Chapter 1

Three and a half years ago, rural England, the middle of June

The house is ablaze. Inside, an eight-year-old Labrador-Whippet cross is trapped. Outside, Rascal, a small terrier, can do nothing to help his best friend.

Nelson can't breathe any more. His throat and lungs are choked. The heat is overpowering. These are surely his final breaths. With every breath, he wheezes and coughs. He retches uncontrollably.

~ Why can't I breathe? What's happening? Why are my eyes hurting so much?

Nelson can't see anything at all now. His eyes are shut tight. He can't keep them open any more. He is weak and dizzy, unsteady on his paws.

He stumbles into the wall again. He staggers around the room and collides with the table. The smoky air is solid and heavy. Everything is blurred. He is confused and very scared. He cries out in anguish.

~ Why is it so hot?

He has tried calling for help but nobody hears. Can't get out. Trapped. There is no one to rescue him - except Rascal. But Rascal can't possibly help.

It's getting hotter and hotter. Smokier and smokier. Each time Nelson inhales, he sucks in a painful breath. He knows he has to breathe to stay alive, but the air he takes in is thick and poisonous. What choice does he have?

He collapses on the floor.

Nelson can hear Rascal outside. He tries to open his eyes to find him. Sees him through the smoke and the glass. He is in the garden. Frantically spinning around in tight circles, barking in fear and panic. Their eyes meet, and Nelson pleads for Rascal to save him. Rascal yelps in anguish, turns and disappears to look for help - again.

He returns alone. Again. The dismay in his eyes tells Nelson he still hasn't found anyone. Fears he never will. Rascal calls out to Nelson not to give up.

With all the strength left in him, Nelson struggles desperately and manages to stand up. He staggers clumsily past the window and to the back door again. He pushes and paws hopelessly at the wood but still it doesn't budge, resisting his feeble efforts. He has already tried jumping up to the handle but he is too exhausted now. Even if he could reach it, what then?

He shuffles back to the window and scratches at the glass ineffectively with his paw. His efforts are useless. Pointless.

Death is tapping on his shoulders, pushing him into the floor. Can't fight it any longer. The heat is unbearable. Flames fill the kitchen. His chest is agony. So tight. He staggers around the room in circles, helplessly, completely disorientated. There is no relief. His legs are weak, shaking. His body trembles.

He wants desperately to talk to Rascal but he has too little energy left. He tries to call out but his voice is a senseless whisper, a meaningless rasp. His head hangs low. He doesn't have the will left to lift it.

Nelson wants to tell Rascal everything. Things he should have told him before. Things that Rascal will never know - so much more than Nelson ever had the chance or the strength of mind to tell him. To tell them. But it's already too late.

He reaches the window again and collapses against it. The two dogs look at each other through the thick glass. Something unmistakably final passes between them. Nelson's farewell message is transmitted. Rascal yelps with sadness and despair but Nelson doesn't have the energy to communicate. He has given up.

Rascal approaches the glass and touches it with his moist snout. He recoils - the glass is too hot for his sensitive nose. Only a few centimetres separate them. His frightened eyes fix Nelson a pleading regard. Rascal's nose is as close to the glass as he can bear it, and he lifts a delicate paw. He places it against the windowpane - his leathery paw ignores the temperature. His head is cocked to one side and his ears are tucked back.

With what little willpower he has left, Nelson pushes himself up into a sitting position. He lifts his paw and places it against the glass. Against Rascal's small paw. They stare into each other's eyes, neither of them blinking.

But Nelson is too weak to hold his leaden paw up. It slides slowly down the glass to the floor. He lies down and places his snout between his front legs and whimpers. He knows Rascal can hear him. But will he understand? He pants violently. He knows he shouldn't, but he can't help it. He is sure he will pass out soon. He does hope so. Please let me die, he tells himself.

Nelson manages to force his eyes open and looks at Rascal one more time. Rascal jumps up against the glass and scratches frantically with both paws, yelping loudly. Trying to dig through the barrier between them. A barrier so invisible yet which signifies life or death. Life on Rascal's side, and death on Nelson's.

Rascal senses Nelson's utter resignation and lowers his paws. He lies down slowly and faces him. Like Nelson, Rascal pushes his snout down between his paws. He looks straight at Nelson. Into him. Rascal's nose is wet and shiny. Nelson's is dry and scorched. What a time for Nelson to feel jealousy.

Rascal's exhaled breath gathers in a cloud on the windowpane and fogs Nelson's view. The more Rascal breathes the hazier he becomes to Nelson, as if drifting away, leaving him behind. Like all the others did ...

Nelson doesn't want to die a pathetic death in front of Rascal. He can't let Rascal see him like this. With all his determination and self-pride, he regains his paws. He turns away from Rascal and stumbles slowly to his basket. He climbs in, collapses heavily and curls into a tight ball. He tucks his snout deeply under his thigh. His eyes fall closed and he doesn't look back. He can hear Rascal begging him to keep battling. He can hear the desperate calls and his claws scraping the window. But Nelson can't bring himself to look at Rascal again. Not now. It hurts too much to lose him. To lose them all.

A final whimper escapes from Nelson's basket.

~ Where are my guardians when I need them most?

If Only I Could Talk
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