trembling hole and tried to reach out. Tara climbed in, kneeling backwards on the front seat so she could push Nicole's arms out of the way to shut the door. "There's nothing more we can do, Mrs. DaSilva. You have to save yourself. There's no point in both of you ..." She could not bring herself to say dying.

Nicole breathed in audibly again and found the desiccated remains of her voice. "We can't just leave him there."

Roberto stood outside the driver's side, his hand on the wheel and one foot in the truck. He exchanged a look with Tara and nodded toward Alan's body. Tara swallowed and nodded back.

"I'll take his shoulders," Roberto said in a voice dry as the falling ash. "Let me open the tailgate first."

Tara bent at Alan's feet, hesitating before she touched the blackened ankles. Charlie pressed his nose into her leg, looking up at her and whining.

Please hold together, Tara. Please don't let his body break or bleed on me. If he does, I'll fall apart, I just know it. Keep it together.

Roberto lifted Alan from the shoulders, much as he had taken Nicole, and Tara lifted by the ankles. She did not let herself look at the way soot spread black across Roberto's t-shirt as they lugged the body behind the truck.

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