Authors: Richard Matheson
She shrank back, flinching, against the hard, rocky face of the canyon wall and almost stupidly, watched the bright flames moving at them.
Chris jerked out the hand brake and straightened up.
“Take the car back to the canyon road,” he said quickly, “If we’re not back in ten minutes, drive to the nearest phone and call the police.”
Without waiting to hear what she was going to say, Chris pushed out of the car and started running down the dirt lane, blanking his mind to the fact that he was thirty minutes late. He sprinted around the curve, drawing the gun from his pocket. There was a broken window on the west side of the shack, he remembered. He’d fire through it at Steve, then at Adam if he had to.
He left the lane and clambered up the slope as quietly as he could, eyes on the doorway to the shack. It was so still.
, his mind persisted but Chris wouldn’t listen. He gritted his teeth and edged over to the window, looked in.
Steve was lying on the floor, his face in a pool of blood. Chris’s startled gaze fled around the shadowy interior. There was no one else.
He whirled from the window and looked around. Where were they? Had Adam taken them with him? Were they in some stolen car, headed for Mexico? It had a frightening logic.
He was just turning back toward the road when he heard the screaming. Twisting around, he looked up at the hill behind the shack. It was up there! Abruptly, he broke into a run, plunging into the clump of bushes that barred his way, tearing through it, then lurching up the steep rise. The screaming was closer now, so highly pitched that it was impossible for him to tell whether it was a man or woman. Chris lunged the rest of the way to the top of the hill and looked around.
Running across the hilltop, a torch on legs, was Adam Burrik. Chris felt his muscles clamping in as he stared at the burning man. Adam’s shrill, brainless screaming pierced the air. He saw Chris and started rushing toward him, the flames whipping backward from his clothes like bright pennants. Chris stood impotently a moment
longer, then, with a shudder, dashed forward to help Adam put out the flames, to find out where Helen and Connie were.
Before he could reach the burning man, however, Adam had tripped and fallen, he was rolling down the hillside, screaming with agony. Chris started after him as he bounced and slithered down the slope but, at the bottom, Adam plunged into a thick patch of grass which, immediately, caught fire. In a second, he was swallowed by the rising flames. The last Chris saw of him was a waving arm, the last he heard was one long shriek of horror. Then there was only the spreading fire.
Chris whirled and headed for the top of the hill again, escaping the flames. There was no time to try and put out the fire. He had to find Helen and Connie. Where were they? How had they escaped Adam? How had he caught fire? Questions pounded through his mind as he ran.
Then he saw the scaling pall of smoke in the distance and started running toward it, throwing down the heavy gun. It was of no use any longer.
Seconds later, he heard Connie’s scream.
With a frightened grunt, he jolted forward, running as fast as he could. Below, the fire was contained within an open draw, Chris’s gaze leaped around the blazing hollow of it, searching for them.
“Helen!” he shouted.
There was no answer. He rushed along the edge, looking downward but the smoke was too thick to see through. He stopped near the foot of the draw and squinted down, the smoke burning his eyes, making them water. He moved again, edging restlessly along the cliff-like drop. He shouted, “Helen!”
There was another scream—almost directly below, it seemed.
” he called.
He fell to his knees and looked down into the smoke-obscured draw.
“Where are you?” he cried.
“Here! Help us!”
Sucking in breath, Chris looked around and saw a narrow ledge about four feet below. Hastily, he lowered himself across the edge and slid down onto it. For a second, losing balance, he almost pitched backward into the smoke, only at the last second catching
hold of a bush that grew on the ledge. Turning around, he looked down, brushing the tears out of his eyes, blinking hard.
“Where are you?”
Suddenly, Chris caught sight of them through a rift in the heavy smoke. They were about twelve feet below on a wider ledge, pressed against the wall of the draw, ringed in by leaping flame. He saw Helen looking up frantically, trying to see him.
“Hold on!” he shouted. He looked around desperately. Four feet down and to the right was another bush. Quickly, Chris lowered himself over the side of the ledge and put his feet down until they settled on the bush. Holding on to the ledge with talon-like fingers, he put more and more weight on the bush until he was standing on it. Then he let go and ducked downward, grabbing hold of the bush.
“I’m almost there!” he called. He looked down and saw Helen gazing up at him with frightened eyes.
“Hurry, Chris!” she begged.
Chris jumped the rest of the way, sprawling down beside them on the ledge.
“Yes, baby.” He held her for a moment, turning to Helen.
“Get on my shoulders,” he said, “I’ll hold you while you climb to that bush up there.”
“All right.” As Chris leaned against the wall, she clambered shakily to his shoulders. He held onto her calves while she reached up gingerly and caught onto the bush.
“Can you pull yourself up?”
In a few moments, her weight had left his shoulders and he heard the scrambling noise her sandals made as she climbed.
“Are you there?” he called up.
“All right, I’m passing up Connie!”
Chris grabbed his shaking daughter and raised her to his shoulders.
“Grab her!” he said.
“I can’t reach her!”
“Connie, stand up!” he ordered.
Her clutching hands left his head, he felt her trying to stand on his shoulders.
“Daddy, I’m falling!”
