You never really know how much you will miss the simplest things until they catch fire. Even now, breathing shallow breaths through her nose, she found herself yearning for the earthy scent of grass (or even the stench of car exhaust would do). Now Ash wasn’t sure those smells existed amid the all-powerful film of smoke and dust that loomed over the Earth like a blanket of fog. After all… how could you smell the aroma of fresh-cut grass where there was only sun-scorched dirt for miles around?
Soot-stifled air clogged her lungs as she surveyed the hellish gray landscape. Toppled white pillars littered the debris, white-hot sun beaming down its scorching gaze on the bare branches, shattered glass glittering with a glare so intense it burned her eyes… Ash could never imagine this would be what the nation’s capital would look like the first time she saw it.
“Wow,” she turned to him, lacing her fingers in his. Both hands calloused, yet interlocked with a decidedly firm grip that said “we aren’t disheartened yet.” Her eyes roved hungrily over the crumbly gray expanse of land in a futile search for any semblance of the grand metropolis that used to be.
“Anticlimactic?” he offered. She laughed, a beautiful sound that pierced the overwhelming silence before being swallowed whole.
“I always thought these monuments would look…” Ash gestured vaguely to the wreckage. In spite of herself, a watery film of tears abruptly glazed her eyes. Nothing is the same. I’ll never be able to see the capital as it was, never truly see the world. Things will never be as good as they were before. Another thought yanked painfully at the edge of her mind, one she could barely suppress to a whisper: It will never look like it used to. And your family will never see it with you.
The pair stood in mournful silence for a long while, a silence that was filled with pain unexpressed, but still just as strong. A boy and a girl on the brink of a gray, smoldering world with no idea if they were the last alive… chances were, there was no way to ever truly know. Finally, the words fell out of her mouth.
“Like monuments. But it’s all just ash, ash, ash, just like my idiotic, ironic name. Everything is gone and there’s nothing we can do,” she ripped her hand out of his as tears sprang down her cheeks, shaking them off like his touch was poison.
“Nothing but trek through the rubble like hyenas scavenging for scraps. What can we do, Jax? What?” For several long seconds, the space between them buzzed with silence. It was a rhetorical question, Jax knew, yet under his soot-darkened blond hair the gears churned in his head. Ash trudged a few steps down the hill towards the burned ruins of the city. Flickering flames still fluttered on the horizon– the last remnants of the heavenly fire that had rained down three months before, obliterating the world as they knew it. Harsh white sunlight (no longer the buttery-gold hue of the past) illuminated the wreckage in all its glory: a grim picture of a death-brushed world, painted in swirling gray soot, sparkling with shattered glass.
“Wait! Ash, wait.” She turned, cat-like gunmetal gray eyes cold as steel and hot as hellfire at the same time. The handsome boy, with his messy golden hair and sweeping lashes, streaked in dirt, stood silhouetted in the white light like a vision of Apollo on Earth.
“We could leave altogether. We could give up the search for others, give up whatever semblance of civilization we still have. Accept that we’re all alone. Our families are…” he hesitated for a second. Ash raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“Dead,” he gasped, heart thumping brokenly, “but we don’t need to keep up this search. It’s futile. We both lived to remember when the sun expanded and the sky was crimson as blood. What if no one else did? What if we are searching for something that doesn’t exist?” Jax put a tentative hand on her shoulder; he could feel the sharp edges of her shoulder blades, sharp as knives in her malnourished frame. Ash didn’t move away, yet every nerve in her body tensed like a cornered animal ready to spring away at any moment.
“So you think we should give up? Settle down like pioneers on the prairie, give up on our families? This trip has been interesting, Jax, but… do you really not have any hope? What about your father?” A light wind rustled the chalky ash, flurries of the dry gray soot spattering their faces unceremoniously. Tendrils of her ink-splash hair billowed behind her in the breeze; the boy that had been so untouchable once upon a time now found himself dry-mouthed and unsure, yearning to run his hands through her unruly waves. The words fell awkwardly off his lips in sputtering spurts.
“My– my house was on fire when I ran. I saw my mother, my sisters, brothers, all of them burn in a white-hot blaze. As I ran for the lake, I heard my father’s gut-wrenching screams from inside the house. They were screams of death, Ash. Death,” he pursed his lips, eyes glazing over with a sheen of tears that burned his eyes but refused to be shed.
“They’re dead. Not just our families. Everyone. Lord knows how we made it… I don’t have a clue myself. But we need to get away from this pain. Everywhere that we go, every building we see, every human thing we touch will remind us of death. Start over with me, Ash. We can forget together, migrate to Montana or some unsettled territory. Please just stay.” Her eyes darkened, scrunching up at the corners. Pain was painted in bold brushstrokes all across her face: the wrinkles on her brow, the pursed lips, the flushed cheeks. Searing fury boiled up in her gut, striking hard as lightning and twice as fast. She took off at a sprint down the slope, charging through the rubble. Pillars. Soot. Broken glass. Deflated tires.
“Wait! Just tell me why, please!” Desperation choked his words. Ash swung around furiously, eyes roving ravenously over his gleaming golden hair and prominent jaw.
“Why? Why?” her voice rose, more and more venomous. She gritted her teeth, staring him directly in the eye. “I. Can’t. Forget. I. Can’t. My family is dead and–ha! You.. you want to play out some demented Adam and Eve fairytale ending. Former popular boy and rebellious loner girl fall in love after the world falls away?”
His gaze fell, cheeks blazing crimson. Deep within he wondered whether his feelings over the last month had all truly been some delusional attempt at a romance-movie ending, or if they were rooted in something real. Did the fact that he had never given Ash a second thought before the apocalypse mean anything? Was the rapidly festering desire in his heart purely circumstantial, as random and meaningless as two animals reproducing to keep the species alive?
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. But… let me come with you. Anywhere. We don’t need to run away…” he faltered for a second, grappling with the miserable thought of eternity all by himself.
“But we do need each other.” Ash raised a brow, gunmetal eyes alight with a cold mischief that screamed “wrong answer.” Sunlight flooded the wreckage she stood in as the black clouds rolled over. She turned and took a single step away from him, a crinkled plastic bottle crunching under her tattered sneakers.
“I need you, Ash.”
His husky voice echoed in the utter silence, ricocheting off the crumbled stone and reverberating against the teetering flag pole. With a single flick of her wrist, the beautiful girl beckoned him to follow her, glancing back with a slight (still anxious) smile that said “I forgive you?” And yes, I did mean to add that question mark. For after the apocalypse, nothing is certain. You can’t trust anyone–or anything–once everything has been set to fire. They trudged on together through the rancid waste of society, heading west in search of something that they no longer were sure existed anymore: humans.