Children in bunk beds. Three men wielding silver-plated pistols, pointed directly at him. Three women, draped in raggedy hoop skirts and regarding him warily, hair either up in a tight bun or falling flat and tangled around their shoulders. A beautiful girl: bright green eyes and a smattering of freckles dotting her cheeks, blonde hair tied up in a bouncy ponytail. The girl bared her teeth, the vicious smile of a vixen who spotted a baby chick, defenseless and small and ripe for slaughter.
“Leave. Now. This is our territory–no charity here,” she growled. He felt the urge to sprint away, leave Ash on their doorstep where she would be better off. Eyeing their emaciated frames and jutting ribs, he thought better.
“It’s not for me,” He stepped carefully off the rug, cold enveloping his feet. Slowly, gently, Jax set Ash down on the floor. Her limp body sprawled on the concrete like a starfish, a dribble of red speckling the gray. The men were the first to move, lifting her head to examine the wound, all the while pointing a pistol directly at his forehead.
“Can I come in?” The girl he would call ‘Vixen’ looked him over like a piece of meat in a deli window, without compassion or resentment, but confusion. Looking him over for weapons, perhaps. After a second, he took the silence as an invitation. Skirting the perimeter, he stood uncertainly by Vixen, cringing under the stares of the children and women.
“I, um…I didn’t know there were others still out there,” he said conversationally, tingling at his proximity to another human other than Ash. Vixen was strikingly gorgeous, an air of cool indifference about her that made him feel like he was nothing more than a clump of molecules and a mop of dirty blond hair.
“How did she die?”
“I…what?” She pointed at Ash, whose head was propped off the floor, gauze pressed against the bleeding wound. Sharp rock fragments littered the floor where they’d been pulled from her skin.
“Your girlfriend. How did she die?” His face went red. Some of the small children peered from the bunks curiously, ears twitching like microphones searching for audio. The girls that were mature enough to know the conversation was juicy giggled, little boys just sat confused on the rumpled sheets.
“She’s not my girlfriend. And she won’t… she won’t–”
“Die?” Vixen rolled her eyes, “she most certainly will. I’ve studied organs, blood, arteries, and medicine extensively. That much blood loss will kill her, unless she fights harder than a bucking bronco.”
That penetrating gaze slid over Ash’s clothing: muddy black leggings and tattered USA tank top, little gold embellishments on the neckline, rips revealing her trim waistline scattered with scars. Like a critic that had tasted an unsatisfactory meal, Vixen added,
“I doubt she’s much of a fighter.” Jax’s fist tensed. She twirled her hair around her finger thoughtfully, staring at Ash with a condescending spark in her eyes that he immediately resented.
“A rebellious type…lonely? All flash and no substance, maybe.” She said it casually, icily, like the crumpled girl was nothing more than a defective product.
“Or a goth, but I doubt that. You see, anyone can skip class and look like a hero, but not anyone can shoot a crossbow.” He snarled, but was afraid to raise his voice to respond. Something gave Jax the feeling that Vixen would stab him before the syllables hit the air.
“She’s more than that. As for her wound, we were camped out at the grotto beyond the mud bogs when the earthquake hit. Head slammed against a rock outcropping, I think.”
A man stepped away from Ash, lumbering over to the two teenagers with a suspicious stare that wavered between the two of them, pausing on Vixen’s upturned lip then swaying to Jax’s muddy, tense face. He grunted once, deep in his throat, looking at Vixen in a wordless exchange. She brushed a strand of gold off her face, one more sneering scan of his figure,
“Harmless. No weapons.” Vixen made eye contact once, briefly, green eyes curious and cold as ice. A dismissive flick of the fingers. The man grunted, wordlessly grabbing Jax’s arm and dragging him to the door.
“Hey, what are you–”
Furious, the man tugged him harder: calloused, beefy hands. Jax cried out, the man threw up an empty hand, exasperated.
“I need to be with her! Where are you taking me?” Silence. Dirt underfoot. The crunch of rocks under Jax’s scrambling sneakers.A threat lingered in the man’s jaw, but he didn’t say a word.
“Why aren’t you answering me, you freak! Dragging me off to eat me? Cut me up in a toolshed? Season me with salt, pepper, and a little of your disgusting swamp water?” Silence. They stopped, air thick with tension.
