*This is the second edition in the Apocalypse series. Find the rest in the archives!
Something like remorse fluttered on the wind that day, the whole Earth exhaling a gentle sigh of lost hope. Petrichor meandered on the faint breeze, a mere glimmer of the rains that used to bless the land. Ash and Jax knew better than to hope for rain. There hadn’t been rain since the Burn and there wouldn’t be for as long as they lived.
“Would it be pathetic if I asked you a question when I already know the answer will be no?” Ash blurted into the stillness. Her words came in jolting gasps of air, stopping every so often to catch her breath. All he could manage was the slightest of movements to move his chin side to side. Each breath was a croaking rasp that tore their throats; each glimmer of sunlight filtering into the shady grotto seemed to suck the life out of them just like it had done to the scorched earth.
“Before the Burn…” her head lolled to face him, swirls of her inky hair falling over her cheeks. She was too exhausted to pluck them from her sweat-streaked skin anymore. Every ounce of her waning energy was focused on surviving the sweltering heat and forming a complete sentence.
“Did you ever even think twice about me?” She asked, gunmetal eyes distant and hopeless, reflecting the white sun that clawed through the leaves. Staring out across the shaded turquoise waters of the grotto, he let his mind wander to a time that seemed a world away.
Sitting in school, lounging at his desk and yammering with his buddies while the teacher preached to the front row know-it-alls: nerds scratching away excitedly at their papers, suck-ups smiling and nodding, smart kids asking philosophical questions. Jax wouldn’t have the slightest clue what the teacher had been teaching that day. Needless to say, he couldn’t have cared less. Jax sat in the back with his other jock friends, the cream of the crop.
Anyone with half a brain could see it. His U.S. History class was divided perfectly into three rows with three different categories of people, with no outlier whatsoever: as clear cut as a wealthy man’s suit. The know-it-alls in the front row, who would stop at nothing to get closer to the learning (Jax’s eyes practically rolled into the back of his head every time they raised their hands); the cool jocks in the third row, including him: these were the varsity athletes, the beautiful girls, the party-kids that stayed up till dawn hosting rager after rager. And finally… Jax shuddered at his past self, recalling the exact placement he had put the second row in.
The second row was the row for nobodies: the mediocre crowd that would never make anything of themselves. Ash sat in that row, and the truth was… he had never looked twice at her except when she was arguing with the teacher over some stupid assignment or debating why she was required to work in a group. A loner. A pretty loner, but a loner nonetheless.
Jax let his eyes fall on her, the girl he had never thought about but now couldn’t get out of his head. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her there, blazing eyes and cautious smile, midnight hair and a sarcastic air about her that drove him wild. His pitying stare must have said it all. She turned away, wiping the beading sweat from her brow.
“I’m sorry. I was an idiot, messing around with my friends and caught up in football, rugby, lacrosse, partying… anything to shut out reality.” Ash looked at him, eyes dark as obsidian rock. She was panting still, the unimaginable heat bearing down on them both. Harsh, ultra-violet rays sliced through the gaps in the canopy. Even the waters of the shady grotto were as sweltering as a pool with a broken heater. Jax remembered his youngest sister, Caroline, how she used to ramble on and on about astronomy and the predictions of our sun’s future.
“Caroline, shut up already! I’m trying to finish this essay for once.” She dashed across the room like a thunderbolt and slammed his computer shut, just as he yanked his hands from the keys. Whirrrrrr. He slammed his fist on the desk. That was a sound he hated even more than the worst cramp at practice. It was the sound of a computer shutting down: meaning he would have to reboot it all over again and pray to god that his essay saved as he watched the loading circle go round and round and round again.
“Since when do you do essays? Is it your new girllllfrienndd??? Wants you to study and get good grades? Oooh-”
“Caroline! I swear to god, no. Could you just leave? I have enough already–” Caroline flopped down onto his bed, blonde pigtails bouncing precariously high on her head. Scratching at her nose carelessly, she gave him a lazy smile.
“You’re fine! As I was saying, it’s fascinating. Scientists predict that in a few years, the sun will go into its red giant stage, straying off the main sequence. Like most stars, it’ll balloon up and be so hot it scorches the Earth super hot. Then it’ll be a white dwarf, but that’ll take a few thousand years, I suppose. Unless the process was somehow sped up by human influence, in which case it would balloon for a week and then settle into its final white dwarf stage.”
Jax rolled his eyes at the stream of gibberish flowing from his sister’s mouth. He would kill to slap her right now, but the odds she would go crying to their mom was no short of 100%. 12 was a tattle-tale age, and Caroline was the ultimate rule-following-nerd-sister.
“Caroline, this is nonsense. There won’t be any kind of sun-apocalypse, at least not within our lifetime. Why don’t you go to bed?” His phone buzzed in his pocket insistently, lighting up the fabric with the blue electronic glow. Now he really wanted her gone.