“You’re not! I’ve got you. Reach up and take Mommy’s hands!” A wave of dizziness passed over him. The heat seemed about to swallow him. He heard Connie’s labored gasping above, heard Helen telling her to reach up a little further.
“Hurry, baby!” he shouted hoarsely.
Abruptly, Connie was off his shoulders, being drawn up. Chris fell, gasping, against the wall. Suddenly, he threw his arm up as a wind-driven burst of flame flashed toward him. He felt the searing heat on his flesh. Then the wind had sucked it back. Turning, he looked up. He could just make out their forms clinging to the side of the wall, their feet on the bush.
“Can’t you reach the ledge?” he called.
“I can’t, Chris! Not holding her!”
Gritting his teeth, Chris leaped up and caught onto the bush. For a moment it seemed as if he hadn’t the strength to pull himself up. Teeth clenched, he strained upward inch by inch. He couldn’t break now, not when they were so close to safety.
Another few seconds and he was on the bush beside them. He pulled himself up onto the narrow ledge, drew Connie up, then Helen. Then, too easily it seemed after all these horrible hours, all of them were on the rim of the draw and he was holding Connie, they were running from the fire and, though it seemed impossible to believe, he knew they were safe and that the nightmare was ended.
Chris stood by the living room window, staring out at the surf. In the back bedroom, Connie had just fallen asleep in Helen’s arms. In the kitchen, Helen’s mother was preparing some lunch. It was almost two-thirty.
None of them had spoken since the first few moments of hysterical relief that followed their escape. They had gotten into the car and Chris had driven them out of the canyon, stopping at a telephone booth to report the fire. Helen’s mother had suggested that they go to her house for a while and, without comment, Chris had driven them there.
He glanced down at his left arm. There was a slow crawling of pain on it. He drew up his sleeve and saw that the skin was red. He let the sleeve fall. He’d take care of it later.
“Are you hungry?”
Chris looked around and saw Helen’s mother standing in the kitchen doorway, looking at him. There was no expression on her face.
He shook his head a little. “No, thank you,” he said. For a second, he tried to remember when it was he’d last eaten. Then, turning back to the window, he forgot about it. It didn’t matter.
A few minutes later, Helen came out of the bedroom. Chris turned at the sound of her footsteps.
“How is she?” he asked.
He swallowed dryly. “Is she—burned?” he asked.
“A little on her hands,” she answered. “I put some salve on them.”
He nodded and watched her move into the kitchen. He saw her mother embrace her and he turned back to the window.
In a minute, Helen came back in with two steaming cups. “Coffee?” she asked.
“Thank you.” He took one of the cups and sat down on the sofa. It wasn’t until his weight had settled on the cushion that he realized how tired he was.
Helen sat across from him on an armchair. She didn’t meet his eyes.
“Does your head hurt?” she asked.
“No.” It did hurt but he didn’t want to talk about it.
She looked up.
“Are you—?” He swallowed. “Do you want to know what I’m—going to do?”
Her lips flexed together tensely and Chris felt a flare of pain in his head.
She doesn’t care
, he thought.
“Yes,” she said, quietly.
“I’m going to the police.”
Is that all?
asked his mind. Then he realized that it seemed a small thing now after what had happened.
He put down the cup and stared at his hands for several moments. Then, with a sigh, he got up.
“I’ll go now,” he said.
They looked at each other in silence. Her lips moved as if she couldn’t find the proper words to speak.
“It—can’t be the same,” she said.
“I know.” He kept looking at her, hoping that something could be said or done to end this pain. “I—know,” he repeated, turning away.
He turned back. “What?”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“If you want to.”
She nodded slowly. “You’re still my husband,” she said. It sounded more like a reluctant admission than a statement, though.
You don’t have to
, bristled his mind. Then he knew that he had no privileges of resentment any more.
“Let’s go then,” he said.
“I’ll tell Mom.”
Chris stood by the front door while Helen spoke to her mother in the kitchen. He couldn’t hear what they said. In several minutes, Helen came out and they left the house. They got into the car and Chris started driving toward Santa Monica.
“What do you—?” she started after they’d been driving for a while in silence. “What do you think will happen?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Helen glanced over at him. He had never looked so grave. She felt an urge to touch his hand, to comfort him. She repressed it. Things could
be the same. Thoughtless emotion had no point now.
Still, she thought, Connie was safe. She would not be if it hadn’t been for Chris. Nor would she have ever been exposed to such horrible danger if it hadn’t been for Chris, her mind reacted.
Nor would she have ever been born if it hadn’t been for Chris
, it reacted once again.
Things whirled in a circle. Every moment was the result of those before it, the foundation of those that followed. You could not divorce one from the other and find separate meaning in the parts. It existed as one flow—good and bad together—which you accepted or did not. Chris was in her life. She had accepted the good of that for many years. Now she was being asked to accept the bad of it. Right or wrong, could she turn her back on him?
Impulsively, Helen reached out and laid her hand on his arm. Don’t! cried her mind but it was still a relief to be committed.
Chris was looking at her now. She had to speak and what she said had to be just right—not cruel yet not unquestioning.
“Just—give me a chance, Chris,” she said.
He caught at her hand and held it tightly. And they said no more.