Carrying her deadweight in his arms, Jax had the strangest sensation that the only hope for humanity was bleeding out in his grasp. Staggering blindly through the bog, every step was a haze of fetid, oozing silt. Tremors threw him down again and again, sprays of silt and wet sediment splattering his face, his hair. Splattering her. Her limp body. Her unmoving chest. Her throat that refused to take in a breath. Her eyes that wouldn’t open.
Sweat dripped down his face in obnoxious beads. Tremor. Trip. Check her pulse. Tremor. Trip. Wipe mud from his eyes. Tremor. Trip. Peer ahead at the pudgy square of blocks on the horizon, hope embodied in the squat cement cube, barely a smudge against the rapidly darkening sky.
Another rumble rocked the earth, and he clutched Ash close as he toppled backwards into the goop. More layers of burnt umber mud sloshed around him, a marshy mix of thin liquid and viscous silt; as he lifted himself from the muck, Jax was struck with deja vu thinking of Caroline’s tough pink-sparkle slime back home, played with so much it was almost unmoldable. But this wasn’t the neon goop. And he would never see Caroline’s freckled nose scrunch up in a smile, or roll his eyes at her incessant ramblings.
Oh, how he hated the glitter slime–all over the couch, his clothes, his computer–but thinking back, he would give up everything to see his little sister light up, hear her ramble about how the chemical compounds affected plasticity and scent. Jax wondered what Caroline would say about the mud. Or how the blood loss was already taking its toll on Ash as it gushed down her neck…
Can’t think about that. Won’t. The building ahead was salvation in the pain, some stability juxtaposed against the sloshing bogs and shifting sands of this wasteland: We should never have left the capital… at least there are no falling boulders. And there would have been some water that wasn’t deep in a grotto or riddled with dirt. Maybe there would be medical supplies… water reserves… gauze bandages… a towel… something, anything to save her life.
He couldn’t be alone. Not before–with his admittedly continuous stream of girlfriends, his family, friends, football buddies–and not now…he couldn’t let her die. She was the only ally he had in the burned world. Perhaps the only person alive at all.
Another step, another disgusting squish.
That would have made his Jenny and Olive screw up their faces and croon “ewwww!” until their faces turned red with air loss, he thought wistfully, imagining his little sisters’ scrunched noses and obnoxious giggles.
Another step, another scathing memory burned into his mind’s eye, scalding his heart in bittersweet thoughts, bathing in a vat of melted lemon candies.
I wonder what they would think of me now. Awful thought. Painful thought. Funny thought, because he knew Caroline would be batting her lashes, asking him if Ash was his new girlfriend and shutting his computer relentlessly until he answered. Jax stored the notion in a box, deep in his mind, filing away the bittersweet wonderings for later. Now was the only thing that mattered.
He had arrived at the crest of the slope, the ambiguous, runny-icing, slippery point where the mud reluctantly softened its grip on the countryside. Within feet of the building, now, so close he could reach out and touch if he strained hard enough. But was he too late?
Her skin was gritty under his fingers; the pulse at the base of her throat fading as he touched his hand to her neck. Dirt speckled her closed lids like crusted-on freckles, the stifling sunlight dripping down her brow in plump drops, a stench of sweat intermingling with rancid swamp water and pore-clogging dust suspended in the stuffy air.
The maple boards of the door bowed under their own weight–old and decrepit like an aging lumberjack, spotted and smelling faintly of sap. Jax threw open the door, timbers rattling in their frame. Readjusting his grip, he saw Ash’s pale lids flutter faintly, pupils moving rapidly in a pseudo-sleep. Her lips twitched, a croak of a voice creaking from her dirt-crusted lips, “I can’t feel my fingers…”
“I know, I know. We’re almost there, you’re okay.” Even as he said it a shiver rattled down his spine: there was no guarantee she would make it through the day. Through the hour. She went limp again, consciousness gone as quickly as it came. Stepping inside, he scanned the room and recoiled.
Twelve sets of eyes pinned him to his place. He was a deer in headlights, staring straight down the barrels of three separate guns.