Flames in his eyes, the man unhinged his jaw. In the place where his tongue should be, an ugly, scarred stump of moist taffy tissue flicked uselessly, saliva saturating his gaping maw. The man threw out his hand, the quick strike of a cobra, fist connecting with temple before you could bat an eye.
Distantly, he could hear a woman’s humming. A lovely tune, slow and melodic, something familiar but unplaceable now. Some song on the radio, he thought: something he had loved, something that he would have known the chorus to.
Before the Burn. Before all that was left was ruins and grief, shame at his retreat from his home. Shame that he let it burn.
As much as he could tell himself they were all dead by the time he had left, that he had heard their screams and that there was no way to get to them, there was no way to know. When he had escaped the Burn, did he leave behind a little sister, burned but not dead, crying for help? Screaming his name into the smoke? Wondering why her chest felt tight, why her eyes watered?
Didn’t matter. Not now. He let the thought curl up and morph, smoke twisting into the sky and evaporating in the clouds. The humming was louder, was she getting nearer?
He imagined someone pretty: a girl with rain cloud eyes and a mane of black hair cascading down her back, a girl of mystery and grace. Or maybe a silly little girl, button nose and dimples–Olive. Blonde, light smile lines on the corners of her eyes–Mom.
He’d like to imagine it was the storm cloud girl, soft and warm, hiding under a threatening stare… he didn’t know why, exactly–he certainly didn’t know her name.
But she was the least blurry, a clear vision in his mind. Humming a slow song as ash drifted around her, glancing down at him, a golden boy sleeping on a cloud.
Jax stirred, the melody surrounding him, floating in an ocean-like bliss, a bubble floating to the surface of consciousness. Fingers twitching. A harsh grunt. Grating. Menacing.
He jolted awake, gasping for air. The world flooded back abruptly: cold stone walls to his left, a nestle of blankets enveloping his body. Hands lightly fluffing the pillow beside him. They drew away abruptly, surprised.
A woman he didn’t know; pudgy face, kind eyes, a tight bun that pulled her forehead tight. Disappointment fleeted across his face, a dark shadow skipping lightly over his heart. The storm cloud girl wasn’t the one who had been humming. Not Olive, his little sister, not his mother, just a stranger in a hard cement place.
“I was wondering when you would come to. Your girlfriend is awake, but she’s lost a lot of blood. I suggest you go see her–”
“Wait! My girlfriend?” The woman nodded, bushy brows knitting.
“She said her name was… Ashley?” It took him a moment for the memories to come back; his brain felt like an artery after eating syrup-dipped bacon–immensely clogged. Ash. Of course. The connection was slow…no one called her Ashley at school, not even the teachers.
“Oh…uh, right. Thank you. Ms.” The woman cast him a sideways glance for his curtness; he didn’t bother to correct her on the “girlfriend thing.” That was two people now, and he had already determined it was easier not to say anything.
Jax slipped out of the bunk, peeling off the blankets in a half-hearted attempt at keeping them organized. He barely acknowledged the new clothes that he wore–a long-sleeved flannel (impractical in this heat) and stiff cargo shorts with about a million pockets–or the fact that one of the men must have changed him into it while he was unconscious. Hopefully not the mute without a tongue…already he felt drops of guilt coalescing, embarrassment heating his cheeks as he surveyed the room.
He saw her after a second, eyes nearly skipping right past her. Ash. Shriveled against a wall, hair pulled in two neat braids behind her pale face. She looked sickly, incredibly weak, each one of her muscles strained just to hold herself upright. Her face held none of the underlying softness of the storm cloud girl; the one he had stored in his memory under her name. Cheeks sallow and sunken. Gunmetal eyes weary and unfocused.
Heart pounding, knees weak, he stepped closer. They were mere inches apart. No hesitation. Wordlessly, he drew her into a hug. Gently, he felt her back lift from the wall, stable in his arms. She smelled like mud and dry leaves, like salty sea air and a soft red sunset, smelled like familiarity and comfort and relief.
On some level he was aware of the eyes on his back, the judgement and distaste that he didn’t need to turn around to feel. Didn’t matter. Not now. He didn’t draw away, her name floating on his tongue like a prayer,
She drew back slightly, just enough so she could see his face. Each millimeter she moved was a chasm, an endless gorge. Ash looked up at him, a weak smile dancing on her lips. A second passed, nothing said. Then a fire lit in her eyes, a joke in her grin.
“I go by Ashley now.”
And he kissed her like he’d never kissed anyone before.