Before Gale heard the crackling of the grass being consumed by the oncoming flames, before she could smell the smoke being blown towards them by the wind, before she stood to look backward and saw the fire herself, she felt it. As the antelope crossing the savanna can sense the lion, as any wild thing knows it is being pursued, Gale sensed on some primitive level the threat that raced towards them.
Deb rose beside her, responding to the younger woman’s paralyzed gasp. She grabbed Gale’s arm for support, her own legs going weak.
“Run!” Gale muttered.
In the instant before Gale turned to follow Deb in panicked flight, she thought she saw, amidst the flames, faces staring out at her. Leering faces, with gaping maws and dangling tongues. The hiss of the burning grass came to resemble laughter. Gale rubbed her eyes to clear them of such madness as she broke into a run.
On and on they fled, pursued by the firestorm, lost to all else in the world. Then both women halted together, almost toppling over the edge of a precipice on the descending side of a low hill. For a moment, Gale’s senses couldn’t register what she saw below her. As the image came into focus within her mind, she clutched at her stomach, feeling nauseous.
Over ten feet across and as deep—ten feet, at least, between the rim of the ditch and the first bodies—a mass grave stretched out to girdle the hill. Left uncovered, dozens of bodies, perhaps hundreds, lay sprawled in the positions in which they had landed, arms and legs askew, spines and necks bent awkwardly. Some stared up with milky sightless eyes; others lay face down. Flies swarmed, a living shroud floating just above the dead. Crawling things sought shelter in open mouths.
Gale sank to her knees, overcome at last by the fear and grief and horror. She could feel the heat of the fire on her back, but she had passed beyond caring. Deb grabbed her, shook her, and, when the flames were close enough to allow no recourse, she shoved Gale into the grave. Then Deb jumped in after her, falling on the mound of bodies. The devil mask collided with an exposed cranium with a sickening crunching sound that made chills prickle down Gale’s spine, yet seemed to rouse her from her stupor.
Gale sought for the touch of Deb’s warm, living body amidst the dead ones. Grabbing hold of the only peach-skinned arm she could find floating atop the stagnant charnel river, she crawled, pulling Deb after her. They reached the opposite side of the trench, and Deb pushed Gale up to the rim. Climbing over, Gale reached down to grab Deb and pull her up. She helped the older woman to her feet, then led her forward, hobbling into a sprint. The fire halted on the brink of the grave. They ran for what seemed hours. They continued on until Deb’s legs seized up in cramps and she fell, too exhausted to move. Gale dropped onto her face beside Deb. Deb fought to breathe, the amount of air allowed through the tube insufficient, unable to breathe through her nostrils at all. She slipped into and then back out of unconsciousness. Her heartbeat slowed. She turned her head, checking on Gale. She saw Gale’s shoulders trembling and knew the young doctor hadn’t lost it yet. Not yet. Gale was crying. If she could still cry, then she hadn’t given up. Deb wondered if she was crying, too, inside the mask. She could no longer tell.