She glanced at his pocket, lighting up and crying out for attention. It was probably his new cheerleader girlfriend, the one he had taken to the prom last week, Caroline thought, but each new girlfriend never seemed to last too long anyway.
“Fine. I’ll go, whatever. But that is a real thing! The sun is a star, you know!” Jax shrugged and spun his chair back to face his computer. Whirrrrr. This was going to be a long night.
Now a tear tugged at his eye as he thought of his sister. He had seen her burn. He had run away to the flooded mines by the old creek as his childhood home erupted in flames. The sun raged bright red in the sky, not so far from the rapidly-drying Earth. Caroline had been right about the future, and now… now he would never see her again, blonde ponytail bobbing behind her, face alight with new ideas as she babbled about science. They were all gone. Everything but him, Ash, and the crumbling ashes of society.
“Jax! Did you feel that?”
Ash scrambled to her feet, moving painfully slow. Sweat drenched every inch of her body as she gazed down at Jax. It came again, a deep, rumbling growl from the Earth.
Earthquake. Her eyes flitted to the weak boy below her, the one that used to tower over everyone. The prom king, the varsity athlete, the prettiest girl on his arm. Soot-darkened blond locks, all sharp angles and a rapidly peeling arrogant facade.
“Ash–I can’t move. Please help me up. Please.” His mouth was dry, words cracking out in bursts of air. The girl looked down at her hands, shaking inexplicably. All she had to do was reach out, help him up. There was no doubt that if they didn’t run soon, the stone spires of the grotto would crumble and smash them to bits. So why did some small part of her want to leave him here?
“Jax, I can’t do this with you. I’m sorry.”
“Do what? Ash, we don’t need to fall in love, carry on the human race, anything like that. Please, we just need to survive. Together–” The ground bucked under her feet, throwing them into the air. Smack! Blood rushed down her neck, stones grinding against her back. Dizziness flooded her senses. The metallic stench of blood suffocated the air; the world started to spin and all the while sprays of rock clattered to the earth as the dirt heaved under her feet.
Stumbling forward, she desperately threw out a hand at the vague image of him: a flash of golden hair and wild eyes, sprawled on the dirt. Immediately she felt a warm hand grasped in hers. Leaning back with all her weight, Ash heaved him from the ground, reeling with the effort.
“Watch out!” Jax screamed. Ash staggered to the left, world a haze of falling rock and swirling dust. BAM! A boulder the size of a car smashed into rubble where she’d been standing moments before. Montana didn’t sound too bad right now, she thought absently: serene and woodsy countryside without any treacherous caves or grottos to be seen. Her inky hair was now dripping with viscous blood, thick as molasses that drips slowly from a jar like it’s hanging on for dear life. With each second she could feel the heat flowing down her neck, intensifying the unimaginable dizziness.
Gold hair streaked gray. Skin. Warmth in her hand. Insistent tug. Rock pummeling the earth over and over like a schoolyard bully pounding a kid for lunch money. Shallow breath. Vibrating earth. Guilt that she might have left him there to die. She almost willingly took a life just for her own gain, just so that she wouldn’t be slowed down, wouldn’t have another mouth to share food with. It was a hot, streaming guilt that she could barely comprehend amid the haze of action.
Jax was practically dragging her now, staggering weakly in the noxious, muddy barrens. He pitched forward as the Earth bellowed and hitched, plummeting them both face first into sticky silt. Caked in the fetid ooze, he lifted his head through a curtain of mucky hair.
Up ahead he saw a squat building, barely a smudge on the desolate horizon. It would knock them off course on their voyage West, but it seemed to be the only secure place for miles around. Better than stumbling through a dried up riverbed, he supposed. Reaching out his hand, he groped blindly for her hand to lead her. But there was nothing there. The Earth bucked and groaned once more, flinging him back down into the mud.
“Ash?!” He screamed, fighting against the thick pull of dirt. “Ash? I’m sorry! Let me help you! Ash?!? Ash?” Nothing in response but the quaver of the ground under his worn-out Nike sneakers. The quake threw him to the ground, loose rocks striking his limp form; the former varsity athlete could barely claw out of the silt to keep himself from suffocating. God, this would be so much easier if she had some obnoxiously bright pink hair! All he could imagine was Ash stalking away through the dense barrens, defiantly stumbling West… dark hair perfectly camouflaged with the rocks and soil.
“Ash? Ash, where are–” he slammed to the ground, vision a blur of monotone browns and sooty grays. When he finally pried himself from the grasp of the mud, he saw her just yards away. But she wasn’t the strong woman he knew, rebellious and sarcastic. She wasn’t trudging away from him, inky black hair swishing and face drawn up with determination. What he saw was her limp form: caked in mud and soot, lying face-down in a pool of blood. What he saw was the only other person in the world right now, and she was on death’s door. In a matter of minutes, without the proper medical care (which he couldn’t give), she would die. And there was nothing he could do about it.