The wind ignored the boy’s thin white cotton shirt. It cut through his skin and skirted his small, undeveloped muscles before settling deep down into his bones. The silhouettes of the tall woodland trees stood proudly against an orange glow, and the boy squeezed his eyes tightly shut and pressed his hands against his frozen ears to keep the screaming from permeating his tiny heart. The bark of a great big cottonwood tree seemed to clutch the thin fabric of his shirt, relentlessly digging into the soft skin of his back. He could smell the smoke and he knew he should run, but his legs refused to straighten from their crouched position.
He was warm now. His skin tingled, thawing gratefully from the cold. He cautiously opened one eye, peered down at his bare, knobby knees and the hard, frozen dirt, and pushed himself up to standing.
He felt a tickle in his throat, teasing at first, then insistent, then relentless. He coughed, forcing the pungent, ashy air out of his lungs only to suck it in again. And again. And again.
A strange heat – so hot it was almost cold – pressed on his eyelids, forehead, knuckles, and toes.
He opened his eyes.
Flames tasted the tree branches. The silhouettes of the trees, once proud and tall, now buckled in pain, frightened and charred as some beast with long, fiery fingers ate them alive. Sensing his presence, the beast reached toward Willy with a hiss and a crack, and Willy could see nothing else, feel nothing else, smell nothing else, but a bright, white light: neither hot nor cold, neither alive nor dead.